Saturday, December 14, 2013

Psychology As Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship

by Patrick McDonnell
191 pages; 1977, updated 1995

Another review of a book that was already old when I read it, but it could still be a real lifesaver for any Christian student taking psychology in university, especially with the added material on "values clarification" in education, as well as on New Age religion.

Today, seemingly,  the very concept of the self is under attack... but not really. Even when people claim to have no stable identity, redefining gender and relationships as they see fit at any given moment, they still consistently look to their own personal preferences to justify their choices (though they may blame - or credit - society for those preferences). We are living in an age, like that of the judges in the Bible, in which every man does what is right in his own eyes, and elementary students are told that they have to determine their own gender.

This is where the title of Paul Vitz's book comes in. The pop psychology that tells us to rely entirely on our own resources and standards to guide our lives is so unquestioned, and so celebrated in song and story, that it functions as religion. This is largely due to the influence of four theorists that Vitz looks at. Three of them I will mention here. Erich Fromm I have seen featured in a Christian literature anthology, Carl Rogers had a huge role in making counselling the process of simply finding out what you really want in life (right or wrong), and Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs is still used in government curricula for career development courses.

Next, Vitz looks at the different forms of self-centered psychology, at the problems in trying to describe selfism as science, and at the philosophical weaknesses of selfism. Despite all selfism's problems, though, it maintains a strong influence on society because it is a major driver for our consumerist economy, directed most strongly at the young, who have so much disposable income. This fits in with a later chapter on selfism and the family, focusing on the isolated individual (which mobile and wireless technology only promote even more) and the selfist willingness to blame parents for our troubles.

If selfism really is religious, then it probably interacts with Christianity in ways that can only lead to religious error. Vitz looks at the influence of Ludwig Feuerbach, the positive thinkers Emerson Fosdick and Norman Vincent Peale, and pietism, as well as tracing the religious background of Carl Rogers. Religious error can only be corrected by religious truth, which is why Vitz gives a Christian critique of selfism, and explains the need for Christians to support efforts to bring Christian influence back into psychology, including the government bureaucracy that supports so much of psychology.

Vitz ends with a look at how Christian understanding will help many who are feeling disillusioned by the vain attempt to determine their own meaning for life. For anyone involved in education, counselling, psychology, sociology, or child-raising, Vitz's book offers a compelling look at both the power of selfism (human nature's default position even without a philosophy to back it up) and the power of Christian insight to show us an infinitely better alternative.  


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