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Vol. I • 1978

Paul C. Vitz Grand Rapids; Eerdmans 1977 Pp.149. Paperback, $3.95

Paul C. Vitz, Associate Professor of Psychology, New York University, has written a book that all students should read, if they want to know about the origins of "sensitivity training," "transactional analysis," and other personal therapy techniques that involve the "touch, feel, and squeeze" syndrome. Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self Worship summarizes the basic views of Erich Fromm, Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, and Rollo May, the leading proponents of "humanistic psychology." Vitz argues that the work of these theorists is neither valid as psychology nor acceptable as scientific inquiry. On the contrary, their work should be viewed as the foundation of a new religious cult.

Vitz begins his study with a brief biographical sketch of each of the four major proponents of what he terms "self-theory," noting that all were influenced by a similar set of circumstances as they grew to maturity as scholars. The most important single factor they had in common was their sharp reaction to traditional Christianity. Rogers and May adopted this stance while studying at New York's Union Theological Seminary. All except Fromm studied in New York at Columbia University and/or Union Theological Seminary. Later in the book, Vitz points out that the religious climate in New York at that time was dominated by two pop theologians, Harry Emerson Fosdick and Norman Vincent Peale, both strong advocates of self-help and the "power of positive thinking." Vitz is convinced that the philosophical roots of Fromm, Rogers, May and Maslow are not much more refined beyond the general views of Fosdick and Peak.

Following the sketches of these writers, Vitz traces their influence as it flowed into the mainstream of culture through their own writings and through the works of their students. Thus we see the emergence of "encounter groups," Eric Berne's Games People Play, and other forms of transactional analysis, including I'm OK - You're OK. More recently, a more aggressive version of the self-theory appeared in Ringer's winning Through Intimidation. Last, but not least, is Vitz's evaluation of "est," Erhard Seminar Training. The clear message in these popular versions of self-theory is that there is something for everyone in them, a characteristic of a religious movement rather than a therapeutic psychology.

Vitz next examines the methodology of these writers and concludes that it has no basis in scientific fact, though the writers would have their readers believe that it was, indeed, scientific. On the contrary, says Vitz, it is a new religion and ought to be regarded as one. "Selfism is a superficial theory causing occasional short-term positive effects in people who are already healthy." (p.39) As for the imagined scientific base, Vitz points out that Maslow did not even take the trouble to use a control group as he developed his famous "self-actualizing" theory! (P.41) Further, focus on positive factors leads Vitz to observe that "they rarely ever discuss the problem of self-expression that leads to exploitation, narcissism, and sadism." (P.45) Examination of such negative factors would, no doubt undermine the generally positive flavor the selfists want to maintain.

Turning to the question of the philosophical basis for this movement, Vitz observes first that these writers "fail adequately to define or characterize their central concept - self." (P.51) In his opinion, they have no idea how it relates to the classical philosophical inquiries concerning the self. Vitz shows that the selfists are woefully short in their understanding of their own philosophical roots. They give no indication whether they intend to operate in the existentialist tradition, or some other tradition of philosophy. In the same vein, they do not realize the implications of their assumptions - that man is essentially good and that he is perfectible. Obviously, Karl Menninge's Whatever Happened to Sin?, written to his colleagues a few years ago, has had no impact on the leaders of the selfist school of personality. Menninger intended to raise the question of the essential goodness of man, by arguing that any theory of personality without it was In error.

Vitz notes, further, that in philosophical terms this movement represents itself as scientific and as an ethic, or worldview. On this point he states that "the claim that self-theory is a science is invalid by any useful meaning of the term `science.' " (P.55) Vitz continues, "a related weakness is the tendency of the selfists to imply that psychology as a science has somehow verified the values of this system." But, says Vitz, how do you demonstrate scientifically the intrinsic goodness of the self?

He argues forcefully that the superficial theories of selfism have become the basis of a new creed for youth culture in our time. He cites evidence, developed by C.F. Allison, which documents this change in the language in recent years. "I feel," "I know," "I think," have all but replaced a more objective frame of reference, a point college teachers know all too well. Self orientation is the perfect creed for a consumer society, says Vitz. Indeed, evidence is abundant that advertisers exploit this view consciously.

The result of the rapid growth of the self-theory view has led to a depreciation of the family and the isolation of the individual, says Vitz. These are destructive developments because the individual must always view himself as part of basic communities, such as the family. The Parent in I'm OK - You're OK is pictured as a negative influence, and it takes little imagination to carry over this lesson to the actual conditions of the family. Other self-theory books have the same tendency. The O'Neil's Open Marriage, while not explicitly condoning exchanges of sexual partners, suggests that the fully developed self will not be troubled by such activity on the part of one's spouse. If you understand correctly. you will realize that the self is more important than relationships, even those you have with your spouse.

Finally, concludes Vitz, self-theory is idolatry. It stands in absolute contradiction to the root Christian ethic, namely. love God above all, and your neighbor as your self In this view the individual is number three, not number one as the self-theorists argue. Self-theory asks a person to idolize himself at the expense of others. How can a person `seek first the Kingdom and its righteousness," if he is asked to seek the actualization of the self first? Could Vitz's point be more obvious? Vitz's study is addressed to all people, Christian and non-Christian alike. Yet, he calls upon reflective Christians to evaluate the place of self-theory in contemporary society. It is time, be argues, for people to recognize that self-theory is not psychology at all', rather, it must be judged as the latest fad in the ever-increasing number of religious cults.

L. John Van Til

"Book Review: Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship"
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