Lacan on Religion

In the beginning was the Word’ and the Word was the signifier 


File:Jaques Lacan.jpg - Wikimedia Commons


Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) was born in Paris to Roman Catholic parents. After earning his medical degree, Lacan was trained as a psychoanalyst. His relationship with the Société psychanalytique de Paris turned sour, as a result, he started his own weekly seminars. After Freud, Lacan is considered to be “the most important theoretician of psychoanalysis.”[1] Lacan’s influence, notes Sean Homer, goes “beyond the confines of the consulting room”.[2]  He wrote endlessly on the topics of culture, ethics, philosophy, and sexuality.

Despite being an avowed atheist, he remained interested in religion. In one of his lectures, entitled, The Triumph of Religion, Lacan claimed that “religion is invincible”, hence it will triumph over both science and psychoanalysis. [3] This triumph depends on the capacity of relgion to give “meaning” to absolutely anything whatsoever. Including human life, Lacan claims, that religion will give meaning “to the oddest experiments, the very ones that scientists themselves are just beginning to become anxious about.”[4] Religion, for Lacan, is here to stay. Unlike Freud, who believed that the rise of science would result in the demise of religion, Lacan believed that religion is invincible because it has all the “resources” to address the distressing of the human life.


However, while accepting that religion plays an irreplaceable role in a human subject, Lacan, following Freud, embraced atheism. Although, his atheism, as Dunlap suggests, was more complicated than Freud’s blanket rejection of religion as a cultural illusion: “he was a persistent and very subtle reader of the Bible, of Christian and Jewish theologians, and of scriptures from other traditions.” [5]

Being faithful to his vocation, as a psychoanalyst, Lacan accepted the religious material presented to him – just like analysand would present materials to the analyst – and applied the principles of psychoanalysis to them. He believed that instead of dismissing religious beliefs as illusory, psychoanalysts should pay close attention to the foundational role religion has played in shaping analysands psychological history.

Lacan, however, unlike Freud and Jung, never developed a comprehensive theory of religion, but he continued to situate religious contents in his discourse. He acknowledged the staying power of religion when he reformulated Nietzschean motto God is dead as God is unconscious. While Lacan does not offer a systematic exposition of religion, his claim that God is unconscious offers an insight into his understanding of religion as rooted in the psychoanalytic concept of the unconscious.


Religious Unconsciousness and the Symbolic Order

In the interpretation of dreams, Sigmund Freud demonstrated the manner in which a network of unconnected events is united into “the dream-work”[6]. This network for Freud is the representative of the unconscious where events and memories are repressed. Jacques Lacan linguistically builds on Freud’s ideas.

Drawing on the linguistic theories of Levi-Strauss, Lacan reframes the field of psychoanalysis in the direction of the external social structures of language. For Levi-Strauss, the meaning is not an inherent property; rather it emerges out of a system of differences in symbolic structures designated at the level of the unconscious: “Structural linguistics shifts from the study of conscious linguistic phenomenon to the study of their unconscious infrastructure.” [7] Levi-Strauss’s insights offered Lacan hermeneutical optics to see that society is in fact structured like a language at the level of its unconscious. As a result, In the Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan claims that “the unconscious is structured like a language.”[8]


The claim that the unconscious is structured like a language is one of Lacan’s central theories, and according to Homer, his most influential contribution to psychoanalysis.[9] Lacan’s account of the unconscious is different from both Freud and Jung. For Freud, the unconscious is dark memories buried deep within the psyche containing repressed content.

On the other hand, Jung defines it as collective unconscious where the repository reservoir of universal images and archetypes reside. Lacan lacked any patience for the Jungian unconscious; he commented: “[unconscious] is not the locus of the divinities of night….but the fact that Jung provides a link with the terms of the romantic unconscious should have been repudiated by Freud”.[10] In contrast to both Jung and Freud, the Lacanian unconscious is like a language, out there, concealed within the very words one uses. As Marcus pound puts it, “The unconscious operates as a thief who hides a diamond in a chandelier.[11]



Lacanian unconscious breaks into the symbolic through a gap between the signifier and the signified, and through Lacan’s refiguring of Saussure’s linguistic formula. In Ecrits, Lacan notes that for Saussure, the signifier – the representation of the concept or image – always sits beneath the signified – the concept or image.[12] Saussure insisted that language is more than simply terms corresponding to a set of pre-existing phenomena, instead language is a system of signs that point directly to the objects in the world.

Saussure notes the inherent subjectivity of the language, for example, “if I speak the word ‘tree’ or ‘chair’ we will all immediately conjure up conceptions of trees or chairs, but these images do not actually refer to a specific tree of chair in the material world.”[13] In this sense, the word tree points to not a specific object but the concept or the image of the tree. Saussure’s formula, then, consist of signifier – written words and sound pattern – and the signified – the concept. In Saussurean theory, the signified – concept – takes the primacy and sit above the signifier – written word.

The relationship between the signifier and the signified is determined by their symbolic relations. In other words, the meaning of a sign or a word is dependent on what it anticipates. As Lacan puts it: “for the signifier, by its very nature, always anticipates meaning by deploying its dimension in some sense before it….“I’ll never…,” “The fact remains…,” “Still perhaps…””[14] Secondly, meaning is determined by what is excluded when a word is said, “For example, I may say ‘chair’ rather than ‘throne’ or ‘armchair’.”[15]  In the Saussurean theory, the signifier and signified, although arbitrary, are two sides of the same coin, joined together by a bar signified/signifier.


Lacan accepts Saussure’s theory but adds a new dimension to it. He inverts Saussure’s formula, from signified/signifier, to signifier/signified, claiming: “Such are the structural conditions that define the order of the signifier’s constitutive encroachments up to the unit immediately above the sentence as grammar[16]

For Lacan, it is the signifier, not the signified, that constitute the linguistic structure. The concepts do not precede words, rather words – the signifier determines the concept – the signified. To use Lacan’s example from Ecrits, the signifier is an inscription above the door – “Ladies” or “Gentlemen” – as the subject looks at the inscription a meaning conferred upon her within the system of difference.[17]

Lacan is with Saussure that language precedes the human subject. However, the premise has changed. For him the signifier –  unconscious word formerly repressed in the Saussurean theory – comes to the fore, sitting above the signified. As Homer points out, Saussure revealed there is an inherent structure that governs us, Lacan showed that structure is the unconscious. The mechanism through which it happens is found in Lacan’s engagement with Roman Jakobson work on speech disorder.


In addition to reconfiguring the Saussurean theory, Lacan delves into Roman Jakobson’s work, who used Saussure’s idea of the signified/signifier to offer his own account of metaphor and metonymy. Both metaphor and metonymy, in Jakobson work, is related to speech disorder: similarity disorder and contiguity disorder.[18]

In contiguity disorder, the patient is unable to combine words together in a coherent manner relies on metaphors, an expression to address a phenomenon indirectly. In the similarity disorder, the patient can form a complete sentence if the context is given, for example, to form a sentence “it’s raining,” it should actually be raining for the patient to form the sentence.[19] Jakobson concluded that “competition between both devices, metonymic and metaphoric is manifest in ….the structures of dreams”.[20]


For Lacan Jakobson’s structural model is complementary to Freudian dream-work where the repressed content of the unconscious is manifested in condensation and displacement.[21] In the Freudian sense, condensation is an image or an idea within dream representing an associative chain of ideas.[22]

In the linguistic sense, Lacan claims, just like in condensation an image within a dream represents more images, in other words, image for image, so “One word for another: this is the formula for metaphor”.[23] Condensation, Lacan claims, “is the superimposed structure of signifiers in which metaphor find its field”[24].  On the other hand, for Freud, displacement meant the process in which meaning is transferred from one to another[25], for example, fear of mother is transferred onto fear of cat.

In the linguistic sense, for Lacan, just as in displacement one meaning is – mistakenly- applied to another, so in metonymy, one word can be applied to another word, or in Lacan’s word: “metonymy is based on the word-to-word”[26]. For example, one says ‘pastor’ for the position of the church leader or ‘academic’ for the position of the university lecturer. For Lacan, psychological realities coincide with the linguistic structure. On the basis of Jakobson’s insight, Lacan argues that the process of condensation and displacement through which unconscious is made manifest depend on the linguistic structure of metonymy and metaphor.


Applying linguistic structure to the process of dream-work enables Lacan to unearth the unconscious, and cement it into the structure of language. For Lacan, one’s most profound secret and desires are present in the structure of the language. There is nothing hidden beneath the language, rather repressed contents are hidden within the structure of the language.  Unconscious, in this sense, is not a hidden deeper layer of the psyche as in Freud and Jung. Instead, the unconscious is like a diamond hiding in the chandelier, hidden in the plain sight.


In Theology, Psychoanalysis and Trauma Marcus Pound notes that Lacan’s underpinning of the unconscious within the structure of the language has a tremendous bearing on his understanding of religion.[27] For Pound, it is most evident in Lacan’s treatment of Freud’s Oedipal complex.

In Freudian theory, the Oedipal complex signifies the Child’s desire for the mother, as well as the father who stands in opposition the child’s desire. The father stands between the mother and the child as a prohibition against incest. The presence of the father signifies, for the child, the need for drive renunciation.

Lacan sees the Oedipal complex as a story that symbolizes one’s entry into language. The central concern for Lacan is the “Name-of-the-father [Nom-du-Pere]”[28].  In French Nom-du-Pere is a pun. Both name and no are pronounced ‘nom’. Nom-du-Pere, then, has a double meaning, it could mean the literal name of the father along with all the prohibitions he represents. And it could mean literal no, which belongs to the mother’s speech when she says, “What until your father gets home!”. Thus, it designates mother’s authority which is in fact grounded in the Name-of-the-father, i.e., in the authority of the father. Therefore, Lacan emphasizes that prohibition ‘No’ occurs with language, that is, a name; but he also points out the blessing, “In the name of the Father,” acknowledging that just as the words of blessing inaugurates a particular space, so does the name of the father demands that we submit to the collective ritual of language.[29] Discerning the religious tone in Lacan’s argument, Marcus Pound suggest that, Lacan elevates language to the level of religion. Pound’s suggestion could be justified, especially, when putting two of the well-known insights of Lacan side by side.


The unconscious is structured like a language[30]

God is unconscious[31]


If the unconscious is structured like a language, and as Lacan suggests, that God is unconscious, then the function of language is closely associated with the function of religion.

Yet, how does language functions? What kind of organizing principles emerges out of language? Moreover, what does it mean to say that God is unconscious? To answer these questions, I turn to Lacanian symbolic order.


For Lacan, entry into language is an entry into the symbolic order. Under the influence of Levi-Strauss, Lacan sees that societal relations are ensemble by the symbolic system such as language. Pointing to Levi-Strauss’s La Pensee Sauvage, Lacan states that, “Before any experience, before any individual deduction, even before those collective experiences that may be related to only social needs are inscribed in it, something organizes this field, inscribes its initial force of”[32]

For Lacan, before any relation is established, certain relations already preexist. These relations are determined by the signifier – word – which takes primacy over the signified. It is the word or language, through the unconscious mechanism, organizes human relations. It is this linguistic structure, Lacan claims, that underpins the unconscious, making it accessible in the symbolic order.[33] Just like signifier precedes the signified so too the symbolic order precede human relations. This is why Lacan speaks of the unconscious as “the discourse of the Other”.

The lower case ‘other’ for Lacan refers to the ego. The big ‘Other’, on the other hand, is the symbolic order that determines human subjectivity. Since language is the fundamental organizing principle, it is the big “Other”, hence the symbolic order. As Homer puts it, “the big Other is language, the symbolic order”. Language as big Other, underpins the pre-existing network. Human ego, the lower case ‘other,’ is determined and irreducibly regulated by the big Other. Any sense of freedom is only an illusion, in reality, it is the big Other that enjoys true freedom. The unconscious that works through linguistic big Other is beyond our control, for, “it is the language that speaks through us rather than the language we speak.” Hence, for Lacan, the unconscious is the discourse of the Other or the big Other.[34]


The Lacanian dictum that God is unconscious means that God, like the unconscious, is structured like a language. And, like language, God becomes the organizing principle, the big Other that structures and shapes human subjectivity at the symbolic level. In How to Read Lacan, Slavoj Zizek, Lacanian analyst and expositor, outlines that the “ symbolic space acts like a yardstick against which I can measure myself.” “This is why” he claims, “the big Other can be personified or reified in a single agent: the ‘God’ who watches over me from beyond….or the cause that involves me (Freedom, Communism, Nation) and for which I am ready to give my life.”[35] This drive toward a single agent or the big Other, signifies the principle of monotheism which represent a unified center of truth, producing belief that there exists an agent, the Other, capable of organizing, and even meeting one’s desires.  This principle of monotheism emerges in the authoritative function of the father, Lacan states: “It is in the name of the father that we must recognize the basis of the symbolic function which, since the dawn of historical time, has identified his person with the figure of the law.”[36] The father stands for the law or the principle of monotheism, who governs through the means of the prohibition of the child’s incestual desires. It is this underlying monotheistic principal, of the pre-existing law of the big Other into which the subject is born, leads Lacan to conclude that God is not dead but unconscious. It is Lacan’s understanding of unconscious is structured like a language that provides the frame to see God as, not dead, but unconscious. The function of God, for Lacan, is similar to the function of language, a big Other to which we collectively submit. This why Marcus Pound states that “Lacan reduces religion to language” but “he also raises language to the level of the religious.[37] Thus, “In the beginning was the Word,”[38] the signifier.



For Freud, religion simultaneously originates from and responds to infantile experiences by projecting the deep-seated unconscious conflicts. The outcome of this conflict is the belief in the omnipotent Deity, who loves us despite being omnipotent. Religion as an obsessional neurosis is rooted in the unconscious conflicts due to which the instinctual desires often break out in the form of neurosis. Religion, like neurosis, emerges in response to this instinctual drive characterised in the Oedipus complex. Both religious beliefs and obsessional neurosis are rooted in the unconscious psychodynamics that goes back to the early stages of psychological development.

For Carl Jung saw religion is rooted in the deeper layer of the unconscious, namely collective unconscious, where the archetypal images are to be discovered. For Jung, the archetypes, narratives, myths, symbols, are the basis of religious experience. Through the participation in the archetype, an individual becomes part of the collective unconscious that transcends social and cultural boundaries.

Contrary to both Freud and Jung the Lacanian unconscious is a linguistic unconscious. Drawing on Levi-Strauss, Saussure, and Jakobson, Lacan unearths the unconscious from the deeper layer of the psyche to the outer surface. The Lacanian conception of the unconscious as a linguistic structure made manifest in the symbolic order as the big Other offers a radically new way to conceive the constitutive dimension of the unconscious. The presence of the unconscious in language functions as a big Other which becomes the sole principal, organising desires and regulating social relations into which human subject enters. Noticing this underlying principle in the language, of the pre-existing law of the big Other leads Lacan to conclude that God is not dead but unconscious. The function of religion, for Lacan, is the same as the function of language. Both religion, monotheistic, and language function to unify human subject in the pre-existing network of signifiers that give meaning to one’s existence. For this reason Lacan is content with the gospel of St John claiming: “In the beginning was the Word”.

[1] Rabatâe, Jean-Michel. The Cambridge companion to Lacan. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pg.xi

[2] Homer, Sean. Jacques Lacan. London: Routledge, 2005. Pg.1.

[3] Lacan, Jacques. The triumph of religion preceded by Discourse to Catholics. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2013. PDF. Pg.64.

[4] Lacan, Jacques. The triumph of religion preceded by Discourse to Catholics. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2013. PDF. Pg.65.

[5] Dunlap, Aron. Lacan and religion. Bristol: Acumen Pub Ltd, 2014. Pg.2.

[6] Freud, Sigmund. The interpretation of dreams. New York: Basic Books, 2010. Translated by James Strachey. Pg.128-149


[7] Pound, Marcus. Theology, psychoanalysis, Trauma. London: SCM Press, 2007. Pg.33.

[8] Lacan, Jacques, Jacques-Alain Miller, and Alan Sheridan. The four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998. Pg.20.

[9] Homer, Sean. Jacques Lacan. London: Routledge, 2005. Pg.68

[10] Lacan, Jacques, Jacques-Alain Miller, and Alan Sheridan. The four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998. Pg.24

[11] Pound, Marcus. Zizek: a (very) critical introduction. Grand Rapids (Michigan): Eerdmans, 2008. Pg. 10

[12] Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English. S.l.: WW Norton & Co, 2006. Pg. 425

[13] Homer, Sean. Jacques Lacan. London: Routledge, 2005. Pg.38

[14] Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English. S.l.: WW Norton & Co, 2006. Pg.419

[15] Homer, Sean. Jacques Lacan. London: Routledge, 2005. Pg.39

[16] Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English. S.l.: WW Norton & Co, 2006. Pg.418

[17] Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English. S.l.: WW Norton & Co, 2006. Pg.417

[18] Pound, Marcus. Theology, psychoanalysis, Trauma. London: SCM Press, 2007. Pg.37

[19] Ibid, 37

[20] Ibid, 38

[21] Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English. S.l.: WW Norton & Co, 2006. Pg.425

[22] Pound, Marcus. Theology, psychoanalysis, Trauma. London: SCM Press, 2007. Pg.38

[23] Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English. S.l.: WW Norton & Co, 2006. Pg.422

[24] Ibid, 425

[25] Pound, Marcus. Theology, psychoanalysis, Trauma. London: SCM Press, 2007. Pg.38

[26] Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English. S.l.: WW Norton & Co, 2006. Pg.421

[27]Pound, Marcus. Theology, psychoanalysis, Trauma. London: SCM Press, 2007. Pg.40

[28] Ibid, Pg. 40

[29] Ibid, 9

[30] Lacan, Jacques, Jacques-Alain Miller, and Alan Sheridan. The four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998. Pg.20

[31] Ibid, 59

[32] Lacan, Jacques, Jacques-Alain Miller, and Alan Sheridan. The four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998. Pg. 20

[33] Ibid, 21

[34] Homer, Sean. Jacques Lacan. London: Routledge, 2005. Pg.44

[35] Žižek, Slavoj. How to Read Lacan. London: Granta, 2006. Pg.9

[36] Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English. S.l.: WW Norton & Co, 2006. Pg.230

[37] Pound, Marcus. Theology, psychoanalysis, Trauma. London: SCM Press, 2007. Pg.9

[38] John 1:1, see


One thought on “Lacan on Religion

  1. I have found this article to be most intersting. Thank you very much for your writings. I am planning to study your article in a deeper way.


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