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?

3 Comments:

Blogger Jeff Perren said...

Comments like the one I'm about to make are usually boring: Bravo!

But I can't think of a better way to say it.

Unless it's this: Reading this, I thought I wrote it. And, I confess, I like being agreed with.

So, Bravo!

April 03, 2005 7:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I appreciate your thoughts on Ellis. I have written a paper on integrating Ellis' ideas with those of Viktor Frankl's and have come across some surprising comparisons. First, Ellis is a *probabilistic* atheist, and he does not negate the existence of God, he just doubts it. His later writings actually talk about religion as being helpful for patients, as long as it is not fanatical. One of his close colleagues is a Mormon gentleman who has used Ellis' idea and incorporated them into a cognitive therapy. Through the grapevine, Ellis is much more open to spiritual ideas, he just defines them differently. Just FYI, Ellis may be more "religious" than you may have given him credit for (he may just not know it, sort of like Freud...) 0- Geoff Hutchinson, Ph.D.

August 27, 2005 12:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Geoff,

Thanks for the information on Albert Ellis. I know little about him other than what I learned from reading his book - which was, of course, published back around 1968. I'm glad to hear he may have changed his views on religion somewhat. There are some good studies indicating that a religious belief system actually contributes to mental (and physical) health. These studies are discussed in Patrick Glynn's book God: The Evidence, among other places.

Michael Prescott

September 01, 2005 11:07 PM  

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