Psychology finally finds God

It turns out that religion can help unhappy people be more happy and find meaning in their lives. Who would have guessed it? For many decades, apparently not the field of psychology. But, according to this article, that is changing.

For anyone who took a college course in psychology more than a decade ago or who is even casually acquainted with the subject through popular articles, a close examination of today’s field would undoubtedly prove surprising. The science that for most of the 20th century portrayed itself as the enlightened alternative to organized religion has taken a decidedly spiritual turn.

Bowling Green State University professor Kenneth Pargament, who in 2013 edited the American Psychological Association’s Handbook of Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality, notes just how dramatically his profession’s attitude towards faith has changed in recent times. As a young academic interested in the connection between mental health and religion, he would “go to the library once a semester and leisurely review the journals” only to be disappointed by how little his colleagues had to say about it. But “no more,” Pargament happily reports. In fact, he adds, “it is hard to keep up with the research in the field.”

Today’s psychology tells us that faith can be very helpful in coping with major life setbacks, including divorce, serious illnesses, the death of a loved one, and even natural or human-caused disasters. A study by the RAND Corporation, published in the New England Journal of Medicine just after the 9/11 attacks, found that 90 percent of Americans coped with the trauma by “turning to God.” During the week that followed, 60 percent went to a church or memorial service, and sales of the Bible rose more than 25 percent.

Other studies have shown that religious people are less prone to depression and anxiety, are less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs, and have above average immunity to physical diseases. As a result, psychologists are now developing faith-based approaches to treating chronic anger and resentment, the emotional scars of sexual abuse, and eating disorders.

As a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I can attest that I am much happier now than before my conversion. So, it is encouraging to see my experience — and the experiences of so many other people I know personally — being validated.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

15 thoughts on “Psychology finally finds God

  1. Very cool. I wonder what, if any, relation there is to the work Dr. Jordan B. Peterson has been doing.

  2. Devin, very good question. I have been listening to Jordan Peterson’s intellectual dark web discussions for more than a year now. He must be having a positive effect, because the left absolutely hates him — for no real reasons. For those who don’t know him, here is a good introduction:

    Btw, Prof. Peterson just returned from a tour of Europe where he talked to adoring audiences of thousands every night for weeks. That sound you hear is the left gnashing its teeth.

  3. Bruce Charleston obviously doesn’t really know very much.

    Apostle Peterson speaks often about defining what someone means by “believe.”
    He acts as though he believes in god, because that’s his definition of belief.

    Ironically, everyone takes what they want of Christianity, and leaves what they don’t. Those who claim they don’t are just lying hypocrites. We all know where nephi said liars go.

  4. Peterson is a cultural Christian corresponding to like how some in the bloggernacle are cultural Mormons: the religious framework makes for a relatively happy and comfy life, and good for the kids, but the underlying metaphysical/spritual/woo-woo stuff isn’t _really_ true, so let’s all just pretend.

    Well, of course, the good outward behavior is good… it’s certainly better than bad behavior. But it takes things right back to the kind of watered-down Protestantism where they “have a form of godliness, but deny the power thereof.” And that’s what got the Western World into the current mess.

    Peterson’s facts-over-emotions brand of anti-PC-ism is good too. But, in essence, the gospel IS a feeling: A subjective, not objective, internal-feeling-experience (testimony of the Spirit) that forms our idea-picture of the underlying REALITY of things spiritual and eternal.

    yeah, being a “utilitarian” Christian like Peterson is better than being an atheist. But that’s not going to save Western Civilization. The slow transition not long ago in Western Civ from true believers in Christianity to “utilitarian” actors is what precipitated the descent into leftism/progressivism.

    Just as the children of cultural Mormons eventually totally abandon the faith (and it might be a gradual withdrawal over more than one generation), so do the children of utilitarian (ie, do it because it works, not because it’s really metaphysically true under the surface) Christians eventually abandon their religion, and become totally secular, Leftist, and PC.

    And when people grow up atheist, they might retain the positive “social capital” of the surrounding cultural Christianity, but both the capital and its rate of absorption diminshes with every generation, as Christianity becomes a smaller and smaller portion of that society.

    Yeah, conservative family-values atheists are better maintainers of culture and society than leftist/progressive atheists. But the underlying problem is atheism, not politics. Conservative versus leftist/PC-ism is a surface level distraction, a dog and pony show. The REAL battle is in the unseen world, under the surface. And Peterson essentially denies that.

    The main “good” Peterson really does is illustrate that living a Christian life is not the “bad thing” that PC-ists claim it is.

    We needed Peterson in the 60’s through the 80’s. He’s too little, too late now. PC-ism is entrenched, because, like Solzhenitsyn said “Men have forgotten God.”

  5. To elaborate on a point:

    Conservative versus leftist/PC-ism is a surface level distraction, a dog and pony show. It’s all just _argument_. And it won’t be resolved because the two sides have different underlying and unspoken assumptions.

    The cause or source of the disagreement is the factions’ differing _assumptions_ about the nature of _reality_, or metaphysics. Is there a God? Is there a human soul? Does the soul continue to live after the death of the physical body? What is the purpose of mortal life? And… these things cannot be _objectively_ proven, they are _spiritually discerned_ as scriptures say.

    Therefore, The REAL battle is in the unseen world, under the surface. And Peterson essentially denies that. Or at least he avoids it.

    (Geoff B: I invite your comment on this.)

  6. I didn’t agree with everything he said, but I loved Peterson’s 12 Rules. I’m beginning to think it’s simply because it was a book God wanted ME to read and won’t necessarily be for everyone. But the vitriol against him shocks me.

    I shared a video of his on my wall, unaware of all the vitriol against him, and people went ballistic.

    I don’t expect him to save people in the eternities (of course), but I think he has some amazing things to say. I felt led to his book and I keep returning to principles he taught because hearing truth in different language sometimes helps my mind and spirit understand the gospel better.

    We can never expect a secular book to fully convert someone to the gospel and the restored truth. There is one book that is designed to do that in the latter days! But I feel sad when good books are lambasted because they are not the fulness. People can be moved and impacted and perhaps prepared for gospel truth through many means, or strengthened in gospel living and learning through “secular” books or non-Latter-day Saint materials. I am so grateful God uses many means, in a language people can understand, to help them, us, me. I NEED non-gospel language to understand the gospel. It’s just how my brain works.

    Peterson’s book did something for me that I’ve never experienced before. It validated the experience I have had all of my life struggling against the hard of life. I felt like his understanding of human nature was a brilliant exploration of the fall and his forthright manner of inviting honesty and agency was refreshing in a world that wants to make everything relative, and everything everyone else’s fault. As someone prone to wringing my hands about all the issues I care about but am usually helpless to do much about, his invitation to just keep working on my own little life and my own little process and trusting the good that can flow from trying to do and be good was powerful. “To act and not be acted upon” was a key message for me, but in language that can reach people who are leery of religion, perhaps. I know some will like it for political reasons, but that was not what resonated with me.

    I had a very different experience reading his book than what I see many wanting to say about his work. I’d say don’t assume anything if you haven’t read him, and then just take what works and leave the rest. I appreciate people who will take a stand the best they can with what they know.

    (And never before have I wanted to be able to provide a guest pass to the temple to ponder more about Adam and Eve. His deep study of Adam and Eve is missing something, but it was cool to read what he has gathered from his study.)

  7. Michelle, you’re so right. He does have some good/utilitarian stuff mixed in. I’d even say he’s mostly good…. at this point in time.

    But I see a creepy parallel to a certain former LDS member who, on the surface, looked like he was trying to help keep disaffected members in the church. He touted the benefits of the church. But eventually, it became apparent that what he was doing was inching people towards the door.

    Some people, like Charlton and Vox Day, claim that they already see/discern Peterson’s true intent and direction, like some were able to see whatshisname’s directional arc. IOW, a static picture doesn’t really show direction of changes.

    I also very much agree on how we can gain insights via restating/reading gospel principles in various vocabularies. For instance, the stoic philospher Epictetus helped me better grasp some gospel principles, when I read his Enchiridion, and his Golden Sayings collection.

    But the question remains: where is Peterson ultimately going to take those secular utilitarian-Christian right-ists who follow him? Is he a faux rightist as much as he is a faux Christian? If he is just a left-ist who is 30 years behind the other leftists, then he’s actually headed in the same direction, in the long term.

    But, leftism is just a tool, or vehicle, for the dark powers against which we spiritually contend.

    GK Chesterton wrote: If there is no God, then nothing matters. If there is a God, then nothing ELSE matters.

    Sure, we can do to Peterson what he does to Christians: we can cherry-pick the utilitarian aspects of his psychological teachings for whatever good is there. But we have to draw a line somewhere, and not get fully on board. (The German Army and Air Force of WWII had some GREAT military tactics, but….)

    Instead of arguing conservative/liberal, left/right, we ought to help people find faith in God, the eternal, the spiritual, and the REAL purpose of life and even of _existence_. Then the differences of right/left will melt away.

  8. “Sure, we can do to Peterson what he does to Christians: we can cherry-pick the utilitarian aspects of his psychological teachings for whatever good is there. But we have to draw a line somewhere, and not get fully on board. (The German Army and Air Force of WWII had some GREAT military tactics, but….)”


    Where does it appear that I am getting fully on board? You speak as though there should be some universally agreed upon boundary that “we” should all have with this book. I guess I just don’t understand the intense responses. Maybe it’s because I just am focusing on the personal experience I had with the book, not reading all the commentary about the book. Reading it was a very personal experience for me. I’m sorry if somehow you feel like I’ve done something wrong for cleaning what I could from it. I don’t have the time, energy, and inclination to try to figure out why people are having such a visceral response to his book.

    For whatever reason I feel like God wanted me to lean into and glean all I could from this book. What more can I say? To me, it’s like my daughter coming home from BYU sharing insights from her secular psychology book. That field is riddled with problems, but does that mean we should avoid it altogether? Psychology can’t save souls. But God can place truth or truth seekers anywhere he wants, or he can weed out any mixed material into truth for those seek.

    If you feel you must take a stand against his work, then by all means, follow what you feel. I just can’t pretend to feel something that I don’t. My experience is simple. God touched this book for me. I guess I need to just keep that to myself. Please believe me when I say that I’m not some sort of crazy cultish follower, OK?

  9. Michelle, Sorry. That was not an accusation against you. I was trying to cover several bases: Yes, it’s okay to cherry-pick Peterson’s utilitarian-psychology stuff, which I take that you do. In that I agree with you. (I try to do the same to Epicteus’ philosophy stuff; cherry-pick the good.) And I acknowledge that you do believe and participate in the Christian understanding of the nature of reality. We’re on the same page.

    But Peterson is _not_ on the same page as you and I. He looks to be trying to do good on the surface level (and we can agree with him that his surface-level psychology is good) and we can rightfully implement whatever good he propounds.

    I was also trying to address Peterson’s whole movement and those followers of his who do buy into his utilitarian-Christian thing. His message, if I understand correctly is : ” ‘Practice’ Christianity because it is psychologically beneficial, but you don’t have to actually _believe_ it, and by the way I don’t really believe its underlying truth-claims either.”

    Peterson, as a thought leader, is doing a “pace and lead” maneuver. Which is what most thought-leaders or leaders of movements do. It’s right out of Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Tony Robbins does it. Norman Vincent Peale did it. Ammon did it with King Lamoni. A certain podcaster who said he was just trying to keep people in the church did it.

    In “pace and lead” there is an arc, or path, and the leader _moves_ people along a path. The path is not always along a straight line. So the apparent direction early on MIGHT not be the final direction.

    That does not mean that Peterson’s surface level psychological advice is bad. I still agree that it looks good or mostly good.

    But I am saying that since his underlying assumptions about the nature of reality are incorrect (he apparently doesn’t believe in God, the soul, the afterlife, etc.) therefore the ultimate direction/place to where he’s moving his
    followers is exactly NOT what Western civilization needs to stem the nihilsim/destruction of Progressivism/leftism/PC-ism.

    Perhaps, and this is speculation, he merely APPEARS to be a right-ist, because of his _relative_ position on today’s spectrum. He sure _looks_ to be to the “right” of the progressives today. But, it’s possible he’s actually 1960’s vintage liberal. And today’s PC-ists are the direct descendants of (or in the case of those, say of Clintons’ age, the same people as) the 1960’s liberals.

    Think of it, today’s leftism is a direct consequence of all leftism that went on before. Not just since the 1960’s, that’s just where it picked up steam, but for a few hundred years, even before Karl Marx.

    By the 1980’s it had completley taken over academia (K through post grad) and all media (both news and entertainment).

    It has been an arcing movement. It has been a “long march through the institutions.”

    So, my question is where is Peterson arcing to? I don’t know. But some people I read, Charlton / Vox Day, say they see where he’s headed.

    WHerever Peterson is taking his movement, it won’t fix or save Western Civilization, Western Society, as long as Western Civilization collectively and increasingly rejects God.

    Good psychology is good. ‘Yay’ for good psychology! But what all of society needs is God. That’s what it will take to save civilization.

    Personally, I think civilization is doomed. Only the Second Coming of Christ will turn things around. So saving individuals and families, preparing people for the Second Coming, which is the work of the church, is what our goal should be.

  10. Comparing Jordan Peterson with that certain pod caster is reprehensible! There is not excuse for that! JP has never used the word “super grateful” and never will.

  11. “it won’t fix or save Western Civilization, Western Society, as long as Western Civilization collectively and increasingly rejects God.

    “Good psychology is good. ‘Yay’ for good psychology! But what all of society needs is God. That’s what it will take to save civilization.”

    I am not in disagreement with you here. When I sense is that you are looking at the collective problem of civilization rejecting God. This is a real problem. It is a problem the prophets have talked about since the beginning of time. They continue to talk about it now. And because nihilistic philosophies can bleed into pretty much everything these days, of course we need to be alert. And devoted to the work that our living profits ask us to be committed to, and that which we have covenanted to be committed to.

    That said, I feel incredibly uncomfortable trying to outguess someone’s personal story arc.

    I’ve seen too many people’s personal journeys be so different and sometimes at different points seeming so lost, but individual people are not lost to God.

    I guess I have just seen God do too much with too many people who seemed doomed or lost or interminably broken. I think Christ will cleanse things in His time, and in the meantime I think we should be patient to see where and how things fall out. I am speaking more individually than collectively.

    To me it is a difficult tension to hold space for people‘s individual journeys while also taking a stand for collective, revealed truth. I am not in disagreement with you about the collective problems that we see in our day.

    I think it is dangerous to make collective judgments about any one person on a path. All of our journeys are very complex. I can I will take a stand for the truth that the gospel of Jesus Christ is, in the end, the only solution to what human beings need. But when and how and where and through him they receive that message… When they are ready to receive it… His hand is stretched out still. And I hold out hope that many people at the right time for them will come to the gospel as they see the failings of the philosophies of men or crave something beyond what a book on psychology can provide. I also believe that if and when people online with good principles with an honest heart, God has more space to move on their behalf to bring them toward more of the fullness of truth. Who am I to judge what someone else’s next step might be… either by experiencing a taste of some good somewhere, or experiencing what lacks in worldly philosophies. I have seen both kinds of things bring people to God.

    We who have the gospel are very fortunate to know what we know, and we should never stop sharing it. But not everybody will be ready for it right now. I am watching my son on his mission learn that important truth. They are looking for people who are ready right now. Maybe whatever Jordan Peterson lacks could be the thing that finally bring someone to God? You just never know. God is bigger than all of this and so I guess I just don’t feel like wringing my hands much about it. Or, better said, when I do I feel hopeless.

    I’ve encountered the same kind of thing in my work, too. What I have concluded is that different people feel pressed to worry about or focus on different things. So like I said, keep saying what you feel like you need to say. I don’t feel pressed to freak out about Jordan Peterson. Maybe someday that will change, but not today. I am hopeful, in fact, that his heart will be open to the gospel message at some point. (Instead of criticize him, should we not be anxious to reach out to him?)

  12. “I also believe that if and when people online with good principles with an honest heart”

    That was supposed to say “align” not “online.”

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