Friday, April 08, 2005

Switching to a new blog site

This hosting service, Blogger, has been so unreliable and frustrating that I have switched to a different service, TypePad. I'm hoping it will be better. Hard to see how it could be worse ...

My new blog site is .

I hope to see you there!

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Soul of the Age

I recently read an announcement of a possible film on the life of the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. Why is this of interest? Well, de Vere is today's most popular candidate for the role of the "real" Shakespeare - the nobleman who wrote the plays attributed to the man from Stratford. And the proposed movie, The Soul of the Age, dramatizes this theory by showing de Vere as the behind-the-scenes mastermind of the Bard's masterpieces.

As I discussed in an earlier post, there are pluses and minuses to the "anti-Stratfordian" position - the contention that someone other than Will Shakespeare wrote the works. I am an agnostic on the subject, leaning slightly toward the heretics but by no means committed. One thing I am sure of, however, is that de Vere's life offers plenty of material for an exciting drama. And there are enough parallels between his biography and the life of Hamlet (among other Shakespearean characters) to make the film version intriguing, at the very least.

Of course, all this may be premature. The film's would-be director, Roland Emmerich, has not secured funding yet. And he seems to have two or three other irons on the fire, including a movie about King Tut. Whether or not The Soul of the Age actually makes it to the screen remains to be determined. The script was written in 1998 and shelved when Shakespeare in Love went into production. Will it have better luck this time?

I hope so. Valid or invalid, the Oxfordian theory is so clever and so intriguing that it deserves to reach a wider audience.

Monday, April 04, 2005

More on God and Albert Ellis

My previous post discussed rational-emotive psychological theorist Albert Ellis and his strange reluctance to pass judgment on anybody - even Adolf Hitler!

I tossed out the speculation that perhaps Ellis, an ardent atheist, was worried by the prospect of being judged himself, either by others or by God.

Since then I've reflected a little more on the issue, and I think there may be a better explanation of Ellis's thinking. Possibly he believes that if we define a person as bad or evil, then we are saying that this person is irredeemable - that he can never be anything but bad or evil. So in calling him a bad person, we are denying his humanity by foreclosing any possibility of atonement and redemption.

This interpretation would seem to be more in line with Ellis's comments. If this is his view, however, it is still much mistaken. Calling someone a bad person in no way logically entails saying that he cannot be redeemed. Quite the opposite, in fact. In the Christian tradition, a person must declare himself to be a sinner before he can begin to atone for his sins and seek redemption. Being a sinner is not the end of the matter, but only the beginning.

The same idea is at work in the twelve-step program pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous, which has proven highly effective. A member of the program must declare himself to be an alcoholic - not "a person who exhibits alcoholic behavior," mind you, but an alcoholic. Only be confronting this fact about himself can the person then move on to overcome his addiction, with the help of a "higher power" (another part of the program).

Ellis would presumably object to both steps - the statement "I am an alcoholic" and the trust in a higher power. Yet the AA program gets results, and these steps are integral to it. In fact, when some AA branches removed the "higher power" step in an effort to qualify for government funding (which was not offered to religious programs), they found that the resulting eleven-step program did not work. They had to restore the "higher power" step, even though it meant giving up any hope of government support.

This leads us to another criticism of Ellis's position. Throughout his book, he writes as though religion is adopted by weak-minded people who are drawn to it by their neuroses - neuroses which are then exacerbated by the religious belief system itself. If his view were correct, religious people would be more neurotic and more unhappy than the secular population.

But subsequent studies (not available at the time Ellis wrote his book) have shown the opposite. People who say that religion is important in their lives are, as a group, happier and better adjusted emotionally than their secular counterparts. Moreover, they are less likely to suffer from substance abuse or other addictions, and more likely to be in good health for their age. Religious practices like prayer and meditation have been shown to be especially effective in maintaining a positive outlook and the ability to deal with stress.(These studies, which are pretty well known, are discussed in Patrick Glynn's God: The Evidence, among many other books.)

So Ellis appears to have gotten things exactly backward. Religion (unless it degenerates into fanaticism) actually promotes happiness and good mental and physical health. And the ability to say "I am a bad person," far from cheating us of any hope at self-improvement, turns out to be the first necessary step on the road to self-improvement - just as all those religious texts and traditions always said.

Gee. How about that?

Saturday, April 02, 2005

God and Albert Ellis

Recently I tracked down the long out-of-print book Is Objectivism a Religion? by Albert Ellis. Published in 1968, the book criticizes Ayn Rand's philosophy of rational egoism, dubbed Objectivism, arguing that the philosophy encourages neurosis by making unrealistic demands on its adherents.

Ellis, the founder of a school of cognitive psychology called rational-emotive therapy or RET, is concerned that his views may he mistaken for those of Objectivist therapists. He therefore wants to draw a clear dividing line between the two approaches. He also wants to get in the last word after having publicly debated Nathaniel Branden (at the time the leading theorist of Objectivist psychology, although he was soon to be booted out of the movement). As Ellis tells it, the debate became something of a free-for-all, with obnoxious Objectivists in the audience booing and hissing his comments and making it difficult for him to speak.

Although he occasionally seems to misunderstand Rand's views on particular topics, Ellis makes a number of cogent points about Objectivism's essential unreality and perfectionism. But what I found more interesting - and more troubling - was his exposition of his own viewpoint. Ellis has a positive horror of passing moral judgment on other people. He regards a propensity for judging others as a sign of neurosis. He thinks there is no such thing as a bad person, only bad behavior. For him this is not a platitude but a profound and compelling truth. He goes so far as to say that even Adolf Hitler must not be judged as evil. Indeed, Is Objectivism a Religion? ends with a ringing peroration on the ''bigotry" implied in morally condemning Hitler.

... although Hitler was a person who committed abominable deeds, it is unscientific and misleading to call him an abominable person. And just as Hitler himself was bigoted – because he called a person who has non-Aryan heredity a non-Aryan person, and then condemned this whole person because he happened to dislike his non-Aryan background – so Nathaniel Branden is a person with bigoted ideas if he labels Hitler as "an unqualifiedly contemptible human being" instead of a human being with many contemptible traits. The mere fact that Hitler's crimes included many murders of innocent people does not gainsay the fact that he was a person who did wrong things, rather than, as Branden implies, a werewolf or a devil.

The main point is that there are no humans who are vermin, werewolves, or devils. There are just humans who are human; and who, being human, often do the damnedest deeds. To accept this fact is to be scientific, humane, and irreligious. To refuse to accept it is to be unscientific, inhumane and religious. (p. 308; excerpt from the final paragraphs of the book)

This viewpoint strikes me as simply bizarre. I'm willing to concede that one should not condemn another person as evil on the basis of a single, isolated act - unless the act in question is especially heinous and calculated. (And Objectivism is all too willing to condemn people willy-nilly, not only on the basis of a single act but even on the basis of a single statement, single thought, or single emotional reaction.) In combating such knee-jerk moralism, Ellis is on solid ground.

But when a person commits a series of evil acts over a long period of time - when his character and his life are centered on evil acts - then it becomes absurd to say that his behavior is evil but he is not. It is a distinction without a difference.

Suppose someone performs countless acts of kindness throughout his lifetime. Would we hesitate to call him kind? Or if he performs numerous acts of bravery, doesn't he quality as brave?

Ellis might object that no one is brave - or kind, or evil - all the time. This is true. But surely we judge a person not by his incidental acts but by his typical or characteristic behavior. Adolf Hitler no doubt had moments of kindness and humanity (he is said to have loved his dogs), but these acts don't mitigate the essential malignity of his record, a record of premeditated mass murder and war and terror, extending over decades.

I find Ellis's view too eccentric to justify a more detailed rebuttal, but it may be worthwhile to ask what motivates him to take such an untenable position – and not only to take it, but to defend it vehemently and make it a centerpiece of his argument, thereby weakening his entire book.

The answer seems to lie in Ellis's furious, sustained, almost pathological hatred of religion. It apparently doesn’t occur to him that his zeal on this subject is itself "religious" in the worst sense of the term.

For Ellis, all religion is mere ''supernatural nonsense," all the varieties of God merely "invented" by human beings who are motivated by a sense of their own "worthlessness." Potshots at religion litter the book's pages, indicating an abiding contempt for all things religious, a contempt that borders on the obsessive. Indeed, "religion" may be the most pejorative term in Ellis's vocabulary, as the very title of his book makes plain. And perhaps predictably, most of his rhetorical firepower is directed at ''Judeo-Christian religion," his bete noir.

Apparently what Ellis despises most about religion is its moralistic quality - all this talk of good and evil, of sin, of guilt. He would do away with all that. His conception of humanism requires him to hold that every human being has value, and therefore no human being can be written off as fundamentally bad. To make such a judgment is to abandon humanism and enter the realm of religion – i.e., to abandon reason and become an abject irrationalist.

But clearly it is possible to hold that all human life has value, and therefore to condemn someone like Hitler, who went out of his way to spoil and destroy human life. Indeed, if we do value the lives of individual human beings, then we can hardly place much value on the life of a mass murderer, who has extinguished so many lives.

This objection is so obvious that it's hard to see how Ellis could overlook it. Perhaps the answer is that valuing human life is not, after all, the root of his position. I suspect that Ellis's actual motive is somewhat different from the motive he ascribes to himself. It's not that judging others is such an awful prospect. The awful prospect is that of being judged oneself.

In his description of his debate with Branden, Ellis claims that the harsh reaction of the largely pro-Objectivist audience did not discomfit him in the least. "As I teach my RET patients, human beings only become 'insulted' when they take seriously the barbs of others, and essentially agree with these others that, yes, they (the 'insulted' ones) are somewhat worthless individuals. [A rational person who was the target of such barbs] would surely not take [the] accusations very seriously ... and would listen to the rest of [the] accusations with equanimity." (p. 289)

Like Queen Gertrude, Ellis protests too much. In reality, being condemned and criticized is surely going to ruffle most people's feathers, no matter how much cognitive therapy they may have had. Yes, a person of high self-regard may be less easily flustered by criticism, but the idea that anyone can listen to insults and condemnations "with equanimity" is just as unrealistic and perfectionistic as the Objectivist doctrines that Ellis decries.

Only a person with a strong fear of criticism would work so hard to prove that criticism can't possibly bother him. Only someone intensely worried about being judged would rail so vehemently against the very idea of judgment.

Opponents of religion often argue that religionists believe in God merely because it makes them feel good and allays their fears. But the argument can be turned around. Some of those same anti-religionists may hold their position because to believe in God would make them feel bad. It would, perhaps, scare the hell out of them. Atheism may in fact be their way of feeling good and allaying their fears.

After all, it's bad enough to be judged by one's fellow human beings. How much worse is it to be judged by some ultimate and implacable Authority?