How to Survive Psychology Graduate School

I recently received the following email:

I have a friend who is in graduate school in Psychology at the University of Colorado. She’s spent $17,000 (so far) on her education and cannot afford to transfer. But she’s finding that if her Christian worldview informs any of her thinking on papers, on exams, etc., she will be downgraded. Other students have told her that if she even appears to espouse a Christian worldview she won’t graduate. One of her biggest problems is that she is being forced to (at least appear to) view same-sex marriage as an acceptable alternative lifestyle when she strongly objects to it. I don’t know to what degree the school’s administration may be under pressure to indoctrinate students into a politically correct, left wing mold, but it worries me. I’d expect this sort of thing at UC-Boulder, but not here.

Any suggestions?

The following is my response:

Thanks for your question, RC. First of all, your friend’s experience should not be surprising. It is the norm, especially on the graduate level. Here are a few ideas your friend might use as she considers being “salt and light” in her psychology program:

#1 — Understand the Rules of the Game

Whenever you play a game, you must first know the rules. In a similar way, students need to understand the rules of the education game.

As commonly taught today, psychology plays by the rules of scientific naturalism. The rules of naturalism are simple: #1 — everything in the universe is composed of matter, including the human brain, #2 — religious concepts, such as God or the soul, are personal, subjective beliefs, not based on science (observation, experimentation, etc.), and #3 — only scientific explanations of human behavior are allowed.

Side note: “Psychology” refers to the knowledge (GK: ology) of the soul (GK: psyche). Since the modern study of human behavior rejects the concept of “soul,” should it be considered educational malpractice to continue using the term “psychology”? At a minimum this is false advertising. Maybe this discipline should be renamed “synapsology.” But I digress . . .

Because of how the game is played, religious comments or conclusions based on the Bible are dismissed as unsubstantiated personal beliefs and are non-starters. In fact, referring to your religious beliefs only dig a hole for you, making it harder for your point of view to be heard.

Keep in mind that in the eyes of a naturalist, religious believers are ignorant buffoons. Recall Bill Maher’s mockumentary, Religulous, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what the average humanist professor thinks of your religious ideas.

The prevailing view on campus is this; while religion may help explain why religious people behave as they do and researching religiously motivated behavior is permitted, religious assumptions are the antithesis of a science-based curriculum. So, for example, if you claim homosexuality is a sin, you are only saying something about your personal religious belief, not making a scientific statement. According to the doctrine of scientific naturalism, there are no sins, only synapses. Therefore, homosexuality must be evaluated as a biologically driven human trait, and individual homosexuals must be affirmed as part of the evolving human species.

#2 — Ask the Right Questions

Question assumptions, not conclusions. The point here is to exploit the cracks in the assumptions of naturalism, thus weakening the contention that people are reducible to merely material causes.

For example, a naturalistic worldview has a hard time explaining the origin of our thoughts. On a naturalistic view, the ideas in our head are simply the result of electrical firings between the synapses of the cells in your brain. But this fails to account for the “immaterial” nature of ideas, which do not have physical properties like height, weight, volume, color, or order.

To further illustrate this point, if someone maintains a certain thought, a scientist can measure the electrical circuitry in the brain related to that thought, but unless he asks the person what he is thinking, the scientist cannot tell whether the person is thinking of, say, an elephant, or a mouse. Only you have access to the content of your thoughts, which are first person subjective experiences. This is evidence for an immaterial soul operating within and in concert with the physical brain. For more on the philosophy and physiology supporting an immaterial soul, see J. P. Moreland’s Body and Soul (graduate level), or, on a more popular level (high school and college) Mario Beauregard’s recent book, The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul.

Another worldview level you might explore concerns how evolutionary psychology explains homosexuality. That’s because another crack in the naturalistic foundation is its difficulty in maintaining a consistent explanation of phenomena. For example, based on naturalistic evolution, nature selects for reproductive advantage. Yet, homosexuals do not reproduce naturally. Therefore, any homosexual tendency should have been eliminated from the human gene pool eons ago. So why are there still homosexuals?

Don’t settle for simplistic answers, like, “That’s just the way humans evolved.” or other “just so” stories. Such stories may be interesting, but are heavily influenced by the interpreter’s worldview bias and not scientifically based. Ask if there are alternative explanations? Here, you are looking for whether this professor is open to non-materialist explanations, or whether he maintains the preconceived notion of naturalism.

The point here is not to debate these issues but simply to raise the questions. Remember, you are the student. You are not challenging the professor’s knowledge or experience. Instead, you are simply seeking to understand the full range of worldview issues and desiring to broaden your educational experience.

#3 — Maintain the Moral High Ground

Research your school’s stated educational goals and note whenever these goals are not being followed in class. Most universities publish a set of “core values.” For example, at your school, The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, one core value is listed under the heading, “RESEARCH AND CREATIVE WORK.” It reads:

We will promote and reward research and creative work that advances knowledge, that makes a valuable contribution, that enhances our teaching and service missions, and that encourages collaboration between students, both graduate and undergraduate, and faculty.

Based on this stated value, your stance should be one of desiring to “advance knowledge” by researching all valid viewpoints. Your professor should be “encouraging collaboration” to ensure that your educational experience will make a “valuable contribution” to society.

Of course, these goals cannot be accomplished if the professor maintains a narrow or biased perspective, such as allowing only naturalistic explanations. Shouldn’t the educational experience be open to various viewpoints or perspectives, especially those that are scientifically grounded and have been shown to foster individual flourishing and a more stable society? Regarding same-sex marriage, all the studies demonstrate the advantages of a heterosexual, monogamous, life-long marriage.

With this moral high ground established, then, your approach in the classroom or writing assignments is to show how a traditional view of marriage is objectively better for individuals and for society. Again, don’t use biblical language or religiously based ideas, but use their own approved “scientific” approach and research paradigm. See the “Resources” section below for where to start your study.

If you are graded down simply because you reach a different conclusion, you have a legitimate case of viewpoint discrimination. Your freedom of speech and ability as a student to “promote research” and “advance knowledge” is being infringed. This type of restriction of academic freedom has been successfully litigated in the courts. One organization that defends the rights of students is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Finally, I suggest attending one of Summit’s Student Worldview Conferences. Each two-week session is packed with over 70 hours of intensive training from the best Christian professors, authors, and professional speakers from around the country. Thousands of Summit graduates have been grounded in the essentials of the Christian faith and have gone on to flourish in their academic studies and careers.

Resources for Further Study