How Therapists Became Gods

In the space of what feels like a breath, we went from the Greatest Generation to the legalization of infanticide, from a country with a singular and evolved moral code to the ripping down of the Ten Commandments in courtrooms across the country, from a rational acknowledgment of natural gender to drag-queen story hour at the public library.

How in the world did this happen?

I’m saddened to say that some of the biggest players in this cultural catastrophe have been psychotherapists.

My generation was bottle fed with the nectar of psychotherapy and a philosophy that presented itself as secular wisdom but was really the religion of “Whatever.”  Anyone who was anyone had heard the news: Nietzsche was right, God was dead and the religions that preached that ancient moral code were also dead, or worse, passé. And if God was dead or uninvolved and unimportant, why pay Him any mind? Why deny yourself anything? Why wait for anything? Why condemn yourself for anything?

C.S. Lewis warned us in 1940. Dostoyevsky warned us before that in 1880 with The Brothers Karamazov. (“Without God, anything is permitted.”) They saw the dark red glow of modernity on the horizon. They knew what was coming. And it did. With the likes of Carl Rogers’ Unconditional Positive Regard and the Humanistic Psychology of Abraham Maslow, God was quietly but deftly usurped by an addled old man who dementedly (but kindly, as Lewis imagines it) pats us all on the head mumbling, “So long as you’re happy.”

According to Christian Smith at UNC, Chapel Hill, what I call the religion of “Whatever,” he calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” He sums up this new theology in three points:

  1. God is Nice.
  2. The goal of life is to be happy and nice and fair.
  3. People who are nice go to heaven.

And I’ll add a couple of my own:

  1. People who dedicate themselves to the religion of “Whatever” and eat their “whatever wheaties” every day will be spared from suffering.
  2. All gods are the same god and all roads lead to Rome or “Wherever.”

I see a few big problems with this philosophy:

The first and most serious is that none of what they claim is true. There is but one God and He is not the oracle of cultural relativism. And if I (and countless other millions) am right, then a whole generation has committed the worst spiritual blunder in recorded history.

The second is that God is good, but He is certainly not always “nice.  “Niceness” is not the measure of goodness, just as apparent cruelty is not necessarily the measure of evil. As Russ Murray points out in his blog, someone can be quite nice and have the most base of intentions, citing Judas as a prime example, betraying Jesus with a kiss. And doctors do the opposite all the time: they reset broken bones, suture ruptured skin, and remove decayed teeth using methods that sometimes cause awful yet necessary pain to facilitate proper healing.

The same is true in trauma treatment: sometimes it is impossible to heal without digging up the pain and reliving it in its fullness. I remember one poignant moment with a client who had experienced the worst childhood trauma I’d ever heard (and I’d heard a lot). It seemed to come out of an episode of “Criminal Minds.” In the midst of the recounting, she looked at me with such longing and fear, “Do I have to tell you?” The pain she was afraid of was real. Was the therapy necessary? Yes.  Was it nice? Not at all. Was it good? Absolutely. 

The third issue is that it doesn’t work because it denies the utility and the proper place of suffering, which seems to be inevitable, no matter what we do or believe.

How can there be room for suffering in a religion where people kneel to the god of happiness and convenience?

Furthermore, we not only worship happiness but can openly pursue it more and enjoy the greatest creature comforts of any civilization in history. Yet, ironically, despite our frenzied pursuits, we’re possibly the unhappiest group of people on the planet. It seems the more we focus on ourselves, the worse we feel.

According to a large study conducted by Cigna, we are in the middle of a loneliness epidemic with 46% of adults in the U.S. reporting themselves as lonely, and those between the ages of 18-22 suffering the most. Antidepressant use has surged by an incredible 65% in the last 15 years with 1 out of 8 over the age of 12 using some form of antidepressant.

The rate at which young Americans took their own lives reached a high in 2017, driven by a sharp rise in suicides among older teenage boys, according to JAMA. The youth suicide rate -- 14.6 per 100,000 -- appears to be the highest it’s been since the government began collecting such statistics in 1960.

How can that be when we are surrounded with opportunities for self-gratification and encouraged by countless “authorities” to avail ourselves of them? Why are we so sad, so lonely and isolated when there are so many socialization programs in our schools and everyone is so “connected” over social media? Why the misery when you can even choose a new gender? Or even marry your own pet? (Truly, in California “whatever” has taken on a fantastical new meaning.) If there is no longer a God, if His moral code is irrelevant, and if self-esteem boosting therapy is the answer (and the self-actualized therapist the oracle), why do so many people feel so empty even after years and years on the couch?

So, do we get rid of all forms of psychotherapy? Truly, I hope not. Despite these grim statistics, I’ve seen good therapy change lives. In the hands of a responsible and skilled clinician, it can be a Godsend. But in order to help, it absolutely must have a moral center. It can’t be an obeisance to the goddess of Whatever, to fleeting gratification or a subtle source of validation for romantic whimsy and unrestrained self-centeredness. Unfortunately that is often what it is. Therapists, like the addled, nonjudgmental god of modern imagination, have been trained to indulge narcissistic, self-centered behavior and treat their clients with the simple blessing, “Whatever makes you happy.”

A case in point: One woman was having an affair at the same time that she was seeing a psychiatrist I knew well. The more involved the affair became, instead of making her happy or satisfied in some way, she became increasingly anxious. The psychiatrist, who had diagnosed her as depressed, told her she needed anti-depressants. He never explored the impact of the affair on her, never understood her instinctive self-condemnation, and never even considered the possibility that doing something wrong has consequences -- emotional, spiritual, and physical. He encouraged her bad behavior and medicated her bad emotions.

That is the secular psychotherapeutic milieu in this country. It does indeed boggle the mind.

Thankfully, she was smart enough to eventually figure it out for herself. The medications only made her worse so once she got off them, she shook the cobwebs out of her head, broke off the affair and told her husband about it. In due time, she began to heal.

Imagine that.