“[Humans] go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.”
— Saint Augustine, Confessions
Scholar of esotericism, Wouter Hanegraaff, describes Neo-Paganism as a “psychologizing of religion combined with a sacralization of psychology”:
“In Jungian fashion, the ‘gods’ of traditional pantheons are often interpreted as archetypes, and reversely the archetypes of the Collective Unconscious are seen as powerful numinous realities [i.e., ‘gods’]. In other words, traditional religious concepts are reinterpreted in psychological terms; but because psychology itself is embedded in an encompassing religious framework [Neo-Pagan] authors can avoid the traditional reductionist conclusion that the gods are unreal because they exist only ‘in the mind.’”
The psychologization of religion and sacralization of psychology can be traced back to William James and Carl Jung.
“When William James interpreted the unconscious as humankind’s link with a spiritual ‘more,’ he gave shape to a peculiarly modern spirituality. James’ vision of the unconscious depths of human personality as at once psychological and spiritual made it possible for modern Americans to view self-exploration as spiritually significant and religious experience as psychologically profound. …
“The ‘fact’ that God can be approached through our own unconscious minds suggests that only a self-imposed, psychological barrier separates us from an immanent divinity. The cultivation of receptivity to the unconscious is thus a spiritually as well as psychologically regenerative act of the whole personality.”
— Robert C. Fuller, Americans and the Unconscious (1986)
According to Hanegraaff, Carl Jung’s theories “enabled people to talk about God while really meaning their own psyche, and about their own psyche while really meaning the divine.” Jung believed that the function of religion was to provide people with meaning. But the religions of Jung’s day seemed increasingly unable to fulfill this task, especially Protestantism, which had purged itself of much of its myth and ritual. Jung believed that psychotherapy could fill this gap in people’s lives. Not just any psychotherapy would do, though. Jung criticized his contemporaries, Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, because they ignored the deeper spiritual needs of their patients and put too little value on myth and religion. In Jung’s words, theirs was a psychology without the psyche (i.e., without the soul).
Jung explained that, whenever a person has a “living” religion or spiritual system that can embrace life in all its fullness and by which the yearnings of their soul are adequately expressed, then psychotherapy would be nothing more than an “adjuvant to healthy living.” But when religion no longer fulfilled this function, then psychotherapy had a greater role to play. Jung theorized that the invention of and popular interest in psychotherapy were proof that the religions of the day were not living expressions the psyche of modern humans.
In his own practice, Jung found that most of his patients suffered because they had lost what the religions of every age are supposed to give to their followers, and they were healed when they recovered a “religious outlook.” This did not mean that they returned to believing in a creed or to membership in a church. Rather, they had discovered a “religious” process within themselves; they had begun to live mythically again.
In Jungian terms, this meant that the archetypes of the psyche had begun to serve as spiritual guides for the person. A religious person would look at the same process and say that guidance had come from God. Both describe the same process, just using different language:
“To the patient it is nothing less than a revelation when, from the hidden depths of the psyche, something arises that is not ‘I’ and is therefore beyond the reach of personal caprice. [They have] gained access to the sources of psychic life, and this marks the beginning of the cure.”
Jung had a vision of psychotherapy fulfilling a religious function in people’s lives and, ultimately, transforming modern culture. In a letter to Freud, Jung wrote about his skepticism of humanistic ethical fraternities and his vision of psychoanalysis as a religion of the future:
“Religion can only be replaced by religion. Is there perchance a new saviour in the [International Fraternity of Ethics and Culture]? What sort of new myth does it hand out for us to live by? Only the wise are ethical from sheer intellectual presumption, the rest of us need the eternal truth of myth. …
“Two thousand years of Christianity can only be replaced by something equivalent. An ethical fraternity, with its mythical Nothing, not infused by any archaic-infantile driving force, is a pure vacuum and can never evoke in [humankind] the slightest trace of that age-old animal power which drives the migrating bird across the sea and without which no irresistible mass movement can come into being. I imagine a far finer and more comprehensive task for [psychoanalysis] than alliance with an ethical fraternity. I think we must give it time to infiltrate into people from many centers to revivify among intellectuals a feeling for symbol and myth, ever so gently to transform Christ back into the soothsaying god of the vine, that he was, and in this way absorb those ecstatic instinctual forces of Christianity for the one purpose of making the cult* and the sacred myth what they once were—a drunken feast of joy where [humankind] regained the ethos and holiness of an animal. That was the beauty and purpose of classical religion, that from God knows what temporary biological need has turned into a Misery Institute. Yet what infinite rapture and wantonness lie dormant in our religion, waiting to be led back into their true destination. A genuine and proper ethical development cannot abandon Christianity but must grow up within it, must bring to fruition its hymn of love, the agony and the ecstasy over the dying and resurgent god, the mystic power of the wine, the awesome anthropophagy of the Last Supper—only this ethical development can serve the vital forces of religion.”
What Jung described here closely resembles Neo-Paganism with its Dying and Reviving God and its ecstatic rituals.
The psychologization of pagan religion actually pre-dates Neo-Paganism. In fact, the founder of Wicca, Gerald Gardner, described Witchcraft as a religion that allowed people to express “archetypal reverences” that arise “from deep levels of the unconscious.” Gardner was ambiguous about the nature of the gods of Witchcraft, but one passage from Gardner’s writing suggests an archetypal interpretation:
“Between the idea of the young woman he loved and the old woman he feared, man found a goddess to worship, who loved him and protected him, and at times punished him. Those modern psychologists who belong to the school of C. G. Jung tell us that buried deep in what they call the Collective Unconscious of humanity are certain primordial concepts that Jung calls ‘archetypes.’ He defines these as ‘inherited predispositions to reaction,’ and as ‘perhaps comparable to the axial system of a crystal, that predetermines, as it were, the crystalline formation in the saturated solution, without itself possessing a material existence.’ We might call them ‘primordial images.’ Jung defines two of the most potent of these archetypes that dwell in the mysterious depths of the unconscious mind of [humankind] as ‘The Great Mother’ and ‘The Old Wise Man,’ and judging from the description of them given in his works they are undoubtedly identical with the goddess and god of the Witch cult. Dr. Jolan Jacobi, in The Psychology of C. G. Jung, says, ‘They are well known from the world of the primitives and from mythology in their good and evil, light and dark aspects, being represented as magician, prophet, mage, pilot of the dead, leader, or as goddess of fertility, sibyl, priestess, Sophia, etc. From both figures emanates a mighty fascination…’ These are precisely the deities of the witches, and this fact may be a clue to the mystery of the cult’s amazing endurance.”
Gardner went on to cite Jung’s disciple, Erich Neumann, and his analysis of the Great Mother archetype, observing that, while particular images of the archetype are separated by a great gulf of time, “the archetype is the same.”
Two contemporary examples of the Neo-Pagan psychologization of religious experience are the Farrars and Vivianne Crowley.
* “Cult” is used here, not in a pejorative sense, but rather more or less synonymously with “religion.”