Acute Religious Experiences as a Way of Seeing Madness

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Acute Religious Experiences as a Way of Seeing Madness

Saville Smith, Intro by Awais Aftab

Quote:Saville-Smith is the author of Acute Religious Experiences: Madness, Psychosis and Religious Studies (2023, Bloomsbury; hardcover publication date is March 9, 2023; kindle is available for purchase). The book tackles the question of how we are to speak about experiences of the extraordinary/anomalous/extreme. Saville-Smith’s critical re-readings of seminal texts show how 20th-century theoreticians in the humanities ended up sanitizing madness in the study of religions while at the same time psychiatrists degraded religious experiences by reducing mad consciousness to psychosis or dissociation. Saville-Smith introduces explanatory pluralism as a way of recognizing these disciplinary biases and mad studies as a way of negotiating this understanding. By doing so, he seeks to recover the disproportionate significance of madness in shaping the fabric of the human story from both erasure and dismissal.

In this guest post, he introduces the book and the notion of acute religious experiences.

Quote:For Klass, psychiatric reductionism threatened not only the ancient practice of spirit possession within socialized (ritual) contexts, but the very language available to Western anthropologists. As long as the term dissociation is deployed in ethnographic accounts, the highly valued practitioners of spirit possession are transformed into the devalued victims of mental illness. The suggestion is that language as language has the power to morph a constructive cultural practice into a reductive medical condition.

For Klass the frustration is palpable, but a reading of the psychiatric literature reveals a radically different position. This is exemplified in “Dissociative Disorders in DSM-5” (Spiegel, et al. 2011), the output of the working party which informs the final 2013 text of the DSM-5. This paper makes two radical moves. The first is the validating incorporation of the ancient pre-psychiatric term ‘possession’ directly into the DSM-5 text. The second is the idea that a diagnosis of a mental disorder may not apply if the related behaviour is “a normal part of a broadly accepted cultural or religious practice” (APA 2013: 292). Spiegel et al. elevated this idea from an appendix in DSM-IV directly into the main criteria of dissociative identity disorder as a contra-indicator. There is plainly no reductionist intent. Instead, there is the genuine recognition of a need for judgement. As I see it, this introduces explanatory pluralism into the diagnostic process — and the concomitant need for psychiatrists to have resources for thinking about religious practices.

These contrasting positions, one defensive one apparently open minded, suggested a legitimate subject of study with constructive outcomes: If the language of dissociation is too prejudicial for the humanities and social sciences, there is clearly a need for better language; if a mental disorder can be mitigated by the socialization of cultural or religious practices, how might this challenge the focus on the individual in contemporary psychiatry?
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell

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