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Psychological Approaches to Religion

Having set out a few words on the general topic of psychology and religion it’s time to provide an exceptionally brief snapshot of some of the main psychological approaches that have been adopted to studying religion.  I’ve borrowed the broad categories from David Wulff’s excellent textbook David M. Wulff, Psychology of Religion: Classic & Contemporary. 2nd ed. (New York : John Wiley & Sons, 1997) (because why reinvent the wheel?).  That text is a fantastic starting point if you wanted to explore any/all of these areas further.

The Biological Approach

Humans are not are not disembodied brains, but rather embodied, we can’t help it.  Therefore our experiences and behaviour are inextricably linked to our biological bodies.  But what is the connection between our bodies and religious experience?  Prayer is often done kneeling and sometimes accompanied by fasting.  Meditation often involves deliberate (still) bodily postures whilst Sufis whirl.

The pioneer in the study of the body and religious experience was G. Stanley Hall (b. 1844) who noticed a correlation between conversion experiences (religious change) which often occurs during puberty (a time of physiological change).  Coincidence, or evidence of causation?  He also pointed out the similarities between religion and sexual love (Song of Songs anyone?).  In his work, Hall laid the groundwork, and championed, the objective (as opposed to subjective) approach which also underlies behaviourism and the experimental approaches to the psychology of religion.

More recent work in this broad area has focussed on the brain – might a person’s religiosity be connected with a physical area of the brain?  Could it “reside” in the left or right hemispheres?  Could a stroke or brain damage make you more or less religious? Or perhaps make you a mystic, or even deprive you of your mystical experiences (as happened for Emanuel Swedenborg).  In addition, altering the brain’s chemistry with psychedelic drugs such as LSD can induce experiences which some describe as mystical. And as part of their rituals some tribes have a long history of deliberately eat certain plants or mushrooms to help induce certain mental/psychologica/mystical states.

So there seems to be some kind of bio-spiritual factor at work – it’s clear from the evidence that there’s some kind of connection between religious experience and the body.  But this is not a new insight.  The bigger question is whether we can therefore conclude that religion is “nothing but” a product of our physiology – is the fact that one person is religious and another isn’t just down to whether or not they have a particular brain structure or a certain brain chemistry?

In his chapter on Biological Approaches, Wulff refers to William James and his “criticism of medical materialism” and writes “[for James] religious states may indeed have physiological concomitants, but knowledge of their correlates tells us nothing about their spiritual significance.” (Wulff, p.115).  It’s well known that correlation does not imply causation, but James reminds us that it also doesn’t explain the meaning of an experience either.


The reductionism which can be seen to peek out from behind the biological approaches comes nakedly to the fore in behaviourism (notice it’s an “ism”).  In a nutshell, religion is understood (and studied) as a type of behaviour, which is either determined by genetic inheritance, or learned from the context in which you find yourself (i.e. my family and/or social context made me religious).  The most well-known behaviourist is B. F. Skinner.

With regard to genetic inheritance, there is a (Darwinian) assumption that religiosity must have some kind of evolutionary value, perhaps as ensuring the survival of the community).  Although this does also then pose the “problem” of altruism (which is advocated by many religions), as altruism requires self-sacrifice for the good of another.

On the suggestion of religion as learned behaviour, Wulff (p.118) quotes Lawrence Casler who states “One’s religious convictions may [ ] be regarded as nothing more than a complex set of learned responses to a complex set of stimuli”.

At the root of this statement lies two assumptions that are worth calling out.  Firstly, that complex human behaviour in a social setting in the real world (such as religion) is analogous to the simple mechanistic behaviour of isolated animals as observed in an unnatural lab environment.  In other words, humans (like rats) are always just responding to stimuli.  And secondly, that behaviour is always dictated by external stimulus (i.e. you as an organism are always just reacting to the outside world, rather than your behaviour spontaneously arising from within).  You may or may not agree with those assumptions. (Free will, anyone?).

Personally I don’t see much of value in behaviourism as an approach to any complex phenomena, let alone religion and spirituality, and its day in the sun as an overarching explanatory model for human behaviour in (general) psychology is certainly well passed. In his evaluation of the behaviourist approach, Wulff says…

“The behaviourist perspective in itself, quite apart from its application to religion, has inspired vigorous dissent from a variety of scholars because of its reductionistic stance… Behaviourism [writes Josiah Morse] ‘is a natural offshoot of materialistic ontology and cosmology and atheistic theology.’ [Charles Josey adds] ‘Of all fundamentalists the Behaviourist is the most narrow’” (Wulff, pp.158-9)

This is a timely reminder that fundamentalism in belief systems is not restricted to those with religious inclinations.  At least with religious fundamentalists you know what you’re dealing with.  My problem with the adherents of scientism (like behaviourists) is that I don’t think they usually understand the philosophical underpinnings of their own belief system.  They have chosen to make reductionism a fundamental worldview and it’s an essential part of their approach. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Wulff points out that Skinner was brought up in a fundamentalist Protestant household, but rejected this worldview as an adolescent. Perhaps you can take the man out of (religious) fundamentalism but not fundamentalism out of the man?

If you want to follow a philosopher unpicking the hidden assumptions behind scientism, obtain a copy of Mary Midgley’s Science as Salvation: A Modern Myth and its Meaning (London: Routledge, 1994). A really insightful read, and you don’t need any philosophical training yourself.

Experimental Approaches

Coming soon (as of 26th Nov 2024)…

Freud & Psychoanalysis

Coming soon (as of 26th Nov 2024)…

Object Relations and Religion

Coming soon (as of 26th Nov 2024)…

Jung and the Jungians

Coming soon (as of 26th Nov 2024)…

American Humanism

Allport, Fromm, Maslow, May and Frankl – Coming soon (as of 26th Nov 2024)…

Erikson and the Human Life Cycle

Coming soon (as of 26th Nov 2024)…

William James

Coming soon (as of 26th Nov 2024)…