Psychology Meets Religion (Part 1)

As a student of psychology, I encounter many research studies that can speak on matters of faith and personhood. If the Bible teaches us about who man inherently is, then I have believed that even secular science should confirm this as faith and science can’t conflict (though faith and scientist can). And indeed, in many studies I have come across, this is exactly what I have found. There are quite a few psychology studies that confirm the Bible’s teaching on who man is, what motivates man, and what ultimately makes him happy.

One line of research that has recently gotten a lot of attention deals with what are called “lay theories of intelligence.” This is not a theory on what intelligence is as much as a theory about what people think intelligence is and how it shapes their behavior.

Essentially the theory states that people typically hold either an incremental or entity view. People holding an incremental view say that intelligence is malleable and changes across life time. These people believe that intelligence is like a muscle that if you work hard, you can increase it. Hence, incremental theorists typically exert greater effort across task even if they initially struggle with them and place a greater emphasis in mastery. By contrast, there are people who hold an entity theory of intelligence which is a belief that intelligence is fixed and stable. Entity theorists would endorse the view that “You’re either smart or your not. If you happen to be one who isn’t smart, too bad, there’s nothing you can do about it.” As a consequence, people holding an entity view of intelligence may disengage from difficult tasks since they feel that their difficulty is a sign that they are just not intelligent enough. Several research studies have supported the predictions made by this theory showing, for example, that children as young as 7 begin to endorse one of the two theories, and it can greatly affect how they view academic struggles and influence their goal persistence.

Additionally, it has been found that one of the ways that children develop one of these theories is by the type of praise that they are given. Process praise, such as “Wow… I see you’re working hard, since your doing so well,” encourages children to take an incremental view and persist even after initial failures. Whereas ability praise, such as, “Wow… you’re really smart, no wonder your doing so well,” encourages children to take an entity view, which keeps them motivated if they succeed on a task. However, if they fail at the task, they typically stop trying in subsequent attempts.

Interestingly, it has also been found that people who hold an entity versus incremental theory of intelligence will usually also hold an entity theory of personality as well, meaning that they will view personality as a fixed variable which leads them to judge people on a limited amount of information. Say, for example, a guy in one of your classes responds rudely to you after requesting a pencil. An entity theorist might come to the conclusion that this guy is just a jerk, whereas an incremental theorist that might posit that the guy is just having a bad day.

Therefore, consider this question: How you think our view of intelligence might shape how we live out our faith in terms of how we view salvation, our efforts to persist in the face of trials against sin, and how we view other Christians who struggle with sin? What do you all think about this?


  1. I struggle with this when it comes to Mormons. I have thought many times, “Why do those people believe some of that stuff since there is zero proof or even evidence that Joseph Smith found a golden tablet from heaven etc…” I have even questioned the intelligence of Mormons for believing it, but of course, there are brilliant people that come from Utah! Just as there are brilliant Atheists and Christians and dim witted ones too.  

    So I don’t think faith, and the issues of faith, have as much to do with intelligence as with the heart. God is able to make the simple, wise, but wisdom has less to do with knowledge and more to do with how a person lives their life. So if a someone is not doing well spiritually, I don’t think that it is because they are dumb necessarily, but because they need more wisdom. Although, now that I think about it, Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived except for Jesus, and yet look at how his life was! (Gerardo, I still love you in Christ even if you do not love me:)

  2. GerardoR

    Interestingly, the NYTimes published an article related to this. The article explore the topic of how a belief in free will can affect behavior. Several psychologist and experimental philosophers found that people who either reject free will or are influenced to believe that free will is false typically do worst in their jobs, are less honest, cut themselves some moral slack and are more likely to cheat if they are given the chance.

    The article goes on to suggest that doubting ones free will may undermine the sense of self as an agent. So related to this article, I wonder how a Calvinist who might struggle deeply with sin, musters up the will to continue to try to pursue a relationship with Jesus. I always wondered whether a calvanist who stumbles a lot would take that as a sign that they must not be one of the saved. I guess it would make for an interesting question to study the behavior of devout Calvanist who struggle deeply vs. those who struggle less so.
    I must admit, my understanding of determinism in calvanism is very poor but it always seemed that if I believed that I have no free will and God pre chose those who will be saved, then I would take my many failures as evidence that I may not be one of the saved.
    Along a similar vein, I remember often rebuked myself for simply being a “worthless sinner” who could not be saved when I was younger. Even now, I sometimes fall into this trap when I consistently return to my own vomit. I am tempted to think that my struggle with this or that particular sin will never be over. However, much of this changes when I  ask myself “are you really trying to change?”
    When I ask myself this question, I realize that much of my inability to overcome sin is a result of a poor prayer life or lack of effort on my part. Hence, instead of thinking “it is hopeless, God have mercy on me” I find myself energized to change if I actually try and run the race and believe that holiness is something that comes through effort. I am here referring to effort in terms of maintaining a relationship with God not raising yourself up by your own moral bootstraps. One of the things Mother Theresa taught her nuns was that we are called to be faithful and not  successful. That is, we are judged by how we respond to our struggles with sin despite all our many obstacles and not whether we can completely overcome them (though we are called to overcome). God takes into our account our circumstance and does not judge everyone to the same standard.  
    I have often been scared and comforted by William Law’s statement that when we look at our life and evaluate why we are not a Saint we find that, “the only reason you are not a Saint is that you do not wholly want to be.”
    I often find more comfort in this statement in the idea that God has chosen those who are to be saved and those who wont. So if your part of the former, then great! Continue living a faithful life. But if your part of the latter, it’s too bad for you but you should continue to try to live a faithful life. Again, I may be twisting what Calvin actually taught. Either way, you wont know so you should hope for the best.

    • GerardoR

      There is an interesting Poem Ravi Zacharias quotes that I think illustrates this point well:

      “Have you a new sheet for me, dear teacher? I’ve spoiled this one.”….
      I took his sheet, all soiled and blotted….
      And gave him a new one all unspotted…..
      And into his tired heart I cried,….
      “Do better now, my child.”….

      I went to the throne with a trembling heart, The day was done…..
      “Have you a new day for me, dear Master? I’ve spoiled this one.”….
      He took my day, all soiled and blotted….
      And gave me a new one all unspotted…..
      And into my tired heart he cried,….
      “Do better now, my child.”….

  3. Great thoughts and reflection, Geraldo. See Phil 2:12,13. Basically, God works in you 100%, and you work it out 100%. It’s never 50-50, or any other proportion.

    Here’s a John Piper quote I just read today: “The link between Christ canceling my sin on the cross and my sin being conquered is a Holy Spirit empowered will.”

    • GerardoR

      I really like that Ben. Yes, Christ does it all but we choose how we respond to his grace. “Be it done to me according to thy will.”

  4. Oops, sorry for calling you Geraldo, instead of Gerardo. Me bad.

    Here’s another quote by Spurgeon for you to chew on: “Free will I have often heard of, but I have never seen it. I have always met with will, and plenty of it, but it has either been led captive by sin or held in the blessed bonds of grace.”

    Just wondering, Gerardo, if you’re in Chicago, which you seem to be, I think with John Y, let’s have coffee one of these days, if you have some time and availability.

    • GerardoR

      Hi Ben, Yeah John and I live in the same area. Let me know when you would like to meet up. I am on spring break so I am very free.