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Justin Barrett | Why Theology Needs Psychology

Justin Barrett joins Jim Stump in this episode to discuss why he believes psychology and theology can help each other.


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Justin Barrett joins Jim Stump in this episode to discuss why he believes psychology and theology can help each other.

Description

Science helps us to explain many things in the natural world. When it comes to psychology, it may even be able to help us understand why we think, behave, and believe the way that we do. Sometimes people fear these explanations, and even psychology itself, because of the perceived potential to be used to explain away their belief in God. Experimental psychologist Justin Barrett joins Jim Stump in this episode to discuss why he believes in the opposite. He also tells all about the new project he’s directing, the TheoPsych Project which aims to bring theology into contact with the mind sciences by bringing theologians and psychologists together to learn and think and talk with each other.

This episode is the first in a three part series we’re calling TheoPsych. These episodes were made possible in part by the TheoPsych Project, hosted by Fuller Seminary’s office of Science, Theology, and Religion.

  • Originally aired on January 30, 2020
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

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Transcript

Justin: 

I really view the psychological sciences as another set of tools in our belt for understanding different aspects of the world, including our experience, why we behave the way we do, that are partial. They’re not complete. They’re not in competition that way, but they help fill in the picture that we might be getting from our biblical theology.

I’m Justin Barrett. I am a professor of psychology and the chief project developer for Fuller Seminary’s Office for Science, Theology and Religion initiatives. 

Jim:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m your host, Jim Stump. For the next several episodes we’re going to be lingering at the intersection of Theology and Psychology. 

Psychology is a broad discipline which is centered around the human mind, cognition, and behavior. And for much of its history, as we’ll hear in this episode, it has been a field of study that has existed mostly separate from theology and religion, and at times even been hostile to Christianity. We’ll explore a little bit of why that is. Part of it has to do with the fact that psychologists have attempted to explain things like why people believe in God, what happens in the brain and the body during spiritual experiences, or what benefits religion might have to an individual or to society. And for some, these explanations can make religion feel like it is no longer meaningful or true. In these few episodes, we’ll try to counteract that impression.

And we’ll go further than that as we look for the many places where the psychological sciences can provide a practical benefit to theology: in helping pastors to better care for congregations, helping each of us to be better disciples, understanding how habits are formed and how relationships succeed, and even looking at the role of forgiveness.

In the first episode of this series we talk to Justin Barrett, an experimental psychologist. Experimental psychology is a branch of psychology that runs controlled experiments to try to find connections between the human mind and the way we act. And much of Justin’s work has looked specifically at the psychology of religion. In his book, Why Would Anyone Believe in God, he puts forth a case that religious belief is a natural tendency for humans because of the way our minds are built, but he doesn’t think that takes away from its legitimacy.

More recently, Justin has been involved in a new project called TheoPsych, where theologians and psychologists come together to learn and think and talk with each other for the benefit of both disciplines. (In full disclosure, this series is made possible in part by the TheoPsych program, and I was a participant in the first cohort in the summer of 2019.) We sat down with Justin at Fuller Seminary at that first session of theopsych with theologians and psychologists mingling just outside the studio. 

 Let’s get to the conversation. 

Segment 1: Cognitive Science of Religion

Jim:

So you are an experimental psychologist. Is that fair to say?

Justin:

Sure. That’s a good label. Yeah.

Jim:

Do you, let’s dig back into your memories and see what we can stir up here. Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you realized that that was a thing, an experimental psychologist is actually an occupation that you could pursue and what was it that led you to actually pursue it?

Justin:

You know, this is one of those things where I have to blame the sort of liberal arts curriculum of the college I went to. So, I went to Calvin College as an undergraduate and I was a biology major and that’s what I declared going in, interested in pre-med and pre-missions. But I was forced to take either psychology or sociology as a distribution requirement, you know, one of those core requirements just to be real well rounded. And, in that first introduction to psychology class, I was confronted with the idea of psychology as a science. I had no idea it existed before. I’d always been a lover of the study of the natural world in formal and informal ways. I thought I was a sciency kind of guy, but I didn’t know anything about psychology until that class. And it really captivated my imagination.

In part because of the same reasons I was previously really excited about biology. Biology is the study of living things and how cool are living things and how much do they show us this sort of marvelous invention and power of the creator. But then here are the human minds even that much more complicated, the crowning glory of creation. I’m thinking, wow, that’s really cool and really complicated and it’s a new science. So it felt like all of the questions, really exciting questions, they’re still barely, you know, being addressed and there’s plenty of room to play.

Jim:

So you’re an experimental psychologist, you’re also a Christian. This dialogue between science and religion that’s been going on for a generation or two now really rose to prominence primarily by considering physics and then moved to biology. Psychology has been a fairly latecomer to this in a more formal sense. Do you have any inclination why that is?

Justin:

Well psychology as a discipline has a couple of interesting features. One of those is it’s one of the more secular of the disciplines in terms of how people would identify. You’ve got the—among the highest percentage of non-believers, at least in the United States. 

Jim:

Why is that, by the way? 

Justin:

You know, I can’t be absolutely certain. Part of it is the historical origins. I think, you know, some of your biggest, most impressive sort of figures in the early days of psychology as a discipline were folks like Sigmund Freud, a little later BF Skinner, who were very clearly not religious. And I think they attracted a certain kind of following. Of people that were particularly interested in demystifying what it is to be a human. And part of that demystification too is just demystifying everything.

And so we sometimes hear that word reductionism and I think that wasn’t a bad word for a lot of folks going into psychology. There was something appealing about making sense of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, in a way that doesn’t, well, that doesn’t make use of ideas of human will or souls or even minds to a certain extent. It actually, I mean, this isn’t the case for Freud, but certainly if you’re Skinner and Skinner’s type of approach to human psychology, it had no space even for human minds, thoughts, let alone motivations, desires and aims. Everything was to be reduced to just sort of humans as a kind of machine almost, or of just a different kind of animal. 

So I think that’s part of it is there’s this heritage of nothing-but-ery in that, sort of baked into at least the scientific side of psychology. And so a lot of people who have gone into it had been attracted to that. But you know, this is, I mean, I’m sort of slightly informed speculation on that front. I haven’t done the psychology of psychologists really.

Jim:

So in those other areas where there’s a dialogue between science and religion, there are often, the dialogue is ideas or discoveries in those science that seemed to stand in some tension with say, the physics or the biology that we see at least reflected among the human authors of scripture. So is this a similar feature in psychology that you’re suggesting that perhaps psychological discoveries about humans and how they work might stand in some tension with these traditional religious ways of understanding people?

Justin:

I think that there is that potential in psychology. There aren’t quite the same real prominent flashpoint findings or theories in quite the same way. But definitely if you want to look for things that just fit a little uncomfortably with the Christian worldview, there are plenty in certain prominent, at least historical theories in psychology.

Jim:

Give us some examples of those.

Justin:

Well, you know, referring back to Sigmund Freud, right? I mean, his idea that we are animals driven by all of these unconscious processes over which we have very little control. Well that doesn’t sit terribly comfortably with the idea of us being willful beings who in some ways are choosing to behave this way or that and are culpable then for those choices, which has been of course a more common Christian idea. So that would be one example or really BF Skinner’s idea that we are nothing but a product of the conditioning of our environment. So order the environment in a certain kind of way and you get certain types of people and there’s not really a whole lot you can do about it because there really isn’t much of a you after all, when it comes right down to it. Well that fits uncomfortably with at least the way that Christians have typically looked at ourselves.

But I think rather than pointing to very specific theories or findings, I think it’s more that sort of the idea that psychology is often viewed as a competitor for Christian views of human nature, what a human is and how to solve human problems. Because psychology is saying, well, look, we don’t need those pastor types to counsel us. We can come up with mental health professionals who are informed by psychological science. We don’t need ideas like redemption or sanctification. What we need are therapies or interventions. And because psychology, unlike say physics or cosmology, geology or even sort of biology writ large, psychology is about humans. It’s about human thought. It’s about human behavior. In some ways it’s about human values and what’s the purpose of humans and what makes for a good life, right?

Psychologists think they have something to directly contribute to those kinds of ideas. Well then they in some ways really are trafficking on exactly the same kind of issues that the church has been concerned with for a couple thousand years, right? I mean, or religions more broadly have been concerned with forever. So it’s not, oh, and there’s this interesting thing on the side that might have some claims that contradict scriptural kinds of commitments or scripturally informed commitments. It’s like, no, we’re actually doing the same thing. And by gum we can do it better than you can, you old Bible-believing people. I mean, there can be that kind of an image of psychology as a practice or psychological science as a mode of inquiry.

Jim:

So you’re trying to rehabilitate that image in some sense in the church that psychology really does have something to offer that’s not in competition with that that might actually help instead to bolster our understanding of the world and ourselves of humans through a Christian worldview.

Justin:

Yeah, that’s right. I really view the psychological sciences as another set of tools in our belt for understanding different aspects of the world, including our experience, why we behave the way we do, that are partial. They’re not complete. They’re not in competition that way, but they help fill in the picture that we might be getting from our biblical theology. Like any other tool, they have to be used for the right thing and they have to be cared for in the right way. And think of it as sort of being good stewards of the science. Or science stewardship is a term that I like to use to think about what our relationship should be toward the sciences.

But yeah, we shouldn’t be surprised that for instance, if you want to talk about forgiveness, our theology can tell us how important it is for us to forgive. But it’s relatively silent about, say, practical steps and what those look like if you are developing a forgiveness intervention or what the stages of forgiveness are. But work by people like Everett Worthington scientific work and clinical sort of practical work have helped flesh those out. That’s useful. Or you might think of as while there may be a theology of love, there’ll be a psychology of love and the different kinds of loves and how they’re enacted in human behavior. And so it would be a shame, I think, for the church to ignore these available tools or to say, hey, we don’t need them. We’ll get on just fine. Well, in some cases we will get on just fine, but in other cases, why not use these really good tools that are available to us? So that’s kind of what I’m hoping for.

Jim:

So in the same way that there are perhaps some views of psychology and psychologists and perhaps ways that they have not lived up to the ideal from whatever our perspective is in this regard. It’s probably fair to say that psychologists might look at theologians with also some hints of, these are some ways that you could maybe improve here too. And so, again, not every question, but some of these questions where the empirical side of psychological science can come to bear and to help inform theology or other ways that theology might… So you give the example of forgiveness here. Are there other areas like in the conceptual sphere of theology that would be helped by considering what psychological science can tell us about those particular things?

Justin:

Yeah. Well, there’s this whole area of theology that’s called theological anthropology and it really is the theological consideration of what humans are, what our nature is and issues in that space. And well by gum, that’s kind of what psychologists do too in their own limited kind of way is explore what is human nature. At least with regard to how we typically or often behave under certain circumstances. And so within that umbrella you might think, well, psychologists have been studying things like, well how does language develop and what does language do to our thought? I know a problem you’re interested in. Or, we might think, well there’s a lot of psychological work about our reasoning abilities and the biases, predilections, heuristics that we use to solve problems typically, in our thought and reasoning. And those might give us new insights into not just how to think well, but when thinking goes wrong. So you might think psychology has something to contribute even to the study of fallenness or sin, our sin nature. You might think it has tools for exploring that. And I think those are some areas where theology could really benefit, let alone the practical areas of theology of how do we communicate certain theological truths effectively given the kind of minds that humans have.

Jim:

That seems particularly important for say pastors for whom communication is sort of their, you know, daily gig of what they’re doing. Psychology can provide some insights for how to do that better?

Justin:

Yeah. Well a lot of our educational programs in schools today and our communication techniques, they’re actually areas of applied psychology. There’s educational psychology, there’s communication and persuasion psychology. And on top of that there’s a psychology of religion and cognitive science of religion that’s exploring how people often think about religious topics, theological ideas. And having a better understanding of the psychology there may then be useful to those who want to communicate and persuade effectively to realize, okay, here’s why I’m bumping up against a wall it seems like. Why is it—one of my favorite examples is why is it that we often in the Christian Church, especially Evangelical Church, hear so many sermons about grace? Grace, grace, grace, grace, grace. Well, part of that is because it’s really important to us. But I think, you know, in their more candid moments, most pastors will admit to, and it’s because people are just not getting it.

Well, why aren’t they getting it? What makes that concept so hard for us to really absorb and let it change our lives from the inside out? I think there’s reason to think that it runs counter to our nature in some ways. You might say our fallen nature, but that’s okay. But anyway, in the way that we think about what it means to be a responsible, what it means to engage in a relationship with someone, we often, research seems to suggest—we like to say things like that—research seems to suggest that we find it very intuitive to think in terms of give and take, tit for tat. What I give you, what you give me back. Reciprocation is sort of one of these general human relational principles.

And then comes in this idea of grace—that God’s kind of going to transcend those rules. He’s not just going to engage in reciprocation. He’s going to say, you don’t owe me nothing other than gratitude perhaps. And that sits funny with a social animal that sort of is kind of built up it’s societies on the idea of reciprocation and that you get what’s due to you. And so that may rub us the wrong way and so it requires a lot more attention. That would just be one example. And I think there are lots of these little islands like that, of even church experience and pastoral experience that maybe a psychological approach could at least put things into new relief and give us new insights on what’s effective, what isn’t and maybe and ways to invent new techniques to serve those roles effectively.

Jim:

So your own research has been largely in this field of the cognitive science of religion. Can you give us the sort of elevator pitch of what this field of study is and why it ought to be important for people of faith to understand and consider?

Justin:

Yeah. Cognitive science of religion is an interdisciplinary area. It draws a lot on the psychological but on other neighboring sciences as well to try to account for why it is that across human cultures, groups of people throughout history, we seem to see recurring patterns of expression, cultural expression you might call religious. Why is it we see god concepts come up again and again and again. And why do we see ritualized behaviors? What about ideas and afterlives, something like a soul. Why are these ideas, why do they show up across cultures in very similar ways? What’s the psychology behind that such that we humans are especially receptive to certain forms of thought and cultural expression and not others.

That’s kind of what the area of cognitive science of religion is about. It was kind of invented by primarily by some religious studies scholars who really wanted to do more than document interesting differences of religions across cultures, but get to the point of being able to better explain why it is they saw the similarities and differences that they did and not just rely on appealing to historical peculiarities or just, “oh well it just happens that”, and then just tell a story about “it just happens that.” But, well, wait a minute. You can’t just say “it happens that” over and over again we see these similar patterns under similar conditions. What’s accounting for that? So cognitive science of religion grew up trying to look at those kinds of questions among others. And so there’s this trying to explain religious phenomenon by appeal to psychological mechanisms. That’s kind of it’s thing.

Jim:

Is one of the reactions to that, particularly from people of faith that, whoa, hold on here; you’re just giving now a naturalistic explanation for why I’m religious and therefore my religion isn’t really true?

Justin:

That is a common response. There can be some defensiveness there and saying, well, if it looks like you’re giving a naturalistic explanation for this then is, is that all there is to it? And I think there’s a misunderstanding there. Just because we have some kind of a psychological or naturalistic explanation for some kind of phenomenon doesn’t mean it isn’t real, meaningful, valuable or whatever. Psychologists would be quick to point out if they’re being honest, I think, that look, we’re in the business of explaining things like why it is we think our mothers love us. And there’s a perfectly good sort of psychological, naturalistic explanation for that. But that doesn’t mean our mothers don’t love us. That would be the wrong conclusion to draw. What we’re identifying is what are the psychological processes by which we, if you want to put it this way, detect accurately that our mothers love us. In a similar way, we might say that what cognitive scientists of religion are doing are identifying the psychological dynamics by which we make ourselves available to God’s revelation. Now I’m adding a theological gloss on those findings. But I think it’s consistent with the scientific approach then to draw out these theological implications. Did you want to push me on that anymore?

Jim: 

And to be clear, I’m not pushing you to say I somehow object to this. I’m trying to channel some of the kinds of concerns that people might have with this. So yeah, other kind of similar examples are if we have some understanding of how human beings evolved, does that mean God had nothing to do with it? It sounds like you are doing something here where you’re saying there could be one kind of explanation that draws on these psychological principles. Perhaps throw in some evolutionary adaptiveness even for why we tend to believe in God. And that in and of itself doesn’t mean, and therefore that’s the only reason that we believe in God, but that it might be a pathway toward actually being able to detect something that is there. So is there some analogy in this, even with the development of other sense organs we have, I mean, could we give a natural history of the eyes for why we can detect electromagnetic radiation that would be similar? Is there or is this a not a fair analogy? I guess what I’m asking… So sometimes particularly within reformed communities, we talk about the sensus divinitatis. Is that a sense in the same sense that we have these other sense organs and you’re giving a kind of natural history of that as a sense organ?

Justin:

I think that’s a fair comparison. Kelly James Clark and I have written about this a little bit, trying to be a little provocative, but the idea is that there are theological reasons, you know, John Calvin developed many of these inspired by Augustine and Saint Paul and others, about this notion that we’ve got some kind of a vague, fuzzy, sense of the divine that is just sort of part of human nature. It’s kind of baked in part of maybe God’s general revelation to us making us receptive to the idea that there’s something, well some divinity out there that we detect in some imperfect way just by virtue of being the kind of animals that we are. Well that’s a theological concept, but it’s a theological concept that has sort of empirical legs. We should see evidence for it. And if you, even Calvin sort of has articulated the kind of evidence we might look for including cross-cultural recurrence of certain kinds of religious ideas. He was actually explicit about that.

So while cognitive science of religion wasn’t out to investigate the sensus divinitatis. What it ended up stumbling upon was parallel evidence that you could put together to say, yeah, it kind of looks like by virtue of the kind of animals we are growing up developing in the sorts of ordinary human environments we find ourselves, it is very common at least to have a certain natural receptivity to the idea of there being something like at least one, but maybe many gods out there so that humans aren’t the only thing. That there is meaning and purpose in the world around us. That’s not merely the physical world. Maybe that there’s something about us that transcends just our bodies too. Those seem to be very natural ideas for humans to think. And cognitive science of religion has been, quite independently of the theology, developing theories based upon certain kinds of evidence we’re getting through experiments, cross-cultural studies and the like that seemed to be pointing the direction. Do we want, if you would like to call that a sensus divinitatis I think that’s all right. So I do think there’s an analogy there.

[musical interlude]

Niki:

Hi Language of God listeners. We wanted to take a quick break from the episode to tell you about the BioLogos resource centers found at our website, biologos.org. You’ll find articles, videos, and other resources curated for pastors, educators, youth ministry, campus ministry and small groups. Help bring the science and faith conversation to the places that are important to you. Just click the resources tab at the top of the page. Now back to the conversation. 

Segment 2: Social Functions of Religion

Jim: 

In that analogy with the senses and even can we say a properly functioning sensus divinitatis will result in people believing in God. Is the objection from the other side, then, okay, you’re giving me this natural history of how I came to be this way. I don’t happen to believe in God. Am I somehow disabled then? Am I not functioning properly if I don’t believe in God?

Justin:

Yeah. Well, from a theological perspective, one might be bold enough to say, yeah, there’s something not right there. That’s not what God intended. God did not intend for us to not come to knowledge of him. It depends on your theology. But I take your point. You might think, well, are you sort of almost pathologizing atheism at that point? Which would be ironic given that so much of psychology is trying to pathologize theism. 

I do think it’s not a level playing field and that’s one of the things that’s helpful about the science is it does help adjudicate amongst well who’s putting their thumb on the scale. And I do think that the science at this point suggests that at least under normal human conditions, the conceptual path of least resistance is something, you know, religious looking. But the science does not go as far as to say that something like the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God that Christians say became incarnate in Jesus Christ is somehow preferred by our mechanisms, our psychological mechanisms. We don’t have evidence for that. How would you account for atheists? Well, there’s actually ongoing research on that question. Some of them, my colleagues who work in this field, in fact, most of my colleagues who are working in this field are atheists. I happen to know.  A few of them who are atheist happily bite the bullet on this. They say, yeah. Actually atheism is a little bit of an aberration. It is a conceptually more difficult path, but then they might congratulate themselves.

Jim:

They’re not going to say, there’s something wrong with me there.

Justin:

No, they’re going to say, yeah, I’ve overcome my natural propensities. Just like somebody might overcome their natural propensities to be violent and they sort of have overcome that. Or their natural propensity towards alcoholism and they’re like, but I’m sober. I’ve got these natural propensities to see purpose and design in the world around me to think my life is having this greater meaning, but I’ve wised up and we can build societies that help other people wise up on this front too.

You still might say, look, atheists are in a position that is in some ways less natural than an ordinary religious person. And many of those of us who think of ourselves as evangelicals, we would hate to see our friends who are atheist stay in that condition because we think that, you know, we’ve been gifted with a life that has greater meaning, purpose, richness because of our, well, because God has sort of grabbed ahold of us and we’ve received that gift from him of this abundant life and we want to share that with other folks. So how would you bring that about? Does cognitive science of religion have insights on that front? I’m tempted to speculate and I am speculating here that part of what might be offered from this approach is to say, well, if it is the case that some kind of religious thought is the path of least resistance given our ordinary human nature living in ordinary human environments, then it’s probably unusual cultural environments that make atheism more attractive.

So we might be interested in how can our atheist friends be sort of returned to more natural kinds of social environments. That is, environments that maybe don’t quite push against those natural inclinations so hard. That’s sort of step one and step two then that all of us need is to complete the picture. Well, we’ve got these conceptual, you might think of God shaped conceptual gaps that need to be filled, but just which god is going to get put in there? That’s up to that cultural environment. That’s that, I think we’d say, our special revelation has to complete that picture. And that is still sharing this sort of the good news of Jesus in these cases and saying that purpose tug you feel, that meaning in life you feel, that’s coming from God. That sort of conceptual, in this case, conceptual yearning, there may be passionate yearnings as well for the something beyond. Well that’s, God has planted a seed in there. Let me introduce you to the person who’s filling that space in me.

Jim:

And you don’t have the sort of granularity in this cognitive science of religion, of understanding belief in gods to get down to different kinds of conceptions of God? Monotheism versus polytheism perhaps or anything that’s more specific in the religious realms of what has turned into various religious traditions?

Justin:

It is looking a little bit like, that gods who are responsible for the order we see in the natural world around us may be a bit more natural than those that don’t. Gods that at least are seen to act occasionally now and again. A little bit—we’re a little more receptive to those, I think on a cultural level than we are gods that just have nothing to do with us. Gods that play some kind of morally regulatory role, may actually be more adaptive. And so there may be a group level evolutionary sort of dynamics that have seized upon them to make them more attractive. 

Jim:

Talk about that a little bit. 

Justin:

Well, some of the folks who are working in my general area would say, all right, we’ve got these, you might think of it as a conceptual engines that make the idea of invisible minded agents with sort of special properties, easy to think about, easy to talk about where you have a sort of basic receptivity to them. But if some of them, one or more of them gets talked about who also then are morally interested, maybe they account for surprising cases of fortune and misfortune by saying, ah, that person was punished or that person was rewarded for their moral goods, then those gods may play a regulatory function in that society. And so there’s some thoughtful speculation and research that is followed up on that speculation. Exploring, could it be that the idea of morally interested, powerful gods actually helped our species get past really small bands of people into bigger organized communities. You might think over at least, you know, I don’t know, we’ve got communities of thousands of individuals that somehow get along pretty well. And gods may have played some kind of role in that. In which case those societies that have those gods out-compete, those that don’t have the gods and that gene pool also then has some maybe selective advantages over the others. You get this sort of gene culture coevolution they say, that has made maybe even morally interested gods all the more attractive to us over time. 

Jim:  

So for instance, the way I’ve heard this, see if this is correct, the way I’ve heard this described a little bit. In a smaller group—so there’s some psychological research that suggests the number of individuals that we can maintain relationships with, right? 

Justin:

Right.

Jim:

So once we get above that—or while we’re still below that number in our hunter gatherer groups, there’s some sort of peer pressure going on that helps to regulate behavior. So I’m not going to steal your club because you know my mom’s aunt and, or you know, whoever, whoever it would be within that group, there’d be these relationships that I have to maintain and keep intact. But once we get above group size of that magic number, people become more anonymous to us. I may not have that same sort of pressure for not harming or stealing that person’s goods. But if I’m inclined to believe in an invisible, powerful person that will punish me if I do that. That’s the adaptive story that is being told about this?

Justin:

Yeah, that’s right. When groups are small enough, our kin bonds or our anticipation of bumping into each other in the future, and so having good reciprocal kinds of relationships may be enough to regulate us, get us to cooperate to a fair extent. Once we start getting big enough then we’ve got some regulatory problems. We can cheat each other and get away with it. And you might think, well, all we need to do is punish each other. Well, we could, you know, we could set up little police states that punish people who break the rules, but that bears a cost. The community has a cost to bear on tracking down and punishing the people who cheat. It’d be great to offload some of that cost onto the gods. And if the gods will do this work for us that’s a lot cheaper because the gods could be anywhere. They’re going to be harder to cheat. I mean, it’s going to be harder to evade their watchful gaze and their punishments could be a lot more severe, in some really interesting ways, right? It could be a sickness. It could be, and I don’t just mean in the afterlife, I mean in this life. Sickness, bad hunts, injury, all kinds of interesting things, infertility, could all be read as signs of the gods punishing. So for these kinds of reasons, it is thought that, it could be that gods played this really important role then at least historically in societies.

Jim:

Could that be tested in contemporary societies though where belief in God is on the decline?

Justin: 

Yeah, folks who are attracted to these kinds of accounts, we’ll often use experimental designs in which even in fairly secular societies, for instance, they will prime people with the idea of a god—priming there just means, we introduce some kind of a well, we say a stimuli, but you know, it could be words, it could be images, it could be, you know, any number of things that remind people about God or some kind of gods—and then look at their behavior in different kinds of social engagement kinds of tasks maybe that require trust or cooperation. Those kinds of experiments have been conducted and while the results are a little irregular, there seems to be some evidence that if people are sort of reminded of God, even if they are atheists, they may be slightly more cooperative or slightly more generous. So that’s one way that experimental psychologists might approach this.

Jim:

And perhaps video surveillance is starting to take the place of this where there is always somebody watching in China now, right.

Justin:

We’ll that’s right. Or London is famous for this. And there’s a camera everywhere it seems like in central London. And the thinking is that just the very presence, the thought that I may be watched helps people sort of reign in their temptations to be naughty. So then the real question is has that been part of the story of where gods, belief in gods have come from? Maybe. Can the State and sort of all of these video cameras and things take the place of the gods? Well that’s a little different, but that’s sort of reducing the gods to have this purely functional kind of, and a single function that, at least the psychology of religion has consistently suggested, no, being part of a religious community does a whole lot more for you than just make you behave a little better. So let’s cool our jets if we think that belief in God is merely a social technology.

Segment 3: Theopsych project at Fuller

Jim:

So we’re sitting here in Pasadena, California at Fuller Seminary where belief in God is still normative. Right? You’re directing a new project called the TheoPsych project. Tell us a little bit about what that is.

Justin:

Yes. TheoPsych, bringing theology to mind. And there what we’re trying to suggest is bringing theology into contact with the mind sciences. And this is a three-year program funded by the John Templeton Foundation. And our hope there is to identify areas of psychology that are useful to theologians in doing their theology. We don’t want theologians to become psychologists. We want to introduce theologians to findings from and theories from psychological science that might be useful to them in doing their theology.

We’re hearing from psychologists who work in the area and having discussions about what are these findings from psychology, what can they contribute to various theological studies. So it’s kind of fun. It’s an experiment.

Jim:

I was just going to ask that. Is there any research on what the effects of this might be on these theologians?

Justin:

No. Well, there isn’t that.

Jim:

But this is the research project.

Justin:

This is the research project, yeah. We’ve seen similar kinds of programs in other domain areas like programs for theologians, for instance for, sorry, for philosophers to be introduced to theological concepts for instance. Or some time ago when I was based at University of Oxford, I ran a program introducing philosophers and theologians to cognitive science of religion. So we’ve done this kind of thing before, but this is new in trying to curate psychological science for theologians. Usually here at Fuller we see what we call integration going the other direction. 

So Fuller is an unusual kind of place in that we’ve got a school of psychology that offers a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy and two doctorates in clinical psychology. We’ve been at this for over 50 years now. But mostly we’ve been concerned with how can theology inform doing psychology? How can it motivate and maybe a sort of refresh psychology, especially as a helping discipline? And we’re kind of trying to get the integration arrow going the other direction. Gee, how is it that psychology might provide some useful resources for theologians? Not so that it will just go one way instead of the other, but so that we can start a feedback loop, right? Because we imagine that if theologians started engaging the psychological science, it’s going to help their theology, but they’re also going to come up with new questions or new insights that psychologists just haven’t even started looking at. And so it could stimulate psychological research and in turn and together we can start maybe a virtuous cycle of theologians and psychologists really helping each other make progress on these topics that just matter to us as a church and really do some good kingdom work here.

Jim: 

So finally then, what do you hope for the future in terms of this science religion dialogue in so far as psychology is involved in this? What does it look like for psychology to be much more fully integrated into the life of the church and theologians?

Justin:   

I’ll tell you my big dream is that, like other scientists, this is a dream not just for psychological scientists but for all scientists, that the church moves closer to a position of recognizing that doing scientific inquiry really can be a God ordained calling. And that those of us who are scientists really open ourselves up to the idea of that. We can be a resource to our church communities. We can really contribute to not only just theological insight, but putting those theological insights into practice in our local communities. And then that we are a resource in discipling the next generation of scientists. There’s so many of, you know, big problems facing humanity, the world at large that the sciences offer some really great tools for addressing, if they are theologically informed. And so I really hope that we are moving towards a day in which more and more Christians who are scientists are also biblically and theologically informed so that they can be resources for their church and for the world. And recognize that that’s their calling. That’s their place.

Jim: 

Good. Thanks for talking to us. 

Justin:  

Thanks for having me.

Credits

Colin:

This episode is the first of a three part series we’re calling TheoPsych. These episodes were made possible in part by the TheoPsych Project, hosted by Fuller Seminary’s Office of Science, Theology, and Religion. 

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf, that’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the BioLogos offices in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode, find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Finally, if you’re enjoying the show and want to help us out, leave a review on iTunes. We love hearing from you and it helps other people find the show. Thanks. 


Featured guest

Justin Barrett

Justin Barrett

Justin L. Barrett (PhD Cornell University) is President of Blueprint 1543 and honorary Professor of Theology and the Sciences at St Andrews University School of Divinity. Prior to founding BP1543, he was at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he led the Thrive Center for Human Development and then the Office for Science, Theology, and Religion (STAR). He came to Fuller from the University of Oxford, where he taught and served as senior researcher for Oxford’s Centre for Anthropology and Mind. He has also taught at the University of Michigan and Calvin College, and served as co-area director for Young Life in Lawrence, Kansas. His book Thriving with Stone Age Minds: Evolutionary Psychology, Christian Faith, and the Quest for Human Flourishing, co-authored with Pamela Ebstyne King, is out now as part of the BioLogos series of books on science and Christianity. Some of his other publications include Psychology of Religion (ed., 2010), Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (2004), Cognitive Science, Religion, and Theology: From Human Minds to Divine Minds (2011), and Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief (2012).

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