On The Psychology of Religion (Part 2)


Psychology & Religion

Psychology and religion have a historically uneasy relationship. Many psychologist hold the view that religious belief is parochial, myopic, and ignorant. Many religious thinkers find psychology to be rigidly adherent to objective empiricism (only accepting as valid that which is observable and measurable) and capable of producing only shallow interpretations of spirituality. Although these attitudes are not reflective of all psychologists and theologians, we can make a general observation that what religion  might lack in certainty, psychology might lack in wisdom.

This antagonism between religion and psychology must be considered from the outstart of our thinking. Whereas we psychologists embark on the psychology of religion, a theologian might just as easily set out to study the religion of psychology. With this in mind, we must remain cognizant of the limitations to understanding which our discipline imposes.

The hostile, the hospitable, & the neutral

The texts which we discuss in the psychology of religion clearly present as either hostile, hospitable, or neutral regarding the attitude towards religion. To say that all psychology is anti-religion would be incorrect. However, to view academic criticism as a contempt is also a misjudgement. This points to one of the main issues that often divide the secular tradition from the sacred tradition; the attitude of critical thought and questioning. As many intellectuals point out, there is a problem when critical thought, questioning, and criticism of any system of knowledge is prohibited or taken as insult. When we censor our critical thought out of fear of admonition –or worse, physical harm– we are submitting to intimidation. This is not conducive to intellectual inquiry.
We can count amongst the critically hospitable thinkers William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, Gordon Allport in The Individual and His Religion, as well as in multiple writings of Erich Fromm, Carl Jung, and Rollo May. Amongst the neutral critical thinkers we can include V.S. Ramachandran in Phantoms of the Brain and Nicholas Humphrey in Leaps of Faith. These two thinkers do not hesitate to critically assess supernatural belief, but seem to be less inclined to dismiss its efficacy as a strategy for living. It should be noted that these thinkers are more interested in the belief in belief, than in that which is believed in. Those who we consider hostile to religion include, Sigmund Freud, Theodor Reik, Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris. Each of these thinkers are clear regarding their hostility and disdain for religious thinking and religious belief.

The questions asked about religion

There are traditional questions that psychologist studying religious belief ask. These include: How has Western Christianity and Judaism influenced the field of psychology? How does religious belief affect thinking and behaving? Are religious people more ethical than the non-religious? Are those who follow religion more or less prejudice of others? Does prayer work? How does religious belief affect emotional and physical health and well being? What role does religious belief play in identity and sense of self? Are there personality or character structures that religious people share? Is there a human need for religious belief? Can humans find fulfilling substitutes for religion? What is the evolutionary role of religious belief?
The answers offered to these questions are characteristic of the orientation of the researcher: Cognitive neuroscientists generally offer explanations which focus of brain activity and thinking, evolutionary psychologist target the adaptive functions, psychoanalysts consider the conscious and unconscious passions and dynamics, and existential psychologists center their understanding on how the practices offer solutions to issues of meaning, free will, isolation, and mortality.
It is important to avoid monoexplanatory answers to any human question. This is a trap that many thinkers fall into, believing that the explanations produced by their chosen theoretical orientation are the most viable. This dogma makes sense in that we are attracted to research perspectives that compliment our Weltanschauung. It is important to consider each question from multiple perspectives, while remaining skeptical of one-size-fits-all explanations. We prefer the approach of multiperspectivism over monoexplanations. To follow are summary answers to some of the most common questions.

Does prayer work?

The short answer to the question does prayer work? is: it depends. Praying for other people, without their knowledge, does not work. Praying for oneself, or praying with another person, can have results. The efficacy of prayer is demonstrable. When carefully studied, we find that prayer for others without their knowledge, or prayer to alter events of nature, have no effect at all beyond chance. Prayer for oneself and prayer with others, however, has demonstrable effects. For example, prayer for and with another can significantly affect one’s psychological state. This is demonstrable through a variety of research methods.
In response to personal or group prayer, cognitive psychologists find evidence in changes in thinking, neuroscientists find physiological responses, and there are changes in social and personal actions. Although prayer is found to be a practical method for controlling anxiety, mood, and personal behavior, understanding this as evidence of divine intervention is too ambitious. It is important to not leap to the conclusion that these effects are taken as proof of the existence of supernatural powers. The most parsimonious explanation of the effects of personal and group prayer is most likely being due to the belief in the power of prayer, rather than in divine intervention. In short, belief in belief is more powerful than that which is believed in. This makes sense in view of the adaptive qualities of psycho-physical health effects through personal and social ritual.

Are religious people more ethical than nonreligious people?

There is an opinion amongst believers that religion is necessary for moral development. This view can suggest that morality is absent in the secular atheist. The research and thinking on this matter can be summed up in this way: the teaching of religious and secular ethics are equally as influential on moral development. It is clear that ethics can be effectively taught, independent of religion or belief in the supernatural. What we do see is a difference in the variety of ethics in various secular and sacred moral systems.
For example, Erich Fromm points out the distinction between authoritarian and humanistic religions. The former demands certain behavior at the risk of punishment for disobedience, the latter offers general principles, without the risk of punishment. One commands whereas the other advises. We can see the authoritarian system present in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions and the humanistic system in Buddhism, Taoism, and others. In this distinction we find an emphasis on submission to authority or personal discretion in action. Generally speaking, authoritarian religions teach obedience and humanistic religions teach mindfulness. We can find instances of humanism in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, however, the overall atmosphere of the texts are authoritarian. We find little to no authoritarian examples in the Eastern religions mentioned.
Ethical systems are social guidelines that are learned by members of a society. Psychologists and anthropologists have found little evidence for an in-born moral code that exists at all places at all times. Traditionally, we have cross-cultural codes concerning incest and murder. We can find ethics regarding stealing in cultures based on private property, which are absurd in communal cultures. Ethics regarding adultery are also dependent on differing familial structures of a given culture. However, these codes are culturally unique and are not indicative of an innate, universal code of ethics. What we can say about ethics and morality is that there is no significant indication that morality is exclusive to religion.
We find instances of remarkable humanity (take for example the use of the Christian dogma in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s), and tragic inhumanity (for example the use of the Christian dogma by the Ku Klux Klan). What we must understand is that religious teachings are often interpreted by their followers as justifications for a means to personal gain. It is unreasonable to view religion as good or bad, instead, we see it as a powerful tool that can be used by individuals for personal or social change.

Is there a human need for religious belief?

Defining religion as a system of belief centered around an object of devotion, we can answer this question with an impartial yes. Across the various schools of psychology, we find agreement for what we can call an existential need for understanding meaning, mortality, a sense of belongingness, and willful responsibility. All evidence suggest that the absence of these things is what we define as psychopathology. Erich Fromm proposed five distinctly human needs that he felt not only define our humanness, but also have a much more profound influence on us than do the hunger and sex insticnts. Fromm points out that in modern man, these five existential needs are more pressing on us than the basic biological drives. Each of the needs, (relatedness, creativity, rootedness, identity, and orientation) are complementary to those discussed by existential psychologists, and are satisfied through the practice of religion, broadly defined. What this shows us is that religious systems function to satisfy a very human need, rather than humans functioning to satisfy a religious need.
There is abundant evidence that religious belief and practice can not only be beneficial, but also essential, to being human. The primary consideration which we must have when practicing any system of belief is one of responsibility. This means that one’s religious belief should be called into question when it encourages or commands belief at the risk of punishment or death (apostasy), encourages or teaches exclusivity or superiority over other people or groups (religious nationalism), or does not acknowledge the basic human right for one to choose how to fulfill their needs. One has a personal responsibility to keep their personal appetite in check when interpreting the teachings of their religion, be it sacred or secular. 

References & Readings

Allport, Gordon. The Individual and His Religion. New York: MacMIllan, 1950.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents. London: Norton, 1930.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1917.

Lowenthal, Kate, M. The Psychology of Religion: A Short Introduction. Oxford: One World, 2000.

Please direct questions, comments, & corrections to matthewgiobbi@yahoo.com.