March 18, 2021

Some sermons fall to their death on the church floor. Others stay on in the memory for a long time afterwards. This one, from decades ago, remains with me, as emotionally vivid as the day it was preached. The priest was gay, but had long struggled to reconcile his sexual desire with the church’s historic teaching on homosexuality. So, as a young man, he sought out conversion therapy in the form of electrical aversion therapy. And understandably frightened at the prospect of being held down and given electric shocks he would down several G&Ts prior to treatment. “I’m still gay,” he explained “but I now hate the taste of gin”.

The practice of conversion therapy was overwhelmingly renounced by The Church of England in the summer of 2017. Leading the debate in the General Synod, Jayne Ozanne, described the breakdowns she had suffered as a result of it, of the periods she would spend in hospital. Conversion therapy, she said, is “abuse from which vulnerable adults need protecting”. The Church agreed.

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Four years on and the Government says it is going to bring forward plans to ban conversion therapy “shortly” — though last week three members of the Government’s LGBT+ advisors panel resigned because it wasn’t happening soon enough. But notwithstanding this slowness, and despite objections from the Evangelical Alliance, a ban is coming. And a good thing too. Conversion therapy combines quack science with homophobic bullying — and the sooner it goes, the better.

It is interesting that what makes conversion therapy so unpalatable to many is not just that it originates in a negative judgment on homosexuality, but also because the whole history of conversion can feel like a kind of violence committed against the integrity of other people. There’s the forced conversions of Jews to Christianity in the middle ages and — despite the Quranic principle that there must be “no compulsion in religion” — of non-Muslims to Islam in places such as Egypt and Pakistan. It feels like a fundamental breach of the idea that we ought to respect the integrity of the other, and of their beliefs.

But perhaps it’s not quite so straightforward. That’s certainly what a new book by Adam Phillips On Wanting to Change suggests, by offering the perspective of a psychoanalyst. For psychoanalysis — perhaps surprisingly, given Freud’s Jewishness — was invented as a kind of conversion therapy. So, for instance, in an early paper “The Neuro-Psychosis of Defence” (1894), Freud writes: “In hysteria the incompatible idea is rendered innocuous by its sum of excitation being transformed into something somatic. For this I should like to propose the name of conversion.” In other words, what psychoanalysis proposes, at least in this very early stage of its development, is that some deep inner psychological disturbance can be “converted” into a kind of physical expression (“something somatic”) that can thus be more easily managed. As Freud’s colleague Ferenszi wrote in 1912: “The neurotic gets rid of the affects that have become disagreeable to him by means of the different forms of displacement (conversion, transference, substitution).”

Whatever one makes of the difficult ideas that are going on here, it is clear that conversion has an appeal far beyond its employment by religious fundamentalists. Indeed, as Phillips notes, it can be seen as a part of the much wider, and increasingly secular, language of change and personal development that has become something of an industry among those who offer to help people address the things that make them unhappy. But what, Phillips asks, is conversion seen as an answer to here? What is it attempting to put right?

Conversion, Phillips proposes, is the offer of a life without complexity. What it is attempting to put right is the feeling that our life is somehow divided against itself. Early on, for instance, we develop deeply ambivalent feelings about those who care for us — our mothers especially. As a child, we are not in control of the sources of our own satisfaction. We rely on another for warmth, shelter, food and love. This reliance is both craved and resented — resented, because when it is not available on demand, we find ourselves furious at our need for another. Hence toddler tantrums.

At least in its most unreflective form, conversion is an attempt to rid one’s inner life of ambivalence — the idea that we can love something and resent something at the same time. As Kierkegaard put it: “Purity of heart is to will one thing”. The offer being held out by conversion is that there exists some way of being in the world that will quell one’s inner divisions. If only you became straight, if only you became a Christian, if only you could see the wisdom of socialism, then all your inner conflicts would fall away. Conversion is the promise of an inner unity built around some single guiding principle. It is the promise of peace.

But conversion is the promise of peace in just the same way that imperialism can also see itself as the promise of peace – of diverse peoples all united under a single form of government. Indeed, imperialism is the political version of conversion – and it can involve violence in just the same way, quashing difference in the name of some fully integrated vision of human togetherness. Indeed, you could pretty much say that “purity of heart is to will one thing” represents the spiritual origins of fascism.

Surely, though, there must be such a thing as “good conversion”? Isn’t that what debate is all about? Conversation? Of course, I want you to change your mind — about politics, about religion and so on. I just want you to see things from my point of view. Of course this must be done “without compulsion” — and compulsion can take many forms, including psychological bullying. But is the attempt to convert necessarily abusive, in and of itself? This is much more tricky.

Part of what Adam Phillips is doing in his book is to defend a version of analytic practise that is not in hoc to a conversion fantasy of release from complexity. And I would want to do the same with religion too. As Rowan Williams says about the difference between good and bad religion: “One of the tests of actual faith, as opposed to bad religion, is whether it stops you ignoring things.” Faith “is most fully itself and most fully life-giving when it opens your eyes and uncovers for you a world larger than you thought — and, of course, therefore, a world that is a bit more alarming than you ever thought”.

So the difference between good conversion and bad conversion is all about how much reality it allows you to suck up and deal with. Does it collapse your world so as to make things more psychically comfortable, or does it expand it, with all the dissonances that this may involve?

Indeed, part of the problem for many therapists is that the release from “alarming” complexity is often what their clients are seeking from them. To be a priest is often to be the object of very similar expectations. Indeed, when people say things like “I envy you, your faith. It must make life so much more straightforward” it says a lot more about them than it does about faith itself.

So while I absolutely believe we need to defend gay people from spiritual abuse, I fear we have now so taken against the idea of conversion, even non-coercive conversion, that we fail to recognise we are all at it.

Freud tells the story of a priest who is called to the deathbed of an atheistic insurance salesman. After an hour or so, the priest comes out of the bedroom, having failed to convert him. But the priest is now fully insured. It’s a great story. And the moral is clear: everyone is selling something.