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Feminism, Religion and Therapy

By Mary Condren

… I felt that faith could be described, perhaps rather simplistically, as what can only be called a primary identification with a loving and protective agency. Overcoming the notion of irredeemable separation, Western Man, using ‘semiotic’ rather than ‘symbolic’ means, re-establishes a continuity or fusion with an order that is no longer substantial and maternal but symbolic and paternal.¹

God is Dead

For some time now it has appeared that religion and therapy often occupied mutually exclusive fields: the scenario went that eventually Freud and his followers would replace the pope and his acolytes; the couch, the confess­ional. Underlying this admitted caricature might have been the general opti­mism that pervaded the ‘sixties and post-sixties generations: rationality would replace illusion; knowledge would lead, if not to virtue, at least to choice. Even the theologians cried out, ‘God is dead,’ and all that remained would be to decide who or what might take his place.

St. Anne

As we incline toward the third millennium our intellectual climate has changed. We now have the situation where therapists move into the arena of ritual, and psychoanalysts such as Luce Irigaray call for the re-instatement of St. Anne to provide at least one enabling mother/daughter relationship in the pantheon of cultural representation. Transpersonal psychologists ask questions as to what the symbols, theologies, language, claims, mythologies and rituals of religion refer? Are they simply collective of subjective illus­ions, or does the universality, if not of the form, but of the quest itself, at least hint at a more enduring reality?

The study of religion has also undergone a rapid sea-change attributable to many factors – not least among them the threat of nuclear destruction. Coming from one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world, this threat has radically shattered theological confidence.

Politics of Truth

Where once theologians occupied themselves establishing or discussing the ‘metaphysical proofs for the existence of God’ or latterly disparaging that quest, now, the luxury of either of those positions has been abandoned. The question of establishing the existence of the ontological referent (usually known as God) has given way to new questions: not an ontology of truth, but the ‘politics’ of truth are at issue.

Patriarchal Religion

How could the stories, philosophies, symbols, and mythologies of Western Culture have led us logically to a nuclear scenario? And while some theol­ogy or religious studies departments occupy themselves attempting to estab­lish that the message of Jesus has been ‘mistranslated’ or ‘misunderstood’ (as no doubt it has) nevertheless, the general thrust now is to examine, along with the ‘truth’ claims of the tradition, the actual effects of two thousand years of patriarchal religion.

Feminist Religious Theory

One of the biggest challenges to a theological world view has been the development of feminist religious theory. Whereas in the early days of fem­inism women might have campaigned for equal opportunity in the church (and some still do), this position is rapidly giving way to a profound critique of the institutions themselves. What has been their role in establishing and maintaining patriarchal symbols, mythologies, and structures in which male dominance is divinely sanctioned and eternally guaranteed?

Is it enough to campaign for equality or must we engage in a far reaching critique of the positioning of women in what Julia Kristeva has termed ‘the sacrificial social contract’?


Central to this critique is the awareness of how the realms of religion, the sacred, have been used and colonised in the service of the patriarchal status quo. As contemporary theorists note, the sacred/profane oppositions are mutually dependent – neither can be explained without reference to the other. The sacred is what is not profane: the profane is everything that excludes the sacred. The rituals cleansing the devotees of defilement play a crucial part in this process. Women’s bodies – mucus, menstrual blood -reminders of maternal dependence are especially polluting. Indeed, women occupy the place of the profane, the realm of abjection, and it could be argued that the realm of the sacred has been established at women’s expense.

Bearers of Pollution

Maintaining the distinction between the sacred and the profane requires seri­ous work and generally takes place in the interests of the powerful, the guardians of the sacred. As Kristeva argues, religion often serves to structure the individual’s place symbolically in the social order. Not surprisingly, women, the bearers of pollution, in these religious economies, cannot be priests. In the West where gender binary arrangements seek to be main­tained, the function of these religious rituals, according to Kristeva is ‘to ward off the subject’s fear of his very own identity sinking irretrievably into the mother.’2

The sacrificial social order established by such religious rites and their contemporary equivalents needs to be seriously challenged. In particular, theologians are asking how they might have contributed, not only to the sub­ordination of women, but also to the cultural disparagement of nature in favour of spirit, or of particularity in favour of a mythical common good.

Unified Self

If the world of religion has changed radically, so too the implicit optimism of some forms of therapy has been seriously challenged. At a macro level, the rise of retrograde nationalism, the incipient fascism underlying certain social formations radically challenges the myth of the possibility of a unified sub­ject/self. Far from acting rationally or consistently, or even in their own best interests, individuals struggle constantly to establish their individual or group identities. These identities are far from being permanently established. They can be threatened by foreigners, outsiders, sexual or religious minori­ties, any of which can become the scapegoats for the individual’s own strug­gle against negativity and toward a secure identity. Indeed, this quest takes on pathological proportions, often exacerbated by the demise of or threat to a religious world-view.

At a micro level, the optimism inherent in the quest for sexual and per­sonal liberation has given way rapidly to concerns about the feminisation of poverty, the levels of violence against women, and especially the prolifera­tion of pornography, the latter arguably filling the void left following the demise of religious forms of regression.

In a nuclear world, therefore, the naivete of both religious and secular ideologies and mythologies must be subject to scrutiny. Chief among them are the myths of demystification which, in the words of Rene Girard, ‘cling to the great collective myth and draw nourishment from it, rather like worms feeding on a corpse.’3

Wings of Science

As Girard goes on to argue, whereas traditionally theology might have posed the question; ‘why does God permit such evil?’, now the respons­ibility for destructive ideologies and practices must be placed back in the human community, and particularly with the inherently differential and violent process of community formation. ‘Absolute vengeance, formerly the prerogative of the gods, now returns, precisely weighed and calibrated, on the wings of science.’4


In the nuclear world one could do worse than to attempt to forge new links between professionals engaged in both religion and therapy. There are already many overlapping areas. For instance, the concerns expressed by Lacanians and others about ego-psychology bear striking parallels to a ten­sion in religion. Should the dominant concern be priestly or prophetic – the upholding or subversion of the social order – the adaptation of the client, or the freeing of the subject into new and undreamt of possibilities?


The old prophets cried out in the words of Yahweh: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ This cry has largely been ignored in the western religious tradi­tion. Sacrifice has hardly disappeared with the demise of a medieval world-view, or through wishful thinking. Given the awareness of the rootedness of specific religious forms and rites in the psychic and cultural histories of individuals and cultures, how might we now identify and deconstruct the contemporary form that sacrifice takes, for instance, pornography, violence or war?

In these new links to be forged between critical religious studies and the therapeutic professions, the following questions might begin to be framed. With the demise of a religious world-view what has happened to the tradi­tional religious ‘containers’ for paranoia or hysteria, and what social or individual forms might they now take?

If indeed, as Kristeva argues in our epigraph, patriarchal forms have rejected the ‘substantial and maternal’ in favour of the ‘symbolic and patern­al’ and in the light of the nuclear world based on the sacrificial social con­tract, a feminist perspective must surely raise questions about the need for radical interference at the level of the symbolic as well as the social order.

Given what we now know about the dialectical relationship that exists between symbolism and drive energy, how might we develop enabling forms of representation, (symbols, myths, stories, images), that will serve to empower rather than to repress?

How might it be possible to develop collective as well as individual means of healing forms of regression with an explicit ethical focus thereby refusing to capitulate to secular myths of neutrality, but without devising new forms of social or individual control? In particular, how can we develop paradigms of identity that are inclusive and satisfying, and that do not require a sacrificial scapegoat for their maintenance?


On the face of it, this approach to religion, if not to therapy, might appear to be unduly cynical, if not manipulative. Ironically, however, conservative and fascist forces have little difficulty with active intervention at the level of the social imagery for the sake of their particular agendas. How can we explain the reticence of those in the humanistic disciplines?

Ethical Commitment

What might distinguish a theological form of therapeutic approach, there­fore, is an explicit ethical commitment often framed within, but not confined to the parameters of an existing religious tradition, critically appropriated. This ethical commitment is at a social as well as an individual level and often comes complete with its own stories, myths and symbols.

While one might take issue with particular religious traditions, theol­ogians have long been engaged in the science of hermeneutics: the issues are complex, but most are now agreed that neutrality is the stance of the power­ful – those who have no axe to grind because they like things the way they are.


No doubt therapists also operate within ethical frameworks but perhaps these now need to be theorised and made more explicit. The failure to do so might indeed conceal an active, if unconscious compliance and collusion with the needs of the advanced individualism of contemporary capitalism. It would certainly be an ironic turn-round from the ‘sixties’ if today’s thera­pists became the high-priests of the nuclear order, rather that prophets leading us toward a new future.


1. Kristeva, In the Beginning Was Love p. 24.
2. Kristeva, Powers of Horror p. 64.
3. Girard, Violence and the Sacred p. 206.
4. Girard, Violence and the Sacred p. 140.


Crownfield, David. Body/Text in Julia Kristeva: Religion, Women and Psychoanalysis New York: State University of New York Press 1992.

Girard, Rene. La Violence et le Sacre (Paris Editions Bernard Grasset 1972). Trans. Patrick Gregory as Violence and the Sacred Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press 1977.

Irigaray, Luce Sexes et Parentes (Paris: Minuit, 1987). Trans. Gillian C. Gill as Sexes and Genealogies New York Columbia Press 1993.

Kristeva, Julia. Pouvoirs de I’Horreur (Paris: Seuil, 1980). Trans. Loen Roudiez as Powers of Horror New York: Columbia University Press 1982.

Kristevea, Julia. ‘Woman’s Time’ in The Kristeva Reader ed. Toril Moi. New York: Columbia University Press 1986 (187-213).

Kristeva, Julia. Au Commencement etait l’amour (Paris: Hachette 1985) Trans. Arthur Goldhammer, Intro. Otto F. Kernberg, as In the Beginning was Love: Psychoanalysis and Faith. New York: Columbia University Press 1987.

Meyers, Diana Tietjens. Subjection & Subjectivity: Psychoanalytic Feminism and Moral Philosophy. London: Routledge 1994.

Mary Condren is Director of the Institute for Feminism and Religion. She can be contacted at 452 1887.

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