Psychoanalytic Perspectives on the Religious Experience

By Kernberg, Otto F. | American Journal of Psychotherapy, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Psychoanalytic Perspectives on the Religious Experience


Kernberg, Otto F., American Journal of Psychotherapy


Psychoanalytic Perspectives on the Religious Experience*

This paper carries out an analysis of the nature of mature religiosity on the basis of psychoanalytic findings and concepts, rather than attempting a philosophical and theological approach to religion. It highlights a striking correspondence between the characteristics of mature religiosity, derived from the various sources of development of the ego-ideal and the superego, and reflecting a dominance of love over hatred, of libido over the death drive as an aspect of psychological health and maturity, on the one hand, and the characteristics of the Deity in Judeo-Christian religions, on the other At a clinical level, one of the functions of the psychotherapist is to explore the extent to which religiosity as a mature desire for a transpersonal system of morality and ethical values is available to our patients. Psychotherapy also has to help certain patients to free themselves from the use of formal religious commitments as a rationalization of hatred and destructiveness directed against self or others.

1. A CRITICAL REVIEW OF FREUD'S POSITION Historically, psychoanalysis has been widely perceived as implicitly question

ing religious values and organized religious systems, primarily because of Freud's (1) critical writing about religion. In spite of the contributions of a distinguished group of psychoanalysts [Chasseguet-Smirgel (2), Meissner (3), Ostow (4), Rizzuto (5), Zilboorg (6), and others] whose writings pointed to the compatibility of religious convictions and the psychoanalytic identity, I believe it is fair to state that a tendency toward an atheistic philosophical position has prevailed among many leading psychoanalysts, and that this cultural tradition has only recently changed. In what follows, I shall summarize my own views regarding this issue, basing myself upon strictly psychoanalytic considerations regarding individual development and psychopathology, and the application of psychoanalytic understanding to mass psychology and the formation of ideologies.

In "The Future of an Illusion" (1), Freud spelled out his critical view of religion, and his expectation, that, in the long run, a rational system of moral convictions and a rationally based ethics would replace organized religions. He drew a picture of cultural requirements and expectations characteristic of humankind, centered on the need to understand and control nature, with the related gratification of human needs. He also suggested that a major challenge of culture was the regulation of interpersonal relationships, and the distribution of the produce of human labor. Freud considered that these cultural aspirations were challenged by the animosity toward culture derived, within the individual, from the drives-- both sexuality and the destructive aspects of aggression, from mass psychology, and from the limitations of the educability of the human being. He proposed that culture relies on the obligation to work and to renounce acting upon the derivatives of the drives, particularly in the form of incest, cannibalism, and violence.

Freud proposed that the superego reflects the internalization of the external demands posed by culture, controlling by means of its prohibitions the discontent of disadvantaged social classes, and providing narcissistic and substitute gratifications through the positive influence of ideals and artistic creativity. He proposed that religious imagination contributed to achieving the overall cultural objective of civilizing interpersonal relations by reinforcing prohibitions against drive-derived behavior and interpersonal aggression, while providing consolation regarding the uncertainties of human destiny, and explaining the apparent indifference of nature by humanizing it. Animism as a primitive religion reflected that humanization, while infantile dependency on the parents and longings for their protection were projected into the longing for the protection by an all-powerful God. …

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