Let’s face it. Conservative Christians tend to be wary of the social sciences such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology. I have many friends in church leadership who view the soft sciences with moderated suspicion at least. Others reject them overtly.
And this feels reasonable because, it is argued, the social sciences aren’t “real” science. And they have been hijacked by radicals who use them to push an anti-Christian agenda. And they treat sin as illness. And they try to address issues that should be addressed from Scripture.
I’m a social scientist. And a pastor. I have a graduate diploma in research methods and am a PhD candidate in progress. And I pastor a small church plant. And I do a lot of counselling. So I wanted to take a moment to argue that Christians should be the last people to reject the social sciences.
My argument here is simply that such a position is unreasonable.
Let me give some reasons why rejecting the social sciences is unreasonable.
The criticism is selective
Sure, we feel justified in rejecting psychology, sociology, and anthropology on the basis that they trample in our space, but what about the other social sciences? What about economics or geography or history or political science? These operate on the same scientific principles, but rarely come up for critique except in the most extreme cases.
Further, even if we reject the other social sciences, surely we cannot reject the soft sciences altogether. Theology itself is a soft science if it is a science at all. It seems our beef is not with the soft sciences per se. Nor with social sciences per se. But with a few of the sciences. Usually this boils down to psychology. And in the current climate in American Evangelicalism, sociology as well.
The science itself is not the issue
This selectivity suggests that the problem is not in the method of the sciences, but in the conclusions of the sciences. Such criticisms carry little weight because they judge the science by a list of predetermined conclusions. If the science confirms the acceptable conclusions, it is touted as good science. If it seems to differ, it is rejected. Such an approach is inherently anti-scientific and anti-intellectual. And therefore anti-Christian.
But some actually do argue against the method of the science. Typically this looks like comparing it unfavourably to the principles of the natural sciences (Can it be observed? Can in be tested? Can it be repeated?). This approach, while better than the other, still compares apples to flamingos. You can’t compare two things that aren’t comparable. Indeed, a strict attempt to restrict psychology to the observable behaviour has led to many absurdities over the years. No, the social sciences must be approached differently from the natural sciences. And yes, there is room for disagreement on what that approach should be. But we need to understand that this disagreement already exists in the social sciences. Scientists do not have a monolithic approach to the social sciences. Many approaches and philosophies exist. Approaches evolve and change as new arguments are put forward and as new evidence is brought to bear.
Rejecting the method is different from rejecting the science
While we are each entitled to our views in those areas where we’ve done our homework, what is not acceptable is dismissing an entire science based on differences about how it should be approached. If I think a natural scientist got the maths wrong, I should argue why the maths are wrong, not reject Physics as a science. Similarly, if I think the psychologists have allowed a bias to enter the testing process, I should be arguing why the bias exists and the ways in which the research may have been tainted, not rejecting the science of psychology. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater is no virtue.
Very few are reading the science or talking to the scientists
If you want to see a scientist banging his head against a wall, start a sentence with “Science says that [insert some categorical statement of truth].” There are very few things that science “says.” If you read an academic paper in the social sciences, you will not normally find activistic assertions and angry rants. You will find thorough consideration of a body of research followed by careful statements of hypotheses which will then be followed by a thoughtful discussion of what methods might be used to test the hypotheses, which method/s were chosen, and why they were chosen. This will then, typically, be followed by an analysis of the data called findings. It will give actual numbers or information, it will explain how it was analysed and interpreted and why that approach was taken. Finally, there will be a discussion of the outcome of the research with a section addressing the strengths and weaknesses of the research as well as a discussion of what further research might be helpful in shedding further light on any conclusions.
Often, this entire process will be carried out merely to explain that what we assumed might be true (what we hypothesised) was not true. So we might disagree at a number of points along that journey, but to say it’s not science is not reasonable. And Christians should be reasonable. Christians who do not read the science have no right to reject the science based on hearsay.
And this is exactly what often happens. We often get our news, not from the journalist who is ill-equipped to report on science, much less the news in many cases. But we get our view of what these sciences “say” from activists who oppose us! So we’ve got a group of people who are biased against us picking and choosing the science that helps their case and trying to overwhelm us by appealing to the authority of science. Why would we think they are speaking accurately about science? Activists are the opposite of scientists in principle and, usually, in fact.
The monolith fallacy
This is my last argument, and the best, I think. Christians rightly roll their eyes when someone makes an absurd claim about what science “says.” But the monolith fallacy says that all psychologists agree. There is one position that psychology “teaches” or holds. And that simply isn’t true.
There are various approaches to the various aspects of any given science, and fierce debate on various issues within the scientific community. Sure, you can find a psychologist who will loudly proclaim that such-and-such is a psychological reality. But you will also find others who differ with them firmly and have good arguments to back it.
Were we to put away this nonsense of rejecting whole fields of science en masse, we would be in a better position to place ourselves reasonably within the debates and discussions of these various sciences and approach the debates with a spirit of humility and a desire to learn. Such an approach would smell distinctly of Christianity and the impetus it gave to the development of the sciences in the first place.
True Christians love truth. That’s why they love science. Those who do not love truth have no right to claim the name of Jesus Christ.
That doesn’t mean we are all obligated to accept every conclusion which someone says is scientific. But it does mean we cannot throw our hands up and reject the sciences as anti-Christian.
My prayer is that God will raise up more Christians in the social sciences. There are staggering opportunities to live out the gospel in the helping communities. I thank God for many Christians already in these fields and pray that the church will grow in maturity and humbly shed her repugnance for the social sciences.
Grace to you.