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Religion And Psychology: Conflicting Or Compatible?

By Doni Joszef

The riddle of existence comes with no simple solution. Those that have sought to solve this riddle are many, while the proposed solutions which have passed the test of time are few. Religion is one solution to this riddle which has passed the test, though not without its fair share of challenges and challengers along the way. Philosophy seems less concerned with solutions than it does with pondering the heady questions. Psychology, while offering no concrete solution to the puzzle, meets us halfway, offering modern man some solace in his struggle for sanity.

For some, the question is, psychology or religion? For others, the answer is psychology and religion. Those that pit psychology against religion see these two worlds as mutually exclusive.

Freud was one such figure. What religion calls “soul,” psychology calls “psyche,” and there is no sharing of this territory. There is no “two-state solution,” as it were. There is the religious system, and there is the psychological system, and never the two shall meet.

For others (myself included), psychology and religion collaborate with one another, each making its own contribution to the healing of our human condition. But this position meets the inevitable question: if religion has all the answers, who needs psychology? And if both carry a measure of value, whom do we call when panic attacks—the shrink or the rabbi?

The simple solution to this question is pastoral counseling, which merely merges the two roles into one “all-inclusive” package. But this solution neglects addressing another issue, which is: why bother with counseling at all? Why not just follow the rules of religion a bit more rigorously, obey more commandments, transgress fewer sins, and simply heal thyself!

This is a common misconception among religious believers who simultaneously struggle with psychological challenges; they rely on religion to do for them what it was never designed to do. The course of religion demands a certain level of emotional stability as a necessary prerequisite. Those who seek religion as a sole psychological treatment, while they avoid confronting their underlying demons, are only digging themselves deeper into the abyss they yearn to escape. They are using religion as the defense mechanism Freud accused it of being. Eventually they will blame religion for failing them, while, in truth, they only failed themselves. They jumped into the rigors of religious life without first clearing the wreckage of their inner lives. This is a common tale, with an all too common unhappy ending.

Psychology was never meant to solve existential riddles, and religion was never meant to heal emotional imbalances. True, there are therapists who see themselves as spiritual healers, and there are rabbis who see themselves as psychoanalysts. But they’re often, if not always, ill equipped (not to mention untrained) to offer long term answers to the questions being posed. Religion answers existential questions, psychology answers emotional questions. While the two areas may certainly overlap, they serve different functions, and, as such, provide distinct services. Let therapy heal the psyche, and let theology heal the soul.

But what exactly do I mean by “psyche” and “soul?” At the risk of sounding overly simplistic, I submit the following . . .

The psyche is where our cognitions, perceptions, and core beliefs operate. It has observable (conscious) elements, and unobservable (subconscious) elements. As we develop, these elements begin to follow certain patterns (called “schemas”) and such patterns gradually form the basis for how we engage with our inner and outer worlds. When these patterns base themselves on unhealthy, distorted, or maladaptive beliefs, the result is emotional imbalance, and psychotherapy is our best known tool for untangling these knots.

The soul is an entirely different dimension. We can’t see it, we can’t touch it, and we can’t measure it. But we can subtly feel it underneath the clutter and clamor of worldly distractions. It’s the part of us that wonders why we’re here, what’s the meaning of existence, where do we come from, where are we going? Psychology has no answers to such questions. The soul is what sees our existence for the riddle that it is, and only religion has provided some semblance of a solution to this riddle.

The line between therapy and theology is becoming blurrier by the day. For psychology and religion to work collaboratively, we must respect each domain for what it’s designed to accomplish. The psyche and the soul each has its own doctors, and much unnecessary confusion would be avoided if they centered their attention on the areas they’re best equipped to heal. v

Doni Joszef, LMSW, works in private practice and presents innovative workshops on a variety of psychosocial topics. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in media psychology. For more information, call 516-316-2247 or visit DoniJoszef.Com.

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Posted by on February 20, 2014. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.