Albert Ellis is a long-time Contributing Editor of FREE INQUIRY and is one of this century’s leading figures in psychology. He is the originator of rational emotive behavior therapy, which seeks the personal development of the individual in harmony with society without recourse to supernatural aids.
Ellis is President of the Albert Ellis Institute for Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy and the author of many books, including A Guide to Rational Living and Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy. Recently, he talked with FI Executive Editor Lewis Vaughn about the professional and personal principles that guide his work and life and the reasons behind his secular humanism.
FREE INQUIRY: What do you think of the line of research into the connection between faith and health and the contention that religion has physical and mental benefits?
ALBERT ELLIS: First, practically all these studies of religion are biased and done by people who want to prove that religion is good. Second, many religious people are prone to lie about their emotional health. They are not to be trusted in that respect.
For example, the Burgess Locke test of marital happiness was used 50 years ago with different kinds of subjects. It was found, as I would have expected, that people who are religious are more happily married than those who are not. But that’s most dubious. Religious people tend to be defensive, and don’t even admit to themselves to unhappy marriages or emotional disturbances.
FI: The surveys seem to be the bulk of the scientific support for the contention that faith is good for you.
ELLIS: Yes, but these surveys are, first, a setup—the surveyor is usually a religious person who is determined to prove that religion is good. Second, the conservative, religious, and reactionary people who are surveyed are most probably greater liars than atheists or skeptics. When religious people are asked if they are happy or unhappy, what are they going to say—to both themselves and to their questioners?
FI: You have said before that you thought most religion most of the time does harm. What exactly is the harm?
ELLIS: Religion usually entails belief in a god who sets up certain rules that are to be obeyed. If not, terrible things will happen—you will roast in hell for eternity or will be ostracized. Instead of saying “Thou had better not steal, murder, and commit adultery, etc., Moses wrote, “Thou shalt not …” Under no conditions and at no time shall thou murder. Such absolutist rules are unworkable and unrealistic. The worst of the lot is the Seventh Commandment—”Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.” It’s human nature to want what we can’t have. Now you could say, if you wanted to—but even that would be silly—that it is preferable not to lust after your neighbor’s wife because you may get into trouble.
Most people wrongly think that religions create moral rules. Actually, religions just take moral rules from different cultures and dogmatize them. The Ten Commandments are a very good example of this. Obviously, Moses didn’t go up the mountain and speak to God. How did he create the Commandments? He took the mores of his time and rewrote them. He took some of the laws and the customs that he thought were the best and put them in the Ten Commandments.
Morality is usually cultural. Atheists have the same basic morality as religionists. No group has ever existed, so far as I know, without morality. If it did, it would probably go out of existence because its members would kill each other.
FI: You have also talked about the psychological harm that religion does.
ELLIS: People largely make themselves neurotic by taking their preferences and making them mandatory. For a person to say, “I’d like to do well financially,” is O.K. But to say, “I have to do well” or “I have to make a million dollars” or “I have to be loved” is foolish, because there’s no law of the universe that says you have to. Being sorry, regretful, frustrated, or annoyed when you fail and get rejected can be healthy negative feelings because they drive you back to adversity to try to change it. But as soon as you say “I have to do well” or “I have to be loved” you’re in trouble psychologically. Name a religion that doesn’t encourage those kinds of “musts.”
Among the religions that handle this better are Buddhism and the religion of Native Americans. What’s more, in some religions or philosophies you accept the sinner but reject the sin. But atheists can also have those philosophies, so they are not specifically religious.
FI: You have said that religion diverts you from better psychological pathways. What do you mean?
ELLIS: Much therapy is either iatrogenic, a disease caused by the therapist, or is palliative. In Rogerian therapy the client likes the therapist, who is nice to him or her, and therefore feels better, but often gets sicker because he or she comes to need the therapist’s love. Much therapy actually abets human disturbance in the final analysis. It temporarily, as I said years ago, helps make people feel better, but they really get more needy of success and approval—and hence get worse.
Rational emotive behavior therapy is almost the only therapy that goes for the elegant solution and helps people get better because they accept themselves whether or not the therapist likes them.
Now religion is much like bad therapy. Religion helps you feel better because, presumably, Jesus, God, or Allah or some other deity loves you. Therefore, you feel (a) there is a God—which almost certainly there isn’t—and that (b) God is on your side, will take care of you, love you, give you the right rules to live by, etc.
Now let’s suppose it works. You’re depressed and you say, “I’m an alcoholic and I believe in God. God will take the bottle out of my hands.” That works to some degree, but are you really sensible and sane? Religion prevents you from getting the ultimate solution, which is that, despite that fact that the universe has no supernatural meaning whatsoever—there’s no God, no devil, no fairies, no nymphs you can still take care of yourself The world is often very rotten just read the newspapers! But you never have to upset yourself or make yourself anxious or depressed about its evils. You can make yourself instead feel healthily sorry. And you can do the best to change what you can and accept what you cannot change. Now what religion tells you that?
FI: You have also talked about your own life and the fact that secular humanism offers a way to find purpose and meaning. A lot of people say that, if you reject religion, then you give up the idea of purpose and meaning.
ELLIS: If Victor Frankl and other existentialists are correct in saying that humans had better have a purpose and meaning in order to survive happily, you can definitely create such goals or purposes. Thus almost all humans have the goals of staying alive and being happy by yourself and with other people, vocationally, recreationally. But if you construct a big ongoing purpose—what I call a vital, absorbing interest—this helps you not only survive but to be happier. But the only way you can get such a vital purpose is by devising it; the universe doesn’t just give it to you.
Now just about all the religions say that the universe does give you meaning and purpose, and even Frankl finally invented a cosmic meaning. But, that’s obviously illusion.
There is no cosmic meaning, the universe doesn’t care—it’s neither for you nor against you, but is indifferent, impartial. Therefore, humans better creatively—you could say existen-tially—create a meaning for themselves.
You show yourself, “My goal is to stay alive and be happy doing X, Y, and Z and not doing A, B, and C.” You create a meaning for yourself. It really has to be personal; you can’t be given it. Religions give you a meaning and usually say that’s the Right Meaning. If you don’t follow it, then you’re no good.
You devise a meaning and you steadily look at it, not every day, and decide whether it is still good in your time, under your conditions, for you. That is one of the essences of secular humanism. Well, the devout religionist can’t very well do that because whatever religion he or she picks has its own intrinsic meaning that he or she is supposed to follow forever, without deviation. Now that’s, to say the least, restrictive, not to mention undemocratic. Religions are anti-individualistic.
FI: Twelve years ago, in an article you wrote for FREE INQUIRY [“Two Forms of Humanistic Psychology,” Fall 1985] you said that your life was full of meaning and you listed all of the elements. Do you still feel the same? What are those things that give your life meaning and purpose today?
ELLIS: My life is full of meaning because I am mainly interested in helping people figure out more practical, workable philosophies for themselves. People usually make themselves disturbed by following some crazy philosophy. They become dogma-tists—what I call “Musturbaters”—and that, you could say, is the religion of most people, even atheists. My main goal in life for a good many years has been to devise a system that will work better for more people most of the time, so that they can create the kind of philosophy, outlook, and attitude that will help them live longer and better.
Humans are innate constructivists—they are born to problem-solve. But they also have dysfunctional, self-defeating tendencies, a fact that many therapists are unwilling to acknowledge. They have strong biological tendencies to turn their healthy goals and preferences into absolutistic musts. They therefore often drive themselves to become dogmatically religious, to be nationalistic, to create bigotry and warfare. I spend much of life trying to help people to use their potentially constructive tendencies, instead of indulging in their proclivities. I do that by therapy, by writing, by workshops. I recently came back from Taiwan, where I spread the gospel according to St. Albert to the Taiwanese.
Other than that, I have several other major goals and purposes, such as writing songs. I enjoy myself in various ways, especially by still keeping myself always very busy although I’m now 83. Part of my goals and purposes I take from the culture, but I also created them personally and I implement them in my own fashion. So that’s my personal meaning, and I work at it many more hours than most people do, from 9 in the morning until 11 at night. The “Lord’s Day” is my day for extra work and enjoyment.