The History of Christianity’s Feud with Psychology

The History of Christianity’s Feud with Psychology December 26, 2022


It is no surprise to science that there exists a tension or distrust between psychology and Christianity in the West (it is important to make this Western distinction, as research suggests that the distrust Westerners display toward psychology is less prominent in Eastern iterations of Christian practice) (Clobert et al, 2015). This is a fact that has been well researched and documented over time (e.g., Kloos et al., 1995; Newberry & Tyler, 1997).

In 2010, E. L. Johnson wrote a book titled Psychology and Christianity: Five Views. The book describes five different views from which Christians may choose if they decide to practice psychology. The very fact that a book needs to be written describing how psychology and Christianity can be reconciled, and that the book requires examination as many as five disagreeing views on the topic, is evidence that there exists disharmony between psychology and religion which requires some kind of resolution – and Johnson, himself, agrees with this in the preface to his book.

Discussion of History

Johnson describes the early development of Western science as being largely done by Christians in the context of Christian institutions (influenced to some extent by Greek Philosophy). This includes, Johnson says, the study and understanding of human nature, behavior, and mental wellbeing – a practice ubiquitous to thinkers and writers throughout history and across cultures.

However, the age of the church gave way to the age of Enlightenment in the late 17th century, and the academy became less friendly toward Christianity as a consequence (Helm, 2018). This distrust became mutual as the academy began to undermine the philosophical traditions developed by the Medieval church and replace it with Modernism.

Whereas human behavior had long been understood in the West according to the influences of Aristotelian philosophy and Christian theology, universities and academies began to take a much more empirical approach to human behavior. Early influencers of the so-called “New Psychology” such as Freud and Skinner, were decidedly skeptical of religion, seeking to understand religion in terms of behavior and mental mechanisms rather than as a legitimate epistemology. As Johnson points out, this trend of skepticism toward religion has only accelerated over the years, and the hostility of the academy to religion has been reciprocated by the church.

The Modern Institutions

What does the modern landscape look like in terms of the tension that exists between church and academy – specifically as it relates to psychology? A bit rocky. In their research, Hodge et al find three primary reasons for this. The first is that Christians tend to seek out clergy or church programs for help with emotional or behavioral difficulties, and churches increasingly supply such services (Hodge et al, 2020, p. 4). This leads to a circumstance wherein Christians see the Church and psychology as competitors, and their loyalty to the church prevents them from seeking out non-Christian therapy, psychological, or psychiatric help. The second is that practitioners of psychology tend not to be participants in religion while religious leaders tend to be unaware of psychological research, causing a lack of understanding or communication between the two institutions (Hodge et al, 2020, p. 4). The third reason is a difference in underlying ideologies.

In America, Christian Evangelicalism is generally associated with the political conservative movement. However, research indicates that psychologists tend to be more liberal in their politics and beliefs (Inbar & Lammers, 2012). Says Hodge, “…individuals who are more liberal tend to make moral decisions based on the foundations of harm and fairness, whereas conservatives also consider the foundations of loyalty, authority, and purity.” (Hodge et al, 2020, p. 5). Consequently, Hodge concludes, clergy are afraid that Christians may begin to be exposed to values that conflict with those held by the church.

In recent years, this is especially prominent in terms of sexual ethics. Evangelical Christianity tends to take a cautious stance toward issues related to sexuality (Linneman & Clendenen, 2010), whereas modern psychology tends to be more affirming and open to a variety of sexual ethics and practices (Inbar & Lammers, 2012). This causes a special kind of reservation on the part of the church about referring individuals whose struggles are specifically sexual in nature to therapists or psychologists, as these behaviors are likely to be encouraged (Hodge et al, 2020).



In modern Christianity, one sees a decided caution on the part of the church toward the institute of Psychology. This is the result of a long history of mounting distrust between the church and the academy, leading to a circumstance wherein the larger portion of the individuals trained in psychology and practicing therapy are not participants in religion, and the larger portion of Christians are unaware of advances and research in the field of psychology.

Because the institutions of psychology and church are generally perceived to be in tension with one another, practicing Christians tend to pursue help from the church for emotional or behavioral difficulties, rather than pursuing psychological or psychiatric options. Hodge et al note that in a survey of 117 religious leaders, the clergy were not opposed to referring church members to psychologists for specialized needs, but demonstrated reluctance in considering integrating the practice of psychology into the institutional church itself (Hodge et al, 2020, p. 4).

There is, however, some hope. Hodge et al note that the concerns and ministries of the church contain a significant amount of overlap with the concerns and foci of institutional psychology. And around the turn of the century, psychology began to develop an awareness of the mental and physical health benefits of religious institutions. This was not long after psychology had begun to consider cultural diversity as an important factor in clinical practice. Gradually, religious beliefs and allegiances were factored into this focus on diversity, and individuals were encouraged to participate and practice in their religion if the therapist observed that such practices were beneficial to the person’s mental wellbeing (Hodge et al, 2020, p. 4).

Further, psychology has made inroads into the church in two directions suggested in Johnson’s book. The first of these is in Biblical counseling, which, Johnson observes, has been a part of Christian practice since records have been kept of the church’s activity (Johnson et al, 2010). The second, and possibly most influential, is in the area of Christian Psychology: a view endorsed by Johnson himself (Johnson et al, 2010, p. 143). Psychology is a course which has been integrated into Christian universities and Bible colleges throughout America, and several family and church focused psychologists have become influencers in the Evangelical church over the last five decades or so.

The increasing awareness and decreasing distrust demonstrated by Christians over the course of the twenty-first century have resulted in a situation wherein psychology may become less anathema and more acceptable in the church in the near future.



Kloos, B., Horneffer, K., & Moore, T. (1995). Before the beginning: Religious leaders’ perceptions of the possibility for mutually beneficial collaboration with psychologists. Journal of Community Psychology, 23, 275–291.

Newberry, D. E., & Tyler, J. D. (1997). Mental health value differences between psychologists and clergy. Counseling and Values, 41, 155–158. http://dx

Johnson, E. L., Myers, D. G., & Jones, S. L. (2010). Psychology and Christianity Five Views. InterVarsity Press.

Helm, P. (2018, April 6). Philosophy of religion. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Hodge, Adam S.; Hook, Joshua N.; Davis, Don E.; and McMinn, Mark R., “Attitudes of Religious Leaders Toward Integrating Psychology and Church Ministry” (2020). Faculty Publications – Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) Program. 325.

Inbar, Y., & Lammers, J. (2012). Political diversity in social and personality psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7, 496–503. http://dx.doi .org/10.1177/1745691612448792

Linneman, T. J., & Clendenen, M. A. (2010). Sexuality and the Secular. In Atheism and secularity. essay, Praeger Perspectives.

Clobert, Magali & Saroglou, Vassilis. (2015). Religion, Paranormal Beliefs, and Distrust in Science: Comparing East Versus West. Archive for the Psychology of Religion / Archiv für Religionspychologie. 10.1163/15736121-12341302.

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