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Synopsis of Jung’s “Psychology and Religion”

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This essay is a synopsis of Carl Jung’s book “Psychology and Religion.” In Psychology and Religion, Carl Jung takes a medical psychology standpoint to discover the links between the human unconscious mind and the ways in which religious symbolism and the idea of religion are deciphered. Jung wrote this material as a series of lectures that was given to Yale students in 1937, and the references to “modern” religion and its symbols relate to that time period. In this book, Jung reveals much of his own system of beliefs and brings into play his Analytic Psychology school of thought regarding religion. He writes that every human mind, at some point, is concerned with religion. In the first chapter, The Autonomy of the Unconscious Mind, he solely discusses the experience of religion and defines it according to a scientific approach. The reader is introduced to the idea of the numinosum, which is described as, “a dynamic existence or effect, not caused by an arbitrary act of will.”

Jung continues to explain his theory of religion as being an attitude of the mind that is a result of numinosum, instead of being a creed, which at that time was the common concept of the term religion. He focuses on the human side of religion rather than the rules and limitations of each creed and discovers the physical phenomena that can be observed and dissected. In the first chapter, we are introduced to a patient of Jung’s whose neurosis has left him with a painful ailment for which his is consciously unaware of the causes. Jung believes that ailments of the body are cured by psychological confessions, or cathartic experiences.

He examined his patient’s dreams in order to locate the cause of the neurosis and therefore allow the patient to discuss these problems and cure his own disease. Jung explains that existence is not simply physical. Imaginations exist therefore they must be real in our conscious. Along this line of thought, an imaginary disease will not necessarily kill the body, but it is capable of killing the mind and soul. He believes that dangerous complexes come from the unconscious mind and that is the reason behind the prevalent fear of discussing the unknown that several people of that time experienced.

Over 400 dreams were recorded and, for this book, Jung focuses on three that were related to religion. He argues that Freud’s interpretation of dreams was incorrect in that Jung feels the dream is its own interpretation. One particular dream focuses on entering a Catholic church and having a conversation with a prophetic woman. Jung explains the opposing forces, the anima/animus, in each human and reveals that this woman is the patient’s expression of his own anima side. The dream expresses a compromise in the patient’s life between Catholicism and paganism. Jung concludes that this initial dream was reflective of his patient’s desire to repair the lack of religion in his life and combat the worldliness that had taken its place.

In the second chapter, Dogma and Natural Symbols, Jung focuses on the second dream and begins to discuss the significance of symbols, or rather archetypes, in the collective unconscious to their representations within the concept of religion. Jung reveals his own beliefs concerning the religious symbols of the day. This dream contained such symbols as an ape being reconstructed, four fiery points (quaternity symbol) and an old man. Jung understood the ape to be representative of the patient seeking refuge from his uncontrollable unconscious. The fiery points symbolize “fullness of life as the only legitimate source of religion,” and the old man was a symbol of religious authority. Other dogmatic symbols such as the Cross and the Trinity are explained as personal, yet scientific experiences and it is noted that they are typically congruent among different religions. In the unconscious mind, Jung believes that all of these religious symbols unify into “the God within” and it is this symbol in itself that is enforced by the unconscious mind. This is congruous with Jung’s Analytic Psychology theory in that a major theme is the search for unity in the self.

The third chapter, The History and Psychology of a Natural Symbol, focuses on how a symbol comes to be and the reasons for it appearing and reappearing in religion. The third dream contained many symbols, colors and numbers that appeared in differing forms and in various sequences of the dream. Jung dissects each symbol and its origin and relates it to his patient’s need for “sublime harmony” as a scientific understanding of this third dream. The lectures end with a conclusion clarifying that the human mind entertains such symbols, in relation to their religious significance, in its unconscious during the search for unity, and that religion is an absolute; a personal experience in both the conscious and unconscious of a person’s mind.

Carl Jung asserts his own belief system concerning religion in these lectures. Although he makes it clear that the explanations are scientific and that he is sympathetic to all beliefs, this book is essentially a record of his views involving how the human mind connects to the idea of religion. His theory seems sound to the extent that it could only be justified and proven by his own standards. Jung even says that religion is a personal experience, so how is it possible that this theory of religion relating to psychology could be tested against anyone but Carl Jung himself?

I believe his ideas concerning the deciphering of symbols were extraordinary, given the inclusion of supplemental information. The amount of thorough research dating back thousands of years proved to me that his theory regarding dogmatic symbols and their meanings in the three dreams is sound. I also felt that his description of the anima/animus in relation to the characters that appeared in the dreams was a strong and credible point. It would have been beneficial to me to have read a more solid explanation of Jung’s description of religion as a concrete concept and not as a product of his own abstract thought processes.

I encountered a number of difficulties in reading this book. I chose to read it based on my initial excitement of understanding how psychology and religion are related according to Jung. However, I found that Jung’s thoughts, as I understood them, were disorganized and I often found myself having to turn several pages back just to find the place where one of his tangents originated so that I could get back on track. This book was a challenge to follow, and I believe it could be a more beneficial read if the numerous Latin phrases were translated in an easily accessible fashion. I would have benefited more from examples that did not solely rely on the three dreams of one particular patient, and if given the opportunity, I would question Carl Jung about the meaning of such religious symbols in a broader context. It was a positive experience in that it helped me to relate, and further understand, several concepts to the Jungian study from class. I’m glad for the knowledge I gained regarding Jung’s connections between psychology, religion and the unconscious mind, but I finished the book wishing for a more sound and applicable argument relating these points to each other.


A Synopsis of “Psychology and Religion” by C.G. Jung Jung, C.G. (1937). Psychology and Religion. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

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