Psychology of Religion

views updated May 18 2018

Psychology of Religion

The psychology of religion consists of the systematic study and interpretation of religion using the methods and theories of contemporary Western psychology. "Religion" is most often understood to refer to individual experiences, attitudes, and conduct, but its referent is sometimes the diverse contents—images, doctrines, myths, rituals—of the historic religious traditions. Thus, broadly speaking, there are two variants of the psychology of religion: one of religious persons and another of religious content. Those who pursue a psychology of religious persons have tended historically to work within a single religious tradition, often with a personal commitment to the tradition and little interest in exploring it psychologically. Those who favor a psychology of religious content, on the other hand, commonly seek to reinterpret such content and trace out its origins, usually in terms of a particular psychological theory and sometimes in a comparative, cross-cultural framework.

Whatever their focus, the field's proponents have together pursued three related projects: (1) systematically describing religion, both as inner experience and outer expression, with the goal of clarifying religion's essential characteristics; (2) explaining the origins of religion, in history and in individual lives, and thereby illuminating its fundamental nature; and (3) tracing out the consequences of religious ideas, attitudes, experiences, and practices, both in individual lives and in the larger world. Whereas the second task typically challenges the self-understandings of religious persons and traditions, the first and third undertakings are consonant with traditional religious attitudes and even have roots in the historic religious traditions themselves.

The Inaugural Period

Although intimations of the contemporary psychology of religion can be found in eighteenth-century European theology and philosophy, it was in the United States, late in the nineteenth century, that the field finally took shape as a formal discipline. Two critical factors stand out. One was the growing enthusiasm, first in Europe and then in America, for extending the scientific attitude and methods into the human realm. Thus arose the new sciences of psychology and of the "history of religions," the latter promoted by the religious liberalism then in ascendance in the United States. The second factor was progressivism, the spirit of reform that swept across America at the turn of the century. Aimed at countering the destructive effects of industrialization, these reform efforts included the social gospel movement, which became widely influential in the liberal Protestant churches. Psychology and the other social sciences, likewise permeated by ethical concerns, lent support to these reform movements through the optimistic assumption that lives can be changed through systematic environmental interventions.

Most of the early advocates of the psychology of religion in America embraced both the new empirical psychology and the social gospel. Major contributors such as Stanley Hall, George Coe, and Edward Ames saw the psychology of religion as a way of reinterpreting or even reconstructing religion in more human-centered terms, to make it more effective in the modern world. Others, such as William James and James Pratt, were less set on reinterpreting religion than on establishing grounds for a new appreciation of it, especially as a means of individual and social transformation. Relying primarily on personal documents and questionnaire replies, these researchers set about to explore the dynamics of the religious sentiment and to propose new ways of engaging it in the more complex world of the twentieth century.

The climate that gave rise to the psychology of religion shifted rapidly, however, with the devastating blows of World War I and the subsequent economic and social crises. The great loss of confidence that spelled the end of progressivism and triggered the revival of religiously conservative views robbed the field of the interest and support it required for sustained development. At the same time, the dramatic rise of behaviorism and its ideal of an objective science undercut the study of subjective phenomena, including religious experience. Consequently, the psychology of religion went into a sharp decline in the 1930s and 1940s. It survived mainly in applied settings, notably in the work of pastoral counselors, and in the studies of a few dedicated scholars.

The Empirical Tradition

Beginning in the 1950s, the field underwent a gradual revival, paralleling the developments in the related areas of social and personality psychology that the slow retreat of behaviorism made possible. Two broad traditions emerged—the empirical and the interpretive—each with roots in the field's inaugural period. The empirical tradition, which can be traced back to Stanley Hall and his students at Clark University, embraces the model of the natural sciences, including their commitment to quantification and objective methods. Although the controlled experiment is considered the ideal, given its advantages for inferring cause and effect, empirical psychologists of religion largely agree that religion does not lend itself to laboratory study. Most use correlational techniques instead.

The majority of empirical psychologists of religion today pursue the first and third of the projects delineated above: describing religion in individual lives and tracing out its consequences. Description is undertaken only in a limited sense, however, for it is based on yes-no replies to standardized religiosity questionnaires and is reported in the form of numerical scores. The resulting data may then be subjected to factor analysis, a statistical procedure used to identify the underlying "factors" that account for the mathematical interrelationships of questionnaire items. Some assume that factor analysis reveals to us religion's essential dimensions or traits; others recognize that the number and character of the resulting dimensions are always contingent on both the types of questions asked and the nature of the participants who answer them.

Once religion has been satisfactorily operationalized—that is, identified and measured by some assessment device—the search for religion's consequences is undertaken by mathematically correlating participants' scores on the religiosity questionnaires with their scores on other measures, commonly of social attitudes or of various dimensions of mental health. Religiosity measures are sometimes also related to educational and socioeconomic variables as well as to physical-health status. The farther goal served by establishing religion's correlates is seldom explicitly stated, but from the work of James onward, it has often been the defense or the promotion of religion in the context of an increasingly secular society.

When promoting religion is the ultimate goal of the empirical psychologists, they are unlikely to be interested in the second project, explaining religion's origins. Furthermore, correlational procedures do not allow clear inferences about cause and effect. Yet some research of this type has been done, as in studies that have found significant relationships between images of God and such variables as mother and father images and level of self-esteem. It is debatable, however, if the latter variables play a causal role in the shaping of positive or negative God images, or if the God image—or some third variable—is the primary causal factor in the pattern of interrelationship.

Some of the earliest empirical speculation on causal factors in religion centered on physiological processes, including pathological conditions such as epilepsy, and the changes brought about by such voluntary practices as fasting, ecstatic dancing, and the taking of drugs. Recent advances in our knowledge of brain processes and the effects on them of various practices, including meditation and the ingestion of psychedelic drugs, have made possible more precise biological explanations. Basic research on the lateral specialization of the brain's hemispheres, for example, has prompted speculation as well as further investigations suggesting that striking religious or mystical experience is the result of exceptional electrical activity in the right temporal lobe. Whereas some conclude that establishing such physiological correlates reduces religious experience to electrical and chemical activity and hence invalidates it, researchers on meditation point to such correlates as evidence that meditation is genuinely and uniquely effective. We are faced here with highly complex philosophical issues.

The Interpretive Tradition

With its most conspicuous roots in the work of William James, the interpretive tradition follows the model of the human sciences. Rejecting the natural-scientific approach as essentially inapplicable to the study of human experience and expression, proponents of the human-scientific model employ a variety of methods chosen for their sensitivity to human subjectivity. Personal document analysis, historical and clinical case studies, interviews, and other such techniques provide entrée into the subtleties of individual religious experience, both ordinary and exceptional. If the object of study is the content of the religious traditions, attention is given to the various forms of objective human expression, such as the bodily movements of religious ritual or the images recorded in religious scriptures.

The project of describing religious phenomena lies at the heart of the interpretive approach. The phenomenological perspective is often explicitly embraced, signaling both a vigilance for unjustified assumptions or presuppositions and a commitment to the fullest and most faithful account possible of the phenomena under investigation. More an attitude than a set of prescribed methods, phenomenology requires either direct access to the object of study, in the form of one's own experience, or an exceptional capacity for empathic understanding of others' experience. For the descriptive study of mystical experience, for example, the German physician and psychotherapist Carl Albrecht was able to draw on his own intimate knowledge of meditation, whereas James, a professed outsider, undertook his classic work vicariously, with the aid of numerous personal documents written by "experts" in the religious realm.

Whether direct or vicarious, phenomenological description typically culminates in the identification of the phenomenon's essential features or traits. For some investigators, illumination of these traits marks the culmination of their work. Others go farther, seeking some interpretation of the descriptive material. Any of a variety of perspectives may come into play. One may undertake a "hermeneutical phenomenology," by means of which the phenomenon is situated in the broader context of human existence, itself understood phenomenologically. Alternatively, one may interpret the phenomenon in terms of one of the depth psychologies, whether it be Freudian psychoanalysis or one of its successors, Jung's analytical psychology, or yet another of the clinic-derived theories of personality.

Interpretation in terms of these psychologies marks a shift to the second of the field's projects: explaining the origins of religion in terms of psychological processes and suggesting thereby what the fundamental nature of religion is. Freud is well known for concluding that belief in a father-God is a product of the wishes and fears of early childhood, especially as they are shaped by the emotional complications of the Oedipus complex. Branding religion an "illusion," by which he meant a creation of wish fulfillment, Freud looked to the day when humankind would outgrow religion entirely.

Declaring this vision of the future to be itself an illusion, Freud's lifelong friend Oskar Pfister used psychoanalysis to explain the presence of neurotic trends in the Christian tradition and proposed that such insights might help to purify religious faith and practice. The views of certain object-relations theorists, who modified psychoanalysis by ascribing to human beings a fundamental need for relationship, are likewise more positive than Freud's. Religion, they concluded, is a system of therapy that compensates for bad object relations deep in the past and promotes wholeness through more satisfactory ones in the present. Jung, too, viewed religion as a vital resource; historically, he said, the individuation process of attaining psychic balance and wholeness has been promoted chiefly by the religious traditions.

Prospects for the Future

Other eminent psychologists, too, have weighed in on the question of religion, including Gordon Allport, Raymond Cattell, Erik Erikson, Viktor Frankl, Erich Fromm, Abraham Maslow, Eduard Spranger, and B. F. Skinner. Ironically, however, religion has throughout the twentieth century been a topic ignored by most psychologists. As a field of study, the psychology of religion has correspondingly long suffered neglect. Hopeful signs of change today include The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, founded in 1990; the existence of three textbooks in revised editions; Division 36, Psychology of Religion, of the American Psychological Association; and European Psychologists of Religion, an informal group of scholars that has met every three years since 1979.

See alsoBody; Health; Meditation; Mysticism; Practice; Psychotherapy; Religious Experience; Religious Studies; Ritual; Sociology of Religion; Spirituality.


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David M. Wulff

Psychology of religion

views updated May 18 2018

Psychology of religion. The field of study which employs psychological techniques and theories to explore and explain religious phenomena. In the W., various schools of psychology have given birth to different treatments of religion. Theories have been taken from associational psychology ( J. G. Frazer's The Golden Bough, 1890–1937), from psychoanalysis ( S. Freud, C. G. Jung), from social psychology (as surveyed by M. Argyle and B. Beit-Hallahmi in The Social Psychology of Religion, 1975), and from cognitive psychology (see L. Festinger, When Prophecy Fails, 1956, and D. Sperber's Rethinking Symbolism, 1975). The most influential of these approaches has been psychoanalytic theory, specifically in the psychodynamic form.

In most cultures, however, psychologies are less ‘of’ religious life than they are integral to it. Since religions must address participants as well as whatever is taken to be ultimate, they contain their own psychologies. The most sophisticated, and, it appears, efficacious indigenous psychologies appear in the great Eastern traditions (see e.g. Rama et al., Yoga and Psychotherapy, 1976), but there are countless other examples (e.g. V. Turner on rites of passage and curing rituals).

The most frequently met aim of indigenous psychologies ‘of’ religion is transformative. The aim of Western, supposedly more scientific psychologies of religion is explanatory.

Psychology of Religion

views updated May 21 2018

Psychology of Religion

From the perspective of science and religion, there exist three kinds of psychology of religion. "Secular" empirical psychology (e.g., Hood) the most widely practiced excludes the question of the transcendent and researches religious experiences and behavior in terms of meaningful psychological concepts such as cognition, emotion, motivation, attribution, social interaction, and development. The two other kinds are more mission-oriented. "Theistic" religious psychology (e.g., Koteskey; cf. Reich) includes the transcendent and aims to understand God's creation and make people more God-like by improving their mental functioning, their moral judgment, their empathy and so forth. "Atheistic" psychology of religion (e.g. Kurtz; Vetter) aims primarily to demonstrate the illusion of a perceived transcendent and the regressive and oppressive effects of being religious.

See also Freud, Sigmund; Psychology; Self


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koteskey, ronald l. psychology from a christian perspective. lanham, md.: university press of america, 2002.

kurtz, paul. the transcendental temptation: a critique of religion and the paranormal. buffalo, n.y.: prometheus books, 1991.

reich, k. helmut. "scientist vs. believer?: on navigating between the scilla of scientific norms and the charybdis of personal experience." journal of psychology and theology 28, no. 3 (200): 190-200.

vetter, george b. magic and religion: their psychological nature, origin, and function. new york: philosophical library, 1958.

wulff, david m. psychology of religion: classic and contemporary. new york: wiley, 1997.

k. helmut reich

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