Former atheist professor speaks about the problems with secular psychology

Retired University of Georgia neuroscience lecturer Richard Suplita says existential angst and dread are a major contributing factor to the mental health crisis in the United States. He emphasized that this is especially pronounced amongst young people and the LGBTQ+ population, and that secular psychology does not address the problem holistically enough.

Suplita made these comments at an event hosted by The Rock Campus Ministry at IUPUI called “Anxiety, Depression, and Suicidality from a Biblical Worldview” Thursday afternoon.

Mental Health and Existential Angst

Suplita started off with some statistics about mental health in the United States, mentioning that he himself had struggled with it as well as his parents.

“Roughly one in three adults in the United States say they have some symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, and almost half of young adults age 18-24,” he said.

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The sociological equivalent of the “existential angst” he referred to is “anomie,” defined as “a state of normlessness, disorder, or confusion in society when the standard norms or values are weak or unclear.”

“Existential fear or angst assumes a post-Christian society or philosophy of life, that really the implication is that there is no meaning,” he said. “We try to have as much pleasure as we can while we’re here, but eventually, we’re all going to get old and die.”

With that, he discussed the book of Ecclesiastes, which the ancient Israelite King Solomon wrote exploring the meaning of life and the seeming ultimate senselessness of everyday activities.

“It’s really fascinating to me as a former atheist that God would include a book in the Bible that seems like it is written from an atheistic perspective,” he said. “Like without God, why do all these things even matter?”

A screenshot from The Rock at IUPUI’s Website

The Problem with Humanistic Psychology

In Suplita’s view, humanistic or self-focused psychology is partially to blame for many young people’s struggle to find their identity, which he viewed as connected to this existential angst.

“Be you, do you, for you is the reasoning behind humanistic, secular psychology,” he said. “Whatever gets in the way of realizing that needs to be removed, whether it is internal or external.”

He emphasized the point that some of the treatments humanistic psychology recommended were good, but their foundation was not.

“I’m not saying all of that is bad. I’m just saying it is inadequate,” he said. “Biblically, it’s not all about us. Jesus holds it all together. It’s about Jesus. Humans have dignity. Humans have moral worth. We have real value by virtue of being created by God in the image of God, but it’s not all about us. That leads to a big difference in both the problems we notice and the solutions for mental health.”

Internal Locus of Control

Suplita then emphasized an internal versus external locus of control, and the importance of feeling like we have agency and control over our lives and that our actions have real consequences.

However, he emphasized that it is possible to have too significant of an internal locus of control, and in such cases, it might tend toward narcissism.

“The world’s framework on that, even if enacted in kind of a good way, or constructive way, to get you fit, to get you more money, to get ahead, become the alpha male, or whatever it is, is going to tend towards personality disorder tendencies,” he said. “Things like narcissism. You might experience a lot of success in the interim, but there is a horizon for that, a window that is closing gradually over the course of your life.”

Self-Actualization

Suplita went on to talk about what he called the humanistic psychologist’s view of self-actualization, which means realizing one’s full potential as a human being or becoming the “best version of you that you can be.”

“Again, I’m not totally against a movement towards progress. I think that’s a Christian concept. We can do that for the glory of Christ, but therein is the difference,” he said. “If you are living for the glory of God, you want to become the best engineer possible, not for your own wealth. I mean, that’s nice, but ultimately, it’s for the kingdom of God.”

Expressive Individualism

He emphasized that the humanistic view of self-actualization led into something called expressive individualism, which he said becomes a problem when subjective parts of your personality or hobbies become core parts of your identity.

“[The real me is] who I feel like on the inside. And at all costs, no matter what, I need to externalize that,” he said. “I need to put it on display for the world, in order to self-validate… [and] the obligation of society is to accept that definition that I’ve given myself.”

He went on to contrast that with what he said was the Biblical view about identity.

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“I’m here to express Christ as God has uniquely gifted me to do,” he said. “Realizing it’s not all about me, that I’m created in God’s image, is going to lead to a life of trusting in God more.”

Medication as Part of a Holistic Approach

At the end of the lecture, students were given the opportunity to ask questions. One student asked how psychotropic medications played a role in the Biblical view of mental health. 

”Using psychotropic medication as tools with caution to gain leverage, diet and exercise, getting out into nature, practicing good sleep hygiene all have a very real role in stewarding our proclivities towards anxiety and depression,” Suplita said. “They may not be the end all be all, but they certainly can play a role in a holistic approach to mental health treatment.”

The Rock

The Rock describes itself as a “contemporary organization for college students and young community members that want to experience God, not religion,” and its purpose as “to show this generation the hope found in Jesus Christ and how God is relevant and active today.” 

The organization also recently hosted Tom Short, a campus evangelist, who spoke to students in Taylor Courtyard last week. 

Students interested in learning more about the organization can email iprosch@iu.edu.

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