Excerpts from an article published by ThePublicInterest.com

http://www.thepublicinterest.com/archives/2000spring/article1.html


When Psychotherapy Replaces Religion
 

By James Davison Hunter


Author of Culture Wars and director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.


"When it comes to the moral life of children, the vocabulary of the psychologist frames virtually all public discussion.... B. F. Skinner, Benjamin Spock, Havighurst, Carl Rodgers, Jean Piaget, Abraham Maslow... their assumptions, concepts, and paradigms have largely determined how all of us think about the moral lives of children....

     

"The discipline itself has maintained over the years that, as the science of human motive and behavior, it comes closest to a rational understanding of that difficult and elusive phenomenon, human nature.... With theology in all it forms discredited as a public language, psychology has offered a seemingly neutral way to understand and cultivate the best qualities of the human personality. It is 'science' after all - and science, we are inclined to believe, is 'objective.' In the wake of the diffused Christian consensus dominant through the first half of the twentieth century, the psychological approaches to moral education seem so much more inclusive, less offensive.

     

"...the centerpiece of the psychological strategy of moral education has been the concept of 'development.'...

     

"...since the 1960s, much of the research has given even greater prominence to the role of emotions in the development of moral understanding. It is our empathy with the plight of another that prompts ethical demands for justice; it is our uncertainty in the face of confusing events that prompts the effort of self-understanding.

     

"...the centerpiece of this orientation has been the panoply of emotions surrounding one's own self-understanding and well-being - captured in the concept of 'self-esteem.' ... Though the 'self-esteem' concept lost some currency in the 1990s, other terms have arisen to take its place - for example, 'emotional intelligence,' or what its theorists call the EQ or 'emotional quotient.'...

    

"The urgency of Dewey's educational vision - and those of Piaget and Kohlberg and their successors - was based on a straightforward logic: If we know what moral development is, then we will know what moral education ought to be. ... Dominated as it is by perspectives diffused and diluted from professional psychology, this regime is overwhelmingly therapeutic and self-referencing; in character, its defining feature is the autonomous self. This regime's strategy of moral education now pervades all of the mainstream institutions that mediate moral understanding to children - schools, youth organizations, family counseling, and, most curiously, faith communities....

    

"One would think that religious faith and religious communities would constitute a protective enclave against the influence of secular psychology....

    

"Dobson's 1989 book Preparing for Adolescence... depicts self-understanding and moral action as dependent upon the categories of contemporary psychology. The message is implicit but sustained throughout: Growing up requires ongoing introspection - about one's feelings of inferiority, sexual identity, problems, looks, indeed, every aspect of a teenager's emotional life.... He enshrines self-esteem as the adolescent's most significant category in thinking about moral questions. Biblically based moral standards are framed within the language and concepts of popular psychology; not the other way around. ...
     

"As an Evangelical, Erickson grounds the idea of self-esteem in the love of God. ... Beyond this important theological caveat and occasional Bible verse, however, there is little to distinguish his advice from that of secular family therapists. On the one hand, he emphasizes the building of self-esteem and self-confidence as ends in themselves... on the other hand, he criticizes perfectionism and shame-based morality. While he writes of the importance of forgiveness, the problem of sin is all but absent. ...
     

"The message to young people is that the foundation of goodness, and especially altruism, is love of self: "We cannot give love if we don't have the love to give. And the love we have to give has its roots in our love of Self." The booklet even goes on to counsel its readers that to love oneself "is holy."
     

"...the implicit lessons of contemporary moral education speak powerfully to the moral imagination. Here, the self - its appetites, preferences, and interests - is at center stage, without serious rival or competition. Thus, while nearly all moral educators disparage the subjectivism and individualism of our time, none of the alternatives presented are able to transcend or escape them.
    

"The purpose of moral education is to change people for the better and, in so doing, to improve the quality of life in society. The difficulty is that moral education, as it is presently configured and institutionalized, is utterly captive to the society in which it exists. ... It is... a reflection of the moral order it seeks to transcend and then transform. In this regard, moral education, even in its diversity and its apparent oppositions, is more a story about the legitimation of American culture than it is about its transformation."


James Davison Hunter is director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of  Virginia and author of Culture Wars. This article was published by ThePublicInterest.com in the spring of 2002

Please read Mr. Hunterís entire article at http://www.thepublicinterest.com/archives/2000spring/article1.html


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