Are psychology and religion fundamentally incompatible?

From a recently posted Homiletic & Pastoral Review article, “Positive Psychology and Pastoral Practice”, by Dr. Christopher Kaczor:

Are psychology and religion fundamentally incompatible? Certainly, some forms of psychology are inconsistent with Christianity, as Paul Vitz pointed out in Psychology As Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship. Freud’s atheistic materialism, and reduction of theism to a childish desire for a father figure as a savior from helplessness, exemplifies this conflict. However, the full history of psychology and Christian belief is more complicated and interesting. For example, in his recent book Psychology and Catholicism: Contested Boundaries, Robert Kugelmann addresses the ways in which psychology and Catholicism have, in various ways, collaborated, co-mingled, and, only at times, contradicted each other. The time period highlighted in this fascinating study ends in the mid-1960s, before the advent of what is called “positive psychology.” This contemporary development in the study of behavior and mental processes, opens the door to new ways of conceiving the relationship of psychology to Christianity. Traditionally, psychology has focused on pathologies, such as: bipolar disorder, anxiety, and depression. In 1998, Martin Seligmann, of the University of Pennsylvania, dedicated his term as president of the American Psychology Association to the study of the positive: optimism rather than helplessness, signature strengths rather than pathology, and growth in happiness rather than depression.

Seligman’s recasting of psychology opened up a flourishing new field. Tal Ben-Shahar, author of Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment, began teaching about positive psychology in what would become Harvard’s most popular undergraduate course. The University of Pennsylvania, and Claremont Graduate University, now offer advanced degrees in positive psychology. Of the many books on the topic for lay people, perhaps the best introduction is: The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, by Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. Unlike the power of positive thinking, advocated Norman Vincent Peal, researchers in positive psychology stress that their approach is empirical and scientific. Like new medications, the various strategies for increasing happiness are tested via double blind, replicated studies that make use of placebos.

The interventions advocated in positive psychology show, not just a surprising overlap with pastoral theology, but can also be used to deepen and aid Christian practice.

Read the entire artice at

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About Carl E. Olson 1227 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.

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