The Humanist Interview with Clinical Psychologist Leon F. Seltzer (Highly recommended- ed)
The following interview was originally published on the Psychology Today blog, In Therapy. It was one installment in Ryan Howes’ series, “The Varieties of Religious Therapy,” featuring representatives from twelve belief systems discussing how they integrate faith with their approach to psychotherapy. While Howes acknowledged that humanism isn’t an organized religion, he maintained that “it is an ideology with adherents who share common views on human nature” and felt that “a decidedly non-religious ethical viewpoint would lend an interesting alternate perspective to the series.”
The Humanist: What is the role of religion or spirituality in your clinical practice?
Leon F. Seltzer: Rarely is humanism considered a religion, and in describing their beliefs many humanists prefer to avoid the term spirituality altogether. Placing their confidence in science rather than religion, humanists trust reason over faith. Still, I’ve always regarded humanist ideals as quite spiritual in that they celebrate non-materialistic values I personally cherish—values that are (ahem) “secularly sacred” to me. That is, humanism extols such virtues and ideals as courage, fortitude, innovation and creativity, generosity, empathy and compassion. And—perhaps more broadly—it reveres altruism and a deep sense of community, justice and equal opportunity, and living in harmony with nature. Beyond that, humanism affirms the inherent value and dignity of all humans, independent of their religion or socio-economic status.
Humanism really isn’t so much atheistic as it is nontheistic. It simply doesn’t attend to or focus on anything supernatural, but rather aims its lens solely on the mortal life of us humans. Both what we must take full ownership of, and what we’re potentially capable of. It’s not really “anti-religious” as such, but it does oppose certain elements in religion that, whether excessively righteous, intolerant, or hypocritical, can culminate in actions inconsiderate of, or even cruel to, humanity. Humanism also contends that we shouldn’t be living our lives passively (as though some all-powerful deity is personally looking out for us and ready to rescue us if necessary). Instead, it predicates that we should live pro-actively and in the here-and-now, accepting life as it is and consciously creating our own desired destiny.
So as a humanistic therapist, I endeavor to help clients in the kinds of self-discovery and personal evolution that will assist them either to better cope with their present-day difficulties or to transcend them altogether. I also try to help them discover (or re-discover)—as is stated so eloquently in Humanist Manifesto III—“the wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence, its challenges and tragedies, and even in the inevitability and finality of death.”
The cornerstone of humanistic principles is living in accord with the golden rule. So in my work I do all I appropriately can to increase my clients’ empathic caring and concern for others. In fact, many of my clients’ problems relate either to their self-absorption or the heedless, single-minded pursuit of their own interests. Ironically, assisting them to get outside themselves and better identify with the wants and needs of others can be exactly the therapy they need. Additionally, I attempt to help them resolve issues through engaging others in a more collaborative and cooperative manner—versus through aggression and dominance. I regard the latter, antagonistic approach as both divisive and detrimental to their developing a healthy sense of interdependence.