An Excess of Excess in Sex and Religion

The Guardian published a fascinating look at the human relationship with excess recently, from psychoanalyst […]

David Zahl / 8.13.09

The Guardian published a fascinating look at the human relationship with excess recently, from psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, entitled “Insatiable Creatures” (ht. A O’Connor). He starts with a general examination the morality and pitfalls of excess, then deals with sexuality at length before ending with religion. He’s particularly interested in what our propensity for excess says about us as creatures, a question that proves to be loaded, by definition, with an excessively unavoidable form of judgment. It’s pretty amusing, to say the least. Obviously we can’t embrace his perspective or his conclusions wholeheartedly, but the honesty is refreshing, and he’s clearly asking the the right questions – excessively so! A few excerpts:

Nothing makes us more disapproving, disgusted, punitive – not to mention fascinated, exhilarated and amazed – than other people’s extravagant appetite for food, or alcohol, or money, or drugs, or violence; nothing makes us more frightened, more furious, more despairing than other people’s extreme commitment to political ideals or religious beliefs. Other people’s excesses disturb us, get us worked up, because they reveal something important to us about ourselves, about our own fears and longings. Indeed other people’s excesses might reveal to us, at its most minimal, that we are, or have become, the excessive animals – the animals for whom excessive behavior is the rule rather than the exception.

The excesses of other people, and of ourselves, can make us think, rather than merely react. Indeed something as powerful as excess might – if we can suspend our fear – allow us to have thoughts we have never had before. After all, inspiration, falling in love, conversion experiences – the most radical transformations that can occur in a life – are traditionally overwhelming, excessive experiences.


Once you begin to imply, as Milton sometimes does in Paradise Lost, that God may be excessively punitive, you put yourself in the odd position of judging God. If we are not believers we are struck by two things; first, that deities seem to be, by definition, excessive – excessively punitive, excessively loving, excessively demanding, and excessively in need of people’s devotion. And second, that religious believers, even moderate ones, seem to have excessive confidence in their gods, and are excessively eager to please them, not to mention excuse their apparent failings. The more extreme skeptics of religion, often in rather patronizing ways, find the whole thing rather childish: as if religious believers – that is, most of the people who have ever lived – are just people who have never got over being frightened of their parents, people who couldn’t bear the thought of losing their parents’ love and protection.

But where do the skeptics get their knowledge of what is excessive from? How does anyone know what too much belief is? Do we believe too much in science now? We call people religious fanatics when they believe things that we don’t, and when they believe things in ways that we don’t. God is not called a religious fanatic by the people who believe in him. Islamic fundamentalists think that we believe too much in democratic freedoms and consumer capitalism; we think they believe too much in Islam. It is the hope of modern liberals that we can all talk about the things that matter most to us without losing our tempers or killing people. Do we believe this too much?

There is, though, a third possibility [for accounting for religious fanaticism], the one that I want to end on because it seems to me potentially the most interesting, though perhaps the most daunting. This is that the religious fanatic is someone for whom something about themselves and their lives is too much; and because not knowing what that is is so disturbing they need to locate it as soon as possible. Because the state of frustration cannot be borne – because it is literally unbearable, as long-term personal and political injustice always is – it requires an extreme solution.

In this account our excessive behavior shows us how obscure we are to ourselves or how we obscure ourselves; how our frustrations, odd as this may seem, are excessively difficult to locate, to formulate. Wherever and whenever we are excessive in our lives it is the sign of an as yet unknown deprivation. Our excesses are the best clue we have to our own poverty, and our best way of concealing it from ourselves.