The Spirit of Things with Rachael Kohn (Dec 08)

Wednesday, 06 April 2011 04:33

To Believe Or Not To Believe

Rachael Kohn: It's the Christmas season: The Salvos are stationed at their collection boxes and the shops are decked out with tinsel. There are even nativity crèches in some stores that dare to be different. But what do people believe, and why? Hello, I'm Rachael Kohn and on The Spirit of Things on ABC Radio National, we plumb the question of belief itself, with the eminent Australian expat. psychologist, now retired, Dorothy Rowe.

Dorothy moved to England in 1968 where she worked for the National Health Service and later in private practice. She is well-known for her work in depression, for which she was named one of the world's 100 geniuses. But in her latest book, she ventures into the realm of religious belief, and gives it a good cuffing around the ears.

Which is what you'd expect from a psychologist trained in the 1950s. Today, psychology lends more credence to spiritual biographies, but Dorothy's not too fussed about that trend. Religion is problematic, from her point of view, and she's pretty blunt about its negative effect on the world. In her recent book, What Should I Believe? she cites several recent authors to that effect, including Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

But I also found that she qualified her more extreme statements with others that told a different story. Although a frequent guest on Radio National, I'd never had the pleasure of speaking to her for this program, so I was interested in meeting her.

Dorothy Rowe, welcome to The Spirit of Things.

Dorothy Rowe: Good to be here.

Rachael Kohn: Well you've written a book called What Should I Believe?and that's probably the big question in the 21st century; what was your own experience of religion as a child?

Dorothy Rowe: My mother insisted that I attend the Presbyterian church and Sunday School, but she never went. She would not have a man telling her what to do, but actually she was just so frightened of people, she stayed away from crowds. My father had been a soldier in the First World War in northern France and whatever religious beliefs he might have been taught as a boy, his experiences in war took any vestige of belief away from him. He would read to us in the evening, lots of different books, but one book that he often read from was Ralph Ingersoll's Essays, and Ingersoll was a very famous actor in the USA in the 19th century, and he wrote in glorious language, to match the language of the King James Bible.

Rachael Kohn: What was his message?

Dorothy Rowe: He was an atheist, and so he was presenting the arguments against the Bible and against religion.

Rachael Kohn: Well you didn't have much of a chance then, did you?

Dorothy Rowe: Well it meant that I'd go along to the Minister on some days and say, 'Yes, well I don't know why you're saying that', and so on. So I know a good deal about the Bible and religion and I've always read a great deal about it.

Rachael Kohn: Didn't you also go to the Methodist church, which your friend went to?

Dorothy Rowe: Yes, but there was a Fellowship, where there were boys, that was the motive there. Although I did get saved a few times by these beautiful young men who used to come around, and I really tried to believe because other people said they did. But I couldn't lie to myself, and never did.

Rachael Kohn: I think you've written than you never really believed in God or religion, certainly by the age of five, your views were formed.

Dorothy Rowe: I had to think about this a great deal because I'm a psychologist; I spend a lot of time thinking about why people behave as they do, how they've acquired ideas and developed them, and I think there's this huge difference between those of us who grow up in a household where all the adults talk about God as being in some way present, though invisible, and growing up in a household where the only time the word 'God' might be used would be in the point of great crisis. So hearing about God all the time, I suppose you would develop an idea of a person. Children do learn about absent persons who are real. When people say to me, 'I can't stop believing in God', I think they're saying much the same as if I'd said, 'I can't stop believing that my father's father was a lovely man, although he died many, many years before I was born.'

Rachael Kohn: Well you went into psychology and in a way that's not surprising, given that psychology was founded on a pretty strong critique of religion, that it sort of prevents one from becoming a mature person, it keeps people in an infantile state. Is that what attracted you to psychology?

Dorothy Rowe: I really fell into psychology because I had taken Honours in English and History at Newcastle Girls' High School, and I found when I got to Sydney University to read English and History, I wasn't reading anything new, and that was very boring, but we had to take four subjects, and the other two subjects I took were Psychology and Economics, and I thought Economics was so - how could anybody believe that rubbish? And history since then has proved me right, but Psychology, it was mildly interesting, more interesting than the other three subjects. And of course it wasn't very interesting then because it wasn't about real people. We studied all sorts of strange things, and it wasn't until I'd been teaching for a while and I was invited to become a school counsellor, and I did the year's training for that, and that was really good. I was learning things and doing things that were real, they were about real people.

Rachael Kohn: Well certainly in a school setting, maturity and taking responsibility for oneself and one's actions, is such an important aspect of counselling, I would imagine. Do you believe that religion sort of robs people of their sense of responsibility?

Dorothy Rowe: If you look at the terminology that some people use, a lot of people use, that the various churches use, where they talked about being children, and having a father.

Rachael Kohn: Being the children of God?

Dorothy Rowe: Yes, being the children of God, and the requirement for unthinking obedience. Of course there are a lot of religious people who - that isn't their faith. We talk about the different religions, and of course each religion has its own dogma, but we interpret everything that comes to us when somebody presents us with an idea, we interpret that idea, and because the way our brains work, our interpretations come from our past experience. No two people ever have the same experience. So no two people ever interpret anything in exactly the same way. So there are as many forms of Christianity as there are people who call themselves Christian, and that applies to all religion.

Rachael Kohn: So how do you tackle this subject? And I mean in your book you've been extremely critical of religion, and you have said that it does rob individuals of responsibility because of this notion of being obedient and a God that orders everything in the universe.

Dorothy Rowe: Well again, that depends on how people interpret it. I've met a large number of people who refer to themselves as being religious, and they go to church, they uphold a lot of their church's ideas. But when they think about themselves, they see themselves as being morally responsible, and that they are making choices, and they have given a lot of thought to their own morality, and they're not being good because that means they'll go to heaven, they're not 'storing up treasure in heaven', they are living their life in a particular way because that is what they feel is a morally responsible way to live.

Rachael Kohn: Yes, I mean just now for example, at Christmas, people would be modelling themselves on say, the example of Jesus, so they would be working in various hostels, they would be serving Christmas dinners to the homeless, they would be giving gifts, for example, as we have in the ABC, a big tree down in the foyer filled with gifts that people are providing for others who are in need. And that's driven very often by a strong religious impulse.

Dorothy Rowe: Well it depends on why they're doing it, it's not what we do that's important, but why we do it. And if you're doing good deeds because you want to assure yourself that you will go to heaven and live for eternity, then you're really being good just for selfish reasons, for your own self. But if you're doing good deeds for altruistic reasons, because it pleases you to be good, there's a lot of Christians who think atheists must be bad people, but atheists work out their own morality and of course there are many bad atheists as there are bad Christians. You know, human beings can do lots of very bad things, irrespective of what they believe. But when you feel that you have the responsibility to work out how you ought to behave, and you have to be responsible for your actions, you can't say, 'Oh God tell me to do it' then you have to be very selective in what you do and you have to think about what you're doing.

People without any religious belief, will say, 'Well I do good things because it pleases me to do so.' I expect in myself I'd rather be pleasant to people than unpleasant. The reason, that if you're pleasant to people, my life goes along a lot better, and perhaps other people's don't, and I'd love to live in a world where people all got along together and were pleasant to one another, rather than the world I actually have to live in.

Rachael Kohn: Dorothy Rowe, psychologist and author of What Should I believe? Now is it any more selfish to be kind to people in order to get to heaven, than it is to be kind to people because it pleases you? Hmm.
Dorothy Rowe is my guest, and she's visiting Australia for a while, taking leave of the cold in London where she lives. We're talking about religion and belief from a sceptic's point of view.

Well Dorothy, religion is such a broad thing, isn't it, and you have talked to so many people who have had very different views of their religions lives. Are some of those functional, as opposed to dysfunctional? Can you kind of give me an example of both?

Dorothy Rowe: Well I never use the word 'dysfunctional', because it always sounds judgmental. But as I've described in the book, I've done a great deal of work with people who are depressed, and when you're talking to someone who's depressed, sooner or later death comes up as a subject; the person's talking perhaps about the death of their loved ones, or their own death. And then that immediately raises the question of what happens to us after we die. So in these conversations with depressed people, we'd soon be on to talking about religion, and what I found was that there were so many of my clients who had strong religious beliefs, but they had interpreted them in such a way that they felt that they were intrinsically bad, they were wicked, and this filled them with guilt, and this was the centre part of their becoming depressed. To become depressed, you suffer some kind of disaster. It might be a private disaster, it might be something that other people recognise as a disaster. And good people are people who believe that as they are, they're not good enough, they have to work hard to be good. Good people are so prone to blame themselves for disasters. Blaming yourself for the disaster is the way that you turn ordinary sadness into depression. And I found with my clients that they weren't able to say 'Well, my religious beliefs have led me to feel horrible about myself; well I'm going to give up my beliefs.' They would hang on to their beliefs, and suffer, suffer enormously. This wasn't some odd interpretation of what they'd been taught, you know, Christianity is founded on the belief that we're born in sin. If we weren't why do we need to be saved?

Rachael Kohn: That scenario that you've described may be what is motivating so many people to take part in Pentecostal services, where they are forgiven, where the blood of the lamb is washed over them and they immediately have a sense of being forgiven and in the arms of Christ, in the arms of God.

Dorothy Rowe: Yes, and lots of people find that kind of experience, and that way of thinking about themselves an immense comfort, and it gives them the courage to go on. But everything in the world's got a downside. But one of the terrible things that - let me just summarise: from religious beliefs there can be two terrible consequences. One can be that the individual believes that he or she is intrinsically, absolutely and forever bad, and so they feel very guilty and suffer tremendously. The other is the opposite of that: there are lots of people who believe that simply because they hold certain beliefs, they are superior to all others, and being superior they are more virtuous than others, and therefore they are entitled to force their beliefs on to other people. I know this only too well, they can be so patronising. 'I am such a virtuous person and you down there, are so disgusting.' But we live in a civilised society, but in less civilised societies people who believe that their religious beliefs make them superior, they believe not only can they patronise non-believers, but they can kill them. And there's always been religious wars.

Rachael Kohn: Yes indeed, there have been wars throughout human civilisations. I want to unpack that a bit, because in the first part, when we were talking about guilt and laying the blame at the feet of religious traditions, one could also say that guilt has other sources. For example, you can be raised in a family that has no religion and still be visited with this sense of guilt, because your parents, or someone has seen you as inferior, as flawed, as a sissy, as inadequate. So guilt is perhaps a human impulse, is it not? To blame others, or to blame oneself?

Dorothy Rowe: Guilt is very popular because it saves us from feeling helpless. At this very present moment, there are vast numbers of people in Australia who think that their job might vanish, their house might vanish, and there is nothing they can do about it. The whole thing is out of their hands, and that's utterly, utterly terrifying. And one way of trying to deal with that is to tell yourself you feel guilty; you're making a claim to have had the power to choose to do differently. 'If I had been a really good employee, I wouldn't have been sacked.' No, you would be sacked because your firm's gone bust, it doesn't matter how good you are. But blaming someone gives you that delusion of competence, a delusion that somehow you aren't helpless.

Rachael Kohn: Yes, the delusion of control. The other downside of belief as you outlined, was feeling superior, and I take what you say on board, because there is no doubt that there are traditions, there are particular religions that enforce their beliefs on others, or who valiantly want to save the world, but there are other traditions that don't do that, that are quite happy to exist amongst their own kind, whether it's Hindus or Jews or Buddhists, most of those traditions don't have this compulsion to regard others as inferior and therefore in need of this particular saving face.

Dorothy Rowe: Yes, and in many societies, people of different religions have lived happily together, and the rulers in those societies didn't have any political reason to stir up trouble between the different groups. And then if people feel strong in themselves, they don't need to delude themselves that they are superior. I know that the feeling, 'I am superior' is a defence against feeling inferior, and people who just feel at home with themselves, value and accept themselves, don't need to feel superior, they're just, you know, 'This is me'. But people who suspect that they're inferior will look around, not necessarily religious belief, you get all this racism which is the same sort of process, 'I feel inferior, therefore I tell myself that because I'm white I'm superior to everybody else who isn't white', and that sort of nonsense.

Rachael Kohn: That's Dorothy Rowe, psychologist and author, who is turning her attention to religious beliefs.

Dorothy Rowe was a true blue sceptic from a young age, nurtured by an atheist father. But she's also brought her lengthy experience of psychological trauma to her subject, and in particular, her extensive work on depression.

Dorothy Rowe: Depression isn't a mental illness. What psychiatrists have called mental illnesses are our ways of behaving when we're trying to hold ourselves together, when we see ourselves fall apart, and everybody has that experience. Quite often actually. And this is all part of what it is to be a human being, what it is to be a member of a society, so that individuals and society aren't separate.

Rachael Kohn: Do you find, and have you found in your work, that around Christmas, and perhaps other holidays, depression asserts itself more?

Dorothy Rowe: Yes, Christmas and the church keeps me in business. And I now longer see clients, but over the years that I did, in the run-up to Christmas there were two kinds of conversations we'd have. There were those people who believed that everybody else in the world was going to have a wonderful Christmas, but they were going to be on their own, alone. And then the other group of clients would be telling me 'I've got to be with my family at Christmas'.

Rachael Kohn: And they didn't want to?

Dorothy Rowe: They definitely didn't want to.

Rachael Kohn: Well it's interesting. I often wonder whether the depression around Christmas has more to do with all the shopping and all the hoop-la, all of the materialism that surrounds it, rather than the religious message. It would seem to me that people might feel less disappointed in their Christmas if they just went along to a local church and enjoyed the mass or something, as opposed to running through shopping malls.

Dorothy Rowe: Yes. The nicest Christmas I had in England in all the years I've lived there, was when a group of, there was about six of us, who had no family that we were expected to visit, and none of us were religious, but we just got together on Christmas day and had a lovely meal and played games. And it was just a lovely day because there were no expectations, except that we were a group of friends. It doesn't have to be Christmas to do that, but that to me was really the nicest Christmas.

Rachael Kohn: Dorothy, your early work focused on emotionally-disturbed children, and I wonder how much religion played a role in the lives of those children?

Dorothy Rowe: The early work with children was here in Sydney when I was Specialist Counsellor for Emotionally Disturbed Children. I was often the person who identified that the child was having difficulties, and teachers would ask me to come and see this child, and my job was to distinguish between children who were bored at school and were doing what bored children do at school, from the children who really were in difficulties, and then to talk to the teachers and talk to the families, go and see the families. And it wasn't until I went to England that I was looking at people further down the line, when the acute problem was no longer present, and I had time to think about that. And of course that was when I started to think about the role religious belief played in people's lives.

Rachael Kohn: Was there much difference between your experience here in Australia and that in England? I mean was there a different cultural impact for example, that religion had in England, as opposed to Australia?

Dorothy Rowe: Neither country is very religious at all really. A lot of it as you know is, it's the socially appropriate thing to do. In England, where a lot of people live in small villages, the social life of the village is around the church and the pub, so people go along because that's where you meet other people, and that's all a sort of -

Rachael Kohn: Yes, well the community aspect of religion is I think an enduring reason why it's so attractive for so many people. But you've said that if there was no death, there'd be no need for religion. Do you see religion then as deriving from a fear of death?

Dorothy Rowe: Yes, it's not just the fear of physically dying, but it's the self. We are incapable of imagining what it's like not existing, and our sense of being a person is our most precious possession. And so the thought that that might disappear is unthinkable. I think for all those people who want to arrange their funerals before they die, and if they talk to you about this, they say, 'Well I don't want to see...' where will you be to see? And people of no religion will still use that kind of language that somehow they'll be there to supervise. And it is very difficult to think of ourselves not existing. And when you get really frightened about that, then we want someone to say to us, 'But you do go on'. And so we have a vast array of concepts about continuing on as a person. So we have all these different heavens and hells for those who don't make it into heaven, and all sort of emotions to do with some kind of spirit continuing on.

Rachael Kohn: But I have to admit I'm more of a sociologist. I believe that we have religion because there's life, and because life is so complicated, it needs to be organised, it needs to be shaped into something ethical and moral and meaningful.

Dorothy Rowe: Yes, I wouldn't disagree with about that, because my faith is of course on the individual, because I'm a clinical psychologist, but I can see the links to societies as I've described just now, but society has to be organised, and this is a terrible problem now bringing up children. You can't just let a child grow to be the spoilt baby, although I think a few people manage to do that.

Rachael Kohn: Far too many.

Dorothy Rowe: But parents have to convey to the child that as they are, they're not good enough, they have to make some sort of effort to be good, or otherwise they won't be accepted, they won't fit in to society, and we've got to have some rules about how society operates. It's very difficult to get people to do the right thing because it's the right thing to do.

Rachael Kohn: Dorothy, one of the things that I certainly saw through the '70s and '80s and '90s and it continues, is people who have been without religion but constantly searching, always going from one to the next, to the next guru, to the next weekend retreat, trying to find something. That says to me that there is a real problem when you don't have something, that you can end up on this continuous search that may end up going nowhere in particular.

Dorothy Rowe: What those kind of people, many of whom I've met over the years, they've always struck me as people who are very reluctant to face up to one of the aspects of our life, that for everything, every idea that we have, there are consequences, and some of those consequences are good, and some are bad. There is no set of ideas that ensures complete security, comfort and happiness, and no downside. So there's no religion can give us that, no kind of faith, no scientific explanation, and the people who keep searching, they're searching for the perfect set of beliefs, and you can't find it because it's not there.

Rachael Kohn: Well that 'perfection syndrome', I would call it, is a real psychologically debilitating, almost emotionally debilitating sort of outlook?

Dorothy Rowe: Yes, because nothing in life is perfect. If it were, it would be rather dull, wouldn't it? And often too, the search for perfection out there is putting outwards, out into the world around you, your own dissatisfaction with yourself, and to live with yourself, you have to be able to accept your imperfections, the quaint things about you; your limitations in all sorts of ways.

Rachael Kohn: I wonder whether some of the fear of religion which one certainly sees today, is a fear of commitment and a fear of the hard work that goes along with it?

Dorothy Rowe: Well I've been taken with those evangelical preachers who assure their congregations that if they give themselves to Jesus, Jesus will make them rich. I don't know if I want to say many, but a significant number of American preachers preach that.

Rachael Kohn: We've got them here too. The Prosperity Gospel.

Dorothy Rowe: Yes, and that is a gospel very, very different from what the Jesus I was taught about was preaching, because sell what you have, give your money to the poor, and follow me was not a message of complete comfort and happiness was it?

Rachael Kohn: No, but I suppose one of the beauties of religion, or is it one of its strengths, could be one of its weaknesses, is that as you said earlier, there are so many ways to interpret the religious text, perhaps because it has some many ambiguities in it. It can almost be used to support any position.

Dorothy Rowe: Yes, yes indeed.

Rachael Kohn: Good religion and bad religion.

Dorothy Rowe: Yes, it's all in the Bible, whatever you want to look for, it's there.

Rachael Kohn: I suppose though, one could say the same about many other theories, including psychology. I mean there's good psychology and bad psychology, isn't there?

Dorothy Rowe: And there's a great deal of just plain stupid psychology.

Rachael Kohn: The brutally frank Dorothy Rowe. Well after about 50 years in the psychology profession, she's earned her right to say that!

We're talking belief on The Spirit of Things and although this is Christmas, where people are moved by faith or sentimentality, there are some who can't even muster that much. Hence my conversation with the religious sceptic, Dorothy Rowe. As a psychologist she's steeped in the view that people construct their own reality. And sometimes, they're helped along, by good or ill, by psychologists wielding theories! I asked her about it.

Well you just have been quite exercised about the whole false memory syndrome, that is, psychologists implanting false memories into their clients.

Dorothy Rowe: Just a minute ago we were talking about people searching for perfection; what they were also wanting, not just perfection, but they wanted it simple, and there are so many people who are interested in psychology, but please don't make it complex. Understanding how we live, you have to be able to accept the complexity. There is so much simplistic thinking over that whole question of false memory, and people making all kinds of absolute statements. It was just a mess, a terrible, terrible mess.

Rachael Kohn: Does that mean that you're sort of talking cure (if you use the word 'cure') but talking to your client over a long period of time requires a higher degree of intellect because things are complex?

Dorothy Rowe: To understand ourselves and other people, you have to be prepared to understand the very curious way that we're actually operating. Over the last 15 years, there's been enormous research discoveries by neuroscientists looking at the way our brain functions. It's quite clear now that we cannot see reality directly, all we ever see are the constructions that our brain creates. All sorts of things that seem to us utterly real, aren't, that's just ideas in our brain. Now it seems to me the studio and you are utterly real, but actually my brain has constructed a picture of what might be going on here, and that picture's in my head and I'm all around it, but my brain persuades me that I'm in the middle and the picture's all around me. And exactly the same is happening to you, and so many people who regard themselves as extremely well-educated, don't understand that. One of the things that neuroscientists know now is that what we call I, me, myself, in the sense of being a person, is just ideas but Chris Frith, the Professor of Neuropsychology in London, he says our sense of self is an illusion, and that's rather difficult. We all want the illusion of being a person to continue for eternity, that is difficult to grasp.

Rachael Kohn: Well it can be psychologically emotionally earth-shattering. I think one of your patients actually had a difficult time seeing himself or anything else as real, and that was very eerie, because at some point, we just have to say, 'All right, we're just going to accept this set of concepts and ideas so that we can live a comfortable life, live an enjoyable life'.

Dorothy Rowe: Yes, and I remember in my teens, which was a really difficult time for me, having actually knowing, I didn't know the science of it then, but knowing that nothing around me was real, that it was just my ideas, and I knew that from what I was experiencing. I eventually decided that I'd act as if everything was real, because there were a lot of people who, when they hear me say that, 'Well how could you not know that that's real'? But these people are quite likely to have experiences of not feeling real as a person.

Rachael Kohn: What do you think prompted that?

Dorothy Rowe: Because when we start to lose confidence in ourselves, you know, self-confidence is saying, 'Oh well, this is the way I think it is, and I'll act as if it is, and I won't get too worried if I'm wrong.' But that's about it. But once you start to lose your self-confidence, then you start to doubt either the world around you with all yourself inside.

Rachael Kohn: Can I ask you what prompted that real lack of self-confidence?

Dorothy Rowe: My upbringing as a child in a family - it was a very peculiar family, I've written about them a great deal. They were a family that on the outside they looked just ordinary, but on the inside, there were things happened which undermined my confidence. My mother would always if I made some observation to her, that she didn't wish to acknowledge, she would tell me I was lying, and that is something that's very undermining. And it happens with lots of people where they observe something in their family but their parents insist that it didn't happen, or what happened was different from what they observed, and you find this kind of thing in the families of people who later become psychotic. It's quite a common phenomenon.

Rachael Kohn: Well you use a term very often throughout your writing, and that is 'the person you know yourself to be', and there's a certain sense of quiet confidence about that phrase, but it's really difficult, it's a lot harder than it sounds. It's a work-in-progress isn't it?

Dorothy Rowe: It is a work-in-progress, and I've always found that if I just sort of sat still and let something emerge, then I would know what was the truth for me. This was not an eternal absolute truth, it was just what was true for me. This is how I felt about this. I've been very fortunate in that I've never been forced to deny my own personal truths, whereas lots of people do. They get punished for being themselves, or they feel that if they are themselves, nobody will accept them, and so they construct sort of false self, and live that, and it's a terrible way to live.

Rachael Kohn: Indeed. And yet I think that it must be easier to have a sense of that person who you are, or you know yourself to be, if you've been raised in a community, if you have a strong sense of identity, an identification, a sense of belonging to that community, you would at a fairly early age, know or have a sense that you know who you are.

Dorothy Rowe: Yes, and children, they've got their antennae out there looking for people, they know he's a person who can give me something. There's someone who is - get away from them. And children can't find it in the people around them, then they find it in their stories. I've read everything that I could lay my hands on, and so I had an internal world and a large number of people who existed only in books, either as characters in the books, or the people who wrote the books. And of course why are television and the media so important to children? Because that's where they get these 'other people' they give you a bigger range of people to think about than just their family, and just their community.

Rachael Kohn: Dorothy, you've said that some of us are fortunate enough to discover that to become ourselves, we have to abandon the weak reed of religious beliefs.

Dorothy Rowe: If you're becoming and being yourself, is you have to do it for yourself and by yourself. And nobody else can do it for you. It has to be your own experience, and as long as you're saying 'I'm depending on someone else', you never can be fully yourself.

Rachael Kohn: And you see religion as always about that dependence on someone else?

Dorothy Rowe: Well it depends on how the person is there then. A great many people don't want to give up their comfort blanket.

Rachael Kohn: So you see religion as a comfort blanket?

Dorothy Rowe: Well a lot of people see it as a comfort blanket. It is a comfort blanket, because to them, because it gets them through the bad times, and they don't have to think too much, and they don't feel that they have to take responsibility for themselves. Whereas there are other people who see religion as they see their religious beliefs as a guide, just as a guide, something to measure yourself against, 'Do I measure up? Could I do better?' You're not depending on your guide, your guide is just your standard.

Rachael Kohn: Indeed. Urging you actually to be more than who you think you are.

Dorothy Rowe: I wouldn't say that I depended ever on Jesus, but the way I saw him from what I learnt about him, or what I was told, the way I interpreted the story, I thought he was a really good man, and like my father. So I know lots of people say 'Well what would Jesus say?' I wouldn't ever say that, but there were standards, there were goals to be set, and let there be a guide to which way I should go.

Rachael Kohn: Does that pretty much describe your beliefs at present in terms of religious beliefs, your relationship to Christianity?

Dorothy Rowe: No, I don't think so. I can talk about Jesus because when I see this huge discrepancy between his simple preachings, and the way so many Christians interpret his speech, I just think that is so hypocritical. And I sometimes think Jesus would be ashamed of you.

Rachael Kohn: Dorothy, you were recently listed as one of the Top 100 geniuses in the world.

Dorothy Rowe: Oh, that was a very peculiar list. The reason they'd chosen different people was they had a set of criteria and there was only one that applied to me. When I went to England and discovered adult people who were depressed and listened to what my fellow-colleague psychiatrists were saying about them, 'You've got no eyes in your head, you're not even looking at what's going on', and when I started to write about depression, I was a tremendous iconoclast and radical and dangerous and all of that stuff. So in small part, I changed the paradigm. Not entirely. I am told that there are lots of Australians who if they get depressed, get ECT, which is the equivalent of blood-letting, but I hope that that isn't the case. But certainly depression is thought about very differently now.

Rachael Kohn: And what about belief? Do you look forward to a time when we live without it?

Dorothy Rowe: Oh, you can't live without belief. You've got to have some sort of beliefs, and when I listen to what's happening in the climate change debate, and the way people are reacting to it, not accepting that they have to do something, and I've lived long enough to see that people don't learn from experience. I was born in the first Great Depression and there's a very good chance I'll die in this Great Depression, the next one, the one we're in. So I don't feel at all hopeful. But on the other hand, I always hope that things will get better, that people will be sensible, and we'll all think it's more important to be kind to one another and look after one another and look after our planet.

Rachael Kohn: Good words to live by. Dorothy Rowe, it's been wonderful talking to you, thank you so much for being on The Spirit of Things.

Dorothy Rowe: Thank you.

Rachael Kohn: That was psychologist Dorothy Rowe, who's probably Australia's best-known practitioner of the mental arts. Her books are many, and her latest is What Should I Believe?, a wide-ranging essay of personal observations on psychology, politics and religion.