The Burgeoning Religion of Psychology

In this article I intend to highlight some of the spiritual dangers of our current psychological milieu. My comments are not intended to dismiss the contributions of psychology or psychiatry, but rather to offer information to enable us to be biblically discerning.

Professor David Larson of Duke University Medical School draws attention to biases in the mental health professions that are similar to those one might find in sociology. “Consider The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the standard reference manual for the classification of mental illnesses, which essentially defines the practice of psychiatrists, clinical psychology, and clinical social work and is central to the practice, research, and financing of these professions. In the third edition, religious examples were used only as illustrations in discussions of mental illness, such as delusions, incoherence, and illogical thinking. The latest edition has corrected this bias.”[1] (italics added) The fourth edition was right to correct this misrepresentation, but it did not correct the bias of the community that placed it there and allowed it to stand for so many years.[2]

Allen J. Frances, M.D., was chair of the DSM-4 Task Force and is professor emeritus of the department of psychiatry at Duke University School of Medicine. He wrote an article in Psychology Today which, although it does not seem to have been his intention, highlights the continued devaluing of religious faith in the DSM-5. Regarding the flawed developmental process of the DSM-5 he wrote, “This is no way to prepare or to approve a diagnostic system…. [The] APA has proven itself incapable of producing a safe, sound, and widely accepted manual.”[3] This level of dissatisfaction by such a qualified analyst should, at least, garner a healthy level of skepticism regarding the diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues that would otherwise be seen as issues of normalcy, religion, and choice. He poignantly notes the seriousness of adding new diagnoses, “New diagnoses in psychiatry are more dangerous than new drugs….Before their introduction, new diagnoses deserve the same level of attention to safety that we devote to new drugs. APA is not competent to do this.”[4]

He gives his list of the “DSM-5’s ten most potentially harmful changes.” Several of which, either by diagnosis or medicalized treatment, effectively undermine or are inherently dismissive of the actual reality and importance of religion. For example, Frances notes, “Normal grief will become Major Depressive Disorder, thus medicalizing and trivializing our expectable and necessary emotional reactions to the loss of a loved one and substituting pills and superficial medical rituals for the deep consolations of family, friends, [and] religion.”[5] Consequently, faith (trusting God’s love and presence) is no longer a viable and sufficient response to sadness, and the same can be said for many so-called disorders. Disorders do not require a Savior or faith, only a psychologist and a prescription. He says, “Excessive eating…is no longer …gluttony….DSM 5 has instead turned it into a psychiatric illness called Binge Eating Disorder.”[6] With this, the DSM erases the sin of gluttony (as it has a long history of medicalizing sin) and the need for repentance.

Regarding normal responses or other behavioral problems he states, “DSM 5 has created a slippery slope by introducing the concept of Behavioral Addictions that eventually can spread to make a mental disorder of everything we like to do a lot. Watch out for careless over diagnosis of internet and sex addiction and the development of lucrative treatment programs to exploit these new markets…. Painful experience with previous DSM’s teaches that if anything in the diagnostic system can be misused and turned into a fad, it will be. Many millions of people with normal grief, gluttony, distractibility, worries, reactions to stress, the temper tantrums of childhood, the forgetting of old age, and ‘behavioral addictions’ will soon be mislabeled as psychiatrically sick and given inappropriate treatment.”[7] Another example is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), “one of the most widely used of all psychological tests….All the positive religion-connected traits—self-discipline, altruism, humility, obedience to authority, conventional morality—are weighted negatively…Conversely, several traits that religious people would regard as diminishing themselves, at least in some situations—self-assertion, self-expression, and a high opinion of oneself—are weighted positively.”[8]

Albert Ellis, Executive Director of the Institute for Rational-Emotive Therapy (RET), says concerning “devout or pious religionists, or devotees of religiosity…. It is my contention that both pietistic theists and dogmatic secular religionists—like virtually all people imbued with intense religiosity and fanaticism—are emotionally disturbed.”[9] Ellis teaches that the concepts such as, “certain people are evil, wicked and villainous, and should be punished” and “you need something other or stronger or greater than yourself to rely on” are irrational beliefs. This conclusion implies that anyone who takes his faith seriously is irrational because these kinds of beliefs are essential to orthodox Christianity as well as many other supernatural religions. In addition, if a person with strong religious beliefs takes the RET Beliefs Inventory, the test results will indicate that the believer has some irrational beliefs, which in RET is a problem to be corrected.[10]

Add to this the profound role that psychology plays in developing the curriculum and pedagogy of state education; this along with the claim that psychology is also ostensibly based on science, whereas the knowledge of God is perceived to be subjective, and therefore, not objective or knowable in any real sense by the population at large. Then you begin to get an idea of how destructive and pervasive secular psychology can be. Remember Freud and many of his successors, psychoanalysts, psychologists, and even counselors like Carl Rogers, Ellis, etc., have basically atheistic (or humanistic) theories.

Psychology and psychiatry are continuing on a path of expanding their domain. This is done by developing new syndromes to explain certain behaviors or constellations of behaviors. Psychiatrist and philosopher Irwin Savodnik of UCLA wrote an article for the LA Times entitled, “Psychiatry’s Sick Compulsion: Turning Weaknesses into Diseases.” This highlights the American Psychiatric Association’s ever expanding list of “illnesses.” He says, “IT’S JAN. 1. Past time to get your inoculation against seasonal affective disorder, or SAD — at least according to the American Psychiatric Assn. As Americans rush to return Christmas junk, bumping into each other in Macy’s and Best Buy, the psychiatric association ponders its latest iteration of feeling bad for the holidays. And what is the association selling? Mental illness. With its panoply of major depression, dysthymic disorder, bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, the association is waving its … flag to remind everyone that amid all the celebration, all the festivities, all the exuberance, many people will ‘come down with’ or ‘contract’ or ‘develop’ some variation of depressive illness.”[11]

This may seem somewhat humorous, and that is the way it is perceived by many, even in the Christian community, at least at first. Actually, it is another move to bring human behavior under the ever-expanding domain of science. If all of the troubles associated with human weaknesses or problems in behavior or thinking are treated as a mental illness or disorder, then that falls under the domain of science, and science affords only natural explanations and cures. Therefore, the rampant secularizing of every truly spiritual issue results in the perceived absence of sin, which can only be addressed spiritually. The spiritual truth is, if people are sad after Christmas, it may be that their sadness is the result of a spiritual need, loss of love, guilt about sin, missing family, etc., which can only be thoroughly addressed by Christ.

Savodnik then shows how the association has capitalized on turning normal human weaknesses, some of which we might label as sin, into medical diseases. He says, “The association specializes in turning ordinary human frailty into disease. In the last year, ads have been appearing in psychiatric journals about possible treatments for shyness, a ‘syndrome’ not yet officially recognized as a disease. You can bet it will be in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-IV, published by the association. As it turns out, the association has been inventing mental illnesses for the last 50 years or so. The original diagnostic manual appeared in 1952 and contained 107 diagnoses and 132 pages, by my count. The second edition burst forth in 1968 with 180 diagnoses and 119 pages. In 1980, the association produced a 494-page tome with 226 conditions. Then, in 1994, the manual exploded to 886 pages and 365 conditions, representing a 340% increase in the number of diseases over 42 years.”[12] The DSM-5 has expanded to 947 pages.[13] The number of conditions does not seem to have increased even though new ones have been added. Robin S. Rosenberg explains, “One way to add new diagnoses…but not increase the total is to make a disorder in a previous edition into a ‘subtype’ of another disorder in the new edition, thereby keeping two diagnostic entities, but with one subsumed under another.”[14]

The Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) is a mental health watchdog. The following quotes from CCHR regarding the lack of objective criteria for diagnosing mental illness serve as a reminder that while there certainly is a place for psychiatry, its ever-expanding presence is more philosophical than scientific.

Despite more than two hundred years of intensive research, no commonly diagnosed psychiatric disorders have proven to be either genetic or biological in origin, including schizophrenia, major depression, manic-depressive disorder, the various anxiety disorders, and childhood disorders such as attention-deficit hyperactivity. At present there are no known biochemical imbalances in the brain of typical psychiatric patients—until they are given psychiatric drugs — Peter Breggin, psychiatrist.

[While] there has been no shortage of alleged biochemical explanations for psychiatric conditions…not one has been proven. Quite the contrary. In every instance where such an imbalance was thought to have been found, it was later proven false — Dr. Joseph Glenmullen, Harvard Medical School psychiatrist.

The theories are held on to not only because there is nothing else to take their place, but also because they are useful in promoting drug treatment — Dr. Elliott Valenstein, Ph.D., author of Blaming the Brain.

No claim for a gene for a psychiatric condition has stood the test of time, in spite of popular misinformation — Dr. Joseph Glenmullen, Harvard Medical School psychiatrist.[15]

Expanding the definitions of disorders or mental illnesses result in what was normal becoming abnormal, and therefore, more and more people are diagnosed as needing psychological treatment and prescriptions. The most alarming thing about this trend is that Christians seem to be largely unaware of the pervasiveness and consequences of such changes in culture, their perspective, receptivity to the gospel, and the church.

Regrettably, many pastors are equally unaware or at least uninterested in countering it, because many of them have incorporated the terminology into their sermons or counseling or have simply ignored the issue except for occasional jabs or quotes. They have unfortunately underestimated the constant erosion of the believability of God and the gospel, or even a context to consider God’s relevance. The disastrous effect of shifting from the moral model to the medical model as the cause and treatment of behavioral problems emanates from expanding science beyond its legitimate domanial authority, relying upon the supposed adequacy of science to know what needs to be known or can be known (epistemic naturalism), and the Darwinian descent as an all-encompassing paradigm for life. As a result, this shift leads us further down the road of practical determinism, shunning personal responsibility, and promising a cure for behavioral problems pharmacologically. For example, today in many circles, the answer of choice for troublesome, overactive little boys is not discipline, but rather medication-induced docility.

This excessive application of the medical model goes hand in hand with sociology’s reductionistic view that every norm, moral, or spiritual concept is merely a social or human construct, is based on viewing man as an animal, and is, consequently, merely matter generated and instinctual. This view has a profound impact on education, politics, law, and the place for religious faith and answers. I am not arguing against the diseasing of sin out of a fear of Christianity losing its place in culture; rather I am arguing against it because it is wrong and because the eternal impact of not dealing with sin, regardless of popular opinion, is of immeasurable consequence.

State education has been shaped and influenced by men like Herbert Spencer, Edward Thorndike, G. Stanley Hall, and John Dewey (Dewey himself was influenced by the child-centered education advocated in Rousseau’s didactic novel Emil) and ostensibly based on science; although, more truthfully, it is based on scientism and the natural order of things. We are simply seeing that basis become the basis of everything through the primary influence of progressive education.

This redefinition of both man’s problems and the cures changes the conscience of a nation because they change the conscience of individual human beings (our primary concern). The conscience does not seem to be absolute, but rather it is developed by the standards and knowledge that are deposited into it. If one is taught the Scripture and God’s love and law, the conscience convicts (although inconsistently because of the fall) based on that standard. If the conscience is built upon other standards of right and wrong, it will respond to that input. The eventuation of which is not merely that some people do not feel that stealing or divorce is wrong but that they don’t believe it is and therefore, they experience little or no guilt from such behavior. Without the bad news of sin, the good news of the gospel is at best diminished and for many it is unintelligible.


 

[1] David B. Larson and Susan S. Larson, “The Forgotten Factor in Physical and Mental Health: What Does the Research Show?” (Rockville, MD: National Institute for Healthcare Research, 1994), in Why Religion Matters: The Impact of Religious Practice on Social Stability, by Patrick F. Fagan, Ph. D., http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/1996/01/bg1064nbsp-why-religion-matters.
[2] The DSM-5 was released May, 2015. For a survey of the literature regarding biases toward religion and suggestions of what can be done, see http://pb.rcpsych.org/content/32/6/201.full accessed 9/17/14.
[3] “DSM 5 Is Guide Not Bible—Ignore Its Ten Worst Changes, APA approval of DSM-5 is a sad day for psychiatry” published on December 2, 2012 by Allen J. Frances, M.D. on his blog DSM5 in Distress, The DSM’s impact on mental health practice and research, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/dsm5-in-distress/201212/dsm-5-is-guide-not-bible-ignore-its-ten-worst-changes, accessed 9/17/14.
[4] Frances, “DSM 5 Is Guide Not Bible.”
[5] Frances, “DSM 5 Is Guide Not Bible.”
[6] Frances, “DSM 5 Is Guide Not Bible.”
[7] Frances, “DSM 5 Is Guide Not Bible.”
[8] Larson and Larson, “The Forgotten Factor” in Fagan, Why Religion Matters.
[9] Albert Ellis (1983), The case against religiosity (New York: Institute for Rational-Emotive Therapy) 12-13, quoting himself (1984) “Rational-Emotive therapy (RET) and Pastoral Counseling: A Reply to Richard Wessler,” The Personnel and Guidance Journal, (January) 266.
[10] This is based on the RET “Beliefs Inventory” I have from Henderson State University, when I was in graduate school.
[11] Abstract or full text can be found at www.AlbertMohler.com, under “The Reign of the Therapeutic—Someone’s Asking Questions;” also www.latimes.com, accessed 9/18/14.
[12] http://www.latimes.com/news/la-op-psych1jan01-story.html accessed 12/1/15.
[13] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/17/dsm-5-unveiled-changes-disorders-_n_3290212.html accessed 9/17/14.  This article also includes the lack of biological science behind the diagnosis and other problems.
[14] http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2013/04/diagnostic_and_statistical_manual_fifth_edition_why_will_half_the_u_s_population.html accessed 9/18/14.
[15] http://www.cchrint.org/psychiatric-disorders/psychiatristsphysicians-on-lack-of-any-medicalscientific-tests/ accessed 9/18/14.