Monday, Aug 6, 2018

Monday, Aug 6, 2018

The Briefing

August 6, 2018

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Monday, August 6, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The self as the center of the universe: How the language of addiction has replaced the language of theology in our modern secular society

The twentieth century saw so many great turning points–significant pivot points–in the worldview and mentality of the age. Few people seemed to understand at the time what was happening. There were some amongst them. One of the most important in the twentieth century was Philip Rieff, a great towering intellect. In 1966, he understood and diagnosed what was happening in a great shift, this great pivot, in the Western mind and worldview. It was a pivot towards the religion of the self. It was a pivot that he identified as the Triumph of the Therapeutic, the title of his 1966 book.

In the book, Philip Reiff argued that the old religion, which would be Christianity, was being replaced by a new religion. A new religion that he dated only to the twentieth century, Freud and thereafter, a new religion that would have as its primary sacrament–a mandatory sacrament–therapy. When Rieff talked about the triumph of the therapeutic, he meant the triumph of that worldview. A worldview that would first find its victory amongst the intellectual and cultural elites, but then would rage victoriously through the entire culture. We see it now everywhere. We see it in entertainment. We see it in the mass media. We see it throughout the educational process, all the way from Pre-K to graduate school. What we see is the self as the center of the universe.

And the self has problems. The assumption now is an original innocence. Whatever problems the self has must be problems that are forced upon, and the answer can’t be anything like the gospel of Jesus Christ. It can’t be anything about sin and redemption. It has to be about therapy. When Rieff talked about the triumph of the therapeutic, he said that the great mandate of the modern age was going to be therapy. And you see that in the slogan which is said without much irony these days, that you are either in therapy or in denial. You need therapy, you just won’t admit it.

Rieff understood that this new theology of the self would require an entire new systematic theology. Sin would have to be replaced with something else, and amongst the things that replaced sin is addiction. The language of addiction has now become almost universal in our society, and as we think in worldview analysis, we need to watch this vocabulary and very interestingly, two different articles appeared in the month of July, both identifying new understandings of addiction.

Now, we’re not denying the reality of addiction. We are just pointing to the fact that in this new mentality, addiction becomes the replacement for sin. It becomes a denial of all moral responsibility. The first article is by Caroline Simon. It appeared in USA Today. The headline is this: “Sex Addiction Classified as Medical Not Moral Condition.” Now note, there’s the headline and the triumph of the therapeutic is right there in bold print. Sex addiction is classified now as a medical not moral condition. The words not moral are the most important in the entire article, right there in the headline. Simon writes, “A new classification of sex addiction as a mental disorder by the World Health Organization could shift the conversation surrounding a condition that’s often deeply misunderstood.” She went on to say, “Experts who treat sex addictions hope the classification will help change the disorder’s perception from a moral failing to a medical problem.”

One of the person’s immediately cited in the article was Robert Weiss. He is identified as an addiction specialist. He’s the author of books like Sex Addiction 101. He said, “It takes it out of morality. It takes it out of religion. It just makes it about does this person have the set of issues that’s affecting their lives and either they do or they don’t.”

Now notice what’s going on here. It’s important that the article appeared in USA Today. That’s the paper that’s addressed to the widest demographic of the American population. It’s light reading, not very demanding. The language and vocabulary are expected to be understood by just about any literate person. But notice that USA Today has bought the entire worldview, even in the headline, saying that, now according to the World Health Organization, sex addiction isn’t a moral problem, it’s simply a medical problem. Notice also that that persons cited as authoritative in the article are identified as experts. All it takes is to be an expert. Now you’re the authority, the new authority.

But notice that extended authority is given to the World Health Organization. Language such as “World Health Organization” would indicate massive authority. We’re talking about the world, we’re talking about health. This would seem to be an international consensus, except later in the article, you find out it’s not. You come to find out, for example, that many mental health organizations and insurance companies, for example, many medical authorities, don’t really believe yet in sex addiction, though it appears they’re willing to be persuaded.

A third issue we need to understand is the financial motivation. It turns out that there is an enormous motivation for the identification of new pathologies that can be official diagnoses that can then be followed by mandatory insurance coverage. But going back to the USA Today, we’re talking in this case about what’s identified as sex addiction. The World Health Organization defines it at “compulsive sexual health disorder, which is a persistent pattern of failure to control intense repetitive sexual impulses or urges, which results in repetitive sexual behavior”. Now you look at all of that, and you think, “Well, now you can redefine any kind of sin in just this kind of language,” and that’s exactly what’s happening as you go through the entire catalog of misbehavior.

Later in the article, we are told, “That shift resembles previous changes to how doctors viewed addictive disorders such as alcoholism, drug addiction, and gambling”. The same expert identified in the beginning, Robert Wiess, said, “There was a time when alcoholism was a fatal illness and there was no cure, and you were going to die of alcoholism because you were a bad person. We don’t look at alcoholics and drug addicts and say, “You’re a bad person.” We say, “You have a problem”.”

Now ,before even going further in the article, again, we understand that there are physiological explanations for at least some of what are identified as addictions. We do understand that there are particular challenges to persons who are diagnosed rightly with those kinds of addictions. But you’ll notice that the article, the expert, the headline present this as entirely “either or.” It’s either a medical problem, or it’s a moral problem. It can’t be a moral problem with medical complications, or a medical problem with moral complications. It has to be one of the other. And as Rieff predicted back in 1966, the triumphant category would always be therapy. In this case, it’s medicine and addiction.

But we’re not talking about medicine as it is practiced in so many other areas, and as the article makes clear, there’s no consensus here. But the moral agenda is very clear when USA Today tells us, “Experts hope the new classification will chip away at a larger goal, de-stigmatizing sex addiction.” Now the key word there is “de-stigmatizing.” We see this over and over again in contemporary culture. “De-stigmatizing” means removing the stigma. It means removing all moral judgments. Now one of the issues you have to confront in an article like this is that we can assume that most readers are going to find it interesting, but it is not clear that readers will find it convincing. It really takes a great deal of convincing to tell people that there isn’t any moral dimension whatsoever, either to drug use or to alcohol use. People who understand the addiction mentality, and even buy into it as a model still aren’t understanding there is a moral dimension, there always will be a moral dimension. And when it comes to sexual behaviors, that is all the more true.

Wrapping up this article, I go back to the fact that by the time you reach the end, you find out that the consensus is not quite so clear as the headline indicated, especially with insurance companies. We come to the end and read, “Typically, people with sex addiction seeking treatment will be covered by insurance companies only if they’re diagnosed with a concurring mental health disorder such as anxiety or depression.” That’s to say, it’s going to be some other diagnosis, not the World Health Organization’s compulsive sexual behavior, which is going to turn out to be the diagnosis which gets charged.

Part II

Experts remain unconvinced as World Health Organization identifies new internet gaming disorder

But the second article on a new addiction appeared in the New York Times, this one by Benedict Carey, and it’s not about sex addiction, but internet gaming addiction. As he writes, “The World Health Organization last month added internet gaming disorder to its manual of psychiatric diagnoses and the reaction,” said Carey, “was, shall we say, muted.” Now this is interesting because the New York Times tell us that the same organization, the World Health Organization, in the very same month that it defined what the USA Today article calls sexual addiction, has also identified an addiction with internet gaming. But Carey and the New York Times are at least very candid right up front to say, “There are a good many people who aren’t convinced by this diagnosis at all.”

Carey writes, “Put down your phone and look around. If half the people you see walking down the street or riding the but with you are face-deep in a small screen, then it’s not a wild leap to think that some percentage of us, particularly those younger and male, have fallen hard for Fortnite or League of Legends or World of Warcraft and cannot get up except to fetch the occasional bowl of Lucky Charms. They’re stuck. They sleep with their heads on keyboards,” Carey writes. “They could use friend of the breathing, let’s go to the park variety. They could use some help.”

But then with honesty, Carey writes, “Yet embracing internet gaming disorders, it’s known as new mental health disorder has its own perils. Many psychologists are skeptical that it exists at all as a stand-alone problem.” “The diagnostic criteria,” he writes, “are still fuzzy and the potential for over-diagnosis is enormous.” The article then cites Scott Lilienfeld, a professor of psychology at Emory University, who got to the bottom line with these words. “The question is, what’s the difference between a bad habit and a disorder and where do you draw that line?” The professor went on to say, “Some like me believe there’s often no reliable way to do that.”

Well, there’s the juxtaposition. Is it a bad habit, or is it a disorder? Bad habits, that old moral language. Disorder is the new medical language. And here you have a professor of psychology at Emory University who says, as he sees it, it’s not easy to draw the line. Well, our contemporary society wants to draw the line very easily and very quickly, underlining medical and eliminating moral. That’s the use of this addiction language now applied to almost anything.

The American Psychological Association, by the way, isn’t yet convinced by the World Health Organization about this diagnosis, considering the criteria far too fuzzy. But you wouldn’t know that from the hundreds of headlines that appeared throughout the mainstream media in July indicating that internet gaming disorder is a new diagnosis. It’s also interesting to look at another comment from Professor Lilienfeld, who said that, “sometimes when you have this kind of conversation, the researchers go to look in the brain in order to find the pattern they already believe in.” He said, “Once you believe there’s a disorder, you start looking for it in people’s brains and trying to knock it out like you would a brain tumor.”

From the perspective of worldview analysis, what’s most important here is the language of addiction, the language of disorder, the fact that you have an organization like the World Health Organization coming up with these new diagnoses with the fact that even the clinical community is not convinced of either yet. But as you look to the history of psychology and psychiatry, when you look at the history of our therapeutic culture, once this kind of headline enters into the conversation, pretty soon there is a general acceptance of the fact that, as you now add sexual addiction and internet gaming addiction to the list, most of our problems are forced upon us. They’re from outside of us. They are some kind of syndrome or disorder or addiction, whereas the Christian biblical worldview and our understanding of sin is revealed in Scripture tells us that first and foremost, whatever disorder is found is something that begins in us in a basic rebellion and brokenness in us, not just outside of us.

The biblical worldview doesn’t allow for the elimination of morality and personal responsibility with any behavior, no matter how it might be defined. But as you look at this, you also come to understand in this new secular therapeutic theology redemption is replaced with therapy. But as we see in these articles, once you begin to think in these therapeutic categories, you’re going to need more and more syndromes and addictions to diagnose. If everything is therapeutic, then therapy is all we’ve got.

Part III

A sign of the times: Videogame parents open their wallets, hire coaches in pursuit of competitive edge

But next, continuing to think about internet gaming, the question is where are parents in all of this? The Wall Street Journal, in a recent front page article offers an absolutely fascinating answer to that question. The headline in the article by Sarah E Needleman is this: “Ready, Aim, Hire a Fortnite Coach: Parents enlist video game tutors for their children.”

She writes, “Winning bestows the kind of bragging rights that used to be reserved for local Little League baseball champ. Just like eager dugout dads opening their wallets for pitching lessons, video game parents are more than willing to pay for their offspring to gain an edge.” What Needleman points to is the fact that many parents want to brag about the prowess of their children in video games the way they used to brag about grades and athletic achievement.

One parent cited said, “There’s pressure not just to play it, but to be really good at,” speaking of his son, who didn’t do so well until he had tutoring. The father said, “You could imagine what that was like for him at school.”

Needleman tells of several parents who are doing exactly what she writes about here, paying for internet gaming tutoring, especially with the game Fortnite, for their children in order that their children would have an edge, especially amongst their peers. Bragging rights on the internet and in personal life. One father cited in the article said, “I want them to excel at what they enjoy,” speaking of his sons, Alexander, age 10, and Andrew, age 12. He hired for the boys a Fortnite coach in June and he said that the coach can stay as long as the children keep up their grades. But then Needleman takes a turn in her article, writing on that fact that many of these parents, and it seems to be mostly if not all dads cited in the article, are now taking the lessons themselves. Hiring tutors for their own games, sometimes not telling their offspring and their offspring are surprised all of a sudden when dad turns out to improve his score and become a more regular winner at Fortnite.

In the most important section of her article, Needleman writes, “Until recently, people seeking help with video games almost exclusively were adult hobbyists and older teenagers aspiring to go professional. That according to businesses that contract with coaches.” “But now,” she says, “these businesses are hearing from parents who refuse to let their elementary and middle school aged children fall behind.”

This sign of the times was considered so important even to one of the nation’s most influential secular newspapers that they put this story on the front page, where it belonged.

Part IV

In new Pew study, many see belief as merely an attitude with no expectation of religious behavior

Next, we turn to yet another major study released by the Pew research center. This one has gained a good deal of media attention. The headline from Pew “Why Americans Go and Don’t Go to Religious Services”. The subhead from Pew says this “Many cite practical or personal reasons rather than lack of belief for staying home”. Well, as you look at an article like this, what’s really important is to understand how the language is being used. We are told that many people say that they don’t go to church, not because they don’t believe, that is for lack of belief, but rather for some other reason. But that raises a huge question. What exactly would belief look life if it isn’t translated into any kind of meaningful participation in worship services? Well, as you look at the study, that question has a very interesting answer.

The Pew study begins by saying, “In recent years, the percentage of U.S. adults who say they regularly attend religious services has been declining, while the share of Americans who attend only a few times a year, seldom, or never, has been growing.” They then say, “A new Pew Research Center survey finds that the main reason people regularly go to church, synagogue, mosque, or another house or worship is an obvious one. To feel closer to God.” “But,” says Pew, “the things that keep people away from religious services are more complicated.” “Among those who attend no more than a few times a year,” says the report, “about 3 in 10 say they do not go to religious services for a simple reason. They are not believers.” “But, “said Pew, “a much larger share stay away not because of a lack of faith, but for other reasons. This included many people who say one very important reason they don’t regularly attend church is they practice their faith in other ways.”

Well, as you look at the report, you see exactly what Pew’s talking about, but you also see a very dangerous mixing of categories here. Pew simply takes people at their word when they say they’re religious. Why? Because they say they are and they don’t say they irreligious or nonreligious. They insist that even though they do not regularly attend worship services, and regularly here is an understatement, they say that they are, nonetheless, religious in some sense but they practice their religion in other ways.

Well, as Christians understand, when we talk about belief or we talk about faith, we understand that faith and belief require an object. You believe something. You have faith in someone. Faith always has an object. What we see here is this modern, or post-modern, idea that belief and faith are attitudes without any object at all.

One of my favorite paragraphs in the report states this. “By their own description, those who cite reasons other than lack of belief for avoiding church are a fairly religious group. About 7 in 10 identify with a religion, including 6 in 10 who are Christian, and most say religion is either very or somewhat important in their lives.” But then the report continues, and I quote, “To be sure, they’re not as religious as Americans who report going regularly to religious services, but by several standard measures, they are much more religious than those who say “I am not a believer”.”

Well there we have the modern situation in a nutshell. If you don’t say, “I’m not a believer”, then you must be a believer of some sort. You don’t have to believe in anything in particular, nor does that belief have to be translated into anything like identification with a congregation or attendance at worship services. But if you say you’re a believer, or you don’t say you’re a non-believer, then you must be a believer of some sort. You must be religious. You’re not as religious as the people who actually do attend church, but you must be religious in some way. Why? Because you might say you’re religious, or at least you don’t say you’re not religious.

It is interesting that Pew tells us that amongst those who say that they don’t attend services because they’re not believers, they simply don’t believe, they tend to be male, young, and Democratic. They also tend to be highly educated, according to Pew. So you put that together. Highly educated, young, male, and Democratic trending more secular. That corresponds with other research, telling us that when you identify those who claim an atheist or agnostic identity, they tend to be rather overwhelmingly male. Also young. Furthermore, the more secular self-identification of those who also identify with the Democratic party is also very well attested, no real surprise here.

It’s also interesting to look at another factor embedded in the report. I quote, “Catholics who attend Mass regularly are significantly less likely than other Christian church-goers to say that the sermons hear are what keeps them coming back. Indeed, among those who attend church regularly,” said Pew, “Protestants are roughly twice as likely as Catholics, that is 71% to 36%, to say valuable sermons are a very important reason.”

Well, once again, there’s no real surprise there. That goes all the way back to the Reformation with Martin Luther’s insistence that the right preaching of the Word of God is the first mark of the church. Catholics have never put a similar priority on preaching, and this goes back to their sacramental theology and the centrality of the Mass, rather than the pulpit.

Christians looking at this study will consider that the United States is still something of an outlier and exception here as compared to other modern, Western industrial nations, where church attendance rates and participation in religious services has fallen far more precipitously. And for that matter, the fall began much earlier. But even as those numbers are falling in the United States, it’s also interesting that in the United States, even the people who don’t attend church and don’t identify any particular religious beliefs want to say that they’re not non-religious and that they are believers in something to some extent in some way.

This reminds us of the key insight of the late sociologist Peter Berger, who told us that there is more than one way to become secular. There’s the candid, hard and fast way, which is so common in Europe and increasingly in the intellectual elites in the United States. They are the “nons,” not affiliated, increasingly atheist and agnostic. But the other way to be secularized in a modern Western society is to be secularized in the way you think and in the way you act, without the candid admission that it’s happened.

This report does not tell us that increasing numbers of Americans are not secular, in worldview and in attitude and in outlook. It simply tells us they don’t know they’re secular, or they don’t want to admit so.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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