The Tablet: Catherine Pepinster (Nov 08)

Friday, 28 November 2008 15:05

The self-help delusion

Spurred by the atrocities of 9/11, critics of religion first turned their fire on the fundamentalists - initially those of Islam, then those of Christianity. Now, doyenne of the make-it-alone gurus Dorothy Rowe has conventional Christians in her sights

By Catherine Pepinster

If you have attended literary festivals you will know which kind of author is guaranteed to be a big draw. There will be a good crowd for a novelist, a few hangers- on for a poet reciting his verse, but the sellout stars are the gurus - the ones that people feel explain the world and make sense of it.

Once, that might have been the role of a priest, and certainly some of today's gurus reflect the characteristics of a holy man. There's the fire-and-brimstone, preaching-from-the-pulpit type - a Christopher Hitchens or a Richard Dawkins warning their followers of the dangers of religion. Or there are the emotional gurus, the ones attracting those wanting to confess their misery and their failings, looking for some kind of redemption from those who advocate psychological self-help. And among the self-help gurus, you don't come bigger than Dorothy Rowe.

Rowe, to give her credit, is no self-made selfhelper. She has earned her spurs, training as a clinical psychologist and working in the NHS, but since her deservedly successful Depression: the way out of your prison won the Mind Book of the Year Award way back in 1984, she has gone down the guru path with titles such as The Successful Self and The Courage to Live. Her latest volume, What Should I Believe?, is a publisher's dream, merging the two worlds of atheism and self-help into one. The festival queues will no doubt double in size.

Rowe should be taken seriously, just as Dawkins is, for her books are highly influential, albeit on a different kind of audience. To give her due, she is at least a welcome departure from the testosterone-fuelled attacks on religion by Dawkins, who is undoubtedly her hero, and his cohorts Hitchens and Martin Amis.

She acknowledges life as infinitely more complicated than they would ever do. She also has time for believers, in that she has encountered people of faith who have undoubtedly made an impression upon her and whom she respects. But she has little respect for the actual beliefs that they hold and the religious institutions to which they belong.

Rowe's intervention is a sign that the debate - or, rather, the attacks, have moved on from the critiques of religion that began with 9/11 and focused on religious fundamentalism, particularly Islamism. The focus now is on more moderately held beliefs, particularly conventional Christianity. Her argument is that religion - and it's clear that she is mostly focusing on Christianity - has left many people with debilitating senses of guilt and shame, and that religion's power is due to its focus on death, the great unknown of all our lives, and that religions seek to overcome it. Religion, she says, provides certainty, and rewards us for being good.

"So great is our fear of life and death that most of us allow hope to override our intellect," writes Rowe, continuing: "No religion accepts us as the person we know ourselves to be. Rather we are told that we are inadequate, unsatisfactory and helpless. We fear that this is so, and to give us hope we construct a fantasy about how we are superior to those who do not share our views."

One can begin to see how her argument is shaping up. Rowe's hero, Dawkins, has taken believers to task, vilifying them for belief in religions that he says are counter to reason. He attacks religion as outmoded, defeated by convincing theories of evolution. He blames religion for causing wars and for being a threat to values.

Rowe moves from the scientific realm and the political to the personal, attacking religion for messing with our minds. Unhappy people are religious and they inflict their beliefs on others to make them unhappy. Rowe's thesis charts a path from Church and State coercing people into believing things that suit Church and State, to clergy telling people that it is their wickedness that is the cause of their illnesses, to believers viewing others with condescension.

While on the one hand Church and State make you feel guilty and therefore depressed, once people do believe they feed their pride, believing they are special and chosen. Given that Rowe is a psychologist and her case studies, which she quotes liberally as part of her armoury of arguments, are of people who are at least unhappy enough to have consulted a psychologist, this would suggest that she is basing her arguments on those who have come off worst in their encounters with religion. She does at least admit that there are people who have faith who appear to be, well, not so desperate as her clients. But she has a get-out clause: they would have been good anyway, whatever their beliefs.

Trying to get to grips with a vilifier of religion of this kind is rather like trying to fight one of those fairground knife-throwers: the weapons keep coming every which way. She loathes BBC Radio 4's "Thought for the Day"; Christian groups are meaner than secular ones and don't offer to pay her fees; Christian fundamentalists are so absorbed attacking homosexuality that they care nothing for the suffering of millions in places like Darfur and the Congo. One wonders how she can possibly know: has she checked the fundamentalists' bank statements for donations?

Yet there is a point that she makes that is valuable. While many of those working in psychiatry, psychology and therapy do not take religious belief seriously, Rowe does, seeing in it the possibility of hope for some people. There is a recognition that faith is something profound, a reality rather than a fantasy, a fact of life rather than a delusion.

But it is clear in her writing on the purpose of life that the chasm between psychologists who focus on happiness and self-esteem as the way to living at peace with ourselves and others and those of faith yawns wide. The link between happiness and virtue, highlighted in Abbot Christopher Jamison's Finding Happiness, published at the same time as Rowe's work, is in marked contrast to the self-help gurus' routes to being happy, seemingly the goal of twenty-first-century life. For Jamison's route, involving virtue, means that there is vice to be avoided or, more properly, sin. And nothing shocks and appals the gurus-cum-critics of religion more than the idea of sin.