Religious Practice, Scientific Inquiry and Human Suffering

I thought I would make my first post on this blog an introduction in how I approach scientific material as a practicing Christian. I think it is always best to acknowledge worldviews at the beginning of any scientific discussion. I have argued that the social sciences in particular are negligent in this regard, implying that they are value free and scientific in their collection, organization and interpretation of data. I understand that this is a worthy goal, but I think the very nature of the things under study make this goal very elusive and implying objectivity in the social sciences ultimately misleads the public.

So I hope to be brief here but sufficiently illuminating so that further posts are placed in the frame of my worldview. I further hope that this will help readers ferret through the material presented and extract useful bits even if they are in conflict with my worldview.

Scientific Inquiry and Scripture:

There are many verses in scripture which guide and reinforce thoughtful scientific inquiry. The earliest and the first is part of God’s first command to Adam and Eve:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” Genesis 1:26

I think it is self-evident that you cannot be responsible for the supervision of creation and not understand it at the same time. Simply put, for the scientific Christian, curiosity is an act of worship. It is expressing wonder, admiration and respect for what God has created and the scientific Christian can worship better when he sees the intricacies and nuances of God’s creation.

The obligation is to have fidelity to the truth. Scientific inquiry for the Christian demands that the truth be sought like a workman, or a craftsman. Lazy scientific inquiry is implied as shameful (e.g., picking and choosing my research not to reveal the truth, but to reinforce my biases).

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15.

Being eager to teach, or enter the foray of blogging on faith, culture and science, is not a virtue in itself. Rather it implies a great responsibility that has eternal consequences:

Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. James 3:1

Scientific inquiry should be guided by humility and collaboration. It is unlikely that pure anger or outrage will guide us to the truth:

My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. James 1: 19, 20

Beware the scientific discovery that makes you feel morally superior. This encourages a two-fold deception: I magnify the moral inferiority of the one I study and I minimize my own moral failings.

For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 3 Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Matthew 7:2-5

This is in no way a comprehensive list of useful scriptures to guide scientific inquiry, you may know and recommend others.

Christ and Culture:

I read Niebuhr’s book (Christ and Culture) while in college and again in graduate school and quickly fit myself into the “conversion” model of Christ Transforming Culture. In this model, culture is corrupt (inherently sinful) and needs to be converted to Christian thought. This inherently antagonistic model became less useful to me over the years for two reasons. The first is my exposure to non-Christians who were working deeply and morally in the culture to have a positive impact in their marriages, with their kids, at their work and with their friends. The second was my exposure to some Christians who were so preoccupied with transformation that they had become interpersonally irrelevant to the culture or so offensive (morally superior) that there was no hope that they would ever interact honestly with the culture.

In the years that have followed I have changed my view and see myself working more synthetically with the culture and my Christian faith (Christ Above Culture). In this model I view culture as part of God’s creation, a necessary social structure meant to provide a sense of connection with other people and a sense of purpose and place in the world. In that regard, a healthy culture provides for the safety, wellbeing, purpose and place for it’s people. This has tremendous overlap with Christian faith, but is not, in and of itself, Christian faith. Christian faith is always a “subculture” of every culture. For me, ideally, my goal is to create a safer, healthier culture for all of its members and in so doing model Christian charity. If I am successful as a Christian, I model Christ in such a way that my neighbors benefit from my faith even without converting to my faith (see here).

Sin and Mental Illness:

This is where this discussion gets a little fun. I view mental illness as a consequence of the fall of Adam and Eve: part of living in a broken world. It deserves as much compassion, curiosity and care as any other consequence of the fall (pain in childbirth, for example).

However, I do not share, with many of my humanist colleagues, a view that mental illness is morally neutral. Compassion and curiousity about mental illness does not require that I abandon a moral compass or obscure personal responsibility. In 1959 Mowrer wrote of this difficulty, and tried, in vain, to resurrect a tried and true moral compass within psychology:

…Hell is still very much with us in those states of mind and being we call neurosis and psychosis: and I have come increasingly, at least in my own mind, to identify anything that carries us toward these forms of perdition as sin (Mowrer 301).

You can find a brief article in Time Magazine summarizing this issue as it was raised in 1959 and quoting both Mowrer and Ellis here .

How does this impact scientific inquiry for me? First, I should not expect that every moral behavior will lead to positive mental health. Neither should I seek to distort the scientific literature to “demonstrate” that sinful behavior results in mental illness, or is mental illness. The most obvious result for this blog is to not get caught up in “proving” that homosexual behavior is a mental illness as a means of emphasizing it’s sinfulness.

The Christian, in following the moral imperative to be holy, may endure suffering. In fact it is expected. Suffering is part of being conformed to the person of Christ. It is part of the theological doctrine of sanctification. Some mental health professionals may considering this suffering a manifestation of mental illness. They may seek to alleviate it by arguing for the irrational nature of spiritual practice.

So an odd set of circumstances arises around morality and mental illness:

1. Science may demonstrate that certain immoral behaviors result in mental illness.

2. Science may demonstrate that certain immoral behaviors do not result in mental illness.

3. Science may demonstrate that certain moral behaviors improve adaptive functioning.

4. Science may demonstrate that certain moral behaviors decrease adaptive functioning and may indeed create mental illness.

There is much more to say here, but that is another topic altogether. I hope this is a good beginning for those who share my faith and those who disagree with it to discuss how our worldviews effect how we look at Scientific Inquiry and Human Suffering.

Mowrer, O. Hobart (1960). Sin, the Lesser of Two Evils. American Psychologist 15: 301-304.

24 thoughts on “Religious Practice, Scientific Inquiry and Human Suffering”

  1. Interesting points. We see same-sex pairing behavior across hundreds of species (see “biological exuberance”), and it seems as natural as any other instictually motivated behavior.

    It seems some have moral issue with sexual relationships outside of the marriage bond – and that is understood if applied universally. So, I would presume that if a same-sex couple does not have premarital sex, gets married in a Methodist church (or in Canada, etc..), and then continues to live a monogamous life, then this would be acceptable?

    Why would you want to change this behavior – or this hope – for those who find their affectional inclinations are toward those of the same-sex? Shouldn’t we promote monogamy, a happy affectional bond, strengthen the family, etc…and support the laws which could do so?

  2. Apparently not ALL extramarital heterosexual behavior was considered to be AS sinful — since, as I have pointed out elsewhere on this blog, the rapist could pay off the father and marry his victim (seemingly against her will), while same sex behavior warranted stoning.

    Looking at the Old Testament, how do we determine which prohibitons and punishments still stand, and which ones no longer apply? I asked earlier: do we still chop the hands off a woman who grabs another man’s genitals to help her own husband during a fight? How is that “sin”? Does it still apply?

  3. All extramarital sexual behavior by heterosexuals is considered sin and worthy of similar punishment also. Hating my brother, whom I have seen is worthy of similar punishment also…and so on.

    Holy God, sinful people,..Christ paid the price for all my sin.

  4. Warren: Aloow me to clarify. I said “… and don’t JUST quote Scripure”. I didn’t say “don’t quote it AT ALL”. If you can use Scripture to show me what universal moral priniciplce loving, concensual, adult homosexuality violates, I would be very happy to read it.

    The reason I am asking is that it seems very clear to me that murder, rape, stealing, etc. violate very CLEAR and UNIVERSAL moral priniciples (love you neighbor as yourself, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.) How does homoseuxlaity violate these same principles. Why do homosexuals deserve capital punishment (and the fires of Hell) while rapists can make it right simply by marrying the girl and paying her father the bride price?

    I have never been able to figure out why all homosexual behavior is considered “sin” (and worthy of horrific, painful, eternal punishment) — except that it is not heterosexual.

  5. Michael,

    I can’t say what they have on their mind, because I haven’t ever asked them why they asked, but usually their psych or med students who are interested in behaviour. And most of the time, they (the ones I’ve come across) were given very selective references too (psych students and med students usually), so I guess it’s not suprising that so few ask the question at all. But again, who knows what’s on the mind of the curious. And who says the ‘curious biased person’ isn’t actually a psych student studying sexuality. Once again, I don’t know. I’ll start asking 🙂


  6. Warren wrote:

    When you say don’t quote Scripture, you are limiting a discussion artificially.

    I disagree that it is an artifical limitation to the discussion when he asks not that scripture be quoted. The reason why he makes that limitation is because he wants to know the moral principle that is being upheld as opposed to the completely arbitrary adherence to select Biblical writings. (How many Christians endorse the death penalty for violating the Sabbath?)

    I can say that murder is wrong because it deprives someone of their right to life.

    I can say that slavery is wrong becasue it deprives someone of their right to liberty.

    I can say that theft is wrong because it deprives someone of their right to property.

    Homosexuality deprives someone of … ?

    This is why people call homosexuality and drug use victimless crimes: they don’t deprive anyone of life, liberty, or property.

  7. I am reluctant to get into a theological discussion here, in part because I do not have sufficient time. When you say don’t quote Scripture, you are limiting a discussion artificially. As I have said on the blog before, what Scripture teaches is the hallmark of Evangelicalism (all others look the other way). We can disagree about what it teaches but one cannot have a common ground discussion if the foundation is removed. Certainly, it comes down to interpretation but that is a religious hermaneutical discussion, not one of prejudice, hatred or bias (at least for me).

  8. Question: What makes hoomosexual behavior “sinful” or “immoral”? Is it sinful/immoral in the same way that rape, murder, stealing, adultery, child abuse and lying are sin? What makes it worthy of terrible, eternal punishment? Someone please tell me WHY — and don’t just quote Scripture. What universal moral princiople does homosexuality violate?

  9. Our God is a God of diversity and of order, that is why this debate is so difficult.

  10. Amen, Jim. It seems to me as well that God is the God of incredible diversity and creativity. Does the fact the straights typically reproduce and gays tend not to prove the superior adaptive or moral value of anything? God didn’t stop at one type of butterfly. Or one color of flower. Maybe He just delights in variety. It’s His nature.

  11. Re: It seems unlikely that if an intelligence put us here, that that intelligence would leave mating and procreating to chance or easily overcome by environmental forces against mating. Even evolutionary theories suppose that mating is pretty important and so a pull toward the opposite sex seems important.

    I find it hard to imagine the evolutionary theory that provides so many aspects of our being. That’s assuming, of course, that evolutionary theory is solely focused towards the reproduction and sustinence of a species. I think that’s too limiting a view.

    It seems that other things happen as well. Things like a parrot’s colorful feathers when a pigeon’s dull grey seems to work just fine. Or my brilliant blue eyes while my grandmother’s dull grey were perfectly servicable. Maybe someday we will find evolutionary reasons for these things, (and maybe homosexuality, too, for example some other offsetting quality), but in the narrow view of adaptation, its hard to see why many characteristics exist in a lot of species.

    I can, however, imagine that intelligence finds delight in what he creates. That would include dull grey feathers, dull grey eyes, my left-handedness and all the clumsiness that brings, and the particular expressions of love that he endowed me with, an expression that is as unique to me as it is to everyone else.

  12. Ivan said: “Of course studying something statistically rare is not an indication of bias, in and of itself.” I agree with this. But I don’t think most people ask “what causes homosexuality” simply out of a detached intellectual curiousity about something that is statistaclly rare. Perhaps SOME do. But more often they ask because they presume that gays are broken and need to be fixed. Or they ask because they believe gays will burn in Hell and are trying to figure out a way to save them from that awful fate.

    They don’t ask the question with the same sort of open-minded, child-like inqusitiveness that might lead one to ask: “Why are some butterflies blue and some yellow?” (That’s science.) No. They ask with a deeply held negative assessment of homosexuality already in place. (That’s NOT science.)

    Warren said: “I do assume though that there is adaptive value in heterosexuality that there does not appear to be in exclusive homosexuality.”

    I could not disagree more. Of course, it is undeniable that our species replicates itself through heterosexual intercourse. I have no problem with that. I believe God made it that way. (He could have made us reproduce like single-cell organisms do.)

    But reproduction certainly isn’t the only “adaptive value” in human relationships. Warren, doesn’t human attachment and love and have TREMENDOUS adaptive value? To assert that exclusive homosxuality has no adaptive value is not only factually incorrect but is, in my opinion, insulting to gay people.

    John Bowlby believed that attachment, not reproduction, was the primary and most profound human drive — the bedrock of families, friendships and social groups. Attachment, not reproduction, is the adaptation that has made humans so successful. Therefore, gay relationships have the same adaptive value as straight ones. Otherwise, you would have to argue that childless couples and single people have less adaptive value.

  13. Well said Dr. Throckmorton. Of course studying something statistically rare is not an indication of bias, in and of itself.

    Dr. Neil Whitehead wrote the following chapter in his book published in 1999, and it’s now on his website:

    Chapter 3. Are heterosexuals born that way?


  14. Actually, yes, Daryl Bem does and his theory incorporates that question. I believe I have written about this before but I believe there are several pathways to same sex attraction, some more biological and some more environmental. I presume the same for heterosexuality. I do assume though that there is adaptive value in heterosexuality that there does not appear to be in exclusive homosexuality. It seems unlikely that if an intelligence put us here, that that intelligence would leave mating and procreating to chance or easily overcome by environmental forces against mating. Even evolutionary theories suppose that mating is pretty important and so a pull toward the opposite sex seems important. When some people do not experience this, it seems important for science to tease this out. My point is that there are reasons to study a statistically rare phenomenon that have nothing to do with a bias against that phenonmenon.

  15. Does anyone know what causes heterosexuality? I have asked this question several times, and it seems to be ignored each time. To me, this evasion of the question reveals the prejudice. Shouldn’t the question be “what causes sexual orientation in general?” not just what causes homosexuality — something that many have already concluded (based on their relgious/political belliefs) MUST be wrong and in need of fixing? It it fair or scientific to begin with such a presumption?

    I assume that Dr. Blakeslee and Dr. Throckmorton are heterosexual. Would either man care to offer an explanation as to why they are so oriented? Biology? Parental influence? Does anyone know or even care? It sure doesn’t seem like it.

    Is there any scientific research on the origins of hetereosexuality? If not, why not? Perhaps if we could figure out what makes people straight, we might have a better explanation for what “causes” the opposite outcome.

  16. Dear Steve,

    I am so sorry to hear of Dale’s struggle with depression. Regarding the difference between mental illnesss and physical illness and the consequences of the fall, I see no difference. I hope that is clear in this second attempt to address your question.

    I do think that there are ways to responsibly deal with both physical and mental illness and that when we do so our quality of life improves and we show respect for those who courageously join us in our struggle. So to use your example of diabetes: if I am negligent about my food intake or do not take good care to monitor my blood sugar, it does not just effect me, but it effects those who love me and seek my good health. If I am knowledgable about my illness and neglectful, I cannot retreat from responsibility under the cover of my diagnosis if my health fails.

    I am trying to be clear and succinct and worry that I am only being confusing here.

  17. Dr Throckmorton,

    Please review this book

    Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She writes extensively on education and childhood in America.

    Hymowitz is the author of the new book Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age, a compilation of some of her previously published City Journal essays. She examines the breakdown of marriage in the United States and how it threatens the nation’s future. The book begins with the proposition that American marriage is designed to further “The Mission”—the shaping of children into self-reliant citizens and workers. Alarmingly, while the children of married parents tend to become married parents themselves eventually, the children of single parents tend not to, fueling a vicious cycle that, Ms. Hymowitz argues, has engendered “two Americas”: one marriage-minded, one not; one economically successful, the other perpetually struggling. This is of particular concern to the African American community, in which married parents are increasingly rare.

  18. Dr. Blakeslee said: “I have argued that the social sciences in particular are negligent in this regard, implying that they are value free and scientific in their collection, organization and interpretation of data. I understand that this is a worthy goal, but I think the very nature of the things under study make this goal very elusive and implying objectivity in the social sciences ultimately misleads the public.”

    I agree that there is no such thing as “value free” science and that objectivity is a worthy but elusive goal. However, this does not mean that Christian researchers and scientists should not TRY. Too often, folks on both sides of the “gay issue” have stated their opinions as though they were established facts.

    God is not served by sloppy research or bigotry posing as science. He is the God of truth. His creation should be able to stand up to rigorous scientific inquiry, using sound logic, accurate data collection and resonable conclusions based on evidence, not one’s political/religious bias.

    For example. Joseph Nicolosi’s book BEGINS with the presumption that homosexuality is an illness and that faulty parental relationships are the “cause”. He presents these theories as though they were commonly accepted facts. That’s misleading the public. It’s false witness and bad science.

  19. Dr. Blakeslee,

    I really appreciate you laying out your foundational viewpoints in this post. So often, it seems to me, conversations like this dance around these sorts of things unnecessarily.

    Pardon my stubbornness, but I thought my question was direct and simple, and I don’t want to make an assumption about your worldview based on your non-answer. You perceive mental illness to be a consequence of the fall; do you perceive cancer, diabetes, and other illness to also be consequences of the fall, or are they different?

    (Part of my interest in the topic stems from the death of my partner, Dale, in 2000, by suicide. It appeared to me as a layperson that there was a physical component to his long-term depression. A person with diabetes is up against body chemistry which goes off-balance; when Dale’s body chemistry went off-balance and didn’t respond to treatment, he sometimes found himself sobbing uncontrollably in the middle of the night for reasons he couldn’t identify. If your sense is that depression is a consequence of the fall, and diabetes is not, that will be helpful information to me in understanding where you are coming from.)

  20. Re: Culture as the Enemy

    Very interesting points. I would add that marriage in general has been so redefined in terms of romanticism and narcicissm that it is not the same institution it was 50 years ago. We were aided in this redefinition by a fast growing entertainment industry that replaced parents and church as mentors of moral training. We must all look in the mirror for our cooperation with this process.

    I think your points about Kinsey and Mead are excellent. These flawed studies have yet to be fully debunked and last year Kinsey’s work was memorialized by the the entertainment industy (I call it the “Oliver Stone”-ing of Kinsey) But this did not happen in a vacuum. Many in good faith attempted to deconstruct what they saw as oppressive cultural standards. They envisioned a “Brave New World.” Idealism and boldness rarely have the positive consequences we imagine (see the law of unintended consequences).

    Deconstructionism in general is a worthy topic of discussion. I am of the view that culture constructed is better than one deconstructed. If one looks at indiginous peoples after the immigration of modern cultures, there is a tremendous period of upheaval and, I would say, damage. I would argue that our culture was significantly deconstructed from the late 40’s to the 80’s. Some of it was quite good: civil rights in particular.

    However the deconstruction of the family and the devaluing of religious practice were unecessary additions to this process. I think the social science data is now suporting this view.

    I think it is important to point out that much of 20th century psychology and sociology that passed for science was actually just theory. We have more of an ability now to test these theories than ever before and I think we are discovering how poor many of these theories are (Carl Roger’s Self-Esteem theory applied to education, for example) or how narrowly they must be applied in order to be successful.

  21. I view mental illness as a consequence of the fall. Science can help cure, or help tolerate better such a consequence, it cannot separate the sufferer from his or her stuggle to deal with it.

  22. Culture as the Enemy

    As Christian commentators on our American “culture” it is clear that we should try to act as Jesus would act. It is obvious that He did not wait long to challenge the contemporary exaggeration of the Sabbath rest by the Jewish intelligentsia who were turning honest worship of God into a ritualistic nightmare. (Mark 3: 1-6). He was not a sweet and accommodating critic of that perversion of Jewish religious culture.

    The intelligentsia immediately sat down with political power to plot his elimination.

    Jesus and later St. Paul deeply loved their Jewish brothers and their religious life and participated in it fully. But that did not mean a lack of independent critique of it.

    I mention this because I agree that we cannot appear to be simply bitter enemies of innocent aspects of our culture. We have no need to be harsh condemners of Britney Spears. She has made no claim to be a moral authority, or even a model of moral behavior and the chaos of her own life is enough to warn anyone who wishes to think about it. She ought rather to be the object of our compassionate prayer.

    But there are profound dangers in our culture now which threaten its noblest features. And the result of these dangers is their capacity to use centers of “authority” to convince susceptible people that claims that are in fact lies or serious distortions of the truth are valuable insights into human nature and the ways that our human natures can find happiness. Among the cultural icons, not of the Britney Spears sort, but of the intelligentsia sort who have done harm are Margaret Mead, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Alfred Kinsey. They have done much of their harm by seizing the mantle of “science” to gain cultural approval of their lies and distortions. But the guilty ones are not these single individuals (Mead was just a graduate student), but of the cultural guardians who should have pointed out that these individuals were not using scientific methods honestly and that their conclusions did not deserve the name science. I focus on these individuals because their claims affected our culture’s understanding of marriage and family. There are others, like economists who claim that empirical science proves that raising the minimum wage causes unemployment among the workers it professes to help, who deserve to be called out for criticism.

    But my message is this: Let’s not pretend that our culture is friendly and a place where we can work for the good of the young today without making them aware that it is full of some pretty venomous snakes.

  23. Welcome, Dr. Blakeslee.

    I view mental illness as a consequence of the fall of Adam and Eve: part of living in a broken world. It deserves as much compassion, curiosity and care as any other consequence of the fall (pain in childbirth, for example).

    I’ve known some folks who viewed illness as a consequence of the fall of Adam and Eve. They believed that had it not been for the fall, humanity today would know nothing of cancer, diabetes, polio, etc.

    Is your view similar? Or, is physical illness distinct from mental illness in some fashion?

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