Know Your Tools (and Their Limitations)
I noticed an interesting series of video interviews conducted by John Dehlin over at Mormon Stories about the psychology of religion with a man named Dr. James Nagel and felt obliged to throw in my $0.02. Sparks flew for a bit but it was all in good fun. I didn’t really disagree with a lot that was in the videos, but what I objected to was the implicit assertion that showing that there are psychological principles at work in religion somehow proves religion to be false. This is one of the first issues I dealt with at this blog, mostly because it’s an issue that comes up quite a bit when we talk about the psychology of religion.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that knowing these principles should at least cause people to think about the reasons why they do things, particularly the reasons why they are in the religion they are in. On the other hand, I have mentioned before that psychology is not equipped to judge truth claims about religions due to its methods and assumptions.
Psychology is a science. This means that it has inherited a certain epistemology, metaphysics, and method from the “hard sciences” and sticks with that. For instance, science as a whole is based on methodological naturalism – the belief that the natural world is all there is. So psychology could never really answer a question like, “Is there a soul?” because it already operates based on an a priori assumption that there isn’t. Perhaps you might ask, “How do we know naturalism is true?” This is a good question, but you couldn’t use current science to answer that question because science presupposes naturalism. You can’t use a yardstick to measure itself for accuracy. You need to turn to philosophy if you want to pick a new metaphysics to use. Maybe one day science will embrace a different metaphysics – I happen to be partial to Aristotelian formal and final causality myself. However, until that day, science will wear naturalistic goggles to view the world.
I actually don’t think that’s necessarily bad, as long as psychology makes more modest claims. For instance, if someone asks a psychologist whether prayer “works,” the psychologist could tell them how prayer makes a person feel, why people pray, what kinds of effects different prayers can have on mood, how people with different personalities pray, whether prayer reduces or increases anxiety or depression, etc. But psychology cannot say whether or not prayers actually reach the ears of a God or gods and whether that God or gods chooses to send down powers to heal a person. Knowing that the social aspect of going to church causes people to be healthier, and that sometimes the black and white thinking of religion can cause people to become extremists, doesn’t really say anything about whether God actually exists or not. That’s completely outside of the realm of science. Religions say that God created all of reality, which includes psychology, so presumably he could and would use psychology to help direct people to him and create social networks among his children. Or perhaps he didn’t and doesn’t exist. The point is, those are philosophical and theological questions, not scientific questions.
So if a person has a yardstick, and they are asked to measure how much something weighs, their only honest answer is to say, “I do not have the right tools to make that judgement. If you want to know how long something is – I’m all over that. But a yardstick is simply useless when it comes to weight. Go find a person with a scale.” Similarly, if psychology is equipped to only make quantifiable claims about material objects, then they need to refrain from trying to use that methodology in the realm of philosophy, ontology, metaphysics, etc. Certainly psychology has something to say to those disciplines but philosophers are a lot better at making claims about philosophical truths than psychologists.
This is why I don’t think that the psychology of religion “disproves” religion anymore than it “proves” religion. I think it sheds light on many quantifiable aspects of religious belief and behavior, and develops theories as to why that is. But that’s it.