Sunday, July 30, 2006

Spirituality and Religion: A Personal Approach

A few weeks ago Mark Isaac, on The Panda's Thumb wrote a piece entitled, The Larger Issue of Bad Religion. It created quite a stir. I was tempted to comment, but I needed time to think about it. By the time I got my thoughts together, the comments had gone south. They devolved into insult, and the last comment on the blog just repeated the phrase, “religion sucks!” more times than I want to count.

It occurred to me that identifying “religion” as “good” or “bad” is useless, because “religion” is a very broad concept. There is no single set of “religious” practices or beliefs. If you don't believe me, just compare Catholicism to Pentecostalism to Orthodox Judaism to Reform Judaism to Unitarianism. It's all religion, but it sure ain't the same. To make decisions about what is good and bad about religion, we need to be more specific.

If “religion” is a brand (e. g., Christianity, Judaism, Protestantism, Islam, Buddhism), then “spirituality” refers to their component beliefs and practices. We can evaluate each individual component itself, and can then decide for ourselves what kinds of spiritual practices work for each of us individually. This is not a new thought for me. I'm an individualist, and refuse to let others make my spiritual decisions for me. But, it was a new and direct approach to doing it. I got really excited and started listing spiritual practices in bipolar form. Then, two problems jumped out at me.

First, on what scale do I evaluate these components: “Good vs. bad,” “healthy vs. unhealthy,” “toxic vs. nourishing,” or something else? Second, as I wrote out my list, I suddenly realized that I wasn't evaluating religion or spirituality. I was describing my own beliefs.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about my beliefs, and have been struggling with an ethical will. So, if I'm describing my beliefs, it's narcissistic for me to say, “These beliefs are good, and these beliefs are bad.” That was the solution to both problems.

Below, I've generated a list of spiritual beliefs and practices that I either embrace or reject. You may agree or disagree with me; I don't care. I do think there are some truly toxic beliefs; I've discussed them before. But, this list is more than just a discussion of toxic spirituality.

I embrace spirituality: That helps me find meaning in life.

I reject spirituality: That imposes meaning on me.

I embrace spirituality: That encourages me to find faith through reason.

I reject spirituality:
That encourages me to "just believe."

I embrace spirituality: That inspires me to be more ethical.

I reject spirituality: That uses fear and shame to motivate me.

I embrace spirituality: That teaches respect for others.

I reject spirituality: That teaches God likes you better because you're one of us.

I embrace spirituality: Where nonmembers are taught about one's beliefs.

I reject spirituality: Where nonmembers are told, “Our beliefs are better than yours.”

I embrace spirituality: That encourages involvement with the larger community.

I reject spirituality: That encourages withdrawal from the larger community.

I embrace spirituality: That sees pleasure as a legitimate part of life.

I reject spirituality: That encourages self-denial and elevates suffering.

I embrace spirituality: That comforts people cope suffering from misfortune.

I reject spirituality: That blames people for their misfortunes.

I embrace spirituality: That accepts human fallibility.

I reject spirituality: That demands perfection from humanity.

I embrace spirituality: That encourages people to make the world a better place.

I reject spirituality: That encourages people to tolerate things as they are.

I embrace spirituality: That uses ritual to reinforce beliefs or connect with the past.

I reject spirituality: That uses ritual to please God.

This list is far from exhaustive. I'll probably spend the rest of my life populating and revising it. Generate your own list. It's a great experience.

Monday, July 10, 2006

New Psychology Advocacy Group is Formed

The National Psychologist reports that a new advocacy group, the National Alliance of Professional Psychology Providers, has just been formed. Their web site states,

The National Alliance of Professional Psychology Providers (NAPPP) is a new, nonprofit organization for professional psychologists to advance and secure the practice of psychology. The purpose of NAPPP is twofold. First, we will function as an advocacy organization to assertively protect and advance scope of practice issues through lobbying, legislative and litigation strategies. Second, we want to help educate and inform practitioners about the business of practicing psychology so that this much ignored aspect of the profession can grow and develop.
It sounds good. Although NAPPP doesn't describe itself as a replacement for the American Psychological Association (APA), it certainly could fill a gaping hole.

I dropped out of the APA for two reasons. First, because the APA seemed to be disinterested in protecting practitioners from the erosions of managed care. When managed care came in, they...well...managed care. Managed care wanted to see that their dollars were being well spent. They were at times intrusive, and always were a pain in the ass, and APA took a stand against managing care. Unfortunately, APA missed the bigger problem until it was too late.

The real problem was that managed care eroded our fees. As a result, caseloads skyrocketed. Twenty years ago, 20 clients a week was considered a full time load. It paid for the clinician's salary and the office overhead. Today, it takes 30 clients a week. The APA has done nothing about that. Managed care oversight is essentially gone, at least in Pennsylvania, because it was too expensive. But, the fees are still lousy. So, a word of advice: Never see a psychologist late on a Friday afternoon.

The second reason I resigned was the inability of APA to stand by it's belief that psychotherapy could be a practice based on scientific principles. Some forms of psychotherapy, such as cognitive therapy and interpersonal therapy, have some pretty good evidence for their effectiveness. Yet, when questionable therapies, such as rebirthing therapy, emerged, the APA has been silent. Eventually, rebirthing therapy killed a child. Organized psychology should be taking strong stands against pseudoscience, and it's not.

So, I hope that NAPPP does well. At $240 annually for membership, it's a little pricey, but it could be worth it. I'm considering joining.

Monday, July 03, 2006

A few days ago, the US Supreme Court ruled on another wrinkle in the insanity defense. An Arizona man, clearly schizophrenic, argued that his illness prevented him from forming the requisite intent to commit a crime. According to the New York Times:

The case was brought by an Arizona man who was a teenager suffering from paranoid schizophrenia when he shot and killed a police officer. He was convicted of violating a law that makes it a crime to kill a police officer intentionally, and he argued that the delusions caused by his illness had prevented him from forming that specific intent.

The key to the case involved the word, "intent." The defendant argued that because he was schizophrenic, he couldn't have formed any intent. The Supreme Court, keeping it's ideological purity intact, essentially dodged the issue with a narrow ruling. Writing for the court, Justice David Souter said that the states were so varied in their approaches to insanity, that there is no single, unambiguous standard for legal insanity. It's a sad state of affairs that this is true.

The court system is teetering between three models of criminal behavior: Moral, psychosocial, and medical. The moral model attributes criminal behavior to immorality. If you punish the immoral behavior, it will stop. The psychosocial model attributes criminal behavior to a complex interaction among family, community and economic causes. The medical model holds that criminal behavior is the result of genetic and biological causes.

All three models have their elements of truth, but the moral model holds sway, to the detriment of the other two. Criminal behavior does need to be punished, but, we should also attend to the social and economic framework in which criminal behavior occurs. Social inequity is the fertilizer in which criminal behavior grows.

We are becoming convinced that schizophrenia is primarily a medical problem. Why are we holding schizophrenics accountable for their behavior in the same ways that "normal" people are? It's a sad thing that we no longer see social services as a force for good. Even though crime rates drop during good economic times, even though education is a proven route to rehabilitation, we are still committed to the moral model to the exclusion of the others. It's a shame that compassion is passe.