What’s the Next Step for Psychology and Religion?

By Allen C. Carter, Ph.D

I recently heard while watching a religious television channel, a minister asked the congregation, “Where will your soul spend eternity?” Although this is a common question for ministers to address, few people realize it is also relevant for psychologists. While it is apparent that religion and psychology share common interests, it is not widely known how similar they really are. For example, many believe the definition of psychology to be the study of the mind but its literal definition is, the study of the soul. The soul is defined as essence or an indispensable quality of anything. In a similar fashion, the word religion, which is often defined as an organized set of sacred beliefs, literally means binding back or returning to God or Source. Discovering the essence or indispensable quality of anything involves identifying the source. For example, the indispensable quantities water are hydrogen and oxygen which when combined in the proper amount become the source of water. Source and indispensable qualities are critical to knowing the essence of anything. Therefore religion, which refers to returning to the source, and psychology, which literally means a study of essence, are clearly united. As a result, both fields must address the service of source.

So how do we understand about source? Clearly the way we come to know about anything is to be aware of it and the way we usually become aware of anything is to think about it. Thought, therefore, appear to be the foundation for knowing. In fact, the famous philosopher and mathematician, Descartes believed thinking was so basic that he uttered his famous statement, “I think, therefore, I am.” To him, thinking and man’s identity were one and the same. I am my thought or so I think.

But just what is the nature of thoughts? Since they are crucial to my identity, as Descartes declared, it is imperative that I inquire into their nature. When I look into the nature of thoughts, I can see they are about some object, idea or concept that is separate from me. If I were to continue to look at these thoughts, I would find that each one is different. No matter how hard I try, I cannot think only one limitless though. Try it… you can’t do it. What emerge are the indispensable qualities of all thought. They are separate, limited and different. These indispensable qualities are fundamental to all thoughts. Since they are fundamental to all thoughts, they must be fundamental to how we see ourselves and the world, because we cannot or understand ourselves or our world without our thoughts. We think we are separate and different from others and definitely do not see ourselves as infinite.

We believe we are limited beings living in physical bodies who interact with other human beings who are also limited by their bodies. It just seems unquestionably true that I am a body and you are a body and we are separate from each other. We interact in a world that seems to be made up of separate, limited and different objects that parallel our separate, limited and different thoughts. This appears to be our reality. We think we cannot exist in a world where there are no differences, limitations or separation. It would literally blow our minds if reality were otherwise. We need to be able to think about separate ideas, thoughts, feelings, beliefs, objects and actions to know we really exist. This principle is fundamental to man’s existence or so he thinks. In fact, Descartes’ famous statement would have been more accurate if he had written, “I think, therefore I am separate, different and limited.”

Herein lies the key for psychology and religion – the “I” that thinks. Once it thinks, it produces a world of separation, limitation and differences. Psychology must see this as fundamental since it is concerned with identity and identity is based on thoughts. Thoughts can remain separate and different but they may also coalesce into clusters and become beliefs. Beliefs are simply thoughts that have a sense of actuality or some apparent truth. The more important a set of beliefs is for an individual, the more validity it will appear to have. Value is thus established for the beliefs and this value gives meaning to thoughts and can provide a purpose for our lives. Obviously this process is important for religion since religion is concerned with beliefs, purpose and value. Once value is established, a hierarchy of thoughts must occur because value implies one thought is better than or lesser than another thought. Those that are valued as extremely important often become incorporated into an individual’s identity and are no longer held as just beliefs but seem to be the “truth”. These beliefs are held in such high esteem that they become unquestionable. They become the essence of who we think we are because they are part of our identity. They are like hydrogen and oxygen are to water. They become us. These beliefs are crucial because they not only tell us who we are, but what our world is like and how we are to act in it. We become one with our beliefs. We think there is no separation between us and our beliefs. We think our beliefs are our reality.

Yet the reality is, they are beliefs founded on the thought of separation and are framed in a way to make us always feel we are different from each other and from the world. But we fail to see that this is all based on a thought that is not absolutely true. Beliefs are just beliefs- not fact or truth. Yet we want to believe these beliefs about ourselves because we want separation and difference to be our reality. I think that I am different and separate from you. It just seems so real. But what appears to be reality actually is not real or true at all! It is simply a set of thoughts in our minds that we interpret to be reality. Our thoughts and beliefs about ourselves create what we believe and interpret as true.

The key word here is interpretation. Interpretation provides the basis for how we experience our world. Interpretations are derived from our past conditioning and experiences. It is our past teachings, experiences and conditioning which determine how we see or experience things in the present. For example, when we see a beautiful scene, such as a lovely autumn day in the woods, we only know that it is lovely and beautiful because we have been taught about it or experienced it as lovely or beautiful. The woods in reality are just trees, water, leaves and greenery, nothing else. The eyes, ears and other senses respond to the thoughts of the mind and tell us how to interpret (see, hear, smell) our experiences. This interpretation is based upon past beliefs, thoughts and conditioning. To put it succinctly, seeing is not believing; believing is seeing.

The source, therefore, or essence of man is now identified. It is beliefs or thoughts. This is the domain that religion and psychology have in common. Herein lies not only the commonality of the fields, but also the next step. Both fields are committed to understanding the nature of man, his thoughts, beliefs and the foundation of his identity. In order for this to happen the source must be investigated to its fullest. Psychologists, theologians, rabbis, imams, and ministers must look inside this thinking mechanism that calls itself “I”. They must see how it functions and how it causes some thoughts to appear to be unquestionable and true, thus rendering them indispensable or essential to man’s identity. This “I” that Descartes called the “I that thinks” must be fully explored for it appears to be the source of all man’s beliefs, values and behavior. The thought that “all thoughts, ideas, concepts and objects must be separate, limited and different” must become the primary focus of this investigation, for this is the very foundation or source of our world. To examine this, psychology and religion must begin with their respective thought systems or beliefs, challenge their importance and realize they are not absolutely true! They are beliefs and interpretations that appear to have importance for the identity of the individual and their respective professions. More specifically, psychology must let go of its basic belief that the individual personality is central to understanding life. By the same token, religion must be willing to accept that it is a faith system founded on beliefs that are the product of the thinking mind. As such, they are limited by the manner in which the mind thinks, because the thinking mind always presents thoughts of separation, limitation and difference. Religion and psychology must understand that they do not teach truth! They teach beliefs that they think are true! In fact no one can actually teach truth – not this writer or anyone, because words must convey thought and thoughts are not true. They can only be interpretations of truth.

In order for truth to be, it must be unchanging, consistent and eternal. For example, two plus two equals four is true and cannot change. Thoughts on the other hand can change and may be inconsistent, temporary and hence not true. Moreover, thoughts are primarily conveyed by words and words are symbols that always express ideas of separation, limitation and difference. They cannot accurately express that which is eternal and unchanging since they are only symbols. Symbols cannot ever be the actual event, object or idea. They only represent the event, object or idea. At best, words and thoughts can point to the truth but not be the truth. Truth cannot be actually expressed; it can only be experienced. The ancient statement about truth, “He who knows doesn’t speak and he who speaks doesn’t know,” clearly illustrates this point.

Since neither thoughts nor words express absolute truth, every thought must therefore be questioned. There can be no unthinkable question. Both fields must be willing to be open to the unknown and willing to think the unthinkable. To do this they should be willing to use the process that I ask my students to use. In the course of inquiring, I tell them to ask themselves: “How do I know what is absolutely true? Who or what would I be if I gave up my basic belief system? Who or what would I be if I had no thoughts?” Questions such as these should become the framework for both fields if they are to get the source.

I realize this is a giant undertaking, for it would question the basic ground on which both fields rest. But in order to discover the truth, there must be a willingness to question every idea, thought and belief. Otherwise the mind will continue to perpetuate a system of thought that generates a world of conflict, division and ultimately wars – which are all the result of the thought of separation, limitation and differences. The stakes are too high at this point for us to continue with these unquestionable beliefs. The pain is too great. The misery is too immense. Leaders in religion and psychology must take the next step. And “thinking” outside of the box will not be enough, for thinking is the box that has limited us. If our leaders could get outside of thinking, they would open doors to the greatest joy and freedom ever known – knowing the domain beyond separation, limitation and division. They would realize that the only barrier to true knowledge is “thought” and come to that which we all seek – the Essence and True Source – the Source which cannot be known through thinking – the Source which is “I” that is “I Am That I Am”, the “I” that is All, the “I” that is the One and Unthinkable One.