Open thread on AXP #827, with guest, Rob Poole, MB BS, FRCPsych

I’ve embedded a number of links below, and I would urge you to explore them. I initially had included far more quoted material, but the post became too long, and I finally decided that links and brevity were best. However, the linked information is highly relevant. Most of the links are to summaries or small items I think you can investigate without too much time lost—so please review them if this topic interests you.

Dr. Poole’s abbreviated CV:

  • Professor of Social Psychiatry, Bangor University, North Wales
  • Co-Director, Centre for Mental Health and Society, North Wales
  • Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist, Wrexham Maelor Hospital
  • Chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Wales
  • Trained at St George’s Hospital, London and in Oxford
  • Worked for many years in central Liverpool as a community psychiatrist
  • Published on a range of subjects, including a standard textbook on psychiatric interviewing with Robert Higgo, work on alcohol misuse, creativity and mental illness. He also has a book coming out later this year on mental health and poverty.

The main reason I wanted to have him appear on TAE, is that he has unwittingly ended up in a British debate about religion, spirituality and professional boundaries. He has published more than he probably ever imagined he would on this subject as a result, and has also debated George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, on this issue.

What makes Dr. Poole interesting to the atheist community?

In an e-mail response to me, he described a paper I’d stumbled upon as, “a written version of my presentation in a debate with George Carey (former Archbishop of Canterbury).” It was this paper that first motivated me to contact him with questions concerning a totally different matter I was researching that also involved ethics, religion, and healthcare. His paper was, “Secularism as a Professional Boundary in Psychiatry.”

Dr. Poole made it crystal clear his agenda has nothing to do with atheism, and everything to do with wanting to promote ethical practices in mental health care and patient treatment. After a few months of correspondence, I came to realize the issue he was confronting was every bit as relevant to the atheist community as the issue I’d initially been investigating—which was, in case anyone is curious, pharmacists refusing to dispense birth control due to personal, religious objections..

As noted above, Dr. Poole is acting as Chair for the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Wales. The Royal College is the UK professional association for psychiatry. They are a professional association with a peer-reviewed journal, and it may surprise you as much as it did me, to learn they are currently debating the ethics of using religious rituals as part of professional psychiatric therapy—specifically doctors praying with patients.

What struck me hardest about this initiative was that this isn’t a home-spun Christian “therapy” offered by pastors. This is a group of professionally licensed psychiatrists, expertly trained mental health professionals, strongly asserting they would like to make religious ritual part of their practice. In a 2009 article Poole described it this way:

There is a rather large Spirituality and Psychiatry Special Interest Group in the College that is pressing hard to make spirituality a central concern in everyday practice, not to mention that they want to make it a core competency for all psychiatrists. Many of my colleagues, some of whom have a religious faith, think this is wrong, and so do I.

The “prayer in therapy” debate in the BJP:

By 2011, a debate was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, wherein Dr. Poole argued his case with Dr. Christopher C. H. Cook, who advocates “spirituality” as being key to mental well being. Dr. Cook is author of “Spirituality and Psychiatry,”  and also the past chair (and current committee member) of the Spirituality Special Interest Group, at the Royal College of Psychiatrists. I very much encourage you to visit their page, and read the content under the heading, “What is spirituality?” It is an exercise in Failure to Elucidate.

The full text of the debate is not, as far as I am aware, available online, but it’s fair to summarize that Poole and Cook agree that if a patient requests, and could benefit from prayer support, they should have access to it. Poole advocates referrals to religious groups or clerics who most closely align with the patient’s expressed religious preferences. Cook wants the psychiatrist to be directly involved in the prayer ritual.

Both men seem to agree, as well, that introducing prayer into therapy opens the door for potential abuse. For me, then, the question becomes, “If the same benefit can be derived by an outside group that alleviates the risk of professional abuse by the doctor, why not provide the benefit and eliminate one more avenue of potential professional abuse?”

As Poole stated in the debate with Cook:

Most importantly, Cook can offer no mechanism to protect patients from religious abuse or unwitting harm, other than the practitioner’s judgement and good will. This question is important and should be the subject of wider debate.

Cook replies by stating he doesn’t see how not praying would avoid abuses—but then goes on to issue a caution to doctors to avoid abuses that could arise from offering prayer in therapy:

I cannot see how prohibiting prayer would prevent either religious abuse or unwitting harm. Rather, guidance is required which clarifies the nature of good practice. I would suggest that prayer with patients, like all good clinical practice, should not exploit their vulnerability, cause them harm or distress, or be judgemental. It should not be used by the psychiatrist as an opportunity to foist their own views and beliefs upon their patient, or to legitimise their authority, and should only take place if it is compatible with full respect for the views and beliefs of the patient. It should be documented in the notes and, if there is any doubt, discussed with a supervisor or colleague. It should only be undertaken with consent, normally by request of the patient, and no pressure should be exerted for it to occur.

This may seem a bit of a dig, but Cook also mentions personally offering silent prayers on behalf of his patients, which inspires in me, at least, the image of the surgeon praying before the surgery, and the nervous patient wondering if they should have sought a surgeon with more confidence in their own skills. If I don’t trust my own skill and capacity, or if I doubt the efficacy of my profession’s tools to do the best that can be done for the patient, such that supernatural interventions must be invoked—why would I even be in the business? Would it be frightening at all, if I cut open a chicken to read the entrails before proceeding?

My letter to the BJP:

In support of patient protection against religious abuse, I sent the British Journal of Psychiatry a letter. Because I wasn’t sure I met their criteria for publication, I was happily surprised when it was published in November 2011.

In essence I asked how prayer in therapy could be fairly conducted without conflict of religious preferences for doctors and patients. What if the doctor is Muslim, and the patient requires a prayer in Jesus’ name? If praying with patients becomes standard practice, can the Muslim doctor refuse the prayer? If the doctor only offers prayers with Muslim patients—isn’t that discriminatory toward the patients from other religious traditions? And if the doctor is required to pray to accommodate all religious sects, regardless of his/her own affiliation, doesn’t that infringe on the doctor’s religious freedom? Ultimately, I cannot see how incorporating religious rituals into a secular therapy setting can avoid infringing on someone’s religious liberties at some point.

Maybe more information would help?

As part of the divide, both sides of the debate agreed to research the matter further to gain information and perspective. As far as I’m aware, that research will be moving forward, but I’m not sure progress has been made on that front quite yet.

In the meantime, a piece of unrelated research was published, “Religion, spirituality and mental health: results from a national study of English households,” based on a broad survey of more than 7,400 participants. The survey’s conclusion was brief:

People who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder.

I found online that Dr. Cook had offered an interesting response to the research. He dismissed the conclusion. One line in particular interested me most, however:

Our post-modern culture is geared increasingly to a way of life that does not question deeply such things as the meaning of birth and death, why we are here and what it is all for.

Translation: We must ask “why?” And since “why?” means “for what reason or purpose?” We know there is intent. And since intent requires agency—well that must mean, an Intelligent Designer. He doesn’t seem aware this language is loaded. It’s dripping with bias. And we’re supposed to trust these professionals can self-regulate their religious privilege. Call me skeptical. And his language isn’t just spiritually loaded—it’s a declaration of a creator—one that has provided externally imposed purpose and meaning to our lives, and who has created all this for some reason we must seek to understand if we wish to have any hope of mental well being.

When “spirituality” goes bad:

An article I was recently sent, detailed how “loss of faith” is labeled as risky behavior, that can result in extra oversight of a marine—because, apparently, loss of religious faith is a sign of being mentally unwell. If you think this is hyperbolic, I suggest you go back to the Spirituality SIG page and see exactly how hard they are promoting that (a) all human beings are spiritual and (b) it’s a requirement in order to be mentally well.

Not spiritual and not suicidal? Can there be such folk?

As someone who is not theistic, not religious, and certainly not spiritual—as someone who does not have spiritual experiences—I support helping people who need mental support in whatever they need to get by. If a mentally unstable person is helped with a prayer group for now—then I would not deny them support.

But I have to draw a line where someone begins to insist I must believe this, accept this, or be dying for answers to questions, that frankly, I find to be biased at best, and incoherent at worst. I’ve come to see the phrase “The Big Questions” [in Life] as a screaming, red flag of Deepak Chopra speeches to follow. To paraphrase Matt, the idea of lacking externally imposed meaning or purpose in your life, is about as horrifying a prospect as lacking someone to tell you who you must marry or what vocation you must pursue. Why would anyone undertake to denigrate people who enthusiastically empower themselves with the rewarding responsibility of forging their own purpose and meaning—of fulfilling their own destinies, rather than simply working to fulfill the pre-fabricated, often ancient and long dead, destinies of others?

The most ironic part is that they march onward, with their agenda of incorporating this into mental healthcare, all the while declaring they would never oppress any patient with it. All the while, they’re already shoving their biases and privilege onto all humanity—without the slightest clue that anyone could possibly object. They’re not saying “If you accept spirituality, then…” What they’re doing is very similar to a page right out of the Theist Handbook, that tells us there is no such thing as an atheist—because everyone believes in god—it’s just we don’t want to admit it. The difference, in this case, is only that there is no such thing as a human being who is not spiritual, in their book. Bear in mind that there are religious theists who don’t agree that they’re spiritual, either. This is, in no way, an atheist-only objection. The Spirituality SIG is that offensive. And that blind to their offense. And they are promising you, they would never impose beliefs on a patient who didn’t ask to be imposed upon. Again, call me skeptical.

Here is where I force myself to stop:

I had so much more I could add, but I suppose I need to save something for Sunday. I just didn’t want our viewers to go into the show blind. It’s an issue with a history and with players. And this history and these players need to be understood a bit, in order to put the dialog into context.

I look forward to Sunday, and hope the technology cooperates, so that the atheist community in the U.S. can finally meet Dr. Poole and hear more about what he’s been dealing with.


  1. says

    Our post-modern culture is geared increasingly to a way of life that does not question deeply such things as the meaning of birth and death, why we are here and what it is all for.

    I don’t think that question is deep. It’s gibberish. Is the question, “At what temperature does the number 7 melt?” a deep question? It’s not even really a question. It’s word salad.

    The reason why I don’t spend any time on that, is because one must start with a plethora of assumptions before it becomes relevant… assumptions that most people only have because their parents “installed” that particular software into their child brains.

  2. says

    Right after I’m done thinking about the meaning of birth and death, I’ll move on to thinking about why the universe has a favorite song, and why asteroids are mad at apostrophes.

  3. jacobfromlost says

    To find the meaning of birth and death, please see Lost, season one, episode 20 (production number 118) entitled “Do No Harm”. The Michael Giacchino score, entitled “Life and Death” will kill you…emotionally speaking. watch?v=ZByGQzgembg

    Although I would recommended watching the entire series. And I should know. I’m Jacob. JacobfromLost.


  4. ChaosS says

    Hasn’t Douglas Adams covered this already?

    The answer is clearly 42.

    If that doesn’t mean anything to you, perhaps you don’t really understand the question.

  5. maudell says

    Looking forward to the show.

    Dr. Cook’s page on ‘what is spirituality’ is amazing.

    To paraphrase:

    What is spirituality? It means all these things:

    *Everyone has it.
    *It does so much
    *It makes you feel spiritual
    *you experience it
    *It does even more things

    It reminds me of some callers on TAE when the host asks ‘why do you believe in [fill in the blanks]’ and the caller proceeds to enumerate what they believe.

  6. Aaroninmelbourne says

    As a starting, working definition-slash-description of spirituality, I developed the following as a personal exercise:

    “Spirituality” is a word used by an individual to describe a perspective that anthromorphs a thing or situation in such a way that allows the individual to consider that thing or situation to have a humanistic intention that is specifically for the benefit of the individual so imagining it.

    For example, a “spiritual” interpretation of a flower in a garden may be that the flower is located in the specific position that led the individual to that specific place for a reason (usually done post-hoc such as if that’s where they left something) or to give the individual “hope” (such as an ill person who interprets the flower as being there to show them “life is still here” or some other deepity). The fact the flower has no knowledge or consciousness and that the flower is part of the plant’s own reproduction cycle and humans are totally irrelevant to that need is not part of the “spiritual” interpretation.

    As such, “spirituality” can be considered a form of making possibly anything self-referential, an “egocentrism-by-proxy” if you will, where the individual imagines that anything which occurs is for their personal audience; but unlike ‘egocentrism’ itself, the individual does not imagine the thing or situation is defined or designed solely by or for themselves but rather by a non-corporeal mirror image of themselves (this allows for the “God is testing me” or “there’s another hidden meaning to X which is still for my benefit” thinking). This mirror image tends to be monarchic such as a medievalist King-God; ancestral such as a ghost; or democratic such as “the spirits”. In the most vague sense of it, the individual may simply anthromorphize the object itself and perceive intention (such as the Lucky Rabbit’s Foot, or the mirror from Snow White). Nevertheless, it tends to be a word with positive inference unlike a word such as “demonic” which is similar but gives things or situations a humanistic intention that is specifically against the benefit of the individual.

    This anthromorphism can be a platform for various secondary effects, ranging from a form of appreciation (e.g. “sunsets are so beautiful, it points to God/my ancestors are happy/the spirits shine on us”), to political (e.g. “The meaning of life is X, therefore you must…”), to instinctive (e.g. “I do not fear death as I will survive my own death; I am spiritual”). However, in any case the ‘spirituality’ tends to regress any thought or argument into a self-referential style where the individual becomes less capable of considering others’ perspectives or the potential for anything to happen without reason. As such, spirituality can be dangerous and while it may be useful as a tool, personally I think that psychologists who fail to control a patient’s tendency to “spiritualize” a problem and uncritically participate in such things as “prayer” may end up doing a lot of harm.

  7. jacobfromlost says

    Agreed. I also see a lot of “denial” in religion–a denial of death, a denial of personal struggles in life, a denial of OTHER PEOPLE’S personal struggles in life, a denial of anything that is difficult to process emotionally (grief, absurdity, an insurmountable problem, etc), a denial of injustice (obviously all those child molesters who were never caught will burn in hell forever), among others.

    And I think this is often the engine of the argument from ignorance fallacy being employed. It’s not an intellectual thought, but an emotional one. “I just can’t imagine my wife is gone, that I will never see her again, that no one will…so she is in heaven, happy forever and we will be together soon because I CAN’T IMAGINE anything else.”

    I also think that is how ancillary beliefs spring up: “My dog (or cat or whatever) must be in heaven because I can’t imagine (that is, emotionally deal with) the obvious alternative.”

    This kind of denial can often be corrosive to functional and beneficial emotional responses. Maybe if you think it was god’s will that your wife died of cancer, and now she is in heaven happy, you would be less likely to do things that would prevent others from getting cancer in the future. It’s possible for one person to have cognitive dissonance and do both (believe she is in heaven because god willed her to die, and also believe you can thwart god’s will in the future by helping to cure cancer), but I do think (and I could be wrong) that if everyone had enough emotional depth to accept horrible things in life for what they actually are, we would band together more intensely to cooperate and solve these problems. To whatever degree anyone is denying the problems with spirituality or religion, to EXACTLY that degree we are not solving those problems for the benefit of all.

  8. says

    I don’t need someone else to define the meaning of my life for me. I’m baffled at how these questions are posed. I stand by my interpretation of religion as a tool for the powerful to keep the powerless in their place. Be good boys and girls now and you’ll be rewarded later. When people realize there may not be a later, they rise up and demand human rights and dignity here and now.

  9. says

    On several occasions someone has used the word spiritual on TAE and Traci has asked for a definition and not one caller has ever been able to give on that wasn’t word salad. It’s a meaningless word. I see this all the time though. “I’m spiritual but not religious.” I usually take that to mean that they believe a lot of nonsense involving crystals and reincarnation. That’s probably not fair, but too much personal experience has shown me that otherwise intelligent people can believe in ridiculous things like homeopathy and acupuncture. No thanks.

  10. mond says

    Another piece of Adams wisdom.

    “There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.
    There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”

    BTW isn’t spirituality just the ultimate in weasel words.

  11. chikoppi says

    I’m reminded of the model proposed by Joseph Campbell. I know there is a video of him delivering a classroom lecture on the subject, but I wasn’t able to locate it.

    In short, the sub-conscience mind projects irrational, metaphorical importance onto our conscious perceptions. No individual has direct access to the processes of the sub-conscience and is therefore not consciously aware why certain objects or activities seem to be associated with heightened emotional response. Each in-group has a symbolic language used to describe this phenomena. As a result, “fear of contagion” might be ascribed to “ghosts” for one in-group and “supernatural punishment for unclean acts” for another.

    In this model “Spirituality” might be defined as the practice of indulging in the symbolic language of the in-group to attempt to find meaning. It might be considered a free-association exercise, not all that dissimilar from tarot card reading.

    I don’t know nearly enough about psychiatry to understand whether there is any potential merit or harm that might arise from entertaining a patient’s spiritual practices, but it seems great care should be taken to ensure research into the practice is not corrupted by the researcher’s own personal biases.

  12. says

    >I don’t know nearly enough about psychiatry to understand whether there is any potential merit or harm that might arise from entertaining a patient’s spiritual practices, but it seems great care should be taken to ensure research into the practice is not corrupted by the researcher’s own personal biases.

    The crux of the debate is that one side is saying (a) it could cause harm, we just don’t know, but people proposing it must test it to ensure it’s safe–although the ethics of even testing it would be sketchy (but just as someone putting a new drug on the market, advocating a new therapy comes with onus on the promoter to demonstrate safety before it’s used); and (b) it’s *not* psychiatry, but religion, so a psychiatrist shouldn’t be doing it–even if it’s beneficial, in the same way it might be beneficial for an anxious/over stressed patient to seek a good massage therapist, but that would not mean the psychiatrist should perform the procedure in that case. They should rather help the patient find a good, reputable resource for the procedure. So, Poole is OK with a patient getting support in a religious/spiritual context of THEIR preference, even with the doctor’s help in locating that resource; but he asserts practicing religious rituals WITH patients is outside psychiatry, and not the purview of psychiatrists. He fears, among other things, that the doctor doing this might lead the patient to believe their specific religion or ritual is *endorsed* by psychiatry–not simply indulged by their particular doctor. And to lead a patient to believe there is scientific/medical legitimacy to religious rituals that may simply function to make them feel better due to their particular beliefs. If I’m interpreting the objections correctly, the idea is that this is not dissimilar to endorsing use of placebo.

  13. chikoppi says

    Perhaps I too-generously interpreted the proposed practice?

    I was referring to the exploration of the patient’s religiosity during the clinical process.

    If the proposal is that the psychiatrist engange in religious practice WITH the patient during a clinical visit then I think the flaws inherent in that idea are obvious.

  14. todmann67 says Saw this right after watching the show. I think god was trying to say something to me…
    Seriously, for a biochemist that Behe is pretty slow. Irreducible complexity is just so simple to see through. I can’t understand why The Science Channel even entertains that crap. They are dangerously close to going down the same path as The History Channel with ancient aliens.

  15. chikoppi says

    I just watched the show. Your interview with Dr. Poole was excellent. I also think it was an excellent example of the type of content TAE incorporates quite effectively–namely, the intrusion of religious practice/thought in institutions or situations where it might be abusive or otherwise harmful (I’m looking at you, Texas!).

    I do appreciate your efforts to book interview guests. I know it can be a lot of work to manage the arrangements, but having a well-informed guest can lead to spirited and thought-provoking conversation.


    Nice to see “The Non Prophets” rejoin “Godless Bitches” in my podcast stream!

  16. Aaroninmelbourne says

    Interesting discussion. I think the theist went down the “Christianity is being persecuted” road in their mind and wasn’t able to see past that but an example that came to me while listening about the inappropriateness of a psychiatrist going into using prayer instead of actually doing their job would be like a priest saying to a member of the congregation, “How’s your tooth? Oh it’s still giving you trouble? Well why don’t you let me perform dentistry on your tooth… as a priest, my training might be completely irrelevant but I’m sure my personal experiences and beliefs will be helpful in any case!”

    On another tenuously connected point, we’re in the middle of an election here and the theist’s arguments reminded me so much of the political discussions we’re being subjected to… “Vote for my religion because, uh, the other side doesn’t make sense!” Well sorry, but that’s irrelevant to whether or not your religious beliefs are based on evidence or not. My way of thinking of it is: let’s say that the world were designed, that it appeared in seven days, that all animals appeared as they are now, that evolution isn’t true. This may be because of a “supernatural” deity, or it might be that we’re all in the Matrix with everything designed by machines that were designed by our ancestors a long time ago. Now, for the sake of argument I have granted all your position: you now need to demonstrate that your deity is real, and you can’t just use the “but there’s nothing left” argument from ignorance for it without “accounting” for the Matrix option. Demonstrate the validity of your position with evidence, or I dismiss it on the basis that there’s no evidence for it.

  17. omar says

    John from Chicago gets my vote for the Wile E Coyote Too Stupid to Live Award. No matter how many times he’s beaten, his faith in the power of misinformation and willful ignorance prevails. Why would a doctor prescribe a certain treatment for an ailment instead of an alternative therapy? Maybe because there’s a body of peer reviewed evidence that supports the effectiveness of the former? I wonder what John would do if the next time he went in for a tetanus booster, his doctor suggested voodoo instead. Hey, it’s an alternative therapy!

    He brought back the DNA is a code thing. It’s time to squash this once and for all (until the next time). Ask John to imagine a hunter tracking a deer through a forest. That deer left tracks in the mud, maybe scat in several places, and made sounds it broke a few twigs. Is that a code? What message is the deer sending to the hunter?

    Obviously, there was no message because there is no code.The deer was just being a deer. It’s the hunter who had the purpose. He learned about the deer through observation. He studied a part of nature. That’s all. Will it work? Probably not.

    John is the poster boy for faith over reason. He will strap on those Acme Rocket Skates and zoom forward; secure in the knowledge that this time, the tunnel on the side of that mountain is open for him.

  18. says

    You guys would make better hosts than I. When the caller kept asking why Poole wouldn’t consider “alternative medicine/practices”, and thought that prayer doesn’t work, etc, you kept bringing it back to the “boundaries of profession”

    Whereas I would have gone straight to tearing prayer to shreds. It’s telling that this apparently “effective” thing he’s talking about cannot beat a placebo test – one of the most easy tests to pass, if there’s any truth to the claim.

    I take it that caller was the “What harm is it if people want to believe in God?” guy from before.

  19. says

    Well, I took the caller to be asking me what Rob Poole would say. And while I can’t claim to actually speak for the man, my best guess was that he’d merely keep asserting that his credential is in psychiatry, not religious practice or alternative therapies. Poole has described psychiatry as being based in science–which he admits is imperfect science in his field of expertise. But it’s still the only area in which he’s qualified to be working in mental health–so that’s what he does. And I believe he’d be willing to agree that there could be patients actually better served by other methods of support–depending on their situations–that would be outside his area of expertise, or even outside of scientific validity. The placebo effect is still an effect. And when it comes to things that *can be* subjective–such as mental wellness/quality of life–it’s possible that a subjective style of support could be as effective or even moreso than a prescription or psychoanalysis (which I believe he has described as not founded in science).

    In his paper, “Secularism as a Professional Boundary in Psychiatry,” he states:

    “Psychiatry has no answers to questions of human happiness. One of the historical flaws of psychoanalysis was that it claimed to have such answers when in fact it didn’t. Recognising that we do not have answers to human happiness marks an important boundary with regard to our expertise. Recovery from mental disorder, not happiness, is the achievable outcome that we can work towards alongside patients.”

    So, depending on the particular patient complaint presented, prayer might be more effective than psychiatry, depending on what the patient believes and is seeking. Whether the ritual itself is simply soothing support or not, is an irrelevancy, if it meets the goals better than psychiatry.

  20. says

    I recall Poole actually made an analogy to a pastor trying to do psychiatry. He basically said that in all his work experience–including working with religious support groups and clerics–he never encountered one that tried to do psychiatry, and so he doesn’t see why he should try and “do religion” as a psychiatrist.

  21. says

    The hunter analogy isn’t bad. I might try to remember that next time. Several people commented that John has worn out his welcome, and they don’t want us to entertain his calls any longer. So, it may be that his time on TAE is growing short. 🙂

  22. says

    An analogy I’m sort of working on is that of Crystals.

    The way the universe works, crystals crow into particular geometric shapes. They assimilate material from the surrounding environment, and add it to the lattice. Crystals don’t have DNA – it’s just a result of how the molecules happen to match up.

    While DNA is significantly more complicated, in terms of the basics of what’s going on, it’s still chemistry in action. The enzymes that attach to the DNA due so because that’s how the chemistry works. The proteins that are formed depend on what key pairs are present along the “unzipped” strand of DNA… sort of like how a rock/gravel sift would filter different size rocks.

    … but there’s no decisions being made.. there’s no conditionals or commands or anything that resembles code.

    Some configurations of DNA, that produce the proteins/structures, alter the survival probability of the organism as a whole. This “guides” the DNA structure, essentially by trial and error.

    Dawkins apparently stated that DNA is like a code, but I’d have to read it more in context, because I don’t agree with him (even though I’m not a biologist), and he may be taken out of context (that never happens!). Dawkins may be a biologist after all, but he’s not a linguist or computer scientist… so there’s that.

  23. says

    It’s hard to come up with a good example, since DNA is so unique in how it works… that it’s full of opportunities for the creationist to dismiss the comparison through “But they aren’t exactly the same!”, while ignoring the point one is trying to make.

  24. says

    “… crow into …” “.. DNA due so because …”

    The heck? I’m apparently slowly losing the use of my vocabulary. What’s next, the “your”/ “you’re” mixup?

  25. says

    Another analogy I’ve been tinkering with is that of an old-style printing press.

    The press has a bunch of shapes placed onto it, which are inked up, and then stamped onto a bunch of pieces of paper. While we can “read” the results, that doesn’t mean that there’s intrinsically and information in the particular sequences of type-objects. If it was random/gibberish, we wouldn’t say it contains any information, anyway.

    DNA is basically the sequence of shapes that are then “pressed” to create a sequence of amino acids, that then undergo protein folding, which then go off and do their biochemical things.

  26. says

    .. the difference being that what the DNA is pressed out is retained/discared based on whether the outputted “paper” increased the organism’s survival probability enough to survive.

  27. Jeranimal says

    Loved the interview. It made me think of the sway 12-step programs have over judges and addiction treatment professionals.

  28. John Kruger says

    All analogies only go so far. Thinking about DNA in terms of a code is a useful and productive method, but of course the “code” is just how we are thinking about it. As you say, it is all natural processes acting along in specific ways. The code is only a mental model.

    We could say that thickness of an object is a number, but in reality we can only go down to a finite accuracy when we measure, and if we get down small enough the boundary of a particular object becomes hard to define. We need not boldly claim that thickness cannot be a number, we just have be careful and only use the model where it fits.

    The entire “DNA is a code therefore ID” gambit is really only built on an equivocation, and a fairly childish one at that. If I said a program is “looking” for a file, it would be outrageous to claim that the program must therefore have eyes. The same thing goes for DNA and codes.

  29. omar says

    I like that! But it just occurred to me that John could be punking us. Another Mark from Austin, perhaps? There are enough real theist idiots. I never understood why anybody would fake it.

  30. Curt Cameron says

    I’ve listened to just the first part of the interview, but I’m wondering how counseling differs in the UK as opposed to the US. In the US, psychiatrists (the medical doctors who specialize in the mind) pretty much don’t do talk therapy any more – they just prescribe meds.

    And have you seen how many counselors (psychologists and other professional counselors) are “Christian counselors”? The profession is littered with them. My wife is a Licensed Professional Counselor here in Texas, so I’m somewhat familiar with this. If you work for a company that has an Employee Assistance Program benefit, take a look at the providers that they offer in your area – I recall the last time I looked at the list, about a third to a half of the providers on my company’s EAP list did Christian counseling.

  31. Paul Cornelius says

    I agree, but I think there is also a language issue in this case.

    Lots of words have more than one meaning. When biologists talk about the “genetic code,” or when they say that “a strand of DNA codes for a protein” they are using a single word “code” to represent a complex phenomenon. As non-biologists we say “I sent him a message in code” or “I should have been writing some computer code instead of watching TAE,” We also talk about the “Code of the West,” the “Code of Hammurabi” and the Federal Code. All perfectly valid uses of the word, and all with different meanings.

    A statement like “a code requires intelligence” is true for some of these meanings but not others. Things get particularly sticky when a scientific term uses a common word like “code.” Explaining the precise biochemical meaning of the term is not easy, but how otherwise to expose the logical fallacy here?

  32. sowellfan says

    I enjoyed the interview – but was really disappointed with the rest of the show. The hosts just never ever seem to realize when a caller has started to suck the life out of the show. I listen mainly to hear interesting interactions with theistic callers – and I’m guessing 90% of the listenership tunes in for the same reason. This guy just rambles on and on, going from one random point to another, starting off with a phrase that should honestly just get the call dropped from the start, “Well, I talked to xxxx [who is not here, mind you] a few weeks ago, and I was hoping to continue that conversation.” And this goes on for 25 minutes. Can’t any of the people staffing this place put some kind of timer in place? Like, maybe a rule that calls can’t go beyond 10 minutes unless they’re actually *interesting*?

    I dunno – anybody else feel this way? Am I crazy?

  33. jacobfromlost says

    If you are talking about the Morgan Freeman thing, I was annoyed with it as well. But after I thought about it for a while, I could see that the audience they were targeting were people who may have never thought about this question at all, ever. Or, at least, not very critically.

    I think the reason they gave ID “theory” any time at all is because a lot of the people who have never thought about it much might think it has merit, and so the show needed to address it.

    What bothered me more than including ID was that they didn’t seem to hit the evidence for evolution very hard. If all you ever knew of it was what they presented, you might come away thinking it is “just a theory” and not really that strong in terms of an idea.

  34. jacobfromlost says

    I didn’t think the call was that bad (although I can see if my mood had been worse, I would agree with you).

    But the problem with the show is that it is no longer and hour and a half, with hosts and viewers still instinctively feeling the show should be as long as it used to be…so that when it ends, it doesn’t feel over–it feels cut short. Every time. (There used to be a little presentation at the beginning, and then an hour and 15-20 minutes for calls. Now there is a presentation that may run long, and then 30-45 minutes for calls, which, depending on the show, can feel like almost nothing when compared to the old days.)

    Whenever the show moves to their own building, I’m guessing we will get our long shows back…maybe even 2 hour shows. And with tech upgrades and other freedoms that affords, I think these perceived problems will solve themselves.

  35. says

    Be realistic, though. They can only talk to the callers that actually call. Plus, your idea of a dud call is not the same as mine or someone else’s. I completely 100% agree that the atheist callers make me want to pull my hair out. There are 5000 places on the internet to hear atheists talk amongst themselves (until they start squabbling). But there are so desperately few instances of theists and atheists interacting in such an informal way. Where else can you find a religious person try to explain why they believe the crazy stuff they do? Very often they’ve never even thought about it, much less told someone. But, like Tracie said, many people are complaining about giving blockhead John more time. Personally I think he’s a perfect example of a stubborn theist I’d actually run in to. Point is, they can’t please everyone and dead air isn’t exciting either.

    There is no perfect way to do it. The shows are shorter now, but there have always been long stretches of calls that I find horrible. You can forget that when you only listen to YouTube clips. But, again, they can only take the calls that come in. We listen because of the truly great moments that happen from time to time. And there’s just nothing else like it.

  36. jolly says

    Great interview. I think the reason many theists don’t have a problem with just anyone giving religious advice is that they realize (mostly unconsciously) that there are no experts. I think that is because everyone just makes up their own version of god so everyone is as much of an expert as anyone else.
    I had a discussion the other day with a friend who has a ‘shaman’ that has given her the god virus. I noticed among the ‘new age’ types that they just pick and choose from a buffet of choices and then they believe something they just made up. How can they possibly believe it when they just got done making it up?

  37. jacobfromlost says

    “How can they possibly believe it when they just got done making it up?”

    Because they made it up according to something they actually want to believe. It’s tailor-made for them to easily believe it because they made it that way on purpose, lol.

  38. Psychabil says

    Unlike Dr. Poole I have had experience with religious leaders attempting to practice psychiatry on my psychotic and traumatized patients by exposing them to religious practices such as exorcism. While I believe them to be well intended, they are obviously not qualified to distinguish mental disorders from the life conditions that a religious group might help with. In the cases I have seen, the church has dropped the patient when mental decompensation became annoying or frightening, thus leaving the patient feeling abandoned and reinforcing their sense of badness.

    On another note, I have also had to help people whose life difficulties arose from religious indoctrination, e.g. guilt, sin etc. Their experience with ruptured boundaries under the banner of religion makes maintenance of clear boundaries one of the most important therapeutic tools. Doctors who use prayer may not realize that they are often contributing to re-enactment of past trauma.

  39. sowellfan says

    It’s possible that they had no other callers – but I don’t believe they said anything to that effect. To be fair, I know that sometimes they have a shortage of callers. I honestly think they just get caught up in an inane argument and think about how long the call is taking. Note how often it seems that they say, with surprise, towards the end of a call that drags on, “Well, show’s over now. Goodbye.”

    I still think the time limit is a good idea. Set a 10-minute limit for theist callers, to be extended if there are no other calls on the line. For atheist callers, maybe set something shorter unless they’ve got a question that really requires some analysis.

  40. Aaroninmelbourne says

    This doesn’t surprise me in the least. In the ‘spiritual’ myth, the mind is a product of ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ and therefore, any mental disorder can be thus interpreted as a malady of the spirit or soul, or invasion by another spirit or soul. Therefore, any priest (who works on saving souls) or psychic or “spiritual person” is therefore qualified to work on any mental disorder or emotional problem the individual is having. This is why I thought of the ‘dentist’ analogy instead: it gets the whole thing out of the mind and brain and into an area far more obviously “not priestly”.

    However, this does raise a question in my mind: is this “minds are really just things from souls” thinking the reason people think of emotional or (some) mental disorders as “not a big deal”? For example,depression can be a chemical imbalance – a very real physical problem that manifests in an inability of the individual to not be depressed, because they’re missing the brain chemicals needed to achieve it. However, as it’s “just emotional” most people tend to assume you can “just snap out of it” because it’s “just in your mind”. This makes no more sense than telling someone to snap out of indigestion because it’s “just in your stomach” except that digestion is the emergent property of a physical digestive tract; in the same sense, “snapping out of depression” makes sense only if minds were not emergent properties of the physical brain.

  41. says

    We actually had 3 other calls that were responded to in after show. All atheist. Don’t get me wrong–John is WAY down on my list of “best calls ever.” Just saying what else was on the line. One person wanted to know if it was true that WLC had a “do not debate list” that included Matt D. I answered it quickly with a “not that I’m aware. He has criteria for whom he will debate,and Matt doesn’t meet those standards, but it’s not like he has Matt marked personally as a person he is trying to avoid.”

    The next caller was an atheist with a testimonial about his experience as an atheist where he was living. I don’t have any reason to think it would have been a bad call, but he didn’t hang on, and when we finally picked up the line–he was gone.

    And the final call was a woman with a question about how to respond to theists in some situations. I don’t recall the specifics, but we talked to her in after-show.

    Again–I’m sure some people liked John’s call. But the overall feedback to the call, once the show was over, was majority negative. I wouldn’t mind cutting him off at this point, because I don’t think he has anything of substance to add that he hasn’t already expressed–multiple times by this point–and it’s time to give other people a chance.

  42. unfogged says

    I understand the objections to letting John talk and blocking him for just continually repeating the same claims can certainly be justified but I think he should be allowed back. His arguments are typical and seeing him keep trying the same things and getting shot down over and over has to have value for some theist viewers. It may get boring for the atheist viewers but if the focus of the show is to allow theists to hear the counter-arguments then seeing him present the same tired, debunked arguments with nothing new added may get some of them thinking.

    If you have other theists on the line then it makes sense to limit him to one claim or cut him off when he just repeats something that has already been rejected but I think you should resist the push to make

  43. Russell Glasser says

    I think if I had recognized that he was the same guy Matt hung up on last week, I probably would have been much briefer then. However, although he mentioned that he talked to Matt, I didn’t remember exactly who he was. I recognize now that he was someone who’d already demonstrated appalling dishonesty. Unfortunately I haven’t got a flawless memory of the complete histories of every caller, especially one I haven’t talked to personally, and neither have the call screeners. So sometimes I just have to take people at face value.

    It was an annoying call, I agree.

  44. unfogged says

    I understand the objections to letting John talk and blocking him for just continually repeating the same claims can certainly be justified but I think he should be allowed back. His arguments are typical and seeing him keep trying the same things and getting shot down over and over has to have value for some theist viewers. It may get a little boring for the atheist viewers but if the focus of the show is to allow theists to hear the counter-arguments then seeing him present the same tired, debunked arguments with nothing new added may get some of them thinking if only to find better arguments.

    If you have other theists on the line then it makes sense to limit him to one claim or cut him off when he just repeats something that has already been rejected but I think you should resist the push to make keeping atheists entertained a significant concern. I watch AETV for the information and listen to NP & GB for the entertainment.

    That’s my backseat hosting for the day… all the AETV, NP, & GB hosts do a great job of representing atheism and I have faith (make that trust) that you will do what you think is best for the show in the long run. Thanks for all the time and effort that you all put into preparing for and producing the shows.

  45. mike says

    @ omar & heicart

    I came to comment specifically for that reason- ie to say that John has worn out his welcome, he continues to push the same tired arguments to which all the hosts have given him good solid answers to, yet none of it has sunk in. He is treating the show as his own personal 45 min weekly audio blog as evidenced by his statement that he was hoping Matt was on so they could “continue their discussion”! Last time I checked the show was a more of a Q&A or short discussions with callers. Time to limit his participation.

  46. says

    The caller was typical of every fundamentalist Christian I know (far too many, I’m sad to say). He would be horrified if a therapist or doctor wanted him to pray to Allah or Krishna or some other religious deity, but he can’t understand why anyone would mind being subjected to his own narrow brand of Christianity. He’d be just as bothered by being told that saying so many “Hail, Mary”s would help him. I don’t know how this failure of critical thinking happens. This lack of empathy and compassion is rampant in our country. Is this a failure of our educational system? Our culture? Why do so many people have trouble realizing that they wouldn’t like the opposite of what they are proposing and therefore it’s a bad idea?

  47. says

    One assumes that as a responsible practitioner of his profession, he prefers to use methods that have been tested and are known to work rather than subject his clients and patients to quackery. Since he’s charging them they have a right to expect that he’s using proven methods and not nuttery. he can certainly go to charlatans who will charge at least as much with no track record of results.

  48. mike says

    @ omar & heicart

    I came to comment specifically for that reason- ie to say that John has worn out his welcome, he continues to push the same tired arguments to which all the hosts have given him good solid answers to, yet none of it has sunk in. He is treating the show as his own personal 45 min weekly audio blog as evidenced by his statement that he was hoping Matt was on so they could “continue their discussion”! Last time I checked the show was a more of a Q&A or short discussions with callers. Time to limit his participation.

  49. says

    I am a psychologist in Oregon, and an atheist. However, my doctoral training was at a religious institution that taught the “integration” of christianity and psychology. I sat through endless lectures on the appropriate ways to “integrate.” I was a believer at the time, although on my last legs. The “christian counseling” issue is huge, and I can say that even when students were explicitly told that they were not to engage in any type of evangelism, the more conservative students still argued that it was their “duty.” I de-converted in the middle of graduate school.

    One of the larger issues is that there are several christian organizations for psychologists and other counseling professionals to join, where they collude to pretend to ignore the very relevant need to set clear boundaries here. One of the more alarming things is that there have recently been multiple peer reviewed articles discussing “spirituality” and the field has been encouraged to support a client’s “spirituality” as a cultural element. While I see the idea here, I think this has created too many openings for religious providers to cover their asses about evangelism in the name of “respecting spirituality.” This is why the Secular Therapist Project is critical.

  50. Kit Russell says

    I had a scary brush with the lunatic fringe of religion mixing with therapy, when i was in high school. Because I was a Wiccan, the therapist decided that I had been a victim of Satanic Ritual Abuse. (This was in the late 80s, at the tail end of the Satanic Panic.)

    It’s always a scary thing, when you realize that your therapist is crazier than you are…

  51. says

    Since we all encounter people who makes these arguments and use these tactics to make them all the time, it’s useful for many of us to hear different responses to them.

  52. jacobfromlost says

    “It’s always a scary thing, when you realize that your therapist is crazier than you are…”

    Sarah Silverman has a story about how at age 13 she became very depressed and was seeing a therapist. While in the waiting room one day before an appointment, someone else in the building burst into the room and screamed, “Dr. So-and-So just HANGED HIMSELF!”, and then this person ran crying out of the building, leaving her sitting there by herself to contemplate the suicide of her therapist.

    To make things worse, she had been dropped off early for her appointment and apparently she had to wait outside for 2 or 3 hours for her mother to pick her up.

  53. spock says

    I think the word you’re looking for is “solipsistic” or more properly “solipsism”. It’s the observation that all things are a reflection of the self.

  54. spock says

    I think it was said elsewhere in the replies to this subject but it seems to me that the caller was insistent on the validity of his view just as someone might believe that his rabbit’s foot is lucky. Well…it wasn’t lucky for the rabbit and the rabbit had four of them.

  55. spock says

    Yes, you are crazy but most of the time it just doesn’t show. Factually Wrong John just brings out the crazy in you

  56. says

    My point exactly. If Dr. Poole wants to psycho-analyze someone who is religious then what about a Scientologist who doesn’t believe in psychology. It probably the reason why Ron L. Hubbard didn’t trust psychiatry. Maybe he was insane and didn’t want anyone else to know.

  57. says

    Yeah, I mean, I don’t like to sound paranoid, but having seen how religion–at least in the U.S.–infiltrated politics and schools, it looks extremely similarly orchestrated. The idea of repackaging religion as something secular in order to sell it in a secular arena is really nothing new. And the evangelical movement, like every other movement, has gained global networking capacity via new technology. They have conferences and meetings where they set strategy and policy to work nationally–and now even abroad. I just do not trust this is good people doing something misguided that could result in religious abuse. I think, if it’s anything like the preceding religious intrusions, it’s orchestrated religious interest, using the support of well meaning, but misguided people to insert itself into another area of life where it has no other foothold. As the author of “Good News Club” said in a lecture I attended (to paraphrase), “If they can’t own it, then they’ll just break it.” For evangelicals, being excluded from any area of life or society is simply and totally unacceptable.

  58. says

    The literature here is very dicey, and I would love to see secular therapists also coming together to challenge many of the assertions that christians are making, namely that those in religious communities are more emotionally healthy across the lifespan than those not in religious communities. I would like to get a group of researchers to do a meta-analysis on the studies offering up this claim, to show the methodological weaknesses in the studies and prove that the claims are based on the benefits of social support and not religion. I also would call upon the people conducting these studies to use a true control group, e.g. atheists, as a comparison rather than using simple correlations.