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Psychoanalytic methods in the history of religion: A personal statement1

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image of Method & Theory in the Study of Religion

For the Scandinavian tradition of the history of religions, in which I was trained, not the numinous, but the experience of the numinous is the sui generis subject matter of the discipline; and historians routinely emphasize the experiential aspects of religions. The better to understand religious experience, I work interdisciplinarily with psychoanalysis. Freud's treatment of group processes as though they were individual psyches and his pathologizing of religious symbolism are badly dated. Current work in both clinical psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic anthropology is more sophisticated. My major innovations are two. (1) Where historians of religions aspire for religious devotees to recognize themselves in their portraits of the religions, I seek for devotees additionally to gain insight into the unconscious dimensions of their religions. Religions are not reducible to their symbolism, but unconscious motives influence the imagery that religions use to symbolize their metaphysical concerns. (2) I also use psychoanalytic findings and methods to contribute to historiography, in some cases as aids to textual exegesis, but more extensively in studies of shamans, prophets, apocalyptists, and mystics, where psychoanalytic observations on the techniques for inducing and controlling alternate states furnishes historical information that enriches the research findings.

Affiliations: 1: Department for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto


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