Favazza's professional interest in religion makes him a rarity in the medical profession -- a group, he says, that has traditionally had trouble reconciling spirituality and human suffering. "There's a medieval aphorism -- 'three doctors, two atheists' -- that grew out of the fact that doctors are always around people who were dying, including children."
Under Freud's powerful sway in particular, many psychiatrists became professional nonbelievers. Favazza writes that Freud, among his other controversial opinions, wrote that God was merely an illusion born of humanity's fervent hope that goodness would eventually prevail in an otherwise unjust world.
Freud also taught psychiatrists to look beneath the surface to explain psychological problems, a practice that can expose behavior at odds with a patient's professed beliefs. "We often see the seedy side of people that they keep from others -- the community leader who turns out to be a spouse abuser, or the antipornography crusader who has got a secret stash of his own," Favazza says. "And that makes psychiatrists cynical."
But most of these patients, however imperfect, do in fact believe fervently in God. And as with many of us, Favazza says, their search for the sacred might best be characterized as a willful regression to a more childlike, innocent, soul-nourishing state. Nothing pathological about that, he says.
As children, Favazza explains, most of us build upon our relationship with our parents to craft an individual identity. As adults, we often extend that relationship to something greater. That's how humans come to experience, appreciate, and acknowledge God, Favazza says. "Some people believe that it has to be the very personal God that's preached from the Sunday pulpits. A great deal of that God, I think, is created by humans to fulfill our needs."
Favazza's analysis isn't for everyone. "There are not very many scholars of psychiatry who dare to face the topic Favazza has faced," says Italian psychiatrist Goffredo Bartocci, chair of the Transcultural Psychiatry Section of the Rome-based World Psychiatric Association. "His work helps psychiatrists approach topics that are taboo. While reading through the book, we are constantly aware of the author's clinical experience that is not only well-balanced but is also full of truly powerful professional insight. He dims down the blinding light emitted by the sacred texts with the aim of perceiving it as a superimposed reflection of culture and psychic processes that can be analyzed just like any other phenomenon."
Bernard Beitman, chair of psychiatry at MU, adds that Favazza's views on religion also help point psychiatrists to key areas. "Favazza emphasizes our need to include patients' religious beliefs in our understanding and treatment. Religious ideas influence behavior, influence the manner in which we understand the use of drugs and medications, and also help to target what needs to change in order for a person to improve."
Favazza grew up with an unlikely assortment of religious experiences, none of which, ironically, included reading the Bible. He was raised in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn during the 1950s. Favazza says few adults attended church, though most made their children go. He recalls it as the sort of place where men, observing a priest walking down the street, would instinctively rub their testicles to ward off the "evil eye" because celibate clergy were thought to be jealous of men's carnal contact with women.