Is Religion Necessary for Morality?

Therapists hear many opinions from their patients. Such beliefs are not always the focus treatment or what the client came to work on. They simply “appear” in the course of conversation. One of those ideas, quite common, has to do with religion. On numerous occasions my clients mentioned, unprompted, that a religious upbringing was essential to raising “moral” children. Without the guidance of a perfect, all-good, all-powerful being, the successful raising of an upright person was hard for them to imagine.

Arthur Schopenhauer, the 19th century German philosopher, disagreed. So did moral theorists like Immanuel Kant.

Schopenhauer thought religion clouds our capacity for rationality. According to him, early religious training creates an intellectual blind spot persisting throughout life. We then become susceptible to accepting ideas “on faith” instead of reason. Our dispassionate, analytic abilities are crippled, in Schopenhauer’s view. Childhood religious indoctrination requires us to “believe” (lest God punish us either now or in the hereafter) rather than search for truth with whatever logical tools and evidence we can muster.

Early acceptance of miracles and supernatural beings were, to Schopenhauer, the beginning of a path to intellectual and behavioral ruin. He feared religious education would hamper our ability to separate truth from falsehood. Bad behavior, excused by our confused thought process, was considered another potential consequence of a religion-created blindness.

Schopenhauer offered ancient Athens, the city-state of Plato and Aristotle, as a counter example: a moral community not produced by religion and one he thought functioned better because of its absence.

Athens was a genuine democracy: all the citizens voted on every important issue (as opposed to representative governments in which individuals are elected to do the actual voting in legislative bodies like the U.S. Congress). Schopenhauer argued that religion did not exist in Athens in the period to which he refers. Yes, there were gods and some people made sacrifices to them; but no organized, regular religious services were observed with a formal priestly hierarchy and a carefully prescribed method of worship. Nor did religious documents exist (like the Bible or Koran) or any “inspired” list of good and bad behavior similar to The Ten Commandments. Yet, Schopenhauer reminds us that laws were respected, justice was important, civility was maintained, and philosophical schools like Plato’s extraordinary Academy flourished. The question of the good life and how best to lead it was discussed among educated citizens.

At this point you might complain about the lack of rights for women in ancient Athens or the slavery prevalent there. Do remember, however, equality of the sexes is a relatively new issue despite over 2000 years of Christianity. Moreover, the Confederacy during the U.S Civil War justified the hideous institution of slavery by reference to its presence in the Bible. Nor is slavery condemned in that book.

Schopenhauer believed compassion, not religion, contributed to moral conduct, and such compassion was in man’s nature (making religion unnecessary). Indeed, the ability to identify with our fellow-man seems in short supply these days, whatever the cause. The more closely we identify with the superiority of our national, racial, or religious group, the more we are at risk of excluding feelings of sympathy for those who don’t share our nationality, skin color, or faith.

Immanuel Kant, an earlier German philosopher, argued for a different (but still secular) foundation for morality: the categorical imperative. Kant recommended we each ask a question when evaluating our behavior: should my personal moral standards be made into a universal law — a requirement and duty for everyone without exception, or, as he called it, a categorical imperative. Additionally, in considering our answer, he would remind us to respect the dignity of our fellow-man simply because he is human. “Using” others is therefore immoral.

For example, if sexual fidelity and honesty are deemed proper, they must be required of everyone in all circumstances. Adultery, by contrast, however much you believe it would be in your self-interest, would be of no moral value; because proper action is not a matter of how much you might profit from it, but rather, a duty to what is good in itself.

Let’s say you are unfaithful, steal, lie, and break promises. Are you prepared to give permission for everyone to act the same way against you and everyone else? If not, he would argue you have exposed the moral failing of your own behavior.

These thinkers make demands on us to consider whether what we do is justifiable by a process of reason: to look in the mirror at who we are, beyond any religious rule we follow.

Clearly, whether religion is essential to implant the seed of a life-long moral rootedness, one can argue it provides many other things, including a sense of comfort, order, and hopefulness in the most fraught moments of life, as well as a supportive and congenial community of fellow-believers.

The question remains, however, whether there is something Schopenhauer and Kant are missing in their quest for moral grounding, beyond these potential benefits of faith. Do you believe religion provides some necessary ethical guidance for our children that these men miss?

I look forward to your thoughts on the subject.

The top image is Man Praying at a Japanese Shinto Shrine. It is the work of Kalandrakas and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Question Mark is sourced from the Monroeville Community Website.

How Therapists Fool Themselves

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The above photo of Kyle Young’s album “Snowball Therapy” is not meant to suggest anything negative about his music. Unfortunately, however, there are probably a few therapists who are using forms of “therapy” that are nearly as preposterous as that name implies.

The fallibilities of therapists could probably fill several books. I will not win much applause from colleagues by telling you how therapists sometimes fool themselves. The list below does not apply to all healers, but the self-deceptions are more common than one would wish. Here are a few of the ways that counselors sometimes lack a realistic appraisal of themselves and their work:

1. “I’m not doing this for the money.” While almost all therapists come to the profession in order to do some “good,” most also have to make a living like everyone else. Quite a few will discount their fees for certain patients, but most set some number as the very bottom-line that is acceptable compensation, meaning that clients without medical insurance coverage or a heavy wallet go without.

Those practitioners who do lots of marketing and employ other therapists clearly are mindful of the potential for profit. All this is fine, but it also means that there is more than one reason that therapists do the work; and that for some, money is of equal or greater importance than the work itself. Keep in mind the old joke about the MD who is asked about his specialty. His answer is: “My specialty is diseases of the rich.”

2. “I can treat almost any diagnosis.” There are too many different ways a life can go wrong and too many areas of skill and knowledge required to help put things right. No one has seen them all and knows them all, but some think they do. If your counselor claims omniscience or anything close, run — run fast!

Watch out for a therapist who thinks of himself as some sort of therapeutic comic book hero.

Watch out for a therapist who thinks of himself as some sort of therapeutic comic book hero.

3. There is no research supporting what I do, but I know it works.” Some therapists go so far as to write books about their style of treatment despite a lack of research support. They claim that their experience justifies their approach, citing anecdotal evidence which no scientist would take seriously. They ignore the fact that empirically validated treatments exist for conditions like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Social Anxiety Disorder, to name only two.

In effect, these healers practice the rough equivalent of using an unproven folk-remedy to cure cancer. They tend not to read scientific journals that publish rigorously designed, peer-reviewed articles, dismissing them as too “academic and impractical,” and may not even have the training to adequately understand such research reports. Good luck if you are the patient of one of these people.

4. “We need to continue; you aren’t where you need to be yet.” Several potential problems are found here, even though it might be true that the patient could benefit from something more. First comes the question of why therapy hasn’t already accomplished what it needs to do. The therapist may have taken this person as far as he is now capable of going, regardless of who might treat him; or else lacks the skills needed to take him further. Is the healer’s desire to extend therapy motivated by money? What is the treatment plan to get the person to the finish line and is the patient prepared to make the effort and pay with his time and hard-won dollars?

The truth is that we humans are never perfected in all the things that could make our lives better, yet most of us continue without lifelong therapy. The decision to end must come sometime.

5. “My personal issues haven’t compromised my ability to do therapy.” I have known (or known about) therapists who treated obesity despite their own considerable overweight, who treated addiction despite themselves smoking two or more packs of cigarettes a day, and who were cheating on their spouses (sometimes with patients). I’ve heard of therapists practicing with their own untreated (and perhaps undiagnosed) Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD); others with undiagnosed or untreated Bipolar Disorder.

The list of human weaknesses in therapists is not much different from the list you will find in non-therapists. Having problems at home, as therapists sometimes do, can be enormously distracting, to say the least. The more chaotic and disturbed is the healer’s life, the less effectively can he help anyone.

6. “My values don’t influence my ability to do therapy.” I’ve known therapists who were very religious, going so far as to encourage their patients to adopt a similar view; and atheist counselors who were troubled by patients who had strong religious beliefs. I’ve known those who can’t easily talk about death because they are terrified of it, a problem when dealing with someone who has mortality issues. Therapists must either refuse to see certain people, refer them to others, or heal themselves in order to practice honorably and well. Unfortunately, some practitioners deny their own limitations and the extent to which their own beliefs and issues can affect therapy.

Finally, the biggest self-deception of them all:

7. “My patients get better — I’m a good therapist.” Maybe not. Remember that most people come to therapy at a low point in their lives, perhaps even a crisis. Time passes, whether in therapy or out. Most of us tend to bounce back. As researchers know, the real question is whether the person you are treating would have done as well or better with a different treatment, without treatment; or with someone like a relative, a friend, or a clergyman who did little more than listening and hand-holding.

A few therapists forget the admonition made to physicians: “First do no harm.” Indeed, there are counselors who believe they are doing just fine, but who have failed to diagnose the difference between Bipolar (Manic-Depressive) Disorder and other varieties of depression; or missed recognizing that a patient has partially compensated for his non-hyperactive problems of attention and concentration by dint of intellect and effort, and thereby effectively disguised his need for medication.

Those diagnostic failures virtually guarantee frustration and discouragement in the patient, who then has one more life disappointment to add to a long list; and who might never return to therapy with a genuinely competent therapist. The “doc,” meanwhile blames the client (or the severity of the patient’s problems) instead of his own incorrect evaluation.

Part of the dilemma for prospective patients is that most don’t investigate therapeutic options years in advance of the decision to seek help, nor can they reasonably be expected to. Indeed, they usually spend much less time researching potential treatments than they do when investigating which car to buy. Rather, clients typically come to therapy at life’s low ebb, review the list of people who accept their insurance, and look upon the therapist as a licensed authority who will surely have all the answers. Yes, we are licensed, but that doesn’t guarantee our competence any more than it does for cosmetologists, physicians, cemetery managers, real-estate agents, or barbers, all of whom need to be licensed in the State of Illinois.

There is nothing better than knowing what you are getting into and with whom, even if you are out of gas; especially if you are out of gas. Get recommendations from your friends or your MD if you can. Early on, find out what your diagnosis is and do research on the web concerning empirically validated treatments for that condition.

Therapists generally mean well and some are really terrific. Literally, life-savers. But, like any other group, we are subject to our own self-deceptions. A few counselors should be placed on a pedestal, a few underneath one.

Advocate for yourself.

You may find the following related post of interest: When Helping Hurts: Therapists Who Need Therapy.

The top photo is from Kyle Young’s fourth album. The second image is of “Retman,” an actual therapeutic comic book hero. The first three initials, R.E.T., stand for Rational Emotive Therapy. The cartoon is the work of Razvantonescu, International Institute for Advanced Studies of Psychotherapy and Mental Health. Both works are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Why Some Patients Shouldn’t be Treated: When Therapy Can Make Things Worse

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Therapists are programmed to do therapy the way that surgeons are programmed to do surgery. For some of them, it can be the almost automatic elixir for whatever is ailing. But is treatment always a good idea? Here is a cautionary tale, a story of one occasion where I counseled someone to forego therapy with me — and why.

The woman was about 55 years old, still fit and attractive, with bright eyes and an engaging smile. She gave an impression of someone of inner strength and conviction. One imagined that she had her share of male attention over the years. But turning heads was not what she valued, entirely to her credit. No, she meant to make a difference in the world, to get some recognition for her work, to make a name and do something of value with her life. And she knew, by 55, that she probably had a limit on how much could be accomplished in her lifetime. After all, her parents had both died before age 70.

Although she had a loving husband and three children, something was missing. It wasn’t money since her family was well-fixed. She had a few good friends, so she wasn’t lonely, even if few knew the full extent of her complicated inner life. And her husband adored her, despite frustration that he couldn’t remedy her dissatisfaction.

He worried that she seemed to rely on alcohol too much, usually after dinner, never before. Drink was kind of a sedative, something that calmed that unsettled feeling that shadowed her much of the time. Anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication had failed her; too many side-effects, she felt. You might say that she lived with an itch that couldn’t be scratched.

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Mrs. Half-Empty Lovely Life. Let’s call her that, or Mrs. HELL, for short. Because that is what her life was like, some sort of heavenly hell. She knew it was beautiful. She tried to persuade herself that she should be satisfied with it. She realized that she was incredibly lucky compared to nearly everyone else on the planet. People in her church admired her, her husband and children loved her, and everyone was healthy. But still she needed a few drinks at the end of the day — her only respite from the coiled spring of tension and disquiet that lived inside of her. Nothing seemed to scratch that itch I mentioned. And you might ask, where did that itch come from?

I learned about her early life in the course of an initial interview. She had been special, so her father had said. He was a minister who hoped to become a great man in his religious denomination. But he volunteered to be a chaplain in wartime and, however much this was a noble thing to do, it derailed his assent in the church hierarchy. Dad never achieved the exalted level of recognition he sought. Ah, but there was his daughter, born just nine months after he returned from overseas! What might be possible for her? She was his favorite and dad encouraged her to imbibe from the fountain of faith and ambition that sustained him. His church was a liberal one, so the assent of a woman just might be possible. That hope tied them together and his death left the task to her alone, the thing she knew he wanted for her and for himself.

In fact, she did become a clergywoman. But, at some point, her career stalled. Everyone thought she was great, or so they said. Everyone loved her sermons, or so they said. But somehow, when it came to advancement in her denomination, she never got as high as she thought she should. There was a rung on the ladder just out of reach. She remained a big fish in a small pond. She wanted to do something that people would remember. She wanted to be a bishop and, if truth be told, even more. There were important reforms to the church that she believed were desperately needed for the good of all. But her current position didn’t permit that kind of impact and she had her doubts about it ever happening.

Prayer, the thing that you might think would give her comfort, didn’t give enough. Wine actually gave more. The minister was reaching the point where she was pretty sure that the project — her dad’s project for her, but one she believed in fully — would not be achieved. Yet, she continued to plug away, trying to influence others with more power in the church to make some of the changes Mrs. H thought to be essential. She wrote letters advocating her ideas, brilliant and well-reasoned. “Oh, yes, thank you, we will give your suggestions every consideration,” they said. But the ideas never took hold. Perhaps sexism played a part in her frustration, but Mrs. H was mostly concerned with the goal, not the reasons why her conception of a reformed church institution went nowhere.

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The frustration brought her to consult me. She’d heard that I treated other ministers and had been helpful. We talked, even though she felt vaguely uncomfortable with the idea of seeking counseling; surely, she thought, her parents had raised her to be tough and God alone should be a sufficient source of reliance.

That reliance led Mrs. H to conclude that even if her ideas didn’t triumph in her lifetime, perhaps someone would eventually act on her vision of what the denomination might become. “I’d like to think maybe someday in heaven, I’ll be able to look down on all this and realize that what I did wasn’t in vain. I’d like to think that my efforts will have made a difference.”

I asked her about the solace that she gave to her flock and the value she put on that part of her life. Indeed, she acknowledged that it was important, but somehow it seemed too individualized, not sweeping enough, not the institutional change she was aiming for. Helping people one-by-one was all very good and important, but…

She could not give up the project. We talked about her alcohol use, the benefit of prayer, the possibility of trying meditation. She mentioned the anti-depressant side-effects and her sensitivity to medication. Her work made sharing her frustrations with people in her church community difficult. She did share them with her husband and a couple of other adults, but that didn’t provide more than temporary assistance.

Mrs. H talked a lot about her dad. How much she loved and respected him. How much he hoped that she would rise in the church hierarchy and make it a different and better place, one more pleasing to both man and God.

Dad’s devoted daughter often wondered what he was making of the antics on earth from his spot in heaven, her own struggles in particular. I asked her if she believed that he would want her to keep trying to advance her vision for the church or perhaps give up on the project that was causing her so much anguish. She knew that he wanted her happiness, she said in response. She was certain he would be chagrined at her frustration, but couldn’t imagine her father ever being comfortable with quitting on something important. Sure, he would tell her to give herself a break, but wouldn’t he really be disappointed? That is the way that Mrs. H thought.

This good woman had a life that some would say was blessed: a husband she loved and who loved her, great grown children and sweet grandchildren; a respected position and as many material things as she cared about. Yet she was gripped by something that defined her entire life, her relationship to her father, and her afterlife (as she envisioned it); something to which she had devoted close to 40 years of training, experience, and effort.

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In light of all this, what might therapy do for (or to) such a person? And what did I try to do?

I recommended another medication consult with a terrific psychiatrist. I said that we should meet again after that. When Mrs. H returned, however, she said that the psychiatrist could provide nothing that the previous physicians hadn’t already prescribed, those drugs that had produced intolerable side-effects.

When you’ve done psychotherapy for a long time, you get to know who is really open to change and who is not. As I saw it, Mrs. HELL was not open to giving up on the multi-generational efforts of her father and herself; she was not open to accepting defeat whether due to sexism, her own personal limitations, or even the shortness of life. And she was most certainly not open to questioning her religious faith or seeing any unfairness in God’s “plan” for her, even as much as none of it was sufficient to sustain her.

But what if, somehow, I had been able to find a way in — to get her to question one or more beliefs? Weren’t these like the pillars that hold up a building, however shakily? What if she came to see that her father should not have freighted her with the responsibility to carry on his mission? What if she began to recognize unfairness in the behavior of the church hierarchy or sexist discrimination in their treatment of her? Or, what if she came to think that she would never see the posthumous completion of her task from a lofty spot in heaven, either because her ideas would die with her or because heaven didn’t exist?

If Mrs. H came too close to any of that, she probably would have become even more depressed and unsettled than she already was. Therapy would have been too much like pulling on a loose thread in a sweater, only to cause the entire garment to unravel. She might have felt guilt for prematurely giving up on her father’s vision, internally conflicted about him, and doubtful of the fairness of judging someone who had been so good to her. If anything, it’s likely that Mrs. H would have blamed herself for “buying in” to a life that dad hadn’t actually demanded of her. Rage at the church might have contributed to her turmoil, especially the men who didn’t give her ideas due consideration; and made it harder to minister to her flock. And if Mrs. H somehow began to question the possibility of the kind of afterlife she had imagined, the entire edifice of her religious faith could have collapsed.

At some point in treatment she would likely have come to believe that she’d wasted the best years of her life, without a clear future plan or the time required to create and achieve it. Depression would almost certainly then intensify along with an increase in alcohol abuse. Therapy, if it could help, would take years, by which time even more of Mrs. H’s life would be behind her. Indeed, the fact of having to engage in a lengthy and expensive therapeutic process could well add an additional layer of resentment and regret.

I told this woman, lovely and bright, that I didn’t think I could help. Since she didn’t ask why, I wondered if she was hoping that I would say just that. I knew there were two reasons for my decision: I didn’t believe I could get her to look at herself and her situation in a new way; and, even if I could, it would be too destructive for her to do so.

I suggested that she continue to pursue possible psychopharmacological (medication) treatment as a first line of potential healing. I recommended some other therapists who might have a different perspective on her dilemma if she wished to try counseling with someone else. Put simply, I thought the grieving process of getting over the failed family project of reforming her religious denomination would have been worse than simply letting her continue to struggle. The treatment held the risk of drowning her. For now, at least, she was still above water. I suspected that as time passed her reliance on the idea of a heavenly victory would increase and provide more sustenance. I may have been wrong in my evaluation, but that is what it was.

The way I look at it, then and now, is that sometimes a well-intentioned act can cause damage. Take the following example. It is rather extreme, but it makes the point. A concentration camp prisoner tells the story:

I shall never forget how I was roused one night by the groans of a fellow prisoner, who threw himself about in his sleep, obviously having a horrible nightmare. Since I had always been especially sorry for the people who suffered from fearful dreams or deliria, I wanted to wake the poor man. Suddenly I drew back the hand that was ready to shake him, frightened at the thing I was about to do. At that moment I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us, and to which I was about to recall him.*

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As Dante Alighieri knew, hell’s Inferno has many levels of pain — some better, some worse. Viktor Frankl, the writer of the concentration camp story, points to the risk of awakening people to misery that is even greater than the unhappiness they are currently experiencing. Physicians are instructed that they should “first, do no harm.” I always tried to remember that, even though I successfully treated a great many people, and rarely turned anyone away in the manner I’ve just described.

Therapists can be life savers. Literally. But, none of that changes the fact that sometimes the cure really is worse than the disease. Good therapists must know the difference.

For those who have tried therapy without good results, you may want to read this: What to do When Therapy Doesn’t Help.

The top image is a Surgeon Icon by Angelus. The second is a Man Scratching Back With a Back Scratcher by en:User: Archos. It is followed by a poster for the movie Side Effects, a production of Pritish Nandy Communications. Next comes, the Facade of the Cathedral of Milan, Italy by MarkusMark. Finally, a Bonfireby Madmatt52. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

*Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning: Revised and Updated (New York: Washington Square Press, 1984), 48.