As I read through a stack of essays, one caught my eye. My student concluded her work with a strong statement: "After a whole semester of studies in psychology, I conclude that it is impossible to be a psychologist and a Christian at the same time."
After I recovered from my shock, I responded: "If this is the case, then I cannot exist, because I am a Christian and a psychologist."
I understand why my student came to this conclusion. A lot of Christians ask, Isn't the Bible enough for us? Why should we trust the ideas of those who reject God’s truth? Should mature, obedient Christians ever need psychological insight?
Moreover, the Bible says, "The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God" (1 Cor. 2:14, TNIV) and, "the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight" (1 Cor. 3:19). It also affirms that Jesus "did not need human testimony about [humans], for he knew what was in them" (John 2:25).
And what about some Christian counselors who argue that professional counsel outside of the Bible is misleading?
Psychologists have a reputation for being skeptical atheists who think people made up the idea of God as a pacifier for their anxiety. Indeed, many psychologists are atheists and are very critical of Christian beliefs. For example, rational-emotive counseling guru Albert Ellis accused those he called "devout religionists" of being irrational. Ellis is not alone. Sigmund Freud taught that God was invented by our need for a father figure. The works of prominent thinkers such as psychoanalyst B.F. Skinner, linguist Noam Chomsky, sexologist Alfred Kinsey, and many others also give the impression that atheism and psychology are related. Is this perception correct?
The short answer is no. Psychology and atheism are not necessarily related, and I'd like to explain some reasons why—not only for students like mine, but also for Christians who might opt out of receiving needed help because of misconceptions about psychology.
Individual psychologists do not represent the whole field of psychology. This is true for any professional field.
Some time ago, newspapers published the sad story of a Christian pastor who was found guilty of murdering his own wife. No intelligent person would conclude that, in light of this case, Christianity teaches that husbands should kill their wives. The ideas and behaviors of professional persons don't necessarily represent their professional field. While it is true that some psychologists are biased against Christianity, that doesn't mean the science of psychology is anti-Christian.
Further, just as you will find many biased psychologists, you will also find many biased biologists, physicists, chemists, teachers, medical doctors, and engineers. We should not label professions anti-Christian because some professionals reject the Christian faith.
Most psychological studies are not hostile to Christianity. In fact, I propose that the bulk of psychological research is supportive of Christian teachings. A clear example of this is Diana Baumrind's studies on parenting styles. Her research led to the conclusion that parents who listen to their teenage children and who impose clear limits on their behavior are the most likely to foster healthy adult offspring. This balanced parenting style echoes very closely the words of the apostle Paul to parents, "Do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord" (Eph. 6:4).
Another example is the large number of psychological studies that tells us venting anger is bad for us and for those around us. These studies demonstrated scientifically the wisdom of the apostle Paul when he commands us to "get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger" (Eph. 4:31).
Obviously, not all psychological studies support Christianity. Some even seem to contradict Christian teachings. For example, some studies have concluded that intercessory prayer does not work. This conclusion directly contradicts what we read in James 5:16: "The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective" (TNIV). However, it's important to remember that psychology doesn't normally have a single explanation for any event. Several psychologists have identified serious problems with the methods used in the studies that disqualify intercessory prayer, raising significant questions about the studies' validity.
Appreciation for Complexity
Psychological theories are not fixed. The goal of psychological studies is not necessarily to discover absolute truth, but rather to create theories that help us organize our limited knowledge and understand what we observe. For this reason, psychological theories change constantly. Psychologists modify or abandon older conclusions in favor of better explanations. One classic example of this is Franz Gall's idea of phrenology. This 19th-century theory associated people's behaviors with the bumps on their heads. Interest in this theory dwindled, however, after a number of studies demonstrated that some violent individuals had large "benevolence bumps" on their heads!
Theories go through changes for many reasons, in part because human beings are too complicated to be explained with simple conclusions. The scientific method, to date, is not sensitive enough to grasp the complexities of our minds. Our memory and intelligence are not large enough to make sense of all possible factors associated with our minds.
As a Christian, when I look at the information psychologists are gathering about humanity, I am compelled to exclaim, "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. . . . I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made . . ." (Ps.139:6, 14).
Perhaps a central question is this: can Christians learn from non-Christians?
The Bible teaches that even the least-educated Christian can understand spiritual truths that a non-Christian is unable to grasp (Matt. 11:25). However, in matters of nature, non-Christians are as able as Christians to learn about God's creation, even when they don't recognize it as such. After all, the gift of intelligence was given to Christians and non-Christians alike (see Matt. 5:45).
Imagine that your physician says you urgently need brain surgery. Would you want to be operated on by a godly pastor without medical training, or by a prominent brain surgeon who happens to be an atheist? In the same way, even psychologists who reject Christianity can offer us valuable insights about the human mind and behavior. "Test everything. Hold on to the good" (1 Thess. 5:21).
With a background in both theology and psychology, I served in pastoral ministry for more than two decades. After much prayer I then made a career shift and chose to serve God by conducting research and teaching psychology. I made this decision in part because there are relatively few psychologists who claim Jesus as their Lord.
Jesus gave us a number of models for our role in his kingdom: a mustard seed, a treasure hidden in a field, a net that catches all kinds of fish. One of the models that greatly intrigues me is this: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough" (Matt. 13:33). Jesus wants his disciples to mix with the "dough" and influence it deeply. Applying this principle to our vocations, I believe there should be Christians in all possible professions, except those inherently unethical or immoral.
Believers should be "working through the dough" of society in all legal, respectable professions that exist, including that of psychology. Indeed, a committed Christian can be a psychologist!
About the Author
Sérgio P. da Silva is professor of psychology at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich., and a member of Cascade Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids.