The religion of psychoanalysis, or Ode to a Nightingale

Citation metadata

Author: Shahid Najeeb
Date: Summer 2006
From: Social Analysis(Vol. 50, Issue 2)
Publisher: Berghahn Books, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 6,917 words
Lexile Measure: 1370L

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

Abstract: The central thesis of this article is that psychoanalysis is an organic offshoot of that evolutionary process called religion. As such it has more in common with the world's religions than it would care to admit. Nor would the world's religions feel particularly excited about admitting psychoanalysis in their midst, for its inclusion forces a rethinking of their place in human development. Using Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale," the author looks at the pain of human existence and how it has resulted in the concepts of soul, God, and immortality. The nature of sentience--being aware of one's awareness--is examined. The article asserts that psychoanalysis is the process by which the soul examines itself, thought examines thinking, and life examines its meaning. The author describes religion, soul theory, and psychoanalysis as having evolved naturally and necessarily from human existence and experience, and views them as necessary dimensions of existence.

Keywords: group unconscious, maternal reverie, mortality, psychoanalysis, religion, sentience, soul theory, spiritual streams


Freud would probably have been horrified by the title of this article, for we all know about his intense antagonism toward religion, which he regarded as little more than "the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity" (Freud [1927] 1961: 43). He considered the obsessive magical thoughts and the compulsive rituals that are such central parts of any religion as methods of dealing with anxiety: "[D]evout believers are safeguarded against the risk of certain neurotic illnesses; their acceptance of the universal neurosis spares them the task of constructing a personal one." It is an interpretation that religious people would understandably not concur with, for they think of religion as being something unworldly, something that reaches beyond our human existence. I would not be surprised if religious people judged psychoanalysts, who are mostly atheists, quite severely.

However, in the last 20 years or so, there has been a change within psychoanalysis toward religion. Certain psychoanalysts now feel that Freud was perhaps a bit hasty and harsh in his criticisms of religion. These psychoanalysts would probably remain sympathetic to Freud's opinion of orthodox religion, bur they would say that within all religions there are streams that can be called spiritual. It is mainly toward these spiritual streams, rather than orthodox religion as such, that there has been a shift in attitude. This shift is basically sympathetic toward the spirituality of religion. Some psychoanalysts, such as Neville Symington (1994: 171), now regard psychoanalysis, at its best, as being a spiritual act. Rachel Blass (2004: 614-634) has recently reviewed and summarized these developments within psychoanalysis. Her basic position is that psychoanalysis has softened Freud's harsh criticism by accepting and rejecting various aspects of religion and by crediting the illusions of religion as being valuable and growth promoting, if they can be understood as transitional objects and phenomena as described by Winnicott (1951: 229-242). In seeking a rapprochement with traditional religion, Blass reasons that both religion and psychoanalysis are searching for truth and that both are based on unconscious memories of early infantile experiences.


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A155736214