The Emperor’s New Clothes
–The Naked Truth about the New Psychology
Excerpts from the book by William Kirk Kilpatrick
(Westchester, Ill: Crossway Books, 1985)
(William Kirk Kilpatrick is associate professor of educational psychology at Boston College. A graduate of Holy Cross College, he holds degrees from Harvard University and Purdue University. He is a popular lecturer on psychology and religion at colleges and universities around the U.S. Other books he has written are Identity and Intimacy and Psychological Seduction.)
The Emperor’s New Clothes
Psychology Masterclass (Photo credit: Birmingham City University)
As a short commentary on our capacity for self-delusion it’s hard to improve on Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the Emperor, the tailors, the little boy, and the suit that wasn’t there.
Like any good piece of mythology, the story has almost infinite application. But it seems to me it has a special application to our current veneration of psychology and psychologists.
Why? Well, because the story is essentially about bowing to expert opinion. It has to do with vanity, and conformity, and foolishness in high places as well; but mainly it’s about the folly of letting common sense take a back seat to expert knowledge. If you recall, the ploy used by the swindlers was to claim that the beautiful clothes could only be seen by those who were fit for the offices they held or who were very clever. They could not be seen by anyone who was unfit for the office he held or who was very stupid.
Who can blame the Emperor and his court for being duped? Most of us would much rather be thought very bad than very stupid. The Emperor, despite his vanity, is really a bit unsure of his judgment; so he sends his faithful Minister to check on the progress of the weavers. The Minister, despite his position, is likewise unsure of himself. And so on down the line. Each one thinks, I can’t see anything in this, but who am I to say?” Moreover, by the time the contagion reaches the public, the new enlightened view of clothes-making has the added authority of state endorsement.
Now I wouldn’t go so far as to say that psychology is completely naked–that is, completely devoid of truth. There is a solid and growing body of useful facts as well as useful theories and useful therapies coming out of the psychological community. We mustn’t forget that. But the greater danger, I think, is not that we won’t take psychology seriously, but that we take it too seriously. Because along with the respectable work just mentioned, there is also adrift in the psychological community an abundance of speculation, wishful thinking, contradictory ideas, prejudice, doubletalk, and ideology disguised as science.
In short, the psychological garment, while not completely imaginary, nevertheless has large holes in it. If we fail to notice these holes, it’s partly because psychology has achieved emperor-like status in our culture, and partly because all the clever people swear that it’s cloaked in handsomely woven ideas. If we are tempted to think, “I can’t see anything in this,” we are quick to remind ourselves, “but who am I to say?” Our confidence has been over matched by the force of expert psychological opinion.
The situation we are in concerning our mental health is similar to the situation we are in regarding our physical health. Given the years of training, sophisticated technology, and specialized vocabulary available to doctors, not many of us are inclined to question a physician’s diagnosis. The same sort of ultimate expertise now attaches to the psychological profession. And in some ways the psychologist’s position is even more secure. After all, if the physician makes a mistake–a faulty diagnosis or the wrong treatment–it soon becomes apparent. But mistakes on the part of the therapist are not as evident. If the client gets worse rather than better, it can be blamed on his own resistance or lack of motivation or some such thing. And if a theorist makes a mistake, it can go undetected for decades.
Despite the overlap between the two professions, however, there is still a basic difference between the physician’s expertise and the psychologist’s. The physician deals with bones and blood, muscles, organs, and nerves; the psychologist with moods and motivations, memory, thoughts and relationships. Or, to put it more directly, the physician’s subject matter can be touched and seen, even if sometimes only with the help of surgical instruments or microscopes. It’s another matter with the psychologist’s subject field. Who has ever seen an ego structure or an inner dynamic? Much of the psychological garment truly is invisible. Which is not to say there is nothing there–Christians, too, believe in many unseen forces–but rather to suggest that psychology, like Christianity, is partly a matter of faith.
Of course, most people don’t regard psychology as a form of religion but as a form of science. They are under the impression that all the theories and therapies are based on research and hard facts. In addition, most of us are somewhat awed by psychology’s alliance with the medical profession, and by its alliance with government. Most states have both a department of mental health and a department of social services. And the professionals who staff these bureaucracies have very similar training and views. Both bureaucracies have considerable powers of their own, and in conjunction with the courts their power is nearly absolute. When, in addition to all this power, we consider the prestige accorded psychology by the media, which seek out and amplify every psychological pronouncement or opinion, it is little wonder the average citizen falls into line. If the Emperor and his court insist that he is fully clothed, who are we to dissent?
Except that the subject matters at issue are those things closest to our hearts: our sense of right and wrong, our families, our happiness, our dreams, our purpose for living. Somehow we have been made to believe that psychologists know more about these personal things than we do. The long and short of the psychological revolution is that ordinary people are treated as amateurs in the matter of living their own lives. And the amazing thing is that ordinary people have accepted this professional judgment upon them.
Psychology purports to be neutral about values. It simply wants to help you make better choices. Exactly what those choices will be is up to you. Or so it seems. This cloak of neutrality makes it difficult to criticize the flaws in psychology or even to see them.
Is psychology neutral? Well, yes, in some respects. In some respects it is what it claims to be, a science and a profession. But if you care to look closely, you will find that in many other respects it looks suspiciously like a “liberal and progressive” movement. And that usually means anti-traditional and anti-religious.
It is suspicious, for example, that the supposedly neutral values espoused by clarification curriculums in our schools turn out to be a kind of basic training in relativism. In these classes, choice is elevated to the status of a virtue. In fact, there appear to be no other virtues. There are really no right choices or wrong choices in values clarification, just choices that make you feel comfortable or uncomfortable.
A study by Everett Ladd and S.M. Lippsets of the political beliefs of American academics disclosed that among their colleagues in the various disciplines, academics in sociology and psychology hold the most radical political views.
Once you get to know people in these professions, a pattern quickly emerges. It is the same pattern that distinguishes media professionals–that is, a strong preference for what is liberal and progressive, and a strong bias against what is traditional or religious. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the American Psychological Association requires its members to subscribe to a code of ethics that favors abortion rights, gay rights, and women’s rights (of the more radical variety). If this is neutrality, then, to paraphrase Shakespeare, neutrality should be made of sterner stuff.
I would suggest that there is something about the psychological mentality and approach which perpetuates and even aggravates the conditions it means to cure. Many ideas which had their start in the psychological community (or received a big boost from it) have now worked their way into the heart of society. I think it fair to say that many of them have wreaked havoc. The subjectivism and relativism of psychological thinking, the confusion about free will, the overemphasis on autonomy and self-acceptance, the denial of guilt, the neglect of and even hostility toward traditional and religious values, the lack of any meaningful system to replace these, the transmutation of virtues into hang-ups and perversions into preferences, the undermining of all forms of authority except psychiatric and bureaucratic–all have helped to bring our society to a crisis of catastrophic proportion.
Mixing Psychology with Christianity
C.S. Lewis once said that he preferred to take his Christianity in the same way he took his whiskey–straight. Since Christianity is strong stuff, there is always a temptation to water it down. But, as Lewis realized, the result of such dilutions is a weakened faith.
The current recipe for a Christianity that will travel more smoothly down the gullet calls for blending it with psychology. This mix has become extremely popular with Christian educators, since it seems to add a dash of relevance to the ancient faith. They think of it, of course, not in terms of a dilution, but in terms of the improved product that results when one metal is alloyed with another.
In any event, the practice of blending Christianity with psychology constitutes one of the major trends to have surfaced in American churches over the last thirty years. And it cuts across denominational lines. Catholics do it, Episcopalians do it, even (to paraphrase the old song) evangelicals do it. For example, not long ago a Boston-area priest ended his sermon by concluding that the purpose of Christ’s coming was to say, “I’m OK and you’re OK.” Similar messages abound in the new catechisms. Book Four of the Benziger series for Catholic schoolchildren states that Jesus … “was trying to show people how they could be themselves.” Book Eight seems to attribute most of Saint Paul’s success to his high self-esteem. A study guide for evangelical students goes to great lengths to assure the reader that Moses had a “good self-image.” In a recent book a leading Protestant evangelical redefines sin as “negative self-image.” And religious educators in both Catholic and Protestant circles seem exceedingly anxious to rework Christian ideas on moral growth in order to make them compatible with the schemes proposed by psychologists.
Although there is room for some accommodation between Christianity and psychology, there are some areas where it is clearly a matter of either/or. Either the psychologist is right or the Christian is right. Both can’t be.
In such cases, attempts to reconcile Christianity to psychology will actually have the effect of undermining the Christian point of view. The most obvious example of this undercutting is provided by the psychological emphasis on self-acceptance. Although there are many kinds and types of psychological theories and therapies, this remains a prevalent theme. It is very nearly the First Commandment of the psychological society that we should accept ourselves as we are. We are urged to greater self-awareness on the happy assumption that we will like what we find. We are, as the saying goes, OK. We just have to learn to be ourselves.
In contrast, Christianity starts off by saying that we’re not OK the way we are. There is something wrong with us–a twist in our natures. And the twist is not removed by liking yourself, but by starting to live in Christ. There are plenty of reasons why Christians ought to be happy about themselves, but those reasons are linked to the fact that we’ve been rescued from the fate of just being ourselves, and they have very little connection with psychological rationales for self-love. Christians are not supposed to facilitate the growth of the old self. They’re supposed to give it up and put on a new self.
The main practical effect of this psychological infiltration has been a lowering of the consciousness of sin among Christians. In the Catholic Church, for example, there has been an enormous falling off of the practice of confession over the last twenty-five years. Like everyone else in the psychological society, Catholics have learned to accept themselves. Although this may be good for the ego in the short run, it might be unfortunate for the soul over the long run, since Christ came to save sinners, not self-actualizers. Just as a rich man has a difficult time entering Heaven, so does the fellow who knows nothing but psychological adjustment and self-esteem. Both types are insulated from the saving knowledge of how desperate the human condition is and how utterly dependent they are on God. C. S. Lewis said that “Christian religion is in the long run a thing of unspeakable comfort. But it does not begin in comfort; it begins in dismay, and it’s no use at all trying to go on to that comfort without first going through that dismay.” This kind of necessary dismay, however, is precisely the thing that the psychological society, with its encouragement to self-esteem and self-sufficiency, is designed to preserve us from.
Most psychology is relentlessly reductionistic. It is in the business of reducing things to a size where they can be examined with psychological calipers or fit into psychological categories. For example, a psychoanalytically trained psychologist will tend to look at a great painting not as a reflection of man’s search for the Good and the Beautiful, but as a sublimation of the sex drive. In a similar way, when a behavioral psychologist looks at a man offering worship to God, the only explanation he can supply is that the man has been conditioned to act that way. The reductionist world view does not leave much room for the Christian view that some things are sacred and therefore on an entirely different level of being. The psychological mind is more comfortable with reducing everything to the same level.
On Serving Two Masters
Much of the content of humanistic psychology derives from the central assumption that man is good and has no inclination toward evil. Selfishness, aggression, and other undesirable behaviors are blamed on man’s environment, not on man himself. The biblical notion that man is weakened by sin is either implicitly or explicitly rejected by most psychologists of this persuasion. Erich Fromm, for example, states that his psychology would be untenable if the doctrine of original sin were true.
Unlike the Christian view, the psychological one fails to distinguish between physical or existential goodness and moral goodness. Man is simply good as he is. As a consequence, much stress is laid on simply being oneself and accepting oneself. This self-acceptance is encouraged without regard to any prior transformation of the self, meaning, of course, that the need for repentance, for forgiveness, for baptism, or for God’s grace are all nullified at the outset. Tied in with this concept is the standard humanist notion that man is perfectible and can achieve this perfectibility through his own powers. In the language of human potential psychology, people are either “self-actualized,” or “self-determined,” or “self-fulfilled.” (Abraham Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature [New York: Viking Press, 1971], p.7)
The Cross Is Rendered Unintelligible
This very broad broom sweeps away a few more Catholic/ Christian dogmas. Since man can perfect himself without God’s help, and since there is very little wrong with him in the first place, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross becomes both unnecessary and unintelligible. Sacraments, likewise, are rendered unnecessary as means of grace, and come instead to be looked upon merely as celebrations of human virtue. Prayer also becomes an activity of dubious merit within this framework. And the Christian practices of self-denial and sacrifice can only appear as obstacles to growth. In humanistic psychology, man achieves fulfillment by satisfying his wants, not by denying them. Other Christian virtues such as obedience and conformity to God’s will are difficult to reconcile with the humanistic emphasis on self-will and autonomy. Where the psychological model prevails, these virtues will tend to be slighted or ignored even by Christian educators.
Objectivity of Truth Denied
Another stock ingredient in humanistic psychology is subjectivism. The idea of a common truth to which all are bound is seen as an encroachment on freedom. Hence, the only truths are personal truths. This attitude explains why humanistic therapies are invariably nonjudgmental, and why humanistic education is geared in the direction of having students create their own values. Moreover, since the humanist has no objective criteria for choosing values, he has to rely on instincts. When an activity feels as though it is valuable or worthwhile,” writes Carl Rogers, it is worth doing.” (Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961], pp. 90, 91)
All of this is, of course, very much in keeping with modern sentiments, but it is difficult to square with Catholic and Protestant belief which maintains that truth is both objective and unchanging, and that the most important truths (the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Redemption) come to us through divine revelation rather than self-revelation.
The Sense of Sacredness Must Be Restored
Now in many respects, teaching Catholic/Christian faith is more like teaching a physics class than a social studies class. It has to do with immutable laws. One does not decide upon the validity of divine truths by the group discussion method any more than one uses that method to decide upon the point at which water boils.
In other respects, teaching Christianity is like teaching poetry or folklore or myth. Memorization–the storing up of wisdom–is called for. In still other respects, it is like a class in gym or dance: the muscles need to be trained as well as the mind; the proper movements and steps have to be practiced over and over.
But finally, of course, faith is literally like nothing else on earth. The church is at once our supernatural mother and the Bride of Christ, and God our Father dwells in unapproachable light. These mysteries can only be approached in an atmosphere of reverence and humility. The atmosphere of free inquiry and self-concern simply won’t work.
Why the Secular Needs the Sacred
At the time of the U.S. Supreme Court’s deliberations over the legality of Christmas creche displays, ABC’s Nightline” interviewed, among others, Father Robert Drinan and the mayor of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, the city where the issue first boiled over onto the national scene.
Father Drinan worried about the trauma and mental anguish such displays cause to little boys and girls who are not Christian. It was a case, said he, of the arrogant majority imposing its values on a minority, and it shouldn’t be allowed to happen in a pluralistic society. The mayor of Pawtucket, on the other hand, was in favor of a Christmas display, but took pains to downplay its religious nature. The manger scene, he said, had become a tradition in Pawtucket, and people should be allowed to keep their traditions. If you look at it in the right way, suggested the mayor, it’s not really a church/state problem at all.
It’s understandable that he would take such a tack. This is a pluralistic society, after all. And indeed his argument is quite typical. Many attempts at defending the church” side of church/state issues are framed in similar terms. It’s either a defense (we’re not really trying to influence anyone else”) or a demand (Christians have a right to educate their children in their own way”). Unfortunately, neither approach gets at the main source of resistance to the religious side of such questions, because the main problem is not hostility toward religious practices (though there is plenty of that) but indifference. A great many people have come to the conclusion that as far as the everyday functioning of society is concerned, religion doesn’t matter one way or the other. So why rock the boat? In other words, there exists a widespread assumption that the secular can get along without the sacred. From this point of view, religious beliefs may be seen as nice and commendable, and even helpful, but they are not seen as necessary to leading a good life or having a good society. Many Americans seem to believe that a secular culture can maintain morality without a sacred core. And so, if a Christmas scene offends, it’s better to pluck it out and replace it with a nonoffensive Santa. If the creche is nothing more than a nice tradition, it’s not worth the fuss.
The mayor might have had more effect on this indifferent mass if he had said what he probably really thinks: cut out the creche and you cut out the heart of Western civilization. And he would be right. The sacred view of life is not simply an alternative within society; it is indispensable to society. To step away from it is to step into the void.
What does the sacred do for the state? The brief answer is simply that it makes sense out of life–a service the state cannot perform for itself, and yet without which it cannot exist.
This is hardly a new argument, but it is one that is not often used. Although it can be sensed or intuited by the simplest folk, it cannot be easily put into words. Nevertheless, it’s worth trying. Dostoyevsky puts the matter in its most direct formulation when he has Ivan Karamazov say: If there is no God, everything is permissible.” Dostoyevsky meant this not as a figure of speech, but as something akin to a mathematical axiom, something along the lines of if a triangle has one right or obtuse angle, its other two angles must be acute.”
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