I tend to be a believer that religion and psychology should be able to play well in the sand. The problem is that psychological principles are supposedly more universal, while faith/religion is more particularistic, thus lending a challenge in language even before getting into questions of biopsychology, etc. Even the wording of the 5 steps below shows the challenge head on. Psychology limits the religious to those things which are “psychologically” healthy. The problem is that psychology doesn’t have a stranglehold on the healthy, just like religion is not the magic cure for all of life’s problems. They need to work in tandem, and both need to be evaluated when working with people. I think this is part of the challenge that both educational tracks face, for when things become narrowed and finely tuned, some of the broader implications get lost. Just like in hospice, where we discuss the whole care, that people are a composite of body, mind and spirit, the same should be true in all fields of counseling. People are niot compartmentalized.
Last week, I raised a mini-ruckus with my post on the psychological and social benefits of religious faith. While some commenters were supportive, more than a few readers accused me of proselytizing. Others decried that religious topics had no place on a site dedicated to freeing people from their “mental disorders” (implying that religion was a mental disorder).
The kerfuffle even inspired my colleagues at Therapy Soup to wonder what causes people to become unhinged at the mere mention of religion when similar behavior would never be tolerated around virtually any other topic.
A Professional Response to Knee-Jerk Reactions
Obviously, it’s as easy for religious people to have knee-jerk negative reactions to psychology as it is for psychologically-minded folks to have visceral and vitriolic responses to religion. Ignorance, sad to say, does not discriminate. Regardless, since I’m going to continue discussing this topic for the foreseeable future (this is a blog dedicated to psychology and religion, after all), I thought it might be useful to look at what the American Psychological Association has to say about what it considers to be a healthy relationship between psychology and religion–or even if such a thing is possible (HINT: It is).
As an ongoing part of its mission to embrace a more multi-cultural perspective, in 2007, the APA released its Resolution on Religious, Religion-Based and/or Religion-Derived Prejudice.
5 Steps Toward A Tentative Friendship: A Summary
While I recommend reading the whole statement at the link above, here is my paraphrase of some of the high points–points that might be considered 5 steps toward the beginning of at least a tentative friendship between psychology and religion.
1. Religion is a near universal human experience. To respect the human person virtually necessitates a thoughtful respect for religion and for both the good and ill it can inspire in others.
2. Religion and science come at issues from different frames of reference to respect each one must be willing to acknowledge what they can and can’t do (*Blogger note: This is easier said than done, but it’s true enough as far as it goes.)
3. Religion itself does not necessarily lead to good or bad effects. It is really how a person lives religion that matters. For instance, people who are minimally religious tend to be more prejudiced than people who are more seriously religious. The same holds true for religious-based violence. The more thoughtful one is about one’s religion the more likely it is that one will exhibit prosocial (i.e, people-positive) behavior, shun violence, be more charitably and altruistically motivated, and exhibit higher levels of both physical and mentally health.
By contrast, the more shallow and external one’s religious faith (i.e. the more one’s religious attitudes tend to be governed solely by a concern for rules, authority, and maintaining a siege mentality even when there is no siege) the more likely one will exhibit prejudiced, violent, anti-social behavior, and the more one’s religiousness may lead to poor mental and physical health outcomes.
4. In light of the above, the APA is supportive of pro-social religiousness, discourages anti-social religiousness, and condemns bigotry and prejudice whether caused by unhealthy expressions of religiosity or expressed toward religious persons by helping professionals and others.
5. While psychologists cannot “adjudicate religious tenets” (i.e., tell people what they should and shouldn’t believe with regard to religious faith), it is appropriate for psychologists to speak to the psychological implications of various religious beliefs or practices. That said, mental health professionals who attempt to advise clients or the community regarding the benefits or risks of certain religious beliefs or practices must not do so based on personal biases, but upon a careful analysis of empirical data.
Toward the Future…
So, with these five points in mind (and the larger documents published by both the American Psychological Association and the American Counseling Association that support these points) I look forward to continuing to challenge religious bigotry and address what, exactly, constitutes a healthy integration of psychology and religion. And in the meantime, I welcome all comments from thoughtful and respectful persons of all faiths and no faith.