- Psychoanalysis and Religion in the 21st Century: Competitors or Collaborators?
Say what you will about the differences between psychoanalysis and religion, they are both survivors. Despite being buried time and time again by critics, they are alive and kicking at the start of the twenty-first century, perhaps in part because of the fine line both fields tread between loyalty to tradition and adaptation to an ever-changing present.
The relations between the two have been in flux ever since Freud defined religion as one of the “mass delusions” of humankind (1930, 81) and claimed (1927) that its origins lay in wishful thinking. Did he pinpoint a rift so deep that no passing of time can patch it up? Or have those on both sides of the divide mellowed in their views of each other?
The short answer to these questions is: it depends on whom you ask. For the long answer, try reading this book, in which fourteen scholars present “radically divergent” (15) opinions on this matter, as editor David Black writes in his introduction. Each of the essays offers interesting insights but the real fascination of the collection lies in juxtaposing the views of the writers, creating an internal conversation. Using an array of methodological perspectives, they discuss how (and whether) they would like to see psychoanalysis become involved with the religious sphere of life. In so doing, they shed light not only on the encounter between religion and psychoanalysis but also on the striking diversity of opinion about religion within psychoanalysis itself.
Five of the authors—David Black, Rachel Blass, Jeffrey Rubin, Kenneth Wright, and Rodney Bomford—begin by noting the changes that have taken place in the way psychoanalysis has approached religion since the 1980s, when several books (e.g., Meissner 1984; Rizzuto 1979; Spero 1980) promoting a dialogue between the two were published. This change accelerated in the 1990s when other writers (e.g., Symington 1994; Eigen 1998; Kakar 1991; Jones 2002) took up the spiritual dimension of psychoanalysis. However, the contributors vary in their appraisals of this development: whereas Blass argues that the reconciliation between psychoanalysis and religion is lamentable (23), Rubin [End Page 616] bemoans that spirituality is still not more fully integrated into mainstream psychoanalysis (132).
The book is organized into four sections: the essays in the first ponder questions of religious truth; those in the second analyze religious stories from a psychological perspective; those in the third consider religious experience; and those in the fourth examine the connections between psychoanalysis and a range of religious traditions. Another way of grouping the papers, however, is by the questions they address and the methods they use to answer them.
Viewed from this standpoint, one set of papers belongs to the field of the psychology of religion, posing such questions as “What does psychoanalysis have to say about a certain religious phenomenon or myth?” Ronald Britton’s “Emancipation from the Superego: A Clinical Study of the Book of Job,” for instance, casts Job as the ego and God as the crushing superego. Britton argues that the message of the Book of Job is not that God is beyond comprehension but rather that the superego-qua-God must be put in its place and judged for being a cruel and unrealistic master.
Similarly, David Millar’s “The Christmas Story—A Psychoanalytic Enquiry” looks first at the “myth about God becoming man” (98), then at the gospel nativity stories, and finally at Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” Millar elaborates on these myths from a psychoanalytic perspective, reading the relationship between God and man in “A Christmas Carol” as a metaphor for the complex and evolving relationship between ego and superego. Continuing in this vein, in “Reflection on the Phenomenon of Adoration in Relationships, Both Human and Divine,” Francis Grier uses clinical examples in order to clarify the concept of “adoration” both in the mother-baby dyad and in mystical traditions. Grier analyzes the complex manifestations of adoration in what is actually a triadic...