A Skeptic’s View of Counseling Part 3: The Problems with Psychology

Last week I touched on the controversial nature of the influence of secular psychology in Christian counseling.  The opponents, Biblical counseling establishments like CCEF and Jay Adams’ Institute for Nouthetic Studies, cite the following reasons:

  1. psychology, by its very definition and etymology (“the study of the nature, functions, and phenomena of the human soul or mind”(3)), encroaches upon the proper realm of theology;
  2. this encroachment is based upon naturalistic (hence erroneous) presuppositions rather than revealed truths about man’s nature, morality, and life’s purpose, and is thus a religious rather than scientific endeavor;
  3. the utility of psychology lies only in its being descriptive (ie observations scientifically verified) rather than prescriptive (ie in providing moral or legal guidance), where it is as scientific and credible as phrenology; and
  4. as a false religion, the presuppositions and conclusions of psychology are not neutral or “scientific,” but are opposed to God.  Since Scripture is true, and addresses the human condition from the perspective of the Creator, there is no valid reason to go outside of it to counsel men on overcoming the problems of living; in fact, to do so is to presume to be wiser than God.

It is no accident that Jay Adams, the father of the Biblical Counseling movement, is an adherent of Reformed theology, because his and others’ objection to modern psychology is a function of the presuppositional apologetics of the late Dr Cornelius Van Til, who was chairman of the Department of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary – where Dr Adams taught and where CCEF is headquartered.  In his engaging and intriguing pamphlet “Why I Believe in God,”  Van Til has an imaginary conversation with an unbeliever in which the former’s apologetic method is unpacked and applied.  Germane to the discussion of psychology as a false religion is this particular quote:

“I must make an apology to you at this point. We who believe in God have not always made this position plain. Often enough we have talked with you about facts and sound reasons as though we agreed with you on what these really are. In our arguments for the existence of God we have frequently assumed that you and we together have an area of knowledge on which we agree. But we really do not grant that you see any fact in any dimension of life truly. We really think you have colored glasses on your nose when you talk about chickens and cows, as well as when you talk about the life hereafter. (4)”

From the Van Tilian perspective, there is no neutrality towards God’s word; secular psychology “cannot see any fact…truly” because it is based in false presuppositions about the nature of man, seeing him through the “colored glasses” of an anti-Christian worldview.  As a false system, then, psychology can be of no use for guiding Christians – or so it goes.

Theological objections are not the only barriers to the acceptance of psychology in conservative Christian circles, and not all objections are ostensibly Christian.  The late psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, MD, questioned the existence of mental illness as an oxymoron:

“The phrase ‘the myth of mental illness’ means that mental illness qua illness does not exist. The scientific concept of illness refers to a bodily lesion, that is, to a material — structural or functional — abnormality of the body, as a machine. This is the classic, Virchowian, pathological definition of disease and it is still the definition of disease used by pathologists and physicians as scientific healers.

“The brain is an organ — like the bones, liver, kidney, and so on — and of course can be diseased. That’s the domain of neurology. Since a mind is not a bodily organ, it cannot be diseased, except in a metaphorical sense — in the sense in which we also say that a joke is sick or the economy is sick. Those are metaphorical ways of saying that some behavior or condition is bad, disapproved, causing unhappiness, etc. In other words, talking about ‘sick minds’ is analogous to talking about ‘sick jokes’ or ‘sick economies.’ In the case of mental illness, we are dealing with a metaphorical way of expressing the view that the speaker thinks there is something wrong about the behavior of the person to whom he attributes the ‘illness.'(5)”

Dr Szasz unpacked this concept more fully in his epic volumes The Myth of Mental Illness and The Myth of Psychotherapy, which remain classics of libertarian thought and scientific clarity, separating empirical wheat from philosophical chaff by highlighting the difference between brain and mind.

Research psychiatrist EF Torrey expressed similar belief to Dr Szasz:

“The term (mental illness) itself is nonsensical, a semantic mistake. The two words cannot go together … you can no more have a mental “disease” than you can have a purple idea or a wise space (6).”

He elaborated:

“The mind cannot really become diseased any more than the intellect can become abscessed. Furthermore, the idea that mental ‘diseases’ are actually brain diseases creates a strange category of ‘diseases’ which are, by definition, without known cause. Body and behavior become intertwined in this confusion until they are no longer distinguishable. It is necessary to return to first principles: a disease is something you have, behavior is something you do (7).”

A purported science built upon a mistaken metaphor is no science at all, but rather is quackery.  Thus orthodox opponents of psychology appeal to both sound theology and science, reminding psychologizers that all truth is indeed God’s truth, but falsehood is of the Devil, and that spoiling the Egyptians meant plundering their wealth rather than their belief system.

More concretely, the anti-psychology side points out the deleterious ramifications of psychological doctrine in the exculpation of criminals and scoundrels so rampant in modern society in general, and specifically in public education and jurisprudence, as if the chief end of  psychologists were to stay the hands of the civil magistrates, parents, and teachers.  Journalist Kathryn Joyce wrote on the subject of Biblical counseling:  “Many of its tenets have the ring of common sense and would probably resonate with those who worry about over-medicating children with diagnoses like ADHD or who roll their eyes at seemingly exculpatory diagnoses for bad behavior—sex addiction for cads, or oppositional defiant disorder for brats (8).”  Other concerns include the fostering of the victim mentality, thereby enabling a client to dodge personal responsibility; the mislabeling of sin as sickness; a utilitarian versus covenantal view of life; and a failure to take the demands of Christianity seriously by okaying immoral behavior in the name of “personal fulfillment” or “self-actualization;” in fine, normalizing living as if God did not exist.

Critics also point out the risks of psychotherapy. In an article published in The Guardian:

“Talking therapies are usually helpful to people who are distressed, but in a minority of cases where it goes wrong it can leave vulnerable people more depressed than when they first sought help, the authors say.

“Prof Glenys Parry, chief investigator of the (UK) government-funded AdEPT (Adverse Effects of Psychological Therapies) study, said that there needs to be greater recognition of the potential for counselling to make people worse.

‘Most people are helped by therapy, but … anything that has real effectiveness, that has transformative power to change your life, has also got the ability to make things worse if it is misapplied or it’s the wrong treatment or it’s not done correctly,’ she said (9)”

An article in The Psychologist states the problem more emphatically:

“When someone undergoes psychotherapy, the hope, obviously, is that they will recover. But if they don’t, what is the worst that can happen? That the therapy will prove ineffective? In fact, therapy can be harmful, with research showing that, on average, approximately 10 per cent of clients actually get worse after starting therapy (10).”

That being said, critics are a dime a dozen and nobody ever got hurt playing armchair quarterback.  IMHO to be taken seriously, the anti-psychology side needs to have an alternative therapy in which benefits outweigh risks, is of proven efficacy, and meets the criteria of Christian orthodoxy. I will explore their claims of having such a therapy in the next installment.


3) Oxford English Dictionary

4) republished at http://www.reformed.org/apologetics/index.html

5) http://www.psychotherapy.net/interview/thomas-szasz

6) republished at http://ic.galegroup.com/ic/ovic/ViewpointsDetailsPage/DocumentToolsPortletWindow?displayGroupName=Viewpoints&jsid=732788b94379e91d6d299e2af247ccfb&action=2&catId=&documentId=GALE%7CEJ3010154214&u=oak30216&zid=0afe4219448f258f6cf7f7d30ef108c2

7) ibid

(8) http://www.psmag.com/health-and-behavior/evangelical-prayer-bible-religion-born-again-christianity-rise-biblical-counseling-89464

(9) http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/may/26/misjudged-counselling-psychological-therapy-harmful-study-reveals

(10) https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-21/edition-1/when-therapy-causes-harm


Posted on February 17, 2015, in Counseling. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Dr Alan G Phillips Jr

    Psychology currently enjoys a status, prestige and reputation in America that belies its pathetic results. In spite of its semi-religious aura on popular television and radio talk shows, it rarely “cures” anyone of their maladies, often causing worse complications due to its increasing trend of prescribing many, untested medications with terrible side-effects. It virtually ignores the social, political and economic problems affecting large numbers of Americans, choosing instead to place all responsibility for human troubles on isolated individuals. By doing this, it insulates many of its practitioners from their own personal responsibilities to the larger, failing social, political and economic climates. Furthermore, I will challenge any common American to find a psychologist who will ever define normal human behavior. Instead, a person will encounter psychological “experts” who offer an ever-growing laundry list of “disorders” that must be controlled, medicated or extinguished to produce an “adjusted” individual to the faulty society that goes unchallenged. Increasingly, the psychologist has replaced clergy by pulling the “science” card and claiming results which actually turn out even worse than those accomplished in churches and synagogues. Someday, America needs to raise serious questions about the false myths told by peddlers of psycho-babble.


    • So sorry for my delay in answering you, but I couldn’t agree more. However, the psychological profession defines as normal that which salves their own egos; ie what circulates among the cultured despisers (to borrow from Niebuhr). With no reference to the Law of God, one can only anticipate the dolorous pronouncements of autonomous and carnal man at enmity with God.

      With reference to the latest DSM, fewer and fewer people can be said to be normal, which is greeat for business but puts the dismal science in a worse light.


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