International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Judeo-Christian Perspectives on Psychology: Human Nature, Motivation and Change

edited by William R. Miller , Harold D. Delaney

Introductory Essay by Michael Ruse

In the twentieth century, psychology was the most secular of sciences. Attitudes towards religion ranged from the indifference to explicit hostility (one thinks for instance of Sigmund Freud). There were various reasons for this but undoubtedly significant was the newness of the science and its perceived need to establish itself as a genuine area of inquiry and not simply a rehash of older norms and ways of thinking.

Judeo-Christian Perspectives on Psychology is a splendid collection that sets out to show that this religion-unfriendly attitude is unwarranted. There is much in religion that psychologists might find stimulating to their science and conversely religion has much to gain from embracing the achievements of psychologists. The collection is essential reading for anyone who takes seriously the interaction between religion and the social sciences.

Setting the scene are two essays by the editors William Miller and Harold Delaney. The first inquires into the Judeo-Christian perspective on human nature. A number of features are highlighted, including the belief that humans have a spiritual as well as a physical nature, that we are not god, that evil exists and that humans have a propensity towards sin, and that humans have free will – the ability to choose between right and wrong. It is shown how these and other precepts all open avenues of discussion and research for psychologists.

Rather reversing things, the second essay shows, through a brief history of psychology, that, although ostensibly secular, in fact much thinking in the subject has been colored by the Judeo-Christian past of Western civilization. Particularly important in our conception of human nature are influences first from the Plato-influenced Augustine of Hippo, and second from the Aristotle-influenced Thomas Aquinas, the great Dominican thinker. It is shown that, in America, religious thinkers like Jonathan Edwards made major contributions, and then (confirming the point made above) how much of this was downplayed and concealed by the twentieth-century psychologists as they strove for respectability and professional status.

The succeeding essays pick up on the themes of the introductory essays. There is a highly stimulating (and empirically informed) discussion by social psychologist Roy Baumeister on the nature of freedom and how and when it is circumscribed, with reference to how these questions were anticipated by major religious figures (like St Paul). Unsurprisingly, Paul comes up in the discussion again in the essay on human sexuality, one that treats the nature and significance of our sexual being in light of biblical norms and prescriptions.

Morality is the focus of several essays, although one might want to supplement this coverage with reference to some of the very significant work today by evolutionary psychologists and primatologists, for instance the findings and claims of Franz de Waal that are also included in the ISSR Library.

The section on conversion experiences breaks much new ground in exploring the ways in which these are both biblically significant and rich territory for psychological analysis. Some interesting parallels are drawn between religious life-changes and more secular life-changes, for instance alcoholics suddenly finding the strength and will to put alcohol behind them, immediately, once and for all.

Concluding, there is a brief summary and suggestions for further inquiry. All in all, this is a major contribution to the science-religion dialogue.