The Psychology of Sacrifice

Course Description

Etymologically, sacrifice is inextricable from sacredness. Empirically, sacrifice is ubiquitous to religion. Every religion idealizes, ritualizes, and valorizes sacrifice as one of the most profound, if not the highest, form of obedience, piety, or worship, of the divine. Advocates of the epochal significance of “the Axial Age”, following Karl Jaspers, argue that sacrifice is raised from the instrumental-supplicative level of propitiation and manipulation of transcendental power into a moral-evaluative level of transformative surrender. God’s giving of His only begotten Son could be understood as the paradigmatic act that initiates Christianity, with the crucifixion as the sacrifice of Christ on the cross bringing that initiation into full expression. 

In a modern secular setting, the role, function, and meaning of sacrifice are translated into ‘immanent’ terms, in the sense that whatever ‘higher’ thing someone makes a sacrifice for is not ‘transcendent’ of human being or the natural world, but is for the sake of either or both of those ‘this-worldly’ domains. Clearly, whether humanism or naturalism, ‘sacrifice’ is made sense of in very different terms. As a key player in the processes of modernizing and secularizing, psychology has and continues to participate in this ‘translation’ of sacrifice into humanistic and/or naturalistic terms. In dealing with, theoretically or practically, mental illness, psychopathology, and disorders, as well as the psychological correlates that accompany physical pain, illness, or trauma – that is, in confronting the full range of ‘spiritual’ suffering – psychology has a persisting engagement with those empirical phenomena that bear directly on the theme of sacrifice.

What are the intra-psychic dynamics of sacrifice? What are the interpersonal and psychosocial components to sacrifice? What difference does the valorizing of suffering in terms of sacrifice make? To what extent does the translation of sacrifice into immanent terms alter its meaning, for better  (for example, in rendering the treatment of suffering more humane, or in dispelling unnecessary guilt) – or for worse (for example, flattening or de-meaning our experience)? How to relate traditional religious understandings of sacrifice to contemporary phenomena of suffering, such as pain, disease, trauma, anxiety, and so on?

This directed reading will examine some of these questions, first through David Bakan’s psychodynamic reading, and secondly through René Girard’s provocative theory of ‘the scapegoating mechanism’. These readings will lay out the basis for developing a specific research question for an advanced paper.


Required Texts:

Kugelmann, Robert. (1997). The Psychology and Management of Pain: Gate Control as Theory and Symbol. Theory & Psychology, 7, pp. 43-65.

Bakan, David. (1968). Disease, pain, & sacrifice: Toward a psychology of suffering. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Girard, René. (1977). Violence and the sacred. Trans. by P. Gregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins. _____________________________________________________________________

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