Psychiatry and Religion

Now Research Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois, 0. HOBART MOWRER has taught at Princeton, Yale, and Harvard, and in 1954 was President of the American Psychological Association. Last year he published two technical volumes on the psychology of learning, and this year, a paperback entitled THE CRISIS IN PSYCHIATRY AND RELIGION.

As WE move forward, with ever-accelerating tempo, into what we are pleased to call the Age of Science, we are faced by an awesome paradox. As man, through science, acquires more and more control over the external world, he has come to feel less and less capable of controlling himself, less and less the master of his own soul and destiny. In the same decade in which we produced the atomic submarine and started probing interstellar space, we have also seen, significantly, the emergence of the Beatnik; personality disintegration has become endemic; and society itself is commonly said to be “sick.” We remain optimistic about what man can continue to do through science by way of dealing with his environment, but we have become extremely pessimistic about man.

This reciprocal relationship is not accidental: the same presuppositions and intellectual operations that have given us such unprecedented power over nature when extended to ourselves produce a pervasive feeling of helplessness, confusion, resignation, desperation. We seem to be the hapless pawns of a great mechanical, impersonal juggernaut called the cosmos. By the very principles and premises that have led to the conquest of the outer world, we ourselves lose our autonomy, dignity, self-mastery, responsibility, indeed, our very identity. Little wonder, then, that we feel weak, lost, fearful, “beat.” Being part of nature, we, too, apparently obey strict cause-and-effect principles; and if this be true, if our own experience and conduct are as rigidly determined and predetermined as is the rest of nature, the whole notion of purpose, responsibility, meaning seems to vanish. At the moment of our greatest technological triumphs, which include the tapping of almost unlimited sources of physical energy and the achievement of fabulous mechanical, chemical, and biological know-how, we become uncertain, lose confidence, and brood about annihilation. At the same time, some highly pertinent developments are quietly and unobtrusively occurring in psychological and sociological thought which hold promise of delivering us from our current predicament, both philosophically and practically.

Pre-Reformation Catholicism held man “doubly responsible,” which is to say, capable of both good and evil. When, in this context, one behaved badly, it was to his discredit; and when one behaved well, it was decidedly to his credit. There was thus for each individual a sort of moral balance sheet, as it has been called, and ultimate salvation or damnation depended, quite simply and directly, on the number and magnitude of the entries on the two sides of this fateful ledger.

Obviously there was much in common sense and everyday experience to support such an ethical system, but there were also, unfortunately, broad opportunity and temptation for those responsible for its administration to pervert and abuse it. The problem of justice in this life presents difficulties enough, and when one enters into the subtleties of a life to come, the only restraints upon dogmatic assertion and egregious exploitation are the fertility of ecclesiastical imagination and the credulity of the faithful. For at least four hundred years prior to the Reformation, the will to resist such perversity had continued to decline, and by the beginning of the sixteenth century, the great triumphant Church Universal was fairly riddled with connivance, sophistry, sloth, and extortion.

Men of learning and independence of thought were, of course, well aware of this sad state of affairs long before the outbreak of what we think of as the Reformation proper. And pre-eminent among such men was the Dutch scholar and humanist Desiderius Erasmus, who made a twopronged attack upon the situation. In his immediately successful and popular book In Praise of Folly (1511), he focused a delicate but deadly wit upon the Church’s hypocrisy and corruption, and behind his Greek edition of the New Testament (1516) was the momentous imputation that it was not the Church that was the ultimate authority in religious matters but the Bible itself.

When, in 1517, Martin Luther nailed the ninetyfive theses to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, it was therefore not surprising that Erasmus was interested. The essence of Luther’s position, particularly as it has filtered down to us through John Calvin and other Protestant expositors, is that man is responsible, so to say, in only one direction: capable of choosing the wrong and fully accountable for having done so, he is, however, supposedly unable to do anything whatever toward his own redemption and must wait, helplessly, upon the unpredictable favor, or “grace.” of God. It is, of course, not difficult to see why such a curious and one-sided doctrine was conceived and advocated with such insistence: it cut the whole logic from under the Church’s emphasis upon good works, including both penances and indulgences, and thus succeeded where more moderate programs of reform had failed.

Erasmus (in the tradition of the Apostle James, Pelagius, Jerome, and later, Arminius) had insisted upon human freedom and responsibility in the matter of both evil and good and had asked only for greater honesty in the assignment of the credit for each kind of action. But Luther and Calvin, seizing upon selected segments in the teachings of Saint Paul and Saint Augustine, stridently repudiated this position, and in so doing were able to produce an ideological and institutional change of enormous historical significance.

WE ARE no doubt justified in looking back upon the Reformation as representing, in many ways, a magnificent achievement. But we have been slow to appreciate, it seems, how dearly it has cost us. Protestantism, whatever its virtues and strengths, has also had the tragic consequence of leaving us without clear and effective means of dealing with personal guilt. And it is this fact, I submit, more than any other that is responsible for what Paul Tillich has aptly called “the psychic disintegration of the masses” in modern times.

By the turn of the century, the influence of religion and moral suasion had so far declined that the medical profession was being inundated by a new type of illness. Purely functional in origin but often expressed somatically, the new malady was characterized by a pervasive “loss of nerve.”which, as a matter of medical convenience, was dubbed “neurosis.” But the condition needed more than a name; it called for specific treatment, which medicine tried, without success, to provide. Hydrotherapy, hypnotism, electrical massage, bromides, and a dozen other nostrums came and went, but neurosis remained, unfathomed and unconquered.

In this era of confusion and crisis, psychoanalysis had its inception and spectacular proliferation. Religion had disqualified itself for dealing honestly and effectively with man’s deepest moral and spiritual anguish. Freud’s discoveries purported to rescue man from the perplexities of the Protestant ethic and the ravages of unresolved guilt, not by restoring him to full ethical responsibility but by relieving him of all responsibility. In short, the notion was that one should not feel guilty about anything. Freud tacitly agreed with Luther and Calvin that man is helpless to save (cure) himself, but he took the momentous further step of also holding no one accountable for having fallen into “neurosis"—which is just a medical euphemism for what had formerly been known as a state of sin — in the first place. “All behavior is caused” became the sanctimonious rallying cry for the new movement, for at one stroke it gave the appearance of advancing the science of mind and providing a powerful therapeutic procedure. Now, instead of mistreating the criminal, the insane, and the neurotic, we would understand and help them, treat them (for a fee). And this was all to be achieved not by a return to the outmoded principle of double responsibility but by adoption of a new and radical doctrine of double irresponsibility.

This innovation was, of course, acclaimed as a great scientific and cultural gain. Not only would we now be able to turn to others for treatment, thus confirming the Protestant thesis that we cannot help ourselves; we could also hold others accountable for our having got into such a predicament in the first place.

But as the clock of history has ticked off the decades of this century, we have gradually discovered that Freud’s great postulate, not of total depravity but of total determinism, has liberated us only in the sense of dumping us from the frying pan into the fire. At long last we seem to be waking up to the fact that to be “free” in the sense of embracing the doctrine of double irresponsibility is not to be free at all, humanly speaking, but lost.

Within the past five years there has been a growing realization, at least in the disciplines most intimately concerned with such matters, of the futility, the deadly peril of this general trend. After an extensive study of the therapeutic claims and accomplishments of psychoanalysis, the English psychologist Dr. Hans Eysenck has recently summed up the situation with this laconic statement: “The success of the Freudian revolution seemed complete. Only one thing went wrong: the patients did not get any better.” And this verdict has been amply borne out by numerous other inquiries of a similar kind.

Naturally, the doctrine of total determinism radiated from the field of psychopathology to criminology, and we were soon being told that not even those individuals convicted of legal crimes were really responsible; instead, they too were sick and in need of treatment rather than correction or conversion. Lawyers, judges, legislators, and psychiatrists are at present deeply embroiled in the question of criminal responsibility versus the doctrine of the irresistible impulse, but there have been several developments which suggest that the status of “expert testimony” may be undergoing serious reappraisal. The psychoanalytically oriented physician or psychiatrist who argues the doctrine of psychic determinism for others must either consistently apply it — and render himself irresponsible, incompetent, sick — or else assume an aura of omnipotence. 1 he position of the psychiatric expert in our courts is currently not an enviable one.

Two years ago, Professor Richard La Piere of the Department of Sociology of Stanford University published a sobering volume with the tongue-incheek title The Freudian Ethic, in which he holds that in generally abandoning the Protestant ethic, whatever its shortcomings (and they are grievous), and espousing psychoanalysis we have moved, as an entire society, not toward salvation but perdition. With many other social analysts, LaPiere agrees that, as a people, we are indeed sick, but argues that the very essence of our sickness is that we so freely resort to this concept instead of holding ourselves and others accountable.

While psychoanalysis was developing as a predominantly medical enterprise, a parallel movement with similar philosophic and practical implications was also taking form and gaining momentum in academic circles. I refer to the radical repudiation, in the first two or three decades of this century, of all that was inward, subjective, and personal, known as behaviorism, with its new and exclusive emphasis upon that form of cause-effect relationship implied by the so-called stimulusresponse, or S-R, formula. Here determinism, although couched in somewhat different terms, was no less absolute than in psychoanalysis, and the individual was again relieved — or should we say deprived? — of all semblance of accountability. Behavior or action or conduct was the inevitable consequence of “antecedent stimulus conditions” (causes), and moral accountability became, in this context, a meaningless and, indeed, opprobrious concept. The conditioned and unconditioned reflex, in the language of Pavlov and Watson, was the “functional unit” of all behavior; and Thorndike, in his slightly different theory of habit, likewise spoke of stimulus-response “connections” or “bonds.” All of which had at least the incidental effect, if not intent, of obliterating the whole notion of freedom, choice, responsibility by reducing behavior, absolutely and completely, to S-R connections and reflexes.

Some years ago the ambiguity of this situation came home to me in a particularly dramatic way. At that time I was still trying to do a little psychotherapy of the conventional kind, and on more than one occasion graduate students came to me for help who, in the course of our interviews, spontaneously remarked that one of the main inducements for them to go into psychology as a vocation was that they had long suffered from unresolved guilt, which psychology, with its scientific emphasis upon stimulus-response, cause-effect connections, seemed logically to eliminate. But the fact that these students were now in therapy was palpable proof that this stratagem had not worked. The behavioristic doctrine of total determinism manifestly does not deliver us from the one-sided determinism of Luther and Calvin any more effectively than does that brand of complete irresponsibility adduced by Freud. If the doctrines of Luther and Calvin disposed the Western world to “Christian despair,” those of Freud and Watson have, it seems, engulfed us in a despair that is infinitely deeper and more absolute.

IT IS only within the last decade or so that we have begun to see a way out. The existentialists, in their very legitimate protests against the general abrogation of responsibility — first one-sidedly, in Protestant theology, and then more systematically, in psychoanalysis and behaviorism — have recently been attracting some well-deserved attention. But when they go on to reject the scientific approach, totally and inherently, they are on dangerous ground and may shortly find themselves, in this regard, discredited.

Having denounced Protestant predestination and psychological determinism alike, what do the existentialists offer, alternatively? Only a counsel of brave despair, an admonition to have the courage to be, on the assumption that being (existence) is an ironic joke and ultimate tragedy. Just how do we come by this courage? By lifting ourselves by our own bootstraps? In practice, it seems that this philosophy leaves us quite as helpless and hopeless as does the Protestant principle, with its emphasis upon man’s inevitable guilt and God’s uncertain grace.

If one takes the time to examine contemporary behavior theory, one finds that scientific developments in psychology have moved a long way from the naïve and primitive assumptions of behaviorism. Now it is generally agreed that there is by no means a reflexive or ineluctable connection between stimulation and response. Now we are quite certain that the coupling between our sensory receptors and our muscles is much looser and infinitely more complicated than the earlier theories implied. According to present views, stimulation may suggest a given response or course of action, but whether we “give consent,” as Catholic theologians would say, to the suggestion, thought, or image is dependent upon the hopes and fears which we weigh and ponder in deciding whether to act or refrain from acting. In other words, given a stimulus, a particular and predetermined response does not automatically pop out of the organism, as our earlier, push-button psychology seemed to demand. Response — and responsibility — in this new frame of reference is crucially dependent upon the anticipated consequences of our actions. In short, we have rediscovered reason. Instead of being merely stimulated (the Latin term for “goaded”), living organisms become goaldirected, purposive, deliberate, or, if you will, free and responsible.

Beginning with the naïve and oversimplified behaviorism of Watson, academic psychology in this century has thus achieved a relatively advanced degree of sophistication; whereas psychoanalysis, which started with Freud’s highly elaborated and ingenious speculations, has rather steadily involuted, regressed. The original emphasis on unconscious (irresponsible) motivation has, of late years, given way to a new accent on “ego psychology,” which involves frequent reference to “ego strength” and “ego weakness” in a manner unmistakably reminiscent of the older notions of character and will power; and with the ink hardly dry on this ego-psychology literature, psychoanalysts are now beginning to show a new respect for and interest in the superego, or conscience.

These developments. I say, are retrogressive as far as Freud’s original formulations go, but in terms of common sense they are decidedly in the right direction. However, they are suicidal as far as psychoanalysis itself is concerned, which was conceived and laid its claim to recognition as an independent discipline along very different lines.

All the developments just reviewed thus strike a new note, or at least one that has considerable novelty for contemporary men and women. Once more we are coming to perceive man as pre-eminently a social creature, whose greatest and most devastating anguish is experienced not in physical pain or biological deprivation but when he feels alienated, disgraced, guilty, debased as a person. And the thrust of much current therapeutic effort is in the direction of trying to help such individuals recover their sociality, relatedness, community, identity.

Here, surely, is a promising meeting ground for psychology, psychiatry, and sociology and for much that is common to both classical Judaism and authentic Christianity. But, logically and programmatically, it strikes at the heart of the Protestant principle. Yesterday, as a Presbyterian,

I attended church and heard the minister quote Reinhold Niebuhr, with approval, to the effect that “Christian faith is more profound than mere moral idealism,” thus echoing the contempt which Protestantism has always had for the “merely moral man.” And the preceding Sunday I heard another minister preach a fine “Reformation” sermon on the theme that “the fruit of grace is responsibility for action in the world”; that is, the theme that we are good because — and if— we are saved, not the reverse. Scientific and humanistic thought can never, I believe, come to terms with such hyperbole. The fact that Protestant theologians keep reverting in their sermons to the question of just what it means to be “saved by grace,” rather than by works, suggests that they are themselves not quite certain.

As a psychologist, I have no competence to judge the effectiveness of religion in saving men’s immortal souls, and, I confess, this is not my major interest. But I do maintain that religion has great potential for serving, and saving, men and women in this world which is not now being at all adequately realized. If, in the secular sciences, we have rediscovered something of the logic and conditions of responsible action, perhaps this will be an encouragement to the theologians themselves to take a more courageous and responsible position and quit hiding behind a preposterous piece of medieval sophistry.