Feature

Does psychology discriminate against theism, the philosophy that assumes that God not only exists but matters?

Answering that question is the goal of a special issue of APA’s Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology (Vol. 29, No. 2). The issue offers papers supporting and rejecting an argument put forth by psychologists Brent D. Slife, PhD, of Brigham Young University, and Jeffrey S. Reber, PhD, of the University of West Georgia.

The issue is part of the journal’s ongoing support of “affirmative action for marginalized ideas,” says editor Thomas Teo, PhD, an associate professor of the history and theory of psychology at York University in Toronto. As a non-religious person, Teo admits he had qualms about devoting an entire issue to the topic. But, he says, psychology should be open-minded about a philosophy that is well-received in America’s mainstream, though not in psychology’s.

Many psychologists belong to the naturalist tradition — they view their findings as religion-neutral and see God as unnecessary to their work.

Naturalistic psychologists “see science as merely describing reality without interpreting it,” says Slife. “But psychological findings are not descriptions of psychological reality; they are interpretations of psychological reality.”

While naturalistic psychologists deny the necessity of God in their interpretations, says Slife, theists view God as an essential element in their interpretation of the world.

That difference in belief about God’s role in human life renders the two viewpoints incompatible, says Slife. As a result, the tendency to use findings from the naturalistic worldview to “inform and correct” the theistic worldview is not a neutral practice. And, he says, the omission and discrediting of theistic perspectives — especially in studies of theistic topics that use theistic participants — violate the injunction against religious bias laid out in a 2007 APA Council of Representatives resolution.

The prejudice against theism limits psychology practice as much as it does research, adds Slife. “We’re talking about the possibility of a systematic bias against the majority of consumers of psychology,” he says.

That bias isn’t malicious, intentional or even conscious, say the authors. “We’re trying to raise people’s consciousness,” says Slife.

Such accusations of prejudice should make psychologists take notice, says James E. Alcock, PhD, a psychology professor at York whose commentary appears in the special issue. But the argument Slife and Reber put forward is a “bait and switch,” he says.

The APA resolution condemns prejudice against individuals and groups on religious grounds, he points out, but the authors aren’t talking about discrimination against religious people.

“Their objection boils down to what they call prejudice or discrimination toward a particular hypothesis that they take for granted to be truth — that is, the Christian belief system,” he says.

Accepting the premise that God is actively involved in the world’s day-to-day affairs renders modern science impossible, says Alcock. By its very nature, he points out, the supernatural can’t be empirically verified.

“If we start taking religious beliefs and dogmas as guides to research or acceptable alternative explanations, then we get back to the state we were in a few centuries ago,” says Alcock, comparing the authors’ argument to the intelligent design movement’s attack on biology.

Even if one were to accept the idea that religious beliefs have a place in science, he adds, the question becomes which religion. Should a memory researcher test for memories from former lives since some religions believe in reincarnation, for example?

Says Alcock, “It would be chaos.”

In their published reply to these and other comments, Slife and Reber counter that theists are found among many faiths and describe a prospective program of theistic psychological research. Arguing that “theism’s ultimate validity and legitimacy for psychology are yet to be decided,” they call for psychologists to allow theism to take its place in the marketplace of psychological ideas, to succeed or fail.


Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.