On “Modern Psychology’s God problem”

“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 and sauteeing portions of his brain 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 psychotherapy 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 it’s 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 – 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 improve his/her mental health?

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 degree 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

And 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? 

What if the client is a Hindu or a Wiccan or a Druze?  Must the therapist bone up on every faith in this great land 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?

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Comment by Alan Perlman on November 19, 2012 at 3:46pm

Thanks, Steph.  Your kind words only encourage me.


Comment by Alan Perlman on November 17, 2012 at 12:07pm

Yes, it should work both ways.  A religious therapist should be able to counsel an unbeliever without religion getting in the way.  But that's not gonna happen.

Religion is truly exceptional, as if there were a wall around it.  It exists because so many institutions, from the IRS to the media to the mental health profession, allow this exceptionalism.



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