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Psychology and religion in the Western tradition. Stephen Lea Professor of Psychology, University of Exeter, and Local Preacher on trial, Exeter Methodist Circuit. Preamble: Why the Western tradition?. Rather than religion in general, we will mainly be thinking about Christianity

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psychology and religion in the western tradition

Psychology and religion in the Western tradition

Stephen Lea

Professor of Psychology, University of Exeter,

and

Local Preacher on trial, Exeter Methodist Circuit

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

preamble why the western tradition
Preamble: Why the Western tradition?
  • Rather than religion in general, we will mainly be thinking about Christianity
  • Furthermore our ideas are dominated by “Western” Christianity – Latin rather than Greek, Protestant rather than either, and Eurocentric rather than of the post-missionary world
  • Psychology too has “schools” in different cultures – Anglo-Saxon different from “continental”, and European/American different from oriental or Islamic
  • We cannot eliminate these biases but need to be aware of them

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

structure of the session
Structure of the session
  • Three main parts:
    • Are religion and psychology in conflict?
    • History and current status of the study of the psychology of religion
    • A very brief introduction to 3 themes in contemporary psychology of religion research
  • Break after each main part for discussion, with discussion pointers provided
  • Interruptions welcome; questions will be answered if possible

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

religion vs psychology
Religion vs. Psychology?
  • Religion and psychology may (but do not necessarily) offer different accounts of the same phenomena. If so, these accounts may be:
    • Conflicting
    • Complementary
    • Orthogonal
  • Where they (seem to) conflict, it is a matter of faith to assume that one is preferable to the other
  • The next slides present some reasons for religion/psychology conflict…

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

implicit materialism
Implicit materialism
  • Any approach to psychology necessarily assumes an answer to the mind/body problem
  • Most (though not all) C20 schools of psychology, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, assumed
    • Monism (there are not separate mental and physical realities)
    • Materialism (the one reality is essentially physical)

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

particular materialisms
Particular materialisms
  • Behaviourism: assumes that the only reality is observable behaviour
  • Cognitive psychology: assumes that the mind can be effectively analogised to a computing machine
  • Physiological psychology and cognitive neuropsychology: assume that mental states can be reliably predicted from discoverable states of the brain

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

the scientific weltanschauung
The scientific Weltanschauung
  • From mid-C19, important strands within psychology have sought to identify it as a natural science
  • The scientific approach to natural phenomena has been seen as replacing religious authority
  • Natural science investigation requires the assumption of reliable cause and effect, and hence scientific psychology requires a materialistic approach to mental phenomena

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

the influence of evolutionary thinking
The influence of evolutionary thinking
  • Since Dawkins’ The selfish gene, sociobiology has been very influential in motivational psychology
  • In many ways sociobiology is the only remaining “grand theory” in psychology
  • “Evolutionary psychology” has emerged as a new approach to understanding human cognition in terms of “modular” abilities that are explicable in terms of Stone Age requirements
  • Evolutionary theorists tend to be deeply hostile to religion, partly because of the attacks on biology by biblical literalists

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

freud oddly enough
Freud (oddly enough)
  • Though regarded by most psychologists as wholly unscientific, Freud placed himself firmly within the scientific Weltanschauung
  • He argued (The future of an illusion, 1927) that religious belief was a form of obsessional neurosis
  • Although in general Freud is widely dismissed, and although there is no evidence to support this claim, the claim is often repeated

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

spiritual experience
“Spiritual experience”
  • In Western Christianity, “spiritual experience” is often regarded as conclusive for faith
  • To people of faith, alternative (scientific, materialistic) accounts of mental experiences may therefore seems to threaten the basis of their belief
  • To psychologists, the claim of special religious experiences violates the expectation of reliable cause and effect
  • This is tantamount to a claim of miracle

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

why there might not be a conflict
Why there might not be a conflict
  • “Modern science has abandoned C19 determinism”
    • Assorted catastrophe/chaos theory approaches
    • Post-modernist abandonment of the notion of scientific truth, e.g. Althüsser
  • Massively multiple causation
    • Psychological facts are historical/clinical rather than scientific/reproducible
    • Idiothetic approaches are more successful in psychology than nomothetic
  • Continuing dualistic strands within psychology
  • The “indeterminacy principle” (Dewey, Mckay - & Soros!)

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

interim personal conclusions on psychology religion conflict
Interim, personal conclusions on psychology/religion conflict
  • Conflict is not inevitable
  • But the potential for conflict is real
  • Pretending otherwise is wishy-washy and likely to be unproductive
  • However it is essential to proceed on a basis of mutual respect for conflicting positions
  • Both people of faith and psychologists studying the psychology of religion must be willing to put cherished beliefs at risk

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

discussion pointers 1
Discussion pointers (1)
  • Are conversion experiences predictable? What does that say about their validity?
  • If the mind is not independent of the brain, what does that say about the soul?
  • How does the doctrine of predestination sit alongside the view that the causes of mental events are undiscoverable?
  • How does religious belief challenge modern psychology?

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

psychology of religion as a subdiscipline
Psychology of religion as a subdiscipline
  • Does not require a resolution of the relationship between religion and psychology
  • Starts from the psychological phenomena of religion, and seeks a psychological account
  • The kind of phenomena investigated, and the kind of account sought, depends on the particular psychological approach adopted

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

a very little history
A (very) little history
  • Early and medieval theology has considerable psychological content – empirical as well as philosophical, and naturally related to religious questions
  • Humanist philosophy of C17 on implied (and sometimes expressed) a sceptical psychology of religion
  • Significant interest in the psychology of religion early in the history of psychology as an independent academic discipline, in late C19/early C20: pioneers included…

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

e d starbuck
E. D. Starbuck
  • Quaker background, trained at Harvard Divinity School, subsequently sceptic
  • used open-ended questionnaire to elicit “religious autobiographies”, then developed a typology of key religious events, e.g. conversion

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

william james
William James
  • The varieties of religious experience, 1902
  • Still in print, and available on-line http://www.psywww.com/psyrelig/james/toc.htm)
  • pragmatic, phenomenological; fruits rather than roots

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

modern regrowth
Modern regrowth
  • Empirical social psychology, e.g. Argyle & Beit-Hallami (The social psychology of religion, 1975) – links to sociology of religion
  • Intrinsic/extrinsic motivation theory, e.g. G. Allport
  • Social-cognition approaches e.g. Spilka et al
  • Novel trait approaches, e.g. authoritarianism

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

the contemporary scene
The contemporary scene
  • Textbooks, e.g. Paloutzian (Invitation to the psychology of religion, 1983, 1996)
  • Organizations, e.g. Division 36 of American Psychological Association, 1400 members
  • Journals, e.g.
    • Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion
    • International Journal for the Psychology of Religion
    • Journal of Psychology and Theology
    • Pastoral Psychology
  • Courses – modules within undergraduate programmes, specialist masters and doctoral programmes

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

contemporary trends
Contemporary trends
  • Attempts to avoid conflict between religious and psychological inputs
  • Most psychological input is from quantitative/empirical social psychology – tending to the nomothetic
  • Other areas of psychology also contributing, e.g. developmental (in children, and lifespan), experiential, health psychology
  • Also interest from theology/religious studies orientations

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

discussion pointers 2
Discussion pointers (2)
  • Is it productive to avoid conflict between psychology and religion?
  • Why would modern theologians be interested in the psychology of religion?
  • Might qualitative, discursive social psychology offer interesting insights?
  • What on earth do 1400 members of Division 36 of the APA actually do?

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

a selection of current issues
A selection of current issues
  • The social inheritance of religion, and “believing without belonging”
  • Moral development and religious development
  • Conversion and cults
  • Religion and well-being

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

the social inheritance of religion
The social inheritance of religion
  • Attendance at “mainstream” religious groups is declining in the UK & most other European countries (but not in the US, and attendance at “house churches”, “sects” and “New Age” groups may be increasing)
  • Most people tend to adopt the religious (including antireligious) attitudes of their parents (Argyle)
  • Few people change their basic religious orientation after the age of 25 (though intensity of commitment may vary)
  • However people may not adopt parents’ attendance behaviour (Davie’s “belief without belonging”)
  • Standard cognitive-social psychology prediction is that loss of belief will follow
  • Sociological sect-church theory contrasts established churches with newly schismatising sects

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

religious and moral development in childhood
Religious and moral development in childhood
  • Religious concepts limited by staged conceptualisation limits in young children (Piaget’s concrete operations stage)
  • Moral judgement develops from preconventional through conventional to postconventional (Kohlberg)
  • Religious development shows comparable stages, involving searches for conservation, representation, relations, comprehension (Elkind)
  • Empirical work shows robust stages through fairy-tale, realistic, to individualistic conceptions of God – from concrete to abstract

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

slide25
Why was Moses afraid to look at the face of God when he spoke to him from the burning bush? (Exodus 3:6; Goldman, 1964, UK)
  • Preoperational (ages below 8): “Because God had a funny face”
  • Concrete operational (ages up to 14): “Because it was a ball of fire. He thought it might burn him”
  • Formal operational (ages above 13): “The awesomeness and almightiness of God would make Moses feel like a worm in comparison”

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

conversion
Conversion
  • Sudden vs gradual conversion vs “religious socialisation”
  • Theologically, socialisation may be best thought of as “lifetime conversion”, but psychologically is a control for conversion which implies change of belief, practice or effect
  • Sudden conversion implies emotional change, gradual conversion cognitive/intellectual change, socialisation unconscious (e.g. social) learning

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

lofland stark s step theory of conversion to cults nrms
Lofland & Stark’s “Step theory” of conversion to “cults” (NRMs)
  • Individual factors:
    • Enduring, acutely felt tensions
    • Religious strategy for resolving them
    • Conventional religions fail to resolve tensions leading person to become a “seeker”
  • Situational factors:
    • Encounter NRM at a life transition
    • Strong affective bonds formed on entry to the group
    • Attachments to outside interests/persons diminish
    • Intensive interaction with other members

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

more accounts of conversion
More accounts of conversion
  • Glock: various kinds of deprivation lead to conversion to NRMS (sects) or to other kinds of religious groups (e.g. economic deprivation predisposes to sect formation, social deprivation to new churches)
  • Galanter: conversion offers relief from psychological distress
  • Batson: conversion analogised to creativity – new way of seeing the world
  • Conversion as attitude change – triggered by inconsistency between previous attitudes and behaviour or perception of the world

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

religion and well being
Religion and well-being
  • Is religion a factor in mental disorder?
  • Is there a distinct (and dysfunctional) “religious personality”?
  • How does religious observance impact on quality of life?

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

religion and mental health
Religion and mental health
  • Religious content is frequent in psychological disorder (but so is sexual, political, show-business and other “dramatic” content)
  • Founders and leaders of religions are often associated with stories that look “psychopathological” through modern eyes (but the stories are often mythic)
  • Behaviour of religious followers looks strange to outsiders (but so does much other “specialised” behaviour, e.g. sport – or research – if detached from its social meaning

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

the religious personality
The religious personality?
  • Linked series of concepts:
    • Adorno et al: authoritarianism (F scale)
    • Rokeach: dogmatism
    • Altemeyer: Right Wing Authoritarianism (RWA)
  • All these scales show some correlations with degree of religious affiliation/behaviour…
  • But relationships are characteristically weak and situation-dependent
  • Some correlations between high anxiety and conversion experiences…
  • …but religious observance is associated with psychological stability

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

quality of life
Quality of life
  • Traditional claims of links between religious acts and physical healing now discounted
  • Coping and social competence can be enhanced in believers
  • Anxiety about death often lower in deeply religious people – but also in complete non-believers
  • Religious affiliation often leads to social involvement (e.g. voluntary work) which enhances quality of life

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

discussion pointers 3
Discussion pointers (3)
  • What should a Sunday School teacher know about developmental psychology?
  • Should we try to “deprogramme” converts to NRMs?
  • Supposing we felt we had to, what would be a good way to go about it?
  • Would you advise someone who was unhappy to join a church?

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro

to find out more you can
To find out more you can…
  • Review these slides at http://www.ex.ac.uk/~SEGLea/dll/truro.htm ; for easier printing, download the powerpoint version
  • Look at Donald Nielsen’s psychology of religion pages at http://www.psywww.com/psyrelig
  • Read Paloutzian (1996), Invitation to the psychology of religion, 2nd edn (available from Amazon or Blackwell’s on line)
  • Read William James’ Varieties of religious experience (in print as a paperback from Touchstone or Penguin, 2nd hand from http://www.abebooks.com), or online at http://www.psywww.com/psyrelig/james/toc.htm

Psychology & Religion, DLL Truro