Ana-María Rizzuto and the Psychoanalysis of Religion

The Road to the Living God

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Martha J. Reineke, David M. Goodman
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , August
     228 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


For those interested in the psychoanalysis of religion, Ana-María Rizzuto stands as a giant in the field. Her groundbreaking book, The Birth of the Living God: A Psychoanalytic Study (The University of Chicago Press, 1979), not only offered an alternative to Freud’s understanding of religion but launched an entire field of empirical research on the relationship between god representations (a psychological internal working model of the way a person imagines God to be rather than an intellectual cognitive definition of God) , attachment styles, and even the development of psychological instruments to assess god representations. The authors in this edited volume remind us of Rizzuto’s important contributions, point toward her work’s ongoing impact, and extend it into related areas.

Because these chapters emerged from a symposium on Rizzuto’s work, the book is not an in-depth treatment of any one of Rizzuto’s seminal contributions. This is a weakness in that an entire volume could be written on Rizzuto’s impact on empirical work in god representations, working clinically with god representations, or even her particular approach to psychoanalysis. Instead, the book has a three-strand focus.

The first strand, historical importance, while alluded to in most of the chapters, is best represented in chapter 1 by John McDargh in which he summarizes and historically contextualizes Rizzuto’s work. McDargh, who is a seminal thinker in the psychoanalysis of religion himself, is especially equipped to do this. He offers a history of how Rizzuto’s work came to fruition and how her approach differed from Freud’s. McDargh uses Rizzuto’s writings to demonstrate how her early Catholicism and clinical experiences were influential in both her interest in the psychoanalysis of religion and especially god representations. This is not unlike what Rizzuto herself did with Freud in her other influential book, Why Did Freud Reject God? (Yale University Press, 1998). This chapter also introduces the reader to the birth of Rizzuto’s research methodology and how The Birth of the Living God, although appreciated by theologians and pastoral care scholars, was dismissed by the psychoanalytic community. McDargh looks forward, demonstrating the continuing value of Rizzuto’s work for research, theory, and practice. McDargh notes that one of the most important contributions that Rizzuto made early in her work was that the function and consequences of belief could be studied without either needing to attack or defend the ontological status of belief. 

The second strand, which includes chapters 3, 4, and 5, is focused on clinical applications. Chapter 2, by Mario Aletti, demonstrates the usefulness of Rizzuto’s work, especially in understanding an individual’s personal religion not as something that is essential or native but rather cultural. Culture (including one’s family of origin) always impacts religion, giving it form, function, and expression, even on an ongoing basis. Because of the deep impact of culture on belief, Aletti notes that the psychology of religion must include the study of atheism.

Chapter 3 utilizes Rizzuto’s lesser-known writing on metaphors in psychotherapy. The authors of this chapter are involved in the VITA Project: “Existential and Religious Issues in Psychotherapy” at the Modum Bad Clinic in Norway. They describe their treatment of a psychotic man who suffered from a persecuting god and crucified self-representations that also included powerful embodied metaphors. Deeply influenced by Rizzuto, they demonstrate their therapeutic approach, positing that it was the development of the patient’s capacity to mentalize that resulted in the patient’s mood and psychotic symptoms reaching sub-clinical levels at a one-year follow-up. 

In chapter 4, Anthony Stern expands Rizzuto’s work into the area of Buddhism and his own journey of being deeply impacted by a Buddhist teacher. Stern makes use of Rizzuto’s writings on metaphors in therapy, expanding her thinking into spiritualities that don’t necessarily include a deity but include powerful mystical experiences. 

Martha Reineke expands Rizzuto’s work to wonder about a person’s representations of monsters and devils (chapter 5). She notes that while Rizzuto didn’t write much in this area, authors such as psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva and theologian Timothy Beal help to offer “an enhanced job description for monsters” (120). Reineke argues that monsters, like gods, occupy many persons’ psyches and therefore deserve equal time with God on the couch. 

The third strand, philosophical reflection, is found in chapter 6, as Jacob Waldenmaier notes how Rizutto’s work relates to the New Atheism. Waldenmaier notes Rizzuto’s positive use of the concept of illusion and asserts that the New Atheists make a fundamental error in asserting that science is fact and religion is illusion. Waldenmaier notes that science, like religion, can be a useful illusion, yet it is quite different from neuroses. He asserts that one of the fundamental errors that the New Atheists make is that when discussing problematic theology, they argue for eradication. He suggests that perhaps they should consider that the best cure may not be eradication but transformation of theology with Rizzuto’s work offering one understanding of how that might occur. 

If there was ever a Hall of Fame for thinkers in the psychology of religion, this book would be a strong vote for Rizzuto’s election. The authors’ deep respect for Rizzuto is evident and the book shines in situating the importance of her work in the psychology of religion that today can be dominated by an empirical bias that tends to be atheoretical and atheological. Perhaps the hidden gem of the book is that Rizzuto herself comments on every chapter. While she is gracious and grateful to the authors, she is also correcting and clarifying. One can almost sense Rizzuto’s personality in her responses and it is easy to imagine this powerful woman who had the intellectual courage take on Freud, psychoanalysis, and the psychology of religion. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brad D. Strawn is Evelyn and Frank Freed Professor for the Intergration of Psychology & Theology at Fuller Seminary, Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena, CA.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Martha J. Reineke is professor of religion in the department of philosophy and world religions at the University of Northern Iowa.

David M. Goodman is associate dean for academic affairs at the Woods College of Advancing Studies at Boston College, teaching associate at Harvard Medical School and Cambridge Hospital, and a psychologist in private practice.


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