Science in Christian Perspective




From: JASA 19 (June 1967): 48-49.

It is a generally known fact that many professional psychologists and psychotherapists hold rather strong negative biases with respect to the religious beliefs of their patients. These biases appear to spring from many sources. To some, firm religious conviction indicates a neurotic and infantile need to depend on a higher power for the solution of life problems. It is asserted by these therapists that such dependency is detrimental to the emotional health and stability of the patient. In a similar vein some therapists regard religious beliefs as absurd superstitions that enslave people, thus preventing them from realizing their full potential and hindering their growth along more fruitful lines. For other therapists there seems to be a strong need to vindicate their personal rejection of religious beliefs by convincing others that there is nothing to the standards which they were taught in their youth.

But, from whatever source, it is a well established fact that many mental health professionals hold relatively strong negative biases against religious beliefs. I recall sitting in a diagnostic staff meeting of a large hospital in which a psychiatrist was presenting the case history and initial interview data on a patient that was to be examined that morning. The psychiatrist noted in his report that the patient exhibited evidence of religious delusions. At this point another staff member questioned the reporter as to what form the religious delusions had taken. The psychiatrist stated that the patient said he had accepted Christ as his personal savior, had been born again, often talked with God, and was praying that God would help him with his problems so that he might soon leave the hospital. The psychiatrist looked up and said, "I'd call that a religious delusion. Wouldn't you?" The other staff member, however, came to the patient's defense. He asked, "Where is the patient from?" When the reply was given that the patient was from a Southern state,

*C. Eugene Walker is chairman of the division of Education and Psychology at Westmont College, Santa Barbara, California.

the psychiatrist said, "That's not a religious delusion. Everybody down there says that."

Conservative Christians have quite rightly taken exception to the hostile biases held by some psychologists and psychiatrists toward Christian faith. The scientific evidence available is extremely confused and conflicting and by no means clearly supportive of the psychologist's contentions. The therapist's opinion very obviously lies in the area of an unscientific but nevertheless tenaciously held bias. The conservative Christian, therefore, is behaving appropriately when he objects to these biases and criticizes therapists who see a part of their job as removing any vestige of religious belief from the patient before he is considered completely well. Fortunately, this practice, once relatively common, is currently being found in a steadily decreasing number of professionals and is no longer nearly as prevalent as it was.

However, as a Christian psychologist, I think it imperative that we realize, as in most cases of bias, that the bias held by many psychotherapists does contain a small element of truth. It is true that if one examines certain segments of Christianity, especially what might be termed the ultra-fundamentalist segment, one begins to feel that successful performance of religious obligation in this group appears to impose upon the person a kind of pseudo-neuroticism. I refer, for example, to certain religious groups in which an excessive display of emotionality is considered an absolute indicator of spiritual depth and maturity. In an effort to be accepted by one's peers and to feel properly "Christian," many people in these groups tend to develop a rather hollow exuberance and a type of compulsive spirituality. A related feature, of course, is the extent to which some of these groups rely on various kinds of emotional signs and "leadings" of the Holy Spirit without testing these for reality or appropriateness against the clear and revealed teaching of the Holy Scripture. Many excesses and unwise decisions have been later passed off with the comment, "Well, it was just the way I felt led."

A second feature often noted in these groups is that there is an enforced kind of rigidity and compulsivity built into the practice of Christianity. That is, true Christianity seems to inhere in obeying a number of very explicit rules without flexibility, deviation, or compromise of any kind. Frequently these rules are on major points, well demanding compulsive care and observance. However, they sometimes include minute and inconsequential rules - in some cases, for example, even governing the use of certain terms, phrases, or expressions peculiar to a given congregation or group and to no other. This type of rigidity produces a kind of conventionality and lack of originality that saps the personal vitality of the individual.

A further matter has to do with the extreme emphasis in some circles which is Placed on the shortcomings and guilt of the person in his failure to be perfect. Sermons are preached and advice given to the effect that sin is sin in the eyes of God and that the slightest deviation, the slightest mistake, the slightest shortcoming, and in some cases even thinking about such a shortcoming, is the same as actually committing a destructive sin. That a person thoroughly indoctrinated with this attitude develops a sense of foreboding, uncomfortableness, general dissatisfaction and unhappiness should not come as a surprise when we realize that in the vicissitudes of everyday life no one can achieve complete, absolute perfection. It might also be mentioned that a rather unfortunate outcome of this state of affairs is that some people take this philosophy literally. When they realize that it is impossible to be perfect in relatively small things, it then becomes increasingly difficult to resist more serious temptations because, after all, "sin is sin" and what difference does it make if you can't be perfect anyway.

Lastly is the fact often commented upon that in some circles true Christian living demands severe curtailment of pleasure in order to be "separate from the world" and "avoid contamination." I have been painfully aware of this matter in working as a youth director and a youth counselor for a number of years. When a Christian young person decides to date a member of the opposite sex, he suddenly discovers that, according to his religious beliefs, on most evenings there is virtually no place to take his date. All too often I have seen sincere young people, frustrated in this manner, end up sitting in front of a TV or in a parked car, necking and petting, which would seem to be a much more inappropriate and inconsistent form of behavior but one which is not so obvious to others as attending the local movie theater or some such affair and, therefore, tacitly becomes acceptable.

This extreme deprivation of pleasure is very definitely in contradiction to the basic principles of mental health which require that the individual have adequate relaxation, refreshment, and recreation. It is not surprising that many Christians, both young people and adults, occasionally go on what might be called "binges" of pleasure seeking which are later referred to as periods of backsliding and repented of only to be repeated again. This kind of cyclical (mountain peak- valley) experience is not uncommon in the lives of many Christians.

Lest any misunderstand or take undue exception to these comments, let it be quickly asserted that I do not mean to imply that every instance that might be subsumed under these general points is neurotic and ought to be eliminated from the church. I am not opposed to emotionality in the expression of religious beliefs, not even intense emotional experience if it is genuine and healthy. I am not opposed to rules or principles on important points which are firmly held without compromise in the Christian life. But I am opposed to the imposition of unnecessary rules and the lack of flexibility in dealing with situations that may, for some reason, fall outside the scope of a commonly held principle. I certainly do not question that we need to be aware of our shortcomings and that on many occasions realistic guilt must be faced and dealt with, but I do question the manner in which our obligations are sometimes presented and the oppressive guilt often unnecessarily placed on the shoulders of Christians. And finally, I am not at all suggesting that we grant license to every form of lust and desire, but, rather, that when the deprivation of pleasure is seen as a Christian virtue and a necessity for a consistent Christian testimony, that this be done thoughtfully and in a manner that will truly glorify God.

The question is basically not one of principle but of emphasis; of interpretation and application of principle. It is perhaps time that we as Christians re-examine our testimony in the light of the grain of truth that has led to the biases among psychologists against Christian belief. It is perhaps time that we revaluate standards formulated in the 1890's and early 1900's which in terms of society today may be unnecessarily forcing a form of pseudo-neuroticism upon the Christian community. It is imperative that we do this inasmuch as this self-imposed religious neuroticism, to whatever extent it exists, has the same effect on our spiritual lives, our relationship to God, and our testimony before the world as does a genuine personality neurosis on the life of an individual so afflicted. That is, we are hindered in the full, genuine development and fulfillment of our religious commitment by the hindrances and obstacles of neurotic-like restrictions.