Religion and psychology are not necessarily in conflict, but a move by the Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., to drop the latter from its curriculum poses questions about their compatibility.
A June news release stated, “The seminary wants students to be skeptical of modern psychology. Instead, the seminary prefers that students first look to the Bible.”
The flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, Tenn., said, “The change is centered on the belief that Scripture can answer the deepest needs of the human heart.”
Russell D. Moore, dean of the school of theology and senior vice president for academic administration, said in an interview with the Associated Press that the counseling curriculum would undergo a wholesale revision as well. The master of divinity degree with an emphasis in pastoral counseling has been renamed the master of divinity degree with an emphasis in Biblical counseling.
“Our churches need pastors and leaders who understand depravity and the fall to the degree that they are able to see the ways in which fallen human self-interest often masquerades as objective ‘science’ – especially when this ‘science’ seeks to explain and prescribe a cure for the fallen condition of humanity,” Moore said.
“From my perspective,” said Edward Shafranske, Ph.D., “there certainly are psychological and psychiatric disorders which people face that can influence the totality of their lives, including their religiosity. So it would be quite unfortunate to close the door for a continuing dialog between psychology and a particular faith community.”
Shafranske, professor and director of the Psy.D. program at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., agreed that when dealing with spiritual crises, within a religious tradition, all the answers are fundamentally within the faith’s Scriptures and teachings.
“But to deal with an individual or family in trouble you need both a practical theological or scriptural background and some clinical knowledge of psychology,” he explained.
“For example, let’s say you have someone who has a very serious mental disorder. That will impact their marriage, their family and their faith. From a purely scriptural standpoint are there adequate resources to be able to identify mental illness? I would say there isn’t, and that is where psychology can be of assistance.”
Shafranske, who teaches a course that examines the relationship between religion and spirituality and their role in coping with mental health and the practice of clinical intervention, agreed that the Scriptures do provide a strong basis to live a healthy spiritual life.
“A pastor is better able to identify what are purely spiritual and religious issues. What about the person that is seriously depressed or someone who has bipolar illness? There can be a number of psychiatric illnesses that impact an individual well beyond issues of faith,” Shafranske said.
“Does it put a minister at a disadvantage in certain situations where he is clearly involved with a mentally ill person? Absolutely,” he cautioned.
Unquestionably, Shafranske stated, “One can be a psychologist and deeply respect the role of religious faith in a person’s life. And psychologists need to be mindful of that and not attempt to reduce clients’ beliefs or religious experiences to purely psychological phenomena.”
Shafranske doesn’t see a conflict between religion and psychology, although a conflict could arise when it involves psychological reductionism, which he explained as taking the faith perspective of an individual and reducing it to simply one’s relationship with God as entirely a psychological phenomenon.
The opposite is also true in religion, he said. “If someone were to say this person is demon possessed without taking into consideration the person might have a psychiatric disorder, that is problematic.
“To me, there isn’t inherently or necessarily a conflict between religion, spirituality and psychology, as long as we remain open to the integrity of both major fields.”