Humanist Psychology – Introduction
Humanist psychology, like all aspects of the Secular Humanist worldview, is strongly influenced by their assumptions about theology, philosophy, and biology. Leading Secular Humanist psychologists begin with the assumption that a personal God is a myth and that we are simply products of spontaneous generation and billions of years of evolution. Naturalistic philosophy fits hand-in-hand with these first two assumptions.
Because Secular Humanists deny the existence of the supernatural—including the mind, soul, and personality in any meaningful sense—they are left with the study of strictly material things: the brain, environmental stimuli, and tangible human responses to those stimuli. Monism is the belief that there is only one basic and fundamental reality, that all existence is this one reality. Psychological monism is the belief that the mind is part of the material body. The branch of psychology that concerns itself solely with such material data is called behaviorism. Behaviorists believe all human thought and personality are merely by-products of physical interactions of the brain. For them, psychology is a science of behavior—understanding how physical stimuli encourage our physical brains and bodies to behave.
Secular Humanists who are consistent with their worldview must embrace behaviorism. If the supernatural does not exist, then psychology admits only the natural. Logically, then, Secular Humanists should be behaviorists.
In practice, however, few Secular Humanists accept behaviorism. The reason is simple: behaviorism is a stultifying theory that reduces us to mere automatons. Behaviorist theory does not allow for human freedom because ultimately personal freedom must be grounded in the will, soul, or mind. According to the behaviorist model, we are merely physical, so our behavior is dictated by our physical environment. This is not an attractive theory, nor does it seem to match our day-to-day experience. Thus, Humanist psychologists abandon logic and the consequences of their atheistic evolutionary naturalism.
Most Secular Humanists call their psychology “third force” psychology because they are unwilling to embrace behaviorism or Freudianism, the other popular model. On the one hand, they reject behaviorism because it destroys their necessary concept of freedom. On the other hand, they reject Freudianism because it focuses too much on the individual apart from society. Unsatisfied with either branch of psychology, Secular Humanists created a third.
Humanist Psychology – Are We Good or Evil?
Humanist Psychology is summarized by Carl Rogers as follows: “For myself, though I am very well aware of the incredible amount of destructive, cruel, malevolent behavior in today’s world—from the threats of war to the senseless violence in the streets—I do not find that this evil is inherent in human nature.”1
Rejecting the Christian belief that we are fallen creatures, Secular Humanist psychologists emphatically proclaim our innate goodness—we possess no fallen nature, no original sin. Abraham Maslow writes, “As far as I know we just don’t have any intrinsic instincts for evil.”2 Carl Rogers says much the same thing: “I see members of the human species, like members of other species, as essentially constructive in their fundamental nature, but damaged by their experience.”3 Paul Kurtz sees us as “perfectible.”4
This portrayal of our condition is so incompatible with the Christian view that Secular Humanists feel compelled to attack the doctrine of original sin. Some go so far as to reinterpret the Bible to distort the concept of the Fall. Erich Fromm claims, “The Christian interpretation of the story of man’s act of disobedience as his ‘fall’ has obscured the clear meaning of the story. The biblical text does not even mention the word ‘sin;’ man challenges the supreme power of God, and he is able to challenge it because he is potentially God.”5
Still other Humanistic psychologists choose to attack the whole Christian view in an effort to avoid the concept of original sin. Wendell W. Watters writes, “The Christian is brainwashed to believe that he or she was born wicked, should suffer as Christ suffered, and should aspire to a humanly impossible level of perfection nonetheless.”6 According to Watters, the confusion and guilt heaped on Christians promotes mental illness: “A true Christian must always be in a state of torment, since he or she can never really be certain that God has forgiven him or her . . .”7
Clearly, Secular Humanist psychology is uneasy with the biblical concept of original sin, chiefly because the doctrine provides a reason for the existence of evil in the world. Humanist psychology, due to its insistence on the innate goodness of humanity, cannot easily answer the question of evil, yet at the same time it is unable to deny that evil exists (wars, crime, abuse, etc.).
Humanist Psychology – Is It Scientific?
Secular Humanists believe their humanist psychology is based on a realistic worldview grounded in science, as Maslow suggests. However, it is neither scientific nor realistic. Secular Humanists, therefore, attempt to redefine science to make it broad enough to include their psychology. They justify the new definition by pointing to the failure of existing psychological models to help us understand our nature. May complains, “Today we know a great deal about bodily chemistry and the control of physical diseases; but we know very little about why people hate, why they cannot love, why they suffer anxiety and guilt, and why they destroy each other.”8
Secular Humanists believe their psychology explains why we act the way we do and therefore is scientific. Rogers believes true science “will explore the private worlds of inner personal meanings, in an effort to discover lawful and orderly relationships there. In this world of inner meanings it can investigate all the issues which are meaningless for the behaviorist—purposes, goals, values, choice, perceptions of self, perceptions of others, the personal constructs with which we build our world, the responsibilities we accept or reject, the whole phenomenal world of the individual with its connective tissue of meaning.”9
Without meaning to do so, the Humanistic definition of scientific studies such as those listed by Rogers allow not only Humanist psychology to be termed scientific, but also every major religion, including Christianity. Exploring “inner personal meanings” is a goal of every major religion.
Humanist Psychology – Conclusion
Joyce Milton’s The Road to Malpsychia: Humanistic Psychology and our Discontents10 recounts the practical failure of Secular Humanist psychology by showing how it played out in the lives of some of its major proponents and leading practitioners. The title is revealing—malpsychia means bad psychology.
For example, Milton reveals that Harvard’s Timothy Leary routinely had sex with his patients, took psilocybin and LSD, pushed drugs on his own students, and entertained the goal of having four million Americans turned on to LSD. Milton says of Donald Clark that he “was fully prepared to revolutionize education, break down children’s sense of modesty about their own bodies, and celebrate ‘deviance.’”11
Milton also writes that Carl Rogers experienced so many problems with his Encounter Groups that co-worker Bill Coulson finally concluded, “humanistic psychology wasn’t solving anything. In fact, it was creating new pathologies that hadn’t existed before. The therapy was the disease.”12
The book reports how Abraham Maslow had trouble accepting the existence of evil. Milton explains, “Frank Manuel, his best friend on the Brandeis faculty, had warned Maslow as early as 1960 that his inability to account for the presence of evil in the world was a potentially fatal flaw in his attempt to construct a ‘religion of human nature.’”13
In reviewing Milton’s book for National Review, Paul C. Vitz, professor of psychology at New York University, concludes, “The reader needs to understand that the stories of these amoral and disordered lives are not just anecdotes: They are, rather, directly relevant to the theories of these psychologists. When a theorist proposes an answer to the question of how we can live well, the theorist’s life offers valuable evidence. In the case of these characters in Joyce Milton’s fine book, the conclusion is as sad as it is obvious: Psychologist, heal thyself.”14
Rendered with permission from the book, Understanding the Times: The Collision of Today’s Competing Worldviews (Rev. 2nd ed), David Noebel, Summit Press, 2006. Compliments of John Stonestreet, David Noebel, and the Christian Worldview Ministry at Summit Ministries. All rights reserved in the original.
1 Carl Rogers, “Notes on Rollo May,” Journal of Humanistic Psychology (Summer 1982): 8.
2 I. David Welch, George A. Tate, and Fred Richards, ed., Humanistic Psychology (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1978), 11.
3 Rogers, “Notes on Rollo May,” 8.
4 Paul Kurtz, et al., “Credo,” The Humanist (July/Aug. 1968): 18.
5 Erich Fromm, You Shall Be as Gods (New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), 7.
6 Wendell W. Watters, “Christianity and Mental Health,” The Humanist (Nov./Dec. 1987): 32.
7 Ibid., 10.
8 Rollo May, Psychology and the Human Dilemma (Princeton, NJ: D. Van Nostrand Company, 1967), 188.
9 Arthur Koestler and J.R. Smythies, ed., Beyond Reductionism (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1970), 252.
10 Joyce Milton, The Road to Malpsychia: Humanistic Psychology and our Discontents (San Francisco, CA: En counter Books, 2002).
11 Ibid., 150.
12 Ibid., 152.
13 Ibid., 171.
14 National Review (September 2, 2002): 46.
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