The topic of posttraumatic growth now receives a lot of attention. Most recently an article in The New York Times discussed its application to the military as part of the controversial Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program (CSF). http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/magazine/post-traumatic-stresss-surprisingly-positive-flip-side.html?_r=2&pagewanted=all
It might seem reasonable to introduce posttraumatic growth into the CSF program but did you know that the way it has been defined includes increased spiritual fitness?
There are many other criticisms of the CSF program which I won’t repeat here, although they are worth reading – its lack of predictive validity http://mindhacks.com/2012/03/24/wishful-resilience/ - and ethical concerns http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/dangerous-ideas/201103/the-dark-side-comprehensive-soldier-fitness-0
But it was the fact that the CSF program appears to be promoting spiritual fitness in the military that made me sit up and take notice.
I went back and read the January 2011 issue of the American Psychologist which was a special issue of articles on the CSF program. Martin Seligman argues that human response to adversity is normally distributed, as in a bell curve. There are those on the left who suffer from posttraumatic stress and those on the right who exhibit posttraumatic growth. Most people are in the middle. The aim of the CSF program is "to move the entire distribution toward growth."
On the very last page of the article, Seligman counters the objection that psychology should not aid the foreign policy of the United States with the argument that we need to defend ourselves against ideologies that seek to overthrow democracy: fascism, communism and, he adds, jihadist Islam.
For sure, I agree with the need for a strong military and the will to use force responsibly in the act of self-defense. And if I was running the Department of Defense I would also introduce programs that maximised the psychological fitness of soldiers to respond effectively to stress and deal with emotional challenges.
But promoting spirituality in our soldiers as a defense against jihadist Islam? What could possibly go wrong?
Reading the issue of the American Psychologist makes it clear enough that those behind this program didn’t know either. As Kenneth Pargament says the spiritual component is "a work in progress. Questions far outnumber answers." (p. 63)
Exactly what spiritual fitness involves is not clear to me and I'm sure the proponents of the CSF program would say that it does not promote any specific religious truth; nonetheless it is a problematic term to me as a psychological scientist because it means so many different things to people and could be misleading in how it is interpreted. One component of the CSF program, however, is that of posttraumatic growth which is often defined using the Posttraumatic Growth Inventory containing items related to spiritual change, one of which is "I have a stronger religious faith."
Elsewhere I have argued that it is not helpful to define posttraumatic growth as an increase in spirituality. There is no doubt that survivors do often report increased religiosity and spirituality in the aftermath of crisis, but it cannot be assumed that it is the deepening of faith that is necessarily experienced as growthful. Trauma shatters people’s belief systems and growth comes about as people renew their worldviews in light of their experiences. For some this might involve an increase in spiritual beliefs and practices, but for others it involves a decrease. How ones religious beliefs are shaped by trauma is complex depending on the nature of their faith, and its strength and rigidity prior to trauma. What is important to the person is their renewed sense of meaning and purpose, however their spirituality is reconfigured.
People do grow following trauma but we should not define this in religious or spiritual terms.
A further objection is that scientific research needs to use measures that are universally agreed as constituting increased psychological functioning. This is hard enough as it is but especially problematic for spirituality. Whether one considers increased spirituality as growthful is influenced by one’s own belief system. In asking whether increased spirituality should be considered part of the posttraumatic growth concept, the religious are likely to see a deepening of faith and spirituality as growthful; whereas the non-religious will see such changes as illusory or even as delusory. This makes the interpretation of results impossible.
As psychologists we can explore what spirituality means to people and how it influences their lives but should it ever be our business to promote it?
Joseph, S. (2011). Religiosity and posttraumatic growth: a note concerning the problems of confounding in their measurment and the inclusion of religiosity within the definition of posttraumatic growth. Mental Health, Religion and Culture, 14, 843-845.