Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Do we need a sign: Do Not Feed the Children?

There's little doubt that children love sweets and show an interest in adults who provide them.  But many parents work hard to keep their children on healthy diets.  And some children require special diets.

I was thinking of the care shown to donkeys at Carisbrooke Castle. The staff reminded guests not to feed them.

Most of us have seen signs advising us not to feed animals because of their special diets. As I read various reports on research it is clear that many children and adults consume much that is unhealthy.

I have joked about diet options such as the variety of chocolates one can choose (my photo of chockies at the outlet in Portsmouth above).

But, health is no joking manner. Perhaps parents need to post signs saying: "Do Not Feed the Children," and explain that they are on a special diet.

Cheers to parents who provide their children with healthy foods in sufficient quantities. And set limits on high calorie treats. Extra cheers to parents who demonstrate healthy eating plus a healthy lifestyle by adding exercise to healthy eating.

And more. May those parents who resist fads and unscientific claims about nutrition and supplements be blessed for they shall save money and demonstrate wisdom when it comes to unsubstantiated health claims.



Twitter @GeoffWSutton


Palms Donkeys and Kings

On Palm Sunday 2017 I was in the chapel at Carisbrooke Castle built in  recognition of Charles I and veterans.

I  was reminded of other features of the early Palm Sunday by palms in the nearby garden and a donkey easily coaxed into walking a treadmill that provided water from a well years ago.

The gospels illustrate parallels between the everyday life and one full of spiritual significance. We can find many lessons about humanity that make the Palm Sunday story so relevant.

For me, the palms and the donkey were mostly cues to remember the day. Of course, my Christian heritage provided a connection that others might not make.

But the stories of Jesus and Charles I remind me of the religious component in the speeches and violent acts of people whose loyalties are often tested in extreme ways. People have the capacity to draw on faith to celebrate both peace and war.

Disagreements among the religious still lead to death and destruction.  Fair trials are often hard to come by.

Now King Charles I was no Jesus but the people surrounding them were divided over religious beliefs and views of political power like people today. The mixing of faith and politics rarely works out so well.

It is hard to find the moral high ground among the world's leaders or their opponents.

But there is something appealing about that donkey at the well who more or less obediently walks to bring the water of life that sustains others regardless of faith or politics.

A Look at a Deconversion Testimony

Coventry Cathedral 2002/ by Geoff W. Sutton

On a cold winter’s day Sarah sat across from me in the restaurant and declared, “I’m an atheist.” We were at a conference and her friends had left to go somewhere—I forget where. Sarah is a brilliant young woman with a bright future. I don’t know her well but she made some good points during a conference presentation. She knows I write about the psychology of religion so I’ve asked her about her opinions. Sarah was raised as an Evangelical Christian—a bit on the fundamentalist spectrum, I guess. She doesn’t like the Old Testament—too much murder, too many rules. I ask about the “Sermon on the Mount.” She thinks that’s ok. She likes Jesus’ moral teaching. She’s left of center politically and socially. She’s about to graduate from a Christian university. Somewhere along the line she lost her faith. She’s not come out as an atheist—except to a few people. She’s aware of the risks. She can’t doubt outloud. Her litany of complaints focus on beliefs that don’t make sense and certain views of morality she no longer holds as true.*

Peter Enns and The Sin of Certainty

My point in telling the “Sarah story” is that I was thinking of people like her when I read the first chapter of Peter Enns', The Sin of Certainty. I’ve been asked to lead off a study of Peter’s book. And Enns' first chapter describes his faith crisis. His chapter is instructive because it fits well with a recent uptrend in deconversion and conversion research in my field of interest, the Psychology of Religion. I previously summarized some research on deconversion and conversion. In this post, I provide a look at Enns', story from the perspective of deconversion and conversion. He claims not to have written an autobiography yet the lead story suggests his crisis provides the context for the book.


Peter Enns recalls a threatening moment listening to faith-challenging questions in a Disney movie, Bridge to Terabithia. Leslie and May Belle discuss God and the Bible. After a brief exchange about belief in the Bible and the consequences of disbelief, Leslie says, “I seriously do not think God goes around damming people to hell.” Here's the short video clip:

Enns' tells us of his spiritual and emotional discomfort and offers a larger life-context of leaving his teaching job at a Christian school (See Bailey, 2008) and losing some of his friends. He observes, “Watching certainty slide into uncertainty is frightening.” Faith provides a sense of meaning and organization. His faith has been seriously tested. After decades of education and teaching in Christian communities, he experienced some life-changing questions like: “Is there a God? What will you do now that God is far off, out of sight? (p. 13).”

In their summary of recent conversion and deconversion research, Raymond Paloutzian and his colleagues (2013) opine that both conversion and deconversion can be seen as part of a larger perspective on spiritual transformation. Here’s a quote about the concept of deconversion:

“Overall, deconversion is conceptualized as an intense biographical change that includes individual and social aspects: experiential, emotional, intellectual-ideological, social-environmental, moral, as well as changes or termination of group membership." (p. 409).

As a psychologist, I found myself drawn to Enn’s description of his feelings—the emotional experience he felt or reported that others with similar experiences shared. Here’s some examples of his language in chapter 1: "threatened, frightening, worried, Feeling judged and banished…” The experience is clearly emotional and specifically, about fear and anxiety.

As a psychology of religion researcher, I noted the social context and its impact on Enns. He reported a change at the school where he taught. The organizational climate became “tense and adversarial” (p. 12). His teaching and writing were examined. Eventually, he says he resigned. His description of the change sounds like a spiritual transformation.

“I recall those first few months of sweet freedom. I hadn’t felt that light and joyful in probably a decade. Pick your cliché: I felt alive, born again, as if I had been liberated from a prison camp, released from a dungeon, and had seen the sunshine and felt the cool breeze for the first time in ages.” (pp. 11-12)

The positive feelings did not last long. He soon found that “faith went dark” and he lacked the structure of faith provided by the community where “Thinking for myself wasn’t necessary…” (p. 12).

Enns concludes the first chapter by suggesting a “sacred journey” is possible for those who give up the quest for right belief and begin trusting God. The sin of certainty is a preoccupation with right belief to the point of making an idol out of belief and forcing God into our interpretation of the image we created.

I’ve read the book. Enns ends by telling us of his current congregation on page 192. We see his transformation, played out in Christian media, as an example of that type of deconversion from a fundamentalist-like evangelical Christianity. After what sounds like a wilderness experience, he finds a different sort of Christian community. As I read his words I see evidence of a changed spirituality, a de-emphasis on beliefs, but still a desire for meaning and relationship, “I need to be a part of something bigger than myself…”


Peter Enns' tale is a story for our time. I suspect doubters have been around since the first religious ideas were spoken. But in western cultures, it has become safer to express those doubts and concerns. There’s still a risk as Peter indicates—people can’t really be honest about their doubts in some faith communities and expect to keep their job or their old friendships.

Like Sarah, more and more young people are questioning the statements of belief promulgated by conservative religious groups. They doubt the truthfulness of certain claims. And when they get answers to difficult questions, they don’t find the answers very convincing.

There are different types of deconversions. Some occur gradually but may come to a critical point. These sound a lot like the reverse of conversion experiences. Some exit faith altogether. Some keep quiet and carry on—agnostic. Others exit a faith community (disaffiliation) and find a better fit.

In the research literature, some emerge from their emotional turmoil with a new sense of autonomy and a feeling of personal growth. As Paloutzian and others write of some deconverts who leave a religious community, “...there are also gains in a sense of connectedness for the lucky ones who immediately find a new community and a new identity with a self-identification as ‘spiritual person,’ also a key characteristic of deconversion.” (p. 414)

Peter Enns offers a path forward for those troubled by restrictive interpretations of Christian belief statements—encourage trust in God (in my language, don’t sweat the details of belief).

Here's what I’d like to know as I take these ideas to class:

What elements of Enns' story make sense in terms of other stories you have heard or read?

What Christian beliefs, if any, must be held as true and certain to continue a sacred journey as a Christian?

How does your church or Christian organization create a safe place for people with doubts like those questions Enns reported?

How can Christians be helpful to people like Sarah who wish to talk—explore their thoughts about faith?

How do people handle family relationships where some Christians consider others as unsaved, lost, heretics, agnostics, or atheists?


Read more about Christian cultures in A House Divided available on AMAZON from the publisher, Pickwick and in the Apple bookstore on Apple devices.

*(Sarah is not a particular person but a composite of bright young people who reject the conservative faith of their youth).

Bailey, S. P. (April, 2008). Westminster theological suspension. Christianity Today. Retrieved from http://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2008/april/114-24.0.html This article tells of Enn’s suspension and provides links to related stories.
Enns, P. (2016). The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs. San Francisco: Harper One.
Paloutzian, R.F., Murken, S., Streib, H. & Rößler-Namini, S. (2013. Conversion, deconversion, and spiritual transformation: A multidisciplinary view. In. R. F. Paloutzian and C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, (2nd Ed., pp. 399-421). New York: Guilford.

Sutton, G. W. (2016). [Review of the book The sin of certainty: Why God desires “our” trust more than “our” correct beliefs by Peter Enns]. Encounter, 13. You can find my academic review of his book online at Academia and ResearchGate.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Toppling the Statue of Limitations

Image result for topple statue

We may assume the obvious that statues of people are installed in public places by those who revere something about the person.

 Dictators and other men who ruled with iron hands have been toppled and decapitated years after their death when their nefarious deeds were considered more evil than any good they might have done. And times changed making it safe to destroy an old emperor's image without losing one's own head.

Image result for topple statue

The recent protests about the statues of the Confederate States are not new as Gillian Brockwell explains in her WP post from 17 August. I have been tempted to draw on the culture of honour theories put forth by Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen (1996) following some quite creative studies showing the tendency of Southerners to react quickly to perceived challenges to their honor compared to Northerners. (I always had research students read the article-save it for later if you are busy.) However, there is a warning about going too far beyond the lab data-- the problem is summarized by Nigel Barber.

One should not let a beautiful theory go to waste when an ugly fact arises.

It is hard to look at the men of stone and not think about the reasons for their existence--especially given their dominance at the U.S. Capitol. There is a culture of honor in all nations. The U.S. Capitol contains the statues of honor--take a look at the list in the article and see who is worthy of such high earthly honor. And wander around DC where entire buildings are shrines and memorials to many Americans (oh, here's where the women are).

There are those in history linked to horrific evil such that it would be hard to find even a substantial minority desiring to honor them-- let alone put their likeness on a pedestal. Other mortals have more stature as having the good fortune to have been present when a nation began or holding a high office--at least an office worthy of passing around on a coin or those little rectangles pasted on old forms of communication.

But what to do about the statues of those honoured by some and reviled by others? How many statues must come down? What are the criteria for removing one figure and keeping another? Did they fight for a worthy cause to protect the rights of their fellow citizens? Did their actions create a better society despite any flaws they may have? If they did any harm, was it overshadowed by a greater good?

Though I probably am way out of context, I cannot help but think of an old commandment against "graven images or likeness... (Exodus 20)" I think I know this verse is about idols and worshipping people rather than God. But perhaps there's something  to learn about human nature and statues. The fewer the better I say. Nations need their stories to forge a culture. But nations are about all the people -- not just a few public servants. And, although we may appreciate the good that others have done, let us not idolize them because whatever good leaders do, they do so with the help of millions of citizens.

We know about people's strengths and we know about their weaknesses. Statues become divisive--men (and the few women recognized in marble or stone) unlike God, have feet of clay. A statue becomes a cultural symbol around which people can rally like Christians hoisting a cross or patriots raising a flag -- as long as one doesn't look behind the myth and discern that sons and daughters of men are not divine. Let's face it. Human beings may rise to an occasion and lead but may very poor role models in other aspects of their lives.

Some say time heals. But the evidence suggests that many lifetimes pass until the stories statues evoke are part of history rather than symbols of present strife. The debate in the U.S. about removing certain statues is good evidence of the persistence of old divisions that have not healed.

My hope is that the battles are restricted to volleys of words rather than a hail of bullets. And that some people somewhere make peace with a meta-narrative that permits a free people to share their voices of what a statue means to them and their culture. In effect, we can place a limitation on statues with renewed narratives like the rennovation of slave barracks on an old American estate marking a part of history that should not be forgotten (Monticello). We may also view some statues as artifacts of a bygone era in museums where narratives can put matters in perspective.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Why Counselor's Tests Are Not Reliable

The reason counselor's tests are not reliable is that reliability is a property of scores not tests. This isn't a matter of semantics. Think about it this way.

Give all the students in one school an achievement test. The test items don't change so they appear stable, consistent, and reliable. However, when publishers report reliability values, they calculate the reliability statistics based on scores. Scores vary from one administration to another. If you ever took a test twice and got a different score, you know what I mean. Individuals change from day to day. And we change from year to year. Also, even a representative sample of students for a nation can be different each year.

Everytime we calculate a reliability statistic, the statistic is slightly different.

Reliability values vary with the sample.

Reliability values also vary with the method used for calculation. You can get high reliability values using coefficient alpha with scores from a one-time administration. This method is common in research articles. But you will see different values from the same research team in different samples in the same article.

If we use a split-half method, which usually calculates reliability based on a correlation between two halves of one test, then we can get a reliability value based on one administration. But that's only half a test! Researchers use the Spearman-Brown formula to correct for the shortened half-test problem- but that's just an estimate of what the full test could be.

There's also a test-retest reliability method. Give a test one time, wait awhile- maybe a week or several weeks, then retest. That gives you an estimate of stability. But if you have a good memory, you can score higher on the second test on some tests like intelligence and achievement.

By now you get the point. Any one test can be associated with a lot of reliability values. The problem is not with counselor tests. The problem can be understanding that tests do not have one reliability value. As with many things in science, there are many variables to consider when answering a question.

Reputable test publishers include reliability values in their test manuals. Counselors, Psychologists, and other users ought to know about test score reliability.

Learn more assessment and statistical concepts in

Applied Statistics: Concepts for Counselors


Monday, June 5, 2017

Understanding Human Nature: The SCOPES Model

Mike Schmidt where Greensburg KS Tornado took his house 2007
What I call the SCOPES model is an organization of and an elaboration on the way many psychologists conduct comprehensive assessments for patients. I find the approach helpful because it guides us in thinking about ourselves and others in terms of multiple dimensions rather than just one or two labels that can lead to misunderstanding or worse.

SCOPES is an acronym for five dimensions of human nature within a social context. 

SCOPES is also a metaphor for looking with an intent to carefully observe people in a richer and more diverse way than we do with a cursory glance. Once I name the six dimensions you will see how they reflect the common ways we speak about ourselves and others. What makes this aapproach uncommon is that it takes effort to look beyond that which is immediately evident and consider multiple dimensions before making “snap” judgments.

A camera metaphor may help. People are like cameras operating on default settings. Modern cameras have multiple settings but usually come with defaults. Once given life via a charge, the camera is ready to use in auto mode. In sophisticated cameras, various settings are adjusted in response to a button press, screen input, or other environmental information such as location and what’s in front of the lens.

By the time we reach elementary school age, our biological “hardware” has been modified by our experiences resulting in customized settings that enable us to adapt to our environments. Some adapt better than others. Parents, teachers, friends, and others work to “shape” us—adjust our settings throughout life. But we are not left out of the process because we too attempt to change many settings—including some over which we have little control such as date of birth.



Spirituality includes religious and other ways people find meaning in life. Most organized religious faiths include specific beliefs and practices but these are integrated with each person’s experience. For example, a person’s dreams and visions or culture influence how they pray and what they identify as right and wrong. Atheists and those with nontraditional spirituality may describe meaningful experiences in the beauty of nature and music. For some, the spiritual dimension is so vital to their identity that it dominates their clothing, communicated beliefs, daily practices, interactions with others, and what they eat.


It doesn’t take long to form an impression of a person’s general intelligence. Sometimes we are awed and sometimes—not so much. But there’s more to cognition than solving problems on intelligence tests. We can include many neuropsychological processes such as memory, attention, language skills, visual-spatial skills as well as cognitive biases and prejudices. 

Some aspects of cognition have a huge impact on identity such as extreme deficits in attention span, incredible ability to solve complex problems, or persistent declines in memory for self and others.


I used the letter O so it works with the acronym. Essentially, people may be described in terms of a few or many durable traits like the famous Big Five: 
Openness: intelligent, imaginative, insightful
Conscientious: organized, thorough, planners
Extraversion: talkative, outgoing, energetic, assertive
Agreeable: forgiving, sympathetic, kind, affectionate
Neuroticism (v. stability) tense, moody, anxious

There are other traits or characteristics that may be added like dominance and psychopathy. People are different. We usually act in fairly predictable ways--habit patterns and traits that are part of who we are.


We all come with bodies and many of us with less than culturally desirable bodies protest that we are more than mere bodies. We want to be known for what’s inside. Nevertheless, our physiology is a critical part of who we are. Drives for hunger, thirst, sleep, and sex vary from person to person and those biological factors vary for each of us during a day, week, or year. Measures of biological status can change and influence other aspects of who we are- height, weight, blood pressure and more. Biology shapes our identity and we influence our biology and that of others.

We know that despite protests, people think of others in terms of a biological factor like blindness or deafness or another challenge. Some have a mental health diagnosis and are referred to by that diagnosis such as alcoholics or Schizophrenics. Some are known by a disease they have or survived such as cancer. One aspect of our entire personal identity can be a physiological status that is defining or confining. We know that we and others are more than a biological fact but somehow, we often fail to think beyond the “P” dimension.

E   EMOTIONS or feelings

Our emotions influence our identity and our judgments about others. There are many ways to show our emotions. Psychological scientists disagree on what may constitute core emotions. As a psychologist, I was tuned in to sadness, anxiety, and anger as well as joy and a sense of calm. More common emotions include fear, worry, hate, guilt, and that complex we call love. Feelings are critical to understanding who we are and why people do what they do.


The people in our lives and where we live out our day-to-day existence influences who we are even as we influence others. Our personal timeline is a factor too. We and others see common threads of who we are since childhood but we also see changes. Looking back, we may see events, people, or places that resulted in major changes in who we are today. Like many immigrants, the move from one country to another was a big deal for me and my parents.

Our relationships matter. Relationships affect our spiritual faith, thoughts, feelings, behavior patterns and even our health. A recently divorced cantankerous fifty-year old man with a history of alcohol abuse may feel anger, distress, and worry. A 35 year-old woman may feel happy and enjoy a sense of freedom as she boards a cruise with a friend. People are different in their relationships. Some feel liberated by divorce whilst others feel devastated. Some worry about finding a mate whilst others intentionally live a single life. Some prefer frequent interaction with friends whilst others require large periods of aloneness.


The SCOPES model is a way of organizing information about ourselves and others. It is a way of recognizing we are complex beings who change in many ways. We respond to others and our environments in ways that change us. And we have an effect on others and our environment. At any given point, a few dimensions may be more important than others such as when we feel depressed at the loss of a loved one or celebrate a birthday.

We should also be aware that activity in one or two dimensions affects the other dimensions even when we are not aware of the effects. A loud noise like a gunshot can produce fear, thoughts of safety, memories of past terror, crouching, increased heart rate and even a cry for divine intervention.


I have applied this model to moral-social judgments in A House Divided and elsewhere.

Those familiar with psychology will recognize the common Cognitive-Affective-Behavior constructs in Cognitive-Behavioral-Therapy and attitude theory. Most clinicians have coursework in the biological basis of behavior. Some, but not all, also consider spirituality as relevant to understanding people and their well-being. Many will also recognize the importance of the environment, which I include in the Social dimension. I have also been influenced by the BASIC-ID of Arnold Lazarus—a part of his work in Multimodal Therapy and Kurt Levin’s field theory or concept of lifespace.

Sutton, Geoffrey W. A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2016. Also available on AMAZON.

You can read about tests and survey items to measure the SCOPES dimensions in my 2017 book, Creating Surveys. Available on AMAZON

Is Your Moral Lens in Focus?

I used Autofocus to capture this tiger in India

News reports documenting the killing of children tug deeply at our most basic impulse to care for the young and vulnerable. Many of us identify unfair treatment and at least give a nod of support to those who seek to remedy injustice. It is no secret that people disagree about the right way to solve social problems. Matters of right and wrong are the stuff of morality. And matters of right and wrong often connect people with similar religious and political beliefs.

I have drawn upon the research of Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues when writing about moral perspectives as formulated in moral foundations theory. The six moral foundations provide a useful way to consider various social-moral issues. In this post, I review the six moral foundations. In A House Divided, I applied these six foundations to show how different tribes of Christians argue about such divisive issues as birth control, abortion, and sex education.

I begin with a metaphor. The human moral response is like setting the focus on a digital camera. Many of us view life using autofocus. That works most of the time when we live in the culture where we were raised. But at other times, we need to reset the focus to a particular option or do the hard work of manual focus.

It turns out that most people draw upon a few options when arguing about morality. People have their favorite settings. Some use more than others. According to Haidt and his colleagues, liberals tend to rely on two or three settings—Care/Harm, Fairness, and sometimes Liberty. While not excluding these two or three options, conservatives may select from another two or three—Authority, Loyalty, and Purity.

Unlike cameras, when it comes to humans, we have powerful emotions like love, fear, and anger driving the arguments for right and wrong. Some of us hammer away at one or two points regardless of what others say. Unfortunately, when people latch on to a reason or two, they don't let go. Once committed, other reasons are ignored.

The Six Moral Foundations

1. Care/ Harm
Caring is motivated by the complex emotion of love and affection. Loving parents also become very angry when perceiving threats to their families and loved ones. The natural love that embodies care and protection for children can be expanded to kinship groups and cultures. It is not surprising that family metaphors arise in religious and political writings.

2. Fairness and Justice
We learn about playing fair as children. Those who break the rules are punished in various ways. Most learn it is wrong to cheat. Cheating and discrimination are close. People who seek justice may often use peaceful means yet righteous anger can flare and motivate more aggressive action.

3. Authority/Rebellion
Respect for authority is not only a strong moral impulse but it can be foolhardy to rebel in some settings. For some, the moral value of respecting those in authority is a core value. Feelings of respect for authority can be increased by feeling fear and awe. Disrespect can lead to powerful and destructive righteous anger toward the disrespectful. Look for words such as respect, deference, arrogance, pride, awe, humility and authority.

4. Loyalty/Betrayal
Loyalty is motivated by love and betrayal by hate. Some people constantly test the nature of their relationships in terms of loyalty and betrayal concerns. At the national level, betrayal is treason.

5. Liberty/Oppression
People are motivated to be free, independent and unbound. Laws, policies, and unwritten social norms can restrict where certain classes of people can live and what they can do. People celebrate the joy of freedom following oppression. Righteous anger leads to overthrowing oppressive regimes.

6. Purity, Sanctity/Impurity, Disgust
Children learn early in life to clean up and avoid germ-infested matter. We humans have a built-in yuk response to various bodily fluids and other substances. It isn’t long until lessons about being physically clean generalize to call certain behavior or activities dirty, filthy, perverted, disgusting, and unclean. And it is not much of a leap to label people who engage in such behavior or activities as unclean, unworthy, disgusting, perverts, and so on. Religious and social rules as well as laws banning certain activities can be the result of motivations to purify a culture. In the extreme, righteous anger using the language of cleansing is a thinly veiled way of disguising the killing of people as a moral duty.

To find how we agree or disagree we must listen to the reasons given and pay attention to the power of emotion. But then we will still need a way forward by relying on principles and weighing consequences.


Haidt, Jonathan. The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment. Psychological Review 108 (2001) 814–834.

Sutton, Geoffrey W. A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2016. Also available on AMAZON.

Read a review of Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind.

Find more about examining cultures at this website