Saturday, 29 August 2009

The Little Flower versus the King of Pop

Two tours hit London this autumn. From 16 September to 16 October, St Therese of Lisieux will be in England and Wales as part of a world tour that has so far taken her to nearly 40 countries. Also this autumn, the Michael Jackson memorabilia tour comes to the O2.

To be more exact, some of Therese's bones will be coming in a sealed casket while the rest of her stays at home in Lisieux. She was a Carmelite nun who entered a convent in northern France at the age of 15 and died of TB at 24 in 1897. Her fame was initially founded on her autobiography, The Story of a Soul. She was known as the Little Flower and as the Angel of the Trenches in the Great War. She reaches London on October 12.

The hype is building about both tours. When Cardinal Basil Hume was Head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, he blocked Therese coming here, so anticipation has had years to build. She has now been invited by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, current Head of the Church. Jackson's gigs at the O2 were cancelled when he died, so the fans need something to make up for the loss of his presence among them. Both tours are being sold as a way to pay respect, to remember and commune.

Pilgrimages to see relics are an old money-maker. As early as the second century AD, the relics of St Polycarp (66-155) were being venerated. In the Middle Ages, relics were big business, which often led to forgeries (the Shroud of Turin, for example). Believing Therese is even in the casket could be seen as an act of faith in itself.

There are three classes of relics:
  • First class relics are body parts.
  • Second class relics are items worn or used by the person.
  • Third class relics are objects touched by the person.
Therese's relics are first class while MJ's are second and third class. The faithful will be allowed to touch and kiss the casket containing the bits of Therese. In fact, so will the unfaithful as Bishop McMahon of Nottingham, one of the tour directors, has said: "People of all faiths and none will be most welcome". It is doubtful that any kissing of Jackson's relics will be permitted.

One requisite of becoming sanctified is post-mortem miracles that occur either through the intervention of the saint or through exposure to the relics. So far, no miracles have been claimed for MJ although there have been many claimed sightings of his ghost, so he is already getting in on the supernatural act.
Seeing the remains of Therese is free as the tour is funded by donations while seeing MJ's accessories, including, it is said, the famous white glove, will not be. Merchandise will be available on both tours and huge crowds are expected.

Jackson has a body of work for his fans to remember him by. Therese wrote plays and poetry as well as the autobiography that has been translated into 50 languages. There have also been biopics of her life. Unusually for a nineteenth century nun, she was photographed (both alive and dead), which has helped with building and marketing her celeb status; images give fans something more personal to relate to than just a casket of remains or a statue. Therese has been a saint since 1925 and her appeal shows no sign of flagging. It will be interesting to see whether Jackson's following outlives the current generation of fans.

It's a human tendency to value objects belonging to dead people, to keep mementos as a way of sustaining memories and maintaining a connection. But Therese and Jackson were not family members or friends of their fans. Both are the object of parasocial relationships. These are one-sided relationships between a celebrity and civilians. It might be argued that Therese has a supernatural two-way relationship with the faithful but, for non-believers, her adulation is little different from his. In both cases, the upcoming tours will be a chance for fans to be near the adored one, to absorb something of their essence and to feed the relationship which, being one-sided, is not affected by death.

A relationship with a dead celeb is better in some ways because the dead don't disappoint. You can project anything you like onto a dead person, have any kind of relationship with them, and the fantasy will never be contradicted by reality. In hard or uncertain times, a relationship with the dead offers comfort, reliability and consistency.

This relationship becomes part of the fan's identity - in some cases, not a healthy part, replacing real relationships, skewing the fan's connection with the real world and making them vulnerable to exploitation. Show your love by spending your money (making an offering or a sacrifice). There can also be a sense of solidarity with other fans, a global community for people otherwise disconnected. Both Jackson and Therese have a huge global fanbase. Therese has the edge because membership of her fan club comes with divine approval.

Therese's parents Louis and Zelie Martin were beatified last year, the first step on the road to sainthood. She had sisters who were also nuns although none of them has yet joined the family act.

It will be interesting to see who pulls the bigger crowd this autumn. Therese's tour dates reportedly include Wormwood Scrubs. There is also a tribute concert for Jackson in Vienna on September 26 with nearly 85,000 tickets selling for up to £430. No performers have yet been announced, so buying a ticket could be seen as an act of faith. When Therese toured Ireland, an estimated two million turned out to see her. Around 800,000 people a year visit Lisieux. By that standard, 85,000 makes Jackson just a beginner.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Spirituality - The Emperor's New Clothes

The word 'spirituality' is very much in fashion but is used in such a nebulous way to mean so many things that it has become virtually emptied of meaning. It has also become something of a sacred cow, not to be questioned.

A Pew Survey in 2008 and a Newsweek survey in 2009 both found that Americans are increasingly identifying as spiritual rather than religious. Newsweek states that, of the people surveyed: Nearly half (48 percent) described themselves as both 'religious and spiritual' while another 30 per cent said they were 'spiritual but not religious'. A Mori poll in the UK in 2003 found that 24% of people considered themselves spiritual but did not belong to a religion.

There seem to be four main flavours of spirituality:

The first is used by religious people almost interchangeably with 'religion' and 'belief'.

The second covers people who have a faith but a more personal relationship with their deity, away from hierarchical, structured religion, formal worship and dogma. Some people's faith, whether they use the word 'spiritual' or not, is so loosely defined that it would barely be recognised as faith at all by the orthodox. One such believer writes in the Guardian that 'what I believe is that God is the ultimate aesthetic object, ultimate beauty, glory and power, and that the vision of God embodies the quintessence of every aesthetic experience and every sensual pleasure'. Hers is a very rarified conception and it's not clear why anyone would put themselves in a category and then go to great lengths to explain how different they are from everyone else in that category. Safety in numbers, perhaps.

The third is a secular, mostly New Age flavour that is personalized, pluralistic, mystical. This can take a particular form - for example, Native American spirituality - or it can be just be a sense of connection with the universe, that there is 'something out there', a belief in the supernatural in the broadest sense. Words like 'energy', 'quantum' and 'natural' crop up a lot. For example, the all-embracing pick and mix nature of this spirituality is illustrated by the Spiritual Forums, which welcome discussion on the Spiritual, Paranormal, Metaphysical, Philosophical, Supernatural, Complementary Therapies and Esoteric subjects from Astral Projection to Zen, Angels and Yoga.

Although this alternative spirituality is New Agey, it is not new. Followers of Swedenborg and his brand of spirituality have been around since the 18th century and, although less fashionable now, they still exist. Madame Blavatsky was another precursor of New Age spirituality.

Finally, there is spirituality-lite, a kind of life-style accessory involving scented candles, pictures of sunsets, having once read a book by Deepak Chopra and the buying of alternative medicine by people who probably went to India at some point or would like to.

What they all have in common is that they focus on something other than the purely physical. They often take a critical view of materialism although the last two flavours involve buying a lot of accessories.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs identifies five layers of human requirement. The first is the most basic, satisfying physical survival needs for food, water, sex, sleep and so on. The second is for safety, the third for relationships. The top two needs, once these basics have been achieved, are for esteem/self-esteem and self-actualisation. Spirituality seems to fall into these two categories, particularly the last (although deeply religious people might possibly put it into the relationship category). Anyone struggling to survive is not going to be pondering the meaning of life and their connection with the universe or admiring a dream catcher they picked up in the local garden centre while listening to whale music.

Is spirituality just an indulgence, a modern fad, or does it have benefits?

The Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) have a leaflet called Spirituality and Mental Health which looks at the potential benefits. It states that: In healthcare, spirituality is identified with experiencing a deep-seated sense of meaning and purpose in life, together with a sense of belonging. It is about acceptance, integration and wholeness. It also says that Evidence for the benefits for mental health of belonging to a faith community, holding religious or spiritual beliefs, and engaging in associated practices, is now substantial. The Spirituality and Psychiatry Special Interest Group (SIG) has over 2000 members.

The leaflet has a long list of spiritual practices, including belonging to a faith tradition, acts of compassion, reading scripture, yoga, meditation, appreciation of the arts and engaging in creative activities, including artistic pursuits, cookery, gardening etc, group or team sports.

Spiritual practices, they say, include being self-reflective and honest, developing greater empathy for others, achieving a peaceful state of mind, wisdom, equanimity, patience and joy.

While a lot of the things on the lists are desirable both in life and in therapy, many of them are not what most people would consider spiritual. Is sport a spiritual activity? It appears that the RCP are using this catch-all term to cover pretty much anything that improves quality of life.

Their claim that there is substantial evidence for the benefits of faith and belonging to a faith community is undoubtedly true for some people. But faith can also bring a whole lot of unwanted baggage such as guilt, prejudice, pressure to conform and conflict, especially for people whose lifestyle or identity is not mainstream. Faith communities can be supportive, a vital social safety net but some communities are very focussed on ritual, dogma, formal worship and other distinctly non-spiritual elements. So it seems that this leaflet is being over-general and optimistic, the word 'spiritual' bland to the point of uselessness.

The NHS has also recognised the need for using spirituality as part of 'holistic' and 'humane' treatment. Its guidelines for staff state that Recognising a person's spiritual dimension is one of the most vital aspects of care and recovery in mental health. While treating the whole person rather than regarding them as a set of symptoms is laudable, the guidelines are over-stating the case for spirituality and potentially putting a burden onto already over-loaded and under-funded medical staff.

The guide defines spirituality as (among other things), a life-force, what makes us unique, a sense of connectedness with other people, nature, animals, sport, our life-pilgrimage and quest, what gives our life meaning. Again, the vague, hippyish, touchy-feely catch-all. And, again, sport features on the list.

Although the guide gives an unsurprisingly prominent place to religion as an aspect of spirituality, its aim is to include everyone. However, there is no recognition that some people may not want to use that term to define the part of their lives concerned with relationships, enjoying nature, art and so on, perhaps because it has religious or New Age connotations or perhaps because it is just inappropriate. Human spirituality is, for the NHS, a given. The Scottish version of the NHS guide begins with the quotation: we are not human beings seeking spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings seeking what it means to be human.

The promotion of spirituality either by people who claim to have it or by organisations that think everyone should want it, is not entirely benign.

It is sometimes a way for an individual to make themselves feel a bit 'special', a self-aggrandizing term that they cannot define or explain but which must not be challenged or even questioned. There is potential for misunderstanding between the different interpretations of the word and, although the 'right' to spirituality is assumed, different groups could well see their version as superior. A deeply religious person is unlikely to value Native American spirituality even if they pay lip service to tolerance. It is potentially yet another way of creating the Us and Them divide so well exploited by religions. My spirituality is more spiritual than yours.

Moreover, on the basis of the NHS and BPS definitions, if you are not spiritual at all, you are lacking. Anyone rejecting the need for this vapid labelling could be seen as somehow less than fully human, lacking in 'wholeness' - and this is the worrying element (that and the fact that tax-payers' money is being spent).

One survey contradicts the findings that spirituality is essential for wholeness and a healthy emotional or mental life. Profiles of the Godless questioned nearly 6000 individuals and looks in depth at atheists, agnostics and spiritual people, comparing them with believers. The distinctive element of this research is that it breaks down the category that many surveys use to lump all non-religious people together.

It found that more women than men described themselves as spiritual (which touches on something I blogged about here). Interestingly, it also found that 'spirituals' (as the survey describes them) reported lower satisfaction with their lives than those with other belief labels. It reports: Those non-believers most confident in their non-belief tended to be the most emotionally healthy, relative to the 'fence sitters' (...) Therefore, having uncertainty regarding one's religious views appears to be associated with relatively greater emotional instability.

One conclusion of the survey was that being sure about what you think and believe, whether that manifests as being actively religious or atheist, is better for your mental health than being agnostic or spiritual.

While it would be satisfying to have a term to apply to that part of our lives in which we enjoy things other than meeting survival needs or satisfying material desires, spirituality is not a good candidate. A word that means too many things means nothing and, in trying to be inclusive becomes exclusive.

Why choose a term that has religious overtones and then stress that religion is not the only form of spirituality? The word also has the taint of dualism, separating body and spirit. This is an old view of the Self with wholly religious roots. There is also the marketing triad of Mind-Body-Spirit used in bookshops and places that sell spirituality accessories, which further splits the Self.

There is a difference between being a materialist (not believing in unseen powers or a separate spirit or life-force) and being materialistic (placing too much value in, or reliance on, material things). I am a materialist but not materialistic and I reject the use of spirituality, in any of its meanings, to apply to my life. Does that mean there is something a bit wrong with me? I have a hole where my spirituality should be.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Land of my fathers (and mothers)

Off to the West Country for a few days to paddle in my gene pool and catch up with friends. After years of exploring the area, we still manage to find oddness. We decided not to queue for hours to see the Banksy exhibition and headed towards Portishead. The picture above is from Oakham Teasures, a vast collection of retail and household memorabilia, mostly from the first half of the twentieth century - and tractors. We did a fair bit of pointing and laughing.

The Gorge was created by two giant brothers, Goram and Vincent, trying to impress a local girl called Avona. Or by millenia of water wearing away rock. I prefer the first version. The bridge was designed by Brunel, and may or may not have impressed local women although there is a story of one who jumped off and was saved when her enormous skirt ballooned out and she drifted gently down - presumably to get stuck in the mud.

The next day, we headed for Wales. Although my roots are almost all in the West Country (I am descended from an enormous bunch of yokels), my great grandfather George The Bigamist moved to South Wales from Bath between wives.

Raglan Castle was begun around 1435 by Sir William ap Thomas. In the Civil War, it was a Royalist stronghold until Sir Thomas Fairfax battered it into submission in 1646. In honour of this event, which took place almost to the day we were there (August 19), we bought some little wooden swords from the gift shop and re-enacted the battle on the tower and across the bridge. Our armour and weaponry were of course wholly authentic, as were our battle cries of 'Ouch' and 'I can't see where I'm going', although we didn't get round to deciding who was a Roundhead, who a Cavalier.

Then to the Brecon Beacons where we tried to find the way up the Sugarloaf but the whole area is very badly signposted, presumably to confuse English invaders. It worked, even though one of us is technically Welsh.

The local sheep are very timid things who ran away as soon as they caught sight of us, unlike the much feistier Quantock sheep who stand their ground and glare.

There is a lot of bracken in the Brecons and I did briefly think about snakes. The wood of rowan trees (pictured) was used for druids' staffs, dowsing rods and magic wands. Rowans also protect against witches and, judging by the number of them, the Brecons must be an entirely witch-free area. In among the bracken were wild bilberries, similar to blueberries. We ate a few, picking them from slopes the sheep were less likely to have peed on. The Raglan Castle gift shop had expensive paper made from recycled sheep poo, which raises questions such as - who came up with that idea, who collected enough of it to make paper and - why?

On Sunday we drove past the queue for Banksy, which was still enormous, and walked around the Bristol Docks.
A reproduction of the Matthew was sailing round. This was the boat on which Cabot (Giovanni Caboto) crossed the Atlantic in 1497 with just 18 crew. It's a dauntingly small boat for such a big ocean but he made it and landed in America by accident as he was looking for the North West Passage to India. In 2008 this epic journey was commemorated when the new shopping centre was named Cabot's Circus. Head into the unknown, risk life and limb, battle with scurvy and high seas and give your name to the home of a huge branch of Primark.

At my parents' house in a village outside Bristol, my mother announced that she had made eighty pounds of jam so far. The local economy revolves around people giving and receiving jam for favours and is a yokel equivalent of primate grooming rituals.

Friday, 7 August 2009

We are Legion: religion and mental illness

One last look at the Christian Medical Fellowship (I hope). For first-time readers, the CMF is a group of British Christian doctors, around 4500 strong.

The CMF has a guidance section on its website called Demon Possession and Mental Illness which asks if doctors should 'see demonic influence as being a neglected aetiological factor within a multifactorial model for the aetiology of mental disorder?'

In other words, should doctors include possession by the devil in the list of causes for mental illness ?

The CMF's answer is yes.

This is in another category entirely to the usual CMF guidance as it is predicated on a world view that includes demons as real and active beings rather than a selective or fanciful use of data to support a religious moral stance. It is not a matter of claiming that condoms don't work, homosexuality can/should be cured or that abortion leads to insanity and social breakdown (as I have covered in earlier posts). This is a matter of practising medical doctors who believe that demons exist and possess people.

I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise that people who believe in the existence of a deity also believe in his opposite number but there are many doctors (and others) who have faith but do not go this far.

The guidance refers to an article called Demons and The Mind by Roy Clements, published in Cambridge Papers (Towards A Biblical Mind) vol 5 no 3 September 1996. Clements has a PhD in physical chemistry and a diploma in theology. At the time of writing, he was minister of Eden Baptist Church in Cambridge.

This article is not available online but I have a copy. In it, Clements argues for a more holistic model of the human personality in which 'mental illness might be caused by faulty body chemistry (physical influence), dysfunctional family experience (social influence), demonic assault (spiritual influence) and unresolved guilt (personal sin).' (my italics)

He recommends that 'drug treatment, psychotherapy and exorcism should not be regarded as mutually incompatible remedies but as complementary therapeutic interventions, each exploiting a different facet of human nature'. This holistic model, he believes 'can do justice to both modern science and the Bible'. In other words, he is placing science and the supernatural on an equal footing.

He is also seeking to exploit the current trend for so-called alternative and holistic treatments, stating that 'many people today are dissatisfied with the hubris of modern medical science and are sympathetic towards more holistic forms of therapy'. The CMF echoes this sentiment with 'not all human problems will be explicable by medical science'.

Three points come to mind:

1. These are scientifically trained doctors, paid for out of public money, many of them working in GP surgeries around the UK, not people who have bought bogus PhDs from imaginary American colleges seeking to fleece the gullible and the desperate or New Agers using vague terms like 'energy' and 'natural' and 'detox' to sell their products.

2. Medical science doesn't claim to treat all human problems. No branch of science claims to know or explain everything. It's not how much you know, it's how you know it - evidence-based, peer-reviewed, replicable testing would be a start.

3. Anyone talking about the hubris, arrogance, coldness etc etc of modern medicine usually has something to sell based on an unassailable certainty that they are right.

Clements is very clear that he wants exorcism and related 'treatments' to be firmly based in the English Protestant tradition, which would require an approach 'far more responsible than that which prevails in much of the deliverance ministry scene at the moment'. None of your foreign all-singing, all-dancing exorcism, then. (Much deliverance ministry is done in the UK by Afro-Caribbean churches).

Catholic exorcism has traditionally been far from the variety Clements is proposing. Just one example is Father Gabriele Amorth, a Catholic exorcist working in Rome. Amorth says that 'he always asks for someone's medical history and consults a psychiatrist if he thinks it useful. On the other hand, he argues that only performing an exorcism provides certainty, because it is in the reaction to the exorcism that one detects the presence of a demon. Besides, he said, "An exorcism never harmed anyone".' It would be interesting to know his definition of 'anyone'.

They really haven't thought this one through.
  1. Would Clements' Protestant version be any safer?
  2. What safeguards would there be?
  3. Are the CMF proposing that deliverance should be recommended or even practised by NHS doctors?
  4. Who would train these doctors to recognise the signs of possession?
  5. Would there be a demon-spotting module in medical degrees?
  6. What about non-Christian doctors (and nurses too), whether atheist or of other religions?
  7. Would there be discrimination against patients who do not share this belief or who reject a diagnosis?
  8. What about equality of service provision?
  9. What do the BMA think about all this?
  10. And many other questions.

The CMF guidance lists a series of examples from the New Testament where Jesus casts out evil spirits; the list includes an episode, repeated in all three synoptic gospels, where an epileptic boy is cured in this way. No doubt, as doctors, CMF members know the difference between epilepsy and mental illness, which makes it even more puzzling for them to include it. There are cases of epilepsy being confused with possession throughout history right up to the present day but lumping it in with mental illness does nothing to help the stigma of it.

Incidentally, demon possession 'may also be an aetiological factor in some non-psychiatric conditions' - although there is no mention of which ones. Kidney stones? Diabetes? Cancer? A broken leg?

The CMF guidance is reproduced on a website with the innocuous title of Ethics for Schools, which is entirely written by Christian doctors for students of philosophy, ethics and religious studies.

Just in case it looks like the CMF are the only villains or that I am unfairly targeting them, as a random sample, the website might be expected to deal with mental illness in a scientific or at least objective way. The home page seems entirely rational, helpful and informative. Except that the site also promotes schizophrenia as a marketing opportunity for God: 'the Bible has great relevance to the needs and questions among families of the mentally ill. (...) These families comprise a huge, overlooked target group for evangelism.' It's not the same thing, but it is another example of religion trying to stake its claim on mental illness.

On a personal note, the death knell of my (mercifully brief) teenage religious phase was sounded when the leader of a youth group I belonged to told me that he had visited a local mental hospital and was convinced that the illness of some of the patients was clearly caused by the devil possessing them. He was not a doctor but a dentist, someone who had also received science-based training.

I sincerely hope that I am now done with the CMF.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Reparative therapy for homosexuality

The American Psychological Association has adopted a resolution that mental health professionals should not tell clients that they can change their sexual orientation through therapy or other treatments following a lengthy task force report on the subject.

British bodies have yet to adopt such measures despite the fact that therapists here in the UK are making such claims and attempting to 'cure' people. An article in BMC Psychiatry found that 17% of practitioners surveyed had assisted at least one client/patient to reduce or change their homosexual feelings, most commonly (66%) by counselling.

One member of the British Psychological Society interviewed by The Guardian said: 'Although homosexual feelings are usual in people, their physical expression, and being a person's only way of having sexual relations is problematic. The physical act for male homosexuals is physically damaging and is the main reason in this country for AIDS/HIV. It is also perverse'.

The main reason people feel the need to change their sexual orientation is religion. Religious responses to homosexuality cover the whole spectrum, from tolerance to fear and loathing of the God Hates Fags variety found at Westboro Baptist Church in America. It is generally believers from the more hard-line and evangelical groups who feel the need to change themselves - or who are pressured to do so, but not exclusively so.

The treatment is often called 'reparative therapy'. Reparation means making amends (as a losing side is forced to do after a war) or repairing. Neither of which implies anything other than homosexuals are wrong or broken.

One of the apparently moderate approaches in this country is that of the True Freedom Trust. They accept that homosexuality is not a wilful choice and class it along with any other sex outside of marriage (sinful).

However, they also say that 'ongoing change in all areas of our lives is possible through the work of the Holy Spirit within. Counselling and therapy are one (sic) of the tools God uses in this process (...) although we do not see it as our aim to 'cure' homosexuality. We do not believe a sexual relationship is essential for a meaningful life. We therefore seek to foster positive attitudes to singleness in the church'.

So it doesn't matter how nature made you as long as you do nothing about it. But should you want to change, therapy is recommended. And the implication is that you should want to change if you want to stay within the faith community.

The Christian Medical Fellowship, who will be familiar to readers of my earlier posts as a group with an interesting relationship with the truth, also appear to take this moderate approach.

They admit that 'genetics may contribute in some way. But this does not mean that those individuals are unable to exercise choice.' Like the TFT, they are promoting celibacy.

For both organisations, faith trumps nature. The CMF says: 'we need to protect the individual's right to bring his or her feelings and behaviour into line with his or her religious and moral values, rather than the other way around (...) This right should be defended even when it means learning to live with sexual feelings that the individual may not value and may not wish to nurture (...) Questions about the divine intervention for the ordering of human relationships are theological and ethical issues, for which science and psychiatry have no answers'.

This last sentence would imply that God made people gay in the first place.

Even this vague stab at a moderate tone is undermined elsewhere on their site where it says that 'Homosexual acts are dangerous' and 'Monogamous homosexuals are extremely rare'. Which is much more in keeping with their general tone.

The Church Times has a section on homosexuality which appears to take a balanced view of evidence but, like other apparently moderate groups, they take refuge in the fact that there is no hard and fast scientific evidence for a single cause for homosexuality and conclude that: 'Unfortunately, this means that empirical evidence can be used rather like biblical texts to argue that homosexuality is a normal variant on the spectrum of sexual orientation, a biological abnormality, a moral/immoral choice, or whatever else.' They do not appear to understand the word 'empirical'.

In one way, these more temperate responses are more dangerous. The out and out ranters are easy to spot, caricature and contend with. It is the apparently liberal, tolerant and caring groups who are more likely to attract young people confused about their sexuality. Even though they are apparently accepting of everyone's nature and even, to a degree, of genetics, human sexuality is (once again) something inherently bestial and sinful to be conquered and quelled. Their attitude is really just a thinly veiled version of 'Love the sinner, hate the sin'.

Celibacy is unnatural (in the sense that our instinct is to reproduce, not in a judgemental sense). Enforced celibacy, or abstinence as religious groups often call it, as a condition of acceptance by a community, is not healthy either when it is practised or when it fails. It's a fix that ignores and denies human nature (again). If there were truly nothing wrong with being gay, there would be no need to promote battening down natural instincts or seeking therapy, however caring the terms used.

To return to the APA ruling, the lengthy report it is based on looks at the efficacy of therapy for 'curing' homosexuals and converting them back to the straight and narrow.

'Contrary to claims of sexual orientation change advocates and practitioners, there is insufficient evidence to support the use of psychological interventions to change sexual orientation' said Judith M Glassgold, chair of the task force behind the report.

'At most, certain studies suggested that some individuals learned how to ignore or not act on their homosexual attractions. Yet, these studies did not indicate for whom this was possible, how long it lasted or its long-term mental health effects. Also, this result was much less likely to be true for people who started out only attracted to people of the same sex".

As well as pointing out the flawed methodology of studies purporting to show the efficacy of 'cures', the APA was also concerned about mischaracterizing homosexuality as a mental disorder. Or perhaps more accurately the re-characterizing as this was the medical position in the past. It was not until the 70s that American practitioners agreed to remove it from the list of mental disorders.

The fact that it is acceptable for practitioners in a position of trust to take on vulnerable people, make promises they cannot keep according to the evidence and, by attempting a cure in the first place, tell these vulnerable people that there is something deeply wrong with them, is shameful, especially when the clients/patients are not adults but young people forced to attend by their families.

There is a freedom of conscience and expression issue here. It is a right to believe and express any point of view that does not go as far as inciting violence. If your religion tells you that homosexuality is wrong, then that is what you may say. A practitioner may see themselves trying to cure lesbians, gays and bisexuals as an act of Christian charity.

However, when the person expressing and acting on a belief is a professional dealing with vulnerable people, there must be guidelines. Doctors are allowed a conscience clause that exempts them from acting against their religion - for example, they are allowed not to recommend a patient for an abortion or the morning after pill. But they must refer the patient immediately to another doctor who will.

Therapists who believe that homosexuality (or the physical expression of it) is wrong should be given a similar exemption and the obligation to refer should be imposed on them, rather than allowing them to offer treatment that has no evidential basis and potential risks of harm. They are supposed to be scientists, after all (at least, some of them).

The Wellcome Trust has launched a website to examine attempts at cures, which it warns may well be damaging. The site is an excellent resource for links to research and first-hand testimonies of gay people.

The National Secular Society has written to both the Royal College of Psychiatry and the British Psychological Society calling on them to adopt the same position as the APA. The RCP has responded that: 'The college takes very seriously the call by the National Secular Society to issue broader guidance to our members and will look into the issue further.'

Dr Petra Boynton has also covered this subject in her very fine blog and is calling on her colleagues to petition the RCP, BPS and BMA.

Should you be interested in the Biblical teachings on homosexuality that such attitudes are based on, Romans 1:26-7 is the only place where lesbianism is condemned along with male homosexuality and Leviticus 18:22 is the most cited reference.

UPDATED 2 OCTOBER 2012: Britain's biggest professional body for psychotherapists, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, has finally ruled that reparative therapy is unethical. It has written to nearly 30,000 members that it 'opposes any psychological treatment such as 'reparative' or 'conversion' therapy which is based upon the assumption that homosexuality is a mental disorder, or based on the premise that the client/patient should change his/her sexuality". BACP recognises World Health Organisation policy that so-called therapies can cause severe harm to mental and physical health.

The BACP guideline change follows a case in which Christian psychotherapist, Lesley Pilkington, was struck off the members' list for offering conversion therapy to an undercover journalist. Her appeal was turned down in May this year.

The other main professional body for British psychotherapists, the UK Council for Psychotherapy, issued similar guidance to members in early 2010, shortly after the Pilkington case emerged.

However,anyone can legally call themselves a psychotherapist or a counsellor. In 2007 the (Labour) government announced plans for statutory regulation to prevent this but the Department for Health has since dropped the plan.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

The End of Civilization As We Know It

Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales has warned of the dangers of social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, saying that they are destroying the fabric of society. They lead young people to seek 'transient' friendships, have 'a dehumanising effect on community life' and make people treat friends as 'commodities'. He cites the case of a 15 year old girl who overdosed after being bullied on Bebo and says that 'A key factor in suicide among young people was the trauma caused when such loose relationships collapse'.

Nichols is just jumping on the Papal bandwagon as the Pope himself warned against the dangers of social networking. However, the pontiff then did an about-face, launching his own website with an application called The Pope meets you on Facebook. Benedict has said that he wants online content to respect human dignity and the 'goodness and intimacy of human sex'. So no poking on his Facebook, then.

It's not just religious leaders who are predicting the imminent collapse of society and the danger to young minds. Baroness Susan Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology and director of the Royal Institute has also weighed in.

She claims that social networking sites are 'infantilising the mind', leading to an inability to empathize, a shaky sense of identity and a short attention span. Children's experiences are, she claims, 'devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance'. Use of Facebook etc could also be linked to the rise in ADHD and has an addictive quality comparable to compulsive gambling or over-eating. Children are losing empathy as they read novels less.

There are two points to deal with here. Firstly, a quick survey of sites on teenage suicide make no mention of social networking as a cause - in fact, poor social networking is a factor.

Secondly, this invective against new technology is not new. Vaughan Bell of the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London has made an excellent PPP called Don't Touch That Dial! Technology Scares and the Media plotting the history of such doom-mongering (scroll down the page to Talks). He lists stories in the media about the imminent end of civilisation as we know it caused by new media, including one from the Mail - of course - about how Facebook can give you cancer. To give just a few examples, Socrates warned against the new-fangled use of allegory: 'Children cannot distinguish between what is allegory and what isn't, and opinions formed at that age are usually difficult to eradicate or change'.

In the 18th century, fears were focussed on the impact of the printing press and newspapers replacing sermons as the main source of news. Listening to a sermon was a group activity whereas newspaper reading was a solitary one. More worryingly, and perhaps more tellingly, readers' morality was at risk as they no longer had their news filtered through religious leaders.

In 1873, there was outcry against educating children, ruining their minds and bodies with the evils of reading.

But in the thirties, radio was the newest peril because it took children away from books. Listen with Mother can seriously affect your chances of reading Swallows and Amazons (echoes of Greenfield here). And then of course, the demon television threatened to distract children from good old radio and books, leading to 'juvenile misconduct and delinquency'. Yes, the spectre of juvenile delinquency rears it head to terrify parents whose children were all about to turn into James Dean and Marlon Brando.

Now we have the menace of computers. Email reduces IQ, video games damage the frontal lobes, Bebo leads to a suicide cult, Twitter kills morality. However, as Bell points out, none of the scare stories cites a single study on digital technology and cognitive function. In fact, studies have found that computer use enhances selective and spatial attention.

There have also been no correlational studies finding a consistent link between internet use and loneliness (a factor in suicide). One study found that internet use was associated with better communication, social involvement, self-esteem and well-being.

Recent research has shown that the vast majority of Twitterers are over 25.

In some cases, the ability to connect with people online can be a life-saver - for someone living in a remote community or one that condemns a particular life-style or identity. Being a gay teenager in a close-knit or religious community, being a pregnant teen with no idea of who to turn to, being depressed, finding face-to-face social contact difficult or simply needing to keep in touch with distant friends are all cases where online networking can help. People with Aspergers can find online conversations much easier, as someone with that condition pointed out to me.

Information is now much more freely available and although sources need to be checked, you can easily learn things that the previous generation had little or no access to. It is much harder to control who knows what, what is 'acceptable' knowledge and what isn't.

Scare stories about morals, public health and threats to society are really more about the fear of the new and the undermining of the status quo. The old guard sense their control slipping away, young people turn to technology the establishment doesn't understand and is therefore fearful of. The (self-appointed) guardians of morality and decent values are nostalgic for the technology of their youth, forgetting that at the time there was always someone somewhere raising the alarm that it was the latest barbarian at the gates of civilization. Scaring parents that their children are out of their control and having their minds eaten is an old and well-worn road. Until the establishment cotton on to the fact that they can use the latest media to spread their ideas, sell their products and influence the public and it becomes accepted - like the Pope's website. One day, Facebook will be the nostalgia du jour.

Whether is it Ancient Greek children corrupted by allegory or 21st century children poking each other on Facebook, society is always teetering on the brink while its elders look back to a Golden Age that never existed. And of course it makes for a good headline.
Update 4 August 2009: The controversial Bishop of Greater London, Jonathon Blake (of the Open Episcopal Church), has responded to Vincent Nichols' claims. He said that the Roman Catholic Church is a greater threat to relationships than Facebook: "Religious bigotry has fuelled the fragmentation of societies, the increase in prejudice and reactionary thinking".