“These are the times that try men’s souls”

Thomas Paine, December 1776.

We live in an era in which extremism dominates political discourse, religious life, the news cycle, and our personal lives. For centuries under the banner of God, human societies have amassed countless rounds of ethnic cleansing, deaths, and untold human suffering. We are left wondering how it is that the religious impulse, in which deep calls to deep, is so frequently perverted into a war cry that justifies murder, torture, rape, and other atrocities. The anthropologist, Ruth Benedict, wrote, “A culture, like an individual, is a more or less consistent pattern of thought and action.”(46)[1] Because of this, the inquiries into the psychology of the individual or the collective are likely to cross pollinate. The last few centuries have witnessed breathtaking scientific advances, and yet we have more reason than ever to be concerned that the destructive capacity of homo sapiens might in a moment cause extinction of our species and multitudes of other species.

George Didier and Vladislav Šolc have entered this morass of unfathomable horrors and possibilities, to bring insightful, psychologically well-informed explorations to the field of religion and religious extremism. They begin by reminding us that the religious impulse is inherent to the psyche of modern man and woman and that this mysterious encounter with the numinous transcends cultures, epochs, and historical figures. This book explores the roots of this impulse from a depth psychological perspective that is heavily informed by the writings of Carl Gustav Jung, the founder of Analytical Psychology. Dark Religion From the Perspective of Jungian Psychology is perhaps intended to be a double entendre because not only do the shaping forces of our religious experience have their roots in the dark, unseen realms of the unconscious, but it happens that when we remain in the dark about the roots of our religiosity there is enormous opportunity for misunderstanding, perversion, manipulation, and exploitation of this innate hunger for an encounter with something transcendent. Precisely because the religious impulse—in its essence an encounter with the holy (and wholly) other—is elusive yet axiomatic to the human experience, it can overtake a person with such fervor that horrifically destructive actions appear sensible and justifiable to the believer. How are any of us supposed to distinguish passionate belief of a healthy sort from passionate belief that goes awry and becomes destructive?

Many different wisdom traditions converge in providing an answer to this question. Concerning how a Jew should treat the stranger, Deuteronomy 10:19 directs:

You shall love the stranger (foreigner, resident alien), for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Furthermore, the prophets of Israel (Isaiah and Micah) call the nation to this ideal:

And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3)

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus of Nazareth instructs his followers:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:15-16)

The Quran offers guidance regarding how a Muslim should regard people of other faiths and specifically names Jews, Christians, and Sabians whose modern descendants, Mandaeans, have virtually been expelled from Iraq.

Verily, those who have attained to faith [in this divine writ], as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabians – all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds-shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve. (Quran 2:62)

The Buddhist teaching of the Noble Eightfold path is suffused with ideals that make clear that our actions (including our intentions, speech, views, conduct, livelihood, and concentration) have consequences. In the Karaniya Metta Sutta on loving kindness we find the following guidance.

And never let them wish each other ill
Through provocation or resentful thought.
And just as might a mother with her life
Protect the son that was her only child,
So let him then for every living thing.

The common denominator that I see is that the actions one takes in the world, particularly the actions one takes toward others, is the measure of one’s faith. Faith in action, religion that is manifest through one’s impact on the world and others seems to be a reasonable basis for determining when the dark forces of the religious impulse are being perverted.

Dark Religion is a thoughtful, penetrating examination of man’s encounter with the universal, transcendent mystery that is most commonly spoken of as God. It stands on its merits as a scholarly investigation of religion, and it is especially timely given the extremism that continues to flare up around the world.

If these are the times that try men’s (and women’s) souls as Thomas Paine announced, these are also the times that grow men’s (and women’s) souls. James Hillman, a beloved and influential American Jungian analyst titled one of his books, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy-And the World is Getting Worse. Therefore, why should anyone hope that another psychology book will make things better? My answer to this question is flatly, “It will not!” Unless of course you, the reader, take seriously the invitation that Didier and Šolc have outlined.

They propose that psychology, especially depth psychology, offers a remedy for the affliction of dark religion. Quite simply, any serious seeker of the truth must bring light to bear upon the dark recesses of our psychology of religion. For Jungians, this means illuminating the individual recesses and the collective ones as well.

First, Didier and Šolc point out that a genuine encounter with the numinous realms is so powerful that it overtakes us. It is the wholly other quality of such moments that imparts a holy dimension; how such lived experiences are integrated and worked out constitutes the bedrock of the history of religion movements through centuries of recorded history.

Next, they establish that psyche’s natural tendency to dichotomize experience and thereby create polarities initiates a process whereby one aspect of the polarity may be driven into the unconscious while the other aspect attracts to itself greater psychological energy and constellates in what might be referred to as a complex. It is this complexification, or the coalescence of energy, images, symbols, ideals, and beliefs around only one pole of a polarity that in my opinion is a first cause of religion gone awry. As the conscious identification with one aspect of a polarity intensifies, the other is not annihilated; it simply gathers strength in the invisible, unconscious domains of psychic life.

We puzzle over moments of sudden, brutal violence eruptions like the Rwandan genocide of Tutsis by Hutus. We ask ourselves how people, who had peacefully coexisted, as neighbors and friends, were capable of unleashing such destruction. The answer can be found in this process that this book describes. The unconscious, split-off other gathers strength at the individual and collective level. It becomes like dry kindling that can be ignited by a well-timed spark. In this conflagration we see how symbols help coalesce the unconscious energy of large groups of individuals who become over-identified with the beliefs that are reduced and subsumed by the symbol. Modern examples abound.

The Nazis co-opted the ancient symbol of the swastika to rally the Germanic tribes around Hitler’s megalomaniacal drive. Devoted fans of professional sports teams become so identified with their team and its symbols that they are willing to go to battle if a symbol is defaced. During the 2016 presidential election, a red Make America Great Again ball cap became a symbol that identified followers of candidate Trump and perhaps fueled the sharp divisions between Trumps supporters and the rest of the nation. There are many dangers that result when our encounters with something greater than us, something transcendent, numinous, or religious are permitted to remain unconscious. What remains unconscious is frequently projected onto other people and other peoples and serves to justify our violence toward the other.

Time and again we have seen such movements rise and consume countless human beings in the pyre. The Native Americans who died during the settlement of the western United States, the tens of millions killed during the Holocaust, the nearly two million Cambodians killed by the Khmer Rouge, the one million Rwandans slaughtered in the genocide, the ten thousand of Yazidis who were killed or kidnapped by ISIS, and even the twenty to fifty thousand Palestinians who have died since the formation of the state of Israel cry out to those of us, the living to end the madness of mass killing, genocide, and ethnic cleansing. The fact that a website exists that compiles the death tolls for man-made multicides www.necrometrics.com attests to our urgent need to hear what Didier and Šolc have to say about dark religion.

There is good news for the reader who perseveres with Dark Religion and takes to heart its underlying message. We are each called to an encounter with the numinous realms. How we respond, what we do, and what we are led to believe and defend is profoundly important to our individual and collective development. Dark Religion lays bare the underlying causes of religious extremism and fanaticism. It reminds the reader that each one of us is called to the mysterious task of shedding light upon our own encounter with something that is greater than or beyond ourselves. This mysterious realm beyond ourselves that is extraordinary, elusive, ineffable, and transports us is what the theologian Rudolf Otto called numinous.

 In the Jungian tradition, the encounter with the numinous is like a seed that can take shape as an Imago Die, an image of God. This is a sort of organizing symbol for the awe-inspiring and often frightening energy that accompanies an encounter with the numinous. Jungians also speak of the Self, an archetypal element of psychic life that is like a guiding light for the process of individuation. Craig Chalquist defines individuation as “the process by which a person integrates unconscious contents into consciousness, thereby becoming a psychologically whole individual.”[3] The path of individuation is inevitably shaped by our biology, our inborn temperament, the family into which we are born, and the culture into which we must enter. A tremendous amount of this shaping influence ends up relegated to the unconscious. This phenomenon, whereby so much of our makeup dwells in the unconscious, accounts for many of the extreme manifestations of the religious impulse that appear in different epochs and in different cultures.

Each of us faces a challenge to illuminate the unconscious domains of our psychological and religious life and then recover what we have projected onto others. When we do this, we may retain a bit of the original spark of the religious, numinous encounter. If this spark is nourished and properly groomed, it can flower as compassionate, soul-building action in the world. Those who do this arduous psychological work of recovering projections are less likely to cast their burdens on the other and less likely to perpetrate violence upon them. The Sermon on the Mount captures this sentiment nicely, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.”

Dr. Len Cruz




[1] Benedict, Ruth. (1934) Patterns of Culture. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

[2] “Sn 1.8: Karaniya Metta Sutta — The Buddha’s Words on Loving-Kindness/The Hymn of Universal Love/Loving-Kindness/The Discourse on Loving-Kindness/Good Will.” Pali Canon Online, 2018, www.palicanon.org/index.php/sutta-pitaka/khuddaka-nikaya/102-sutta-nipata/954-sn-1-8-karaniya-metta-sutta-the-buddha-s-words-on-loving-kindness-the-hymn-of-universal-love-loving-kindness-the-discourse-on-loving-kindness-good-will.

[3] Chalquist, C. “A Glossary of Jungian Terms.” TerraPsych.com. 10 June 2018. http://www.terrapsych.com/jungdefs.html