The Drift of Modern Psychology
AUGUST 01, 1984 by IVAN THORN, WILLIAM KILPATRICK
Ivan Thorn, a journalist from East Patchogue, New York, has interviewed Professor Kilpatrick concerning the nature of modern psychology and its effect on society.
William Kirk Kilpatrick is an associate professor of educational psychology at Boston College, and the author of Identity and Intimacy, one of the first books to criticize the narcissistic drift of psychology. His most recent book, Psychological Seduction: The Failure of Modern Psychology (Thomas Nelson Publishers), has stirred controversy over the infiltration of psychology into religion.
1. If your book is about the infiltration of psychology into religion, why the title Psychological Seduction? Well, to seduce means to lead away from duty or proper conduct. And I think this has been the result of the American flirtation with psychology. The effect of popu-lar psychology is to make us think we only have a duty to ourselves. Of course, for a seduction to be successful, the seducer must appear attractive and he must promise a lot. Psychology fits the bill on both counts.
2. The fact that you have subtitled your book “The Failure of Modern Psychology” suggests that psychology has failed to live up to its promises. When professionals really know what they are doing you expect that sooner or later the results will show. Now, there has been an enormous explosion of helping professionals in recent years—400 per cent between 1954 and 1980 and during that same approximate period the membership of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry increased 2,000 per cent. The American Association of Sex Educators and Counselors grew from a charter membership of 250 in 1967 to 48,000 by 1976. So we would expect to see some improvement in indices of social health. But this has not been the case. The divorce rate continues to climb, as do the rates of suicide, drug abuse . . . and violent crimes. In many ways the situation seems to be deteriorating. As one British sociologist put it, “If, when ever the fire brigade arrives the flames become fiercer, you have to wonder what it is they are pouring on the fire.”
3. But aren’t there many other factors contributing to these social ills? It would be overly simplis tic to pin all the blame on psychology, that’s true. On the other hand the psychological profession is in no position to argue, “Our theory is all right, it just hasn’t been given a chance,” because much of the theory is so obviously antisocial. You can’t build a family, much less a society, on a principle of self-actualization. And you can’t glorify the autonomous individual and then turn around and expect people to live and work in harmony.
4. What’s wrong with self-actualization? Well, in the first place, it’s a very fuzzy concept. It doesn’t have the concreteness of the traditional standards by which people once tried to guide their lives—“Honor thy father and thy mother,” “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” “Feed the hungry,” “Husbands, honor yourwives,” and so on. In the second place, actualizations often come in conflict. A father who spends all his time actualizing his career potential may be doing positive harm to his children’s chances for developing their potential. To simply say “go actualize yourself” doesn’t give us a clue as to what we should do in situations like that, unless it means always put yourself first. Unfortunately, when you read between the lines you see that this is exactly what the popular psychology expert does mean.
5. How about the emphasis on self-actualization—is it important to feel good about ourselves? That depends. If you’ve just done something rotten then you should not feel good about yourself. Here again, “Feeling good about myself” can be used to justify all sorts of behavior. We’re all familiar with the cliché “I can’t be good to others unless I’m good to myself,” but that’s the sort of rationale that a man uses when he’s contemplating adultery. “This affair,” he says to himself, “will make me feel better about myself. And if I feel better about myself then I’ll be a better husband.” But in reality, as we know, it rarely works that way.
6. Are you condemning all psychology? No, it’s perfectly legitimate to study and describe human behavior. The problem is that many psychologists are not very good observers of human nature. They tend to leave out many crucial facts. Freud, for example, was the last major theorist with enough perception to notice that there is something drastically wrong with human nature. But too many contemporary psychologists are in the business of prescription rather than description. They make up solutions before they really understand the problems. And, by the way, I don’t mean to impugn the idealism or good intentions of psychologists. Many are good people who do good work and genuinely do help people. My criticisms are directed more against the way in which psychology has evolved into a philosophy of life that has filtered into every area of our culture. And I think this philosophy creates more problems than individual therapists can possibly handle. We can draw an analogy here to the welfare system. Although there are many individual social workers and welfare workers who give help to people in distress, we are beginning to wonder if the welfare philosophy itself does not create many of the problems that the welfare system is designed to cure.
7. Can you elaborate a bit? Yes. A psychological society tends to be a society of great expectations and a society of great expectations is oftena society of great frustrations. A man who has been conditioned to believe he has unlimited potentials is sooner or later in for a big let down. It’s ironic that the most psychologically sophisticated people history has produced should be so prone to depression.
8. On the other hand, psychologists have developed drugs that may cure depression and other mental illness. Yes, although “cure” is a bit strong. Up till now these drugs have been helpful in controlling mental illness but I don’t think we can say they cure it. And, of course, they can have nasty side effects. But even supposing we could, by the use of drugs, cure people of neurotic unhappiness, we would still have the problem of what Freud called “normal unhappiness.” And here again it seems to me that psychology intensifies the problem because the psychological prescription for happiness is all wrong.
9. How? We are led to believe that happiness lies within, that it can be found by greater self- awareness, or by getting closer to ourselves or some similar formula. This flies in the face of traditional wisdom which holds that happiness is to be found outside ourselves in relationship with other people and with God. I think everyday observation demands that we give the nod to traditional wisdom in this case. For example, when we say of someone that he was beside himself with laughter or that he was immersed in conversation we recognize that the best times are the times when we forget ourselves. The word ecstasy, as you probably know, comes from a Greek word which means to stand outside oneself.
10. You have a chapter entitled “The Dismal Science—1984 and Beyond.” What do you mean by that? That if we’re not careful we’re going to end up with the same type of dismal society portrayed in Orwell’s book. Only in our case it’s more likely to be ushered in by smiling members of the helping profession than by jackbooted storm troopers. Orwell realized that one of the best ways of manipulating people is by manipulating the language, and the behavioral scientists are past masters at doing this. The way we think is, of course, determined to a large extent by the words available to us, so if certain words fall out of use so do certain concepts. For example, we are inundated with words such as “needs,” “naturals,” and “sexuals” but we don’t hear much any more from “virtue,” “valor,” or “purity.” Then, too, we don’t hear much about raising families today but we hear a great deal about parenting—and that word carries the implication that having a family is no different from any other kind of career. And not necessarily the type of career that requires a full measure of devotion—mothers and fathers are now referred to by psychologists as “caretakers.” It’s alarming to me that many of our behavioral scientists seem intent on doing the same sort of thing totalitarianism societies do—to wipe out all special ties of emotion or allegiance such as might exist between husband and wife or parent and child. And this extreme emphasis on the autonomous individual freed from family and freed from loyalties leads straight to the police state because extreme individualism is not at all incompatible with totalitarianism. It is families, and churches, and neighborhoods, and communities that the totalitarian state fears—not aggregates of isolated individuals.
11. You spoke earlier of psychology filtering into every area of our culture—can you give an ex ample? The most interesting example for me is the influence psychology has had on religion, particularly Christianity. The ironic thing about it is that most popular psychology flatly contradicts the Christian message, and yet many priests and pastors seem hell-bent (If I may use that term) on blending the two.
12. If psychology and Christianity were incompatible, wouldn’t church leaders be able to see that? They should but they often don’t for two reasons. The first is that they are interested in helping people and psychology seems like a good way of helping people. The second reason is that psychology is a sort of counterfeit of Christianity. It looks like Christianity, sounds like Christianity and evokes Christian sentiments. Both Christianity and psychology say that we should love ourselves, both talk about the importance of our not judging others, and both say that in certain important ways we should become like little children. As a result, many Christians have let their faith become confused with psychological ideas. But this blending has all happened at the expense of Christianity. It’s done enormous harm to the churches.
13. How so? Well, it’s as though the American government were to hire the KGB as consultants on how to improve the American system. The philosophy of the KGB doesn’t lend itself to that purpose. In a similar way the philosophy of popular psychology acts to undercut the Christian position. The prime example is the emphasis on self-acceptance. By and large, psychology says we should accept ourselves as we are. “We’re O.K. the way we are and weonly need to learn how to be ourselves.” Christianity, on the other hand, says that “There is something wrong with us as we are, that we need a transformation before we start patting ourselves on the back.” Now if psychology is right about this it reduces the good news of the gospels to the status of nice news—nice because there was never anything wrong with us. And all this business about needing a savior is rendered superfluous.
14. Can you give another exam-pie of this opposition? Well, let me carry the logic of my previous statement a bit further. Psychology doesn’t have much use for the ideas of sin. But sin is integral to Christianity. If we are not sincerely in need of a savior then Christianity loses its point. Psychology, however, has been very successful in its campaign to get us to accept ourselves. The result has been a lowering of the consciousness of sin. In the Catholic Church, for example, there has been an enormous falling off of the practice of confession and this is not because Catholics have suddenly adopted the Protestant idea of confessing sins straight to God but be cause they know of no sins to confess.
15. Is this mainly a Catholic phenomenon? No, among some Protestant evangelicals there is a tendency to substitute the psychology of positive thinking for genuine Christian faith. In addition, there is an enormous susceptibility to the philosophy of self-esteem. One very prominent media evangelist has taken to calling self-esteem “the highest value” and he now describes sin as “negative self-esteem.” He calls for a “new reformation” based on “self-esteem.” In the “emerging reformation,” he says, “psychology and theology will work side-by-side as strong allies.” No one who reads this man can doubt his good intentions and his bright hopes. But any one who can read the recent past and see the result of such alliances will not be so optimistic.
16. Couldn’t it be argued that this makes religion more relevant? It’s been said that he who marries the spirit of the times is soon a widower. Those churches which have tried hardest to be relevant have actually lost the most members. When you try to fit Christianity into a procrustean bed of psychology you end up cutting off all the unique and compelling parts of it. I’ve seen religious study texts for young Christians that go on and on about whether St. Paul had self-esteem or whether Christ had good decision-making skills. When you start reducing religion to the level of that kind of psychological jargon you lose sight of the fact that there are partsof the faith so awesome and unfathomable that they lie far beyond the reach of the social sciences.
17. Does that mean psychology is incompatible with all religion? No, it blends in very nicely with Eastern religions. Most humanistic psychologists, for example, end up espousing some form of Buddhism or Hinduism. There is a Hindu prayer which goes “I bow to the God within.” That seems to be the only type of God psychology is comfortable with.
18. Is your book, then, addressed only to Christians? No, my criticism of psychology is not just that it goes against the grain of common sense. In comparing Christianity with psychology, I’m not making an appeal to faith so much as an appeal to reason. I’m simply saying that Christianity is more realistic about human nature than psychology is. It’s willing to paint us as we are, warts and all.
19. Could you give an example of this greater realism? Yes, take the area of moral education. At present most American and Canadian schools are dominated by psychological models. The genera] techniques here are to present ethical dilemmas, discuss them in a neutral manner, and then have the student clarify his own values. Now our ancestors, Christian and non-Christian alike, would have objected on two counts to this procedure. They would have observed that a moral crisis is more like a physical struggle than a mental problem. The reaction to it has to be in the “muscles” as well as the mind. In other words, virtue needs to be practiced just as tennis needs to be practiced. This is why the traditional approach to moral education placed such an emphasis on character training. On the second count they would have objected to the modern scheme on the grounds that it provides no motivation for acting morally. Most of us recognize that the difficult part of morality is not the knowing of what is right but actually doing it. What we need are models to follow—models of virtue and courage and honor and so forth. For the most part these were provided in stories: The Iliad and The Odyssey for the Greeks, Sagas for Irish and Icelanders, stories from the Bible for Christians and Jews. It’s quite obvious that young people are still looking for worthy heroes to emulate. The psychological society simply refuses to give them any.
20. Why do you place such a great emphasis on stories? Because we all have a storytelling instinct and we all have an appetite for stories, just as we do for food and drink. It’s a need that has been sorely neglected by psychologists. In fact, the psychological society tends to work against the elements that make for the good story: love, loyalty, heroes, and good and evil. This is why so much of our modern literature and film falls fiat. Dorothy Sayers once said that “you can’t have drama without dogma.” That is, you need to have prohibitions that are taken seriously. I recently watched a made-for-television film in which a priest had an affair with a married woman. When she finds out about him she is shocked. And when he finds out she is married, he’s shocked. And we, the audience, are supposed to be shocked as well. But, of course, we’re not, because there is nothing in modern society to suggest in the first place that priestly vows or marriage vows should be taken seriously.
21. Are there other needs which psychology neglects? Yes, we all suffer and we all have a need to find meaning in our suffering. We need to feel that our suffering is not wasted. Psychology doesn’t have anything to offer on that count. Suffering is made to seem like a mistake that can be avoided by rational living or else it’s trivialized by being reduced to the level of a clinical symptom.
Another need that psychology neglects is what C. S. Lewis called the inconsolable longing. We all seem to have a certain desire or need that never is satisfied. No matter how much we have there is still a part of us that feels unsatisfied and incomplete. Aldous Huxley said “Sooner or later one asks even of Shakespeare, even of Beethoven, ‘Is that all?’” I don’t think psychology has any adequate explanation for this longing.
22. In your book you make a distinction between the therapeutic criterion of belief and the religious criterion; would you elaborate? The basic therapeutic criterion for judging a belief is to ask: “Will it meet my needs?” or “Will it make me feel good?” The religious criterion is “Is it true?” The interesting thing is that many religious people are now adapting the therapeutic criterion—which is, of course, a completely subjective one. I once talked to a Harvard Divinity School professor who favored the “Gnostic Gospels” over the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John because “the masculine gospels didn’t meet the needs of women.” It did seem not to matter to her whether or not the Four Gospels were true, nor did she seem to care if the Gnostic Gospels were true. She was only interested in meeting needs.
23. Where did you come by the idea for your book? The school ofhard knocks. For a number of years I drifted away from Christianity and for all intents and purposes psychology became my religion. I had a great deal of faith in it but it turned out not to be a very satisfactory faith. It simply did not fit the facts of my life or those of others I knew. I should add that my initial interest in psychology came about at the prompting of priests and ministers. In retrospect, it was a classic case of wolves in sheep’s clothing.
24. Do you see this as a deliberate infiltration—a conscious attempt to undermine Christianity? No. As I say, most of the undermining is being done by Christians themselves and usually with the best of intentions. I would call it a case of trying to serve two masters. When you try to do that, one of them doesn’t get served very well. A good example is a religious study text for Catholics which features a 3-page extract on marriage from a book by psychiatrist Carl Rogers but only devotes two sentences to Christ’s teachings on the subject. The inference is obvious; the psychological message is the one to listen to. The same applies to a priest who declared children should not be taught the Ten Commandments—it was bad psychology, he said.
25. Many clergy in all denominations seem to be convinced that psychology in general, and the idea of self-acceptance specifically, can help Christians with their faith. It’s been my observation that Christian priests who are heavily swayed by psychology tend to use it as the criterion by which they judge Christianity rather than the other way around—which I think is improper. In other words, for them the psychology comes first and the Christianity comes second. The other thing that I think happens is this, that there is so much emphasis in psychology in having harmony and wholeness and superficial peace of mind and, of course, being free of guilt that those who are married to psychology will do just about anything to help people get rid of their guilt. The human problem of course is that there is always a discrepancy between our belief, our ideals and our behavior. Now the traditional Christian or religious response has been to keep the beliefs and to try to change the behavior: realizing that we’re only human and that we fall down and that we need the grace of God. The psychological idea seems to be that instead of changing the behavior you change the beliefs—beliefs being considerably easier to change than behavior. This is called improving your self-concepts, in other words, if there are particular things which you would like to do but they seem wrong to you for religious reasons or whatever, then the smart thing to do is to readjust your thinking. And in that way you won’t have to worry so much about readjusting your behavior which is a more difficult task. So I think what happens is that the emphasis on self-esteem, on liking ourselves, becomes predominant here so that self-esteem is allowed to cover a multitude of sins. I think in that way we can really become worse through self-acceptance.
26. Do you have other instances of the Christian message being judged against psychological criterion? Yes, I’ve heard of situations where parish priests had forbidden certain catechisms to be used in their parishes by the teachers because these catechisms were not psychologically relevant. I know of one case where a priest actually tore up one of these catechisms in front of a group of teachers to emphasize his point. This was the catechism he favored, by the way, but it carried a picture of the crucifixion. I think that’s interesting because what it suggests, of course, is that the whole idea of the crucifixion flies in the face of the psychological idea that we’re O.K. and that we ought to feel good about ourselves. When you have a conflict like this, of course, something has to go and what goes is the picture of the crucifixion and that reminder that not all is well with human nature.
27. Do you have any final observations? Yes, since psychology can offer no consolation in the face of suffering and no hope of an afterlife, it places a very great emphasis on being a winner in life. But the fact is, most of us are losers by psychology’s standards. How many of us attain to that level of success and mental health portrayed in the self-help books? The standards of success are not only very narrow, they have a narrowing effect on us.
28. I think it has a corrosive effect on our personality—thisconstant striving after mental health, this ambition to be a winner at all costs. Yes, it’s often remarked that Catholics are about 10 years behind the times. Most of the four ideas I’ve criticized are now being abandoned by serious psychologists as selfish and socially destructive. Yet many Catholic educators still cling to them, and in particular to the more shallow and naive types of psychology. The irony is that they’re climbing on board ship just at the moment the psychologists themselves are abandoning it. It’s an unnavigable ship and a leaky one.