My dad was a born again atheist. Raised an Anglo-Catholic, he was a good choirboy, with his rosary in his pocket. In his early adulthood, whilst serving in the Merchant Navy, he had a traumatic experience that led to a sudden and complete loss of faith. He came to passionately believe that much religion was a force for bad. He was also an engineer and believed that science could answer any question. He believed science and religion were competing and mutually exclusive descriptions of the nature of the Universe. The scientific explanation was correct, and superior. As a child, I had a choice of Sunday school with my Mum’s family or sailing and cycling with my Dad. I grew up a proselytizing atheist, and did all science A-levels.
Dad was also, of course, one of my heroes.
One of my greatest heroes in the drug and alcohol field is Alan Marlatt. Marlatt’s work in the 1970s and 80s was seen as ground breaking for challenging the ‘spiritual model’ of addiction. He brought the rigours of science to what had been seen as the moral, legal or spiritual problem of dependency on substances. His understanding of what caused and maintained dependency was closer to what we might now think of as a Trauma Informed Approach. Marlatt was decades ahead of his time in his thinking. At the same time however, he was having his own ‘scientism’ challenged.
Scientism is “the view that the characteristic inductive methods of the natural sciences are the only source of genuine factual knowledge and, in particular, that they alone can yield true knowledge about man and society” (Bullock and Trumbley, 1999).
It is the promotion of Western science (coming from the classical traditions) as the best or only objective means by which society should determine normative and epistemological values.
This is inherently white supremacist and Eurocentric. It is also not very scientific, and is rejected by many great scientists and philosophers of science. My upbringing gave me a deep unthinking scientism. As with most other privilege, I never questioned the rightness of my beliefs. I simply knew that people who followed religion were either intellectually inferior for not understanding science or deeply hypocritical because they did believe science and yet chose to practise religion for some other reason. Oh, of course I have long been committed to inclusion and diversity. I challenged islamophobia and antisemitism where I saw it. However, knowing what I know now, I carried a deep implicit sense of my own superiority over those who did not share this world view. I now believe this was a form of white supremacy in action in me.
Marlatt’s scientism was challenged when he was recommended an Eastern meditation practice as treatment for high blood pressure back in the late 1970s, right at the height of his early challenges to the spiritual model of addiction. He initially ridiculed the idea, then was challenged by his own commitment to empiricism which indicated he should try it to test the results. He did. The first approach he used worked on his blood pressure but did not land well with him. He tried another approach derived from Buddhism. He continued the practice because it saved his life. He became more interested in the Eastern practices and questioning the chauvinistic idea that only Western systems of knowledge can offer us an understanding of the human mind and humans in relation to one another. In 1998, Marlatt took refuge in the Kagyu Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. He was again a trend setter.
In the last decade, many psychologists have looked at the latest advances in neuroscience and psychology and concluded that they too should take refuge in Buddhism, or another spiritual tradition. It is what religions and other non-Western belief systems have in common that is most revealing. Karen Armstrong has argued that certain changes in the way humans lived (coming together in cities for example) led to a need to develop ways of relating to one another. The roots of most religions come from this time.
The mythographer Joseph Campbell argued that all the great religions are telling the same story (The Hero’s Journey) using different metaphors to reveal the same underlying truths about how humans might deal with rubbing along together and deal with their own inevitable distresses. He argued the Star Wars films are a retelling of this same story, and we will continue to reinvent it because it holds fundamental wisdoms about how to live well. Neuroscience and psychology show that stories and metaphors are far more brain friendly and persuasive than maths and graphs.
It turns out the science suggests it is not the beliefs that matter as much as the practices. My old dislike of hypocrisy was entirely wrong. Some of the practices shared by religions are clearly to improve individual and community wellbeing. These include mediation, compassion, prayer, gratitude practices, learning to value people we don’t like, singing (or chanting) in groups, protestations and the daily experience of awe. Awe is especially stimulated by looking up, by the colour of clear blue sky and by staring into vast distances. I first really experienced this connection staring at the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It forced me to tip my head back, noticing the exact same shade of blue you see if you tip you head back to stare at the thangkas high on the wall of a Tibetan Buddhist temple.
The most revolutionary aspect of Trauma Informed Practice is that it unseats the scientism at the heart of mental health treatment. It consciously addresses the cultural power issues inherent in such treatment. Lucy Johnson (lead author of the Power Threat Meaning Framework) argues that it is cultural assumptions in Western society and science that leads to the diagnostic approach categorising people by ‘what’s wrong with them’. As we see in the Trauma Informed courses, more important questions are: ‘what’s happened to you; how is power operating in your life, how has this affected you, and what meaning do you make of this?’
A variety of religions and non-western traditions can help people create meanings that are more consistent with wellbeing than the power imbalance that is inherent in asking ‘what’s wrong with you.’
What might we learn if we open our minds to beliefs other than our own, with a genuine sense of the value of beliefs that are different than ours?
In black history month, let’s give the last word to one of the greatest civil rights activists…
“Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals.” Martin Luther King.
Why not find out more about Trauma Informed Practice on our brand new FREE taster course.
Allan Bullock & Stephen Trombley (Eds), The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, London: Harper Collins, 1999, p.775
Armstrong, Karen (2006). The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions (First ed.). New York: Knopf.
Marlatt, G.A., 2006. Mindfulness meditation: Reflections from a personal journey. Current Psychology, 25(3), pp. 155-172.
Miller, W.R. & McLellan, A.T., 2011. In memoriam: G. Alan Marlatt: 1941–2011. Journal of substance abuse treatment, 41(4), pp. 331-334
Lucy Johnson being interviewed on Mad In America podcast: https://www.madinamerica.com/2018/03/dr-lucy-johnstone-power-threat-meaning-framework/