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Marcus, P. Rosenberg, A. (1995). The Value of Religion in Sustaining the Self in Extreme Situations. Psychoanal. Rev., 82(1):81-105.

(1995). Psychoanalytic Review, 82(1):81-105

The Value of Religion in Sustaining the Self in Extreme Situations

Paul Marcus and Alan Rosenberg

The constructive, life-affirming aspects of religious experience have generally been underappreciated in the psychoanalytic literature, in favor of a viewpoint that, following Freud (1927), stresses the psychopathological meaning of religious cognition and behavior. Kohut, for example, has noted that Freud “ignored the supportive aspects of religion. Religion constitutes a set of cultural values which he totally underestimated” (Kohut, 1985, p. 261). Only recently has this negative approach to religion begun to change with the publication of sophisticated mainstream psychoanalytic studies that have stressed the positive aspects of religion (Jones, 1991; Meissner, 1984; Ostow, 1982; Rizzuto, 1979). This changed attitude in the psychoanalytic community is clearly part of a trend in general psychological circles, in which religion is now viewed more as an aid to people than as an illusion (Goleman, 1991). This article is a further attempt to show how religion may strengthen the individual in an extreme situation, in which his selfhood and humanity are violently assaulted. Our point of entry into this underexplored subject will be the behavior of believing and practicing “traditional” Jewish inmates in Nazi concentration and death camps.

While our approach generously draws from self-psychology, this study is fundamentally interdisciplinary. This is in keeping with our belief that the study of religious experience requires using the best insights of many disciplines. Our claim is that self-psychology, when integrated with the findings of social theorists, provides a theoretically illuminating way of understanding how a religious framework may help some individuals in extreme situations maintain their self-cohesion, self-continuity, and self-esteem.1

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