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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

Faith versus Reason, Religion and Psychology

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: May 6th 2009

 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.

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.

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

:) - Tyler - Sep 26th 2010

I think birth control needs a better spokesman than Levi Johnston.


What happened to relationship? - - Jun 28th 2010

In the "Faith vs Reason, Religion and Psychology" view of life, we can come up with all kinds of answers to all kinds of situations and dilemas.

As a person of faith, it seems as if the issues are being confused. 

The belief or faith of a person; what one believes, is a matter of personal choice.

Faith is a confident trust in someone-not in a fact or an idea or a system of workings.

Christianity is faith in a person, namely God.  The facts of the Bible and the ideas it present are not subject to debate or discussion if you really believe the Bible is the Word of God.  If you see God in the Christian faith as a person who is loving, merciful, all-knowing, creator, self-existing and all-powerful, then what is the necessity for reason.

Belief or faith in a person who made you and cares for you kind of cancels the reasoning of the one who was created, in that, through one's relationship to Him, the creation is able to understand what the will of the Creator is and willingly yield to His desires as a child would to a loving parent.

Psychology, being a human being's study of another human being, could never compare to what is gained through a relationship with the Creator.  There is no insight a person can gain about themselves or humanity as a whole which would be sufficient to live or understand life.

Scientific reasoning only leads to more questions.  Whereas, the Word of God is God's thoughts on everything He created.

The choice is in what to believe.  Faith is a conduit through which we receive truth.  Some believe in reasoning, some believe in psychology, some believe in religion, and some believe in God.

mental health/spirituality integration - David Pickett - Jul 23rd 2009

It is well documented that healthy religious practices, or being part of a healthy community of faith, result in better outcomes for mental and physical health. Is this just an issue of people getting out of their own heads and houses, or is feeding the spirit important to the process of mental/emotional healing? I'm interested in exploring the effect that mental illness has on faith, since people with mental and emotional struggles often have great difficulty in human communities, even communities of faith. If faith is experienced primarily in community, and mental health issues get in the way of a healthy experience of relationships, how can it not have a detrimental effect on one's experience of faith?

Programs at places like Fuller School of Psychology, Duke and U. Penn are exploring the connection between spirituality and mental health. I believe that such integration has great benefits for patients and their families, especially those for whom faith is already an important part of their lives.

Why not get the other side of the story? - Dr.T - May 9th 2009

While I must say that this is a very controversial and at times interesting and enlightening topic, I do believe that one side of an opinion only allows for a monotonous conversation. It would be interesting if would speak to (and allow to comment on this issue) Marvin Lubenow, who wrote the very stimulating and thought-provoking book Bones of Contention (1992). Through this dialogue will we only be able to understand the debate of religion and faith vs. science and evolution, and therefore, better understand why people refer the hurting or those who state that have an emotional/mental problem to God. I have done so myself and it has proven beneficial, especially with those who have exhaused all of man's techniques to being mentally and emotionally healthy. Systematic desensitization, cognitive behavioral therapy, and others are only helpful for those who believe in their benefits and only seek worldly answers to their problems. But for those who seek a more in-depth understanding of their existence and problems, spiritual guidance is probably going to benefit them. As you probably already know, many former therapy participants are discouraged and believe that their therapy did nothing more but confuse them further or not help at all. These types of individuals may need to seek something different and unconventional. That is what spiritual guidance is for, and this is why has come across people referring others to God.

It is a very intense and large topic, almost too large for the human mind to succumb to. Oftentimes human pride and arroagance becomes a barrier for getting to the truth and considering some preternatural existence. Annoyance and disbelief precludes creationists from attending to evolutionary incongruity.

For example, the fossils science claims we have from previous species, are nothing more than reinvented, reproductions of the "real thing." They are sequestered inside vaults of concrete or stone and accessible only through massive steel doors. Few can see them--let alone study them. Therefore, it is difficult for even the best scientist to examine its authenticity. In fact, Darwin never saw a real fossil, although he published an entire book on it in 1871.

As you can see, the topic of faith vs reason are very large and it takes a lot of in-depth studying of the facts on both sides of the topic to really and truly discover the truth, or at least find evidence to support or partially support a theory. Blindly accepting a theory is only a course of destruction.

It takes faith to just get people out of bed each day - Frank McGinness - May 7th 2009

It takes faith to just get people out of bed each day. Religious belief is personal therefor any religion for the masses falls short for the individual. Religions that seek out converts have been/are about power over. Circumcision has always been about power over too both personally and in group. Men first started penile cutting themselves out of jealousy of the menstraul flow of women who had a direct connection to the earth and heavens. Read Prescott's "Origin of Violence". A few years age a US congressional study was done that showed we are the most violent nation in the world. Most Jews are not observent but ritual bloodletting continues. Glick's "Marked in Your Flesh" interesting read from Glick's "Marked in Your Flesh": "that the Lord's covenant and his two definitive promises (prodigious reproduction success and a lavish land grant (all of Canaanite land) appears first in Genesis 15, an earlier J text but with one crucial difference, there is no mention of circumcision." "To seal this covenant the only requirement is that Abram offer several sacrificial animals- a heifer, goat, ram, dove, and one other bird. Here we find no mention of circumcision, no change of name, no mention of Isaac or Ishmael." "Like a number of their neighbors, the ancient Israelites had practiced circumcision, but not as a mandatory rite and probable seldom on infants; nor did they associate it with the idea of covenant." It was the Judean Priests who wrote Genesis 17 (P text) 13 centuries after Abraham's putative lifetime that called for male circumcision of infants. A initiation rite not so much for the infant but of the father who must circumcise his son himself for he is cognizant of the event whereas the infant is not. These type of circ.s were the cutting off the acroposthion (the part that hangs past the glans). No damage of tearing the foreskin from the glans and no amputating the part covering the glans. The radical circ. like we do happens centuries later. The Torah says not to mark the body, this jives with the earliest Judea. Word Up!

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