Tag Archives: Skepticism

Do psychological explanations of behavior absolve wrongoers?

If I describe the psychological characteristics of a violent person (e.g., has autism, a brain tumor, or a history of child sexual abuse), does that tend to be heard as absolution for crimes committed? In turn, does that make you skeptical about the value of psychology?

My latest edition of the American Psychologist (2012, v. 67:9) has a brief comment/discussion about the phenomenon of public skepticism of the field of psychology. The comments refer to a previous article published by the same journal earlier in the year. That essay reviewed common reasons for skepticism and how the field should counter them.

I’m not going to discuss the initial article nor whether or not the rebuttals are helpful. What I want to point out is one comment by Newman, Bakina, and Tang. They provide an anecdotal experience of suspicion after making public statements to a newspaper following criminal behavior. They noted that a person wrote a letter to the editor stating, “These remarks consist of convoluted thinking that absolves all participants of any personal responsibility for what happened.” In response, here’s what Newman et. al have to say,

This anecdotal experience reflects a more general finding. Laypeople are suspicious of accounts of human wrongdoing that feature situational/contextual factors (as typical of social-psychological explanations), and they prefer dispositional ones. Clearly, the letter writer would have been much happier if the psychologist’s comments had focused on how cowardly and immoral the [criminals] were. (p. 805, emphasis mine)

Do you agree? Do we prefer characterological reasons for behavior rather than descriptive/contextual discussions? Do we think that discussions of context or mindset absolves others from responsibility for wrong behavior? Having taught physiology to counseling students, I can say that some students find discussions of brain abnormalities (an example of one contextual matter) as tantamount to saying that the person must not be responsible for their actions.

How do we do a better job in being highly descriptive of human behavior without denying moral responsibilities? (i.e., that I cannot help certain matters but yet I am still responsible for what I do)


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Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, Psychology

God’s problem? Can we Christians sufficiently answer why we suffer?

I heard a great interview on “Fresh Air” with author Bart Erhman, professor of religion from UNC regarding his new book: God’s problem: How the Bible fails to answer our most important question–why we suffer. While I completely disagree with his conclusions, you have to admit this guy talks much about the bible in ways we evangelicals would. But he draws opposite conclusions. Listen here.

Dr. Ehrman is an interesting character: becomes born again at 16, is part of Youth for Christ, attends Moody Bible Institute, and gets his doctor of theology at Princeton Seminary. However, he now says he is agnostic. Why? He sees no satisfactory answer to the problem of suffering. In the interview he describes three common Christian answers, all based in the text. The classic answer says that we suffer because of human choices. There are variations of this view. Simply put, the righteous are blessed and the unrighteous will suffer. Dr. Ehrman points to the OT prophets for this view. He finds this unsatisfactory because it doesn’t answer the problem of what causes Tsunamis. [He doesn’t address in this interview how he handles the argument that while suffering may not come in a 1:1 correlation (sin:suffering), no one is righteous and no one gets to say, “not fair.”] He describes a second view as God is mysterious and doesn’t have to answer (e.g., Job). Finally, he describes Jesus’ view as an apocalyptic view suggesting that suffering is caused by principalities and powers which will be defeated at the end times.

Two questions I’d like to ask Dr. Ehrman:

1. Since agnosticism doesn’t claim a full answer to why there is suffering (or why we should do anything to stop it as Dr. Ehrman believes) why does faith in God have to answer it as well? Since one view allows for mystery, why can’t God not clarify every answer?
2. He sees God putting his thumb on Job and squishing him with his final question to Job. “Were you there when I created the universe.” I guess he sees God’s answer as, “then, shut up.” But is that really the message of Job? If it was, why does God not take Job to task in the 40 or so chapters where he rants and raves?

 Dr. Ehrman likes the book of Ecclesiastes. He likes it because he thinks the answer in it is, “live as best you can.” I think Dr. Ehrman needs to re-read the book because it says, “fear God, and live as best you can.” (Phil’s translation)

 I encourage you to listen to the interview. Then afterwards, try Tim Keller’s new book, The Reason for God: Belief in the age of Skepticism. In answer to my title? Can we answer sufficiently? Yes. Can we answer all that we wish we could know? No. But funny, learning what we wish we could know might not be so good (like learning the day you are going to die).


Filed under Christian Apologetics, suffering