America's Secular Religion

Everybody knows somebody who claims to be religious but adheres to his or her professed religion only inconsistently, or maybe hardly at all. Less widely noticed is the phenomenon of the person who claims to be irreligious but is actually driven by blind faith. Some of the most popular religious creeds fly under the radar thanks to shrewd marketing by their adherents (although thereby missing out on the tax exemption). So it's important to keep in mind what "religion" is exactly. Well, it's a lot of things, among which:

1. Religion provides a moral code, a method for distinguishing right from wrong;
2. Religious truth flows from the top down (frequently originating with God at the very top);
3. The religious are loyal to their creeds. The creed becomes the prism through which they interpret the facts of the world around them.

Science, by comparison, has no concern with moral questions of right and wrong—its job is to tell merely what is or is not, not to make judgments of good or bad. Science does not demand belief on the basis of authority; any scientific theory should be verifiable (or falsifiable) by anyone willing to replicate the necessary experiments. It's the ultimate democracy (in theory): the truth is equally accessible to everyone.

(If at this point you object that real scientists don't always--or even usually--just bear with me until reading the rest of this post.)

People think of the old Soviet Union as devoid of religion, but in fact there dominant religion was called Communism. Communism was a religion by every one of the criteria above: it provided their moral compass; the creed was defined and promulgated by the central authority of the State; and true believers shaped their entire world-view around the logical demands of Communism.

A recent report by the Pew Forum finds an increasing percentage of Americans profess adherence to no religious creed. I'm not so sure this would hold if we included some of the new "non-religious" religions. In particular, while communism never caught on big in the U.S., the younger creed of psychiatrology, as I call it. has a definite grip on a large segment of the population.

So many people how are skeptical of what they read in the newspaper or even in the Bible are suddenly credulous when it comes to a book written by a self-help guru, especially one with "Dr." in front of his or her name (which always strikes me as a sign of insecurity--like the Seinfeld character who insisted on being called "Maestro.") If you want to just make stuff up, and then have it become widespread conventional wisdom, then psychology is the field for you (although politics gives it a run for the money).

So we end up with such "everyone knows" phenomena as the five stages of grieving, or the mid-life crisis. (Here's a fun thing to do. If you know a guy over the age of 35, start commenting on every change in his lifestyle--for example, if he decides to go to the gym, or seek a promotion at work, or maybe grow a beard: "You must be having a mid-life crisis." He'll love it.) The problem with these ideas is that if you look for actual research supporting them, it isn't there, or you might find a single study with marginal results, not supported by follow-up work.

Pure science doesn't touch on questions of right and wrong, but psychology, especially pop psychology, is not reticent about telling people what they should or should not do. The terms "right" and "wrong" are not used, but terms such as "healthy", "deviant", "syndrome" are used with the same force. Consider, for example, the phenomenon of homosexuality. Up until 1973, the "Bible" of psychology, that is to say the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (let's call it the Psychobible for short), listed homosexuality as a mental disorder, and in 1973 it was removed. Now I claim the word "disorder" carries a value judgment attached, in that it implies here is a condition which demands to be corrected, or is at least regrettable. And as such when we use a word like "disorder" we are now outside the realm of science.

Was there some kind of scientific breakthrough in 1973 that suddenly revealed homosexuality to lie within the normal spectrum of human behavior instead of outside? Of course not, just as there was no scientific basis for the original classification. The change simply reflected a change in psychiatrists feelings about homosexuality.

The religion of psychiatrology is distinct from the legitimate science of psychology, which includes plenty of solid, fascinating research. Unfortunately the dividing line is not a sharp one. Even professionals in the field sometimes draw conclusions based on faith rather than facts. In 1973 David Rosenhan experimented with admitting perfectly sane people to psychiatric hospitals with a single report of hearing voices. Perfectly healthy test subjects were thereafter judged as insane and kept confined for up to several months.

Currently one of the most damaging tenets of psychiatrology is the concept of so-called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This initial appeared in the 1980 version of the Psychobible as Attention Deficit Disorder, which was replaced by "ADHD" in 1987. The rate of diagnosis has exploded from 0 in 1979 to include about 10% of schoolchildren today (and 13% of boys). But only in America (and lately in Great Britain as well, it seems)--this concept essentially doesn't exist in Japan, Russia, or other countries that routinely outperform us in education. The U.S. accounts for something like 90% of the world's consumption of Ritalin.

I hope the absurdity of labeling 13% of boys with a "disorder" is self-evident. If not, then consider: is a condition affecting 20% of the population a "disorder"? How about 50% ? 90% ? In this country, only 2% of the population is redheaded, but we don't label them as having some "disorder" of the hair. If 13% of children are unable to meet the schools' expectations for sitting in a chair and listening passively, does the fault like with the children, or with the schools?

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