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?


Anonymous DH said...

The single most stress relieving moments of my life always contained three words: "I. Was. Wrong." In one form or another those words have removed boulders from my chest.

I'm not quick to forgive myself -- far from it -- but an admission does allow one to go on with one's life. Finally.

Ellis and his kind are curious types. You need not be religious to "Hate the sin, but love the sinner." Judging people is one thing. Judging behavior is another. Certainly the un-atoned sinner: Hitler, murderers, etc... are evil and it's fair to judge them as such. Hitler's flirtation with the occult is evidence that even he understood who he was and tried to use it to harness even more power. I'm not saying Hitler thought he was wrong -- but he knew by societies standards he was evil.

Refusing to judge even behavior has always struck me as rather arrogant. It sounds just the opposite but it's not. Ellis and his kind are ABOVE such a thing. They are the ultimate good. It's absurd and dangerous.Those of us who dare judge are beneath them. And you're right, that was Ellis's way of avoiding judgement.

I believe in forgiveness and more than one chance because I've needed both. But I'm not afraid to call behavior wrong, especially my own.

I think the gay marriage debate is drawn on those lines of not judging the person but judging the behavior. Many believe in live and let live. But legalizing gay marriage is tacit to condoning the sin of homosexual behavior. Just as bigamy condones adultery.

It's easy to not take a stand. Gutless really. Like those bumper stickers, "Mean People Suck." They're meaningless. But Ellis is a hypocrite because he is judging. He's judging those who judge i.e. People of religion. It's like people who profess tolerance for everything but INtolerance. It's an inherent and unsustainable contradiction.

April 05, 2005 8:21 AM  
Blogger Michael Prescott said...

To be fair to Ellis, he does judge behavior. He just won't judge "a person." At least, this was his position in 1968. He may have changed his views since then.

I also would disagree with your view that homosexuality - or homosexual behavior - is a sin. The Bible (in Deuteronomy) declares many things to be "abominations" - not only "sodomy," as it is usually translated, but also eating shellfish, wearing two kinds of fabric at the same kind, planting different crops in the same field, and giving or accepting loans on credit. These prohibitions ought to be seen in the context of the culture of 500 BC (or earlier). At least that's my view. But this is a debate I'm not sure I want to get into!

April 05, 2005 6:09 PM  
Blogger Brins said...

I doubt this will be read, but I was rereading your old blog out of curiousity.

The concept of evil is a complex thing, and I've picked up some very unorthodox views on the subject as of late, after much thought on it. I won't go into it here, since it would take too long to explain, and I don't think it's highly socially accepted; still, I can't be convinced to renounce them.

I'll say one thing, though: I don't agree with the condemning of someone as evil when events in their lives have inevitably led to said evil; when I say 'condemn', I mean to accuse the person of being bad, inferior, etc.

What I mean is, those with horrendous childhoods, corrupt mentors, etc. The unavoidable result of their experience is to have morally-demented minds (they know nothing else). Having said that, just because we aren't like them, doesn't mean we couldn't have been (or even be). We shouldn't condemn the person, however hard that is to do, since it's not their fault.

I'm not taking the view of Ellis in that a person isn't evil; you're right, they become evil and prone to certain acts/emotions after being involved in them for so long. But I feel we need to be careful about what it means to be evil - I think people find it too easy to dismiss an 'evil' person as unworthy, or below oneself, without putting themselves into their shoes.

I know what I'm talking about, but it's surprisingly hard to put into simple words.

I'd be happy to hear other views on the issue, and responses to mine. I'm completely open to criticism.

July 20, 2005 4:13 AM  

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