Faith versus Reason, Religion and Psychology

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Ever since the days of Rene’ Descartes, the great philosopher-scientist of the 17th century, there has been a struggle between religion and science over the source of knowledge about the universe as well as everday life. For those who are rooted in religious thinking, the answers to the deepest questions about life and the universe lie in studying the bible. On the other hand, those who are rooted in science, the scientific method and empiricle research, answers to all of these questions are to be found in the search for facts to be gleaned from observations and from laboratory experiments.

At the extreme ends of this divide are the religious thinkers who are absolutely certain about what is right and wrong or sinful. The thinkers at the opposite end of the spectrum are the scientific thinkers who view religious ritual and practice as nothing more than superstition. This group is largely atheistic and equally undbending in their attitudes.


There are those who stand between these two camps, pointing out that God can be seen everywhere, even in science. Among these who are those who are very religious but manage to meld their religious beliefs with their beliefs about science. There are others who are unsure about the existence of God but allow for the possibility and then there are those who see a spiritual force guiding the universe without that spirit being in the form of a personal God.

"What has this debate got to do with," I can almost hear the reader asking? Well, everything because there are readers of ours who bring this debate to many of the topics and mental health and illness issues we discuss. For example, there have been more than a few readers who E. Mail us stating that they do not believe in mental illness and that the real problem lies in people being possessed by evil spirits. There have been those who state that they believe in medical science but are convinced that faith and prayer heal just as well, if not better, than medications and psychotherapy. I often think that Descartes must be smiling because the debate he started still goes on.

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One of the areas where this debate rages is over the issue of infant male circumcision. Firmly ensconced on the medical scientific side of this issue are those medical people, both medical doctors, psychologists and other mental health workers, who cite the research demonstrating that infants who are circumsized suffer terrible pain and go on to live out their lives with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. One medical doctor even suggests that circumcision is no longer "necessary" for Jewish people and reports examples of some Jewish leaders who agree with her.

Equally opinionated but on the faith side of the issue are those who remind the scientists that circumcision, at least in the Jewish community, is a sacred rite because it is part of the covenant made between Jacob and the Lord. What is their source if information? It is the bible, of course. In any case, no seriously religious Jewish person would ever question circumcision as part of being part of that community. This is what confuses those on the scientific side of things. What I mean is that this type of practice is part of making a "leap of faith." When it comes to making that leap and being faithful, there is no issue of "why." This is true for all the religions.

In the area of psychology and psychiatry we deal a lot with those who experience such troubling problems as depression, bipolar disorder with its swings between depression and mania, schizophrenia and the other psychoses with all types of hallucinations, such as visual and auditory as well as strange ways of thinking called delusions.

With regard to the psychoses and symptoms, some of the most radical of religious thinkers may view hearing voices and seeing things as visitations from evil forces. One father of a child who had these types of symptoms was convinced that religious practices and rituals can cure her. He reported that he, along with spiritual leaders, succeeded in curing his daughter. He is even more convinced of the power of prayer to free people from sickness and "evil."

In fact, there are occasional postings from people who’s message to those with emotional problems that they should look to Jesus for answers and for comfort. They sometimes go on to say that the reasonf for their suffering is that they have not found Jesus and that they should let them into their lives and they will feel better.

It should go without saying that psychiatrists and psychologists would probably take a dim view of these  beliefs in so far as they could actually cure. I do believe that most mental health practioners would agree that religious belief, practice and spirituality do provide comfort. However, They would look at the empiricle evidence from each case very closely to find explanations for the illness.  In other words, they would base  conclusions on the use of the scientific method. Therefore. they might find evidence of trauma, family genetics and brain chemistry to explain syptoms.

The Sarah Palin Case:

As is well know, the 2008 Republican candidate for Vice President of the United States was Sarah Palin, Governor of Alaska. She is a woman with strong views on and committment to Christianity. It must have been a source of extreme embarassment to her when her teenager daughter, Bristol became pregnant. To make matters worse, after stating that they would marry, the young couple argued and decided against doing that. The baby was born and is being raised by the daughter with visitation from her boyfriend, Levy.

Among the many controversies that this pregnancy generated is what message to send to adolescents about teenage pregnancy. Sarah Palin, her husband and daugther are sending the message that the best way for young people to prevent pregnancy is to practice abstinence. Of course, abstinence means that teenagers should not engage in sex. This view is consistent with a religious point of view and is probably similar to attitudes and beliefs in most of the world religions.

On the other hand, Bristol’s ex boyfriend and father of the baby, Levy, rejects the abstinence opinion as unrealistic. His message to adolescents is to avoid pregnancy by using safe sexual practices and condoms. He believes that it is unrealistic to ask teenage males and females to refrain from sex because it will not happen. Since they are going to have sex anyway, why not allow them to use condoms and teach them safe sex.

This controversy is parallel to the faith versus reason divide, with abstinence representing the religious side of the issue and condoms and sex education on the reason or scientific side of things.

For those who adhere to religious convictions, providing condoms to teenagers is equall to granting approval to sex to young people who,, thereby, are commiting a sin. Those who adhere to reason or science reject this as nonsense and want teens to protect their health and avoid pregnancy by using birth control methods along with condoms to prevent the spread of STDs.

There are many other areas where this debate goes on, as in whether evolution or creationism should be taught in the schools.

What is your point of view on this controversy, especially as it applies to each separate issue?

Your opinions and comments are welcome and encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD.

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