Before Introduction

There has never been a greater urgency in our world today to expand and deepen, from a depth psychological perspective, our understanding of fanatical religion and fundamentalism. The phenomenon of extreme religion threatens our culture and, at times, our very existence. We have termed this phenomenon: Dark Religion. Almost everyone in one-way or another is affected by this development in our world: from the consulting room, to our families, to our churches, mosques and temples, not to mention the public arenas and political platforms. What is it that makes religion so potentially dangerous and dark?

Our argument is that religion is not only a connection to the numinous as a source of life and renewal, but also a source of extreme power that can lead to radically perverted states of mind and nefarious creeds that kill the soul’s relationship to the Transpersonal. The so called radicalized religions and movements masquerade as if they are enlightening and religious but, in their fundamentalism and one-sidedness they have a flawed core and, in the end, are the opposite of religion that in its healthy essence identical with spirituality. This book offers an in-depth-psychological analysis of what happens when a person becomes possessed by the unconscious energies of the Self. We coin the term “dark religion” to describe all forms of fanatical, radical and unhealthy religions.

Analytical psychology offers one of the most extraordinary and penetrating analyses of the dynamics of religion and the religious function of the human psyche. As a relatively newcomer to the conversation on fundamentalism, analytical psychology’s telescopic view of the interior life of one’s religious beliefs and creeds, offers a unique vision that provides unparalleled insight and understanding of what is happening in the psyche of fundamentalists. Dark Religion offers new insights and a fresh perspective on how religion is used in the mind of the individual to hide behind their image of God. In Dark Religion, we explore and explicate these dynamics of religion, whether embodied by the radical extremist or by the fundamentalist next door, by submitting them to a critical analysis and review using the tools and knowledge of depth psychology. Supported by numerous examples in the world today and in our own clinical practices, our study reveals how dark religion leads to profound conflicts on both the personal, interpersonal and cultural level; including terrorism and war.

On the other side, our study reveals that spirituality, besides being an inherent dimension of our human nature, is one of our most essential needs. Religion only becomes “dark,” we argue, when we ignore, deny or separate it from its own living roots in the unconscious. In the attempt to deepen and understand radical creed and fundamentalism, Dark Religion surveys the contemporary religious and spiritual landscape, while discovering the emergent forms of spiritual praxis in light of postmodernism and the rise of fundamentalism.

How does one recognize dark religion? What are its psychological and religious signs? Who are most vulnerable to its seduction and alluring energy? What can one do about it?  Is it as close as your local church or synagogue or mosque? This book begins to answer these and other compelling questions on the nature of dark religion.

Indeed, man is completely modern only when he has come to the very edge of the world, leaving behind him all that has been discarded and outgrown, and acknowledging that he stands before the Nothing out of which All may grow (Jung, 1931, [CW 10, para. 151]).

Religion is one of the most significant determinants of human actions. Religious practices, such as the ritualized burial of the dead, creation of sacred places, and the fashioning of symbolic artifacts can be traced back more than 100,000 years.[1] Early humans were mostly driven by instinct; in all likelihood, their religion reflected this developmental need. Religion and religious practices can be seen as an evolutionary and creative force, without which man would have remained a non-symbolic animal and might never have evolved to the current cognitive and cultural levels of development.[2] Religion is a faculty that forms culture and the mind. The appearance of religion coincides with the mind’s ability to relate to a transcendent aspect of being that exists beyond immediate, palpable sense reality. Religion depends upon the imaginative and symbol-forming ability of the human psyche.

Aristotle (as cited in Field, 1931/1932) states that “the soul never thinks without an image” (p. 46). We might also say that the soul never thinks without religion. According to, Jung, religion “is incontestably one of the earliest and most universal expressions of the human mind …” (Jung, 1940 [CW 11, para. 1]). During Jung’s descent into the underworld of his unconscious he proclaimed that: “The wealth of the soul exists in images” (Jung, 2009, 232). Such premises apply to the varieties of religious experience. For example, Islamic scholar Henry Corbin[3] asserts that the imaginal world (mundus imaginalis) is an order of reality all its own. According to him, this order of reality is an intermediary world of image having an ontological foundation that accords with the sensate world and the world of thought and intellect. We believe that human beings are naturally religious; we are homo religiosus, a term used by Hegel, James, Otto, Eliade, Tillich and others.

A fundamental question presents itself immediately. Is religion a function of our relationship to something transcendent or is it simply a psychological aspect of being without reference to anything beyond the psyche? The varieties of questions pertaining to what are religious experiences are shaped by how those questions are answered.

We intend to adopt a fairly narrow set of parameters pertaining to the fundamental operational definition of religion. The psyche is incapable of breaking out if its own subjectivity: when the psyche considers itself, it is simultaneously being experienced and is the subject of experience. The phenomena of religion, like the phenomena of mind, can become the object of scientific exploration. As theologian John Hick (1990) pointed out, religion can be viewed as an attempt to represent and comprehend the emergence of various phenomena that are responses to the experience of the God—the experience of God is available for study, but never God himself. Any attempt to study God, or the numinosum (a quality associated with archetypes that inspires fear, mystery, and awe), directly falls squarely in the domain of metaphysics. It is important to stress that this book is not a theological inquiry, and the study of metaphysics or theology is not its purpose. Furthermore, this book does not provide an exhaustive answer to the question “what is religion?” Instead, it explores various possibilities of how this question may be answered and ultimately hopes to more inquiry.

Jungian psychology’s unique, in-depth perspective has far-reaching implications for the study and practice of religion. Jung’s approach to religion was empirical and phenomenological, though he did not avoid occasional philosophical cogitations or metaphysical speculation. Again and again, he claimed that all the conclusions he arrived at were based on careful observation and documentation of his lived experience, including the observations of the contents produced by the conscious and unconscious mind. He believed any observer could repeat those observations “all the time and everywhere” (Mathison, 2001). He pointed out that the language of the psyche is universal, because the “organs” of the psyche are common to all humanity (Jung, 1990).[4]

 Functions of Religion

This book explores the function of religion from various angles and explores how the religious function of the psyche manifests itself to use Corbett’s (1996) language. It is an investigation from a Jungian perspective of the nature of various psychological phenomena and the dynamics underlying the extreme religious creeds (i.e., fundamentalism) that make their appearance in radical religions. It is an exploration of how archetypes influence the way a person clings to and uses religious creeds and what constitutes radical, excessive, or unhealthy adherence to a system of belief. An even broader, underlying goal of this book is to shed light on the possible causes and phenomenology of strong, radical, and fanatical religious persuasions. To a great extent, it hopes to show how archetypes influence action and cognition also in ways that might not necessarily be religious.

 Religious Extremism is Potentially Dangerous

During the twentieth century the three Abrahamic religions experienced a surge of fundamentalism. The rise of Christian fundamentalism can be traced to the publication of The Fundamentals: A Testimony To The Truth, a set of 90 essays published from 1910 to 1915 by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. This was followed by the rise of the Christian evangelical right in the United States from 1940 through the 1970s. In the later part of the twentieth century, figures like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson galvanized a renewed vigor to the Christian fundamentalist movement in America.  The rise of Islamic fundamentalism corresponds roughly with the Iranian Revolution (1979).[5] The substantial financial support provided by Saudi Arabia to madrasa’s teaching a fundamentalist doctrine of Islam known as Wahhabism is thought to have played a critical role in the worldwide spread of Islamic fundamentalism.  Modern Jewish fundamentalism began to claim attention with the beginning of the State of Israel, and gained momentum as ultra-orthodox groups increasingly gained power in the Israeli parliament.

Recently, religious fundamentalism sought to combine political and religious goals. The implications of such a conflation of goals provoked concerns in Europe and the Unites States. The past thirty years witnessed the rise of Christian fundamentalism in America under various monikers like Religious Right, the Moral Majority, and the Tea Party movement as well as the rise of many religiously-inspired jihadist movements across Europe and the Middle East. History teaches that when politics and extreme religion combine a potential for mass hysteria come into sight. What drives such movements can be understood to be archetypal energy, or also known as numinous energy. These forces can be curative or poisonous; they can create or destroy. The archetypal, numinous undercurrents that propel fundamentalist movements may become tools for coming to terms with the most important human questions of meaning and value, but they can also become tools of self-deception and can provide the necessary substrata for mass manipulation. It depends on how wisely the archetypal energy is used.

The fact that extreme religious fervor fuels so many of the current political and social developments makes the question of religions’ role in this phenomenon a pressing question. Above C. G. Jung’s door of his home in Küsnacht is an inscription that states VOCATUS ATQUE NON VOCATUS DEUS ADERIT, “Called or not called God is present.” We are all called to make a deeply responsible decision regarding how we allow religion to guide our actions or rule them.

I.1 Other topics to consider

Numinosum and the Development of Religion are intertwined

Jung discovered that the sources of religious experience are the powerful, numinous effects produced in the archetypal dimension. Certain aspects of an archetype are religious, and conversely, certain aspects of the religious experience are archetypal. Religion comes about where there is an attempt to come to terms with a primary archetypal experience. That is not to say that encounters with archetypes and their energies always produce faith or belief in supernatural reality or in God, however God may be conceived. What does commonly occur as a result of an encounter with archetypes is a change of consciousness, whether or not it results in a theistic or atheistic stance.

Symbolic and Mythopoetic

The symbolic and mythopoetic dimensions of the psyche provide a structure-forming fabric for development. Psyche comes alive through this symbol-creating function. We benefit from this symbol-making function only to the extent that we become willing to consciously recognize myths and symbols. Failure to acknowledge the symbol-creating function of the unconscious does not annihilate it; the function remains operative. In fact, the symbol-creating function intensifies the more it is overlooked. This can even lead to the development of symptoms that are symbolic of unresolved and conflicted intrapsychic forces.  To a great extent, one’s level of conscious awareness of the symbol-making function, archetypal energies, and collective unconscious forces determines the way one’s religiosity manifests.

The Jungian approach is about seeking, not about certitude

Can we view Jungian theory as a form of natural religion?[6] Yes and no! Jung himself remained mostly agnostic in his professional writings.[7] He left his followers unsure about the specifics of his private faith even though he spoke occasionally about his personal relationship to God. For example, he wrote in 1952:

“I find that all my thoughts circle around God like the planets around the sun, and are as irresistibly attracted by Him. I would feel it to be the grossest sin if I were to oppose any resistance to this force” Jung, MDR, 1963, p. 42).

The conclusions reached in this book do not require faith in any specific doctrine or dogma.  Instead, they are intended to be operationalized psychological principles. The validity of our conclusions rests on empirical evidence. The difference between science and theology mirrors the difference between phenomenon and noumenon, i.e., between the perceived world of our senses and the world beyond the senses. Gravity is real despite the physicists’ inability to confirm the existence of the graviton; likewise, the representations and effects of the Self are real despite its “immaterial” nature. Because the Self belongs to the noumenon, we can speculate about its nature and like Jung, confirm our impressions empirically.

Jungian psychology is foremost a tool for approaching the numinosum in such a way that it provides a fuller, deeper, and healthier response to life—it is also a teaching that promotes spiritual growth. Reading between the lines of Jung’s work reveals a sense of mystery pointing to a higher level of being. As Jung (1940, [CW 11 para. 2]) stated: “…it does not conflict with the principles of scientific empiricism if one occasionally makes certain reflections which go beyond mere accumulation and classification of experience.” Jung was a Kantian at heart; he believed that any conceivable transcendental object has to remain a Ding an sich (German: unknowable as thing-in-itself)—this is true of archetypes, gods, or God. For Jung, the archetypes were real and they were congruent with the Platonic forms (see also Platonic Jung, Chiron 2017). Archetypes possess emergent properties similar to those that appear in nonlinear, dynamical systems described by Complexity Theory,.[8],[9] Jung never attempted to prove or postulate any ethical, transcendent being of a monotheistic or a dualistic nature; instead he spoke about the effect of various forces operating upon the human psyche. In Jung’s teaching, ethics emerges as a result of the relationships between the subjective and objective realms of the psyche, or more specifically between the ego and the Self. Let us follow Jung’s example and refrain from postulating metaphysical, eschatological, or eternal purposes to the experience of religion.

 Psyche is real

Most Jungian scholars and psychoanalysts do not consider the unconscious to simply be a derivative of consciousness; they understand it to be ontologically real and a priori—existing before consciousness. This is Jung’s axiomatic foundation, his sine qua non for psychic life. The unconscious is vastly more than the residue of psychic life that is barred from conscious awareness; it is like a deep, life-sustaining aquifer. This distinguishes Jung from many other psychologists. Religion is more than a psychological phenomenon. Jung recognizes the autonomous and transcendent nature of archetypes, but assigns to human beings moral responsibility for how they to respond to the archetype. Jung’s spirituality returns the gods to the psyche. He says:

But since the development of consciousness requires the withdrawal of all projections we can lay our hands on, it is not possible to maintain any nonpsychological doctrine about the gods. If the historical process of world despiritualization continues as hitherto, then everything of a divine or daemonic character outside us must return to the psyche, to the inside of the unknown man, whence it apparently originated (Jung, 1940, [CW 11, para. 141]).

Jung neither tries to prove nor disprove the existence of God. Making the psyche the object of sincere examination does not go against religion. After all, as Jung wrote in his letter to Pastor Damour (1941), “God has never spoken to man except in and through the psyche.”

If researchers confine themselves to observable psychological processes, no leap of faith is necessary.

Jung recognized that archetypes have the ability to influence, move, and change things within a person and this can produce change in the material world. For Jung, this is one source of evidence that archetypes are real. Wirklichkeit ist, was wirkt. [10] Thus, for Jung, the real is anything that has an ability to cause an effect on something else. Therefore, archetypes must be real. Speaking of religion, Jung (1931, [CW 13, para. 73]) stated: “To understand metaphysically is impossible; it can only be done psychologically. I therefore strip things of their metaphysical wrappings in order to make them objects of psychology” (Jung, Wilhelm, 1970, The Secret of the Golden Flower).

 Individuation is both a psychological and a religious process. The “organic unity” of psychological and religious experiences, described by Dourly (1984), elevates everyday existence in ways that makes the flesh holy and brings the divine close to the human.

Jung recognized a risk of unconscious material overtaking an individual (1940, [CW 11, para. 141]), “Wherever [the] unconscious reigns, there is bondage and possession.” It is imperative that a reciprocal, mutual relationship and dialogue exist between the conscious and unconscious realms. It is the fine and fragile balance of both that protects us from fanatic entrapment on one hand and a feeling of spiritual desertion on the other.

What constitutes unhealthy?

This book should not be viewed as an attempt to pathologize religion. Pathology produces suffering (pathos) and sometimes, excess. Of course, religion can fall prey to pathological influences. When certain forces are not sufficiently contained by religion, the mind can become sick, but religion does not necessarily cause sickness in the mind. Radical religions and creeds are the expressions of inadequate, non-credible, or poorly contained numinous archetypal energy by the ego. This does not say anything about the nature of the energies themselves which are ineffable.  The Jungian perspective does not pathologize or moralize archetypal processes, nor does it reduce them to anything fully knowable. It does provide a means for recognizing that seemingly evil phenomena also possess elements of their opposites that are good and unhealthy psychological elements.


A host of questions emerge from the inquiry into the archetypal level of religion. Are all “isms” with religious overtones rooted in archetypal possession? Can archetypal experiences be considered in the same time religious? Is the psyche essentially religious, and if it is, can we assume a degree of religiosity is present anytime we deal with the psycho-symbolic process? If not, what specific features distinguishes something as religious? Are archetypal influences always at play when dealing with human passions? And finally, what distinguishes religious fanaticism from other forms of fanaticism? According to Jung, (Jung, 1954d, [CW 9i, para. 129]):

The archetype behind a religious idea has, like every instinctive force, its specific energy, which it does not lose even if the conscious mind ignores it. Just as it can be assumed with the greatest probability that every man possesses all the average human functions and qualities, so we may expect the presence of normal religious factors, the archetypes, and this expectation does not prove fallacious.

In this sense, we don’t really have an option to be religious or irreligious. For all we know, ancient man may have lived in a state of ever-present anxiety about retributive justice from the gods.

It is evident nobody can afford to ignore archetypal energies without expecting consequences. Here we are not talking about the belief in God, but about the conscious awareness of the reach of archetypal power. Either there is a conscious effort to integrate archetypal energies, or the archetypes take the lead, and our possession by the archetypal forces becomes our fate. Jung stressed over and over that the greatest danger to humanity are humans themselves.


In his Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot (1916) speaks of human nature as that which “cannot bear much reality” (CPP. 172). Religion provides a tool for “framing” reality. It is a force that can hold the world together; without religion the world may appear chaotic, meaningless, and unintelligible.

Religion, like fire is a good servant, but a bad master. Without any religion a person may become lost, but with too much religion a person may become trapped. As Stein (1985) reiterates, regarding spiritual endeavors, humans have to hold the imaginary rod neither too tight nor too loose. Our clinical experiences suggests that people holding strong religious convictions are often prone to magical thinking, selective morality, and denial—none of these are surely to equip a person to solve the great problems facing mankind.


Religious conviction by itself does not make us good, though good deeds do make a difference. The Bible says: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits” (Matt 7:15-17, English Standard Version). The task of individuation rests in part on the ability to resist the destructive lure of divine archetypal powers that can foster depravity and instead strive to make mundane affairs sacramental through these powers. In this respect, individuation is more than an exercise of the imagination, it is moral quest. Too often archetypal energies are viewed as goals and not the means for fostering spirituality. Such an approach permits the same influences that are capable of freeing a person to also entrap them.

Paradox is a constituent of reality

Jung’s approach does not ask for devoted faith. It opens a way of living in the world that embraces paradox instead of opposing it. The path of individuation is a life lived in the midst doubt and moral conflict. There may be paths with more certainty but they may be more painful. Jung pointed out (Jung, CW 13, 1967, p. 265X) “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” His was not a nihilistic, resigned message; what shines through this observation is a genuine gnosis. Jungian psychology recognizes that phenomena present themselves to the psyche as polarities existing in a dynamic tension. Jung (1951e) believed that when the individual remains unconscious about his or her inner tensions, one aspect of the polarity will inevitably be acted out in the form of fate. We termed this specific fate (i.e., consequence of unconsciousness) theonemesis, a topic we explore at the end of this book.


We come to the problem of evil. Theodicy is defined as the vindication of divine goodness in light of the existence of evil. This theological question penetrates everyday life for those aspiring to live morally.[11] Whether or not the transcendent reality is supremely good, Summum Bonum, and therefore worthy to be worshiped, may not function as a moral imperative for those committed to right action and right being-in-the-world. Philosophical concepts like the Trinity, Sunyata, Brahman, Absolute Spirit, Divine Will, or Omega Point remain rational abstractions unless they have a meaningful connection to action. Jung’s teaching offers a framework for understanding the connection between spirit and matter. The path of individuation involves a sincere and open relationship to symbols radiating out of the Self and fosters a progressive, constructive morality anchored in conscious deeds. The opposite of this process is a regressive movement leading to detachment and the disintegration of wholeness. A central tenet of Jungian psychology proposes that whatever is split off and disconnected from the original unity appears in the form of re-enactment and compulsion that will confront us again and again no matter how big our pitchfork is.[12] Jung stated that compulsion is one of the great mysteries of life. (1955, par. 151) The compulsive urge to seek (desire) is ingrained in living organisms. Whether this involves a plant seeking the sun or a creature seeking to procreate, seeking is a basic principle of evolution. For human beings seeking can become locked in its attachment to one specific object or thought structure. Excessive attachment is likely to drive other, incompatible elements into the unconscious. The ego that becomes disconnected from the original unity is apt to become more vigorous in its compulsions and attachments. We are called to respond to Socrates’ proclamation that the unexamined life is not worth living. (Plato, Apology, 38A)

Jung’s thought was anchored in Platonic forms and ideology. It reflected Enlightenment ideals, and sought to combine Romantic discourse with medieval philosophy and mystical teaching. Though theists and atheists criticized Jung, they both found refuge in the wisdom and the theory he offered.

The main goals of this book are to determine what constitutes a religion from a depth psychological perspective and what can be learned from a depth psychological examination about the domain of radical, excessive, maladaptive, or extreme forms of religious worship and belief.  We begin with a brief outline of the development of religion over the last several centuries with a special emphasis on major features leading to our present crisis. This outline includes a survey of Jung’s prophetic vision (1934) and the foreshadowing of a new dispensation. In this review we will survey the contemporary religious and spiritual landscape, the new emergent forms of spiritual praxis in light of modernism, and the rise of fundamentalism in the new millennium.

The transition to the New Dispensation, Fundamentalism and the Third Millennium Spiritual

No matter what the world thinks about religious experience, the one who has it possesses a great treasure, a thing that has become for him a source of life, meaning, and beauty, and that has given a new splendor to the world and to mankind.

C. G. Jung, Psychology and Religion, (1940, [CW 11, para. 167])

Divinity is an Underground river that no one can stop and no one can dam up.”

(Meister Eckhart[13])

We are witnessing a radical change in religious life and culture throughout the modern and post-modern world, particularly among the three monotheistic Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Various figures have approached these changes differently. Goethe dramatized it. Nietzsche distilled its essence with Zarathustra’s utterance, “God is dead.” While Freud characterized religion as an illusion. The God Image of earlier dispensations—most particularly the narration of the divine as existing out there, distant, external to human beings, one-sidedly patriarchal, and mediated through traditional religious hierarchy is changing as Western religious consciousness evolves. As mainline traditional Christianity loses its foothold in the world, depth psychology[14] has been extending its provenience in the realm of religion and soul.

Religion plays a vital and indispensable role in our personal lives, in our communities, and in the larger political world we inhabit. We are witnessing the reengagement of the U.S. military in Syria and Iraq as it attempts to counter the extreme fundamentalist group ISIS. Uncontained and unrecognized religious impulses are undergoing major transformations that defy neat categorizations. Contrary to what several modern and postmodern scholars predicted regarding religion’s demise (e.g., Nietzsche, Freud, Weber, Durkheim, Dawkins, Karl Marx, etc.), religion is not in danger of extinction.

The task of the postmodern world

Since the 18th century, science has challenged religion and claimed a pre-eminent position as arbiter of truth. As these challenges to conventional religion become conscious, we may anticipate a reduction in reckless and violent acting-out. This may be an answer to the fundamentalist’s response to modernity that has lost touch with the sacred. The task, in the postmodern world, is to find the path between the Scylla of withdrawing all projections (returning the gods to their source) and Charybdis that involves the ego being overwhelmed by numinous energy (Nietzsche’s Ubermenschen). The challenge involves the inherent need to examine and then retrieve one’s projections (gods, demons, etc.) restoring them to their source in the inner recesses of one’s own psyche.

As people lose their raison d’etre through a loss of faith in traditional religion, they often transfer their needs to culturally relevant phenomena like material success, status symbols, power, and other outer achievements. However, these cultural objects no longer satisfy as they once did, nor can they provide meaning nor will they supply an individual’s deed for an individual’s deeper desires. Jung, among other scholars, like Derrida and Foucault, recognized that we are living in a period that has lost its way, its orienting myth.

There is a deep unrest and thirst for experiences of the sacred that institutional and traditional religions may no longer provide. There is an exodus from mainline Protestant denominations and increasing numbers of Catholics are becoming more indifferent to the notion that Catholicism is the only path to salvation.[15] Meanwhile, those who claim no particular faith identity are increasing their numbers at such an alarming pace that worldwide “unbelief” now represents the “world’s third largest religion.”[16] Collective religious symbols and forms like cathedrals, spires, churches, rituals, liturgies, the book of hours, and sacraments no longer serve the religious function of the psyche (soul) for many people today. These religious images and forms of spirituality no longer lead one to, or remind one of the living spirits.

Ironically, institutional religion appears to be losing its influence in American culture[17] while spirituality is on the ascendancy in many sectors. Spirituality has become highly marketable as attested to by publishers, bookstores, public speakers, and celebrities. It has even gained credibility as an independent research discipline in academia.[18] These broad cultural shifts and movements, from institutional membership to individual seekers and from believers to spiritual nonbelievers, are indicative of the changing landscape of our religious imagination. It reflects the loss of meaning in our traditional institutional religions and the heralding of new spiritual forms and practices. Indeed, the Western world is undergoing an evolutionary mythic transition to a new dispensation—a time of uncertainty, liminality, and anxiety.

 Spiritual but not religious

In the West we are witnessing different responses to this situation. There is a simultaneous rise of fundamentalism on one hand and a rise of what researchers have termed the “spiritual but not religious” attitude on the other (S.B.N.R.s; Bender, 2010; Mercadante, 2014; Heelas and Woodhead, 2005.).[19] According to the most recent Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life survey, (PEW, 2014) there appears to be a dramatic rise of those claiming to be “spiritual” but “not religious.” The “spiritual but not religious” (S.B.N.Rs) comprise a unique population that seek spiritual alternatives by looking to develop their own spirituality apart from traditional religious structures and institutions.[20] This term is relatively new but is popular in the United States, where one study reports that as many as 33% of people identify as spiritual but not religious.[21] According to Robert Wuthnow, we have become a nation of “seekers” of the esoteric rather than “dwellers” in traditional religious structures.[22]

 Spirituality and its commercialization

Critics have denounced the commercialization and marketing of spirituality. For example, the shadow side of one of the most popular and newest religious movements, “The McMindfulness Craze,”[23] has been heavily criticized for its image and commercialized packaging. Mindfulness is presented as a panacea with miraculous efficacy. From changing one’s brain to alleviating all stress to promising enlightenment, advocates of mindfulness has promised quick cures. Though mindfulness and meditation can have tremendous transformative effects, their limitations are often overlooked. Most particularly, as we have noted in our clinical practices and documented by authors Rubin, Kornfield, Brown and Wilber, are the ongoing issues that depth psychology addresses that are entirely left untouched by meditation (e.g., early childhood wounds, unconscious conflicts and fears, difficulties with intimacy and what is most important to our present work is the fact that “meditation neglects meaning.” One might ask: Did Osama Bin Laden meditate?

Nonetheless, researchers are also clarifying some of the misconceptions of this burgeoning (S.B.N.R.) phenomenon. For example, Courtney Bender, a professor of religion at Columbia, went into the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she studied the S.B.N.R. folks in their own environment and discovered that they were not solitary seekers at all, but involved in an assortment of diverse groups.[24] This fact alone conflicts with the stereotype of S.B.N.R.’s as anti-institutional loners. The S.B.N.R. phenomenon and its many “forms of spirituality” appear to be, from a Jungian perspective, a movement toward direct and immediate experience that are not mediated through institutional religion or its priests with the forces and energies of the numinous unconscious. For it is precisely this energetic (spiritual) dimension that traditional institutional churches and fundamentalism have cut themselves off from— the source of numinous life-sustaining and renewing energy.

In the consulting room when inquiring about a patient’s religious affiliations, often the response is “I’m spiritual but not religious.” At that moment, one is likely to hear that traditional religion is viewed as authoritarian and limiting, while spirituality is viewed as personal and liberating. Is this response simply an expression of the patient’s deep interest in the spiritual or does it reflect the patient’s alienation from traditional institutional religion? Is it a justification? Is it a narcissistic preoccupation? Is there such a thing as a generic, commoditized spirituality: McSpirituality? To be spiritual but not religious may be symptomatic of what is happening in our culturally to religious life.

The nature of this shift is complex and it is directly related to the fact that religious symbols have lost their capacity to contain and mediate access to the numinous and to the unconscious. Furthermore, Jungian theory and scholarship can make a major contribution in understanding and responding to these newly emerging religious phenomena of and the S.B.N.R.

The best-selling author and former Catholic Monk Thomas Moore offers guidance for developing a “custom spirituality” or “a religion of one’s own” in A Religion of One’s Own.[25] He writes:

“Every day I add another piece to the religion that is my own. It’s built on years of meditation, chanting, theological study and the practice of therapy – to me a sacred activity.”[26]

Fundamentalism is one maladaptive and aberrant response to these cultural changes. It is an attempt to keep alive the spirit of the previous dispensation by returning to a literal rendition of faith traditions. While fundamentalism clings to a literal interpretation to avoid the anxiety of change and the unknown, the S.B.N.R. tend toward the other extreme by avoiding any trappings of traditional institutional religions in order to assert the greatest personal freedom in determining their spirituality. The S.B.N.R. tend to easily cross over and freely borrow fascinating (numinous) religious practices or objects that resonate with their own personal spiritual sensibilities.

Fundamentalism across all disciplines

According to Anthony Gibbons, director the London School of Economics, fundamentalism poses one of the greatest threats to individual liberty and freedom:

The rise of fundamentalism of all kinds. Contrary to the received wisdom of the moment, I believe we should oppose all forms of moral absolutism. The simplest way to define fundamentalism is as a refusal of dialogue – the assertion that only one way of life is authentic or valid. Dialogue is the very condition of a successful pluralistic order.[27]

William Lafleur, professor of religion, reiterates this idea.

Much of what we recognize as “fundamentalism” in any religious tradition is, at least in its hermeneutic posture, a wholesale rejection of all modern critical approaches and a professed return to a given scripture as authoritative in this sense. It tries to be premodern.[28] (Lafleur, 1998 pp. 75-89).

The religious experience is being dichotomized throughout the world such that a tension arises between fundamentalism and personally meaningful spiritual paths. In After God, Mark Taylor, a contemporary philosopher, states “You cannot understand the world today if you do not understand religion. Never before has religion been so powerful and so dangerous.” He attempts to redefine religion through a theology of culture and his work resonates with Jungian psychology’s understanding of the dynamics of the (religious) psyche.

Despite widespread rejection of religion we are left asking, “What makes religion so powerful and dangerous today?”

Beginning with the age of the Enlightenment and continuing through the age of Modernism, many scholars have characterized religion as a product of infantile projections, superstition, and archaic beliefs. The slogan has been “God is dead!” However, even Nietzche’s madman in The science of joy foresees a dialectical coincidentia oppositorum when he first declares that he seeks God only to later pronounce God is dead. Nietzsche’s Übermensch become a sort of archetype that calls to both the fundamentalist and the S.B.N.R. types. In the breakdown of traditional religious structures and beliefs—in its liminal transformative realm—the religious impulse becomes either creative or dangerous. To paraphrase the American humorist Mark Twain, The news of God’s death has been greatly exaggerated. In many quarters religion flourishes and it still exerts deep and profound effect on our culture. Taylor points out that scholars’ undue focus on the microanalysis of religion overlooked the foundational questions like “What religion is?” and therefore miss religion’s ubiquitous nature and its pervasive cultural influence. [29]  For example, Mark Taylor cites the 1966 Easter cover story of Time magazine, asking the question: “Is God Dead?”—citing philosophers, theologians and historians.

For many, that time has arrived, nearly one of every two men on earth lives in thralldom to a brand of totalitarianism that condemns religion as the opiate of the masses – which has stirred some to heroic defense of their faith but has also driven millions from any sense of God’s existence. Millions more, in Africa, Asia, and South America, seem destined to be born without any expectation of being summoned to the knowledge of the one God.

Ironically, not more than a decade later, Taylor cites Newsweek’s article declaring “‘the most significant – and overlooked – religious phenomenon of the ’70s was ‘the emergence of evangelical Christianity into a position of respect and power.’ Today evangelicalism is alive and well in this country, and Pentecostal Protestantism is the fastest-growing religion in Africa, Asia, and South America.”[30] Hence, Taylor asks the poignant questions, “Why did this apparent reversal occur in such a short span of time?” The 1960s heralded the death of God, but it eventually gave birth to the Moral Majority and New Religious Right. Both academics and non-academics suffer with a narrow, limited perception and understanding of the influence, dynamics, and workings of religion. At the same time as the number of individuals who identify with the decline of religion increases, a space is left into which fundamentalism enters and thrives. We concur with Taylor’s analysis.

Religion as native to human life

Similar to Jung, Taylor sees religion as being innate to human life. Without understanding the nature, origin, and ground of religion, both lay and scholarly religious writers can easily become preoccupied with their own idiosyncratic ideas, whether consciously or unconsciously. These idiosyncrasies may emphasize myriad aspects of religion such as: inerrancy of scriptures, doctrine, belief, dogma, etc., thereby failing to recognize the universality of religion (the larger picture) and its pervasive presence in culture. Because it is so easy to lose sight of the forces that create, develop, and shape the contemporary religious, Taylor offers the following foundational definition of religion:

Religion is an emergent, complex, adaptive network of myths, symbols, rituals and concepts that simultaneously figure patterns of feeling, thinking, and acting and disrupt stable structures of meaning and purpose. When understood in that way, religion not only involves ideas and practices that are manifestly religious but also include a broad range of cultural phenomenon not ordinarily associated with religion.[31]

Taylor devotes himself to establishing religion as native to human life; that is, the divine is the “groundless ground” of both religion and culture. In a similar manner, Jung discovered the native religious function of the psyche and began to conceptualize how that dynamic is played out, not only in history, but in the lives of individuals and culture. For Taylor the “Groundless ground” allows one to view the inherent dialectical relationship in religion as both a stabilizing and destabilizing force in culture and in one’s personal life. Taylor arrives at this position by understanding religion as uniting the opposites of transcendence and immanence; thus religion is a dialectical relationship of “immanent transcendence.”[32] The immanent nature of religion provides a stabilizing force by furnishing a sacred ground for human existence. Religious expression rests on immanent concretization that transcends its immediate incarnation. It is this very interplay of religion’s immanent nature that leads to transcendence that makes immediate, concrete manifestations. Therefore, religion stabilizes when it gives the numinous concrete form and destabilizes by providing the means to transcend that form. The present concrete form that the sacred takes on will also prove to be destabilizing since it ultimately cannot fully satisfy the religious impulse and leads to transcendence. In its dialectical nature and tension, even the present concretization of the sacred (e.g., sacramental and iconoclastic) are also the destabilizing forces. This is similar to Jung’s view of the evolution of archetypal consciousness, both personal and collective. As Jung writes, unconscious fantasy is a cauldron: “Formation, transformation, Eternal Mind’s eternal recreation. . .”[33] Jung’s archetypal unconscious forever transcends its incarnations, thus denying any historical and particular incarnation’s ultimate supremacy.

Taylor’s definition and appreciation of religion as an emergent, creative, relational, and encompassing force allows him to appreciate the deconstructive chaotic aspects of religion. This permits him to enter fully into the postmodern conversation. Unlike fundamentalists who are timid or afraid of the implications of postmodernism, Taylor’s embrace of the dialectical nature of religion proves to be well suited to contemporary society. In fact, the destabilizing nature of contemporary religion brings about a new stabilizing incarnation. The traditional structures and forms of religion deteriorate when the renewing energies of the religious imagination are being extinguished by oppressive attitudes toward the unconscious. For both Taylor and Jung, this provides an opportunity for religious and cultural transformation. We are on the cusp of an epochal change, what Jungian scholar Edward Edinger has termed a “new dispensation.”[34]


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[1]                  D. Bruce Dickson, The Dawn of Belief: Religion in the Upper Paleolithic of Southwestern Europe (1990)

[2]                  When we use the term “man” we use it in the sense Jung and others used, i.e., human being. (For example: Man and His Symbols)

[3]                  Henry Corbin, (1972) “Mundus Imaginalis: or The Imaginary and the Imaginal”, Spring.

[4]                  Jung, C.G. (1990). The archetypes of the collective unconscious. Hull, R. F. C. (Trans.). Bollingen Series XX. The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, 9 i. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. First published in 1959.

[5]                  “Indeed the Islamic revolution in Iran was perhaps the most important factor in the rise of contemporary Islamic fundamentalism.” (Martin E. Marty, R. Scott Appleby, Religion, ethnicity, and self-identity: nations in turmoil; University Press of New England, 1997, p. 40).

[6]                  Natural religion is naturally and universally human; it can be defended and identified through the use of reason as opposed to revelation; it is not in conflict with natural laws. Its object is a part of nature, not “above” it. Natural religion does not exclude a “Supreme Being” that commands and inspires humans towards piety and good conduct (Tyler, 2009, p. 97).

[7]           “. . . The idea of God is an absolutely necessary psychological function of an irrational nature, which has nothing whatever to do with the question of God’s existence. The human intellect can never answer this question, still less give any proof of God. Moreover such proof is superfluous, for the idea of an all-powerful divine Being is present everywhere, unconsciously if not consciously, because it is an archetype. There is in the psyche some superior power, and if it is not consciously a god, it is the “belly” at least, in St. Paul’s words. I therefore consider it wiser to acknowledge the idea of God consciously; for, if we do not, something else is made God, usually something quite inappropriate and stupid such as only an “enlightened” intellect could hatch forth. Our intellect has long known that we can form no proper idea of God, much less picture to ourselves in what manner he really exists, if at all. The existence of God is once and for all an unanswerable question.” Carl Jung, CW 7, par.110

[8]                  See: Cambray, J., Carter, L., Analytical Psychology, Contemporary Perspectives in Jungian Analysis, Chap. Archetypes: Emergence and psyche’s Deep Structure, Hogenson, G., p. 32-82, Routledge, London and NY, 2004.

[9]           See Cruz, Leonard. “Fellowship of the Word: On Complexes, Chaos, and Attractors.” The Unconscious Roots of Creativity, Chiron Publications, 2016.

[10]                German: The real is what works.

[11]                We are using here the term “morality” in accordance with teaching of Immanuel Kant as used in the theory of C. G. Jung. The term morality is used here not as moral conventions, but as a conscious decision to act responsibly with respect to knowledge and conscience. Kant says: “An action from duty has its moral worth not in the aim that is supposed to be attained by it, but rather in the maxim in accordance with which it is resolved upon; thus that worth depends not on the actuality of the object of the action, but merely on the principle of the volition, in accordance with which the action is done, without regard to any object of the faculty of desire. It is clear from the preceding that the aims we may have in actions, and their effects, as ends and incentives of the will, can impart to the actions no unconditioned and moral worth. In what, then, can this worth lie, if it is not supposed to exist in the will, in the relation of the actions to the effect hoped for? It can lie nowhere else than in the principle of the will, without regard to the ends that can be effected through such action; for the will is at a crossroads, as it were, between its principle a priori, which is formal, and its incentive a posteriori, which is material, and since it must somehow be determined by something, it must be determined through the formal principle in general of the volition if it does an action from duty, since every material principle has been withdrawn from it.” Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Edited by Allen W. Wood, Yale University Press, p.15.

[12]                Horace said: “Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret.” You can drive nature out with a pitchfork, but she always comes back. (About 20 B.C.)

[13]                Quoted from One River, Many Wells, Fox, p. 5, (2000).

[14]                The term, depth psychology, from the German Tiefenpsychologie, was first coined by psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler and later used by Freud (1914) to refer to the practice and research of the science of the unconscious, both psychoanalysis and analytical psychology. This approach to consciousness recognizes that the psyche is a complex process involving levels that are partly conscious, partly unconscious, and still other parts that remain completely unconscious.

[15]                See: National Catholic Reporter 36, October, 1999, pp.11-20.

[16]                See; Belief without Borders, Mercadante, L. 2014.

[17]                Mercadante, L. Belief without Borders, 2014.

[18]                See: APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality.

[19]                See The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination, Bender, 2010; Mercadante, Belief without Borders, 2014.

[20]                See Mercadante, L. Belief without Borders, Oxford University Press, 2014. (pp. 50-67)

[21]                See “American Spiritual Searches Turn Inward,” Retrieved 2014-10-10

[22]                Robert Wuthnow, After Heaven: Spirituality in America since 1950s (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998).

[23]                For example see Jeffrey Rubin’s article, The McMindfulness Craze: The Shadow Side of the Mindfulness Revolution,

[24]                Bender, C. The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination, Chicago, 2010.

[25]                More, 2014 A Religion of One’s Own. New York: Gotham Books.

[26]                Ibid., p. 26

[27]                Giddens, 1997 p. 82

[28]                Lafleur, 1998 pp. 75-89.

[29]                Taylor, Mark, After God, 2007. p. 11

[30]                Taylor, Mark, After God, p. 1. 2007

[31]                Mark C. Taylor, After God, 2007 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

[32]                Ibid., 41.

[33]                Jung, CW 5, para. 400.

[34]                See Edinger, 1981