Letters

Brothers was an inspiration

It is because of Dr. Joyce Brothers that I have enjoyed a wonderful career as a psychologist. (See January “Time Capsule.”) She was the dazzling young woman combining wit, charm, marriage and children with an inspiring career. I followed her footsteps (20 years behind) but would never have dared take the path had she not first blazed that trail.

A little more than a decade ago, I was able to actually meet Dr. Brothers when I hired her as the keynote speaker for a women’s health conference sponsored by the University of Connecticut. We had to use an auditorium at Foxwoods Casino to hold the 900 paying attendees who flocked to this event. I was surprised at how very petite she was (she looked bigger on TV), but her warmth and her words were as powerful as those that might have been spoken by a giant. Just before we took the stage when I was to introduce her, she said: “Don’t be nervous dear, just take a deep breath and it will all go well.” Of course, it did.

Cynthia H. Adams, PhD
University of Connecticut


Child abuse

It was interesting to me to see the lack of mention of the correlation of trauma histories with severe acne in the “In Brief” article (December Monitor), which documented the correlation of this disorder with increased suicidal ideation. It seems so often those of us in the field tend to overlook the etiology of many of the disorders that we research and investigate. Of course, perhaps we can forgive the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, the source cited for the research. But even so, the nettlesome problem of child abuse as an underlying factor in so many disorders seems often to go unmentioned in “our” research venues.

Sally Sexton, PsyD
Scottsbluff, Neb.


Religious differences

We were pleased to see the December Monitor article “A reason to believe” discuss religion. Nevertheless, the author’s description of religion as “byproduct” of cognitive/neuropsychological processes is troublesome. “Byproduct” suggests lesser ontological status and privileges a materialistic-reductionist position. More neutral phrasing would be “the neural correlates of belief.”

The philosopher Levine described an “explanatory gap” between neural processes and qualia, what it is like to experience conscious-phenomenal states. “Cognitive neuroscience” contains the terms “mind” and “brain,” respectively, yet some researchers blithely proceed as if the mind-body problem were already solved. Nevertheless, we do not advocate dualism as alternative to a reductive approach but rather maintain that the “unity” between mind and brain remains hidden, an explanatory gap, which should continue to be a major research priority when attempting to map spirituality or other conscious experiences onto the brain in the years to come.

The idea that religion allows for an “outsourcing” or reduction in one’s self-monitoring/error-monitoring processes is intriguing. However, recent evidence indicates that “error-related negativity” does not always require awareness, suggesting that the effect may not merely be a question of “remaining calm” during minor slip-ups but something more pervasive about anterior cingulate/cortical connectivity in religious individuals.

Science does not imply a specific ontological position on these issues, and language that better reflects the diversity of positions should be encouraged. We hope that future reviews on such topics adopt a more pluralistic approach by reflecting the diversity of philosophical and psychological perspectives.

Paul C. Larson, PhD
Aaron L. Mishara, PhD, PsyD
Todd DuBose, PhD

Chicago School of Professional Psychology

The general theme of “A reason to believe” seems to be that humans tend to develop religious beliefs because of the way our brains work. That may be true up to a point. The additional implication of the article, however, seems to be that religious beliefs are therefore a good thing from a psychological perspective. For the most part, the emphasis seems to be on the positive aspects of religion. Only brief, and almost dismissive, reference is made in the article to the views of scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who have eloquently addressed the numerous irrational and sometimes profoundly negative aspects of religion.

We are told by one prominent psychologist that “our basic cognitive equipment biases us toward certain kinds of thinking and leads to thinking about a pre-life, an afterlife, gods, invisible beings that are doing things — themes common to most of the world’s religions.” The fact that one of the cognitive legacies of our evolutionary history is a tendency to adopt belief systems and dogmas that have absolutely no scientific evidence to support them should not be seen as something positive. As clinicians, we are trained to help identify and modify irrational beliefs in our clients as a way of promoting their well-being. Similarly, at a societal level, if humans are to survive and flourish as a species into the future, we are going to have to find ways to rise above that particular cognitive legacy and learn to understand and accept reality on its own terms. In that regard, many religious beliefs are likely to be more of a liability than an asset.

Brian Goodyear, PhD
Aiea, Hawaii

“A reason to believe” has some shortcomings about belief that exemplify cultural misunderstanding about religion, and is another instance of invisibility and cultural oppression of atheist and agnostic people. While the article gives an interesting overview of psychological variables that contribute to a person’s belief in a god (or gods), it does not fulfill the title’s proposal that these are reasons to believe. It also addresses positive associations with belief, but belief is a human trait far beyond “reason” or choice, similar to ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. Like people of faith who have historically faced death instead of rescinding their faith, atheist and agnostic people experience oppression because they live independent of faith, religion and spirituality, because their stance is not a choice that comes from “reasons.”

The article quotes Dr. Barett, who cites that children who have “never been taught about God” still attribute things to “God.” I posit that belief is pervasive in dominant culture and requires no instruction. A child sneezes and is told “God bless you,” hears the Pledge of Allegiance, or sees “In God We Trust” on money, and they have been taught a concept of “god.”

I would like to encourage APA’s dedication to diversity to continue to support religious people, and to also consider the complexity and diversity issues of people who live independent of religion, spirituality and faith.

Sarah Bione-Dunn, PsyD
California School of Professional Psychology


CORRECTION

The December 2010 Monitor article “Does your university rank?” misnamed two programs. The programs should have been listed as the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin and the San Diego State University/University of California San Diego Joint Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology.


Please send letters to Sara Martin, Monitor editor. Letters should be no more than 250 words and may be edited.