Psychology is a diverse subject. When I was a student, it was common for friends to joke about learning to read minds or give good life advice, but psychology is far more than that.
In one week, you could discover whether learning styles are helpful categories for education, how the role of light in sleep can be understood to improve the lives of night shift workers, and how the wording of a question could obscure memory recall for a crime witness.
It’s not all fun studies to ‘wow’ your friends or memorise for quizzes – it’s hard! Biological psychology felt like learning a new language. Other times felt like I was studying applied statistics instead. Then there were other science students joking that psychology isn’t a real science (apparently, they skipped the introduction to science lecture).
Some lectures made it seem like being a Christian could make things harder. One lecturer asserted that ‘scientific people don’t find belief in God persuasive’. Another misrepresented Christian views of the body.
Some people in our churches may not always be encouraging either. Before going to university, someone said they worried that psychology would lead me away from my faith with ‘unbiblical’ ideas about humanity. Google searches of ‘Christianity and Psychology’ come up with conflicting opinions!
Enjoying psychology as a Christian
I needn’t have worried. In my experience, my faith and my studies enriched each other and helped join my voice to the prayers of praise in the Bible:
‘I will praise you because I have been remarkably and wondrously made.
Your works are wondrous, and I know this very well.’ (Psalm 139:14 CSB)
The fascination I felt in psychology led to a fascination about how God made us. I had lectures on laughter, neonatal theory of mind, and the group behaviour of bees. All God’s works are wondrous! I studied psychology to praise God.
At the same time, psychology also displays humanity’s fall. Alcohol abuse research highlights the ability God gave us to digest alcohol as well as the natural consequences of abusing this gift. We engage with historically discriminatory views towards disability that reveal unjust biases. Understanding dementia and depression points to the tragedy of suffering. Studying psychology helped me appreciate the need for Jesus to be humanity’s hope.
Psychology didn’t historically develop through explicitly Christian teachers. Yet, rather than being a contradiction to Christianity, psychology makes sense in the larger gospel story.
In Psychology: A Student's Guide, Stanton L Jones says,
‘Christians believe that we are all part of the same family and that we share certain basic characteristics common to all. As individuals, we can be wildly and profoundly different from each other, but underneath those differences lie the commonalities that tie us together as family. It is essential that we reflect on these common characteristics as we move into the study of psychology.’ 1
Christianity says that we share the same nature. That is essential for us to be able to say that a sample size in one study is ‘representative’ of the wider population. This even extends to animals:
‘If human beings are made uniquely in the image of God, then there is indeed a bright line between human and animal. But this bright line is also a porous line, one that allows us also to acknowledge a great deal of shared physical and even mental characteristics with other animals. We are unique but not in every way.’ 2
Challenges to being a Christian in psychology
Some areas do challenge Christians, however.
In an introduction to cognitive psychology, we were taught that, rather believing that human beings are both body and soul, this class would assume that we are only bodies that contain a brain, that mass of water and fat that feels like a mushroom. What does that mean for a Christian?
I believe in a soul, spiritual beings, and, ultimately, God. There’s more to our existence than what’s made of matter. Psychology, as a science, can measure brains in the physical world, but it can’t tell me that the mind is no more than the brain. Although consciousness may involve brain activity, that does not mean that it is reduced to our brain activity. My lecturer assumed that science paints us a complete picture, but as a Christian, I accept it as an accurate but incomplete picture.
Dr Sharon Dirckx has written a short, fantastic book Am I Just My Brain? 3 It’s not complicated and it’s very fun to read. She argues that psychology depends on our minds being more than our brains and shows why other views are rationally unsatisfying. (Read a review of her book here or watch her discuss it here.)
Similar challenges may arise with the question of whether certain human or animal behaviours adapted to increase the chance of passing on genes. Some might imply that passing on genes is our sole purpose. However, that conclusion is not essential to psychology. You can take what you learn about genetics as accurate, while remembering it’s an incomplete picture, as Stanton L. Jones explains:
‘There is no need for Christians to deny the importance of survival and genetic propagation, but we will be led astray by the assumption that these are our primary or only purposes in existence.’ 4
Another challenge for me came from my tutor who pointed out that ‘religious experiences’ could be recreated, so these couldn’t be true experiences of God. However, these studies cannot say whether there is a God or not. If there is no God, then they may helpfully explain what people are experiencing. If there is, then they may show what’s happening while someone genuinely experiences him. Brain activity is engaged in prayer. We are humans with brains. If something is processed through the brain, that doesn’t mean it originated in the imagination. My brain is active while I talk to friends, but that doesn’t mean they’re an illusion.
Lastly, psychology presents behavioural studies that are useful for making sense of complicated areas of moral living, educational practices, mental health care, or sex and sexuality. Questions might come when lecturers or coursemates link what you learn to their opinions about how society should be.
However, we can’t equate psychology’s discovery of what humans are like with conclusions about what we should be like. Data is neutral, so it’s our decision whether a conclusion is good or not. Research can helpfully bust myths about metal health or compare the effectiveness of different kinds of therapies. We need psychology to inform us about how the mind and body work in education or sexuality.
Yet, psychology can only tell us how to flourish if we decide what we believe ‘flourishing’ means first. Glynn Harrison’s books The Big Ego Trip 5 and A Better Story 6 are great examples of questioning conclusions about self-esteem or sexuality using psychological research and how to present a more attractive conclusion. (Watch a short review of A Better Story here.)
Living openly as a Christian in psychology
Living as a Christian in psychology means being both faithful to Christ and objectively scientific. The key is being the same in public as in private, where all aspects of who I am line up.
In your department, Jesus’ Lordship over science means having integrity in research. We can’t make statements about psychology beyond what science can say. When writing a research report’s discussion section, we cannot make claims beyond we can legitimately draw out of the data and relate to other studies. You cannot say write ‘this proves the Bible’ or ‘since God made us’. The research alone displays God’s glory in creation without us having to say so in our report. Jesus’ Lordship also means fighting the urge to stretch the interpretation of data to make a study appear more important and aiming to be honest with the citations.
This also means having integrity as a Christian. We can point out where others could be importing their personal beliefs into their conclusion that aren’t there in the data. While some might talk about passing on genes as the whole story of human purpose, we can say that it gives us part of the whole story. We also can ask questions about the ethical implications of what we talk about, even if wein situations where we can’t make our own spiritual conclusions explicit. Then, in conversation outside of a research setting, you might be able to share your reflections as a Christian.Then, outside of a research setting, perhaps over lunch with friends, you might be able to share your reflections as a Christian.
Say that your seminar group leader says that you must assume that the mind is no more than the brain. It’s fair to question how we can argue for moral responsibility if our genes, synapses, neurochemicals, and grey matter, as well as external stimuli, alone explain our behaviour. It’s fair to ask about what implications this might have for human rights. ‘If our brains define us, then personhood is dependent on having a fully functioning brain,’ as Dr Sharon Dirckx warns. 7 You might then have an opportunity to share your beliefs about moral responsibility and being made in the image of God as you walk home.
If you go into forensics, clinical practice, or educational psychology, employers will expect impartiality. But live and speak in ways that show that you see things in a curiously different way as well as demonstrating an alternative lifestyle in your work ethic, character, and care for colleagues.
What’s more, working in psychology can help us love our neighbours – improving businesses, providing mental health care, developing education, etc.
Ultimately, even if you never work in psychology after graduation, it’s worth studying God’s work, to love him with our minds and praise him for his design.
Suggestions for Thinking Further
Psychology: A Student’s Guide by Stanton L. Jones. If you want a book that’ll stretch your thinking, this is an in-depth tour of psychology, science, philosophy and theology to show how psychology fits in the Bible’s big picture of our world.
Am I Just My Brain? By Sharon Dirckx. A short, punchy, fun, easy-to-read book that tackles a complex question of consciousness, the material brain, and what our ‘mind’ is in Christian and scientific thought. Read a review of her book here or watch her discuss it here.
The Big Ego Trip and A Better Story by Glynn Harrison. In these books, he tells the story of how our culture developed its ideas about identity and self-esteem (The Big Ego Trip) and identity in the sexual revolution (A Better Story) as well as how we can respond as Christians. Watch a short review of A Better Story here.
The Mind and Soul Foundation. Their website has loads of great resources on thinking about mental health from a Christian and psychological perspective.
1 Stanton L. Jones, Psychology: A Student’s Guide. (Crossway Books, 2014)
2 Stanton L. Jones.
3 Sharon Dirckx, Am I Just My Brain?. (The Good Book Company, 2019).
4 Stanton L. Jones.
5 Glynn Harrison, The Big Ego Trip: Finding true significance in a culture of self-esteem. (IVP, 2016).
6 Glynn Harrison, A Better Story: God, Sex & Human Flourishing. (IVP, 2017).
7 Sharon Dirckx, p.9.
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