Related: Some Common Anti-Psychiatry Archetypes, Creationist Anti-Psychiatry: The Worst of Two Worlds.
Creationist anti-psychiatry is a grotesque chimera that combines the unrelenting presuppositional dogmatism of biblical creationism with the rejection of the mainstream scientific account of the risk factors, nature and evidence-based treatments of psychiatric conditions. These individuals are typically substance dualists and subscribe to contra-causal free will, so they cannot accept that brain processes have any profound relevance to the mind. Also, since mainstream evidence-based treatments do not focus on original sin, proponents of creationist anti-psychiatry consider them to be flawed and misleading. This results in the nearly complete dismissal of psychiatry and even clinical neuroscience in general. Debating tactics deployed by anti-psychiatry creationists includes confusing mental health professionals (such as licensed psychiatrists, licensed psychotherapists and licensed clinical psychologists) with quack treatments by “therapists” (a title anyone can use) and misrepresenting psychotherapy as the wholesale rejection of personal responsibility.
The irrational and anti-scientific approach of anti-psychiatry creationism can be found in a post written by Steve Ham that was recently posted on the Answers in Genesis website. Ham rejects the mainstream scientific account of psychiatric conditions, labels them as “spiritual issues”, claims that many psychiatric diagnoses do not correspond to an actual condition (mental illness denial) and asserts that ten cases studies show that biblical scripture is sufficient to treat psychiatric conditions. He promotes the evidence-free notion of biblical presuppositionalism and claims that the efficacy of psychiatric treatments is a “worldview” issue and not a clinical issue. He also supports giving false scientific information to clients so they can summarily dismiss anything their mental health practitioner tells them. In addition, Ham trouts out the classic anti-psychiatry straw man that psychiatric conditions are only related to “chemical imbalance” and he also misrepresents a number of psychiatric diagnoses such as intermittent explosive disorder and oppositional defiant disorder and claims that sinful thoughts are risk factors for psychiatric conditions. He even takes a shot at science-friendly Christian counselors who attempt to bring in real science into their sessions.
Psychiatric conditions are not “spiritual issues”
Steve Ham claims that biblical counselors refer their clients to medical doctors for the treatment and diagnosis of physical conditions. It is a small comfort that these biblical counselors do not appear to support faith healing for non-psychiatric medical conditions like cancer. However, individuals with psychiatric conditions are not so fortunate. Ham, presupposition substance dualism without any kind of evidence, claims that psychiatric conditions are “spiritual issues” and states that biblical counselors try to make sure that the Bible is seen as the “supreme authority” on mental health issues.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors and psychiatry is a medical specialty related to psychiatric conditions and the brain. Imagine if someone made the same claim about another medical specialty, say, cardiology. Imagine if someone stated that medical issues unrelated to the heart can be treated by modern medicine, but that heart conditions are actually “spiritual issues” and that the Bible should be seen as the “supreme authority” on heart conditions. Such a person would rightfully be seen as a quack and dangerous to patients. This conclusion would hopefully even be obvious to many creationists as well. Yet when it comes to psychiatry, this kind of twisted pseudoscience is embraced without skeptical scrutiny.
Psychiatric treatment is not a worldview issue
Since anti-psychiatry creationists cannot present any evidence that sin is the cause of psychiatric conditions or present any credible scientific evidence that biblical counseling, they are forced to retreat to evidence-free presuppositionalism. This is done by asserting that mainstream psychiatry is based on “assumptions influenced by a secular worldview” and recommending that biblical counselors work together with doctors who are “Bible-believing Christians”.
In reality, the efficacy of psychiatric treatment is not a philosophical worldview issue. It is a reality issue. Conclusions about whether a treatment works or not depends on the evidence from clinical trials, not on the personal beliefs of anti-psychiatry biblical counselors. No amount of twisted presuppositional religious dogmatism is going to change that fact.
Arming clients with ignorance
Just like creationists encourage people to sanctimoniously retort “Where you there?!” whenever a proponent of modern science presents evidence for evolution or the Big Bang, biblical counselors attempt to make their clients do something similar when discussing their situation with trained mental health professionals. One example of this is indoctrinating their clients with the “chemical imbalance” straw man (i.e. asking their mental health professional what tests have been done to show that a “chemical imbalance” caused their psychiatric condition). In reality, psychiatric conditions are the result of a complex interaction between many different biological, psychological and social risk factors (Passer et al., 2009) where neurochemistry is one component out of many. Reducing this to “it is just about chemical imbalance” is a gross oversimplification and obviously a dirty trick used by anti-psychiatry creationists to attempt the undermine the credibility of modern medicine in the eyes of their clients.
Misrepresenting psychiatric diagnoses
Ham claims that there are psychiatric diagnosis for almost all “social or relational problem known to man” and that mental health professionals relabel sinful behavior as disorders in an attempt to remove personal responsibility. He tries to back this up with two alleged examples. The first is Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED), which he claims is a label given to parents who lash out at their children in anger. In reality, IED is the repeated aggressive and violent behavior that is completely out of proportion (Mayo Clinic, 2012a):
Intermittent explosive disorder involves repeated episodes of impulsive, aggressive, violent behavior or angry verbal outbursts in which you react grossly out of proportion to the situation
The other alleged example is oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), which Ham claims is just a label that is put on children who do not obey their parents. Wrong again, as the diagnosis requires this behavior to be associated with functional impairment, persist for at least six months and the behavioral symptoms in question (frequent and consistent temper tantrums, anger, resentment, aggressiveness, spitefulness, vindictiveness etc.) have to range beyond normal child behavior (Mayo Clinic, 2012b).
No evidence that “sinful thoughts” are risk factors for psychiatric conditions
Steve Ham claims that psychiatric conditions like the ones discussed above are “ultimately rooted in sinful thoughts and behaviors”. He presents no evidence whatsoever for this assertion. A PubMed search for any combination of intermittent explosive disorder/oppositional defiant disorder with sinful thoughts/behaviors return a total of zero results. Since PubMed is one of the largest indexing services in the world with more than 20 million papers in medicine, one can conclude that no credible scientific research has evaluated this claim. It is therefore unclear exactly how Ham knows that sinful thoughts and behaviors are risk factors for these two psychiatric conditions.
Ham refers to a book called “Counseling the Hard Cases” and claims that the ten allegedly successful case studies presented within is evidence of the efficacy of biblical counseling. However, this conclusion is dubious for a number of reasons: (1) case studies are notoriously unreliable as a basis for inferences about cause-and-effect, (2) it is not clear that these case studies are representative because they only present allegedly successful cases and (3) there was no adequate control group so the improvements observed could very well be due to placebo effect such as expectancy effects or regression to the mean.
Reinforcing dogmatism by attacking science-friendly Christian counselors
Some Christian counselors apparently attempt to bring mainstream science and medicine into their counseling of individuals with mental health issues:
This wrong perception of relational problems that are ultimately rooted in sinful thoughts and behaviors has sadly become commonplace even in the church. Many counseling practitioners have attempted to make a compatible partnership between Christian doctrine and worldly philosophies in the diagnosis and treatment of the human soul.
Notice how Ham twists evidence-based medical treatments into “worldly philosophies”. A clear attempt at marginalizing modern science. At the end of that paragraph, Ham places a reference to the Answers in Genesis video “Counterfeit Counseling” by Pastor Brad Bigney. In other words, Answers in Genesis considers mainstream evidence-based treatments for mental health issues to be “counterfeit”. Another clear sign that creationist anti-psychiatry is anti-science.
Biblical counseling supports the absurdity of mental illness denial
Ham even admits up-front that biblical counseling is anti-psychiatry by approvingly quoting the denial of the existence of many psychiatric conditions from a case study book on biblical counseling:
First, secular psychology fails to prove that many of the human problems “classified as mental illnesses” are related to any real “disease or illness at all” (p. 8). This ultimately means that the “science” of secular psychology has its own problems with regard to the definition of observational (i.e., testable, repeatable) science, by which a hypothesis is repeatedly tested and either proven or denied. As a prime example, no one really knows how certain neurotransmitters relate to conditions like depression and anxiety. Yet various medications are prescribed to correct imbalances that have not been accurately defined.
Throughout the post, Ham continually reaffirms that biblical counseling is not anti-science, but he also claims that many psychiatric diagnosis do not reflect any actual condition. This is a clear case of an anti-science stance.
Actually, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center (2013a, 2013b) we know a lot about what neurotransmitters are involved in anxiety (such as GABA, serotonin, dopamine, and epinephrine) and depression (such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine). We also know that psychiatric medications that target these neurotransmitter systems have been shown to be effective treatments in clinical trials. As we saw before, the anti-psychiatry creationists are yet again appealing to the “chemical imbalance” straw man.
Anti-psychiatry creationists use a similar rhetorical technique against psychiatry as they do against evolution: presuppositionalism, the conflation of evidence-based conclusions in science and medicine with secular worldview beliefs, attacking science-friendly Christians as well as the misrepresentation and outright denial of the underlying science. Anti-psychiatry creationism is dangerous to individuals with psychiatric conditions because it exploits individuals who are psychologically vulnerable both from the mental health issue and the religious indoctrination.
Mayo Clinic. (2012a). Intermittent explosive disorder. Accessed: 2013-09-21.
Mayo Clinic. (2012b). Oppositional defiant disorder. Accessed: 2013-09-21.
Passer, M., Smith, R., Holt, N., Bremner, A., Sutherland, E., & Vliek, M. (2009). Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behavior. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.
University of Maryland Medical Center. (2013a). Anxiety disorders. Accessed: 2013-09-21.
University of Maryland Medical Center. (2013b). Depression. Accessed: 2013-09-21.