Quakerism As Therapy?? A Good Idea? Good Religion??

Quakerism As Therapy?? A Good Idea? Good Religion??

Is that a good idea? Is it good religion?

The new issue of Quaker Theology (#29) is out, and it contains some challenging, provocative material for Friends and their friends.

butterflies-2a-front-cover-smThe first piece that fits the description is “The Influence of Psychoanalysis and Popular Psychology on Quaker Thought & Practice: An Exploratory Survey,” by Jacob Stone. He is both a longtime Friend and a retired psychologist, who had a long career in human services and human services education in higher education, as well as serving as an ethicist and ethics trainer.

Stone raises the curtain on a well-established phenomenon particularly at the liberal end of this constituency. Yet it’s one that is hardly ever remarked on, except in passing: the pervasive influence of pop psychology and the morphing of “spirituality” (also previously known as “religion”) into a kind of therapy equivalent. 

    Evangelical Friends have their own versions of this; but Stone is more familiar with liberal Quakers, and that’s where he takes us.  And, Friends, it’s a jungle out there. (Just kidding! Really it’s the Elysian Fields; it’s a “safe space”; the Tunnel to Transformation; the Home of true Healing, the Bower of Breathful Bliss, etc.)  In any case, under the capacious umbrella of Friends General Conference, on the verdant lawns of Pendle Hill, or Friendly spaces subject to their influence, it’s well-nigh inescapable.

Jacob Stone

    Stone draws back from passing any judgments about this condition. This editor is not so reluctant.  I’ve been troubled more than once by what I’ve seen and heard in such settings.

For one thing, much of this stuff makes at least a stab at being scientific. But a great deal is just not. Beyond my own experience and observation, I’m persuaded by the careful analysis of available research as of about 2013 by Monica Pignotti, PhD & Bruce A. Thyer, PhD, LCSW, BCBA-D, both from the College of Social Work, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida. In the book, Science & Pseudo-science in Clinical Psychology, they write in “New Age & Related Novel Unsupported Therapies in Mental Health Practice”: 

    “Currently, conventional science has yet to validate the core principles of New Age psychotherapies – the idea that that thoughts can influence one’s external environment, the existence of subtle energies and fields–or of meridians, acupressure points, chakras, auras, or of the ability of some psychotherapists to reliably detect these constructs.”

    It is rare that the books, training workshops, CDs, or DVDs advertising training in these treatments, or offering them to the public . . . include a disclaimer along the lines of ‘The treatment being promoted lacks an adequate scientific evidence that it is an effective therapy. It is offered solely on the basis of the psychologist’s clinical judgment, intuition, and personal beliefs.’”

Further, as Pignoti and Thyer add, some of these techniques and associated paraphernalia have also proved to be downright dangerous:

    “Recall the confident assertion of one mental health professional who claimed, ‘I am a sensitive observer, and my conclusion is that a vast majority of my patients get better as opposed to worse after treatment.’ This professional was a psychiatrist who provided crude lobotomies on the brains of persons with mental illness during the 1950s . . . . It is now evident that prefrontal lobotomies are an ineffective treatment for persons with mental illness and in many instances are seriously injurious . . . .

Jack Nicholson, a target for lobotomy, in “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest” (1975)

Offering a New Age or NUST (Novel Unsupported Therapy) to a client, when the psychologist is aware that the proffered treatment lacks credible scientific evidence of its effectiveness, and when other psychosocial or medical interventions with a stronger evidentiary foundation exist, raises troubling ethical questions.” (pp. 204f)

    Long after lobotomies were discredited, there were all the variations on repressed recovered memories of trauma and abuse, which wreaked havoc far and wide, producing false prosecutions, breaking up families and making many clients worse off. As an eminent Harvard Psychology professor, Richard J. McNally, put it in a brief for one of the many lawsuits involving these “techniques”: 

    “The notion that traumatic events can be repressed and later recovered is the most pernicious bit of folklore ever to infect psychology and psychiatry. It has provided the theoretical basis for ‘recovered memory therapy’ – the worst catastrophe to befall the mental health field since the lobotomy era.”

    But lay all this aside. What troubles me most is the extent to which this yeasty, faddish mishmash of “novel unsupported (by scientific research) therapies” has progressively absorbed and often seems to essentially displace religion in many Quaker settings: you know, the actual experience and evolution of an existing faith community, plus the people, saints and villains, who shaped it. This also includes theology (even for non-theists), scriptures, the study and grappling therewith, not to mention actual (rather than legendary/mythical) relationships to other religions.

    Our hope is that Jacob Stone’s eye-opening glimpse of all this can stimulate more re-examination and candid discussion among liberal Friends about this situation. 

Here are some excerpts:

One Saturday back in the early 1990’s I found myself in a brief workshop sponsored by a Quaker organization; there was a short business meeting, a presentation, some socialization and networking during “dinner on the grounds”. And then…..

    …..a program about how I could “heal” myself. I didn’t at that time feel any particular need for healing, but I was told that by understanding the social and familial forces that have plagued me (and, supposedly, everyone) I could begin to resolve my issues and heal. I was then offered the opportunity to work with another workshop participant to share our history, our pain and our strivings so we could each find the “divine” person within. I participated, because it seemed harmless if a bit feckless, and my partner was clearly enthusiastic about it all; I thought perhaps I could be of some support to him even if I was more than a little skeptical. 

    Well, I don’t think I was any more divine or healed that day than I was before this episode of amateur psychotherapy, but I came away with the beginnings of an interest and inquiry that I’ve followed for the past quarter-century: the impact of psychoanalytic thought and new age/pop psychology (let’s conflate it all as PNAP) on Quaker thought and practice. Tracing it has been an interesting journey. For me, it is more than a passing interest or hobby. My sense is that some of the overarching themes of PNAP have changed Quaker thought and practice, for better or worse.

A word about methodology here. Liberal Quakerism is marked by a distinctive lack of any central arbiter of doctrine and practice. Even though each yearly meeting publishes its own book of Faith and Practice our congregational nature leaves, and even encourages, each meeting to develop its own culture.  In my travels through the corridors of Quakerism over the last forty years I’ve been astonished at what a heterogeneous sect we have become. . . .

    Given this, any general observation by a single person about Quaker thought and practice and about the impact of PNAP is necessarily personal, impressionistic and exploratory. These observations aren’t statistically rigorous and certainly not definitive, but perhaps will serve to identify some interesting trends. More important, I hope that readers will want to consider whether and how much the emphases of PNAP in Quakerism are rightly ordered.

So, taking into consideration the limitations of this inquiry, I’m drawing some information from four sources:

    • First and foremost, the workshops and programs offered at the annual Friends General Conference Gathering . . . .

    • The archived resources of Friends Journal, which covers all it has published for the past sixty years or more, both chronologically and by subject “tags”. 

    • The long series of Pendle Hill Pamphlets, over four hundred of them dating back to the 1930’s. 

    • Last, my own experiences over the past forty years in various meetings throughout the United States and the UK, and my involvement with a wide range of Friends organizations.

    There are surely many other sources of information to mine, but I offer these as a starting point for any further exploration. 

* * *

    So, my digging around in these places has focused on when and how the themes mentioned earlier seemed to appear. In summary form these themes are:

    • a primary focus on the individual and less on the community, family or social context

    • careful examination of the past for clues about current problems and functioning, often blaming others for difficulties and pathologies.

    • the idea of unconscious drives and motivations as important elements of a psyche

    • the possibility of transformation and growth through effort and application of special techniques . . . .

    So, in the final analysis, it seems that PNAP has found its way into Friends thought and practice, and this may not be either all good or all bad. The focus of PNAP on the individual, the displacement of guilt, shame and blame, and the offer of possible sudden transformation seem to have had some direct impact on the way we think and function as Friends. This is a worthwhile topic for Friends to consider, and for them to evaluate whether these shifts are rightly ordered.

Full article in Quaker Theology #29.


7 thoughts on “Quakerism As Therapy?? A Good Idea? Good Religion??”

  1. Chuck, Thanks for publishing Quaker Theology. Every issue I’ve read has led to much reflection and learning.

    Your new issue’s article by psychologist Jacob Stone is fascinating and thought-provoking. It gives me much to reflect about. I have a background in mental health, education, have read my books on psychology, and been a Quaker, (to one degree or another, involved in 3 different yearly meetings), since 1966 in Philly.

  2. I think it’s interesting that Stone avoids passing judgement on PNAP and you make a comparison with it and prefrontal lobotomies. You could have made the comparison between PNAP and bloodletting with physicians believing that their patients were recovering after that procedure. I’m not sure that your comparison is entirely fair. After all lobotomies actually do result in personality changes however they look in terms of more modern approaches to serious psychosis. You could also have made a more direct comparison between religion and PNAP since both are fairly loaded with magical thinking. My opinion is that generally people are watching science wring the magic out of religion leaving it a hollow husk in some cases. But people need magic and pseudoscience seems to bridge the widening gap between truth and fantasy. They can pretend that they are on the solid ground of scientific evidence while entertaining the need for Jack and the Beanstalk. It’s all theater anyway and it is getting harder and harder to suspend disbelief in religious scripts.

    1. Dr. Ken Bradstock,

      You wote, “…generally people are watching science wring the magic out of religion leaving it a hollow husk in some cases.”

      I think there is a lot of truth in that judgment. But the difficulty is that science, without religion in the transcendental-“ought” sense (skip the magic, superstition, dogma)
      often becomes an enabler of injustice, slaughter, and abuse. Since science is amoral, it needs to be “grounded” in an ethical vision, or we humans end up with more nuclear weapons, bombings of civilians, inhumanistic experiments, dehumanizing attitudes, etc. (One example of this turn away from thinking every human has inherent value is plant biologist Anthony Cashmore’s claim that a human being is “a bag of chemicals.” Another troubling example of this is Princeton professor Peter Singer’s claim that infants aren’t persons! ( “Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons”; therefore, “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee. ” Practical Ethics, 2d ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, 142)

      They sure the hell are. I’ve got 5 small grandchildren, including the holding of my 5-hour-old granddaughter to prove him wrong. Even in the early weeks, that little girl showed an innately different personality from her sister.

      Yes, I know that often religion, too, is the cause of great evil in the world, in fact has used scientific technology to massacre millions. That is the horror of religion.

      But as so much evidence also shows, science without moral guidance of the inherent value of every single human, is , again, used by humans to destroy.

      One of the redeeming points of some Quaker leaders in the Friends movement–despite all the dross and questionable theology–is that of being a transcendental guide.

      We don’t need “Jack,” but we do need “that of God…” don’t you think?

  3. Five years after joining my first Quaker Meeting and elder (and a psychiatrist) walked over to me at rise of Meeting and said “Hank, since you have come here, you have become much gentler.” I had been in Meeting 5 years at that time.

    I thanked him, even as I was thinking “holy s***, how bad was I?” 🙂

    This unprogrammed Meeting had (despite the number of trained Mental Health professionals — including me) had nothing of PNAP in it. Thankfully. As does my current Meeting (having moved), there was a shared practice of listening to Spirit, however named and experienced, as a guide for our lives. The naming and the experiencing were and are quite varied. My own naming and experiencing of Spirit has evolved over time.

    I guess I’ve been lucky in having two Meetings that stuck with the basics of unprogrammed Quakerism.


  4. This seems to be a thorough prologue to an article. Where is the exploration of theology? I sense that Jacob Stone could write much more, but is holding back. The inventory of psychology influences is very provocative. One FGC workshop that he fails to mention, yet impressed me (as way out there) was one on the use of the labyrinth. I feel like most of what Quakers talk about is the body of the automobile. How many have opened the hood and explored the engine?

    1. Don, I won’t speak for Jacob, but his field is more psychology than theology, and we saw this piece as simply opening the door to a much broader discussion. So I invite you to explore the theological ramifications.
      As for automotive analogies, my observations suggest that for many, switching to a Prius is all the theological tuning up that’s needed . . . .

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