July 8: Religion vs. Psychology

American Psychological Association Founded (1892)

It was on this date, July 8, 1892, that the American Psychological Association was organized at Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts.

Kicking superstition out of science in the study of human mental health and behavior was a major improvement over the medieval Christian treatment of insanity and hysteria. Andrew D. White, in his Warfare of Science with Theology (1895) sums up the service of psychology to humanity in chapters 15 and 16: the progress “From ‘Demoniacal Possession’ To Insanity” and the progress “From Diabolism To Hysteria.”

The same Assyrian mythological tablets from which the Hebrews drew the Genesis accounts of the Creation, the Fall and the Flood also contained formulas for driving out the evil spirits which supposedly caused mental disease. The theory, put forward by 11th century Byzantine scholar Michael Psellus (The Work of Demons, c. 1078), was that, “since all demons suffer by material fire and brimstone, they must have material bodies;” and “since all demons are by nature cold, they gladly seek a genial warmth by entering the bodies of men and beasts.” (quoted in White). The account in Warfare continues…

Thus began the practice of exorcism, based on the belief that injuring the devil’s pride will drive him from the body. Cursing was combined with noxious scents and physical abuse of the “host.” An eminent Catholic ecclesiastic in France declared that “to deny possession by devils is to charge Jesus and his apostles with imposture,” and asks, “How can the testimony of apostles, fathers of the Church, and saints who saw the possessed and so declared, be denied?” (quoted in White)

Delusions of divinity were, of course, dealt with harshly: Simon Marin, who believed himself to be the Son of God, was “burned alive at Paris and his ashes scattered to the winds.” On the other hand, if the delusion was mild and beneficial to the Church, it might even be venerated: St. Francis of Assisi and St. Catherine of Siena in Italy, St. Bridget in Sweden, St. Theresa in Spain, St. Mary Alacoque in France, and Louise Lateau in Belgium, for examples.

Even after the Reformation the devil delusion was endorsed by none other than Martin Luther and John Calvin. Cleric Cotton Mather endorsed witchcraft and demoniacal possession as realities, and approved the death penalty, in his Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions (1689). The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 were an example of hysteria masquerading as demon-possession. Salem demonstrated that where belief in demon-possession is strongest, epidemics of possession occur most frequently.

But then came the Enlightenment and the Age of Discovery. Freethinkers such as Voltaire in France and John Locke in England pushed back the night of superstition with the light of reason. It was Locke who said, “there is nothing in the intellect that did not reach it through the senses.” The natural causes of insanity and hysteria had been known as long ago as Celius Aurelianus, Hippocrates of Cos, Soranus, Galen and others, but only a general civilizing of “Christendom” allowed this former heresy to take hold.

Sigmund Freud would not come along for another century and a half, but the battle turned at last. Since the founding of the American Psychological Association, on this date in 1892, psychology has had a few pseudoscientific setbacks – such as the artifacts of the psychiatrist’s couch called Repressed Memory Disorder and Multiple Personality Disorder. In spite of its flaws, psychology as the study of human behavior has served humanity far better than superstition.

Originally published July 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

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Posted in Religion, Science

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John Mill

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