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Psychology vs. Religion

Updated: Jul 1

by Izzy Kalman (October 2003)

I had a strong religious upbringing. My parents sent me to yeshiva (Orthodox Jewish school) from first grade through high school. Had you asked me at the age of 9 what I want to be when I grow up, I would have answered, “a rabbi.” As I grew up and learned more about science, my appreciation of religion waned and I came to prefer the scientific way of thinking. In college, after undergoing a few changes in majors, I ultimately decided on studying psychology so I could have a career as a psychotherapist. I felt that the objective, non- judgmental approach of “scientific” psychotherapy was preferable to the moralistic, guilt inducing approach of religion in helping people deal with life.

With twenty-five years of professional experience behind me, I can see things I hadn’t seen before. For one, the “scientific” field of psychology is not nearly as “non-judgmental” as I assumed it was. Especially in recent years, with all our concern with “bullies” and “abusers,” I realize that the field makes some pretty strong value judgments about people’s behavior. At a professional presentation on bullying, a pair of psychologists said research shows it doesn’t help when teachers intervene in student bullying, “but teachers should intervene anyway because it is the moral thing to do.”

If an action isn’t helpful, how can it be called moral? And even worse, what if the intervention actually exacerbates the problem? Is it still moral to intervene? How many mental health professionals do you know who had a college or graduate course in morality? Unless they were in divinity schools or minored in philosophy, probably none. Morality is neither a simple nor an obvious matter, yet the mental health fields make decisions about right and wrong while having no academic training in morality. In comparison to religion, psychology’s overall contributions to human happiness aren’t terribly impressive. I have known many individuals who turned their lives completely around thanks to religion. Many people have implored me to join their religious groups so I can get the kinds of benefits they did. But rarely has anyone raved to me about their psychotherapy and beseeched me to go, too. And recent research shows that people who are involved in religious groups tend to be happier, healthier, and longer-living than people who don’t. Some of the most successful therapeutic milieu, like the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, are based on belief in a higher power. So where has psychology gone wrong?

Psychology Compared to Other Sciences

If we compare the accomplishments of psychology with other branches of science, there is even less to write home about. The physical sciences have made mind-boggling advances, revealing the hidden worlds of outer space, the depths of the sea, and the composition of atoms. They have dramatically improved health, transportation and communication. Technology has brought us levels of luxury previously unknown even to kings. In contrast, what have the psychological sciences contributed to overall human happiness? Despite the objective advances in standard of living; despite the growing legions of mental health professionals in all types of settings; despite the laws forbidding various forms of abuse and neglect; and despite the entitlements granted individuals with disabilities, people feel as miserable and abused as ever. Families are falling apart faster than ever (the divorce rate in the US is now well over 50% and is even higher in many other developed countries). Depression and violence are considered epidemics, and almost everyone is being diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Why Psychology Hasn’t Fared as Well as Other Sciences

The great advances in other sciences were made possible by the invention of new tools like telescopes, microscopes, and all types of electrical and electronic devices, that gave access to information otherwise beyond our grasp. On the other hand, the primary tools of the psychological professions – talking, listening, and observing – have always been around and used by people seeking to understand and improve the human condition. Thousands of years of observation by wise people have yielded many universal or near-universal principals that work to make life better. Sure, we’ve made big advances in neurological understanding thanks to the tools of the physical sciences. But our current general understanding of psychological health is not substantially different from that obtained by philosophers thousands of years ago. In fact, if we had to choose between ancient wisdom and modern psychological teachings, I suspect we would often do better betting on the ancient wisdom.

The psychological sciences, now in their second century, set out with a new approach – using the scientific method to learn about people. In a sense, they threw away previous knowledge and set out to reinvent the wheel. The problem is that the lens through which they have studied people is a limited one and has missed what the religions have taken for granted. What is that limited lens? The lens of the individual. Psychology is essentially INDIVIDUAL psychology. We study individuals in depth in the psychotherapy office, we do psychological testing on individuals, we perform experiments on individuals, and we survey individuals. But the study of the individual is inadequate to accurately understand human behavior. Why?

Three Levels of Existence

We ARE individuals, but we are not ONLY individuals. Though we are not aware of it, we actually live at three levels simultaneously, and I do not mean this in any mystical sense. Our simplest level of life is the cellular. We are each comprised of approximately one hundred trillion cells! Each cell is a complete living organism that performs all the tasks that define life: they eat, eliminate, reproduce, and try to stay alive and healthy while avoiding harm. Each cell does two things at one time: it maintains its own health while performing a service that contributes to the health of the whole individual. Yes, reader, you are literally a galaxy of active, living cells working to keep you alive.

But can you feel the life of these individual cells? Of course not. You are conscious of only one living entity. And none of your individual cells are aware of you, either. The third level of existence is as part of the larger group of humans (which in turn is a subgroup of the whole of life on the planet). We exist only by virtue of the activity of other humans that form our species, and of the countless generations of humans that preceded us. The well-being of humanity is dependent upon the activity of the individuals, and the well-being of the individuals is dependent upon the well-being of humanity. Like our cells, we are biologically programmed to perform functions that benefit the larger group without being aware of this programming.

As it is impossible to make sense of the individual behavior of our cells without considering that they are part of a larger body, it is impossible to comprehend individual human behavior without considering its role within the larger social group. And this is where the limitation of psychology comes in. With its overwhelming focus on the individual as the unit of life, psychology has developed a skewed image. We’ve sympathetically listened to the complaints of individual clients and concluded that human misery is caused by the abusive, neglectful, and traumatizing events in their lives, or by inequities resulting in handicapping conditions.

In the belief that happiness comes from a life free of such events, psychology has lobbied for individual rights and entitlements – requiring society to protect people from harmful experiences and to level the playing field for those dealt a deficient biological deck. The problem with this is that our individual happiness does not come from society guaranteeing us as pleasant a life as possible. As we see so clearly with children, the harder we try to prevent them from experiencing frustration and deprivation, the more spoiled they become. And instead of appreciating all we do for them, they explode in anger when we don’t give them what they want.

The key to happiness lies not in the struggle to receive your individual entitlements, but in acting for the welfare of others. As President Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” And this is what religions have understood – that we are part of something bigger. That is why religions encourage things like respecting parents, giving charity, praying for others, helping the sick, weak, and downtrodden, and loving thy neighbor as thyself. The day that psychology recognizes this fully is the day that psychology may be able to compete with religion.

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