The Religious Impulse in the Human Being

The Religious Impulse in the Human Being:

Jung on Religion, Spirituality and the Life Worth Living


I want to make clear that by the term “religion” I do not mean a creed. It is, however, true that every creed is originally based on the one hand upon the experience of the numinosum and on the other hand upon pistis, that is to say, trust or loyalty, faith and confidence in a certain experience of a numinous nature and in the change of consciousness that ensues…We might say, then, that the term “religion” designates the attitude peculiar to a consciousness which has been changed by experience of the numinosum.

Jung (1937)[1]


It must gradually be dawning on any responsible doctor what a tremendously important role the spiritual element plays in the psychic economy…

Jung (1952)[2]


…Among all my patients in the second half of life—that is to say, over thirty-five—there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost what the living religions of every age have given their followers, and none of them has been really healed who did not regain his religious outlook. This of course has nothing whatever to do with a particular creed or membership of a church.

Jung (1932)[3]


The decisive question for man is: Is he related to something infinite or not? That is the telling question of his life. Only if we know that the thing which truly matters is the infinite can we avoid fixing our interest upon futilities, and upon all kinds of goals which are not of real importance… The more a man lays stress on false possessions, and the less sensitivity he has for what is essential, the less satisfying is his life. … If we understand and feel that here in this life we already have a link with the infinite, desires and attitudes change. In the final analysis, we count for something only because of the essential we embody, and if we do not embody that, life is wasted….

Jung (1965)[4]


Among the many differences between the psychologies of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung was the issue of religion. Freud was an atheist who regarded religion as an “illusion.”[5] As the above quotes indicate, Jung had a very different opinion of religion. In this essay we will examine Jung’s thoughts about religion, organized religions, spirituality and the religious impulse which Jung felt was an inherent part of being human. But before tackling these themes we need to understand a bit about Jung’s personal history.


Jung’s Personal Background


Jung grew up the son of a Protestant pastor in the Swiss Reformed Church, so he was steeped in things religious from his very beginnings. But this family background also gave the teenage Carl the profound and influential experience of witnessing his father’s loss of faith. Jung recalled the interval in 1894-97, an interval full of family quarrels and tension:

It was clear to me that something quite specific was tormenting him, and I suspected that it had to do with his faith. From a number of hints he let fall I was convinced that he suffered from religious doubts. This, it seemed to me, was bound to be the case if the necessary experience had not come to him. … all my questions were met with the same old lifeless theological answers, or with a resigned shrug… it appeared almost inconceivable to me that he should not have had experience of God, the most evident of all experiences. … He had to quarrel with somebody, so he did it with his family and himself. Why didn’t he do it with God,…[6]

Jung could pose this question to himself at the age of 17 because at the age of 11, he had experienced God in a numinous vision.[7] So Jung knew that, if his father could undertake to wrestle with God

God would assuredly have sent him by way of an answer one of those magical, infinitely profound dreams which He had sent to me… He [God] had even allowed me a glimpse into His own being. This was a great secret which I dared not and could not reveal to my father. I might have been able to reveal it had he been capable of understanding the direct experience of God. …[8]

Jung came to conclude that “Theology had alienated my father and me from one another.”[9] And, once, overhearing his father praying, Jung realized that his father “… struggled desperately to keep his faith…”[10] but this was not possible, for the same reason Jung and his father could not get on the same page in their conversations about religion: His father was “hopelessly entrapped by the Church and its theological thinking. They had blocked all avenues by which he might have reached God directly, and then faithlessly abandoned him….”[11]

Although this painful interval rent the Jungs’ family life, it proved to be very significant in helping to form Jung’s later thinking about religion. He came away from this experience and his earlier vision[12] concluding that “God Himself had disavowed theology and the Church founded upon it….”[13] Jung became the proverbial minister’s son with conflicts and concerns about religion.


Jung’s Definition of Religion


Conflicts and concerns did not mean that Jung became an agnostic or atheist. Far from it! His personal experience of the Divine meant that Jung had early on in life come to recognize the centrality of such experiences for creating a sense of meaning and purpose in life. So, while dictionaries define “religion” as a “belief in God or gods” and “a particular system of religious belief and worship,”[14] Jung (ever the empiricist!) created his own definition based on experience: “…a careful observation and taking account of (from relegere) the numinous.”[15] This was what Jung had done in his own life from an early age: He observed in his own life encounters that left him feeling dread, awe, shock, relief, release, overwhelment and fascination—all emotional reactions one might have from a contact with the numen, the Divine.[16] He dealt with these encounters by reflecting on them, wrestling with the feelings they brought up, and groping toward some sort of understanding of the nature of the Divine and his relationship with it.

“Religion” became, for Jung, “…the attitude peculiar to a consciousness which has been changed by experience of the numinosum.”[17] Jung’s consciousness surely had been changed in this way, and he knew, from his experience with his patients, his reading in history and literature, and his knowledge of mythology and symbology, that this was also true for many millions of other people down through the ages.

Let’s be clear: By “religion” Jung did not mean a creed. As the quote that opens this essay indicates,[18] Jung made a sharp distinction between religion—the experience and the changed consciousness that comes about from a personal confrontation with God—and organized forms that have developed over time. This is a distinction that bedevils us here at the Jungian Center, as we encounter so many people these days who react violently to anything that seems linked to what they think of as “religion,” i.e. denominations, sects, groups with creedal statements, formal memberships, and an “us-them” mindset.[19] None of this is what Jung meant by religion.

It should also be noted that, when asked very late in life if he believed in God,[20] Jung replied that he did not, because he had come to know God. Knowledge trumps belief: once you come to know something you no longer have to believe in it. Through his numerous numinous experiences over his 8+ decades Jung had come to know God, to have a personal on-going relationship to the numen such that he had no need of belief. His reply to John Freeman’s question caused much comment from listeners to the BBC broadcast; obviously many people found it hard to understand what Jung meant, probably because they had never had such personal encounters. Why not? We can address this question by considering Jung’s views of organized religion.


Jung on Organized Religion


By “organized” religion I mean the formal groups that have grown up over time with labels—Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Scientology, Assembly of God, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, etc. etc.—and theological positions, statements of faith, creeds, rituals, and dogmas that followers of the organization are expected to adhere to. In some countries, one of these groups is the “state” church, going back to the time of the Reformation, when, after a generation of religious wars, a truce was struck allowing the head of state to choose the religion—Protestant or Catholic—of the country.[21] The Anglican is the official church in England; the Lutheran is dominant in most of Scandinavia, while the Roman Catholic Church is dominant in Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Italy and France.

Witnessing his father’s crisis of faith, and how his training into orthodoxy made it impossible for his father to have a personal experience of God, Jung came to conclude that religion was a hindrance more than a help in developing and solidifying such experiences. In his essay “Psychology and Religion” Jung states:

“… a dogma is the very thing that precludes immediate experience… Dogma is like a dream, reflecting the spontaneous and autonomous activity of the objective psyche, the unconscious. Such an expression of the unconscious is a much more efficient means of defense against further immediate experiences than any scientific theory.”[22]

With their rites and rituals, recitation of creeds and elaborate protocols, organized religions do very well in “defending” their followers from any sort of confrontation with the numen. This may make for docile and easily-controlled parishioners but also precludes any personal experience of the Divine.

Jung recognized that not everyone is capable of personally confronting the Divine. His understanding of the Divine was complex: “God” to Jung was not the “warm fuzzy” figure of Jesus with the lambs or little children. Jung regarded God as “… the name for a complex of ideas grouped round a powerful feeling;…”[23] “… an affectively charged image that emerges out of our encounter with Mystery.”[24] Since most modern people don’t like to deal with mysteries (unless they can be solved in the 47 minutes of the modern TV crime show), most of us would rather take a pass on such encounters. Organized religions serve as an important and useful buffer in this regard.

But Jung was aware that, while the organized religions can be useful in defending people against experiencing God, they are doing little to help modern people understand and appreciate the symbolic life, and the richness that symbols can bring to daily existence. He noted “Our spiritual leaders cannot be spared the blame for having been more interested in protecting their institutions than in understanding the mystery that symbols present.”[25] On this point Jung was especially critical of modern Protestantism, with its stripped-down ritual, loss of icons and statuary, and lack of soul-nourishing images:

“If it [Protestantism] goes on disintegrating as a church, it must have the effect of stripping man of all his spiritual safeguards and means of defense against immediate experience of the forces waiting for liberation in the unconscious.”[26]

What are these “forces” in the unconscious? All sorts of things: demons, feelings like despair, ennui, meaninglessness, disorientation etc.—so much of what we see in our modern culture, with its substance abuse, domestic and child abuse, psychological disorders and general discontent. As Jung noted, “People will do anything, no matter how absurd [or destructive] to avoid facing their own souls.”[27]


Spirituality and the Human Religious Impulse


The result is that we are now living in a culture that has “… stripped all things of their mystery and numinosity; nothing is holy any longer.”[28] So we should not be surprised at the widespread social, cultural, economic and political malaise that marks contemporary reality. Jung saw the effects of this malaise in his patients and, taking seriously his profession as a psychiatrist (literally psyche + iatros, a “doctor of the soul”), he worked to heal souls. When he had the opportunity he would remind other practitioners of the “… tremendously important role the spiritual element plays in the psychic economy…”.[29] Spirituality is so important in mental and physical health because every human has within an innate impulse to know the Divine, to form a conscious relationship with something larger than oneself. This is what Jung meant when he stated that mature people have to recover a religious sense.[30]

As the quote at the beginning of this essay notes,[31] most of Jung’s middle-aged patients presented with what he recognized was a spiritual problem, regardless of the specific conditions or issues they might have complained about in their initial sessions. Loss of soul, Jung knew, is as serious a malady as loss of memory, loss of muscle control, or loss of senses: it seriously compromises the quality of one’s life.

Just how this shows up Jung describes: When we have no sense of connection to something beyond ourselves:

  • we “fix our interest upon futilities:”[32] did the Sox beat the Yankees? Who won the Super Bowl? Can I buy that designer dress? Am I keeping up with the Joneses?
  • we set our sights on “goals which are not of real importance:”[33] will Chloe get into the best pre-school? the right prep school? Harvard? How fast can I climb the corporate ladder and get to be CEO? Can I retire at age 59?
  • we demand recognition for ephemeral conditions, like talent and beauty:[34] we create cults around celebrities, vaunt achievements, derive pleasure from our Facebook page or our entry in Who’s Who
  • we lay “stress on false possessions:”[35] clothes, jewels, furs, faddish fashions, fancy cars, all types of status symbols
  • we notice, with our “limited aims,”[36] what others have and then feel impoverished in our lack of the same, feeding the envy and jealousy that corrode our soul even more.

Jung’s solution to the emptiness of modern life is spiritual. Caring for the soul and seeking to develop a relation to the infinite are spiritual issues. For those still “contained”[37] in some form of religion, it is possible that spiritual needs can be met through the rites and rituals of the religious organization. For those no longer so contained, Jung felt the solution was to “regain a religious outlook.”[38]

This does not mean joining a religious organization. Spiritual needs can be met on the individual level, if one is willing to engage the soul, i.e. to turn inward, to work with the energies in one’s “inner city,”[39] to tend to dreams and synchronicities, and to become sensitive to what is essential in life.

What is essential in life? It’s not money, “stuff,” fame, power or “success” as our materialistic culture defines these terms. Jung suggests that the essential thing in life is to become aware of our essence—who we truly are, what has purchase on our soul, how we embody the Divine in our very being. When we have this awareness, we “count for something,”[40] life has meaning, our efforts have purpose and we know that we matter. Life is not wasted. Jung reminds us that we are, in our essence, divine, born of a greater life, linked to the infinite and vessels for the “spark” that animates our being. If we understand this, our “desires and attitudes change.”[41] We recognize our purpose: to be co-creators with the Infinite, to fulfill our unique mission in life, bringing to our situation a mix of talents, interests and abilities that no one else replicates. We know our lives matter, and we heal. Just how the Divine helps us heal is the subject of the next essay.




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[1] Collected Works 11, ¶9. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[2] Ibid., ¶453.

[3] Ibid., ¶509.

[4] Jung (1965), 325.

[5] CW 4, ¶773.

[6] Jung (1965), 92.

[7] In this disturbing experience Jung had premonitions over the course of several days that something shocking was about to come upon him; when it finally happened it was a vision of a large turd falling on the roof of Basel cathedral, shattering it. Jung felt a commingling of awe, shock and relief and in that experience, plus other numinous experiences, came to confront the contradictory nature of the Divine. See Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 36-41.

[8] Ibid., 92-93.

[9] Ibid., 93.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Described in footnote 7.

[13] Jung (1965), 93.

[14] World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, II, 1646.

[15] CW 11, ¶982.

[16] For more on the effects of contact with the numinous, see the essay “Jung on the Numinosum,” archived on this blog site.

[17] Hollis (1998), 121.

[18] CW 11, ¶9.

[19] The “us-them mindset” is seen most starkly in the attitudes of Sunnis vs. Shi’ites (both Muslim) and fundamentalist Christians who claim that those who don’t believe as they do will go to Hell. But doesn’t gravity work for everybody? And what is the Source of gravity??

[20] By John Freeman, in an interview for BBC television, October 22, 1959; see Freeman (1977).

[21] The resolution of the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe was summed up in the Latin phrase “cuius regio, eius religio,” i.e. literally “whose realm, his religion.” If the King, Duke or Margrave was a Protestant, his kingdom and subjects would be Protestant; if the ruler was Catholic, the official religion would be Catholic. The legacy of this scheme are the state churches in many European countries.

[22] CW 11, ¶81.

[23] CW 5, ¶128.

[24] Hollis (1998), 127.

[25] CW 18, ¶582. In the recent sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church we have had clear evidence oof how clerics have focused on protecting their institution.

[26] CW 11, ¶85.

[27] CW 12, ¶126.

[28] Jung (1964), 84.

[29] CW 11, ¶453.

[30] Dourley (1981), 13. Here at the Jungian Center I find many more of our community receptive to the word “spirituality” and to the individual, inner work that a spiritual practice entails, in contrast to the word “religion,” which seems to turn off many.

[31] CW 11, ¶509.

[32] Jung (1965), 325.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] This is the term Edward Edinger uses to refer to people who are regular church-goers and adhere to the rituals and practices of an organized religion; see Edinger (1984), 61-2,65,68,77-79,89,91.

[38] CW 11, ¶509.

[39] This is Daryl Sharp’s term for Jung’s idea of the inner world that lives in each of us. The phrase has become the name of Sharp’s publishing house devoted to publishing books by Jungian analysts.

[40] Jung (1965), 325.

[41] Ibid.