Scientific American continues to circle the drain, even after it retracted an anti-Semitic op-ed this week. Several readers have commented that they’ve canceled their subscriptions, and I’ve never had one. Perhaps the old-fashioned Sci Am that we knew and loved is no longer sustainable in a world where people want their science as short, click-baity pieces.
The latest dire piece is not an op-ed but an article, appearing in the “Mind” section under “mental health”. It’s a justification for including religious and spiritual therapy in mental health treatment, and could be taken as, in part, a defense of the value of religion. Indeed, it may be the case that for believers—though I haven’t checked the references; readers are invited to—some kind of god-infused therapy might ameliorate mental illness. The author gives references supposedly showing this. After all, if you’re already religious, you’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, and so buttressing the comforting bits of what you already believe might make you feel better. After all, that’s what a lot of church is about.
But there are a few problems with Rosmarin’s thesis. First, religious therapy enables religious belief, i.e., faith. Part of what is said to “cure” you involves reinforcing falsehoods rather than facing real or potential truths. I don’t object to that so much, though, as an antitheist, I don’t like it. Second, although “spiritual” therapy is mentioned many times, and is said to help even nonbelievers, the author never tells us what spiritual therapy really is. Given how broad the boundaries of the concept “spiritual” extend, almost any therapy that helps could be said to include a “spiritual” element. For example, one could tell a secular patient to learn to accept both good and bad as inevitable parts of life. That is the doctrine of many Buddhists, and could be said to be “spiritual”.
Importantly, there’s no mention of religion actually exacerbating or instigating mental illness, and I have no doubt that it does. Martin Luther is a famous example, but think as well of the many children who have been terrified by thoughts of heaven or hell, the people who do horrible stuff because they think God told them to, or the priests who, formally prevented from having sex, become pedophiles. I could go on, but will refrain. But there’s not a word about any of this.
Finally, why on earth is Scientific American publishing stuff like this? I suppose you could include it in the ambit of “popular science”, but barely. They might as well be writing about the value of acupuncture in helping physical ailments. Like acupuncture, religion is a regimen based on false assumptions, and its use encourages a naive reliance on faith: on stuff that is either untested or palpably false.
Rosmarin is a Ph.D. psychologist identified as “director of the Spirituality and Mental Health Program at McLean Hospital and an assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.”
Here’s the evidence adduced by Rosmain:
- His own SPIRIT program “suggests that spiritual psychotherapy is not only feasible but highly desired by patients”
- During the last pandemic year, religious people were “the only group to see improvements in mental health”
- Spirituality, says Rosmarin, is woefully lacking in most forms of therapy, as psychiatrists are the least religious among all medical specialties.
- As Rosmarin says,
My own research has demonstrated that a belief in God is associated with significantly better treatment outcomes for acute psychiatric patients. And other laboratories have shown a connection between religious belief and the thickness of the brain’s cortex, which may help protect against depression. Of course, belief in God is not a prescription. But these compelling findings warrant further scientific exploration, and patients in distress should certainly have the option to include spirituality in their treatment.
You can check the references for yourself. They may show what he says they do. But I still would be wary of religious treatment, since it uses falsehoods and belief in falsities to help people get better. I don’t necessarily oppose that, but I would have liked to have seen a mention of how religion causes or exacerabates mental illness. It using religion any different from telling patients that acupuncture in their ears could help them, or that everybody really likes them?
Rosmarin winds up giving a few anecdotes as evidence for the efficacy of “spiritual” therapy (I suspect that a lot of the “spirituality” is old-fashioned religion), and asserts that the biggest group of patients who come to his SPIRIT counseling are individuals “with no religious affiliation at all.” These are, of course, the “nones,” but nones may be religious, and simply not affiliated with an established church or sect. Only a minority of “nones” would consider themselves atheists.
When I read this article, the words of Marx kept coming back to me—words from a famous passage usually (and unfairly) truncated to just the last sentence, implying pure religion-dissing. What’s left out is the first sentence in which Marx asserts that religion is often embraced because its the only form of help available to people in bad situations like poverty, illness, lack of social support, and so on.
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
I doubt that Scientific American will ever get back to the format that attracted many of us to the magazine in the first place. Just have a look at its contents these days, which have become more overtly political with a good dose of fluff.