“Bedeviled Ham” (Creationist anti-psychiatry)

'You say you have a horrible sense of doom and futility? Let's explore where that might be coming from.'Answers in Genesis marked its 23rd anniversary last week by listing its all-time accomplishments, which blogger Hemant Mehta noted included no contributions to our understanding of the natural world, no discoveries that advanced science, and no papers published in peer reviewed journals.

While giving nothing to science, AIG founder Ken Ham has given himself some name recognition, first through a “museum” that features humans and dinosaurs interacting, a depiction that misses the mark by 150 million years. Next, he built a park dedicated to the notion that at least two of every creature and their 15-month stock of food, water, and veterinary supplies fit on a boat, where the sanitation, plumbing, maintenance, and curation was managed by eight people. There was also a debate with Bill Nye in which Ham said no science or evidence would ever convince him these ideas were mistaken.

But while Ham is most identified with these creationist credentials, he has a less-known dogma that is far more dangerous if adhered to by the wrong person. For he endorses an extreme anti-psychiatry position that calls for all secular therapy to be supplanted by prayer and Bible study. He is not merely encouraging people to worship, he is saying those with significant mental issues should never seek help outside the church. He declares the Bible the supreme authority on mental issues even though its final chapter was written 1,600 years before the beginning of meaningful psychiatric care.

This position is the result of presuppositionalism, a belief which insists the Bible alone can explain logic, morals, science, reasoning, consciousness, and any other significant  area of life. It rejects any ideas that come from secularism, other religions, liberal or moderate Christianity, and some conservative branches. It is an extreme form of Christian apologetics, as well as being an extreme example of circular reasoning and the genetic fallacy. It allows proponents to claim victory or reject any argument simply because of who made it, and by invoking their interpretation of a specific Bible version.

Ham, along with AIG cohort Ernie Baker and Tempe, Ariz., preacher Steven Anderson are some of the more outspoken anti-psychiatry creationists. Their belief in absolute free will causes them to reject the concept that brain science and neurological processes can be the cause of mental illness. Anderson has declared, “No Christian ought to be on psychiatric medication. Don’t go to a psychiatrist, go get some preaching.”

Any suffering must be the result of sin and rebellion against God, so Ham, Anderson, and Baker dismiss psychiatric treatment as inherently flawed since it is not focused on rejecting sinful nature. No outside factor can be said influence a person’s behavior. It takes the reasonable position of a person being responsible for their actions and twists it into a self-loathing that rejects the scientific evidence for psychiatric conditions. It equates seeking help outside the Bible with not holding one’s self accountable. Baker wrote, “We blame our problems on our experience, but we cannot adopt that view without turning everyone into a victim that fails to take responsibility.”

As Baker, Anderson, and Ham know little about the field beyond it being inherently evil, they regularly confuse and conflate psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists, and also misunderstand terms and definitions. They may call a disorder an illness or a syndrome a condition. They sometimes, by coincidence, criticize unproven and quack treatments, but lump these and genuine treatments under the same Satanic umbrella. Their knowledge is so scant they sometimes refer to the science and research behind psychiatric care as “a philosophy.”

Ham doesn’t normally address this issue publicly, leaving that to his lesser known but equally uncompromising brother, Steve. Steve portrays mental illnesses as matters that will be fixed with prayer, laying on of hands, and singing hymns. He rejects the totality of psychiatric research and the notion of psychiatric conditions because they are part of a “secular worldview.” This, of course, says nothing about the legitimacy of the field and is an unsound reason for dismissing evidence. 

The “secular worldview” ad hominem is one of AIG’s most regular features, and in this case is employed to gloss over the fact that there is no support for their claim that sin is responsible for Asperger’s, Munchausen’s, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. They deny the role of chemical imbalances, unresolved traumas, and genetics in mental health issues, and insist the focus should be on resisting the devil. It is faith healing for psychiatric conditions and in the case of suicidal patients could be just as deadly as treating a congenital heart condition by starting a prayer chain. Conclusions about whether a treatment works depend on clinical trial results, not the Hams’ reading of the King James Version.

Steve Ham further claims that mental health professionals call sins disorders so they can dismiss personal responsibility. Let’s consider two examples. First, he  claims Intermittent Explosive Disorder gives cover to emotionally abusive parents. In reality, the Mayo Clinic identifies this disorder as repeated, aggressive, and violent behavior that is completely out of proportion with what is justified for the situation. Treating it requires therapy and medication, not just trying harder to embrace biblical mandates about being slow to anger.

Another example is Oppositional Defiant Disorder, which Ham claims is just another label for disobedient children. But the Mayo describes this disorder as behavior associated with functional impairment that lingers for at least six months, and which features frequent and consistent temper tantrums, resentment, and vindictiveness. It goes well beyond the occasional childhood hissy fit and is not merely the result of sparing the rod and spoiling the child.

Still, Ham claims such psychiatric conditions are “rooted in sinful thoughts and behaviors.” So skeptic blogger Emil Elafsson performed a PubMed search, looking for papers that referenced both psychiatric disorders and sin. The more than 20 million papers published returned no results. So when Ham makes such claims, he is supported by zero research or scientific validation. 

By contrast, consider one example of how psychiatry works, as cited by Elaffson. He highlighted a University of Maryland study that revealed the role of neurotransmitters in causing anxiety. Because of this research and clinical trials, scientists and psychiatrists know which medications would be effective in treating anxiety by targeting specific neurotransmitters. Rather than suggesting this medication, Ham would have the suffering patient pray about their sloth and seek forgiveness for gluttony. 

Meanwhile, Baker tried to describe mainstream treatments for mental conditions with this straw man: “One therapist diagnoses low self-esteem and says you need to feel better about yourself. Another explains that your brain chemicals are out of balance and the wiring needs help to fire properly. Yet another says that you have all the symptoms of repressed memories.”

In actuality, treatments of mental conditions are largely uniform, the result of the scientific progress that Baker and Ham criticize. Elfafsson pointed out that low self-esteem is not a psychiatric diagnosis and, at most, would be a symptom. Also, the notion of repressed memories has long been considered a pseudoscience and would not be suggested by a reputable psychiatrist. Baker continues his psychiatric devaluation with, “The Bible reveals the root of all human problems: sin’s effects on the soul.” Like Ham, he cites no studies affirming this, nor does he offer any mechanism for how this might be tested.

He attempts to dismiss the entire field by writing, “The secular psychologies do not allow for an inherent sin nature, so it is hard to imagine how they could stumble upon the right treatment.”  He accidentally got this one right. “Stumble upon” would indicate occurring by happenstance, so psychologists would indeed be unlikely to stumble upon a cure, which is the result of deliberating seeking it. This happens through clinical trials, research, publication, peer review, and discovering medications and treatments.

Baker asserted that the cause of mental issues is made clear in his interpretation of Genesis 1-3 and that the only cure is Jesus (who it should be noted is conspicuously missing from these chapters). But this solution would fail to account for the clinical trials, cognitive behavior therapy, and medications that have proven successful without invoking Middle Eastern messiahs. 

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