Theoretical Issues in the Relationship between Psychology and Religion: Some Comments on Reber, Nelson, Slife and Whoolery, and Richardson

By Tan, Siang-Yang | Journal of Psychology and Theology, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Theoretical Issues in the Relationship between Psychology and Religion: Some Comments on Reber, Nelson, Slife and Whoolery, and Richardson


Tan, Siang-Yang, Journal of Psychology and Theology


The article briefly responds to and comments on the four major articles by Reber, Nelson, Slife and Whoolery, and Richardson in this special issue of the Journal of Psychology and Theology. While a substantial case has been made for how secularized and reductionistic psychology is, and how psychology is still greatly influenced by logical positivism and scientism, there is a danger of overstating this case and thus throwing out the baby with thebathwater. A healthy respect for good science in psychology is still valid and possible without succumbing to scientism and logical positivism. Ultimately we need to depend on the Holy Spirit, and the community of the church and its historic traditions, to more fully appropriate truth, including biblical psychospiritual truth.

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This special issue of the Journal of Psychology and Theology focuses on a crucial topic: theoretical issues in the relationship between psychology and religion. While significant progress has been made in recent years in the integration of religion or spirituality and psychotherapy in the mental health field (e.g. see more recently, Richards, 2006; Richards and Bergin, 2000, 2004, 2005; Sperry & Shafranske, 2005; see also Hodge, 2004; Tan, 1996, 2001b, 2003b; Tan & Johnson, 2005), more attention needs to be given to some basic theoretical issues in the relationship between psychology and religion. Miller and Delaney (2005) have recently done this in providing specifically Judeo-Christian perspectives on psychology in the areas of human nature, motivation, and change. The four major articles in this special issue of JPT are therefore timely and significant in advancing the dialogue on these crucial theoretical issues.

I am grateful to be invited to respond to, and comment on these articles. I will do so commenting on one article at a time, in the following order: (1) Reber on the problems of a secularized psychology; (2) Nelson on missed opportunities in dialogue between psychology and religion from a historical perspective; (3) Slife and Whoolery on how psychology's theories and methods are not theologically neutral and therefore are actually biased against it's main theistic consumers; and finally (4) Richardson on some hermeneutic reflections on psychology and religion.

1. Reber: "Secular psychology: What's the problem?"

Reber describes the main problems that he sees as stemming from the failure of secular psychologists to acknowledge and appreciate the religious experiences of the people they study, as well as the ethical resources of religion in general. He specifically discusses how the efforts of secular psychologists to disentangle psychology from religion are actually inconsistent with what early secularists intended in their recognition of the significant and essential role of religion in academia and the domain of interdisciplinary ideas. This is an important and valid point: secularized psychology today has departed from original secularism! If modern secularized psychology is to be truly secular in the original meaning of secularism historically speaking, then there would be more critical self-reflection and even an appropriate level of suspicion of secularism itself!

Reber than argues that whenever secular psychologists have attempted to exclude religion in their research they have ended up with a more limited capacity to describe and understand the full spectrum of human experience. Finally, he asserts that secular psychologists' disregard of the ethical and spiritual resources of religion actually leads to a number of problems that prevent them from a better recognition and evaluation of the moral assumptions and implications of their theories, research, and therapy.

Reber therefore concludes that religion must not be relegated to second-class status or an inferior discipline if a true integration of psychology and religion is to be achieved. Both disciplines need to engage in a fair and genuine dialogue about the worldviews, values, and ethics that are mutually best for the study of the full range of human experience. …

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