The super ego and some religious groups

Reading the ghastly account of John Smyth’s treatment of young men first in the UK and then in Zimbabwe in the name of Jesus (see Bleeding for Jesus) has led me to think about how powerfully the superego can become over-emphasised and perverse in certain religious contexts.

‘Sin’ is generally seen as an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law, but in certain cults and religious groups ‘the divine law’ is determined by the leader who is often narcissistic and mentally ill – Peter Ball is a good example of this and Bishop Stephen Neill. Similarly, John Smyth who asked his victims to write a list of their sins and administered the number of beatings according to what he saw as the severity of the behaviour. Masturbation being a prime candidate. These leaders are dominated by their own sadistic urges, often linked to repressed sexual needs and this is cloaked in theological justification both as a defence, and as a so-called reputable way to achieve a form of relief and satisfaction.

The superego seen as the ethical part of the personality can be over cultivated by critical parenting and added to by critical religious teachings – leading then to a strong overdetermined sense of guilt. The sense of guilt has endless gradations, but roughly can be conscious, preconscious and unconscious – using Freudian terminology. The origin of the superego lies in the child’s ambivalence and fear connected to loss of parental love and approval which is why such deviant leaders use grooming about punishment and reward so successfully.

The psychiatrist who saw Thomas Merton, Gregory Zilboorg, (and who rather unprofessionally and indeed unethically colluded with Abbot James Fox about Merton’s personality and who caused Merton much upset and soul searching) wrote a book called Psychoanalysis and Religion. Although dated, published in 1962, he sees a conscious sense of guilt as normal and an unconscious sense as neurotic or indeed psychotic. He also quotes Thomas Aquinas on the sacrament of penance where penance is performed with the hope of forgiveness.

However where ‘sin’, as defined by some religious leaders, becomes part of a training, a reprogramming and grooming then a deeper sense of guilt develops – not only about the so-called ‘sin’ in itself, but also the more powerful letting down the leader and his love and approval.

Zilboorg writes about: ‘an unconscious sense of guilt whose characteristic is a well-nigh insatiable desire for more and more punishment … which in its severer form has become known as masochism’. In other words, the conscious sadism of the leader who is the perpetrator of the punishment becomes over time mirrored in the inner world of the recipient.

On the superego Zilboorg, whose picture is below, writes:

‘It is the epitome of aggression and hatred … [and] cannot be quieted; it can only be pacified with direct or indirect “payment in kind”. Whilst using the language of conscience the superego is not conscience because it does not know forgiveness.’

Here is the root of the punishing god who demands more and more pain and sacrifices.