When it comes to mental illness, Christians generally haven’t done very well. Quite often there’s a lot of religious advice giving. You feel depressed? You just need to rejoice! You have anxiety? You just need to have faith. OCD? Let go and let God. Bipolar? Rebuke that devil in Jesus’ name!
To make things worse, well-meaning and respectable Christians, can even go on the offensive, and blame the victim, especially if the victim is unable to regulate their emotions and unknowingly hurting other people around them.
So when psychology comes begins to explain why people are the way they are (not evil and not possessed, but often victims of abuse, manipulation, rape, and trauma), some Christians can feel as if their faith is under attack. In response, they go on the offensive attacking psychology. When this happens, you are likely to hear things like:
- “Psychology, in its attempt to overcome feelings of guilt and repression, encourages people to be selfish: to get the abortion, to get the divorce, to buy the boat, to hook up with another person and ultimately to become ‘self-actualized’.”
- “Psychology grew out of hypnotherapy, and hypnotherapy grew out of mysticism and the occult.”
- “Freud used to prescribe cocaine to his patients, many of them became addicted.”
- “The problem with the world is not that it needs psychology, the problem with the world is that it needs Salvation.”
All this goes to show that Christians who say these sorts of things haven’t really thought about the issue, even if their answers do contain a grain of truth. Freud did prescribe cocaine. Certain schools of pop psychology do encourage people to be selfish. And yes psychology cannot solve humanity’s underlying issue of sin.
When I examine these points however, I can see a number of misunderstandings.
Firstly, Psychology never claimed to save people from sin. In the Biblical sense, sin is ultimately a rejection of God and his laws. This is not something psychology claims to fix. Nobody goes to their psychologist to have their sins taken away. Rather, people go to a psychologist to; get connected to their underlying emotions, to be challenged, to bounce around ideas with someone, to have their neuroses identified, to develop a secure attachment style, to be listened to, or to get a diagnosis. None of these are particularly religious. Furthermore, the secular and scientific aspects of psychology, such as its connection with neurology, bio-chemistry and behavior, are often overlooked, as are the very real mental health disorders for which people have found safe and effective treatment. You can’t just snap out of something like anorexia nervosa through Bible reading and prayer. You need specialized treatment.
Secondly, not all psychology encourages people to be selfish. Yes it exists in books and on TV, but to take the worst example and paint the entire field as such is ridiculous. What about CBT? What about DBT? What about Person-centered therapy? What about the Psychodynamic approach? What about Psychoanalytical? Such is the ignorance of so many who wage a holy war against psychology, they never actually understand what they’re fighting against.
I’m honestly not sure if the other points need addressing in detail. Obviously psychologists don’t dish out cocaine like they used to. Keep in mind also that cocaine was in a lot of things back then, as most people believed it to be harmless. Yes it is true that psychology grew out of hypnotherapy, but we shouldn’t be surprised at this. If we take a step back we can see that many of the sciences have come from mysticism and the occult. It’s not just psychology. Astronomy grew out of astrology. Chemistry grew out of alchemy. But no preacher I know is going after the chemists! In the late 1800’s, hypnotherapy was the closest thing to psychology, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to us that psychology has its roots in hypnotherapy. To presume that an entire field of study and research could have simply fallen out of the sky is quite unrealistic.
So please, If you call yourself a Christian, by all means, go and find yourself a good psychologist if you think you’ll benefit. If they turn out to be unhelpful, you can always look for someone else. I see no tension between psychology and Christianity.