Psychology of Religion Research Paper

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The psychology of religion was a central part of psychology at its inception as an independent empirical discipline at the end of the nineteenth century. Psychology is also one of the family of human sciences that has made an important contribution to the study of religion. Paloutzian (1996) provides an accessible introduction. This research paper will look first at some key historical figures, then at contemporary research contributions, and finally at critical current issues.

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1. History

Early work on the psychology of religion included quantitative methods, such as the questionnaire research of Edwin Starbuck on types of conversion. However, the most durable masterpiece of the early period was undoubtedly the qualitative research of William James. The psychology of religion continued to be a vigorous part of the discipline of psychology through the first quarter of the twentieth century, and the most widely read summation of that period was J. B. Pratt’s, The Religious Consciousness (see Wulff 1997).

From about 1925, there followed a fallow period in the psychology of religion, in part reflecting the behaviorist direction taken by the discipline generally. However, with the growing emancipation of psychology that took place in the 1960s, there has been a revival in the psychology of religion. This recent period has not seen any major psychological theories of religion, indeed many would doubt whether they are appropriate. However, there has been a wealth of investigations in many aspects of religious experience and behavior.

1.1 William James

For his Varieties of Religious Experience, written at the turn of the century, James (1985) assembled a large quantity of autobiographical material about religious experience. Several of his conceptualizations of this material have become permanent contributions to the psychology of religion, such as his distinctions between ‘once-born’ and ‘twice-born’ conversion types, and between ‘sick-soul’ and ‘healthy-soul’ types. His description of mystical experience as having the hallmarks of ineffability, a noetic quality, transiency, and passivity has also stood the test of time.

However, James’ approach has been criticized (e.g., Proudfoot 1985) for his overemphasis on the private nature of religious experience as ‘the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude.’ Whereas James saw religious doctrines and church practices as arising out of individual experience, others have emphasized how much individual experiences are shaped by the religious tradition. These criticisms of James have been reinforced in recent years by the growing awareness of the extent to which experience is ‘specially constructed.’ There has also been concern about James’ over-reliance on vivid but unusual experiences; others would want to place the emphasis on the religious experiences of ordinary religious people. James also focused on the special qualities of religious experience.

In contrast, some would want to emphasize that the hallmark of religious experience is not its unusual phenomenal quality, but simply the way in which a religious frame of interpretation is applied to experiences of an ordinary kind.

1.2 Sigmund Freud

Another rather separate strand in the psychology of religion that goes back to the early twentieth century is represented by the contribution of Freud, and the psychoanalytic tradition stemming from him. Freud published several books on religion, but his most enduring contribution has probably been The Future of an Illusion (1962). There, he argues that religion is a form of wish fulfillment, and that God is a projection of the human mind. These were not altogether new ideas, and a similar line had been taken by Feuerbach. However, the fact that Freud approached them from a well-articulated general theory of mental functions gave them a new authority.

Though Freud’s views have been very influential, there has been a growing recognition that they are highly speculative, and less authoritative than was initially supposed. It has also become clear that an alternative, more sympathetic view of religion can be developed within the framework of psychoanalytic theory, something that Freud conceded might be possible. The main influence on recent work of this kind has been Winicott’s concept of the ‘transitional’ world, that was neither wholly internal nor external, but an illusionistic world that plays a constructive role in adaptation (see Meissner 1984). Though Freud’s own work on religion was surprisingly weak in case studies, others have now conducted rich case studies documenting the close parallelism that can often be found between relationships to parents and to God. Of course, this need not be interpreted as showing that God is nothing but a projection of the mind, just that concepts of God are often shaped by personal factors.

1.3 C. G. Jung

Jung took an unusual interest in religious symbols and doctrines. Indeed, one of the reasons for his break from Freud was that he was unhappy at what he saw as Freud’s disparaging treatment of religion. Jung interpreted religious symbols in relation to the personal journey of ‘individuation,’ a journey from ego-centeredness towards the ‘Self,’ involving the integration of the unconscious with the ego. Symbols are important both in representing the goal of this journey, and also in facilitating it. Central to Jung’s approach to religious symbols is his theory of the ‘collective unconscious’ and its archetypes; Jung does not regard religious symbols as just being features of the personal unconscious.

Jung had a strong interest in symbols of the Self, and saw God and Christ as being such symbols. However, he laments the extent to which religious symbols have now lost their psychological power and are no longer felt to be relevant to the journey of individuation. His work on Christianity included extended essays on the symbolism of the Trinity and the Mass (see Jung 1969). He also took an extensive interest in Eastern religion, where he also found symbols of individuation, though he was opposed to Westerners taking up Eastern practices such as yoga.

Jung’s view of religion is markedly more sympathetic than Freud’s, though his reformulation of religion is at points decidedly heterodox. He tended to broaden religion to include anything ‘numinous.’ Also he emphasized that as a psychologist he could concern himself, not with religious metaphysics, but only with psychological realties (see Palmer 1997). Though Jung saw ‘God’ and ‘Christ’ as psychic images and symbols of individuation, whether there was a ‘metaphysical’ God was something about which he had no official view. However, it would be a misreading of Jung to imagine that he thought people could work out their own salvation. He thought the ego was quite unable to secure ‘individuation,’ and emphasized the radical otherness of the ‘Self,’ of which God is a symbol.

2. The Contemporary Psychology Of Religion

Much contemporary psychology of religion employs empirical research methods, and there follows a brief review of representative research findings. The fullest guide to the empirical psychology of religion is that of Hood et al. (1996). Beit-Hallahmi and Argyle (1997) is briefer, but also helpful.

2.1 Individual Differences

The study of individual differences has long been an important part of the psychology of religion. The search for a particular kind of personality associated with religious allegiance has generally not been successful, largely because of the marked diversity of religious people. However, there is reliable evidence supporting an association between different personality types and different approaches to religion. This emerged first in connection with social prejudice, where ‘intrinsic’ religious people were found to be less prejudiced on average than extrinsic; the same is true of committed vs. consensual religious people (another set of terms for a related distinction). There has also recently been considerable interest in the relation of Jung’s psychological typology, as measured by instruments such as the Myers–Briggs Indicator, to various aspects of to religious life such as prayer and Church leadership.

2.2 Mental Health

Mental health (at least as measured by self-report instruments) has been found to show the same relationship as social prejudice to types of religiousness, with intrinsic religious people having good mental health, but extrinsic religious people having relatively poor mental health. Even where religious people are not subdivided, religiousness tends to be associated with better than average scores on dimensions such as Eysenckian ‘psychoticsm.’ When more objective measures are considered, religious people are often found to have lower levels of formal mental illness and abuse of drugs and alcohol. There is also growing evidence that religion has a positive relationship to happiness, coping, and physical health. There are probably a variety of explanations of the relationship between religion and health. These include ‘selection’ factors, such as alcoholics being less likely to go to church. However, there may be various ways in which religion can improve health and happiness, such as the therapeutic value of prayer, and the social support provided by the churches (see Loewenthal 1995).

2.3 Developmental Psychology

Children’s’ intellectual understanding of religion has been found to follow the usual path, documented by Piaget for many areas of cognitive development, from concrete to abstract modes of understanding. Early research showed that this applied to the interpretation of Bible stories, but the same general pattern seems to apply to all aspects of religious understanding, such as prayer and sacraments. There have been attempts to extend such ‘stages of development’ models to other aspects of religion, and to take them into adulthood. The best-known work of this kind is Fowler’s theory of ‘faith development.’ However, many critics have expressed caution about the proper limits of stage models of religious development. They seem to work best for development in the intellectual understanding of religion, less well for other aspects; they also only seem to work better for religious development in children than in adults. The key issue is whether religiousness changes in a sufficiently predictable and universal way for the concept of development to be appropriate.

2.4 Religious Experience

There has been extensive empirical research on mystical and religious experience, though it is beset by the problem of how such experience should be defined. The initial question used in the research of Hay (1987) is characteristic: ‘Have you ever been aware of, or influenced by, a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self ?’ Most empirical surveys find roughly a third of the population respond positively to such questions. Interestingly, the proportion is not much reduced for atheists and agnostics. The experiences often occur at times of stress, and generate feelings of peace and happiness. One of the most debated matters is whether there is a common core to such experiences that is independent of religious tradition and culture. Psychometric research by Hood suggests that there are two groups of descriptors, one focusing on the experience of unity, the other set of descriptors more influenced by religious background.

2.5 Neuropsychology

The study of the brain processes involved in religion promises to become a lively research area. There has long been evidence that meditation alters people’s levels of arousal, though probably not in any unique or distinctive way when compared to other procedures such as relaxation. There has been considerable interest in a possible link between the brain processes involved in religious experience and temporal lobe epilepsy. Though there are similarities in the two sets of experiences, there are also marked dissimilarities, and critics have pointed out that evidence that the same brain mechanisms are involved is weak (Jeeves 1997). d’Aquili and Newberg (1998) have proposed another neural theory in which two cognitive operators, the ‘causal operator’ and the ‘holistic operator’ underpin different aspects of religion. As evidence accumulates about the brain processes involved in religion, there is likely to be debate about whether or not they offer a complete explanation of religion.

2.6 Attitudes

The measurement of religiousness is an aspect of the study of attitudes and involves the vexed question of the relationship between self-report and behavioral measures. It has been claimed by some that religious believing currently exceeds belonging. Though, on some measures, this appears to be the case, it depends on exactly what measures of each are used. One of the methodological principles to have emerged in the general literature on attitude measurement is that single-item measures of expressed attitudes are a poor predictor of behavior, whereas fuller self-report measures predict better, and there is reason to think that this applies to religious attitudes. Attitude change can be studied in relation to religious conversion.

2.7 Conversion

Conversion has long been a central topic in the psychology of religion. It is a multifaceted, and by no means uniform phenomenon. There are well-established differences between sudden and gradual conversion types, with the former being more conservative in religion and in other matters. It has also long been noticed that adolescence is the peak time for conversion, but the interpretation of this needs to take account of the fact that it is probably the peak time for apostasy as well. Conversion often does not represent as complete or permanent a change as is supposed. Also, many of those experiencing a conversion are returning to previously held attitudes; conversions among those with no previous religious affiliation are relatively rare. In recent years there has been particular interest in conversions to new religious movements. In fact, these often seem to be associated with improvements in the sense of well being. There is some evidence of mental health problems in those who leave new religious movements, though this no means always occurs.

2.8 Charismatic Religion

Speaking in tongues (glossolalia) is much the best investigated charismatic phenomenon (Malony and Lovekin 1985). Psycholinguistic research generally indicates that it is to be regarded as some kind of ‘ecstatic utterance’ rather than the use of an identifiable language. Social learning is apparently required before people are able to speak in tongues; this is suggested by the way in which people first watch it before joining in, and also get more proficient at it with practice. It has been suggested that it involves some kind of dissociated state of consciousness, perhaps a trance state or a regressive state, but there is as yet no clear support for such hypotheses. It has been difficult to identify personality characteristics of those who speak in tongues. This may perhaps be because it occurs in different ways in different settings, but there is as yet no generally accepted classification. However, there is quite good evidence that it is associated with positive personality changes, though it is not unique in having such beneficial effects.

3. General Issues

The psychology of religion involves a number of general issues about methodology and interpretation, including the following.

3.1 Relation To General Psychology

The psychology of religion currently lacks integrative conceptual frameworks and general theories. A psychology of religion that is no more than a fragmented study of various particular religious phenomena will never look impressive scientifically. The other pitfall to be avoided is, of course, offering a psychological theory of religion that is too simplistic to handle the relevant phenomena adequately. The kind of theory Freud offered, in terms of religion meeting psychological needs, proved neither convincing nor scientifically fruitful, and is not a good precedent to follow. However, the problems faced in studying religion psychologically are not unique. The study of emotion, for example, faces similar problems, in that emotion is as multifaceted a phenomenon as religion. Broadly conceived ‘cognitive’ approaches to religion may give useful coherence, as they are currently doing in the psychology of emotion. The psychology of religion interfaces with many other areas of general psychology. Indeed, it can be argued that the subject is pursued most fruitfully when its links with general psychology are strong.

3.2 Relation To Sociology

The separation between sociology and psychology is in some ways an artificial one, and affects the study of many social phenomena, including religion. Most religious phenomena have both social and psychological aspects. For example, conversion and speaking in tongues have been studied fruitfully from both perspectives. However, social and psychological studies often proceed in isolation from each other; it seems unlikely that either alone will be able to offer an adequate explanation of any religious phenomenon though there is a strong case for the psychology of religion having stronger links with the sociology of religion. This tends to raise the question of whether religion is to be understood in social or individualistic terms. Both perspectives are no doubt needed for an adequate understanding of religion, and the psychology of religion does not exclude a social approach. Though the increasing interest in the brain processes in religion are likely to pull the psychology of religion in a biological direction, the psychology of religion, like other aspects of psychology, will need to remain both a social and a biological science, and to hold together the different methodologies involved.

3.3 Relation To Theology

Lastly, what should the relationship be between the psychology of religion and theology? Different countries have different traditions about the relationship between theology and religious studies, some maintaining a sharp distinction between the ‘insiders’’ perspective of theology and the ‘outsiders’’ perspective of religious studies (including the psychology of religion); others have tried to maintain links between them. This issue is affected by the postmodern turn in philosophy, which is casting doubt on the possibility of any wholly detached, objective study of anything, including religion. The psychology of religion has been slow to accommodate itself to these general intellectual developments, though it is hard to see that it can stand aside from them indefinitely. One particular issue is whether there is scope for insiders’ and outsiders’ explanations to run alongside one another. Charismatic phenomena represent an example. It is not clear that the study of the psychological processes involved in charismatic religion excludes a complementary religious account in terms of the activity of the Holy Spirit.

3.4 The Nature Of Explanation

Many of these issues are brought together in questions about the nature of explanation in the psychology of religion. Explanations in psychology are seldom complete explanations, and are certainly unlikely to be such in the psychology of religion. This means that religion will not be reduced to psychology, or ‘explained away.’ Equally, religion is not a ‘natural kind,’ and all explanations in the psychology of religion will therefore be culturally contextual, and depend on interpretations of the nature of religion; the psychology of religion can never hope to provide a science of religion that is a ‘view from nowhere.’ Nevertheless, there is no sharp boundary between the explanation and interpretation of religion, and it is inherent in the nature of religion that it will adopt a mixed approach.


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