Blasphemers — the first victims of neurosis?


To overcome the awe of guilt we seek refuge in religion, which demands our unconditional subservience to its hegemony. For his faith — genuine or not — man remains prepared to take life

The Greek word blasphemia means speaking ill or using impious language. The word has two elements: blas, which has no clear meaning, is perhaps rendered as ‘in a spirit of hurtfulness’, while pheme is ‘utterance’. Prior to the hegemony of monotheistic religions, ‘blasphemy’ had a rare existence, though its echo can be heard as far back as 400 BC in one of the orations of Demosthenes. Among the Ancient Greeks blasphemia expressed the idea of a verbal insult or injury to the god(s), subject to punishment. Both Anaxagoras and Protagoras invited public wrath by raising doubts about the powers attributed to a specific god (or by denying their combined existence). The Romans, akin to Islam, did not declare it contrary to law. For them, g/God was too sublime to be offended. 

When overwhelmed by emotion, human beings often confuse the meanings of different words. Such is the case with ‘blasphemy’ and the related expression ‘sacrilege’. A person who, to attain his designs, lays hands on certain venerated objects, commits what is called sacrilege; here the key is in the commission of the act. Blasphemy on the other hand, is speaking profanely about g/God or sacred things. The punishments seem to contradict this distinction: doing is frequently punished less severely than saying. Hurting someone’s feeling by drawing caricatures of a holy personality can be described as indecency or an unrefined gesture by an uncultivated person, but it does not fall in a category beyond this. Why does blasphemy, especially of a religious nature, attract such ire? Why do otherwise normal people approve of slaughtering a blasphemer; what is the impetus behind these emotional acts that seem to release such gruesome catharses? According to Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, fed by our oedipal urges, murder of the “primal father” — which insinuates a foundational guilt in the human psyche — plays a pivotal role in any outcome. “Man,” says the neo-Freudian Eric Fromm, “being a product of social relations is at the same time a subject of historical activity.” Hence unconsciously, our historical experience as murderers continues to revive our guilty complexes. To overcome the awe of guilt we seek refuge in religion, which demands our unconditional subservience to its hegemony. For his faith — genuine or not — man remains prepared to take life. But after committing such horrible crimes do men realise their ugliness? Freud comes up with an impressive answer. He says that the “different religions have never overlooked the part played by the sense of guilt in civilisation. What is more, they come forward with a claim…to save mankind from this sense of guilt, which they call sin.” Ultimately, instead of transforming humans into humane beings, religion sanctions their inhumanity to their kin and kind. 

For Freud, religion is nothing beyond an “infantile neurosis”, an interesting term that requires some attention. The purpose of every neurosis is to ward off, or at least defend against, anxieties. Infantile neurosis stems from the time when we were most vulnerable and sought protection and safe haven in our fathers. It comes, as it were, with our mothers’ milk, but, alas, while as infants our emotional attachment is authentic, the actual, real-world security provided by our fathers is not. In this sense, we live in false faith and our security is often a sham. As social beings we come to realise the vulnerability of our fathers, who live in a society based on exploitation and expropriation, and we come to recognise that we, as Herbert Marcuse says, “endure the curse of a culture in which Idea [idealism] and reality, art and life, subject and object, stand in stark opposition to one another”. At this juncture, scarred by fear of uncertainty, we find, as Freud suggests, solace in another father figure, a g/God that we create for ourselves out of sheer necessity: a g/God made in the image of our fathers — whom we once considered invincible — an all-powerful, omnipresent, kind and loving entity. According to Freud, this is a fantasy construed to alleviate our anxieties. “[Religious] doctrines carry with them the stamp of the times in which they originated, the ignorant childhood days of the human race,” since for Freud, “in the individual case history [can be seen] the history of the whole.” Due partially to this collective history, but mainly because of the reality principle — the objectified alienated labour — “the mental space in which critical transgressions, opposition and denial can develop — a space of autonomy in which the mind can find an Archimedean point from which to view it in a different light, comprehends it in different concepts, discovers tabooed image and possibilities…disappears,” says Herbert Marcuse. Men lose their reason. Like other neuroses, religion also proves helpful in alleviating other anxieties, but at the cost of freedom. For Freud, religion hinders intrinsic wish-fulfillment and deprives the human of exploring the outer world. He says, “Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual [preservative] desires.” Any desire that remains unfulfilled broods in our mind and poisons our body: “Every impulse we omit to gratify is taken over by the Super-ego and goes to heighten aggressiveness.” External reality, and in this case religion, acts as super-ego or judge or policeman. It suppresses the pleasure principle, which stays ‘repressed’ in the unconscious. This repression, especially of libido, escalates aggression. In nations like Pakistan, the intensified aggression finds catharsis in decapitating ‘heretics’, who are first accused of ‘blasphemy’. The neurotic fit temporarily subsides, to be reinvigorated sometime later — a vicious cycle proceeds, which becomes more bloodthirsty with every blood-letting. 

Religious aggressions, a reflection of economic coercion and libidinal suppression, lead to neurosis manifested in hatred against the individual and its counterparts. Again, as Freud points out, “A religion, even if it calls itself a religion of love, must be hard and unloving to those who do not belong to it….the whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life. It is still more humiliating to discover how a large number of people living today, who cannot but see that this religion is not tenable, nevertheless try to defend it piece by piece in a series of pitiful rear-guard actions.” 
“Hate,” a manifestation of neurosis according to Gordon Duff, “is a commodity.” He adds: “I can [even] go further, it’s an element, like fire, water or air. It is the fuel for our civilization, our society, our entertainment and our worldwide affliction, mass hysteria and insanity. Moreover, hate is an industry, a multi-billion dollar industry and key component of politics — perhaps even controlling politics — and a vital part of everything else from banking to oil, and defence. Without hate, killing might seem wrong somehow. We can’t have that.” Through economic inequality, hate, a neurotic condition, is kept alive. It temporarily alleviates anxiety and plays into the hands of neurotic-theocrats. The so-called ‘blasphemers’ are usually the first of its tragic victims.

Dr Saulat Nagi

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