A baseline description of religion is offered by Jungian psychologist Marie-Louise Von Franz in her essay “The Bremen Town Musicians.” Her work on fairy tales and their universality is a trove of ideas and information, and in this essay one finds, almost in passing, this discussion of religion:
The primordial connection of image and instinct … explains the bond between instinct and religion in the widest sense. “Religion” on the most primitive level signifies the psychic regulatory system that relates to the dynamism of the drive.
Religion is the cultural product of human observation of the universe and its wonders, terrors, mysteries, sources of fear, recognition of cycles (birth and death, seasons, light and dark, etc.). Consciousness brings these observations directly into the instincts and emotions, into the psyche.
These images or impressions evoke seamless functionality in animals, what we call instinct. Little regulation is needed, and thus we wonder at how little instruction a newborn animal requires from its mother. Not so the human being, whose consciousness quickly opens the gulf between image or instinct, and mind, reflection, and consciousness. The wonder at the environment and self become layers of conflicting emotions, products of the interaction taken by us and sifted by the mind to make a meaningful narrative of reality.
This search for meaning is only a search for harmony with this environment, a search to reconcile mind and instinct. But as environment grows complex, the tools of the mind are easily outstripped. Positive socialization can help guide a child to harmony. The fairy tales present to children essential images, symbols, and emotional undercurrents. They make order out of environment and universe without heavy-handedness. Would that fairy tales were in every child’s hands!
Religion means the “psychic regulatory system” in this very basic sense of providing a child with social and mental images and emotional experiences that will allow the child to prosper, to allow the child to achieve the tools for reconciliation, for harmony of self and environment. Von Franz wisely begins at the beginning, as do Jungian and other psychological schools, in accounting for the functions of the mind, and looking to psychic harmony as the tacit aspiration of the self.
Extrapolating, then, one might say that “religion” is successful to the degree that it services the regulatory function of the psyche. Jung identified the archetypes that reflect pivotal aspects of universal thought and sentiment specifically as points of encounter for the self in the quest for harmony. Failing to incorporate within the psyche these pivotal points, these bundles of psychic energy, results in neuroses, or worse. Adjusting to society is not the goal of Jungian psychology, it is self-actualization, self-realization, which in turn allows the individual to rightly place environment and emotions into their right context, their regulated context. This process, and its final product, is a form of primordial “religion.”
In civilizations, chaos arises when the energies represented by the archetypes are ignored, subverted, overthrown, denied, assaulted, or dismissed. This is not to say that there is never a universal “discontent” with civilization but crafty and worldly-wise rulers give their populace surrogate symbols on which to masticate. In the full sense of civilization or culture, the collective structures, the outward constructs of power and authority, fail to reconcile the least sensitive individuals to their selfhood. The goal is, rather, to reconcile the individuals to the structures. By society’s standards, failing that reconciliation means alienation, and the regulatory function is itself alienating and injurious. The regulatory function, however, is then false or traitorous, for it no longer intends to reconcile environment and self, instinct and mind. Thus Von Franz continues:
On the higher level, to be sure, this primordial bond is often lost, and then religion easily becomes a poison counteracting the drive, and in this way the original relationship of mutual compensation degenerates into the well-known conflict between mind and instinct.
Note that the conflict is brought about by the artificial imposition of a system that would disrupt the harmony within, yet promote an outward harmony. All children will experience conflict with parents, peers, other adults, authority figures beyond their circle. This will be part of the inevitable maturation process. At each point, these conflictors can conceivably serve to promote inner harmony rather than exacerbate conflict. But competition, rivalry, jealousy — in short, survival instincts — will thow consciousness into conflict with instincts, and the primordial drives will be channeled not into creativity but into conflict with others, let alone with self. The individual will have to become neurotic in order to become socially functional. Von Franz describes all this briefly:
Initially of course people degenerate and fall into conflict with their true nature. They forget their origins, and their consciousness behaves in an autocratic manner that is antagonistic to the instincts.
But somehow we survive childhood, and bear with society. For the conflict, the split between mind and instinct, is not absolute, Von Franz notes:
Such a split is by no means just an accident and a senseless catastrophe; rather it contributes toward the broadening and further differentiation of human consciousness. In other words, if the conflict reaches a certain unbearable intensity, the unconscious instigates a new reconciliation between instinct and mind by producing symbols that reconcile the opposites.
And herein lies the genius of the fairy tale — and “fairy tales” for adults as literary, visual, and aural art. The fairy tale presents us with constant conflict of epochal dimensions — or apparently mundane dimensions made complex by instincts — and brings us refreshing symbols to absorb and concentrate the energies of the given conflict. The reader or listener can then address not the conflict but the symbol, not the dysfunction but the harmony, not the tenets of a “religion” but the psychic regulatory function that only the symbols provide. The symbols are receptacles of primordial and complex emotions and instincts. They constitute “civilization” in its best sense.
Fairy tales, like dreams, are beyond logical deconstruction. Logical arts are in this realm not efficacious. “Religion” is a psychical function that projects consciousness to its furthest extension while safeguarding the weakness within of mind and thought and emotion. If we find our “way” successfully through what is represented as archetypes, what is projected by our psyche as essential symbols, then the externals of “religion” ultimately withdraw themselves, not longer needed, like the finger pointing to the moon.