Psychology, Religion, and Critical Hermeneutics: Comments on Reber, Slife and Whoolery, Nelson, and Richardson

By Cooper, Terry D.; Browning, Don S. | Journal of Psychology and Theology, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Psychology, Religion, and Critical Hermeneutics: Comments on Reber, Slife and Whoolery, Nelson, and Richardson


Cooper, Terry D., Browning, Don S., Journal of Psychology and Theology


The articles in this issue have provided an important analysis of how psychology, so often stuck in Enlightenment foundationalism, needs to "catch up" with changes in the philosophy of science. These changes reveal that the older Enlightenment goal of emptying oneself of all preconceptions in order to perform "objective, neutral, and detached" investigation is no longer realistic. While some individuals in the harder sciences recognize this impossibility, it seems to be a lingering expectation in the human sciences. Positivism dies hard.

We applaud the manner in which these articles expose the hidden assumptions beneath many forms of so-called scientific psychology. Indeed, many of these psychologies move quickly from a methodological naturalism to an ontological naturalism, not realizing that they have switched hats and are now speaking about the ultimate context of our lives. Ontological naturalism lies far beyond anything which empirical science can demonstrate. It is a "faith" perspective--an assumptive world out of which some psychologists mistakenly attempt to do their more modest empirical work. While ontological materialism has every right to argue its case in the public arena, it should do so with the awareness that it is speaking philosophically rather than scientifically. Indeed, as the fine articles in this issue communicate, this is scientism, not science. Scientists often make poor philosophers, particularly when it comes to understanding the ontological substructure of their own work.

Methodological naturalism should recognize the limits of its tasks and not claim to speak for all reality. At this level, science works well and can make an important contribution to theology. Limiting one's investigatory power to the material world is one thing, but assuming that matter is "all there is" is quite another. Scientific omnipotence must be humbled by confrontations with its own finitude. Science needs to avoid what Reber (this issue) calls "a move from the non-religious to the anti-religious." And Reber is quite right about the consequences. This will leave us with a very incomplete psychology because key religious and ethical elements in life will be eliminated or translated into a naturalistically "manageable" explanation. Also, religion, when seen as a hopeless metaphysical delusion, will not be allowed to serve as an important resource for moral and spiritual transformation. Thus religion is, as Reber suggests, often subsumed or "cannibalized." In fact, ontological naturalism leaves no room for religion whatsoever, and religion should refuse to play on its epistemological turf. Science has its own fundamentalists, and if we accept their epistemological starting points without seeing the greater narrative out of which they do their work, we will fall prey to reductionism. Religion will inevitably be seen as an epiphenomenon, a mere by-product of purely natural processes. A secular metaphysic can only locate and account for secular phenomena.

Richardson (this issue) asks why ontological naturalism continues to dominate the social sciences. Why does positivism continue to draw such a crowd? Richardson recognizes, of course, that empirical science delivers, and when science can show its empirical muscle, many think it is also appropriate to explain everything. The late theologian Langdon Gilkey (1993) provides several reasons for this positivist inclination: (a) science has not seen itself as dependent on any philosophical foundation, and thus it is immune to philosophical criticism, (b) because these philosophical underpinnings are seen as irrelevant, neither the philosophy of science nor the historical traditions of epistemology and ontology are taught as requirements within most graduate programs in science, (c) philosophy itself has often rejected epistemological and ontological matters as it focuses on the more modest task of logic and language analysis, and (d) on a sociological level, physical science is established in technological culture, providing it with a kind of sovereign independence which seems to make it off limits to criticism (p. …

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Psychology, Religion, and Critical Hermeneutics: Comments on Reber, Slife and Whoolery, Nelson, and Richardson
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