B. F. Skinner’s Struggle with God
The Journey of a Truth Seeker
Posted September 1, 2014
“Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use.
It is the theory which decides what can be observed." --Albert Einstein
In my own professional development, B. F. Skinner provided the principal challenge to my beliefs. Our first discussions, which began in the early 70’s, reflected our very different histories and polarized understandings of human nature--psychologically and spiritually. An experimental scientist and the father of strict behaviorism, Skinner argued that people are essentially socially conditioned; a student of theology and psychology, I saw God’s transforming role in human life. Skinner had low expectations of religion; I had high expectations. He found no sustenance through faith in God; I found faith in God to provide strength and direction.
Skinner based the science of behaviorism upon determinism, a view of human beings as programmed, predetermined, and without free will. As a college sophomore, I recognized that his perspective negated the role of religion and God. Yet I marvelled that the behavioral methods he advanced creating contact with autistic children and facilitating change with those viewed as “unreachable.” Is there a connection between the truth of science and the truth of faith? Are these epsitemologies mutually exclusive?
Soon after writing Beyond Freedom and Dignity, I learned that Dr. Skinner would be lecturing at the Morse Auditorium at Boston University. Seating more than 700, the auditorium filled beyond capacity. As he approached the stage, religious protesters anxiously rallied at one end of the stage, while Skinner’s devotees enthusiastically applauded at the other. Skinner spoke emphasizing that psychology must abandon notions of inner life, constructs of soul, and the like, in order to apply scientific advances in psychology. He judged the methods of religion, philosophy, education, and government as futile, disciplines that he viewed as “pre-scientific.”
Following the presentation, I wrote him a note appreciative of his work that advanced important insights of human behavior yet feeling that in one wide sweep, he unfairly dismissed religion and faith, as he did not adequately attend to innate qualities of human behavior with reference to spirituality. I invited his response. He sent back a note recommending that we meet.
That meeting began a relationship that lasted to the end of Skinner’s life. I conducted hundreds of interviews with him over twenty-five years. After our intital discussions, and my doctoral work, Skinner invited me to meet with him regularly as he was writing a book on ethics as he thought our conversations would help him flesh out his thoughts. I experienced Skinner as an open, truth-seeker, rooted in his philosophy. Strikingly objective and reflective, he expressed profound capability for expressing care for others. Highly regimented in his daily life and often emotionally restrained, it appeared as if he perceived himself in a scientific experiment, honestly portrayed himself and his work; for example, not choosing to edit from our taped conversations personal comments on sensitive personal matters that casually entered conversation, he stated, “I probably shouldn’t have said that, but those comments were said and must remain as part of the record.”
There was real friction between our views of the world, but I also saw the deep affinities. At one juncture, I told Dr. Skinner that I found his approach spiritual as he was genuine, truth seeking, and honest. Before we began speaking regularly, he defined spirituality as an explanatory fiction and irrational; later he described “spiritual” as a good experience, a “ positive feeling state” (although he did not believe in a personal God), stating that he valued the Good and tried to live accordingly. He said that prior to our work he would not have considered spiritual issues as his concern. The word “spiritual” previously had a “mystical, silly ring” for him because of his associations of the term with his early painful religious experiences. Our discussion provoked his writing an article about his religion and referencing our dialogues about spirituality in a PBS interview.
Without doubt, Skinner’s beliefs were greatly affected from his religious “learning” in childhood. He was terrified from the fear he had of religion: “Grandmother’s threat of hell fire pointed to the open lands,” he said, "of temptation and sin, painting a negative, punitive image of man in relationship with God" that he detailed in his autobiography, Particulars of My Life:
"The first religious teaching I can remember was at my Grandmother Skinner’s. It was her desire that I should never tell a lie, and she attempted to fortify me against it by vividly describing the punishment for it. I remember being shown the coal fire in the heating stove and [being] told that little children who told lies were thrown in a place like that after they died. . . Some time later I went to a magician’s show, the final act of which concerned the appearance of a devil. I was terrified. I questioned my father as to whether a devil just like that threw little boys to Hell, and he assured me it was so. I suppose I have never recovered from that spiritual torture. Not long afterward I did tell a real lie to avoid punishment and that bothered me for years. I remember lying awake at night sobbing, refusing to tell my mother the trouble, refusing to kiss her goodnight. I can still feel the remorse, the terror, the despair of my young heart at the time. . ." (Skinner, 1976, p. 60).
Religion was not simply dismissed by Skinner. In fact, he stated to me how much of his thinking had been influenced by his view of a distant, punishing God: "…I had a certain amount of fear of religion, I suppose. So that when I finally escaped…. I remember when I was a freshman in college, I was still somewhat bothered by...worried...about religion. I remember going to this professor of philosophy and telling him that I had lost my faith. The fact that the biologist, whom I liked and admired very much, taught Sunday School bothered me."
It was evident that religion failed to provide Skinner with a positive self image and an understanding of the world that had led him to exclude God from his persuit of Truth though to seek the design of a positive world scientifically. He said:
"Religions work for their own aggrandizement; strengthen the church and so on, and they use reinforcers of one kind or another to get obedience and so on from their communicants."
"I believe that I have been basically anarchistic, anti-religion and anti-industry and business. In other words, anti-bureaucracy. I would like to see people behave well without having to have priests stand by, politicians stand by, or people collecting bills."
He understandably felt averse by institution’s that abuse God as a tool for power, wielding control over others for self-preservation, “working for their own aggrandizement.” His frustration with religion fueled his yearnings to understand human behavior and to search for a better promise of hope through science. I found that his suspicion of religion did not stem from criticisms of the essence of spirituality but emenated rather from the abuses of religion that he personally felt. In contrast to the problem of religious systems, we regularly discussed spiritual Grace, something he felt he was denied, and the drives of genuine spiritual leaders.
His desire to propose a Good, utopian world is perhaps reflected best in one of his most famous works, Walden Two. Skinner’s mistrust of religious systems greatly influenced his view of the world, leading him to develop an alternative path, scientifically designed for the good life. His utopian philosophy sought to correct the problems he felt were created by religion, however, he did not distinguish the spirit from group control.
In his second autobiography, A Matter of Consequences (Skinner, 1983), Skinner openly acknowledged his psychological argument — that people have no choice and no freedom —potentially rooted in Presbyterian theology. Skinner’s emphasis on external control found a conspicuous parallel with the theology of the Congregation of Jonathan Edwards and with the discomfort he felt within the Presbyterian Church.
In fact, Skinner was not critical of personally-held beliefs in religion. He recognized them as a source of comfort, “of peace of mind,” that give people help in times of need or provide them with answers. He told me, “It’s very reinforcing for us to have a priest come when someone is dying.” Skinner recognized the religious experiential state, leading me to conclude that the cause of our differences was one of from foundational emotional experiences and language. What I referenced as “spiritual,” Skinner initially associated with tormening depictions from his childhood. As we later discussed spirituality, he preferred to reference these expereinces as “feeling states” which he admitted, “are very important to me.” Though he may have called spirituality by a different name in psychology, Skinner was driven to understand the goals and nature of this material as evidenced alone by his commitment to meet with me weekly systematically over five years to disucss this material.
In the end, we were both surprised by the productivity of our discussions: Skinner by the number of common concerns we found between Christian theology, behavioral analysis, psychoanalysis and in various typologies; myself by Skinner’s openness to examine spiritual possibilities. Committed to his science but recognizing its inherent limits, he even assigned a causal force to “the Other,” “It:”
"I won’t say that I’m an agnostic since agnosticism maintains that one cannot know…but I’m not averse to the idea of some intelligence or some organizing force that set up the initial conditions of the universe in such a way that ultimately generated stars, planets and life. It’s easier to imagine the creation of intellectual force than a creation force that was able to create the Big Bang."
Here was a man who, on the basis of his writing and public words, I had initially thought to have rejected faith and God. In reality, the Skinner I got to know was a man who, because of early torturing experiences with religion, had transformed the impulses that drive so many of us toward an awareness of spirituality into another direction. His experimental utopia put forth in Walden Two seemed to me to be one such transformation — a community based on serenity and being free from negativity—though devoid of an experiential relationship that he sought but had not found. During our conversations, I learned to temper my deferential trust in religion and religious institutions. Similarly, he stated how much he appreciated the opportunity, as he said, “to reflect on positive aspects of spirituality within religion.”
One of the problems of religious communities, underscored and boldly documented by B. F. Skinner, is that in maintaining their structures they often lose sight of the positive relationship of their purpose: Holiness, Goodness, Truth, Justice, and Love. It is a contradicttion when religious institutions, intended to be sanctuaries for the preservation of the contract between God and humanity, ultimately distance people from the spirit. We need to be discerning, especially as we inherit religious practices from over generations, to be sure our faith reveals the living Spirit.
John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D. is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of True Coming of Age: A Dynamic Process That Leads to Emotional Stability, Spiritual Growth, and Meaningful Relationships. For more information please visit www.drchirban.com, https://www.facebook.com/drchirban and https://twitter.com/drjohnchirban. Dr. Chirban is compiling a volume of his interview recordings spanning more than two decades with B. F. Skinner on psychology and religion.