Ego Religion and Superego Religion In Alcoholics

Religious Serials & Series Articles

01-047 Ego Religion and Superego Religion In Alcoholics, by Percy M. Sessions JOURNAL OF STUDIES ON ALCOHOL Vol. 18, 1957*


Percy M. Sessions

The illness of alcoholism has long been an enigma to medical and religious authorities as well as people generally. Inasmuch as medical therapies have been relatively ineffectual with many alcoholics, it may be conjectured that this malady is largely, if not basically, an illness of that aspect of man frequently described as "spiritual." Certainly there are indications that a large percentage of alcoholics are religiously rebellious or faithless. If the relationship between religious maladjustment and alcoholism should be something more than associative, if the former should be involved in either the causation or the recalcitrance of the latter, then it would not be suprising if conventional medical therapies and even psychiatry should often fail to accomplish with alcoholism what they succeed in accomplishing with other illnesses.

The same assumptions, however, do render it surprising that religious workers have often been unsuccessful in their attempts to contribute to the recovery of alcoholics. Perhaps this failure can be imputed to the fact that they have not distinguished between "superego religion" on the one hand and "ego religion" on the other.

Superego religion is that religion in which tradition and authority blindly dominate the field and in which the concepts of guilt and retribution prevail. It is the religion in which the unworthiness of the individual is emphasized, and its effect is to encourage the individualls ascetic or self-punitive tendencies. It tends to repudiate various aspects of reality; it clothes certain phrases and ceremonials with a magical quality; and, being dissatisfied with anything less than an impossible perfection of the individual, it encourages punitive, intolerant and morally judgmental attitudes.

Ego religion, on the other hand, is eminently reasonable. While it respects authority, it transfers a substantial measure of responsibility to the individual reason and conscience. It emphasizes the individual's personal relationship with God as opposed to the vicarious one. In ego religion, love, faith and optimism are pronounced, contrasting sharply with the pessimism and the air of impending calamity which characterize superego religion.

During the maturation process, the individual transfers the identity of his superego from his parents to the prevailing religion and culture. Of course this is done gradually, and frequently only partially. To become really mature and to have a positively meaningful religion, the individual must have a closer identification with religion than is possible through the identification of his superego with it, except insofar as his superego is incorporated within and becomes a functioning part of his ego. In other words, his religion must be primarily an ego religion, rather than primarily a superego religion, if the individual is to have any real identification with it, for it is his ego that he regards as his real self. Furthermore, superego religion is unsatisfactory to the individual for the additional reason that the superego itself tends to accept uncritically the prevailing concepts of right and wrong and to accept false accretions to religion indistinguishably from that which may be regarded as basic religious truth. It is extremely doubtful that delusions can be basically satisfying to the individual, even when those delusions are commonly held. Apparently the really great figures in religious history are those who had ego religions and who, therefore, had the courage to measure each element of religion by the criterion of truth as they understood it. To the degree that religion is identified with the superego, as an aspect of the personality separate and removed from the ego, it encourages mental illness and the tyranny of the superego over the ego. To the extent that it is identified with the ego, it inspires security, confidence and sanity.


If it be assumed that superego religion can encourage the development of alcoholism, a proposition admittedly not proved at this point, then obviously more of the same religion would aggravate rather than alleviate the condition. But it is not contradictory to associate superego religion with alcoholism when, as noted previously, alcoholics are frequently rebellious and skeptical where religion is concerned? The negative answer is implied in the case histories of several of the alcoholics observed by the present writer in the course of social casework. Often it appears that the alcoholic has resorted to agnosticism as a reaction to or in flight from certain aspects of superego religion but that, in spite of abandoning the body of his religion, he still retains some of the outstanding negative or unhealthful religious features. The load of guilt or the conviction of unworthiness, characteristic of people with a superego religion, is also characteristic of many alcoholics.


A specific example will illustrate these ideas. An alcoholic woman was referred to the Mississippi Division of Vocational Rehabilitation from the Mississippi State Hospital. The agency arranged for her vocational training. The funds allowed her for maintenance while training were extremely limited, requiring the most abstemious style of living. The resulting strain seemed to provide her with a sort of continuing punishment which she evidently needed because of her conviction of unworthiness. Apparently this helped her to remain sober and eventually she completed her training with a most satisfactory record.

She then accepted employment in one of the more desirable locations in the city, where she earned considerably more than enough funds to provide the bare necessities of life. Apparently, however, she did not feel that she deserved this state of well-being. She began trying to compensate for her feeling of guilt or unworthiness by lavishing what she regarded as her unmerited earnings on those who had made these earnings possible. But this was not enough. She had to pay more dearly for her good fortune, and there was one pattern of behavior upon which she could depend to accomplish this: alcoholic indulgence. To this she now resorted. As if to secure the adequacy of her punishment, she managed to be involved in an automobile wreck. This, however, was not very rewarding, as she sustained only surface lacerations. She next walked into the side of a moving vehicle. A period of hospitalization ensued, and her employment was in jeopardy. Although she was able to return to her job on probationary status, she had spent all of her money and she owed hospital and medical bills. While under this strain, she did well in her employment for some weeks. However, when an insurance company unexpectedly paid her medical and hospital bills and also gave her a sum of money as compensation for damages to her person in the accident, she immediately went on another binge. This had been predicted, with reasonable assurance even as to the exact time, when it was learned what the action of the insurance company was going to be.

The above is typical of numerous experiences with alcoholics. And while these cannot be cited as systematic proof of the prevalence of profound guilt feeling among alcoholics, it can hardly be doubted that such feelings are present in a good many. Indeed, the impression is that they are relatively common among them.

It is not the purpose here to make a logically conclusive argument. However, if it be true that many alcoholics are practically without positive religious convictions and, further, that many of the same alcoholics are ridden with convictions of their own guilt or unworthiness, then something of a paradox emerge: Here are people who do not possess positive convictions regarding religion, that arbiter of values. On what basis, then, do they make these adverse judgements against themselves? As suggested above, the inference may be drawn that these alcoholics have had experiences with religion so utterly unhealthful that, in attempts at self-preservation, they have desperately tried to shake themselves free of it. But while they have managed to abandon the outward appearances of their deleterious type of religion, they have continued to carry within them its deeply implanted roots.

Thus far the problem of the alcoholic has proved to respond widely to only one approach: a "spiritual" one. And interestingly enough, for alcoholics the "spiritual" therapists have generally not been men steeped in the tradition of "original sin" and divine retribution but men who had themselves been desperate and who, rather directly approaching the concept of God unclothed in preconceptions, have been provided with a "spiritual" answer.

An investigation of the literature of Alcoholics Anonymous readily reveals emphasis on what might be termed the "spiritual" element. Perhaps therein lies the success of A.A. Its members seek to have the recruit acknowledge "God" as defined in the recruit's own terms and understood in his own way. A direct individual relationship with God is held to be important. Obviously, this is ego religion. Its very simplicity enables it to be integrated with the individual ego. Where they to advocate a religion encumbered with the details and particularizations characteristic of superego religion, their entreaties would fall upon deaf ears among at least many of the alcoholics who, consciously or unconsciously, would recognize the sort of religion from which they had taken drastic steps to free themselves. The experience of innumerable alcoholics is a pointed demonstration of the possible unhealthy effects of superego religion and the potential for recovery and ultimate rehabilitation that resides in ego religion.


Alcoholism has been regarded by some as a medical and by others as a "spiritual" disorder. The relatively general failure of both medical and conventionally religious treatment approaches to this condition, the frequent rebellion of alcoholics against orthodox religion, and their comparatively favorable response to "ego religion" as distinguished from "superego religion" suggests that the long-range treatment of choice for at least selected alcoholics is neither medical nor religious in the usual sense of the latter term, but "spiritual" in an essentially unstructured sense.

*Posted with permission from Alcohol Research Documentation, Inc., publisher of the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol (now the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs []) 


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