God as Therapist, Existent or Non-Existent

In ‘When God is your Therapist‘, (New York Times, 13  April 2013) T.M Luhrmann suggests that the evangelical relationship with God often resembles that between client and therapist:

I soon came to realize that one of the most important features of these churches is that they offer a powerful way to deal with anxiety and distress, not because of what people believe but because of what they do when they pray.

One way to see this is that the books teaching someone how to pray read a lot like cognitive behavior therapy manuals…. the Rev. Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life,” teaches you to identify your self-critical, self-demeaning thoughts, to interrupt them and recognize them as mistaken, and to replace them with different thoughts. Cognitive-behavioral therapists often ask their patients to write down the critical, debilitating thoughts that make their lives so difficult, and to practice using different ones…..Warren….spells out thoughts he thinks his readers have but don’t want, and then asks them to consider themselves from God’s point of view: not as the inadequate people they feel themselves to be, but as loved, as relevant and as having purpose.

In many evangelical churches, prayer is understood as a back-and-forth conversation with God — a daydream in which you talk with a wise, good, fatherly friend. Indeed, when congregants talk about their relationship with God, they often sound as if they think of God as some benign, complacent therapist who will listen to their concerns and help them to handle them….[F]or [evangelical Christians] God is a relationship, not an explanation….What churches like these offer is a way of dealing with unhappiness.

Luhrmann’s observations on the practice of evangelical Christianity are interesting and instructive. They show how the truth of the various existential claims–about God or evil–that might be made by the faithful in the groups she observes is besides the point: what matters is the efficacy of the therapeutic relationship that is set up with the entity referred to as ‘God.’ This non-realist reading of evangelical Christianity suggests that what grants its doctrines and practices their particular resilience, accessibility and popularity is not their correspondence to some transcendent reality, but their success in catering to the felt and expressed emotional and psychological needs of its adherents.  The ‘faith’ of the evangelical Christians that Luhrmann studies is not a set of epistemically evaluable claims made about the theological domain; rather, it is a set of visible practices and utterances directed towards achieving definite outcomes like greater equanimity in the face of life’s uncertain offerings.  This faith is a set of tools, tactics and strategies that orient the believer in this life; to inquire into its ‘truth’ would be to make a category mistake; its evaluation lies elsewhere, in an instrumentalist assessment of its success in providing a new self-recounted narrative. The imperviousness of the evangelically inclined to the demonstration of the falsity of a substantive theological claim becomes comprehensible; that refutation cannot be accepted so long as the need underwriting the claim continues to be met by practiced belief in its truth.

2 thoughts on “God as Therapist, Existent or Non-Existent

  1. What beliefs about God, inside or outside of Christianity, are “epistemically evaluable?” Aren’t beliefs about what existed prior to the universe, and what will happen at the end of it, necessarily non-empirical?

    Your analysis misses a vital aspect of Christianity. Rick Warren’s first point in his book is that one’s life is not about oneself. “It’s not about you.”

    Christianity is not just a set of tools to deal with sadness; it advocates the belief that one’s own personal feelings and circumstances are not as important as loving God and loving others.

    If focusing on service is an effective tool for achieving happiness, that’s a secondary effect.

  2. Russ,

    Thanks for the comment and my apologies for this ludicrous delayed reply.

    Belief in the existence of God was supposed to be epistemically evaluable, right? As for Christianity’s central mission, there are so many individual interpretations of what must remain a personal matter that it might be easier to just agree to disagree on this one.

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