It is astonishing how so many science popularizers are able to take a bit of scientific evidence and elevate it into an earth-shattering discovery–or at least a revolutionary principle. The “God gene” hypothesis is probably the best example of the practice: the notion that a specific part of the human anatomy, which may be genetically transmitted or that produces an effect on an electronic monitor, is proof that God wants us to worship him.
A more recent revelatory announcement involved the discovery of the “God particle”–the Higgs boson–a major achievement in particle physics. The unwarranted claim here has scientists finding an explanation for the origin of the universe, creating mass out of “nothing,” and possibly once again demonstrating God’s intentions.
These “solutions” to profound mysteries based upon scant (if nonexistent) research data not only generate confusion but often have far-reaching, usually unintended, consequences for other areas of science. Chris Mooney has done something along this line in his comments on accommodationism (“Accommodationism and the Psychology of Belief,” Free Inquiry, October/November 2011). I want to make it clear at the outset that Mooney was focused on the venerable “science versus religion” debate in mind when he made the statements I’d like to examine. However–though it is unlikely he was thinking about this–his ideas also have profound implications for clinical psychology.
If Mooney is right, a major branch of clinical psychology has been operating under a fundamental misconception about the human thought process for over half a century: specifically, that “cognition precedes emotion.” He bases his claim on the work of unnamed neuroscientists who have “mostly discarded” the “Cartesian notion of a thoroughly rational person coming to a decision without being influenced by emotion.” This is an extraordinary claim in light of the decades of research into the effectiveness of cognitive-behavior therapy. It would be interesting to see his citations of the research that has led neuroscientists to conclude, as he says, that “it is widely accepted that we don’t reason free of emotion.” Mooney’s idea is that “emotion comes first, and it seems to be more powerful.”
The late Albert Ellis, whom many consider the father of cognitive therapy, based his creation, Rational Emotive Therapy (RET, as it was then called), on the concept expressed in the words of Epictetus, who in the first century CE wrote: “Men are not disturbed by things, but rather by their view of things.” For those of us who were disciples of Ellis and practiced his form of therapy, this meant that emotional disturbance was created by the cognitions that clients engaged in regarding the events in their lives. When “unconscious self-talk” continued unchallenged, emotional disturbance resulted. The successful path to therapy was no longer found along Freud’s “Royal Road to the unconscious” but rather by identifying maladaptive or (as Ellis called them) “irrational” cognitions and changing them in order to change the emotions that disturb us. In short, thought precedes feeling.
This concept was advanced and elaborated upon by other clinicians, most notably Aaron Beck, and today it is probably the most widely practiced basis for therapy in psychology: “cognitive therapy” and its many offshoots. In attempting to argue for the legitimacy of accommodationism in the disagreement between scientists/atheists/humanists and religious believers, especially in light of his rejection of the “new atheist” approach typified by Christopher Hitchens, Mooney has latched on to some obscure research that purports to demonstrate that “beliefs are actually physical. They are part of the brain. They’re in the pathways and become stronger with use.” He goes on to say that “just poking them (won’t) make the connections in the brain go away . . . it’s going to activate them.”
However true this may be, Mooney goes on to draw the conclusion that “rational argument may not be the best way” to convince others and “that science and reason may not change people’s minds.” This brings us to a dilemma, for rational argument is the basis for all of cognitive therapy—from Epictetus’s seminal thought about our “view of things” (cognitions) resulting in a change in the accompanying emotions, through six decades of clinical practice and research that has established the exact opposite of Mooney’s charge that it “is pretty much a myth” that reason can be effective in bringing about cognitive change.
How can Mooney accommodate his views on the futility of reason against irrationality, to the evidence that Western thought—scientific, philosophical, political,literary, and, yes, even religious—has advanced, albeit slowly, toward a more rational view of the universe over the millennia? Much of Mooney’s argument apparently stems from debates he has engaged in with and about the new atheists. He contends that their approach to the problem of science versus religion is actually making matters worse for secular humanists, atheists, agnostics, and other skeptics of religion. His approach, which has been labeled “accommodationism,” seems to be an appeal for atheists to adopt a less confrontational attitude toward believers (demanding more than mere diplomacy and tact). To many, myself included, this sounds suspiciously like agreeing that the Creation Museum in Kentucky and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City are equally accurate exhibits of the origins of humans.
Mooney has apparently expressed ideas concerning the psychology of belief on the basis of which he has advised the new atheists to back off from what he considers counterproductive efforts at persuasion. In the process he appears to be unwittingly undermining the accomplishments of a branch of psychology far removed from the science/religion debate. What are we to make of the decades of research into the efficacy of cognitive behavior therapy and the thousands of successful therapies it has produced?
Ellis’s original “ABCs of therapy” required identification of the “A” or Activating event and the “B” or the (disturbing) Belief about the event, followed by the “C” or the Consequences of that Belief, which is emotional disturbance. The therapy was brought about by employing the Disputing process, “D”; resulting in the “E,” the Emotional change (for the better). The thought, for example, that “if I appear nervous during this speech, my career will be over,” is the reason for performance anxiety; the way to reduce the anxiety is to dispute the irrational thought.
This is how cognitive-emotional-behavior therapy is practiced and appropriate emotional change brought about. If Mooney turns out to have hit a home run, by implication, cognitive behavior therapy in general and RET specifically will have to undergo revolutionary “accommodations” in order to continue on as major therapeutic systems in clinical psychology. In fact, according to Mooney, neuroscience may have delivered it a fatal blow.
Imagine an anthropologist announcing new evidence that all human fossils discovered during the twentieth century were actually skillfully crafted modern sculptures that had been accidentally buried during World War II bombings and later misidentified. To say the least, there would be wailing and gnashing of teeth in academia. Chris Mooney may have succeeded in announcing the
end of the primacy of cognitive-behavior therapy along with his pronouncements about the primacy of emotion, but he has a long way to go to convince clinical psychologists (let alone the new atheists) that they are on the wrong course.
Gil Gaudia is a professor emeritus at the State University of New York, College at Fredonia, where he taught for fifteen years. From 1977 until 1983, he worked closely with the late Dr. Albert Ellis at the Institute for Rational Psychotherapy (Now the Albert Ellis Institute) in Manhattan, where he began as a post-doctoral fellow in 1977.