Religion and Psychiatry

By Yalom, Irvin | American Journal of Psychotherapy, January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Religion and Psychiatry


Yalom, Irvin, American Journal of Psychotherapy


When Dr. Harding first notified me that the committee on psychiatry and religion had honored me with this wonderful award I experienced an onslaught of feelings, primarily great pleasure and also pride at being in the company of former recipients, all of them thinkers I have much admired. I was particularly delighted to learn that the first recipient of the Oscar Pfister prize was one of my mentors, Jerome Frank, whom I am pleased to inform you is, at the age of 93, as thoughtful, curious, and coherent as ever.

But there were also other feelings-more complicated, quirky, dark, difficult to express. "Religion? Me? There must be some mistake." Hence, my first words of reply to Dr. Harding were: "Are you sure. You know I regard myself as a practicing atheist?" His immediate response to me was: "We believe that you've dedicated yourself to religious questions." The graciousness of his reply disarmed me and brought to mind many conversations with my former therapist and, later, my dear friend, Rollo May, who insisted on regarding my textbook, Existential Psychotherapy, as a religious book. I remember, too, that Lou Salome referred to Nietzsche as a religious thinker with an antireligion perspective.

My talk today will focus on the issues raised by these dissonant feelings and especially on some of the existential therapeutic issues that, as Dr. Harding points out, are often considered to be religious in nature.

I'll also sketch out some comparisons between existential psychotherapy and religious consolation. I believe these two approaches have a complex, strained relationship. In a sense, they are cousins with the same ancestors and concerns: they share the common mission of ministering to the intrinsic despair of the human condition. Sometimes they share common methods-the one-to-one relationship, the mode of confession, of inner scrutiny, of forgiveness of others and self. In fact, more and more as I've grown older, I consider psychotherapy as a calling, not as a profession. And yet, still, it is true that the core beliefs and basic practical approaches of psychotherapy and religious consolation are often antipodal.

It is true that throughout history, or at least from the first to the mid-17th century, the thinkers who were most concerned about issues of existence were rooted in the religious wisdom traditions-not necessarily that their insights emanated from fundamental religious beliefs but that the religious institutions provided the sole arena which promoted and supported such intellectual activity. One can delineate both positive and negative aspects to this phenomenon: positive in that religious institutions encouraged and sponsored (indeed, for many centuries, were the sole sponsors of) philosophical inquiry, negative in that religious institutions often restricted what could be thought and which problems could be examined.

Nietzsche said in Beyond Good and Evil:

Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir; also that the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy constituted the real germ of life from which the whole plant has grown.

Though such perspectivism runs the risk (which Nietzsche was delighted to take) of denying the possibility of any fixed truth, still I take his words seriously and I'll sketch in the origins of my own religious point of view and intellectual positions. My early religious training was a pedagogical disaster-my family's orthodox Jewish synagogue was cloaked in rigid unyielding, authoritarianism which I found highly distasteful. In the long run, that was decisive for me because I lost any possibility of faith early in life. Schopenhauer reminds us that religious faith, if it is to thrive, has to be planted and take root in childhood. In his words, "The capacity for faith is at its strongest in childhood; which is why religions apply themselves before all else to getting those tender years into their possession. …

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