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I picked up a copy of Julia Kristeva’s recent little book on faith, This Incredible Need to Believe (October 2009) at Melbourne’s wonderful bookstore, Readings (on Lygon Street). Through the lens of psychoanalysis, she attempts to answer that gargantuan yet pressing question of how a secular society can justifiably defend religious or moral foundations, without being trapped into either an adolescent fundamentalism or equally adolescent nihilism.

“This annihilation of divine authority and, along with it, any other authority, state or political, does not necessarily lead to nihilism. Nor to its symmetrical opposite, which is fundamentalism up in arms against impiety: in making the divine a value, even the “supreme value,” the transcendentalists link up with nihilistic utilitarianism. But how to know this today without deluding oneself with a narrowly rationalist humanism or a romantic spirituality?”

Indeed, how to know this without deluding oneself? Kristeva’s essential answer is that understanding ourselves – in particular our basic psychic makeup, as revealed by psychoanalysis – reveals  necessary psychic beliefs and morality. So with recourse to these psychic needs, secular society can defend morality while avoiding a return to the irrationality of religion (“very often in bastardized (sects) or fundamentalist… forms”) or the emptiness of nihilism.

But a problem seems to remain with her ‘solution’ . For, at most – and if we accept her psychoanalytical reasoning for a moment – if we have psychic needs which underpin faith and morality, this only leads to the conclusion that there is a psychological necessity for some form of morality. But the ‘problem’ faced is rather different: secularity is unable to provide an ultimate basis for any particular moral standpoint. And this particular ‘problem’ cannot be overcome by any psychic necessity. This involves the illicit progression from a descriptive to a prescriptive. More concretely, Kristeva’s solution does not allow us to judge between the ethical standpoints of Wahhabism, Nazism, or the new humanism which she herself expounds. It is no wonder, then, that liberal humanism only flourishes in police states, where violent force rather than psychic necessity dictates the acceptable form of ethics.

Although her main thesis fails, it is an interesting read; for example, check her discussion of adolescence, some of which is available in this excerpt:

“The Judeo-Christian paradise is an adolescent creation: the adolescent takes pleasure in the syndrome of paradise, which may also become a source of suffering, if absolute ideality takes a turn toward cruel persecution. Since he believes that the other, surpassing the parental other, not only exists but that he/she gives him total satisfaction, the adolescent believes that the Great Other exists, which is bliss [jouissance] itself. The least disappointment in this syndrome of ideality hurls him into paradise’s ruins, in the form of punitive behavior… The innocence of the child gives way to necessarily sadomasochistic satisfactions that draw their violence from the very strictures of the ideality syndrome, which command the adolescent: ‘Your pleasure shall have no bounds!'”

I read This Incredible Need to Believe on the long plane trip back to Dunedin from Melbourne, along with a new novel by Don DeLillo, Point Omega.

I’m wondering how Kristeva distinguishes the “bastardized” religious sects from the more legitimate (and presumably pure) religions…

– Deane Galbraith