The Dangers of Reductionism


    I wrote this as a rebuttal to a trend I've noticed among people on social media.
    Far too often, people engage in reductionism without realizing it.  Per Wikipedia, reductionism is "the practice of analyzing and describing a complex phenomenon in terms of phenomena that are held to represent a simpler or more fundamental level, especially when this is said to provide a sufficient explanation."  Basically, it's seeing a complex situation in a simplistic way, which leads to errors.
    Usually, the problem I run into is spiritual reductionism.  People who believe their mental health symptoms can only be the work of the Devil or demons.  While I do not deny the existence of the spiritual nor its influence on us, often I find in practice this leads to ineffective coping skills.


    Human beings are complex creatures.  Psychology has found that human beings are biological, psychological, and social beings.  They have devised the biopsychosocial approach that addresses these factors in a holistic way.  This approach has proven very successful.  As well, the American Association of Christian Counselors has further expanded this to include the spiritual realm, dubbing it the biopsychosocial-spiritual approach.
    The biological, psychological, social, and spiritual all interact with each other and within the individual human being.  These influence each other and the person as a whole.  Each factor exists on a continuum.
    What is happening in the biological can influence the person and the other dimensions, such as psychological, social, and spiritual.  For example, if I were to suddenly take 400mg of caffeine, I would experience biological effects.  If I were to have a psychological problem, it would impact the other spheres, etc.  Here are some possible examples:

Caffeine Abuse
Schizophrenia Bullying
Demonic Activity
Dizziness, headache, irritability
Possible self-neglect
Elevated heart rate, difficulty sleeping
Neglecting health
Impulsivity, difficulty focusing
Delusions / hallucinations
Anxiety, depression
Fear, anxiety, possibly possession
Impaired relationships
Difficulty forming/sustaining relationships
Social isolation
Social isolation, possibly possession
Forgetting to pray (via impulsivity)
Difficulty discerning God from own mind
Feeling defeated, questioning God
Spiritual warfare or even possession

    As such, it should be pretty obvious that these spheres can impact each other, and that these influence the person as a whole.

Why Reductionism is Dangerous

    Reductionism is dangerous because it can lead to bad conclusions.  I'll use myself as a hypothetical example.  For instance, if I think my anxiety is only coming from the spiritual aspect, I may neglect the fact that the other spheres are influencing me.  For example, I may neglect to take into account the impact of a caffeine habit, which not only elevates my anxiety but robs me of sleep, which further makes me anxious and dependent on caffeine.  I may neglect the psychological impairment caffeine abuse can bring, as well as the lack of sleep that results.  I may neglect the impact on my social life, as it may estrange my relationships by making me act strangely around people due to the anxiety it causes.
    As well, for the person with depression, if I believe the only source is biological, I may neglect the fact that a highly dysfunctional family is what may have began my depression, and may be continuing to cause me to stay depressed because I feel unwanted and unloved.  Or past abuse in my social history that I have not healed in therapy may be causing me to be depressed because I feel like I can't stop the other person from hurting me.  I may still be around the person that harmed me but trying to deny the impact of their presence on my mind.  I may neglect the fact that poor physical health isn't helping my depression.  And I may neglect to consider my lack of relationship with Jesus (for those who are saved, mind you) is causing me to feel spiritually empty.
    In these examples, while the problem may be almost completely in one sphere, neglecting the other spheres only further prevents me from healing.  As with most things, if I were to combine my efforts in all spheres, the combined effects would lead to a greater sense of well-being.
    Back to the example of anxiety: let's say I combine interventions in the various spheres to get better.  In regards to biology, I ween myself off of caffeine, start eating better, and start mild cardiovascular exercise.  In the psychological sphere, I go through therapy to help untangle my thoughts.  In the social sphere, I evaluate relationships and (for example) find better, healthier friends and stop having arguments on social media.  In the spiritual realm, I make daily Bible reading, prayer, and meditation a regular practice and start attending church.  I will find, if combined, that these interventions lead to a much better life than merely doing one thing or another.
    Or take the example of depression I gave.  If I go to therapy to learn boundaries so that I can navigate my dysfunctional family during the holidays, if I stay away from areas on social media that trigger my depression, if I do trauma therapy for past abuse I've suffered, go through forgiveness therapy, start spending more time spiritually with the Lord, adjust my diet and begin regular exercise, I will find myself better off than doing only one of these things.

Caveat: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

    The difficulty with those who have OCD may be that they accidentally go overboard in engaging in holistic measures.  As such, I offer the following caveat: the solution is usually not to simply do the things one is doing more often.  It's knowing how much to do.  For example, I don't add five hours of cardiovascular exercise a day simply because I needed to exercise to help with OCD.  I do "enough" exercise, in the sense of 20-30 minutes a day, 5 days a week at the most.  I don't begin to read my entire Bible through once a day, but I do "enough," in the sense of a plan to read my Bible through methodically in a year.  Just as neglecting a sphere can result in reductionism and bad decisions, so overemphasizing a sphere can cause problems in the other spheres.  If I am going to the gym so much that I neglect my relationship with God, my family, etc, then I find that I have overemphasized something in my life.  Life should be both holistic (avoiding reductionism) and balanced (avoiding overemphasis).
    As well, there are well-meaning scientists who may inadvertently cause reductionism by insisting that one type of OCD, "Purely Obsessive", is only biological.  While the origin of this mental illness may come only from biology, this does not mean that the solution is "only" biological.  What helps nearly everyone with any mental illness is to be healthy in the other spheres.  The more the other spheres help us and support us, the easier it will be (in general) to deal with a mental illness, including Purely Obsessive OCD.

Caveat: Spiritual Healing

    Nothing I have said so far implies that God cannot decide to heal a person outright.  God absolutely does heal some people of their mental illnesses, addictions, etc.  However, what we know is that God doesn't heal everyone, at least not while they are alive on earth.
    I do not in any way suggest that we should refrain from asking God to heal us.  I suggest, however, that we do not neglect pursuing things that make us better.  I pray almost every day that God would heal one of my family members with a severe mental illness.  This healing has not come, but nevertheless I pray almost every day to the God who can even raise people from the dead.

Caveat: Spiritual Reductionism in Biblical Counselors

    The problem I have encountered with some biblical counselors is that they neglect the other spheres and focus solely on the spiritual.  If they did this merely because they specialize in the spiritual dimension, that would be fine, but sadly, often that is not the case.  For example, I once had a speaker who was addressing anxiety, when I asked at the end of their speech, say that they don't find that exercise helps their clients.  This is sort of sad, too, because there's plenty of evidence showing that it does indeed help people.  That and, to be honest, Genesis 2:15 says God made human beings to work the Garden (of Eden).  Even in a sinless state, we were meant to do physical work.

    While I am not here to judge others, I would strongly recommend that anyone who faces such resistance over exercise's benefits from a biblical counselor to immediately start seeing someone else.  This type of denial is dangerous for anyone who works in the humanitarian jobs, from medical to psychological to spiritual.  This is just one more reason why the social sphere can impact you: if your counselor(s) are bad, the results will also be bad.  Bad counselors can harm you.


    We are multidimensional beings who have needs.  Our dimensions (biological, social, psychological, spiritual) impact us and each other.  We should address our healing holistically.