Science in Christian Perspective


How Introductory Psychology Textbooks 
Treat Religion

Richard Ruble
John Brown University
Siloam Springs, AR 72761

From: JASA 37 (September 1985): 180-182.

The idea for this paper came to me as the result of reading an article entitled "How Sociology Texts Treat Religion," by David Claerbaut (April 1974, p. 3). 1 have taught introductory psychology since 1964 and have used six different textbooks. As a Christian teaching in an evangelical college, I am particularly interested in what message is conveyed about religion by the reading material which I assign to my students.

Textbook publishing is a fiercely competitive business. Since the introductory psychology course is one of the most popular on campus, the demands for textbooks are high. Consequently, the teacher has well over a hundred textbooks from which to choose. Some textbooks sell so well they make their authors wealthy while others never get past the first edition. The dominance of the market by one book, as was the case with Floyd Ruch's Psychology and Life in the 1960's, seems to be a thing of the past.

Each spring, I find my desk piled high with complimentary copies of new or revised editions which are advertised as being the solution to all the problems the teacher faces in the introductory psychology course. Many of them are superb productions with professional layout, graphics, expensive paper, and lots of white space. In addition, they include student workbooks, personalized instructional materials, slides, overhead transparencies, teachers' manuals, and computer disks containing test questions. The writing is frequently simplified with a slant toward readability and human interest.

Claerbaut's article offers some useful insights concerning religion and sociology textbooks. He points out that one problem in dealing with this topic is ambiguity over the definition of religion; he objects to the term being defined as a set of behavior patterns dealing with the ultimate issues of life. The problem with this definition, says Claerbaut, is the absence of a personal commitment to a belief system.

Claerbaut found that sociology textbooks treat religion as rigid, exclusive, irrelevant to real life, and a cultural element which is a divisive force that tears social groups apart. Religiosity therefore becomes "churchiosity" studied in terms of denominations and sects. A considerable bulk of the material in sociology textbooks is concerned with the social values of religion. Public worship is looked at as a way to reduce anonymity and alienation. Sociology regards religion as having no universal validity but offering only subjective interpretations of the meaning of life. Sociology, concludes Claerbaut, regards religion as a dependent variable rather than as an independent variable, an effect rather than a cause.

It might be hypothesized that sociology would be more likely than psychology to include religion in its topics since religion is a social phenomenon, the area of concern for sociology. On the other hand, religion also has a personal and unique aspect for each individual, and psychology is interested in this.

How do introductory psychology textbooks treat religion? To answer this question, I consulted the following twelve introductory psychology textbooks published during the last ten years: Psychology: An Introduction to Human Behavior (Holland, 1974), Elements of Psychology (Krech, 1974), Psychology: Its Principles and Meanings (Bourne, 1976), Psychology (Liebert, 1977), The Psychology of Being Human (McNeil, 1977). Psychology: An Introduction (Mussen, 1977), Understanding Human Behavior (McConnell, 1977), Psychology: Understanding Behavior (Baron, 1980), Psychology: An Introduction (Lahey, 198 3), Mastering Psychology (Lefton, 1983). Psychology (Roediger 111, 1984), Psychology: The Science of Behavior (Carlson, 1984).

My procedure was to check in the indices of these textbooks for words which had religious connections. The terms I looked for were Bible, believer, Catholic, Christian, Christianity, Jesus, religion, salvation, and Scripture. Six of the twelve textbooks had none of these words. The remaining six presented the following information on religious topics: (1) The main world religions teach that men are superior to women (McNeil, 1977, p. 406; Holland, 1974, p. 316); (2) Some churches are more liberal than others (Holland, 1974, p. 129); (3) The Bible does not each evolution (McNeil, 1977, p. 323); (4) Roman Catholics have a lower suicide rate than Jews or Protestants (Mussen, 1977, p. 196); (5) An individual's belief system determines behavior (Carlson, 1984, p. 705); (6) Religious beliefs slowed down the development of the scientific psychology (Roediger 111, 1984, p. 7); (7) Religious feelings in the Middle Ages led to a moral wickedness view of bizarre behavior (Roediger 111, 1984, p. 500); (8) Auditory and visual hallucinations were important components of nascent religion (Roediger, 1984, p. 500); (9) The religious personality is a separate type (Krech, 1974, p. 515).

That was all I could find out about religion by checking the indices of these textbooks. Based on a cursory examination of many other introductory psychology textbooks, it is apparent that religious topics are scarce in their pages. The comments mentioned above always occurred in connection with the development of nonreligious themes. They tend to be references to research or generally accepted opinions. I found no support for Carl F.H. Henry's claim that "Psychology texts usually introduce God only as a psychic aberration" (1984, p. 8).

I found no extended reference in any of these texts to religious topics. This is not to say that psychology is not concerned with these issues or that they are not discussed in other kinds of books. However, it appears that introductory psychology textbooks would prefer to keep a safe distance from religious topics.

Of course, introductory psychology textbooks do take positions which have religious significance. It has been pointed out that contemporary psychology is built on empiricism, determinism, relativism, reductionism, and naturalism (Collins, 1977, p. 77), Each of these topics is related to epistemology and is of particular interest to theists. Empiricism denies revelation; determinism denies free will; relativism denies moral absolutes; reductionism denies complexity, and naturalism denies God. Obviously religion, especially Christianity, takes a different view on these issues. Whereas psychology does not "seek divine revelation" (Kagan, 1968, p. 20), Christianity believes that God has spoken through the written Word and the incarnate Word.

How justifiable is the treatment of religion by the introductory psychology textbooks which I have just described? From the publishers' viewpoint, it is at least defensible. They are in the business of selling textbooks and they want to make them as attractive as possible to potential customers. Adding a strong religious emphasis is patently considered a liability.

Textbook publishers can lose customers if they produce books which offend a teacher's sense of propriety. Here is an example. Several years ago, a teacher of child psychology in an evangelical college was looking for a new text. He found one he liked, but it had on the cover a young mother breast-feeding a baby. The teacher inquired of the publisher whether the book was available with a different cover. It was and the book was adopted. When additional copies came to the bookstore in subsequent semesters, they came with the exposed-bosom cover. Consequently, the book was dropped as a text. Because a publisher took a risk with a controversial cover, it lost some sales.

Publishers of introductory psychology textbooks are careful to avoid taking stands on such controversial topics as sex, politics and religion. These are divisive subjects and likely to arouse emotions which might lead to textbook rejection, an unhappy state of affairs for a commercial enterprise.

Since textbooks are generally chosen by the teacher, publishers must pander to the teacher's taste. In academia, psychologists are divided almost equally between atheistic and theistic positions (Scully, 1977). This means that textbooks must be careful to avoid making statements which will alienate either persuasion.

Is the publisher's position justified? I think so. After all, publishers are not trying to reform the world; they are trying to stay in business and make a reasonable profit. It is the profit motive which will determine what is offered for sale in the arena of introductory psychology textbooks.

Another reason why religion plays such a minor role in introductory psychology textbooks is because most psychologists do not consider it a proper subject to include. Psychology teachers are frequently polled as to the appropriate topics to include in introductory psychology textbooks. It might be concluded that they are not demanding that religion be included. Anyone who has examined textbooks knows that they are expensive and large already and to include new topics ultimately means dropping old ones. The best-selling textbook by Ruch (1963, p. 11) expresses this exclusionary idea: "Since psychology limits itself to the study of observable phenomena, it cannot concern itself with problems of the soul and immortality. On the other hand, psychology does not pretend to deny the existence of an immortal soul. It merely leaves this important inquiry to religion." With this disclaimer, Ruch excludes the soul and religion from the remaining 674 pages of his text. Most of his colleagues do the same in their texts.

How should Christians react to the virtual absence of religious topics in introductory psychology texts? Some colleges may prefer that the perspective conveyed to the student in an introductory psychology textbook be strictly psychological with religion left out. For them the current state of affairs is acceptable. However, most evangelical Christian colleges stress that every course, including psychology, should be taught from a Christian viewpoint. This is accomplished through integration of faith and learning which may take several avenues.

A possible approach is to use a textbook for introductory psychology written from a Christian viewpoint like the one produced in 1952 by Zondervan Publishing Company. Written by Hildreth Cross, it was entitled An Introduction to Psychology. It sold only 10,000 copies. It is not difficult to understand why this book failed to capture the imagination of the evangelical psychology teacher. It was poorly illustrated, incomplete, cheaply produced, and somewhat preachy.

A potential entry into the field of introductory psychology textbooks written from a Christian perspective is Introduction to Psychology and Counseling, a 1982 production by Paul D. Meier, Frank B. Minirth, and Frank B. Wichern. A cursory examination of this book reveals that it is not an appropriate choice for an introductory psychology textbook for a college course. The authors intend the book for "students who expect to become counselors" (Meier, et al., 1982, p. 22). Thus the contents are short on material typically covered in introductory psychology and long on topics usually covered in a counseling course. For instance, an introductory psychology textbook like Psychology by James Geiwitz devotes over 100 pages to sensation and perception whereas this book covers these subjects in just eight pages. This is in keeping with the announced plan of the book to present a sketchy review of modern psychology. Further, this book is not packaged in a competitive format and is inferior in graphics to other introductory psychology textbooks I have seen. I do not think the audience for whom it was intended is well served; certainly it is not a good choice for an introductory psychology textbook from a Christian viewpoint.

With the exception of Cross's An Introduction to Psychology and Meier's Introduction to Psychology and Counseling, I do not know of other introductory psychology textbooks which incorporate a Christian view. Thus, to integrate psychology and Christianity by selection of this kind of textbook does not seem at present to be a valid option.

A good way to integrate faith into the introductory psychology course is to choose some parallel readings which present a Christian world view. For several years, my students used a reader which contained 28 articles written from a Christian perspective (Ruble, 1975). It was available in the bookstore at nominal costs. Also, with permission of the publisher, articles from current magazines and journals can be reproduced for distribution.

Books available which bring a Christian perspective to psychology include works by Bufford, Carter and Narramore, Collins, Fleck and Carter, Jeeves, Kilpatrick, and Koteskey. (Bibliographic information for these books occurs at the end of this article.) These books can be placed on reserve in the library and thus save the student the expense of purchase. In addition, three journals which provide material on psychology with a religious dimension include The Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, The Journal of Psychology and Theology, and The Journal of Psychology and Christianity. Occasionally, articles relevant to psychology appear in Eternity magazine and Christianity Today.

Another way to make up for the lack of biblical perspective in introductory psychology textbooks is via lectures. The Christian teacher can present appropriate biblical material along with the textbook information and thus give the student an opportunity to integrate. On occasion, a guest speaker or a film may be useful for this purpose. Term papers and classroom discussions can play a role in getting students to think about how psychology relates to Christian truth. Students can also be encouraged to join and participate in such organizations as the Christian Association for Psychological Studies and the American Scientific Affiliation.

Christian teachers are the crucial element in making a college experience in introductory psychology distinctly Christian. Even if good evangelical textbooks were available, they would still take a secondary place to the teacher in terms of potential for impact. Ultimately the teacher is the one who determines the elements to be used in teaching a course. Textbook selection, lecture content, use of films, speakers and field trips all fall under the teacher's control.

Many teachers in Christian colleges have been trained in secular institutions and have no training in the Bible. For such teachers, a program of faculty development is definitely needed if they are to lead students into an understanding of psychology from a Christian vantage point. Some further training in a seminary or Christian graduate school may be appropriate.

In some Christian colleges, introductory pscyhology is a required course. In some, psychology is the major that attracts the largest number of students. In some, an introductory psychology course is part of the general education requirement. All of this produces a lot of students who are getting their first exposure to psychology through the introductory course. It is important that this exposure have a Christian perspective. In order for it to be so, the teacher must go beyond just assigning a secular textbook for the student to read. The teacher must engage the students in the difficult but essential task of integration.

The teacher has ready allies because most Christian college students desire to get involved in this process. Research has shown that students choose a Christian college for this very reason; i.e., they want a biblical perspective that they cannot get on a secular campus. There will be some disagreement as to how integration is best achieved. The reach will probably always exceed the grasp. But it is essential that an attempt be made if the Christian college is to live up to its name and to its Lord.


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Bourne, Lyle, Jr., and Ekstrand, Bruce R. Psychology: Its Principles and Meanings. Dallas: Holt. Rinehart. and Winston, 1976.

Bufford, R. K. The Human Reflex. New York: Harper and Row, 1981.

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Koteskey, R. L. Psychology from a Christian Perspective. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1980.

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Lefton, L. A. and Valentine. Laura. Mastering Psychology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon,1983.

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McConnell, James V. Understanding Human Behavior. Dallas: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1977.

McNeil, Elton and Rubin. Zick. The Psychology of Being Human . San Francisco: Canfield Press, 197.

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Ruch, Floyd. Psychology and Life. Dallas: Scott, Foresman, 1963.

Scully, M. G. "Faculty Members, Liberal on Politics, Found Conservative on Academic Issues." Chronicle of Higher Education. April 6,1970.