Philosophical Issues in Psychology and Religion: An Introduction

By Nelson, James M.; Slife, Brent D. | Journal of Psychology and Theology, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview
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Philosophical Issues in Psychology and Religion: An Introduction


Nelson, James M., Slife, Brent D., Journal of Psychology and Theology


The relationship between psychology and religion has been an issue of lively discussion over the past century. From the work of psychological pioneers like William James down to the present, this relationship has been conceptualized in different ways, and many debates have taken place about the superiority of one approach over another. The articles in this issue are intended as a contribution toward understanding the philosophical difficulties behind the attempts to relate religion with the modern field of psychology. They also suggest the possibility of a dialogical, hermeneutic approach to the task of integration.

Scholars have taken a number of stances with regard to the relationship between the sciences--including psychology--and religion. In the separation approach, religion and science are seen as separate endeavors with their own domains of knowledge and practice. This view was common in the early modern period and can be seen in recent writers such as Steven J. Gould, who declares that science and religion have their own non-overlapping "magisteria" or subject areas (Gould, 1999). Opposed to this is the common view that sciences like psychology have common concerns with religion and thus can't be completely separated. Attempts that assume non-separation and seek to formulate a relationship between psychology and religion are the heart of the integration enterprise.

Attempts at integration have taken different forms over the years. In assimilation approaches, ideas or practices from one area are imported into the other area and fit within a pre-existing framework. In the extreme case of assimilation, science and religion seek to totally explain the other based on an alternate worldview and set of practices. Examples of this latter approach would include Pascal Boyer's book Religion Explained (2001), which uses a reductive cognitive and evolutionary naturalism to demystify religion, or the work of D. T. Suzuki, who used Zen Buddhist thought to explain unconscious phenomena of interest to psychodynamic theorists (e.g. Suzuki, 1960). Some of these assimilative approaches lead to coherence models that see underlying agreement between psychology and religion. Others see a picture of conflict as popularized by some influential late 19th century and early 20th century writers (e.g., White, 1901); those holding a conflict thesis often believe implicitly or explicitly that psychological and scientific thinking will eventually replace religious thought. This "against" model (Carter & Narramore, 1979) is no longer seen as valid from a historical perspective (e.g., Brooke, 1991), but remains popular with writers such as Paul Churchland (1995, 1996), who tends to see religious beliefs as "folk" beliefs that eventually should be replaced.

A century of work on the relationship between psychology and religion has produced a rich literature, but problems remain. As Richard Gorsuch (2002) has astutely noted, many systems for integration have been proposed but have had little impact on the actual integration enterprise. A lack of consensus among scholars about what integration is and how it should be done remains, despite the best efforts of many to resolve the issue. Intellectual history tells us that when intractable problems like this arise, the lack of progress is often because there are unspoken assumptions, philosophical confusions or differences at work. In this situation we need clarification and refinement of the questions we are asking, rather than definitive answers about the relationship between psychology and religion. Philosophical analysis is ideally suited to this kind of task, but little has been applied to the problem of integration, especially in the psychological literature on the topic. Especially absent has been the sort of analysis that tries to reveal unexamined, consequential assumptions and tacit values in need of critical assessment.

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