Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Psychiatry as Religion? Not so much, thanks.

Rob Whitley of the Dartmouth Psychiatric Research Center argues that Psychiatry has many similarities with religion. From the decline in religious observance due to the Enlightenment, Psychiatry can step in and fill the void:
I argue that psychiatry, and its hand maiden, clinical psychology, now constitutes an amorphous system of beliefs, behaviors and attitudes whose functions and doctrines are unsettlingly similar to those held by conventional religions. Are psychiatrists the new priests? Are clinics the new confessionals? Are pills the new prayer? ... [N]ow may be the time to proudly add ‘psychiatry’ to the pantheon of world religions.
According to Whitley, like religion, there is a strong proselytizing campaign to educate others about the "one true system" and to help people with their problems. Like priests, psychiatrists receive extensive training in order to treat the general public (laity), and they deal with an ephemeral, nebulous concept of the mind, similar to the soul. Psychiatrists have their sacred text in the DSM-IV and ICD-10, guiding them through "thought and deed." Like religious adherents attend weekly spiritual activities, psychiatrists encourage weekly visits, and therapy is similar to confession. Concludes Whitley:
Whatever, if Karl Marx resurfaced today, he maybe more circumspect in concluding that religion is the ‘opium of the people’. He may decide there is no need for clever metaphorical poetics in describing the people’s penchant for diminishing the pain, distress and suffering concomitant with the human condition. Today, psychiatry, and its panoply of psychotropic medication, maybe the literal ‘opium of the people’.
Vaughan at Mind Hacks isn't sold:
The 'psychiatry is a religion' argument is weak, however, as despite similarities in some functions, none of these are core features of religion. As identified by cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer, the single common feature of all religious is a preoccupation with unseen sentient beings, of which psychiatry says nothing.

In fact, mainstream psychiatry remains firmly materialist - usually re-explaining experiences that many people attribute to spirits, forces or unseen influences as biological dysfunction. So, in the most fundamental sense, the practice of psychiatry is typically contra-religious.
Boyer's definition of religion, the "preoccupation with unseen sentient beings," is simply absurd, but we could have a lengthy debate over the inclusion or exclusion of the core characteristics of religion. I, however, think we could agree on several legitimate characteristics. First, religion posits a coherent worldview, wrapped in narrative and grounded in an epistemological foundation, that answers our deepest existential yearnings: Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? What is our purpose? Is there life after death? Psychiatry does not posit a set of answers to these existential questions, nor should it. Second, religion asks believers to transcend the self - our ego-centrism - in order to commune (or live in relationship) with a larger, greater, and more mysterious power. Finally, religions generate a system of values and a relational ethic. It would be a stretch to say that psychiatry offers these last two characteristics. I typed this quickly, so I might have missed some more qualities and characteristics of religion.

In agreement with Vaughan, it is apparent to me that Whitley, because of his scientific background, looked only the quantifiable and actionable functions present within religion. He missed the deeper purpose and value therein.

(h/t Andrew Sullivan)

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