Science in Christian Perspective




From: JASA 18 (June 1966): 33-35.

During 1964, there were a number of short articles, editorials and letters to the editor in the A.S.A. Journal questioning the compatability of religion and social work, especially the psycho-analytic variety. This paper is written in response to those questions.

It has been proposed that every goal of social work is stated in either the Old or New Testaments.1 Social work began with the Church long before the Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1601, and yet in contemporary society there seems to be many conflicts between the two.

The primary conflict appears to be based on the fact that, to a great extent, social work treatment is based on the theory of psychoanalysis which, obviously, is directly related to its creator, Sigmund Freud. He stated the following in his New Introductory Lectures to Psycho-analysis:

Religious doctrines carry with them the stamp of the times In which they originated, the ignorant childhood days of the human race. Its consolations deserve no trust. Experience teaches us that the world is not a nursery. The ethical commands, to which religion seeks to lend its weight, require some other foundation instead, for human society cannot do without them, and it Is dangerous to link up obedience to them with religious bellef.2

*Alan R. Gruber Is Assistant Professor of Social Welfare and Sociology, Eastern Nazarene College, Wollaston, Massachusetts. Caseworker, Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Brockton, Massachusetts.

In Civilization and Its Discontents,3 Freud calls religion "patently infantile" and "incongruous with reality." Quite obviously, he believed that there was very little of value in religion and the negative aspects far outweighed the positive. He did, however, recognize some of the latter such as the fact that religion and subsequent submission to God may save some people from neurosis. As a result of these ideas, there has been a significant disparity between religion and psycho-analytic thought based on the fact that Freud ' as an individual, opposed the acceptance of religious beliefs.

Freud, himself, however, anticipated the fact that there would be some who would attack his brainchild, psycho-analysis, on the basis of his personal feelings about religion. He wrote in The Future of An Illusion:

it cannot be denied that psycho-analysis Is my creation, it has met with plenty of mistrust and ill-will. If I now come forward with such displeasing pronouncements [making reference to his renunciation of religion], people will be only too ready to make a displacement from my person to psycho-analysis. "Now we see," they will say, "where psychoanalysis leads to. The mask has fallen; it leads to a denial of God and of a moral ideal, as we always suspected. To keep us from this discovery we have been deluded into thinking that psycho-analysis has no weltanschauug [world-view an integrated view of the world] and never can construct one."

An outcry of this kind win surely be disagreeable to me on account of my many fellow-workers, some of whom do not by any means share my attitude to the problems of religion. But psycho-analysis has already weathered many storms and now it must brave this fresh one. In point of fact psychoanalysis is a method of research.4

It can be seen, then, that, even according to Freud, himself, there is nothing within the framework of psycho-analysis which would cause any great disparity between it and religion. The fact is that, in an earlier section of the same book, Freud, though negatively, pointed out some of the value of religious belief and commitment. He states that ". . . religious ideas have arisen from . . . the necessity of defending oneself against the crushingly superior force of nature."5 ,

It may be said that, in essence, the argument against psycho-analysis by some religious leaders and organizations is not based on an understanding of the theory itself but rather are arguments founded on history and statistics.

Historically, those who would attack the value of psycho-analysis point out that it has been at odds with the Church almost from the day of its creation. Church leaders, since its beginning, have fought against its acceptance to the point that we can validly consider the opposition to, in large part, be adhering to tradition rather than conviction. It seems to this writer, that those who oppose the theory of psycho-analysis purely on religious grounds do not, in fact, understand that which they are condemning.

Statistically, we can state that most psycho-analysts are "non-believers" and, perhaps, even opposed to religion in the tradition of Freud. The religionists, if you will point out that those analysts who are not overtly opposed to religion at least remain silent but generally do not accept the doctrine of divine healing through a direct work of God. To state, however, that psycho-analysis and religion are not amenable because most psycho-analysts are not religious is as fallacious as stating that evangelical Christianity and science is not amenable because most scientists are not evangelical Christians.

There are, however, many other problems in the social work-religion relationship. Clergymen were originally, almost the sole guardians of social welfare until about the end of World War 1. Ministers, especially, found themselves, during this period, in the position of being replaced by the new social work profession and an element of estrangement between the two professions appeared.

The clergy resented the irreverence with which they felt social workers, in general, treated religion and the estrangement became even more intense as it appeared that this new profession functioned as if it were the sole authority and possessors of all wisdom pertaining to the welfare field. As social work became more solidly established it began to attack the long established methods and techniques of the clergy and this further reinforced the schism.

Social workers, at the same time, were attempting to solidify their position in the community as knowledgeable, skilled individuals who were capable of dealing with people and the amelioration of their problems. Ministers appeared to them as both unknowledgeable and unappreciative of social work principles and seemed to be the manifestation of the very thing from which they sought emancipation.

In the years since World War I many changes have occurred in both professions. In relation to the clergy, they are, at present, neither unacquainted nor unsympathetic with scientific procedure and principles. There has been a significant improvement in the communications between the professions and now that social work has reached a higher level of maturity it is no longer threatened by other disciplines and can recognize the contributions that these disciplines, including religion, are able to make to it.

It would, however, be a gross error to state that there are no longer any problems which exist in the relationship between the two professions. There is still a great deal of misunderstanding and, in some circles, even overt hostility on the part of each toward the other. It will be necessary for both professions to make a concerted effort at reconciliation if a further improvement in the relationship is to take place.

Dr. Haskell M. Miller, Professor of Social Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary, has listed some of the problems which he feels still exist between the professions and are continuing to cause the misunderstandings. He states that many social workers perceive ministers as:

1. Having uncertain educational backgrounds. [which they do]
2. Being inclined to be carelessly sentimental in dealing with needs.
3. Relying too much on spiritual exhortation rather than on scientific skills and insights.
4. Making legalistic, judgmental, authoritarian approaches to people in ways that are dangerous and often damaging.
5. Disagreeing radically among themselves as to what are the basic criteria and essential emphases of religion.
6. Failing both in the matter of making adequate diagnostic distinctions between the types of persons and problems coming to them and in maintaining a disciplined recognition of the limitations In their individual skills and abilities to help people.6

On the other side of the coin, ministers, also, have distortions in their perception of social workers and Miller goes on to identify some of these:

1. Being too strictly humanistic in their point of view. [The preamble of the National Association of Social Workers' Code of Ethics makes reference to humanistic values in social work, however, makes no mention, whatsoever, of any spiritual criteria.]
2. Having an overly simplified and overly optimistic view of human nature.
3. Failing to take God, sin, salvation, and the spiritual side of reality sufficiently into account.
4. Seeking to substitute social adjustment for the more profound reorientations of life which people need.
5. Trying to eliminate the symptoms of guilt in persons without getting at the guilt itself and the reasons for it. 6. Ignoring the fact that people have religious needs and that many of their problems stem from deprivation in the area of these needs.7

Miller feels that the roots of the difference in opinion fall into four categories: (1) differences in interpretation and methods, (2) differences in the approach to the problems of guilt, (3) differences relating to the recognition of the necessity of maintaining safeguards and precautions for the protection of the integrity and worth of the client-parishioner, and (4) differences regarding the degree of certainty concerning the criteria of religious judgment as it pertains to the client-parishioner.8

Regarding the first, differences in interpretation and methods, although both professions are interested in helping people to function as adequately as possible, the approach of each differs at a very fundamental point. The social worker attempts to help the individual through understanding and accepting his problem and, as a result, build on his own strengths and resources. The clergyman, on the other hand, attempts to work toward a supernatural amelioration of the problem with the individual's submission to God being the primary source of solution.

In relation to problems pertaining to guilt there are also many points at which differences arise. Many social workers feel that religion, in itself, creates guilt which often will go on to disorganize and immobilize the individual. The social worker's role, when faced with a client manifesting extreme guilt feelings, is to help him understand the source of the feelings, what is involved in them, and how to handle the feelings in a constructive manner. To do this, the social worker must maintain a non-judgmental, accepting attitude toward the client neither condoning nor rejecting the behavior, values, etc. which may be an integral part of the problem. The clergyman, on the other hand, by virtue of the fact that he represents the church, cannot condone or even accept certain forms of behavior. The role of the clergyman in pastoral counseling would be to help the person realize that his guilt (unless it is neurotic in origin) is reasonable and a consequence of that person having broken a law of God. He would then lead his parishioner to the point where he could ask God for forgiveness and, as a result of that act, be relieved of not only the feelings but the guilt itself. Carrol A. Wise, author of a well-known text in pastoral counseling has stated the following:

The minister traditionally has felt that It Is a part of his task to interpret the laws of God and to lead people into a feeling of guilt where they have broken these laws. The minister has attempted to do this either by techniques of condemnation or by the opposite technique of leading people into a deeper insight into the laws of God and the realities of the human life. This second approach assumes that God himself pronounces judgment in the processes of life and the task of the minister is to help people Interpret and gain insight into their own experience.9

The third area of differences which Miller pointed to was the differences relating to the recognition of the necessity to maintain safeguards and precautions for the protection of the integrity and worth of the clientparishioner. In this area of conflict the problem is not so much what the clergyman does but rather what the social worker thinks the clergyman will do. Social workers are trained to avoid unnecessary dependency on the part of their clients; they will not intrude in the lives of people unless they have permission or it is of vital necessity such as in protective or correctional social work. They also are leary of making referrals to persons of unknown or dubious competency. They recognize that most clergymen certainly mean well but social workers are generally fearful that the clergy is not as concerned about these principles as they are. It would seem reasonable that since there are no widely accepted standards of preparation for clergymen and no official policing body within their profession, these fears are well-founded.

Lastly, concerning the criteria of religious judgment, social workers deal with people on the basis of need, usually without regard for religious background. They believe in the client's right of self-determination and, as a result, wilI not discuss religious values, doctrine, dogma, practice, standards, etc. which often are part of the very foundation of a person's life, unless discussion of these topics is necessary during the treatment process. It is not so easy, however, for clergymen to be as concerned with the concept of self-determination. By virtue of their profession they are often rigid, restricted and authoritarian in their approach. They are much more prone to impose their particular orientation to religion upon their parishioner and as part of their interaction invoke value judgments and specific direction.

It would be a gross mistake to assume that all social workers hold these opinions about the clergy or to assume that there are not many clergymen who overcome these problems in their pastoral ministry. The important point is, however, that these problems in the relationship are widespread and serve to create even further problems in the working relationship between the two professions and in the implementation of the skills of both professions in the application of their own techniques.

As a result of the problems between the professionals, then, we see the existence of what appears to be an impassable barrier in the relationship of the disciplines themselves. The author believes that these barriers are based almost entirely on ignorance. Social workers would do well to understand religion and theology and the clergy would do equally as well to understand social work and its psychoanalytic foundations.

It seems to be an age-old tradition within religious circles that determines whatever is different is automatically bad. Christians, in general, would do well to understand that which is new and use it to further their understanding of God, religion and the world rather than, as so often in the past, hiding their heads in the sand. It would seem that the best way to change the situation, then, would be for the members of both professions to make a concerted effort at establishing ongoing and meaningful relationships with each other. Continued name-calling and/or denial of each other's presence will never resolve the situation. Hopefully, as a result of meaningful interaction, both disciplines would increase their effectiveness and better serve both God and man.


1. Well, Frank L. "Cooperation of Church and Social Work," Proceedings of the National Conference of Social Work. 1950. New York: Columbia University Press. 1949.

2. Freud, Sigmund. New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Translated by W. J. H. Sprott. London: Hogarth Press. 1933. p. 215.

3. Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Translated by J. Riviere. New York: Cape and Smith. 1930.

4. Strachey, James (ed.). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 21. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis. 1961. pp. 36-37.

5. Ibid. p. 21.

6. Miller, Haskell M. Compassion and Community. New York: Association Press. 1961. pp. 163-164.

7. Ibid. p. 164.

8. Ibid. pp. 165-167.

9. Wise, Carroll A. Pastoral Counseling: Its Theory and Practice. New York: Harper and Brothers. 1951. p. 89.