Living in the Past – Religion and Psychology

  • Psychology has become like a religion for secular people.
  • Psychologists take human behavior as a main area of study.
  • Religion connects to the past which psychology considers not healthy.

There is a conflict between religion and psychology over living in the past. Psychology can be called a modern secular social science. If religion is called a way of life; this can also be said about psychology and sociology guiding people in a secular way of life. The influence of psychology is also being felt in religion.

Jean Piaget (9 August 1896 – 16 September 1980) was a Swiss psychologist known for his work on child development. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development and epistemological view are together called “genetic epistemology”.

Most psychologists will teach that living in the past has many emotional problems.  It is healthier to live for today and to work toward the future.  If so, psychologists are critical of religion. Religion dwells on the past and even clings onto the past. Christianity dwells upon the birth of Christ, crucifixion, and resurrection.  Christians are waiting for Jesus to return. In Judaism is recited the words in prayer, Return us God in repentance and return us to the days of the past. Islam celebrates events in history connected to Mohammed and Abraham.  In all three religions is a gospel which is forbidden to change. Each year this gospel becomes older. There is hope for the future to return to the past. There is a war in these religions against change.  Returning to the past means clinging to the laws and commandments which were given in the past to fight against change. To become modern is considered a bad thing in the light of Orthodox religion. Freedom is the devil.

Religion is very often against technology.  The Amish in Lancaster are slowest in America to accept technology. Chassidim in America and Israel are campaigning against internet.  They have not accepted Television in their homes. Radio is accepted but with restrictions. Music is centered on biblical themes.  Folk music is preferred to modern jazz or psychedelic melodies. On the Sabbath it is forbidden to use electrical appliances.  Accepting change is always with limitation. Jewish law is against new styles of dress even if sometimes they are within laws of modesty. Men wear black and white. The laws are more lenient for women to dress fashionable but the Ultra-Orthodox women also wear black and white.

Living in the past is called a negative habit in modern psychology.  Living in the past for the religious is most important because the past is considered sacred. They have a good reason to live and cherish the past. Many secular people sometimes are not aware that they are living in the past. Living in the past for them is not healthy.

There are seven signs that you are living in the past which means not advancing your life.

“The secret of health both mind and body is not to mourn over the past, worry about the future, anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.” These are ten tips to start living in the present:

  • Remove unnecessary objects from the past
  • Smile
  • Fully appreciate the moments of today
  • Forgive past hurts
  • Love work love your job keep busy
  • Dream about the future and improving
  • Don’t dwell on past accomplishment
  • Stop worrying
  • Find new solutions to problems
  • Conquer addictions

Modern psychology endorses living in the present and building the future and is less concerned than religion about the importance of the past. Religion stresses the sacredness of the past. The present is also important in religion which is involved with the holiness of work including raising a family. The new generation works on the foundation of the generations of the past and adds to them by becoming history for the next generation. Secular people also maintain a connection with the past American history, British culture, Russian culture etc.  There is secular culture and religious culture. Culture in the secular world is stressed less than in the religious world. The goals of religion are of a higher ideal than secular goals which are concentrated on the present reality.

There is sometimes a gap between the old generations and the new generations. The gap is created when the young do not look to their fathers as examples.  Many young people today ignore the past completely.  They are living without any foundations only on their own intellect which religion considers a shallow life. Modern psychology cannot help but endorse free thinking because it is a secular science against living in the past. American youth today look toward psychology for guidance.  Psychology is a new science. Psychology is mixed with philosophy. It became a science in the 19th century like Gestalt psychology. Gestalt psychology teaches to look at the whole sum of an object rather than on its components. The Russian Soviet Ivan Pavlov discovered in dogs a training process which was later termed classical conditioning when applied to human beings.

The author at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.

Psychologists take human behavior as a main area of study.  There are various mental processes underlying mental activity. Cognitive Psychology studies these mental processes including perception, attention reasoning, thinking, problem solving, memory, language and emotions. Social Psychology studies the nature and causes of social behavior. Using the knowledge of human behavior Psychologists developed techniques and theories used in Psychoanalysis. Psychology has merged with Psychiatry using all the various techniques of psychoanalysis with medicine.

Parapsychology is the closest area of Psychology to religion. While religion stresses faith as the intermediate between the mind, body and soul, parapsychology looks for ways to achieve a similar balance as religion without requiring faith in God. Hypnosis is one of these techniques, self-hypnosis another.

Religion and psychology once clashed completely.  Psychology was condemned by the clergy because it provided a solution for mental health without faith. Religion teaches faith in God and the connection to the past while psychology stresses the present and the power of the person and his intellect to overcome the obstacles in life. Religion sets high idealistic goals in life while psychology is concerned only about mental health and personal performance. Gestalt psychology looks at the whole rather than its components.  Religion is more concerned about the components which are laws and commandments without demanding to look at the whole. Psychology stresses freedom and self-improvement which is also a goal in religion but achieved in different ways.

In the last generation many clergy have added to their profession psychology. They are adding practical knowledge of the human being to religion and its ethics. Sometimes religion may encourage people to dwell in the past and neglect the present which psychology stresses. Especially the extreme Orthodox will sometimes feel that their obligation is to sacrifice their own pleasure to accept suffering as a way of life mourning the death of Jesus or the destruction of the holy temple or for Mohammed and the Islamic nation.  New movements of religion such as Chassidism in Judaism emphasize happiness and enjoyment of physical life which were suppressed in the past. Chassidism still holds that the past is sacred but the present and future are just as important. To only to be concerned with the past has been proved by psychologists to be against the nature of a human being. Living in the present is today recognized in religion as important as connecting to the past. The present is not sacred; but life is sacred. The name of God of four letters written in the Torah is abbreviated as past, present and future.  They are all considered important in the fulfillment of life.  See:

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David Wexelman

Rabbi David Wexelman is the  author of five books on the topics of World Unity and Peace, and Progressive Jewish Spirituality. Rabbi Wexelman is a member of the American Friends of Maccabee, a charitable organization helping the poor in the United States and in Israel.  Donations are tax deductible in the USA.

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