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Haartman, K. (2001). On “Unitive Distortions”: Toward a Differential Assessment of Religious Ecstasy. Psychoanal. Rev., 88(6):811-836.

(2001). Psychoanalytic Review, 88(6):811-836

On “Unitive Distortions”: Toward a Differential Assessment of Religious Ecstasy

Keith Haartman, Ph.D.

The fourth edition of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM), published in 1994, featured an entirely new category titled “Religious and Spiritual Problem” (category V62.89). The entry represents the medical community's attempt to come to terms with such phenomena as near-death, peak, and transcendent experiences. It introduces a nosological distinction between spiritual problems complicated by mental pathology, and those effected by nonmorbid factors such as stress due to identity change, or the fear of social ridicule and ostracization. The inclusion of this category reflects an evolving reversal of long-standing trends amongst psychiatrists and psychoanalysts to dismiss religious experience as both pathological and regressive (Lukoff, Lu, & Turner, 1992). Indeed, the undisguised antipathy toward religion in early psychoanalytic writings is well known. Freud's categorical pronouncements on the obsessive (1907), infantile and delusional character of belief (1927, 1930), or Alexander's (1931) notorious claim that Buddhist meditation induces a form of schizophrenic catatonia, are but two examples of the kind of reductionism that has led many to assume that psychoanalysis is, by definition, intrinsically hostile to religion. Yet even early on thinkers such as Pfister (1948) and Erikson (1950) introduced a more judicious account of religiosity and its adaptive potential.

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