How people of faith messed up psychology: A cautionary tale for those who want to save Christianity from destruction

I’ve been reviewing the history of psychology and Christians in psychology because I’m going to be presenting with a colleague on the topic next week at the National conference of the Christian Association of Psychological Studies (CAPS). Psychology is as broadly defined as the planet and what normally gets told is the celebration of theories and advances of “great men” from Rene Descartes to Darwin to Freud to Skinner to modern professional, clinical psychology. Modernist philosophies of science abound in the “story” of psychology and empiricism reigns as King. Faith and belief have little mention in the story other than science’s emancipation from theology that came during the enlightenment.

We people of faith have a tendency to look at the evils of secularization and the refusal to admit belief biases in the sciences. It would be easy to blame those bad unbelievers. Yet, as I look at the history of psychology, it seems to me that faithful people made most of the significant decisions to advance the field while protecting their private faith. That the effort to maintain faith in light of empiricism as the primary way of knowing, these individuals made significant decisions that still impact how we treat the mentally ill today. 

certainly, I cannot vouch for the evangelical beliefs of all on this list, but I can vouch for their personal sense of faith in God (it shows in their writings). Descartes who blessed us with his dualist writings worked very hard to maintain his faith in light of questioning everything. Same with Locke, Kant, and more contemporarily, Rogers–even Watson (yes, Gods of their own making).

But the story that always gets me is of a man named Samuel Woodward. He was the superintendent of Worcester State Psychiatric Hospital in the 1830s–one of the first in America to actively treat the mentally ill. A man of deep faith, he developed an extensive treatment program. He could not believe that the mind could be diseased as that would suggest damage to the intangible soul. So, he believed that mental illness was a somatic disease. However, he believed that compassionate treatment of the mentally ill was absolutely necessary. His compassion was evidenced, in his mind, in requiring patients to undergo 6 hours of moral (read Sunday School) education each day. Woodward kept tremendous records during that time and it appears that he had a 80-90 percent success rate. After 13 years, he stepped down and another took his place. Since the moral education was not seen as treatment, it was stopped (and some have said that the records suggest the success rate decreased).

Here a man of faith tries to protect his faith from science and in the end fails to see that Christian meditation and engagement with the truths of Scripture and God’s love/compassion for them actually helped people. His separating faith from science influenced modeled for the country how to run psychiatric hospitals. It is only now, in light of postmodern philosophies of science, that we are finally recognizing that faith/belief are a part of all sciences and cannot/should not be divorced.

I wonder what we will be laughed at in 30 years. How will the “integration” of psychology and theology be viewed? In what way will conservative attempts to “save” truth actually bring more damage to the place of faith in science? This week I heard about a website trying to compete with the “liberal bias” of wikipedia. NPR had a piece on it. Some of the entries on the conservative site were so laughable if I didn’t think many would go there for their information about the world.


Filed under Christian Apologetics, christian psychology, History of Psychology, philosophy of science, Psychology

4 responses to “How people of faith messed up psychology: A cautionary tale for those who want to save Christianity from destruction

  1. Angela

    Hi Phil! I happened upon your blog and have been enjoying your posts. I’ve been taking a class in the history of psychology this summer and have been forced to confront how my strong Christian faith and my burdensome intellectualism can make it difficult for me to chat with my classmates. In trying to figure out what I think about what I think, I’ve been thinking (!) maybe Bultmann’s anthropological, kind of existential take most closely approximates my wierd position. Any thoughts on someone/something I could read up on to have a pleasant discussion with the CBT crowd? I’m adrift!

  2. Angela, great question. Let me ask you some back first. Would your classmates be interested in postmodern philosophy of science discussions? Psychology is thoroughly modern in its attempt to ape the physical and medical sciences. But even as far back as the 1800s some eminent thinkers knew otherwise.

    What is the biggest hurdle in your conversations with your classmates? How would they react to you if you were strongly buddhist?

    You might try some constructivist CBT writings (I’ll have to dig up some authors). I really like Philip Cushman’s book on the self. If you have access to Psychinfo, you can get some of his fulltext articles. It is of a constructivist bent (but not CBT).


  3. Angela

    Ok, let me first clarify that this is an online PhD class so 1. everyone is already starting to specialize (read: fragment?) into their chosen disciplines and 2. there are no non-verbal cues to help me know who is responding to what in which ways. Am I making any sense?

    There seem to be strong positivist biases from some of the folks who want everything disordered to be biologically or behaviorally expained and mediated. On the other hand, there are a few more philosophical types who seem very adamant that all Truth is relative (They’re ABSOLUTELY sure of it! Hee hee. A misunderstanding of Gadamer, in my opinion, and at this point, my opinion’s all I’ve got to work from!) Throw into the mix that many of the students seem to be situated near the buckle of the Bible belt where the strong cultural sense seems to be that a Christian equals a neo-Con…and oh, yes, there’s a strong representation from the GLBT population, as well.

    Since we’re exploring the history of psychology in the class, the conflicting theories from the past bring up a huge range of topics. It’s just hard to tell if we’re actually communicating, or if everyone is just posting their comments. This makes me want to be sure that I’m challenging myself to grow, which was what made me start searching for more information, which is how I found your blog! I will look into Cushman ASAP, and I’m also planning to look into the links for the societies that you reference in your About Me post. I’d appreciate anything else you could throw my way, as well. I’m trying to be bona fide! (smile)

    Thanks again for talking with me; now I know there are people like you out there 🙂

  4. Sounds like fun, really (except for the on-line part). I use alot of Blackboard (course software) in my courses but it is less than adequate for real conversation (though it does help some highly introverted folk find their voice).

    Thanks for clarifying. Interesting to watch the various agendas in a class like that. And its good to sit back and watch rather than fight for your own. Sounds like you are trying to do that. I’m a Van Til fan (presuppositional apologetics) and it can be interesting to observe the various starting points and leaps of “faith” each makes.

    You may find a home at the Society for Christian Psychology. If you’ve got nothing better to do in mid September, you might want to come to our annual conference in Nashville. See the SCP website linked on the side here. I moderate that blog as well.

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