Since the beginning of human history for the plurality of people, direction, purpose, meaning was given through faith and belief. Religion provided a scaffold that provided coherence to thought and action. A purpose “beyond oneself” provided a secure framework and compass for choice and action. The absence of guiding principles, a faith to live by, leaves individuals adrift. Absence of a ground leaves people empty, and, in America, in pursuit of sensation, distraction, and/or material gain.
With the exceptions of Fundamentalists, Born Again Christians, and Mormons, traditional religion in America has been in decline. Emblematic are Anglican and Episcopal churches populated by aging adults with few young people and children. Fueled by changes in social values, financial, and child abuse scandals, dozens of Roman Catholic seminaries have closed. In many US dioceses, priests speak English as a second language due to a lack of native born applicants.
With the absence of religion as a framework, absolutist beliefs may substitute for religion. In recent history, educated elites and workers adopted Communism, National Socialism, and kindred “isms” to provide a basis for allocation of social roles, personal meaning, and purposeful direction. In contemporary America, analogous “isms” characterized by unqualified certainty and inflexibility are common. As Carl Jung quipped, if you do not have a god, you make a god –whether the god is fame, money, appearance, or some other.
Ideology has been slow to take hold in America, except among college-educated youth steeped in Politically Correct (PC) thought. PC thought is founded upon a loosely organized set of beliefs that provide a “value” foundation for youth, dicta for behavior, and action. Per the Miriam-Webster dictionary, PC is “a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.” In practice, this means that sexual, racial, cultural, and religious differences cannot be discussed in polite company or the classroom, except in ways “approved” by a dominant political group where “dominant” means those who are a “minority”. Minority is in quotes because discussion of male and female differences must accord with approved PC language and beliefs even though females are a majority. Unlike traditional religion and other absolutist ideologies, PC dogma is not justified by reference to inspired sacred or secular texts. Rather, contemporary PC dogma is typically vindicated by appeal to social science and psychology.
Science and Psychology
With religion in the doldrums for youth on college campuses, the “value vacuum” about how to live life has been filled by science. Science possesses enormous prestige because scientific applications have transformed and improved human productivity and benefited well-being. Psychology borrows the prestige of science. Under the mantel of science, values and beliefs for guidance, purpose, and good human relations once afforded by religion are provided by psychology. As a college major, psychology has displaced the humanities, English, and history –and is second only in popularity to business administration. Coursework in psychology is required at most colleges for graduation. But the influence of psychology is not confined to psychology courses. Psychological theory and research are cited in virtually every field that touches upon human behavior, including Women and Minority Studies, Business Administration, Advertising, Corrections and Criminal Justice, and Religious studies. The impact of psychological research does not end on the campus, but extends to policy in the real world. For example, educational theory, practice, and preparation of teachers largely rests upon psychological assessment and research. In high schools and college campuses across the US, Federal and state programs and regulations have mandated courses, curricula, and counseling centers designed and inspired through psychological research.
The Secular Priesthood
As evident in the historical record from Mesmerism and phrenology to cold baths and lobotomies, hysterias and sects have an affinity to Gurus wrapped in the mantle of science. The decline of traditional Western religion and the centrality of psychology has elevated its practitioners to the role of secular priests.
The American psychological Association (APA), with approximately 78,000 members, is the governing body of the priesthood. The governing body is divided into 56 “divisions” which draw adherents from the membership. Between seven to eleven divisions are concerned with psychological science as science, that is, the pursuit of understanding for its own sake. Among these divisions are “General Psychology”, “Experimental Psychology”, and “Behavioral Neuroscience”. Another 40 divisions represent psychologists and practitioners with special interests unified by occupation or topic. These are “Guild” divisions –to name a few, the “Society of Clinical Psychology”, the “Society for Military Psychology”, and the “Psychologists in Public Service”. APA science divisions are a clear minority to the Guilds. Another four or five divisions explicitly promote public policy as a primary objective. These divisions include the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI), the Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues, and the Society for the Psychology of Women.
Over-reach occurs when Guilds put the interests or ideology of members above the scientific pursuit of knowledge. The public policy divisions are unabashedly activist. SPSSI’s mission is to extend to “the global arena” concerns about sexual abuse and all other areas of human concern. The Society for the Psychology of Women avows, “Our purpose is to promote feminist scholarship and practice, and to advocate action toward public policies that advance equality and social justice. We are a voice of feminist issues within organized psychology.” The Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues welcomes all those interested in “advocacy on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered issues and all lesbian women, gay men, bisexual women, bisexual men, transgendered people, and their allies.” Guild psychology freely dispenses amicus briefs, policy and practice recommendations, and criticism of dissent with the moral authority of any church.
The distinction between “Guild” and “Policy” divisions is fuzzy. At a minimum, guild divisions promote the professional interests of their members. For example, the Society of Clinical Psychology avidly supports legislation and lobbying at the State and Federal level for hospital privileges for psychologists. The American Society for the Advancement of Pharmacotherapy, another APA Division, supports prescription privileges for psychologists. Guilds are like unions for professionals. Whenever Guilds cite “scientific studies” or “expertise”, the Guild interest must be considered. With few exceptions, Guilds aim to extend the security, prestige, and power of members –and for many Guilds, the prestige and power of members are yoked to public policy advocacy.
Secular Priesthood Faces Apostasy
After decades of tensions and efforts to reconcile the science of psychology with guild interests, the differences proved irreconcilable. Conflict arose when the disinterested pursuit of truth proved secondary. In 1988 a group of psychologists committed to psychology as a science abandoned the APA and founded the American Psychological Society (APS), now known as the Association for Psychological Science. The divorce permitted APA full reign to pursue an agenda to promote regulations, legislation, and policies favorable to “professional” psychology and special interests. In contrast, the 26,000 member APS mission was “to promote, protect, and advance the interests of scientifically-oriented psychology in research, application, teaching, and the improvement of human welfare.”
As the Vatican is to Catholicism, Washington, DC is to the APA
The Vatican of Guild Psychology is its multistory, multi-million dollar office building at 753 First Street NE in Washington, DC. The building is within blocks of Union Station, Constitution Avenue, and the Senate and House of Representatives Office Buildings –as in real estate, so in influence, “location, location, location”. To underscore the importance of location, consider the recent press release from APA Division 9, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI):
On October 25, 2016, Dr. Kim A. Case and Dr. Kevin Leo Yabut Nadal presented at a SPSSI-sponsored Congressional Lunch Seminar on the topic of discrimination against and inclusion of LGBTQ-identified individuals and communities. The seminar was hosted in conjunction with the Honorable Jim McGovern and attended by close to 100 congressional staffers and professionals from advocacy, association, and other nonprofit organizations.
Per the press release, Dr. Kevin Leo Yabut Nadal presented on “the impacts of microaggressions, or subtle forms of discrimination, on the mental and physical health of people of color; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people; and other marginalized groups.” Dr. Nadal’s books include That’s So Gay: Microaggressions and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community (2013, APA Books).
In accord with the broad reach of psychology, “microaggressions” have become a new category of anguish and complaint among students and faculty at US colleges and universities. But since microaggressions are“in the eye of beholder” and vary by context and recipient, is this a scientific term? Can microaggressions even be parsed to be given unique grammatical forms? I think not, but the fallout from the psychologizing of everyday language and behavior is the creation of new grounds for victimhood and accusation toward others. Paradoxically the microaggressions’ construct may falsify perception, accentuate the sense of difference, and inflame misunderstanding. As Harry Stack Sullivan said, “We are all more simply human than otherwise.” Rather than accentuate wounds, people of good will ought to seek our common ground in humanity.
Guild psychology freely dispenses amicus briefs, policy and practice recommendations, and criticism of dissent with the moral authority of any church. Like the priestly orders of the Catholic Church, members of the priestly orders of psychology adhere to cannons and reverential invocations. A scientific psychology abhors dogma, but Guild psychology claims solutions to all manner of personal and social problems. Guild psychology claims the moral high ground, and scientific psychology seems pallid in comparison.
Guild Psychology and Public Policy
The problem may be stated this way: If guild psychology is a science (a big if) and if guild psychology discovers some valid finding, can psychology thereby make valid public policy pronouncements? The short answer is “not inherently” because public policy depends upon the aggregate knowledge, resources, science, law, moral opinion, wisdom, traditions, and purposes of a people. At best, psychology can only provide a voice among the many voices in matters of public policy. The voices range from historians, lawyers, medical doctors, and sociologists to workers, farmers, artisans, and families. These are the voices of the commons. These are the voices of democracy.