Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Amazing Grace and Feeling Good

I recently attended a meeting of an Evangelical Christian church with a good friend.  This was something completely new for me; I'd grown up in a relatively conservative (personally, not politically) Methodist church, and while Evangelicalism is currently one of the dominant forces in American culture and politics, public perception is obviously different from private practice.  Of course I know Evangelicals (and I've been witnessed to probably a dozen times, poor kids) but lately I've been developing a more nuanced understanding of this denomination, thanks in part to the excellent Slacktivist blog, and I was interested to find out what worship means on a more personal level to someone with this belief system. 

I took away several things from that service, only a few of which I'm going to touch on here.  One thing I realized is that the hype is not necessarily untrue; the service was bombastic and professionally choreographed, with a full band and plenty of AV materials to put up on the huge monitors.  (I'm assuming our proximity to Hollywood plays a role in that.)

But when it came down to the actual sermon and the message it was conveying, things started to sound very familiar.  The principal theme was the classic redemption story: no matter what you've done or what you think, you can accept God into your heart and be forgiven.  You can go from a state of confusion and despondency to a state of confidence.  Don't let your brain hold you back; give your heart up to God...  And I started to realize that everything, from the goals to the language to the techniques, was remarkably similar to what is found in cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT.

In CBT, the focus is on solving immediate problems -- unhealthy relationships, lack of confidence, depression, etc. -- by identifying and challenging self-defeating beliefs and changing the associated emotional contexts.  The same basic ideas were outlined in the sermon, with some minor variations; where they talked about your "heart," CBT might talk about your emotional reactions; where they talked about your "brain," CBT might talk about self-defeating beliefs; where they talked about God's acceptance, CBT would focus on self-acceptance.  The basic religious structure that they were outlining essentially had the form of a therapeutic intervention.

Now, I am definitely not saying there are no differences between Evangelical worship and CBT, nor am I arguing that people subscribe to Evangelical beliefs for the same reason people seek out CBT.  I am sure there are those that do, but I am not arguing that they would necessarily achieve the same outcomes whether through the church or through CBT.  Instead, this got me thinking about the cultural connections between psychotherapy and religion.  Assuming that this parallel between contemporary worship and contemporary psychotherapy is valid, who influenced whom?  Is it that the Evangelical church is taking cues (consciously or unconsciously) from the self-help movement?  Or is it that this stream of person-focused religious thought influenced the development of CBT?  (Was Albert Ellis a religious man?  Even if not, religious belief likely permeated his cultural environment.)  These ideas are both rather simplistic ideas of causation, and neither is likely to be the whole story; it is far more likely that there has been some back-and-forth through history, both within religious and therapeutic ideas, and ideas external to both.

Psychologists and psychotherapists have long been interested in religion, both as a mental and social phenomenon, and in terms of its therapeutic implications.  Psychoanalysts seem to be particularly concerned about this.  In his book Psychoanalysis and Religion, Erich Fromm argued that religions can be essentially authoritative or essentially humanistic, and that beliefs stemming from these religions have implications, for good or ill, on human growth and development.  (The type of Evangelical Christianity described here would be considered more humanistic.)  And, of course, both Freud and Jung wrote extensively on religion and its effects on the human psyche, Freud from a relatively more Christian-centric (though atheistic) perspective, while Jung famously took inspiration from eastern religions.  Of course, both men were still raised in a cultural milieu where Christianity was the dominant religious ideology, so it would be interesting to compare therapeutic techniques that have been developed completely outside of this worldview, if any exist.