The hard truth about a soft science: Why psychology does more harm than good
By Selwyn Duke
web posted May 5, 2008
In his book The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud said of religion and morality,
"It would be an undoubted advantage if we were to leave God out altogether and admit the purely human origins of all the precepts and regulations of civilization."
In making this statement, Freud weighed in on one of life's most important questions: What is the nature of right and wrong? Is it real, something existing apart from man, a reflection of Absolute Truth, of God's will? Or is it, in accordance with the atheist model, merely a product of mortal minds and thus synonymous with consensus opinion? Freud made it clear he believed the latter.
While many may debate Freud's influence over modern psychology, there is no doubt that the atheism and moral relativism he espoused reign in it. This is not to say there aren't exceptions. There is the American Association of Christian Counselors, and many people will speak glowingly of positive experiences with Christian therapists. And, while I myself would never have need of such services (although some of my critics may beg to differ), I have had the pleasure of corresponding with an individual of this stripe, author, speaker and family psychologist John Rosemond, a man traditional to the core. Yet, in just the way we refer to the Founding Fathers' ideology as "classical liberalism" so as to distinguish it from the modern variety, there is a reason why we use a modifier and call such people "Christian Counselors": They are not the norm.
Without a doubt, psychology has in a great measure become a bastion of secularism, born of atheism and molded in its lukewarm fires. As to this, in her piece "With God as My Shrink," Pamela Paul quotes Brigham Young University psychology professor Scott Richards as saying,
"Not only was Freud antireligion, but the behaviorists who came afterward were extremely eager to avoid religion in order to establish psychology as a respected science."
Paul goes on to cite these statistics:
"Nearly three-fourths of Americans say their whole approach to life is based on religion. But only 32 percent of psychiatrists, 33 percent of clinical psychologists and 46 percent of clinical social workers feel the same."
Yet even this understates the matter. Like so many nowadays, these people's ideas about faith aren't the traditional variety. They may pay homage to an ambiguous conception of spirituality and profess a belief in God, but just ask them about morality. More often than not they will tell you that right and wrong is a matter of perspective.
This is ironic, since the word "psychology" dates from 1653 and originally meant "study of the soul." Yet it is hardly surprising. Science deals in empiricism, in what can be observed, touched and quantified, and nothing spiritual, be it the soul, Truth or something else, qualifies. Thus, psychology prefers to view man as an organic robot, a cosmic accident, one whose actions are explainable in terms of its hardware (genetics) and software (conditioning or socialization). And it prefers to view that socialization not as inculcation with Truth, but with those expressions of collective opinion known as "values."
The problem with this is that reality doesn't yield to preferences, and you cannot improve something's function if you misunderstand its nature. If psychology's predominant school of thought is correct and there is no God, no Truth and we have no souls, then, sure, we are simply a few pounds of chemicals and water; hence, organic robots. And this would have some staggering implications.
For one, morality is then mere opinion, and we can't expect opinion to govern the operation of the human "machine" any more than it influences the rotation of the Earth. But what if we are spirit as well as flesh? What if Truth and, therefore, morality exist, and, as Aristotle believed, living a moral life is a prerequisite for happiness? It then follows that we cannot expect to enjoy happiness unless we know what morality is and acknowledge it. It also follows that a practitioner who endeavors to help patients achieve a happier state but who is disconnected from morality will labor in vain.
Yet the problem with psychology is not just that those within the field may be peddling a relativistic creed, but that it has provided a specious scientific basis for relativism's wider embrace. We now live in the age of "If it feels good, do it," a maxim that is eminently logical if morals are really values and values are determined by man. Because of this, it is also the age of no accountability; after all, if right and wrong are merely opinion and thus don't truly exist, how can anything I've done be wrong? Haven't you heard, you provincial thinker, that you aren't supposed to impose your values on me? Don't you know I have my own "truth"? And, if nothing can be truly wrong, there is nothing to be accountable for.
For this reason, I might call psychology the science of why we not accountable. Think about it: Everything formerly labeled a sin is now diagnosed as a disease or condition of the brain. If you drink too much, it is simply because of your genetics or chemistry; if you're engaging in homosexual behavior, that is a gene too; if you're an ill-behaved child, it may be ADHD; if you murdered your husband, you perhaps were in the grip of PMS; and the list goes on. And even if, by chance, the accident that is you wound up with a well-functioning organic CPU, you're still at the mercy of your environment (although the nurture argument seems to have lost weight in recent times). Sure, you robbed the convenience store, but you were simply programmed incorrectly by mommy, or perhaps daddy wasn't there to provide the data that only XY org-robs can. It's a variation on the "The Devil made me do it argument," except that the Devil is now even less than a dark angel. As doomed genetic engineer Dr. Moreau said in the movie The Island of Dr. Moreau: "I've seen the Devil, in my microscope and I have chained him, and I suppose you could say, in a sense, metaphorically speaking, I have cut him to pieces. The Devil, Mr. Douglas, I've found is nothing more than a tiresome collection of genes . . . ."
The danger of this may be obvious. I cannot prove to you that God and, therefore, Truth and true morality exist; I cannot show you a soul in a Petri dish. But this is undeniable: If you convince people they're not responsible for their actions, you've set the stage for great evil to occur, as they will be able to justify anything suiting their fancy. Rape, kill, steal, why not? Who is to say it's wrong? And, even if society's tastes are such that it has made laws prohibiting my tastes or has labeled my tastes a disease, is a person responsible for an illness visited upon him? We don't hold someone accountable for having cancer, after all. No, a gene made me do it. Or perhaps it was abuse by my father, in which case a gene made him do it. In any case, if you won't alter society's values to accommodate yet another deviation from the norm – if you won't remove my tastes from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), as you did with homosexuality in 1973 – then "cure" me. But don't bother me with anachronisms such as morality.
And this attitude is reflected in so many ways in our time, but one instance in particular leaps to mind. Many years ago I read an anonymous pedophile's perspective on his perversion, and here is what he said (I'm paraphrasing): "I didn't ask to have these feelings, so what am I supposed to do?" Follow your heart, right?
Yet the implications of this collective sense that we aren't responsible for our actions and that they can't be "wrong" anyway go far beyond the resulting social breakdown. They even go beyond the governmental response, which is to step in and control from without people who do not control themselves from within. For the truly scary implication under such a scenario is not just that people will not govern their impulses, but that they cannot do so.
After all, if we are merely organic robots, at the mercy of our genes (hardware), chemistry and upbringing (software), we have no free will. It then follows that we cannot choose among, well, call them what you will, God's morals or man's values, as we are directed by things beyond our control. This reduces us to animals. While Christianity teaches that the two things making us like God and separating us from the animal kingdom are intellect and free will – two qualities necessary to be fully human – this idea tells us that, bereft of the second quality, we are mere automatons. Of course, if Freud et al. are correct, that is all we are, chemicals and water arranged in a most interesting fashion – with a good helping of illusion thrown in for good measure. Thus, insofar as psychology succeeds in convincing us that there is no accountability because there is no free will – no ability to choose sin because there is no sin, only disease – it dehumanizes us.
Perhaps this dehumanization is why psychiatry has quite a history of using humans as guinea pigs. There was Benjamin Rush (the father of American psychiatry) and his bloodletting; Nazi experiments; electric shock and lobotomies; our MK ULTRA mind-control program; and Canadian psychiatrist Heinz Lehmann, who illegally used Thorazine on subjects in the 1950s. Then, reviewing the book Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill, Brian Doherty tells us about:
Henry Cotton of Trenton State Hospital in New Jersey, who theorized that germs from tooth rot caused insanity and established a very respectable cure rate by pulling asylum inmates' teeth, then later other body parts he decided were breeding grounds for disease (thereby killing 43 percent of his patients); the Swiss Jacob Klaesi, who discovered that inducing deep sleep with barbiturates for weeks on end was an effective cure; Harvard men John Talbott and Kenneth Tillotson, who found that binding patients in freezing cold blankets until their body temperature fell 10 to 20 degrees below normal was quite therapeutic for the mentally ill; the Viennese Manfred Sakel, the father of induced insulin comas as therapy . . . .
Thus, there is a perverse consistency between the implications of psychology's atheistic world view and its darker chapters. After all, what is wrong with experimenting on organic robots? In an effort to control them and eliminate their defects, what could be wrong with altering their impulses (their chemistry) or reprogramming them (social engineering)? And while it doesn't lie within the scope of social science, I'll add, what could be wrong with manipulating their hardware (genetic engineering)? A few pounds of chemicals and water . . . .
Aside from the obvious lack of compassion inherent in yesterday's uses of the field, I also have to wonder about today's. We're often told that taking people to task for moral lapses, whether the issue is drinking, drug use, perverse behavior or something else, is uncompassionate. Yet I view it differently, and let us consider one example. If I give a child a tongue lashing (and maybe an actual one, too) for being a brat, I'm saying that he can and must improve his behavior. But what of telling him he has ADHD? How is it compassionate to say he has a defect in his brain, one damning him to a Hell of abnormality and that will never, ever go away? And the same can be said of all the other newly-minted "diseases of the brain" or quirks of genetic fate. Talk about disempowering the individual; he is being told that if there is a helping hand, it certainly doesn't lie at the end of his arm.
Yet it's certainly easy to understand why the mental health field wants us to believe salvation lies at the end of its arm. Money. It also has a distinct advantage insofar as this goes. You see, since its diagnoses aren't dependent upon discovery of a biological cause – a virus, bacterium or structural abnormality – it can grow its DSM inexorably. I have often said that psychology is the only field in which the practitioners invent diseases and conditions for themselves to diagnose.
As to this, I recently read about psychiatrists who are labeling the desire to engage in excessive text messaging a mental disorder. Then there is "Muscle Dysmorphia," or the obsessive belief that one isn't muscular enough; "celebriphilia," the strong desire for amorous relations with a celebrity; "Intermittent Explosive Disorder," or road rage; "Sibling Rivalry Disorder"; "Mathematics Disorder"; "Caffeine Related Disorder"; and "Expressive Writing disorder," to cite just a handful of the hundreds of made-up conditions in the DSM. And every time a new variety is conjured up, psychology's market and earning potential increases. I have to wonder, though, what do they call the obsession with labeling behaviors mental disorders? Some might call it greed.
Yet, as ridiculous as this seems, it's also very consistent and understandable. Whether a religionist or atheist, one can't help but notice that these organic robots don't operate the way most of us would like. The Christian explanation for this is that we're all sinners, but this is religious terminology and quite inappropriate for a machine. So psychology says we're all mentally ill; it's just a malfunction in the CPU, you see. Then, because a machine cannot commit sins but can be "out of order," it calls them disorders. Thus, a defiant child or employee isn't ruled by pride but has "Oppositional Disorder," a person with a lack of gratitude isn't just that but one who suffers from "Chronic Complaint Disorder," and a man who is shallow and vain isn't just that but one plagued by "Muscle Dysmorphia." So there is a limit to the number of disorders that can be "invented," and it's roughly equivalent to the numbers of ways in which people can sin.
This brings us to an irony. In a strange way, this "study of the soul" is aptly named, as in a great measure psychology has usurped the role of religion. It co-opts sins, renames them, and then takes credit for their discovery; you could call it spiritual plagiarism. I also might say that mental health professionals have become the new priesthood. After all, whereas years ago people might have gone to a man of the cloth for guidance, now they are likely to lie on a therapist's couch. The prescriptions they get are far different, too. A priest, minister or rabbi would usually render advice steeped in tradition and God-centered, but the psychologist is most likely to offer relativistic counsel, where the focus is on feelings and is thus self-centered.
And what happens when the matter of religion is raised? If you're like many, including someone I know of, you may be told you're taking your faith too seriously, that such devotion is akin to a mental illness. This isn't surprising, I suppose. What future could a person have with an "illusion," even the very attractive one that Freud seemed to believe was the opiate of the masses? Yet, with over 20 million Americans, 40 percent of college students and 1 out of 9 schoolchildren on psychiatrist-prescribed psychoactive drugs, one is left to wonder what realm is truly most deserving of that title.
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