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A practicing psychoanalyst in Brazil, Dr. Jorge W. F. Amaro, offers this essay on the interrelationships of psychology and religion. I hope that you find it interesting.

Michael Nielsen
Nielsen's Psychology of Religion Pages

        Psychology, Psychoanalysis and Religious Faith

        by Jorge W. F. Amaro

        Prof. Dr. of the Psychiatric Department at the Medical School of the University of São Paulo and psychoanalyst by the Institute of Psychoanalysis of the Brazilian Association of Psychoanalysis.
        © 1998, Jorge W. F. Amaro

        To relate psychology, psychoanalysis and religious faith is to observe and try to understand by means of relative parameters.

        Religious faith is a state that contains the feeling of something true, total and absolute, like a dogma.

        Psychoanalysis is an investigative method that in itself it does not contain knowledge.

        Religious faith and religion offer the idea of absolute, of a total and finished truth that has not been achieved by science since ancient times. We know that even in physics the theories are relative and questionable as to their universal reach, such as the laws of gravitation and the quanta, which have not been integrated in a single theory for macro and microcosm.

        As Popper said (11), we can adopt an inclusive theory, that is, one with values nearer to the universal. At a certain time and context it may work as an operational concept. This concept can be taken as true but not the absolute truth, only an inclusive truth.

        I suggest we can extract the knowledge of the most inclusive truth from different realms.

        Water can be found in different states, such as solid, liquid and gaseous, but from a chemical point of view it shows a non-variant, that is, in every state it is still made by two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen.

        Philosophy, anthropology, mythology, sociology, psychology, psychoanalysis and related fields can produce different and specific concepts that nevertheless show hidden non-variants, which may contribute for more inclusive truths.

        Philosophers have always disagreed about knowledge, God and religion, leaving us a large and complex body of thoughts on such concepts (1).

        Reality and absolute truth are perceived in different ways according to the beliefs of the several schools of thoughts. The empiricists understand we can capture truth by means of our senses; the intuitionists that intuition would be that tool; while idealists trust reason; those belonging to the historical dialectic materialism group believe in the research methods of their theory; the religious believers accept faith and revelation; and so on. Every group has its own tool of omnipotent power.

        Still, we can notice a non-variant in all those methods to grasp legitimate truth and reality, which is the idea of an omnipotent power. This non-variant is the omnipotence function elaborated by each of the theories developed by different philosophers.

        Socrates adopted a humble and cautious approach to knowledge. He taught we should leave the care for the universe and infinity to the gods and worry ourselves about our own contradictions and ignorance. He reasoned that, as we search for a single universal concept that includes an increasing number of intelligible notations, we end up finding many concepts but not one that may encompass all intelligible notations.

        Psychologists have also tried to find universal concepts and absolute truths.

        Freud points out that overvaluing thinking and considering it omnipotent, as well as a strong belief on the power of desire, is characteristic of the minds in pre-lettered societies. He summarizes: "The principle that conducts magic, the animist modality of thinking, is the principle of the omnipotence of thinking" (7, p.108).

        Rather prudently, he adds: "The fear that psychoanalysis might be tempted to credit to a single source something as complicated as the origin of religion is baseless (...). Only when we are able to organize the findings of different research fields will it be possible to grasp the relative importance of the role of the mechanism studied above in the genesis of religions" (7, p.125).

        In Civilization and its discontent, Freud says: "Thus religion would be a universal obsessive neurosis of humankind. Just like the obsessive neurosis in children, it springs from the Oedipus complex, the relationship with the father. Should this concept be correct, distancing from religion should be as inevitable as the process of growing and we are in this junction, in the middle of this development phase" (8, p.57).

        We can observe that Freud places the function of omnipotence in pre-lettered societies but that even in his geniality he was caught in the trap of the omnipotence of thinking. He considered the Oedipus complex a model for explaining everything and attributed to thinking the power of deciphering the future of religion.

        Jung, although a religious man, adopted a scientific posture in his researches. From his extensive works on religion and religiosity, we can summarize a few notions:

        Archetypes are universal elements pertaining to the faculties of imagination and creativity. They have no specific content and have been inherited since ancestral times.

        Such psychic structures are as timeless and universal as the categories and, since they are intrinsic to humans, do not depend on family or ethnic organizations.

        Jung traces parallels between the theories of reincarnation and rebirth, and the archetypes. Archetypes tend to be reborn from the unconscious into consciousness with all their universal animistic content in order to provide the person with a holistic approach to Being and help her towards individuation, which is the path to her development.

        Religion is the – voluntary or involuntary – relationship between the person and the absolute and most powerful value, be it positive or negative. This overpowering psychic factor is named God.

        Consciousness can get nearer to the archetypes by the exploration of the unconscious, when the individual is confronted with the basic contradiction of human nature and experiences the opposites of light and darkness, God and the Devil.

        Jung's postulations point only to the existence of an archetypal image of God, not to an entity in itself separated from humankind.

        According to Jung, the archetypal images of God expressed in human terms show intrinsic evil and good in dynamic relationship.(1)

        Again we can see the omnipotence as function, which according to Jung is inherent to the archetypes constructed by humans along history.

        History and the philosophy of history offer us precious tools to acquire knowledge. The philosophy of history can explain sequences of events as part of movements along lines of force, as opposite to incoherent or accidental happenings. Historicism can be considered a philosophical method which tries to explain through history the most relevant changes in moral, religion and justice.

        Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), one of the most notable scholars on religion from our time, did an in depth study of religions in his collected works A history of religious ideas (5) and in The sacred and the profane (6).

        Eliade tells us we can study religion either through history or by trying to apprehend its essence. He has found non-variants in religion and religiosity from pre-history times to our days.

        He believes there are two ways of being in this world: the sacred (hierophany) and the profane, which are of interest not only to historians of religions, philosophers or sociologists, but to every researcher involved in discovering the extents of human experience.

        Eliade attributes a complex structure to the sacred space, including myths, rituals, symbols and divine images. Each hierophany exists at a particular historical time and reflects that society's position towards the sacred.

        Profane reality can reveal sacredness only when it is illuminated by the symbols.

        According to Eliade, the hidden sacredness is a philosophical metaphor just as valid as Freud's psychological metaphor on consciousness' censorship, which guides Freudian theory for interpreting the unconscious.

        Eliade reminds us that Marx analyzed and exposed the social unconscious, Freud did the same with the personal unconscious as Jung with the collective unconscious, allowing us to see the hidden structures behind facades and find the real causes of events. Eliade believes that also the history of religions aims to find the transcendent hidden in human experience, isolate it from the enormous mass of the unconscious and uncover its presence in the profane.

        The sacred space is intrinsically different from the profane space. When the individual finds a sacred place, he acquires a fixed point of reference by which to understand the chaotic homogeneity of spaces. Sacredness reveals the transcendence function in people.

        God said to Moses: "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground" (Exodus, III, 5).

        As has been said, sacred space has different characteristics from profane space.

        In his researches about the function of sacredness, Eliade points also to the function of the omnipotence of thinking which elaborates the supernatural.

        As many researches have described, the sacredness and the omnipotence of thinking have always been part of the human existence, thus suggesting they are two functions inherent to the human.

        Those categories called universal intensely studied by philosophers are ideas that appeal to everyone. Their universality distinguishes them from other types of knowledge, making them general concepts needed and used to explain reality.

        While empiricists believe these categories are based on experience, idealists understand they cannot derive from experience since they condition it, being therefore a priori.

        According to Durkheim these categories have a social origin and are essentially collective representations dependent on the ways societies are organized.

        Omnipotence and sacredness are universal ideas just like the categories. The only problem is to decide whether they exist a priori as the idealists believe, or are generated by societies, as Durkheim prefers. What came first, the egg or the hen?

        Such questioning is hardly relevant to psychotherapists since we are interested only on the uses the individual makes of the function of omnipotence, be it revealed or hidden.

        Religion institutionalizes the functions of sacredness and omnipotence.

        Both psychotherapy and religion have the same mission: the evolution of humankind. Psychotherapy employs theories and methods that can be tested and questioned. Religion employs catechization, a systematic instruction of theories based on faith and revelation. The ideas transmitted by catechization originate from unquestionable dogma and are taken as the absolute truth.

        Psychiatrists and psychologists used to ignore religious and spiritual problems. Most recently, researchers such as Turner and Lukoff have helped to include these problems in DSM-IV, in an effort to correct psychiatry's cultural insensitivity to the subject, due to its biological bias (10).

        Spirituality is defined in many different ways, but generally they all include a relationship with the transcendent and a superior Being (1). These definitions leave out the atheists and materialists.

        Leonardo Boff, a religious man with deep theological learning, has defined spirituality in a way to include religious people and atheists alike: "Spirituality is the attitude that places life in the center, that defends and promotes life against all killing, reducing and paralyzing devices. The opposite of the spirit is not the body but everything somehow connected to death in an ample context, including biological death, social death and existential death by failure, humiliation and oppression" (4).

        Boff's concept direct human forces toward the protection of material, social and spiritual life, considering that the essence of spirituality without necessarily associating it with a traditional religion or a superior Being.

        Historically, spirituality has not been separated from religion or religiosity. In the last quarter century, though, one can observe a clear distinction from spirituality and religion.

        William James (1842-1910) said it was necessary to separate institutional religion from personal religion, adding that the religious man may be recognized by his personal religion (9).

        Among the many psychological approaches, psychoanalisis can be a useful tool to investigate the uses an individual makes of religion and his relationship to it. Psychotherapists should never validate or invalidate any religious dogmas taken by their clients, limiting themselves to investigating their uses.

        We can illustrate our exposition with two clinical cases.

        Analysee A – At the beginning of observation he was a 26 years old, single, white-collar professional who complained of feeling distress, having family problems and suffering crisis of sexual impotence without any clear cause or physical disturbance. He was a non practicing catholic.

        Analysee B – At the beginning of observation he was a 30 years old, married, white-collar professional who complained about having disturbing fantasies, such as not being able to step on dark or black stains on the pavement for fear that his mother would die. Purple flowers also distressed him. He had family conflicts and occasional sexual impotence crisis without any clear cause or physical disturbance. He had been raised as a catholic but was not a believer.

        Both clinical cases were accompanied for longer than ten years each and have given us precious elements for locating the omnipotence of thinking, sacredness and primitive religiosity.

        The space which was forbidden for him to step on or touched was a prohibition to relate. Links are the symbol for sacredness in profane space. Should the forbidden link be disrespected, he would cause his mother's death.

        The profane place – the dark or black stain – manifests the sacred by means of a symbol of the supernatural, which has the power to let live or to kill. It is the omnipotence of thinking of a primitive mind.

        The defense of the primitive ego is to distance itself and cut the links, forbidding relationships (step on, touch). The material that is being defended are the unconscious destructive impulses of the primitive omnipotent mind.

        The impulses towards life and love made the analysee avoid (not establish any relationship with) the dark stains (a symbol of his unconscious destructive impulses), which were perceived as omnipotent. Impulses towards life and love, which bring about tolerance to frustration, altruism, gratitude, forgiveness and so on, in his case were not sufficiently developed and thus did not contain destructive feelings such as intolerance to frustration, hatred, envy and unconscious wishes of revenge. Therefore, his primitive defense mechanisms against destructive impulses were put in place. His primitive mind ejected the bad destroyer and identified itself with the good protector. The task of the psychotherapist was to help him develop the constructive aspects of his personality and his love so that he did not need to use his primitive defenses against destructive impulses. Also, one should show him the uses he was making of the function of omnipotence, which in that case was located in the power of his mind.

        In both cases, the defense of the analysees was an unconscious distancing from the object in order to protect it from their unconscious destructive impulses, expressed by means of their sexual impotence crisis. When acting with impotence (that is, not establishing relationships), the subject unconsciously protects the object of his destructive impulses directed at a female figure.

        In both analysees the spirituality and religiosity, the search for a higher good was hidden by the symptoms. The means they were using – the symptoms – did not allow them to develop spiritually or search for something more inclusive and universal. They were not yet on the path of real development, be it associated with the concept of God or not, a personal choice that must be respected.

        It is not possible to elaborate on all the changes both cases went through. After years of psychoanalysis the symptoms disappeared and both clients were conscious of their spiritual poverty, striving to develop the constructive aspects of their personalities.

        A non spiritualized person is a sick person, even if she doesn't show any symptom described by traditional medicine.

        The supernatural and the sacredness result from an elaboration on the function of omnipotence by the mind and can be found both in atheist and religious people. It is an existential function in humankind and the uses each one makes of it will be the measure for one's understanding.

        Nowadays there are many who do not agree with the notion that religious behavior a priori implies a neurotic state to be decoded and eliminated by analysis (exorcism). That reductionism based on the first works by Freud is currently under review. The psychotherapist should be limited to observing the uses their clients make of the representations of the image of God in their subjective world, that is, the uses of the function of omnipotence. Among the several authors that subscribe to this position are Odilon de Mello Franco (12), who writes about transitions from man-as-god to man-with-god.

        W. R. Bion (2), one of the most notable contemporary psychoanalysts, uses the letter "O" to symbolize everything that might be called an absolute, unknowable reality, a truth in itself, infinite, unknown. It is what has been called here the function of omnipotence – which includes omniscience and omnipresence. Bion points out that reality or the thing in itself, that is, O, can not be known but only might be known.


        1) AMARO, J. W. F. Psicoterapia e religião. São Paulo: Lemos, 1996.

        2) BION, W. R. Atenção e interpretação (Attention and interpretation). Rio de Janeiro: Imago, 1973.

        3) __________. Transformações – mudanças do aprendizado ao crescimento (Transformations). Rio de Janeiro: Imago, 1984.

        4) BOFF, L. Ecologia, mundialização e espiritualidade. São Paulo: Ática, 1993.

        5) ELIADE, M. História das crenças e das idéias religiosas (A history of religious ideas). Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1984.

        6) ___________. O sagrado e o profano (The sacred and the profane). Lisboa: Livros do Brasil, s.d.

        7) FREUD, S. Totem e tabu (Totem and taboo). Rio de Janeiro: Imago, 1974. v. XIII.

        8) _________. O futuro de uma ilusão – o mal-estar de uma civilização (Civilization and its discontents). Rio de Janeiro: Imago, 1974. v. XXI.

        9) JAMES, W. As variedades de experiência religiosa (The varieties of religious experience). São Paulo: Cultrix, 1991.

        10) LUKOFF, D., LU, F. e TURNER, R. P. Toward a more culturally sensitive DSM-IV: psychoreligious and psychospiritual problems. J. Nerv. Des. 180; 673-682, 1992.

        11) MAGEE, Bryan. As idéias de Popper (Karl Popper). São Paulo: Cultrix, 1973.

        12) MELLO FRANCO, O. de. Religious experience and psychoanalysis: from man-as-god to man-with-god. Int. J. of Psychoanalysis (1998) 79, 113.

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