How is it," asks James W. Jones, "that religion has inspired not only great works of art and insightful moral teachings, but also some of our species' most horrific acts?"
This question, which has taken on new and alarming
resonance in light of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, is one that Jones probes in depth in his latest book, "Terror and Transformation: The Ambiguity of Religion in
Psychoanalytic Perspective" (Brunner-Routledge).
"The book has a frightening contemporaneousness that I certainly couldn't have imagined two years ago when I wrote it," says Jones, noting that the work was already on bookshelves in England before Sept. 11, although it didn't become available in the United States until late last spring.
Jones is both a professor of religion in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences–New Brunswick and a practicing psychologist, and he brings insights from both disciplines to his analysis.
Religion, he says, can be a wonderfully constructive force in our lives. Indeed, one of Jones' earlier books, "In the Middle of This Road We Call Our Life: The Courage to Search for Something More," examines the case histories of several of his patients who discover that spirituality can play a significant role in creating a more meaningful existence.
"We need places where we can feel ourselves a part of something greater than our individual ego, where our thoughts and feelings are received empathically, where our authentic goals and ambitions are supported by others," he writes in "Terror and Transformation," describing how religion can enrich our lives. "This is not just a refuge or retreat from the harshness of the quotidian world, it is an ongoing requirement for there to be joy, creativity and resiliency in our lives."
In many ways, suggests Jones, spirituality resembles romantic love. Those who are awakened to religious devotion are like the patient who came into therapy one day proclaiming, "I met this woman, and now I am a new man." The world's religions, regardless of denomination, "can be a powerfully positive and transforming force," he asserts.
But there's another, less salubrious, side to the quest for a religious ideal, and it is this that Jones set out to explore using the tools of clinical psychology. Why is it, he wonders, that there is a small group of individuals who push religious devotion to the point where it turns into a ferocious fanaticism that seems to sanction terrible acts in the name of an ideal?
With the caveat that there is no one explanation for human behavior and that even seemingly simple choices are multiply determined, Jones finds some intriguing answers to this question.
Drawing on some of the best-known writers of relational psychoanalytic theory of the last century, he concludes that for a whole host of reasons some people seem to have a psychological need to over-idealize. They become dependent on external objects — people, teachers, institutions, ideas — to the point where they no longer recognize the limitations or the inevitable ambivalences and ambiguities that go with human life. According to Jones, it is this tendency that lies at the roots of religious fanaticism.
"Children always over-idealize," he points out, "but most people, as they develop, outgrow the need for over-idealization. In other words, reality comes in and leads to a balance between idealization and reality.
"But there are some people who need to feel they are in touch with something perfect, so when an institution or a teacher or a movement comes along and says, ‘We're perfect, and you can be too if you sign up with us,' they're ready to do just that."
This surrender to an authority figure, who convinces his followers that he alone has access to the true way, can have disastrous results.
"There's a splitting, a kind of bifurcating into totally black and white," Jones says. "One of the characteristics of people who are fanatical, whether it be religion or politics or social movements, is that they tend to divide the world into camps of light and darkness, good and evil, and they want to make sure they're on the right side of that line and that the people they don't like are consigned on the other side. It's a totally unnuanced view of the world in which there are no shades of gray."
Such a limited worldview, especially when intertwined with ethnic and nationalistic symbols, can foster the intolerance and prejudice that breed aggressively destructive acts. History, Jones points out, is full of examples from the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition to the more recent conflicts in India, Northern Ireland and the Middle East. "Sadly, fanatic elements can be found in all the world's religions," he emphasizes.
Jones' discussion is replete with references to some of the major thinkers of the day. Freud, of course, figures prominently, as does Heinz Kohut, Emile Durkheim, Rudolph Otto, Hans Loewald and others. But even readers unfamiliar with these theorists will find much to ponder in the book.
He ends the 122-page volume by asking whether there can be religion without unquestioning idealization. "Religious fanaticism is a major problem in the world, so religion without idealization may be a major social need today," he suggests.
The analogy with romantic love again throws light on the discussion. To maintain a strong and lasting relationship, a lover's response to the beloved must contain a mix of both idealization and realism. While idealizing the beloved ignites passion, a realistic understanding of the beloved's limitations keeps desires and expectations within reasonable bounds.
But is a similar dual approach to religion possible?
"Can religious idealization be balanced with realistic appraisal: enough idealization to make commitment and transformation possible; enough realism to recognize the limitations and failings of any tradition and so mute fanaticism and keep religiously motivated demands and hopes within the realm of the possible," he asks in his final chapter.
In other words, can people be deeply and completely committed to a religious ideal and still maintain a complex and realistic perspective on that object of devotion? Despite the recent rise of rigid, fanatical belief systems, Jones firmly believes the answer is yes and that a nuanced approach to religious teachings, one that tolerates the ambivalence and ambiguity of everyday life, can ultimately lead participants to a more complex, sublime and vital experience.