“The Biblical account of Noah’s Ark and the Flood is perhaps the most implausible story for fundamentalists to defend. Where, for example, while loading his Ark, did Noah find penguins and polar bears in Palestine?”

Judith Hayes

“We have fools in all sects and impostors in most; why should I believe mysteries no one can understand, because [they were] written by men who chose to mistake madness for inspiration and style themselves Evangelicals?”

Lord Byron

The eminent and brilliant (though fiendish and fictional) psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter, MD, had no respect for psychology. He simply did not believe it was a science. Cutting Ray Liotta’s skull open, lifting off the top, and sauteeing parts of his brains while talking to him (in the movie “Hannibal”) – now, THAT’S science.

Science – and therapy

But psychology can be science – when it concerns itself with the description of behavior or the measurement of cognitive capabilities.

Psychotherapy, on the other hand, is not science. It’s hard to say what it is. All too often therapy, supposedly curing by talk, is a bitch session; the therapist is a paid listener, because no one in the client’s world will listen to his/her complaints.

Classical psychoanalysis can go on forever. Back in Detroit, I knew a psychiatrist who for years spent tens of thousands of dollars annually on three- and four-times-a-week therapy sessions with another psychiatrist. Apparently he found himself endlessly interesting, because the analyst is supposed to say nothing.

Goals of therapy?

Insurance companies eventually caught on to this racket and started holding therapists responsible for goals and outcomes. Usually this means helping the client to better cope with his/her situation (because it’s typically unchangeable), perhaps helping the less sophisticated clients understand their problems, or enabling the client to deal more constructively with difficult people.

So far, so good. But what happens when the client’s belief system enters the picture? In “Modern psychology’s God problem,” Boston Globe, 10/16/11, Gareth Cook states the problem in the following words (and by “psychology,” he means “psychotherapy,” according to the above distinction):

“Modern psychology has a serious God problem. America is a deeply spiritual country. More than half of American say religion is ‘very important’ to them, and more than 90 percent profess a belief in a higher power. Yet psychology, as a scientific endeavor, has done almost nothing to understand how spiritual beliefs shape psychological problems or affect treatment.”

Let’s all get spiritual!

Let’s first stipulate that “spiritual” (i) is taken to be a good thing (note the praising adjective deeply, as opposed to, say, rabidly or fanatically); (ii) can mean ANY interest in imaginary supernatural entities, whether Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sufi, Hawaiian, Native American (to New Agers, the last three, and all native cultures, are VERY spiritual).

So spirituality is a very big tent: all you have to do is invest yourself heavily in an imaginary belief system, the older the better. In the context of the article, Cook refers only to mainstream American religions.

Voice of reason

OK, at this point the atheist hits a wall. What is therapy if not reality adjustment? We humans love to deny. The therapist can be the sober, kind voice of reason. He/she can pull the client out of denial and gently urge the client to face the reality of his/her situation and/or personality.

This approach goes under various names: cognitive/behavioral, rational/emotive, and others. For most neurotics, Albert Ellis’ list of irrational ideas is all the therapy they need.

Debt of truth

The therapist owes the client the golden nugget of truth and insight – else what is the client paying for? (I know, the right to gripe and have an interested listener. If only clients knew how the therapist’s mind wanders as they prattle on.).

That’s why this atheist has serious problems with the thrust of Cook’s article: the solution to the “God problem” is “spiritually integrated” therapy. My 2nd wife was “deeply” into this – this craven pandering to the client’s fantasies.

Cook correctly notes that “for those who are not religious, it is hard to understand how important religion may be to a patient, and how off-putting it can be when a therapist steers the conversation away from the spiritual.”

And why not? If the therapist were to blend religion with therapy, he/she would be no better than a cleric, larding his/her advice with fantasy and imaginary friends. How does perpetuating the client’s delusions help the client?

Religion and therapy

Oh, yeah, maybe it’s a band-aid, a psychological mind-trick. Thus Cook cites the example of a therapist who might encourage the client to think about all the things that God has given you, and this gratitude exercise will help reduce anxiety.

How does God help? Can’t I just list the things I’m grateful for, without crediting God?

God harms as much as he helps. Encouraging people to think of misfortune as “part of God’s plan” can make them passive and helpless. People who trust in God (in a survey Cook cites) were more tolerant of uncertainty
and less prone to worry. Yes, and less likely to see the piano falling on them.

Plus, every day, religious clients bring their miseries to psychotherapists and ask why God would allow such a thing. In dealing with evil and sorrow, again, God is no help. He’s a hindrance. Didn’t he make or let it happen? Such conundrums make it harder, not easier for the believer to cope with the traumas that life deals out.

“Meeting patients where they are”

Cook ends with the idea of offering a treatment option to the deeply faithful [there’s that adjective again – does the therapist have to first evaluate the level of the client’s fanaticism/fundamentalism? – AMP]. It’s about the field of psychology shedding its prejudices and preconceptions and returning to the first principles of therapy: meeting the patients where they are.”

ROFGAR (rolling on floor, gagging and retching). Earlier in the article, Cooks says the same thing: therapists must “modify the tools of psychology to treat the devout.”

This is why I could never be a therapist. I would want to deal with the underlying delusion, religion itself. A religious client would leave before the first session was over.

Pandering and faking

What exactly happens if an atheist/agnostic therapist encounters a “deeply religious” client? Is the therapist to pander, to fake it, to buy into the client’s fantasy/psychosis?

And what if the client is a Hindu or a Sikh or a Wiccan or a Druze? Must the therapist bone up on every faith, every imaginary friend of every client and play along with it? How can you look yourself in the mirror if you do that?

Is the goal of therapy to dissolve delusions – or to encourage them?

17 Responses to “On “Modern Psychology’s God problem””

  1. on 19 Nov 2012 at 4:35 pmHarry

    “Is the goal of therapy to dissolve delusions–or to encourage them”?

    I would say neither, with the caveat that it’s hard to discuss therapy/psychotherapy in such abstract terms and without falling into stereotypes about what occurs in therapy.

    As you recognize, there are many practical ways a therapist can benefit a patient: help in dealing with others, improving a marital relationship (even if that means easing one or both parties through the pain of divorce), enabling the patient to understand what his/her personality tendencies are and how they affect and effect what happens in his/her life. So, “success” in therapy can be defined as helping the patient minimize bitterness, anger, resentment, and frustration, and maximize “happiness,” whatever that means to the patient. Being available for “bitch sessions” can be a worthy role for the therapist, though I can’t imagine one who wouldn’t try to put the events that led to the bitching into some kind of perspective that would reduce the need for such sessions.

    As for the “spirituality” issue–it is axiomatic that a good therapist will meet the patient on his/her own grounds. It is not the therapist’s role to encourage “delusions”–religious or otherwise–if those “beliefs in imaginary beings” were causing the patient’s problems. No therapist would ever say (at least not a well-trained, professionally competent one) to a patient, “Your job search has been fruitless? That’s okay–God will take care of it for you.” A minister might say that–though well-trained ministers are not so unsophisticated when it comes to psychology. If a patient was frustrated with God for not making a job search fruitful, for example, the therapist is likely to ask what the patient has been doing for him/herself and recommend some other practical steps. This is neither dissolving nor encouraging the patient’s “delusion.” At most, the therapist might point out that the patient’s beliefs were hindering the practical success by allowing too much dependence on a deity.

    Again, it’s hard to comment in a vacuum, but what happens in therapy can depend on the level of training of the therapist. On the basis of purely anecdotal evidence (and personal observation), I’ve noticed that the more highly trained the therapist, the less tendency there is to cut-and-dried solutions or assessments. I’ve also noticed that just because a person is a trained therapist, his/her marital life is not smooth–hence, perhaps, your second wife. Sometimes it’s easier to help others than oneself. I’ve also noticed that a well-trained therapist can make a snap assessment that is wrong, just like an untrained layperson. The difference is that a trained therapist, as he/she comes to understand the patient more fully, will be open to an evolving understanding of the patient and dismiss wrong hypotheses, as a scientist would.

    The long and short of all this (perhaps the too long) is that, to me, therapy doesn’t have a “God problem.” It only seems like that to you because you would want to disabuse the patient of what you (and I) consider a delusion, and that would be unprofessional and counter-productive. A patient might have a “God problem,” and a good therapist will help the patient see it. For example (hypothetical), a woman whose husband beats her should clearly rescue herself from that relationship, but she believes that marriage is forever and she will be consigning her soul to hell if she divorces. I would think any therapist would say the woman has an obvious choice–follow her religious beliefs and risk being seriously injured, or killed, or save herself. This might be a case where the therapist (who will only alienate the woman, lose her trust, and lose any hope of helping her) will have to use some religious ju-jitsu and figure out why God might make an exception in this marriage. There was a funny scene in a Gene Hackman movie where he’s a basketball coach and has a very religious star player who’s having some debate within himself about whether he should play: Hackman says, God wants you out on that court right now. The player only needed that spin on the situation, and out he went. Hackman didn’t say, your belief is silly, you idiot, get out on the court.

    It’s evident, I’m sure, that I have more confidence in therapy–i.e., including psychoanalysis–than you do. At its best, therapy can help people understand themselves better, especially how their whole histories feed into the present and affect their behavior. One premise is that such understanding can bring about change, at the very least putting the patient more in control of his/her own decision-making process, wherever those decisions may lead. The process is dynamic, not passive–it’s untrue that the analyst “is supposed to say nothing,” or that meeting the patient on his/her own ground is tantamount to “craven pandering.” I’m not sure how true it is, either, that psychotherapy can go on indefinitely. That is surely not the goal of the therapist, whose aim is to help the patient toward independence, just as a teacher’s aim is to help students become effective self-learners, not to keep them forever in the classroom.

    Finally, Hannibal Lector is a fictional character, not a credible spokesperson for either science or psychology.

  2. on 19 Nov 2012 at 7:18 pmRich

    Piece in Taki’s by man who delivered Holiday Turkeys w/dad to the poor, mostly in trailer parks (in which I’ve lived since 76). He’s amused. The luckless folks didn’t thank their benefactors first (sometimes at all). They thanked Jesus.

    Andre Malraux iv’d a parish priest, who heard Confessions for 50 years. Andre asked what he learned. “Nobody is grown up. Nobody is happy.”

    Been watching documentaries about the Drug Trade. $350B+ industry. So many Tortured wretched addicts living Hell on Earth. Few escape. Their “fault”? Their “brain”? Humans have sought to escape Consciousness (”reality”, which to me is a many splendored Chimera) forever.

    How can we really know Reality when we’ll Never know ourselves? Much of our brain works below the surface. Rationality Never gave me an Erection or told me to poop. Child Abuse & Brain & Sexual Dysfunctions of all sorts don’t help.

    I think Everyone is prey to Ellis’ fallacies, conscious or not, to some degree, often for life. Shamans & Charlatans have taken advantage since Stone Age. I’ve seen same Psychotherapist since ‘72, off and on. Wonderful fellow. Only older male Mentor I ever had.

    I don’t see it as Fatalism, but Humility. Hubris is bad. Striving is good.

  3. on 19 Nov 2012 at 9:35 pmAlan

    Reply to Harry…

    If the quality of the comments reflects the quality of the post, I’m flattered. I appreciate your thoughts, as always. My perspective comes from being married to a “spiritual” psychotherapist. For 27 years, most of our friends were therapists, many spiritual. So I know a lot about what goes on in therapy. I’ve also been in therapy about half a dozen times.

    The post reflects my personal dilemma. I admit I could never be a therapist if it meant avoiding reality. Yes, I know, God is reality for most people. Dawkins came right out and called God a delusion. I hope he would approve of my post and appreciate the atheist’s dilemma.

    We agree on most points — that therapy should be pragmatic, lead to self-understanding, etc. I have no problem with somebody being a paid listener - often the client will lead him/herself to a solution, just by rambling. I did specify the kind of therapy that could really be helpful.

    I was with you until the last sentence, which I find intentionally over-literal and offensive. Hannibal a credible spokesperson? Are you devolving into a pompous, humorless old curmudgeon? In journalism, this is called the “facetious lead.” Do I have to give YOU writing lessons?

    Dr. Lecter’s surgery, however ghastly, WAS science. Jesus, do I have to explain everything?

    Somebody told me that if I wanted to blog, I’d better have a thick skin, which I do.



  4. on 19 Nov 2012 at 9:41 pmAlan

    To Rich…Very thoughtful, almost poetic. I would add that along with the shitting, digesting, sweating,respiration, etc., we are 90% bacteria! WHERE did you say you get this sense of “self”?

    Loved the priest’s quip. I know someone who’s happy but in many ways not grown up.

    So right: as soon as we had consciousness, we started altering it. First plant pharmacology, then fermentation (beer being one of the reasons why people stopped hunting/gethering).

  5. on 19 Nov 2012 at 11:31 pmRich

    Wish I knew what the entity I call ME is. Or what I is. Question is Moot when I’m in Pain. Like my recent toothache. Drugs, drills, and modern Dentistry let me Wonder again. And understand why people Stupify themselves.

    A cosmologist posited “People are the Universe looking at itself”. Philosophically chewy idea. We often need booze to do it.

    Laugh or scream in Terror. Laugh is better.

  6. on 20 Nov 2012 at 1:17 amRick

    My problem is just the opposite of finding a shrink who will adjust his/her therapeutic approach to my religious beliefs. As an atheist residing in a country that hold’s the world’s record as having the highest percentage of god-believers (predominantly R. Catholic and mostly devout at that), I want to be sure that if I can’t find a non-believing psychologist/ psychotherapist that I can at least get one who will suspend his/her religious delusions (which I’m concerned would interfere with treatment) and objectively work with me, assuming that (s)he is willing to take on an atheist as a patient in the first place.

    I have health problems that require me to consult a variety of specialists, including an ENT doc who says that she prays for my recovery from my ailments that are outside her ken, and my urologist has a bible prominently displayed on his desk. So you see that that even the medical world here is not exempt from the god/jesus virus. I doubt that mental health experts are any different.

  7. on 20 Nov 2012 at 1:43 amHarry

    Point about Hannibal well-taken. Like I say, I didn’t really know anything about Judith’s approach to therapy. My own experience has been with people who are not “spiritualists.” I’m impatient with that myself. I can always benefit from a writing lesson from the master.

  8. on 20 Nov 2012 at 6:20 amHarry

    Maybe you should provide an “edit” feature so I can take out stupid remarks, like mine on Hannibal Lector. I really enjoyed this post–I had to sit down and think about it. Curmudgeon that I am (I wear the title with some pride), I get miffed when I’m forced to think. I’m supposed to be retired. I don’t read, and I don’t think. I’m entitled to be mindless.

    With all affection,

    Uncle H

  9. on 25 Nov 2012 at 8:52 pmAlan

    To Rick…After reading your comment, I feel so fortunate to live in a country where medicine and religion are separate and I don’t have to listen to some religious doc prattle about God. That’s just going to annoy me, not contribute to my health.

    To Harry…Another reason why I blog (and play Scrabble) is to keep my mental muscles supple. I’m delighted to have provoked thought. I too admit to being a curmudgeon. “I’m 69, and I speak my mind” is this year’s catch-phrase.

    I share your laziness, though mine takes different forms. Don’t wanna travel, decorate the house, or learn to use an iPhone.

    Over the years Judith got many notes from clients thanking her for helping them through difficult times. She was a “soft agnostic” who followed Rabbi Wine along with me. But if she helped people by pretending to enter their God-world, who am I to discount her methods? But I couldn’t pretend.

    To Rich, I offer this Zen/Jewish aphorism: If there is no self, then whose arthritis is this?

  10. on 26 Nov 2012 at 1:46 amRich

    Exactly the conundrum. Maybe the Buddha was on to something. “Work real hard at this, and if you’re lucky, you’ll … disappear or something”.

    Jacky Mason. Man goes to a doctor. Dr: “This isn’t the real you”. Man: “Go find the real me, and give him the bill”.

    Skimmed a bit of yr last piece. A thought. Recently, I’ve been thinking it’s rather a good thing I haven’t had a v happy life (tho I’ve been v lucky, or “blessed” in much, and I’m grateful)

    The reason is, thinking of past happiness I’ve HAD makes me sad. Those days and places and people and things and youth are Gone With The Wind. Nevermore. Quixotic?

  11. on 09 Dec 2012 at 7:30 pmTom oneil

    Thank for sharing your compilation, Alan. I am still awed by your intelligence. I travel the world with Judy enjoying people of their cultures. The wisdom often resides farthest from their universities.

  12. on 09 Dec 2012 at 9:01 pmAlan


    Great to hear from you, and your kind words made my day. I’m sure you’re having terrific experiences. I have great respect for travelers - I couldn’t endure the inconvenience and displacement. Few places are worth the effort (exception: Amsterdam).

  13. on 09 Dec 2012 at 9:06 pmAlan

    To rich,

    I look back on nearly seven decades, and the times when I’ve been truly happy are few. Mostly I was running as hard as I could to stay in one place. Forced career changes. Immaturity cost me all along the way; still does. As my shrink in IL said, life is not fair or unfair — it just is.

    My brother is the luckiest person I know. His life is miraculously free of all stress and catastrophe. He is healthy, wealthy, but far from the wisest man alive. And what happens when real crisis hits?

  14. on 10 Dec 2012 at 6:03 amRich

    Rough draft of DofI: “life, liberty, and property”. Not poetic as final, maybe that’s OK. We hold all on sufferance. Happiness only a bit more chimerical & tenuous & brief. Mansions make me nervous. They seem of hubris, tempting fate.

    From youth, I yearned for neither. I had the nutty notion of contributing to the general good. Wisdom is no shield against misery, we go from 1 crisis to another. Altho, there are some out there, threatening human life & Earth itself.

  15. on 10 Dec 2012 at 7:03 pmAlan

    The Founders were onto something with that one word: for perhaps the first time in history, you didn’t have to worry about the king or the church trying to run (or ruin) your life. You could pursue HAPPINESS!

    Just read that Streisand has 3 mansions, right next to each other. She took 6 years off from work to build one and hardly goes into it (bed too uncomfortable). At some point, you have more money than you need, and this is the result.

    Stick around for the eco-apocalypse. As we merrily continue to burn fossil fuels (yay, NASCAR!), the polar ice melts at an alarming rate; 4-6″ increases in sea level can wreck civilization and now seem inevitable.

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  17. on 04 May 2017 at 2:04 amAlan

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