Editorial: Religion and the Subconscious


The Light (Pakistan), 15th September 1989 Issue (Vol. 66, No. 8, pp. 1–4)

وَ اِنۡ تُبۡدُوۡا مَا فِیۡۤ اَنۡفُسِکُمۡ اَوۡ تُخۡفُوۡہُ یُحَاسِبۡکُمۡ بِہِ اللّٰہُ ؕ

“And whether you manifest what is in your minds or hide it, Allah will call you to account according to it” (The Holy Quran, 2:284).

Dr. Sigmund Freud has laid the world under a great debt of obligation by his theory that the concealed inner feelings of a man exert a great influence on his life and career. This is undoubtedly a great improvement on the purely materialistic conception of life, in which all that a man is required to care for is the external condition under which he lives.

Equally potent, if not more, we are told by the new theory, are the feelings of the man himself in the making or unmaking of his life. The repressed feelings of a person, we are told, tend to disturb the whole course of his life. In the term of this psychologist, they create complexes, unless properly handled in time and then either released or carried to what is called sublimation.

What strikes one, however, as strange in this connection, is that this repression or inhibition should be regarded as confined to the sphere of sex alone. The fact is that man has to resort to this kind of repression in all the various spheres of his life. Man’s desires are countless, as are the stars in heaven and the sands of the seashores. It is by an unceasing and interminable process of conscious or unconscious repression that he maintains his position as a social being. Even the most intractable criminal has to resort to repression at every step of his life. It is only the most hopeless lunatic that knows no repression.

As we know, man’s desires flow in so many directions. He loves dress, he loves furniture, he loves honour, he loves power, he loves knowledge and he loves so many other things that please his body and mind, besides his love and attraction for the other sex. And in all these desires and passions he comes in conflict, ever and anon, with millions of others like himself inhabiting this world. He cannot afford to fight all of them. He makes a sort of compromise with all to make life possible for himself. It is a sort of unwritten contract on which society is based. The Ten Commandments of the Jewish Scripture, or all religious ordinances for that matter, have their counterpart in the very practical common sense of all civilised human beings.

Based on these principal commandments there is a huge network of laws, big and small, in force in every civilised country of the world. Civilised life may, therefore, be rightly regarded as synonymous with an interminable series of suppression or repression of desires and feelings. And if we believe that all repression create complexes, all civilised human beings are to be regarded as suffering from innumerable complexes at all times. In other words, in order to keep human beings normal, we should send all into the wilderness, where they shall not be required to exercise any moral restraint otherwise known as repression. The position, evidently, is untenable.

And yet we must admit there is truth in the theory of repression. Men do get neurotic not only through unconscious repression, but even through conscious suppression of natural feelings. As a matter of fact, Dr. Freud’s examination of modern social life must have brought before him facts that are too glaring to be ignored. The cases of neurosis, mild or strong, are too numerous among modern civilised human beings to escape the notice of the keen scholar that he is. There may be many reasons for this. But that repression of Freud’s theory is responsible for a considerable part of it cannot be denied. We repeat, however, that it is no mere sex repression that is at the back of all modern cases of neuroses, but repression of all sorts. And this, if our psychologists would care to listen, is due solely to lack of religious culture of the mind.

Let us explain. Whether our friends would like it or not, the devotional practices affecting, as they do, the very source of human emotions, have a soothing effect on the mind of man and through it to his nerves. That is why some of the best doctors of nervous disorders have recommended devotional contemplation as the best remedy for such troubles. But apart from the effect of such exercises on the health of the individual and thus concerning his private life alone, the devotional practices indirectly and yet vitally influence our collective civilised life. As a matter of fact, no civilisation can endure if it is not backed by such exercises of the mind. It does not need any great imagination to realise that the higher the level of civilisation and wider the circle of social relationship, the greater the need of what the psychologist would call either suppression or repression and the ordinary man’s self-restraint. It is a well-known fact that culture in its ordinary sense sharpens our senses and desires and civilisation produces ever-new materials for the sharpening of those desires.

To live a corporate life under the excitable conditions created by a civilised society causes obviously a far greater strain on one’s nerves than to live a simple life in a village where the mind is not so imaginative and needs and contacts fewer. The average man of our times seeks relief from these mental strains of civilised existence through a struggle on the mental plane. Prolonged experience, however, shows that this results in neurosis on the physical plane of health and complex on the mental plane.

For true relief or to protect man from these maladies, physical and mental, therefore, we have to enter the deeper regions of man’s being. And it is this that the founders of religions have been doing throughout the ages. Their united exhortation on the necessity of devotional contemplation vitally concerns the interests of civilisation, apart from its spiritual benefits to the individual. The abnormal complications of modern world-wide civilised existence have, thus, brought to a glaring prominence a need for religion, which in easier times could never be suspected of affording any effective line of argument.

It is the remembrance of God that acts as gastric juice for us to digest and assimilate the strains of self-restraint. In fact, it is these struggles that go to form our character and sharpen our vision for the reality of life. It is through perpetual control over our own desires and mental urges that we see our consciousness unfolding itself, provided we assimilate them with the help of the gastric juice supplied by the remembrance of God. That is why the Quran says:

اَلَا بِذِکۡرِ اللّٰہِ تَطۡمَئِنُّ الۡقُلُوۡبُ ﴿ؕ۲۸﴾

“Behold, it is through the remembrance of God that hearts are set at rest” (The Holy Quran, 13:28).

This statement of the Quran, while speaking of a spiritual truth, is also an instruction useful on the social plane of our existence. It is only through devotional offering of the being to the unseen Creator that the scars and bruises caused by our emotional clashes can be really healed. Any other process will simply pile them up or at best keep them concealed in the deeper regions of the consciousness, call it subconscious or whatever else you like, subtly disturbing the smooth working of the mind and as a reflex action, of that of the nervous system.

And if we allow the people to carry on like this, the world will soon be full of abnormal people, incapable of maintaining a civilisation. Signs are not wanting that we people of the present age are heading towards a disastrous situation like this. A cursory glance at history will show that all civilisations begin with some kind of religious faith and system, and invariable end in what is known as secularism.

This law of the rise and fall of civilisations appears very significant if seen from this particular point of view. Peoples that have made history seem to give up devotional exercise of the mind at a time when it is most needed, and it is this which causes the collapse of various civilisations at various times. Want of devotional culture produces abnormal minds and abnormal minds fail to maintain civilisation.

To sum up our argument, the suppression of feelings, desires and urges of the mind is an essential feature of civilised existence. But such suppressions need not necessarily result in repression and complexes of the psychologist. These suppressions can be assimilated to the benefit of our mental and moral health through the process of devotion as prescribed by religion. Suppressions enter into the regions of the subconscious and become repression only when this gastric juice of devotion is wanting. And the infringement of this law of assimilation causes not only physical and mental ill-health but spells death to civilisation, whereof the people are so guilty. This is what the verse as the top hints at.

From the religious point of view, suppression is the very breath of life for moral life. If our passions get out of our control, we involve ourselves in crime or social offences. This is witnessed not only by God, but also by His creatures, human beings, and we receive condign punishment. But if we conceal them within our hearts for fear of punishment or public obloquy without spiritually recognising the illegality or wrongfulness of such desires and urges, an act called tauba and istighfar in the terminology of Islam, and repentance in other religions, in other words, if we do not root out such desires with reference to the spiritual censorship of God, the suppression tends to sink under the surface of the mind and becomes a part of our subconscious mind and as such a source of undetected irritation to our whole being. This is the direct punishment of God, hidden from human eye, but all the more fearful in its consequences. Repentance and the surrender of our whole being before God in utter humility are the only way of escaping from such potential maladies.

Of all methods of sublimation, this is the only one that is really effective, reaching as it does the very root of the trouble. Humanity must give it a trial if it wants to emerge from the present cataclysm.