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Spira, N. (2007). Psychoanalysis and the Disavowed Religious Impulse. Ann. Psychoanal., 35:137-147.

(2007). Annual of Psychoanalysis, 35:137-147

Psychoanalysis and the Disavowed Religious Impulse

Neal Spira, M.D.

Today's pluralistic psychoanalytic landscape is characterized by multiple theoretical points of view that inform the way we practice and attempt to communicate our practices to each other. Despite earnest efforts to find common ground, we have tended to be divided by our differences. In many cases theoretical differences have evolved into schisms that have split apart institutes. Although the current multiplicity of theories may be viewed as an expansion of psychoanalytic consciousness and a postmodern evolution of our science, it is hard to avoid the impression that psychoanalysis has become a Balkanized enterprise, imperiled by its lack of cohesion.

In fact, psychoanalysis has followed a course that bears greater resemblance to the history of religion than to the history of science. Instead of the integration one finds in the sciences, we find a refrain of divisiveness and conflict over the correct textual framework to use in interpreting clinical material. Instead of building on a unified language (as is the case in natural sciences such as physics and chemistry), psychoanalytic schools tend to make up their own terminology (e.g., cathexis, selfobject, false self), thereby obscuring the mutual understanding that language is intended to achieve. Thus, it appears to me that the various theoretical positions that we hope will further our knowledge, in the manner of science, often operate as alternative and competing systems for organizing the world, in the way that religions do.

The thesis of this essay is that despite our historical attempts to establish a scientific pedigree, the influence of religious ideas and ideals on psychoanalysis has been fundamental, ongoing, and largely disavowed. I believe that our wish to regard ourselves as scientific has distracted us from recognizing the extent to which our own ideas are informed by theological traditions bearing the imprint of Judaism, Christianity, and the polytheistic universe outside ethical monotheism.


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