Who's Afraid of Social Science?

November 20, 2019

Who's Afraid of Social Science?

Image from https://www.wycliffe.org.uk/stories/uncle-cam-william-cameron-townsend/

Ross McKenzie

As a physicist and a Christian, I have thought, read, and written a lot about the relationship between the physical sciences and Christianity over the years, and come to the view that—contrary to the claims of some—the relationship is a positive one. But, what about the social sciences: sociology, anthropology, psychology, economics, and so on? These are sometimes used to argue against Christian belief, as many undergraduate students can attest. Indeed, one study in the USA found that studying the social sciences led to a decline in ‘religiosity’, whereas studying the physical sciences did not.[i]

Ludwig Feuerbach, for example, considered religion reducible to anthropology: in the end ‘god’ is simply a projection of idealised human nature writ large.[ii] Sigmund Freud, taking this idea further and applying it to individuals in a clinical context, considered religion an illusion which led to neuroses, and from which people need to be freed before they can become mature.[iii] More recently, psychological research has found that humans have natural tendencies towards religious beliefs—to imbue natural phenomena with supernatural meaning—which has led some to the conclusion that this is all religion is, namely, a phenomenon reducible to normal psychological processes.[iv]
Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of sociology, held that religion originated in human social life, arising from collective consciousness and playing an indispensable social function. He maintained that all societies require religious rituals to ensure continued cohesion and loyalty. However because its origin and function are social, not supernatural, the actual content of the religion—which can take many forms—is not in itself significant[v]--a conclusion at odds with Christianity’s claim to uniqueness and truth.

It is understandable, then, that Christians may be critical, skeptical, or scared of the social sciences.
However, for several reasons I want to argue for a critical, and constructive engagement, along the lines of John Stott’s ‘double listening’: listening to both the Word and the world and seeing what light each throws on the other.[vi]

First, I, and many others, find the social sciences’ arguments against Christian belief unconvincing. For example, the observation that there are many different religions and that they have common features does not necessarily imply that they are all equally true (or false), equally valid, or of equal social value. Like any discipline, the social sciences put forward theories, and offer them up for critique. Over time, some theories are superseded: much of Freud’s psychoanalysis and anthropologist Margaret Mead’s account of human sexuality, for example. Others continue to be debated and tested, like the secularisation thesis—that as science progresses, societies become more rational, and the influence of religion decreases. In the 1960s this was widely accepted by sociologists, but is now contested.[vii]

Second, many Christians have played an influential role in the social sciences: Peter Berger and Jacques Ellul in sociology; Malcolm Jeeves in psychology; Alan Tippett in anthropology; and Kenneth Pike in linguistics.

Third, the social sciences are particularly relevant to Christian ministry and mission. One might consider this as in the vein of Augustine's idea of plundering truth from the secular world as the Israelites plundered treasure from the Egyptians.[viii] Psychology can provide significant insights into the causes, prevention, and recovery from mental illness in all its biochemical, psychological and spiritual complexity. Christian mission involves taking the gospel across cultural boundaries. Anthropology can provide insights into understanding, and communicating in, different cultures, and into the important matter of discerning what is cultural and what is Christian. Another important dimension to God's Kingdom is concern for the weak and oppressed. Economics and sociology can show how entrenched systems oppress certain people and promote unjust inequality, such as the work of Cameron Townsend (founder of Wycliffe Bible Translators) among indigenous people in Mexico.[ix]
The world of human social life is God’s just as much as the physical world, and at least as worthy of study. Christians have no more to fear from the social sciences than from any other field of knowledge, and potentially a more valuable harvest to reap from a critical and constructive engagement.


Ross McKenzie is a Professor of Physics at the University of Queensland.


[i] M. S. Kimball, C. M Mitchell et al., ‘Empirics on the Origins of Preferences: The Case of College Major and Religiosity.’ NBER Working Paper No. 15182, July 2009. https://wwwdev.nber.org/papers/w15182
[ii] The Essence of Christianity (1854)
[iii] The Future of an Illusion (1927).
[iv] See for example Jonathan Jong, ‘The new science of religion and what it might mean for faith.’ Case Quarterly, 32, 2012, pp19-23.
[v] The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912)
[vi] The Contemporary Christian: An urgent plea for double listening, 1992 See also my blogpost on double listening (https://revelation4-11.blogspot.com/2018/11/what-is-double-listening.html).
[vii] While this trajectory has been apparent in Western Europe, there are many parts of the world where the opposite is the case.  See for example P. Harrison (ed.) Narratives of Secularization (Routledge, 2017).
[viii] Confessions 7.9.15 and On Christian Teaching 2.40.60–2.42.63.
[ix] See, for example, W. L. Svelmoe, A New Vision for Missions. (University of Alabama Press, 2008).

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