The Popular Belief That Empties Churches
The devastating impact of the premise that people are essentially good.
William Kilpatrick is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. His books include Christianity, Islam, and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West (Ignatius Press), What Catholics Need to Know About Islam (Sophia Press), and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Jihad.
In a recent Front Page column, Dennis Prager criticizes the idea that people are basically good. The belief that humans are inherently good is both “foolish” and “dangerous,” writes Prager, and it leads to much suffering. He offers several sobering examples from recent history of what happens to people who put their trust in human nature.
Prager was prompted to write his rebuttal when a respected Jewish publication published an article by an Orthodox rabbi claiming that “Judaism posits that people are basically good.” The idea has long been prevalent among non-Orthodox rabbis but Prager was surprised that an Orthodox Jew would subscribe to an idea that is clearly rejected in the Torah.
The notion that human nature is basically good is also rejected in the rest of the Bible—and just as strongly in the New Testament as in the Old. Which brings me to my main point. Over the last six decades, belief in human goodness has become an article of faith for many Christians as well as for Jews. This is particularly true of many mainstream Protestants and Roman Catholics. For the Catholic Church, the belief has served as a wrecking ball. Numerous polls have shown a massive decline in church attendance among Catholics (and other Christians), and a corresponding drop in the number who identify as Christians.
Different people give different reasons for the decline of Christian belief, but for me the obvious reason is that Christians have replaced the idea of human sinfulness with the idea of human goodness. And when you do that, you undercut the whole rationale for Christianity—namely, that we are sinners in need of redemption. If human beings are good the way they are, then there is no need for a Savior to free us from our sins.
The Rousseauian belief that people are born good was resisted by the Catholic Church for centuries. Then, starting in the sixties, the idea of natural goodness suddenly became fashionable in the Church, particularly among Catholic educators, seminarians, and orders of nuns.
What happened? What happened was the human potential movement. It swept through Catholic institutions in the 1960s and the change was almost instantaneous. Priests began to aim for self-actualization rather than holiness, classes were conducted like encounter groups, and religious studies books were rewritten to make room for popular psychologists such as Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow and Lawrence Kohlberg. If you’ve read some of these authors, you can understand why they appeal to Christians. There is nothing explicitly Christian in their writings, but there is a strong Christian “feel” to them.
There were similarities between the two belief systems to be sure, but they were only surface similarities. Both Christians and human potentialists urged us to “judge not,” but the later maintained that we should also be non-judgmental toward ourselves. Both belief systems encouraged us to love others, but the psychologists claimed that we could not love others until we first love ourselves. Indeed, for the psychologists, the most important form of love was self-love.
It’s easy enough to equate Christian principles with psychological ones. After all, they sound the same; yet the differences are often greater than the similarities. For example, Christ said we should become as “little children.” Is that the same thing as getting in touch with our “inner child?” Well, not quite. Christ was speaking of the innocent self-forgetfulness of children, whereas getting in touch with one’s inner child sounds more like an exercise in self-absorption.
When you get right down to it, however, the main appeal that human potential psychology has for religious people is that it is itself a kind of religion.
The humanists seemed to exhibit what can only be called a profound reverence for the human person—especially the person who is actualizing his potentials, and becoming all that he can be. In the writings of both Rogers and Maslow, one finds a sense of awe at the self-fulfilled person. There is an almost transcendent quality to their descriptions of the “fully functioning person.”
So yes, humanistic psychology is a sort of religion—although a very self-centered one. It is with good reason that psychologist Paul Vitz titled his book about the human potential movement, Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship.
The pseudo religion of self-esteem quickly became popular among college-educated Catholics; however, few recognized it as a separate religion since it seemed to blend so smoothly with the spirit of Vatican II. Rogers and Maslow along with many other “feel-good-about-yourself” psychologists became required reading in seminaries and in Catholic colleges. Many Catholics of all ages felt that they had discovered a more enlightened and advanced form of Christianity. It was also a much less demanding religion, because it assured everyone that they were fine just as they were.
It's not surprising that many Catholics began to leave the Church. They had found something better—a therapeutic religion that would allow them to develop their “infinite potentials” without the bother of going to church. In one incident, an entire order of teaching nuns disbanded after two years of encounter group sessions led by Rogers. Six hundred nuns left the Church and all but two of the 59 schools they ran were closed down. The sisters had become more interested in self-actualization than in teaching.
Meanwhile, many of those who stayed in the Church, devoted themselves to remaking it into a non-judgmental therapy center. The problem is that the new religion was only a counterfeit of Christianity. And those who followed it were forced to discard essential elements of real Christianity or else to water them down.
One of the first casualties was the doctrine of original sin—a doctrine that is incompatible with Rogers’ and Maslow’s theories about self-actualization. Maslow himself admitted as much. He once observed that if the doctrine of original sin were true, then his own theories were untenable.
However, faced with a choice between Maslow’s view of human nature and the biblical view, a significant number of Catholics sided with Maslow. Here’s how I put the matter several years ago:
Whenever a Catholic doctrine, such as human sinfulness, collided with a psychological doctrine, such as human goodness, the tendency was to sweep the offending Catholic doctrine under the rug. Catholics were given the impression that salvation was bound up with self-awareness and self-acceptance. Self-acceptance, it was believed, would automatically follow self-awareness, because the more you learned about yourself the more you would discover about the wonders of your inner self.
Moreover, as more and more Catholics learned to accept and esteem themselves, they saw less and less reason to confess their sins:
One of the things that a great many Catholics discovered almost simultaneously was that they were—to use the lingo of the day—OK. Convinced of their own self-worth, many Catholics abandoned the Sacrament of Penance. Almost overnight, the long lines at the confessional disappeared. Catholics had been so well-schooled in the gospel of self-acceptance that they couldn’t think of any sins they needed to confess.
Not every Catholic fell for the religion of human potential, and many who did, eventually came to their senses. Moreover, under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the whole Church started to slowly come back to its senses. The election of Pope Francis, however, made it possible for Catholic progressives to put the Church back on the psychological track. Francis, who once taught psychology, was all for a more humanistic and sensitive Church. Indeed, the catch words that Francis so frequently uses are straight out of Rogers’ non-directive therapy playbook. Thus, Francis loves to talk about “listening,” “accompanying,” “sensitivity,” “dialogue,” “openness,” and “acceptance.” In a recent general audience, he told parents of children with “different sexual orientations” not to condemn their children, but to “accompany” them.
As one commentator noted, this advice “could easily be interpreted as directing parents to ignore Church teaching while allowing only for the affirmation of homosexuality or transgenderism.” Indeed, on a number of occasions, Pope Francis has made “who-am-I-to-judge” type statements about behaviors that are inherently sinful according to Church teaching.
One way to get rid of the problem of sin is to declare it as no more than a simple diversity. Increasingly, behaviors that were once considered sinful are now looked upon by Church leaders as legitimate expressions of one’s unique individuality. Meanwhile, gender identities and sexual orientations that were once considered as contrary to God’s plan are now looked upon as normal variations.
Take a recent initiative in Germany calling for a change in Church teaching on sexuality and gender identity. Most German bishops welcomed the initiative to revise “outdated statements of Church doctrines on sexuality.” As Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabruck, put it, “the basic message of the Church is God’s unconditional love for all people—in their diversity and uniqueness.”
But that’s almost the opposite of what we find in the Bible. Although God’s love for us is immense, it is not unconditional. In the Old Testament we find that God has set commandments for us to follow. And in the New Testament we find Jesus telling his disciples “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn: 14:15).
The idea that we should each follow our own unique path no matter where it leads may be compatible with the gospel according to Abraham Maslow, but it’s alien to the Bible. Likewise, the concept of “unconditional love” owes more to Carl Rogers than to Church teachings. It’s a variation on Rogers’ insistence that the first rule of non-directive therapy is “unconditional acceptance” of the client by the therapist.
Unconditional acceptance may make sense in a therapy setting, but in many social settings it makes for chaos. In his article, Prager notes that “the most important, and most difficult task of parents and society is to raise good human beings.” Conscientious parents, he implies, will set limits and conditions on their children. But “those who believe we are born good will not concentrate on making good people. Why bother if we’re already good?”
Many problems of modern life can be traced to the naïve belief that all people are basically good and that human nature is trustworthy. People who make this assumption are usually the same ones who think that we can defund the police or even abolish them without any resulting harm to society. Such people ought to stop reading psychology books and start reading the news.
One last observation. As I noted, both Rogers and Maslow looked upon their work as a spiritual breakthrough. They offered therapeutic techniques designed to move the individual to higher and higher levels of awareness and acceptance. Rogers spoke of the advent of a new kind of person who would be entirely self-fulfilled and self-contained. And Maslow, who didn’t believe in God, did believe in “godlike possibilities” for humans. As one Christian site observes , “Having denied the existence of God and his moral authority, it was entirely natural for Maslow to set up ‘self’ as an object of adoration.
The human potentialists claimed to have found the way to develop a more actualized and even “godlike” person. What they actually offered, however, was nothing new. It was simply a reiteration of the serpents promise to Adam and Eve: “You will be like God.” Catholics and other Christians would be wise to decline the offer.