Modern Psychology in Today's Scientific and Religious Mindsets

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Science and religion can often seem at odds with each other, but perhaps there are more similarities and interconnectedness than scientists give credit. Psychology, as a relatively new science, has a slightly different view than other sciences. Unlike biology, which tries to explain away religion, psychology helps explain it. It cannot answer if a God behind an answered prayer exists, but it can measure the effects of prayer on the person. Even with the advancement of psychology, religion remains a cloud of mystery and taboo in many fields. Many doctors in the medical field, for example, would rather fill someone with drugs than sit at a patient’s bedside to pray with them over the disease. It is up to psychology to show how important religion is to the mental and emotional health of the patient, and therefore, why it is important to learn as medical professionals (Esperandio, & Ladd, 2015). Psychology and religion are connected because they help define what it means to be human.

One of the best ways psychology can intertwine with religion is through the concept of prayer. Prayer is odd because it requires the individual to look within themselves and share that information with a being that is outside the realm of existence. The access point for transcendence to occur is within the mind, but it is also physical because it involves the brain and maybe even a special praying position (prostrate for Muslims, on knees for Catholics, cross-legged for Buddhists). This is effectively the idea of mentalization in psychology (Schaap-Jonker, & Corveleyn, 2014). Mentalization is just the idea that a person can look inward into themselves. A Buddhist would say that this is because of the human ability of the mind. The idea of a consciousness is ingrained in Buddhism; it has been a common theme for almost 2,500 years (Kato, 2016). A mind allows someone to understand others’ feelings and try to understand what others experience. According to Buddhism, the concept of a mind is saved for the highest organisms on the food chain, humans.

In a study done in Denmark, Christians were asked to pray while their neural activity was measured. The areas of the brain that were lit up were the anterior prefrontal cortex, the temporoparietal junction, and the temporopolar region. All these parts of the brain are active in mentalization, either by analyzing social situations or reflective thought about oneself (Schaap-Jonker, & Corveleyn, 2014). This study suggests that prayer is more than imagining something in the head (or an excuse for sleeping). Prayer activates regions that allow for self-reflection and replay of one’s day, possibly to build one up to a higher morality or perhaps to relax or decompress the brain to ready it for sleep.

Not only does prayer activate neural activity, it may also help solve issues by activating different parts of the brain than society typically recommends. In another study, some participants were asked to think about a person that made them angry, while others were asked to pray about that situation. The people who prayed had a higher pain tolerance and experienced less feelings of pain altogether (Schaap-Jonker, & Corveleyn, 2014). Thinking only uses cortical brain circuits while prayer requires the use of subcortical and limbic systems as well (Schjoedt, 2009). Prayer requires more of the brain to work; perhaps the brain is analyzing the situation more and allows the individual to feel more at peace with the once anger inducing individual.

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Some studies explain the neural activity as proof that religious experiences don’t exist. The argument is that if the neural activity can be lit up in a lab, then the person isn’t experiencing a real encounter. These studies supplement this idea of fake experiences by citing extreme examples of historical ignorance in explaining modern neurological data. For example, some scientist believe that all religious experiences can be explained by drugs or medical conditions (seizures). In the medieval time period, humans once believed seizures to be evidence of demonic possession. With modern science, the cause of seizures is known; it’s overreactive neural activity (W. Brown, Jeeves, & J. Brown, 2009). While demonic possession is an extreme example, the logic is transferable; science might explain most cases, but it can’t answer every case. Just because a part of the brain lights up related to a religious experience does not mean a religious experience will happen. “These changes in brain activity, as found in imaging studies, are not unique to a religious experience” (W. Brown, et al, 2009). The fact that neural activity of a religious experience can match something that a patient would not classify as a religious experience shows that there is some factor being missed; possibly it isn’t even in the brain, maybe it can’t even be observed. Whatever the case, this study suggests that there is something more than just a simple on/off switch for religion.

It is clear that psychology has the ability to accommodate religion, but does religion, specifically Christianity, leave room for psychology? As it turns out, it does. There are some theological ideas that could be addressed for it to make sense, but simply look at the history of the Church. Of course, these Christian truths or ideas were put into practice way before psychology came about as a science and continued the Church’s work, perhaps only strengthening Christianity’s argument that what it proposes is the truth.

Long before psychiatrists, it was the churches that would help the mentally ill. As mentioned before, medieval Christians believed demonic possession was the cause of mental illness. This of course turned out to be false. However, the great strides the church made overall by establishing mental institutions where the patient was cared for, unlike the medieval streets or government facilities, cannot be overshadowed by this (Entwistle, 2015).

The source of opposition between Christianity and psychology appeared with Sigmund Freud’s ideas of how the unconscious brain worked and his rather odd interpretations of how humans are motivated by sex alone (Entwistle, 2015). Clearly the faithful didn’t completely agree with him, as many non-believers didn’t either to be fair, on the ground that humans aren’t only led by such sinful desires. The Christians, however, would agree with Freud that humans are sinful and their will to sin is what makes them human. The origin of sin doesn’t matter to this particular argument, but the implications certainly do. Christians emphasize the need to accept the Savior, Jesus Christ, to help the person overcome the implications of their sin through justification or continue the path which leads to hell (Barrick, 2010). The more applicable part of this ideology is the continuation of sanctification, or the process by which God makes a person more like Himself. It is worth noting that the person does not become or think they become God, that’s simply a delusion of grandeur, but that they seek the attributes of God such as honesty, purity, and love for others. It is “the foundation of sanctification in Christ’s work that allows one to live a new life” (Barrick, 2010). In short, Christians agree with Freud that humans are naturally led by sin, but they withhold themselves from their desires because they believe Jesus Christ destroyed the powerful desire sin has on them.

Of course, there are more religions that could be covered other than Christianity, but all these religions can be lumped under the idea of a worldview. A person’s worldview is shaped from birth, it’s also impossible for one to not have a worldview. Not saying that everyone must have a religion per se, but that everyone at least has a belief system that works for them or is trying to find one.

Whether or not the forces behind religion are real, it is important to the understanding of modern psychology. The reason “interactions between psychology and Christianity are so intense is that they both make claims about what it means to be human” (Entwistle, 2015). To understand psychology, especially for a practicing psychiatrist, means learning other’s worldviews to grasp where they are in their mental health. Even if these worldviews turn out to be a delusion, there is experimental data that shows religious techniques, such as prayer, do have a positive effect on the human brain, which subjectively makes a person better. These effects only happen when the person communicates with God, it can’t be replicated with simple electric shocks. There is something ingrained in humans that science alone cannot answer. With modern advances in psychology and the idea of mixing religion and science becoming less taboo in the scientific field, the study of the brain is more interesting than ever.

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