Creating a theoretical space for spiritual interventions:

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Various Scenes from Alldredge Academy Creating a theoretical space for spiritual interventions:
The Alldredge Academy
Matthew Whoolery and Brent Slife, Brigham Young University
L. Jay Mitchell, Alldredge Academy

Presented at the Annual Conference of the American Association
of the Behavioral and Social Sciences in Las Vegas, February 2002

Correspondence regarding this paper may be directed to
Mat Whoolery by e-mail at:
More information about Alldredge Academy
Many psychologists and psychotherapists are attempting to study religious spirituality and formulate religious interventions. The underlying secular philosophy in psychology has made these attempts less than fruitful. Because this secular philosophy does not require a god, religious spirituality is either discounted or altered to fit in secularism's god-less universe. Secular philosophies are often viewed as being neutral with regards to values, but we will contend that explanations not requiring God are logically incompatible with explanations that do require God. Without first making conceptual room for theistic spiritual interventions by providing an alternative to secularism, there is little chance of success. The solution is a practical one - a better theory, one that permits and encourages god-oriented explanations without itself being expressly religious. Creating such a theoretical space would allow for the development and implementation of theistic spiritual interventions in psychotherapy and psychotherapeutic systems. The Alldredge Academy, a school and treatment center for troubled youth, will be used as an example of how this philosophy can be applied to the development of a therapeutic program and interventions.

Why is there no space?
The first question that must be addressed is: Why is there currently no space for theistic spirituality? Over the past two decades, the amount of research and published articles about human spirituality and religion has increased dramatically (Richards & Bergin, 1997; Joseph, 1996; Bergin, 1980; and others). This increase in interest may give the impression that there is no problem in conducting this kind of research - that space has been created. However, we argue that this is not so. Though there has undoubtedly been an increase in attempts to create religious spiritual interventions, the underlying assumptions of psychology have crowded out a truly theistic, and thus god-filled understanding of spirituality.
Psychology is, of course, founded upon a secular philosophy. This philosophy, usually as associated with science, is thought to be a value-neutral - and thus a religiously neutral - philosophy. If a secular philosophy were truly value neutral, it would allow for both theistic and non-theistic explanations. But this claim to value-neutrality is itself a value. Psychology's secular philosophy encourages certain views of spirituality while discouraging others. As several observers have noted, the specific secular philosophy of psychology is naturalism (Bergin, 1980; Slife, in press). We will use the term "naturalism" to describe this underlying secular philosophy and demonstrate how it crowds out the possibility for a theistic form of spirituality. Naturalism is a philosophy that claims that our bodies, thoughts, behavior, and even our ethical ideals are governed by laws or principles (Lewis, 1970; Slife, in press). The philosophy of naturalism has long been a dominating force in the natural sciences. Social scientists adopted this philosophy wholeheartedly into the study of psychology and psychotherapy when they adopted the methods of the natural sciences (Leahey, 1991; Slife, in press). The "lawfulness" assumption of naturalism leads psychologists to find underlying laws or principles which determine human behavior. We will address three primary tenets of naturalism - 1) existence of laws, 2) hedonism, and 3) determinism - and attempt to show how these tenets obviate psychology's efforts to formulate and test theistic spiritual interventions. I will briefly define these terms, necessarily over-simplifying them due to time constraints.
First, naturalism assumes the existence of natural "laws" that govern the universe, including human behavior. From gravity to reinforcement, these laws and principles are believed to be independent of any deity or Supreme Being. Although a deity may have originally created the laws, the laws - in order to be lawful - must be unchangeable, even by a deity. If a deity is assumed to exist, it could not "disrupt" or suspend these laws or they would no longer be lawful. The view of deity proposed by naturalism is a deity that must then be passive or separate from human affairs. The universe, it would be assumed, goes on working as it always has whether or not this god exists. An understanding of spirituality in this philosophy would necessitate that an active god not be required. Otherwise the notion of natural laws would be jeopardized.
One of the laws that is nearly universally assumed in the natural and social sciences - as a result of naturalism - is hedonism (Slife, in press; Fisher Smith, 2000; Slife, 2000). Hedonism is the belief that all nature, including human nature, is and must be governed by the seeking of pleasure and avoidance of pain, and thus, self-interest. According to hedonism, spirituality must ultimately serve some selfish purpose. The works of Sigmund Freud and B.F. Skinner on the nature of religion reflect this hedonistic belief about religious spirituality. Religion for Freud serves our own selfish pleasure or the avoidance of a painful reality (Freud, 1830/1961). Religion for Skinner ultimately serves as reinforcement (i.e., treasures in heaven) for those who behave religiously.
As a third and final assumption of naturalism, human behavior is assumed to be generally deterministic, or determined by laws "outside" of the person, such as hedonism - laws that are outside the control of the persons themselves. For example, psychologists routinely believe that human behavior and personality are supposed to be caused by a combination of "nature" and "nurture" which ultimately determines a person. In the July 1999 issue of the American Psychologist discussing the issue of human will, each article clearly came to the same conclusion-- that human behavior is ultimately determined and caused by external sources outside the control of the person. Though acknowledging the "experience" of free will, Wegner and Wheatley (1999) claim "the real causal mechanism is the marvelously intricate web of causation that is the topic of scientific psychology" (p. 490). While not denying that people experience the feeling of choosing, they assert that it is only an illusion of choice.

A naturalistic spirituality
What are the implications of these three tenets of naturalism for research on religious spirituality? As you will see, they "crowd out" the possibility of an active deity, which is a primary tenet of a theistic spirituality. There have been many valiant efforts to formulate a psychological understanding of theistic spiritual experiences and interventions. We are acquainted both personally and professionally with many of these researchers and have a profound respect for their work. However, most of their efforts are unfortunately doomed to failure, because they do not begin with a philosophy that truly allows for a theistic universe - a universe in which God is required and not an add-on. In fact, it is our contention that the philosophy of naturalism forces these researchers to view spirituality in a way that removes its theistic meaningfulness. We have time for only a few examples.
One of the ways in which current researchers are attempting to understand spirituality is through the study of the brain. Many have claimed to find the true source of religious experiences in various places such as the amygdala and the "God module" in the frontal lobe of the brain (Joseph, 1996; Ashbrook, 1984). Some explain that "biology, in some way, compels the spiritual urge" (Newburg, D'Aquili, & Rause, 2001), p. 8) Though these explanations have received a great deal of attention, they do not allow for a theistic understanding of spirituality. God cannot be the cause of these events, at least as they are presented and described, because natural laws and biology do not require God. A deity is irrelevant to the experience. Although, as mentioned, a deity could have created the laws that control the human brain, these laws are not currently under the direct or intentional control of the experiencer or the deity. These experiences are like all experiences from the naturalistic perspective - determined, and thus out of any purposeful control or intention.
A subtler example of this naturalistic understanding of spirituality involves psychological research on religion. Many religious psychologists attempt to legitimize spirituality by showing empirically that religious people are just as happy and healthy as non-religious people. Though this may be an important point to make, it still falls within the naturalistic tradition. First, it ultimately presumes hedonism. By making the claim that religious people are just as happy or happier than others, the assumption is that religion is ultimately concerned with individual happiness and the personal seeking of pleasure. If religious people were found to be less "happy" than their non-religious counterparts, would that mean that religion is not healthy or good for people? Many religions would answer "no" to this question. Surely for Christians, Jesus Christ was not happy to die on the cross, yet he presumably did what he was supposed to do - and told his believers that they may suffer for their God as well.
Moreover, many religious leaders of the world have led lives that could be considered "dysfunctional" or maladaptive in terms of the conceptions of many psychotherapy outcome measures. Hedonism assumes that rational and adaptive behaviors are ones that protect and please the self. Many of the most esteemed religious leaders were so maladaptive to their environments that they created problems enough to get themselves killed by others (e.g. John the Baptist and Indira Gahndi). In this sense, religion has never been about the gaining of pleasure and self-interest. Indeed, the followers of these religious leaders view their behaviors as ultimately altruistic and without any hedonistic or selfish aims at all.
A theistic understanding of spiritual experiences also requires moral choices and beliefs. In order for a person to act in accordance to the will of God or to sin, they must be responsible for their own behavior. Unfortunately, as I described earlier, a naturalistic understanding assumes that spiritual experiences are determined by events outside a person's control. In a book titled Why God Will Not Go Away, the authors explain the long-standing traditions of religion to persist because we are biologically compelled to have spiritual experiences (Newburg, et al, 2001). While they strive to preserve a sense that spiritual experiences are "real" what they mean is that they are observable, biological brain events. Spiritual experiences are reduced to brain functions without an outside source, and thereby lose any sense of true meaning and any sense of a true God.
Therefore, as long as naturalistic philosophy underlies the human sciences, theistic spiritual interventions will never be formulatable or viable. Spirituality is changed into brain events, happiness-seeking, deterministic cause-and-effect chains, and even neuro-epileptic seizures (Joseph, 1996). A person's spiritual experiences, then, will be governed by natural laws that produce brain events and hedonistic actions. Theoretical space must first be created before any legitimately theistic spiritual interventions can be created. A non-naturalistic philosophy must be provided as an alternative to the dominant assumption of naturalism.

Creating a theoretical space
Though a theoretical analysis may seem more like philosophy than psychology, we claim that this analysis is the most practical thing we can do to allow for and promote truly spiritual interventions in psychology. We must first have a basis of understanding that allows room for spirituality and does not reduce it to naturalistic terms. Such a basis would include contrasting assumptions to the three tenets of naturalism and include patterns that require God rather than patterns that do not: 1) god-filled patterns versus god-less patterns, 2) a world in which altruism is possible, and 3) an agentic rather than determined world.
A god-filled world requires God to make sense of the universe, including human behavior and experience. Though, as mentioned, some naturalistic views of the world allow for a passive deity who creates laws and then steps back from worldly affairs, a god-filled world cannot make sense without God. For example, in a god-filled world, miracles are not suspensions of a natural law. The natural and the “miraculous” and the natural are not separable. Indeed, even the natural are considered the actions of a God who is thoroughly and constantly engaged with people in the world. True miracles are expected, and natural events are always miracles in the sense that God is a necessary condition for their occurrence. The universe is not governed by laws, but by a deity. Therefore, all that exists requires and is dependent upon God. Spirituality, then, has a source not in the brain or body, but in God.
The second counter-assumption to a naturalistic philosophy involves the possibility of altruism. An altruistic world allows for pure altruism—where a person can act, ultimately, for the benefit of others, even if this means some personal suffering or acting against their self-interest. This is not to say that hedonistic acts are impossible, indeed they are possible and perhaps even frequent. But there is a true possibility for a person to act solely and consistently for the benefit of another. Benefits from altruistic acts may ensue, or result from, the action but are not necessarily the primary motivation. The possibility of altruism allows for an understanding of human actions as moral and meaningful. A person can love another, not for personal benefit, but truly for the sake of the other person. And religion can be a source of devotion and sacrifice rather than sophisticated self-seeking and selfishness.
Agency is also an integral part of a philosophy that creates a space for theistic spirituality. Agency is not simply a rational, calculating process of making decisions, but the way we responsibly experience the world we live in. Human agency is integral to understanding spirituality as it allows for human possibility to reject or accept the guidance of Deity. Without this, human action is best understood as similar to a computer, which does what it is commanded to do without the possibility of doing otherwise. In an agentic view, humans are faced with a world full of possibility and moral responsibility.

The Alldredge Academy: Applied theistic-spirituality

Unfortunately, the unfamiliarity of a non-naturalistic philosophy leads some psychologists to view it as “pie in the sky” philosophy or idealistic abstraction. Interestingly, however, L. Jay Mitchell, the founder of a very successful therapeutic system for troubled youth, did not think so. As Mitchell considered the development of a therapeutic school, he came across some of the works of Brent Slife which discussed non-naturalistic alternatives. Through consultation with Slife, Mitchell built a therapeutic system based on theistic spirituality that was purposefully and explicitly non-naturalistic.
The Alldredge Academy is a program for troubled youth that combines a wilderness program, remote village experience, and a traditional boarding school. Students progress through these different environments, experiencing what Mitchell describes as “a world of fundamental questions about death, life purpose, right and wrong, healing, virtue, and the Source.” Through teaching, ceremonies, and ritual, adolescents are helped to find greater meaning in their family relationships and their own unique religious and moral traditions.
One example of applied theistic spirituality is the explicit encouragement of altruism in the students at the Alldredge Academy. When youth first arrive at the Academy, they are placed in a remote, rugged, outdoor environment in which they have limited resources. They are challenged to the point where they realize that they truly cannot make it on their own. However, instead of focusing on self-reliance and self-development—focuses of egoism and hedonism—they are trained as search and rescue teams. Their development of skills is for the benefit of others rather than themselves. They are helped to realize that they need to gain survival and technical skills in order to be of help to others in need. In a naturalistic system—even one that involves wilderness experiences—the focus is ultimately individual learning, learning to take care of themselves. This type of sentiment is discouraged at the Academy, and it is replaced by an altruistic focus on the needs of others.
The Alldredge Academy focuses explicitly upon the development of virtue and trust in a Source that is greater and higher than the students. The academy remains non-denominational and does not specify how they should see this Source, but does encourage them to develop a relationship with and reliance upon this Source. This source is explicitly NOT considered to be within the individual. The students are reminded of past experiences they may have had with the Source through prayer, meditation, or divine intervention. Academy students are taught that they have an explicit purpose for their lives, a purpose provided for them from the Source. They are encouraged to seek out this purpose so that they may more fully be of service to others. Contact with the Source is encouraged by staff members and therapists alike.


While many worthy attempts have been made to study theistic spirituality, they are ultimately doomed to failure because of the constraints of naturalistic philosophy. By providing an alternative framework, the possibility of a understanding a religious spirituality is created. The assumptions of agency, altruism, and a god-filled world open the possibility of understanding theistic spirituality and pave the way for the creation of god-filled spiritual interventions.


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