Faculty Experiences at Religious Institutions

Nowhere is the intersection of science and religion more evident than in psychology programs at religious institutions of higher learning. APS Members at religious colleges and universities around the country were asked about their research and teaching duties and their experiences in straddling these domains.

Bringing in the ‘Faith’
In general, it appears that religious institutions influence the teaching of psychology more than the research. At the more religious schools, faculty members are expected to incorporate religion into their psychology classes, or at least not discourage a religious discussion if a student raised the subject.

“At my school, they expect us to incorporate — we call it “the faith” — into our teachings, whether it be debating a psychological theory and how Christians would think about it versus the way the psychologist who proposed the theory thought about it or offering our own personal views based on our faith,” said Lynda Cable, at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania.

In class, Cable will ask students how they might approach a particular problem, given their Christian orientation, if they were a therapist or a researcher. For example, she poses a situation in which a gay person requests counseling for a personal problem unrelated to homosexuality. She then asks her students, “Since you’re a Christian and you’re taught that homosexuality is bad, how would you counsel this person?”

“Instead of saying there’s a right or wrong answer, I offer students the opportunity to tell me how they might approach the situation,” Cable said. “Some say, ‘I just won’t counsel them because homosexuality is bad.’ Or they might say ‘I’ll try to get them to not be homosexual.’ Or they might say ‘Everyone is a child of God and therefore I’ll give them guidance.’ So there are different ways that students might answer a question like that.”

A discussion of the research on possible prenatal biological influences on sexual orientation would be acceptable, Cable said, but “if we were to say something like that, we would have to be prepared for some students to come back at us with their Bible proof — and they will. They’ll quote from the Bible, chapter and verse, and try and stump us. Basically, I just show them what is available scientifically and talk about it in terms of the faith and how they might consider approaching it.”

She says that the college would not object to a discussion of the role of genes and hormones in the development of homosexuality. “As a matter of fact, I think the school would be happy for us to challenge our students in that way because so many of them come from such sheltered backgrounds,” said Cable.

At Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, psychology department chair Gawain Wells says psychology classes at his university are much the same as psychology classes at secular universities. “By and large, students would find them indistinguishable, but because we’re at a religious institution, both students and faculty are free to bring up other possibilities,” he said. “As I teach mainstream psychology and psychotherapy, I’m also free to talk about my experiences praying for clients, as well as discussing prayer with clients who want to discuss it. For me, it’s always been a matter of greater freedom and possibility and not restriction.”

Marc Sebrechts, psychology department chair at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, echoes Wells’ sentiment that religious institutions offer more academic freedom in teaching, not less. “I have a friend at a large public university who considered coming here, and he wasn’t even Catholic, because he said that if he mentioned something to students that was from a religious viewpoint, he would be told that it was inappropriate,” said Sebrechts.

Unlike Messiah College, BYU, or Catholic University, some academic institutions with religious names seem to be virtually the same as secular institutions, at least as far as their psychology departments are concerned. One example is Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. “My PhD is from the University of Texas in Austin, and when I came to SMU, I didn’t notice any difference at all in terms of my academic life,” said David Rosenfield.

Hands Off Research — Usually
Even though some religious institutions incorporate religion into their psychology classes, psychologists often said that their institutions made no attempt to restrict their research. On the other hand, few appeared to be researching topics that their institution might consider controversial. One exception is APS Charter Member Martin Safer at Catholic University of America, who, along with other CUA colleagues, wrote a paper in the journal Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity on developing a personality test for identifying priests who were sexually attracted to young boys.

Another is Michael Brown at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, who conducts research in evolutionary psychology. Brown says that his institution has never objected to his line of research. “Some of my strongest objectors to the evolutionary approach have been from students at the University of Washington, where I teach some classes,” Brown said. “It surprised the heck out of me.”

Although research on evolutionary psychology is acceptable at Pacific Lutheran, it would probably be discouraged at Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City. “I would hate to say that anything anybody here would want to research would be off limits,” said psychology department chair Ryan Newell. “But we’re all pretty careful about offending people who support the university. We’re a private institution and rely on that kind of private support.” Newell said APS Fellow David Buss, an evolutionary psychologist from the University of Texas at Austin who conducts research on conflict between the sexes and human mating strategies, has spoken about his research during a talk at OCU, “but if one of our own faculty started doing the same research that Buss is doing, that might be a problem.”

Pros and Cons
Some psychologists from more religious institutions say they are more comfortable with the atmosphere and mission of their university than they would be at a secular institution. “For me, it’s a place that is far more consistent with my world view than a state school,” Newell said. “We share a mission that I think transcends the mission at state universities.”

One common experience of being a psychologist at a religious school is that people sometimes view your research with suspicion, seeing it as possibly tainted with a religious agenda. This has been a particular problem for APS Fellow and Charter Member Dwayne Simpson at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. Simpson is director of the Institute of Behavioral Research, which develops interventions and assessments for drug abuse treatment. Simpson said he is often asked if his materials are Christian because the word “Christian” appears in the name of the university. He has to assure potential users that the materials contain nothing religious and that his institute is secular, despite being at a Christian university.

“I’ve always felt that being in the South and having the word ‘Christian’ in the name of our university makes for a couple of extra hurdles that we have to jump over,” Simpson said.

Pacific Lutheran’s Michael Brown is another person who has experienced negative feedback for being at a religious institution, although for a different reason. “I went to an evolution conference once, and I remember being in a group of people and somebody looked at my identification tag and saw Pacific Lutheran University,” he said. “This person just couldn’t imagine how I could possibly be a scientist at a religious institution. I felt like there was more than just a genuine curiosity going on there. I think it was an attempt to say ‘you shouldn’t be doing that.'”

Job Requirements
Given the tight job market for psychologists at institutions of higher learning, job seekers might be tempted to apply for positions at religious colleges and universities even if they are not religious. In some cases, they have nothing to worry about. Institutions such as Southern Methodist University, Texas Christian University, and College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, don’t even ask applicants about their religious beliefs during job interviews. Brown at Pacific Lutheran said he was asked about his beliefs during his job interview but got the job despite saying that he was not religious.

At other schools, however, the right religious beliefs are crucial to getting hired. At Oklahoma Christian University, full-time faculty must be members of the Church of Christ. At Messiah College, full-time faculty must be Christian, although no particular denomination is required. Applicants must write a paper about their “faith journey” and sign a “community covenant,” which contains statements about faith and behavior, including sexual behavior.

At BYU, being Mormon is not a requirement, although there is a preference for hiring Mormons. Whether they are Mormon or not, all faculty must abstain from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea, even away from the university. “That weeds out a lot of interested faculty,” Wells said.

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