Science in Christian Perspective


Behavioral Psychology in Christian Perspective
Department of Psychology 
Asbury College, 
Wilmore, Kentucky 40390

From: JASA 24 (December 1972): 144-147

The philosophical assumptions made by behavioral psychology as a science and the application of behavioral psychology in behavior modification are examined, it is concluded that behavioral psychology and Christianity are complementary rather than conflicting when viewed in the proper perspective.

Behavioral psychology, which is the modern counterpart of Watson's behaviorism, is described by such terms as objective, experimental, scientific, laboratory, and operational. The impact of behaviorism on modern American psychology has been great; in fact most introductory psychology textbooks define psychology as the science of behavior. Behavioral psychology is viewed by many, both within psychology and within the church, as being incompatible with Christianity because of its philosophical assumptions, and competitive with Christianity in applying its knowledge in behavior modification.

There are many approaches to the study of man, such as through religion, literature, history, sociology, anthropology, biology, chemistry, and physics, as well as psychology; and each, by itself, represents an incomplete study of man. Some have proposed a redefinition of psychology so that it will not he hound only to the investigation of behavior using only the scientific method. The general position taken here is that it is not necessary to redefine these approaches to the study of man (which complement each other); and if we attempt to redefine each of them to he a complete study of man in itself, the potential contributions to the understanding of man made by each of them will be lessened. Each approach, in emphasizing one aspect of man, has the greatest potential for making contributions in that particular area, although there is always the danger that people working in a given area will overemphasize its relative importance. Specifically, the thesis of this paper is that Christianity and behavioral psychology are not conflicting, but rather that they are complementary, and that the reason they are so often seen as being in conflict is that there is a misunderstanding of the basic assumptions and aims of behavioral psychology. This misunderstanding is common to both those who call themselves behavioral psychologists and those who call themselves Christians.

The Philosophical Level

Any system must begin with a set of philosophical presuppositions although these are not often stated explicitly. Kaufman (1968), however, lists the following basic assumptions: (a) The universe is uniform and permanent, (b) the world can be known, (c) the universe is determined, and (d) events do not occur without being caused. The behavioral psychologist builds his structure of laws of behavior with these assumptions as a foundation, and thus, his system of knowledge is only as correct and complete as his initial set of assumptions. That is, if any of these assumptions are incorrect or incomplete, so is the behavioral psychologist's system.

The Universe

Since the basis of all science is observation, the term "universe" or "world" in the above set of assumptions is generally taken to mean the physical universe which can he known through the senses. Any concept which does not have some observable components is a scientifically meaningless concept because it cannot be investigated by means of the scientific method. If the scientist further assumes that there is nothing more than the material world which he can know through his senses, this assumption is in conflict with those made by Christianity which assumes a spiritual as well as material dimension. The scientist should remember that this further assumption, although parsimonious, is not a necessary assumption for him to make in order for him to pursue knowledge through the scientific method. He should also he aware that his conflict with Christianity is between what he and the Christians assume, and not between Christianity and anything that he has proven by the scientific method.

Since the Christian assumes a spiritual dimension to life, as well as a physical dimension, he may view the causes of behavior as represented in Figure 1. Some causes of behavior have already been discovered, such as various "laws" of learning, the behavioral effects of some drugs, and the effect of certain types of damage to the nervous system.

The potentially accessible causes of behavior include those which are in principle discoverable by the scientific method; that is, they have some publicly observable or potentially publicly observable components. Since all science starts with the observations of the scientist and these causes have observable components, it is a matter of time and experimentation until they are discovered to have an effect on behavior. For example, these might include such things as certain types of radiation influencing behavior or some as yet unknown childhood experience determining adult behavior.

There may also he causes of behavior which are in principle not accessible to the scientific method and these would include such things as spiritual forces. Since we are unable to manipulate these spiritual forces at will, we cannot conduct carefully controlled experiments with spiritual forces as independent variables to see what their effect on behavior is. Since spiritual forces do not have observable components, they cannot he investigated directly; however, one may be able to investigate some of these indirectly, such as through changes that take place in an individual's personality profile following certain spiritual experiences if an adequate operational definition of the spiritual experiences can be made.

Thus, the task for behavioral psychology as a science lies in increasing the number of known causes of behavior by conducting experiments involving the potentially accessible causes. In a Christian perspective, behavioral psychology is, of necessity, an incomplete 

Christianity and behavioral psychology are not conflicting, but rather are complementary.

study since some causes of behavior are beyond study by means of the scientific method.


The assumption of determinism, although an ancient problem, is one currently generating much interest. It generates much uneasiness when applied to human behavior because it implies that men behave like robots, having no spontaneity, creativity, or choice. Skinner (1948) in his utopian novel, Walden Two, makes this one of the basic assumptions of the hook, and he has now written a whole book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, (Skinner, 1971) dealing explicitly with these assumptions. He has stated that he regards himself simply as an organism responding to its environment. His behavior bears this out; he has a clock on his office wall which starts whenever he turns on his desk lamp, and whenever it has run twelve hours, he plots a point on his cumulative response curve (Evans, 1968). He can then look at his cumulative response curve of number of pages written during each twelve hour period and see what his rate of responding has been over any period of time, thus determining whether or not his environment has been efficient in producing his verbal behavior.

Since the concept of freedom is at the very center of the democratic form of government, if scientific behavioral control is a threat to the concepts of free choice and free will, then the behavioral scientists should discuss the implications of their work as Andrews and Karlins (1971) point out. Does an election simply mean that the person elected had the most effective means of behavioral control at the time of the election? Can the imprisonment of criminals be called justice? Even though the determinist might concede that punishment might be used to change behavior, although it is quite inefficient if used alone, it certainly could not he called justice. Since the individual's behavior is completely determined, he is not responsible for his actions and should not he punished for them. If human freedom is a myth, we cannot even talk about responsibility or justice on the human level and certainly not on the divine level (Hammes, 1971). The concept of "divine justice" becomes one of God dispensing eternal punishment to someone for something for which he was not responsible.

Sanford and Wriglstsman (1970) emphasize that the behavioral scientist must be aware that he has adopted determinism only as a working strategy, regardless of his own personal philosophical convictions. The behavioral scientist acts as if man's world and his behavior were completely determined and as if he is capable of discovering these natural laws so that everything, including human behavior, is completely predictable. He must realize that there is no way he can know on the basis of scientific evidence whether man is free or determined, so he adopts as a working strategy, but not as a final truth, the principle of determinism. As long as the behavioral scientist maintains this position, he is not in conflict with Christiaoty; the conflict begins when he stops viewing this assump tion as a working assumption and starts believing it as a final truth.

The scientist should be aware that his conflict with Christianity is between what he and the Christian assume, and not between Christianity and anything that he has proven by the scientific method.

If all of the above assumptions are viewed as philosophy of life or some statement of absolute truth, there would be some conflict between Christianity and modern behavioral psychology. Some behavioral psychologists take the above assumptions quite seriously; however, Marx and Hillix (1963) conclude that the metaphysical behaviorism of J. B. Watson has all but disappeared, while the behavioristic methodology has remained as behaviorism's lasting contribution. The assumptions above must be viewed as the scientist's "articles of faith," not implying any mysterious system of beliefs, but simply as unproven, initial assumptions taken at face value which are necessary in the pursuit of factual knowledge. These necessary scientific assumptions must he recognized as only working assumptions with the resulting body of knowledge only as correct and complete as the initial set of assumptions on which it is based.

The Applied Level

While behavioral psychology is involved as a science in discovering more and more causes of behavior, it is being increasingly applied in behavior modification. The many types of behavior therapies which have grown so much in popularity in the last few years are direct applications of behavioral principles discovered in the psychological laboratory. The Christian often views these with some suspicion because they are seen as modifying the individual's behavior without doing anything about the underlying spiritual problem, so that the individual no longer feels a need to do anything about the spiritual problem.

Although man is a whole, those interested in helping him have specialized in treating one aspect of him, just as the various disciplines have specialized in studying one aspect of him. In its application, behavioral psychology must work with at least Christianity and medicine to attempt to treat the whole person. The primary task of Christianity is to treat spiritual problems, the primary task of medicine is to treat physical problems, and the primary task of psychology is to treat behavioral problems. Any treatment to he complete should include treatment in all areas because, although a problem may arise in only one area, as time goes on it is likely to involve other areas. If only one area is treated, the probability of a lasting cure is decreased because the problem in the other areas tends to recreate the original problem or one related to it.

For instance, if a person makes inappropriate internal responses to conflict or stress, an ulcer may develop. If a medical doctor treats only the ulcer, it is likely to heal, but unless the person learns to handle conflict or is removed from the stressful situation, the ulcer is likely to soon recur. On the other hand, physical problems may lead to behavioral problems as in the organic psychoses or the taking of psychoactive drugs which alter states of consciousness and can bring about abnormal behavior. Of course, it is well known that physical problems often lead to spiritual ones, so whenever a member of a congregation becomes ill, the minister calls on him, realizing that in time the person with a physical problem is likely to have a spiritual one as well.

Behavioral problems may lead to spiritual problems, as in the instance of the individual who has a phobia which may simply be a conditioned fear response. When he receives spiritual help without extinguishing the conditioned fear response and finds that he still has the phobia, he begins to feel guilty because lie believes that as a Christian he should not be afraid. Thus, he begins to doubt the power of Christianity when his problem is not a spiritual one at all, but a behavioral one of making the wrong conditioned response. Spiritual problems, on the other hand, may lead to behavioral problems, as is well known in the case of guilt being found in the etiology of so many neurotic and functional psychotic reactions. This fact may also help to account for some of the difficulties in the treatment of the mentally ill. It is a well documented fact that most psychologists and psychiatrists have difficulty in bringing about lasting cure rates above the spontaneous remission rate, and in the framework of this paper one would say that it is because they attempt to treat the behavioral problems but ignore the spiritual ones.

Some Christians believe that a spiritual experience should automatically solve all behavioral problems, but this is not the case. Since a spiritual experience is not expected to correct all physical problems, such as diabetes or broken bones, there is no reason to expect that all learned inappropriate responses will suddenly be changed. Sometimes physical healing does take place with spiritual healing, but this is the exception rather than the rule, and the same is true of the solution of behavioral problems. A person given only spiritual help, and no help in breaking old habits or solving the other behavioral problems lie has, is likely to soon he in need of spiritual help again.

The specific task of the behavioral psychologist then is to treat the behavioral problems although, of course, the adequately trained Christian behavioral psychologist is likely to deal with spiritual problems as well. The Christian psychiatrist with his training in medicine, specializing in the treatment of the mentally ill, may deal with all three areas himself. The behavioral psychologist may use any means available to treat the behavioral problems, although since he is putting the emphasis on changing behavior, he is more likely to use the behavior therapies than those therapies which rely more on catharsis.

The primary task of Christianity is to treat spiritual problems, the primary task of medicine is to treat physical problems, and the primary task of psychology is to treat behavioral problems. Any treatment to be complete should include all areas.


Behavioral psychology does not conflict with Christianity at the philosophical level as long as it is kept in mind that its assumptions are a set of working assumptions necessary for the pursuit of knowledge by the scientific method. Also, in the applied area it complements Christianity in that it enables the whole person to be treated more adequately by receiving behavioral help along with spiritual help.


Andrews, L .M., & Karlins, M. Requiem for democracy? New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.
Evans, B. I. B. F. Skinner: The man and his ideas. New York: Dutton, 1968.
Hammes, J. A. Humanistic psychology: A Christian interpretation. New York: Grime & Stratton, 1971.
Kanfmann, H. Introduction to the study of human behavior. Philadelphia: Saunders, 1968.
Marx, M. H., & Hills, W .Systems and theories of psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963.
Sanford, F. H., & Wrightsman, L. S. Psychology: A Scientific study of man. Belmont, Calif.: Brooks/Cole, 1970.
Skinner, B. F. Walden two. New York: Macmillan, 1948.
Skinner, B. F. Beyond freedom and dignity. New York: Knopf, 1971.