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Gay, V.P. (1975). Psychopathology and Ritual: Freud's Essay “Obsessive Actions and Religious Practises”. Psychoanal. Rev., 62(3):493-507.

(1975). Psychoanalytic Review, 62(3):493-507

Psychopathology and Ritual: Freud's Essay “Obsessive Actions and Religious Practises”

Volney Patrick Gay, M.A.

I began doing research for this paper with the goal of examining Freud's understanding of the role the superego plays in the development and practice of religious life. Specifically, I was interested in exploring Freud's early formulations of the superego, and I hoped to trace how the later well-known equations of religious practice with certain neurotic mechanisms developed in his thought. For example, in The Future of an Illusion Freud makes this comparison:

Devout believers are safeguarded in a high degree against the risk of certain neurotic illnesses; their acceptance of the universal neurosis spares them the task of constructing a personal one.19a

However, in rereading Freud's first published comments on similarities between religious acts and obsessional neurosis,8 I was surprised to find that, while the rhetorical tone of the essay fully supports identifying the two phenomena, the actual argument and concepts which Freud employs do not. In contrast, then, to Freud's stated conclusions and the usual reading of this essay, I shall suggest that a closer reading of the actual metapsychological terms which Freud uses reveals that the contrainstinctual mechanisms which he says underlie religious acts and obsessional neurosis are not identical. His analysis of the two phenomena does not support his famous conclusion that

One might describe neurosis as individual religiosity and religion as a universal obsessional neurosis.8a


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