Article by LiveReal Agents Grace , Blake, and Mary

Has psychology replaced religion?

That might seem like a strange question.

After all, a showdown between Freud in one corner and “In the beginning…” in another would seem to have Freud typically losing handily.

And that’s the case. When the issue is framed this way, it’s barely a contest. The number of people who have actually said, “I’ve replaced religion with psychology” could probably be counted on one hand.

Yet psychology has quietly conquered a lot of ground over the years.

It’s not that we “paved Paradise, put up a parking lot” (Joni Mitchell) in one single, momentous move, as part of some existential makeover.

But there has been a series of subtle, underground shifts.

Psychology-based therapy, counseling, and buzz about “self-care” or “working on myself” have become commonplace. Slogans like “Be yourself!” “Follow your heart!” “Follow your bliss!” or “You do you!” are so popular now that they’re almost cliché. “Self-esteem,” affirmations, “positive thinking,” “manifesting” this or that, or ongoing efforts to heal from traumas of various kinds are often woven into everyday conversation and habits. Unpleasant feelings or undesired behaviors are often explained as symptoms of “disorders” and treated with pills. Anxiety, depression, PTSD, stress, phobias, ADHD, and other “disorders” are no longer just obscure clinical jargon from trained medical specialists.

Almost everybody’s doing it.

All of this has become woven into everyday life. It often has a vast presence. Sometimes, it’s just beneath the surface; other times, it’s right in our faces.

And much of that is turf that, broadly speaking, once belonged to religion.

Compare this to what’s happening on the other side.

A survey from Barna Research recently published results showing that only 9% or less of adults possess a worldview that matches their professed religious beliefs.

What does this mean?

At least for some, psychology and pop psychology play a much greater role in real, traffic-and-laundry-level day-to-day life than religion.

Viktor Frankl noticed this coming decades ago.

As he described in one of the most popular “psychology” books ever written, Man’s Search for Meaning:

“More and more, a psychiatrist is approached today by patients which confront him with human problems rather than neurotic symptoms. Some of the people who nowadays call on a psychiatrist would have seen a pastor, priest, or rabbi in former days. Now they often refuse to be handed over to a clergyman and instead confront the doctor with questions such as, “What is the meaning of my life?” (138)

Frankl wrote that around 1946.

Imagine what he’d say today.

G. K. Chesterton made a parallel observation:

“Psychoanalysis is confession without absolution.”

Psychology sometimes encourages you to “confess” – which, in its’ version, consists of simply talking about your problems, traumas, and mistakes (“sin” doesn’t exist in that realm). But instead of being forgiven, absolved, “cleansed,” or “wiped clean,” you’re left to…talk more about problems, traumas, and mistakes.

The hope is often for some sort of emotional catharsis. But cathari often seem surprisingly elusive, and more sought after than experienced.

Much of this was once the realm of religion, but is now owned in part by psychology.

Many thinkers and researchers - Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow, Charles Tart, Ken Wilber and others - have commented along the same lines. Rollo May quoted Erich Fromm as pointing out that (many) "people today no longer live under the authority of church or moral laws, but under 'anonymous authorities' like public opinion." (Man's Search for Himself 25).

But is this a good thing? Or a road to disaster?

The answer there can be controversial.

For some, this development has created generations that are spiritually malnourished. It means we’re now raising individuals who know more about Beyoncé than Buddha, more about Kardashians than Christianity, more about entertainers and athletes than anyone focused primarily on serious answers to Big Questions about life. It means more people are basing their lives on pop psychology, clever nudges from corporate marketing departments, and implicit assumptions from an areligious culture more than any sort of serious, time-tested philosophical framework. It means young people can easily wind up knowing more about celebrities than themselves.

For others, the development is positive. Based on what they know and think of religion – which sometimes isn’t much (see above) – psychology (and pop psychology) simply seems like a more attractive alternative.

Putting that question aside for now, we can ask instead: what’s driving this?

What’s causing this radical shift in our most basic ideas about life?

There seem to be larger forces at work here.

The key question is, “Who really knows the score?”

Who or what is the ultimate authority on life?

Again, the question is one of someone’s basic worldview or life philosophy.

For some, the answer boils down to the development of a bigger picture: in certain ways, science has replaced religion.

As they see it, the ultimate authority is no longer religion. It’s science.

It’s a perspective that describes science as “the way we know what’s really happening in the world,” and religion as “essentially, a bunch of old, outdated stories.” That means adopting the approach of swapping out “old, outdated stories” for the sleek methodology of science.

It can be a fairly easy sell for some.

It’s a simple answer to a complex problem. After all (as the thinking often goes), science gave us nifty gadgets like airplanes, smartphones, and squeezable ketchup bottles. Therefore, science “works.”

In the same way rulers (kings, tyrants, emperors, etc.), once they attain power, often try to expand that power, when science became “king” of sorts, it then naturally moved to expand itself into other domains.

After all, if science worked in some places, then it must work in others…right?

“It must also work when it comes to people.”

Since science was so successful in certain areas, then it must also work for human beings.

And with that, the “science” of human nature was invented.

It became “psychology.”

Almost instantly, psychology inherited credibility and clout.

It was science, after all.

It wasn’t mere "dogma."

It was supposed to be an entirely different approach, driven by data and evidence, not myths and speculations.

It was the same “science” methodology that invented the radio, got us to the moon, and gave us pop-tarts. How could it fail?

The basic idea was this: if we’d apply the same principles and methodology to ourselves, then before long, we’d surely achieve the equivalent of “going to the moon” for the human being.


What could possibly go wrong?

(Spoiler alert: plenty could go wrong. Widespread soft nihilism, for example.)

It might not be exactly clear what “going to the moon,” human beings version, meant, exactly. But whatever it was, it would probably be good.

(It wouldn’t result in substitute religions suddenly sprouting up, for example.)

The problem was that we just hadn’t really applied the scientific approach to people yet.

But one way or another, once we did, it would surely mean better human beings.

Decades – and in some ways, even centuries – have passed since we chose that path.

And how has that turned out?

Not so well, apparently.

Nihilism, fanaticism, celebritheism, and substitute religions aside, to most of us, it’s fairly clear that things as a whole aren’t really going all that well. Our turn toward science hasn’t exactly led to widespread reason and rationality.

Examining why this has (and hasn’t) happened would take some unpacking.

It could lead us to ask why civilizations collapse at all, where the thin line is between a free civilization surviving or not, why so many young people seem so unhappy, or what a sturdy foundation for a life might look like.

It can easily become an “Everything Problem.”

But at this point, we can boil it down to just a few basic ideas.

There’s nothing wrong with a scientific approach to studying human nature.

But if we start to rely on that – scientific research – exclusively, as our sole model of human nature – which means throwing everything else overboard and declaring it invalid – then we apparently set ourselves up for trouble.

Science has limits.

Assuming that science is the only valid approach to truth isn’t a scientific assumption. Declaring that we can’t learn genuine truths about life from things like literature, poetry, art, and so on isn’t just absurd – it’s unscientific.

There are some things science will never reveal.

For some questions, no lab is big enough.

Experiments and research take time, money, and a lot of work that has to be done by smart, competent, honest people. People like that can be rare.

And more importantly, it turns out that science doesn’t quite work the same way for human beings as it does for atoms, chemicals, and numbers (as in physics, chemistry, and math). And the results of even the best research can be vague, uncertain, difficult to interpret, and hard to apply to the gritty realities of everyday life. Science still hasn’t figured out clear answers to even some much simpler and empirically verifiable questions.

Psychology hasn’t, either.

Humans don’t live by the results of Harvard studies alone.

There’s an old saying: “dance with the girl that brung ya.”

Across the larger span of history, religion is “the girl that brung us.”

For thousands of years, serious religious and philosophical traditions have served as the bedrock of civilizations.

These civilizations created very different cultures from those based on celebrities, athletes, and corporate marketing departments. Genuine “myths” – in the positive sense of “mythologies” – have served as the basis of practically all functioning cultures that lasted longer than a few years.

Humans are storytelling creatures. We live more by narratives than lab results. In some ways, science itself is largely composed of stories.

Religious traditions weren’t always perfect in practice, clearly. Most of them openly admit that. And what they aim to accomplish might be so difficult that it’s practically impossible.

But thoroughly secular, entirely non-religious societies aren’t perfect, either.

This type of society is largely new and untested.

And so far, based on the lab results we’re received so far, it isn’t working well.

The idea that we could simply dump the whole of tradition overboard and start over fresh with our own antiseptic, test-tube approved, laboratory-based approach to human civilization was bound to be problematic.

We abandoned the girl that brung us, and opted for a different girl – one who seemed to be an upgrade.

But now, as we’re up to our eyebrows in postmodernism, we’re quickly getting some insights.

This “new girl” isn’t what she seemed to be.

In fact, she might be at least a little bit of a psychopath.

Sure, she showers us with great gifts like smartphones, computers, and handheld slot machines that are available 24/7. But she also brings us atom bombs, chemical weapons, and dirt-cheap Fentanyl.

She doesn’t really seem to have much of a conscience. In fact, she seems perfectly happy to go in whatever direction she’s pointed.

She turns out to be a tool that merely extends human nature instead of “fixing” it. And human nature can be scary.

Our future with her could include flying cars and robot maids – or man-made epidemics and nuclear annihilation.

We’re supposed to look at things clearly, with both eyes wide open, before committing. This might lead us to do some rethinking.

We might want to think twice before marrying her.

She might work out better as just a friend.

Given our current state of affairs, we might even look back to that “girl that brung us” with fresh eyes and a little more appreciation.

In our efforts to improve on past approaches, we seem to have thrown some babies out with some bathwater.

But would this mean turning away from a scientific approach to psychology?

No. It would simply mean transplanting it to a firmer philosophical and metaphysical ground.

Genuine religions turn out to have a great deal to say about “psychology.”

They didn’t necessarily use that label when talking about the nature of human beings.

Sometimes their labels for what amounts to “human nature” are unnecessarily awkward, like “philosophical anthropology.”

But religions contained implicit models of human nature.

They didn’t necessarily do controlled studies, double-blind experiments or publish in peer-reviewed journals.

But they definitely had things to say about what makes humans tick.

All genuine religions describe:

• what human beings are
• what human beings can become
• what human beings should become
• how that process of becoming can go well, or not well

They provide a grounded philosophical framework for understanding people.

That framework is something mainstream psychology is sorely lacking.

Religions address life’s existential riddles directly, while mainstream psychology often brushes them aside. Psychology often assumes a worldview that ignores the Big Questions altogether. That not only provides an unstable foundation to operate from – a critical discipline that’s floating, suspended, in mid-air – but also kneecaps our ability to prepare for the existential riddles we all face.

The best of genuine religions – and the models of human nature inherent in them – can sometimes offer a coherence, unity, and depth that conventional psychology (and its spunky younger sister, pop-psychology) sorely lacks – and for as long as it remains on its current course, always will lack.

To be clear, none of this approach criticizes proper science. It’s a defense against the misuse and abuse of science.

Science does very well in fields such as math, physics, and chemistry.

But people are more complicated than numbers, atoms, and chemicals. We humans are messy, disruptive, and profoundly complicated. We don’t sit still well for experiments.

The disarray in the “social sciences,” political “science,” the “science” of economics, sociology, and other human-oriented fields demonstrates this point very well. In economics, for example, experts famously disagree – and not just on fine points, but on fundamentals, and on the most basic of the very basics. The core assumptions and theoretical models they use are often wildly at odds. They rarely even mention the basic assumptions they’re operating from – they often simply assume, proceed from there, and start to engage two, ten, or fifty steps later. This is why several experts can look at the exact same data and come to diametrically opposite conclusions.

These fields – all fields with human nature at the center – are still in a turbulent, volcanic state of formation, where the ground is still shifting underfoot.

Mainstream psychology is riddled with gaps – vast openings that lead to uncertainty, confusion, angst, wild speculation, and skepticism.

The assumption that we shouldn’t make any assumptions is still an assumption. That can be an unexamined assumption itself, and one that wreaks havoc. Imagining that we’re making no assumptions – when, in fact, we’re making boatloads of them while pretending not to – might be one of the worst assumptions of all.

This leaves us facing a particular challenge.

If religion has big shoes to fill, and science is utterly failing to fill those shoes, then anyone who has chosen the path of “all science, no religion (mythologies, assumptions, metaphysics, etc.)” might find solutions in a fresh appreciation for areas they once dismissed.

There may have been more to those old “myths” than met the eye.

This effort to remedy this situation would involve making the implicit psychology – the models of human nature that are imbedded within the major religions – explicit.

It would involve a marriage of the best of science and religion.

But is this possible? Is there a way to take the best aspects of mainstream experimental psychology and the vast insights of the major world religions, and unify them in a mission to help us “Know Thyself”?

That’s the challenge the book The Perennial Psychology attempts to take on.

(Full disclosure: the author of this article and the author of that book are one and the same.)

How do we even approach this problem? Do the major religions agree on any common ideas about human nature?

If so, is it possible to articulate and describe them in ways that each of us can apply to everyday life?

What if the most life-enhancing and functional qualities of the major religions could be integrated with a rigorous application of the best of experimental and clinical psychology?

That might seem a bit ambitious.

But it also seems worth looking into, doesn’t it?

Some branches of psychology – humanistic, transpersonal, and positive – have been heading in this direction already.

Mainstream psychology as a whole seems determined to ignore all of this. It’s apparently chosen the girl it’s dancing with (psychopath or not), and seems fully committed to rejecting even the most basic consideration of other potential approaches to solving the problem.

But we don’t have to follow that route.

When the stakes are this high (and the stakes are our very selves, after all) we can choose carefully who we dance with. And we should.

Science is supposed to be a search for truth. It’s not a set of blinders that serve primarily to strangle innovation and mandate narratives. Feyerabend, Popper and others have warned us about science (or what pretends to be science) morphing into a new form of dogma.

Genuine religion is supposed to be a revelation of truth. And not just truth, but Truth.

“Truth” – at least as an ideal – is something both science and religion agree on.

The real action seems to take place where these overlap.

It’s the intersection where both open-mindedness and rigor collide. It’s the collision point of both tough-minded analysis and broad-minded openness, where there’s an ability to both question and listen, to both think and feel, to boot up an operating system that runs both genuine revelation and genuine Logos.

There’s much of stake here. The mental health of many people hang in the balance. Certain key problems in politics and economics and so on will never be solved on the level of politics and economics. The only solution to certain problems, ultimately, is greater sanity in the people involved.

And the potentials in this can be inspiring. From antifragile happiness on a personal level to a “Spiritual Renaissance” on a wider scale, the effects of an improvement on these fronts can be both widespread and profound.

But first, we might want to get clear on who we’re dancing with, exactly, and make things right with that dance partner. And then, dance well.

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If you liked this, check out:

The Perennial Psychology: A Timeless Approach to Understanding Human Nature

Existential Fitness: Boot Camp for the Soul

10 Ways Psychology Can Drive Us Crazy

10 Essential Ingredients of No-Nonsense Spirituality

Our Current State of Psychological Health, at a Glance

How Substitute Religions can be Hazardous to Your Health

Why Soft Nihilism is So Popular These Days

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