Religious conflict?

A letter from our July edition.

Samuel Landau, in a ‘Careers’ piece in the April edition, wrote of his challenges in integrating his two hats: that of a community rabbi and that of a clinical psychologist. He finds his rabbi-hat unwelcome in the largely secular professional environment, and his psychologist-hat troublesome in the synagogue.

I must disagree with his suggestion that psychology is fundamentally in conflict with religion. Landau goes so far as to claim that his psychological training has resulted in it becoming ‘uncomfortable to preach messages that do not incorporate the complexity of lived experience’, a severe critique of religion. Additionally, he perceives the fixed-moral framework within which he must counsel his congregants as the unique predicament of the religious.

I would suggest that Landau has made a critical oversight in formulating his conclusions. Do not all clinical psychologists encounter clients who have perpetrated or are at risk of perpetrating behaviours that must be condemned? When encountered with a client who is at risk of harming themselves or others, or perpetrating an otherwise illegal behaviour, does any psychologist – irrespective of religious affiliation – have a choice other than to condemn the behaviour? By definition, all psychologists operate within a legally and morally determined framework, and whilst the psychologist operating within a religious setting may have to contend with a more highly specified framework, the essential predicament is universal.

Consequently, it is of universal importance to consider the distinction between condemnation of the behaviour itself and the individual who has perpetrated or is at risk of perpetrating it. Whilst one would expect the clinical psychologists working at Broadmoor to resoundingly condemn the perpetrated atrocities, one would equally expect that they have the utmost sympathy for the mentally ill who have perpetrated them. From a religious standpoint too, there must be room to distinguish between condemnation of a behaviour that stands in breach of religious law and the tolerance born of appreciating the specific circumstances of the individual who is struggling with that law. Indeed, the ‘complexity of lived experience’ dictates that no one can judge others for their behavioural shortcomings, without necessitating compromise in our moral judgement of those behaviours.

In prescribing an array of sometimes challenging behavioural ideals, religion calls for a life of constant striving to ever better one’s character. Self-improvement, for religious and secular alike, is a gradual process that will inevitably be marred by setbacks, and will never result in absolute perfection. Religion acknowledges the gulf between the actual selves of the less-than-perfect beings that we are and asks of its adherents that they do their utmost to strive for their ideal selves. I encourage Landau to use his psychologist-hat to approach the world ‘with a position of curiosity, non-judgement and understanding’ to empirically further his understanding of the human experience, whilst simultaneously using his rabbi-hat to ensure that he remains uncompromising in his moral ideals. Then he will be best-positioned to assist his congregants in the process of gradually closing that gap.

Thanks for an intriguing monthly read.

Moshe Atlas
Student at the University of Derby

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