Science in Christian Perspective



Christianity and Psychology:
Some Reflections

Clinical Psychologist
Womack Army Hospital
Ft. Bragg, North Carolina

From: JASA 28 (September 1976): 97-100.

Basic Conflicts

As a person who is both a Christian and a clinical psychologist, I have often been discouraged because of the antagonism many of my professional colleagues have toward anything having to do with Christianity. Few of my associates are professing Christians. In spite of the numerous articles that I have encountered which attempt to make some kind of a synthesis between psychology and Christianity, I frequently wonder if there are not inherent conflicts that face any Christian psychologist-intellectual and emotional conflicts that .are greater than those that might face, e.g., a Christian engineer, chemist, architect, or physicist. I do not have any data to support this contention and I really have no interest in attempting to prove it. However, I would like to present some personal reflections on what I see as some of the basic conflicts between psychology and Christianity. First, I will examine the objections and complaints non-Christian psychologists most frequently give to explain their rejection of the Christian faith. Second, I will look at what I consider to be more basic explanations for non-Christian psychologists' rejection of Christianity-explanations that go beyond what they themselves say are their reasons for spurning Christianity. Finally, I will examine the unique problems that have faced Christian psychologists in the past and the ways in which they have typically dealt with these problems.

I realize that it is presumptuous to talk about "psychology as if it were a unified field which has a solid, unquestioned theoretical base. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that there are as many theories in psychology as there are psychologists. However, when I speak of psychology generically, I am primarily referring to psychology as applied to the therapeutic treatment of individuals and groups. And when I talk about psychologists, I am referring to those of us who use psychological skills and techniques in a clinical context. Obviously, much of what I will say can be applied to mental health professionals other than psychologists -psychiatrists any social workers, in particular. 

Explicit Objections of Non-Christian Psychologists to Christianity

There are various reasons that non-Christian psychologists give for their rejection of Christianity. In this section I examine their explicit objections-the reasons their antagonism or indifference to the Christian faith.

1. Christianity is regarded by many psychologists as intellectually unacceptable, i.e., Christianity is thought to be an intellectually naive philosophical system. In part this feeling is due to the perception of most Christians as being intellectually naive and simple. Christians are regarded as individuals who suspend all judgment (if they had any in the first place) to believe what they believe. Thus, objections are raised to issues so on. To a significant degree, these intellectual objections are based on the feeling that Christianity as a system and Christians as individuals are decidedly unscientific, if not antiscientific. Because Christian belief ultimately rests on faith (faith which cannot be substantiated "scientifically"), Christianity is regarded by many non-Christian psychologists as a man-made illusion.

2. Many of my non-Christian associates raise what I would term as humanistic objections to Christianity.
Thus, whenever these professionals see a child who has severe emotional difficulties that are caused or exacerbated by overly strict parents who happen to be professing Christians, much of the problem is attributed to the fact that the parents are Christians. Or, when a paranoid schizophrenic who beats his wife and children
countered, Christianity is held to be the guilty culprit. In other instances, the Bible is attacked by my nonChristian associates as being non-humanistic in its outlook. For example, the Old Testament accounts of the mass destruction of heathens are cited as one instance where Christian practice falls far short of even elementary humanistic ideals. Also cited as evidences of invalidity and harmfulness of Christianity are the numerous atrocities that have been committed in the name of the Christian faith-the Children's Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem witch hunts, to mention few from the remote past. of human beings.

3. Many non-Christian psychologists object to Christianity because of its exclusive claims, i.e., Christianity is the truth. Most psychologists that I know say that most things in life are relative, that what is "right" for one person may not be "right" for another person. I don't believe that most psychologists actually operate under a relativistic framework (Carl Roger, his actual writings notwithstanding, has very concrete ideas of what constitutes a good and purposeful human existence for any person). But non-Christian psychologists who try to maintain a non-judgmental (i.e., relativistic) position will typically respond to a Christian by saying that "Christianity may be a good thing for you, but it is not for me." Or, "I'm not saying  your faith is bad or wrong for you, but there are certainly many other possible ways for people to find meaning in their existence." Of course, not all psychologists main tain such an open (overtly, at least) stance on the usefulness of the Christian faith, Others such as Albert Ellis2 see any kind of religious belief as harmful and destructive to mental health. And any one connected with the behavioral sciences knows that Sigmund Freud had little sympathy for religion of any kind.3

Following from the belief of numerous psychologists that Christianity allows no relativism in human relationships is the belief that Christianity with its exclusive  claims simply does not allow individuals "freedom."  Christians are viewed as people who are rigidly tied to a system of rules that they must follow. This Christians do not have the freedom to choose what they can  do with their lives. They are not free to choose their art own morality or their own lifestyle.4

More Basic Explanations

Certainly this brief survey of some of the arguments  my non-Christian colleagues advance against Christianity does not exhaust the allegations made against Christianity and/or Christians. I am sure that many of the  criticisms that I have mentioned have been heard by almost every Christian at one time or another. However,  what I have described is what non-Christian psychologists say are their reasons for not accepting the Christian faith. Speaking as one on the other side of the fence, I believe that there are more basic explanations  for non-Christian psychologists' indifference or antagonism toward Christianity.

1. Psychologists are often hostile to Christianity  because of their firmly held belief that man is totally responsible for his own fate. To them, Christianity only destroys the sense of self-determination which a man needs if he is to improve himself. I realize that by saying this I am going counter to the deterministic philosophy of a psychologist such as B.F. Skinner. Skinner has made it quite clear in various writings that  he believes that all human behavior is a result of  previous conditioning and experience. In this sense,  man really has no "freedom or dignity."5 However, it is also clear to me that beneath the deterministic surface of Skinner's philosophy lies a cherished belief (hope?)
 the that man can still ultimately control himself and his environment. This is one reason why Skinner has written so much about the future of man.6 He believes that man's future is ultimately dependent on man's ability to successfully control and manipulate the conditioning of human beings.

Other prominent psychotherapists are equally convinced of man's ability to be the "master of his fate."  Albert Ellis7 considers religion to be destructive to mental health primarily because it fosters a sense of other dependence. This other-dependence, according to Ellis,  is a counter-productive force in helping an individual to achieve mental health in that it teaches a person  -that he cannot change either his self-concept or his  behavior. Freud is as strict a determinist as Skinner, because Freud believed that the way we are as adults is primarily dependent on our past experience, particularly our experience in early life. But even Freud cannot admit that man is a helpless victim of previous history. For Freud, man can assume responsibility and control of his life-principally by understanding how much of  his behavior results from early experience.8

Thus, for most psychologists, Christianity is seen as an abnegation of responsibility. If man cannot be responsible for himself, who is going to take care of him?

Psychologists are often hostile to Christianity because of their firmly held belief that man is totally responsible for his own fate.

2. Another reason for the small number of Christian psychologists is psychologists' fervent belief that man is basically good. Many factors other than man's innate nature are postulated to expain man's rather obvious failings. For example, much of man's behavior can be explained away by conditioning (Skinner) or early experience (Freud). Paradoxically, psychologists defend man's total autonomy except when one brings up the fact that man has failed miserably, both on a personal and social level. This failure to recognize the inherent evil present in man is somewhat the same phenomenon that Karl Menninger has recently described in his book, Whatever Became of Sin ?9

Why is it that non-Christian psychologists react so vigorously to the suggestion that man may not be "basically" good and that man is sinful? One reason is that this admission would imply that we cannot completely control our lives. If we are sinners, we need help, help from outside ourselves. And this is unacceptable to the majority of psychologists that I know, But more importantly, and at the risk of sounding overly simplistic, I believe that what really bothers nonChristian psychologists about terms like sin and sinner is that it strikes at basic self-pride. One of the most difficult things that any individual can do is to admit to himself what he is. This is so painful to most of us that we devise countless ways to avoid even thinking about who we are. Admitting to ourselves and others that we are sinners (and here I am talking about a mind-wrenching experience, not the smug, superficial confession that so often takes place) humbles us. One thing that modem psychologists value in themselves and others is pride. Without denying that pride in one's-self or in one's social group certainly can be a good thing, I am struck by the fact that in all my readings in the field of psychology I have frequently come upon authors who positively valued pride in both self and others, but I have seldom come upon nonChristian psychologists who highly valued humility, either in themselves or in their patients. Humility implies knowledge of one's sinfulness, and sinfulness is one thing that most psychologists deny (consciously or unconsciously) in themselves and others.

3. Most psychologists are intelligent, sophisticated people. In spite of this (or maybe because of it), psychologists are the same as any human in that they are sensitive to what other people think of them. They are particularly sensitive to what their peers think of them. Most psychologists, I think, have conditioned themselves to believe that if they are "religious" or "Christian", then their colleagues will look down on them. Believing in Christianity, so the reasoning goes, can be equated with believing in the literal truth of a fairy tale. Christianity is part of earlier life, when there was still a need to have some kind of myth to believe in. But now that we are mature and have achieved a more complete understanding of human nature, how can any rational adult possibly believe in an obvious fairy tale? And so the argument goes. But the point that I want to make is that many nonChristian psychologists will not even consider the possible truth of the Christian message because of the fear that their colleagues will laugh at them.

The Christian Psychologist: Unique Problems

Much of what I have said previously can also be applied to psychologists who are Christian. For example, based on my own experience, I know that I have a strong tendency to worry so much about what my colleagues might think of me because I am a Christian, that I find myself never verbalizing my faith. Usually I content myself by saying that I will show by my lifestyle that I am a Christian. It is undeniably true, of course, that we witness to others by the quality of life that we lead. Often this is the most important witness we can give. But I think that this kind of reasoning (I will witness only through my behavior) is often used by Christian psychologists (and I know that it is used by me) as a "cop-out". By telling myself that I am witnessing to my colleagues or patients through my concern for them, my life style, and so on, I rather neatly clear myself of the responsibility to talk about Christ and Christianity.

I think that what I discussed in the previous paragraph accounts for another phenomenon I have observed among committed Christian psychologists. It seems to me that in general two things happen to a Christian psychologist professionally. If he works in a non-Christian setting (if you will, a hostile environment) there is a strong tendency for such psychologists to "submerge" their witness. That is, there is a tendency not to talk about one's faith to either colleagues or patients. This is not to say that such psychologists have "lost" their faith or that they are no longer Christians. But their overt, verbal witness is blunted, at least professionally. On the other hand, if a Christian psychologist does not do this, then another thing is likely to happen: he will work in a setting that is explicitly Christian. I wonder sometimes if this does not happen because it is so much easier (less embarrassing?) to function among others who believe as you do. In a Christian mental health agency, one does not have to defend his faith to his colleagues. The patients one sees are likely to have some kind of a Christian commitment before they come to you for counseling. Thus, talking about one's faith does not present the "problem" it presented in the non-Christian setting. Of course, I do not mean to imply that Christian psychologists become involved in a Christian setting only because they face fewer problems concerning their Christian commitment. This is certainly not the only motive, and in fact, it is probably not the main motive in many cases. But I think it is a motive we often obscure from ourselves.

One other thing might be mentioned about my observation that Christian psychologists either "submerge" their faith in a non-Christian setting or get into a professional setting that is explicitly Christian. A psychologist, particularly one who does psychotherapy,

I have seldom come upon non-Christian psychologists who highly valued humility, either in themselves or in their patients.

has to deal with what I would term "ultimate questions." When one is in a therapeutic encounter it is impossible to forget that essentially, whoever the individuals you are counselling, you are dealing with questions that relate to the meaning of human existence. This is a problem that confronts a counselor more directly than individuals involved in other areas of scientific or professional endeavor. It is easier (and if it is not, I hope I will be corrected) for Christian chemists or physicists to divorce their work from their religious convictions. Their work and research can be conducted without constantly being reminded of the essential spiritual nature of the problems with which they have to deal. Speaking from my own experience, it is difficult for me to harmonize my belief in the reality of Christ with the fact that I may never deal directly with this reality in a psychotherapeutic encounter. There are many reasons that I can give for never dealing with this all-important aspect of human life (the patient is not coming to me for religious advice, to name one), yet I am always left with the gnawing feeling that I have not come to grips with either myself or my patient. Because of this feeling (which I presume other Christian counselors have experienced), I think that it is clear why it is cognitively much easier for psychologists to submerge their faith completely or return to a setting where it is .1 expected" that religious issues will be addressed directly. I often smile when I think that one of the reasons that I withdrew from a pre-seminary course in my undergraduate days was that I did not want to be put in a position where I would be forced to deal constantly with ultimate questions about human existence. So I became a clinical psychologist.


I realize that much of what I have said in this article has been based on my (rather limited) personal experience as a clinical psychologist , and as such is particularly susceptible to my biases and prejudices. It would be more helpful if I could close by giving answers to some of the issues I have raised. From a reading of this article it is painfully obvious to me how much further I have to grow before this can be done. I look forward to comments from others concerning their observations about some of the issues which I have addressed.

1This anti-religious sentiment is illustrated graphically in Freud, S. The Future of an Illusion, Liveright Publishing Corp., New York, 1949 (1927).
2Ellis, A. The case against religion: a psychotherapist's view. The Independent (1962), October, 3-4.
3Toward the end of his life, Freud turned much of his attention to the study of religion. Two major works which followed The Future of an Illusion, op cit., were Civilization and its Discontents, Cope and Smith, New York, 1930 and New Introductory Lectures in Psychoanalysis, Norton, New York, 1933 (1932). In these later works, Freud became even more outspoken against religion than he had been in the past.
41n Escape from Freedom, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, New York, 1941, Erich Fromm discusses how religion has caused man to give up his freedom and responsibility.
5Skinner, B.F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Alfred Knopf, New York, 1972.
6Skinner, B.F. op cit. Another major work of Skinner involving his views on the future possibilities of man is his utopian novel, Walden Two, Macmillan, New York, 1948. In this novel Skinner presents a rather glowing picture of what human life can be if humans are given the proper conditioning experiences.
7Ellis, A. op cit. Two other works in which Ellis presents his arguments against religion are Humanistic Psychotherapy, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1973 and Growth Through Reason, Wilshire, North Hollywood, California, 1971. In the latter book, Ellis presents a verbatim transcript of a therapy session in which rational-emotive techniques are used to counteract the beliefs of a religious client.
8The most efficient means of achieving this self-understanding necessary for mental health being, or course, psychoanalysis.
9Menninger, K. Whatever Became of Sin? Hawthorn Books, New York, 1973.