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Psychology & Religion

It sounds so simple doesn’t it – “The psychological study of religion” – but the phrase should immediately prompt thought as to how you define both terms – psychology and religion.

Religion is not, of course, a single thing, with huge variety even amongst the Abrahamic faiths let alone other traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, or even pagan belief systems. So which religion(s) in particular are being studied and/or are they (psychologically) all the same?

It’s also worth bearing in mind that academic scholarship on the psychology of religion has largely been carried out by US and European scholars to date. Naturally, for their studies, they often use students as the participants, and they tend to be of a certain demographic – white, middle class, well educated and also in the main Christian (or atheistic/agnostic). So that means the majority of psychological studies have been of western Christians (and even then, of mostly Protestant and Catholic denominations instead of, say, Eastern Orthodoxy).

But if religion is not a single thing, then neither is the discipline of psychology which is also rather multifaceted with a diversity of approaches. So the question then becomes which of the various psychological approaches might be especially helpful when it comes to the topic of religion?

It’s also important to bear in mind that in university departments (at least in the UK) there’s a real concern to pitch psychology as a proper “scientific” discipline. So that means a strong preference for the quantitative and machine-based “rats and stats” methods and typically an aversion to whispering the names of Freud and Jung (whose approaches might be acknowledged as having therapeutic value… but that’s not what academic psychology is largely about).

It’s at this point that you’ll have to allow me a small rant… This desire by academic psychology to be taken seriously as a science has meant that qualitative methods (such as interviewing people and listening to what they have to say, or textual analysis) have struggled to gain acceptance in the field, although that’s improved significantly in the last couple of decades. It’s so much easier to do quantitative work – asking a lot of people 10 “simple” questions each of which have a scale of 1-5 for the answers, because you can then work up some quick stats and pretty graphs. And we all know that NUMBERS mean things, right?

But why did you ask those 10 questions (and not others)? Why did you phrase them in exactly the way you did? If you phased the questions even slightly differently would you get different results? Do all the participants understand each question in the same way you intended? And if you only ask the questions you think are interesting/valid you might never bump into some vastly more interesting insights that you never thought to ask about. But for some reason there’s a desire in some circles to stick with these kind of quantitative methods, because there’s safety in numbers, isn’t there?

Qualitative studies are much harder work, and it’s more difficult to analyse the results. But when dealing with the really interesting & challenging questions of what it is to be human (and this of course includes the religious/spiritual dimensions), I personally think these are the kind of methods best suited to explore these topics. I also find it ironic that in the early years of modern psychology there were some very introspective & qualitative thinkers (Freud and Jung, as well as William James)! Ok, rant over, thanks for listening.

It’s also important to clarify what the Psychology of Religion can and can’t do. Or rather I want to address the elephant that may be lurking in your room. And that is the question of whether, ultimately, the psychological study of religion will one day prove or disprove the existence of God.

And the answer to that question is (by definition) “no”. This is because scientific study uses the evidence of the senses and machines and maths to probe the natural world in an effort to understand HOW things are made up, how they work, and what appear to be the rules that operate in this physical domain. It is not in the scope of science to ask the question WHY there is anything at all, or to speculate on the existence (or otherwise) of a supernatural being. The “why” question is for the disciplines of philosophy and religion to wrestle with. It’s a different domain from science, with different rules. Even if science is very impressive, and explains many things, and has given us the iPhone, it is not the only way to understand everything.

It’s also necessary to clarify that the field of the psychology of religion has as its object not God, but rather what God means to an individual, and what the presence (or absence) of specific religious beliefs, behaviours, practices and rituals “does” for a person psychologically. Even if the results of a study shows some (to you clearly) weird behaviour on the part of the religious participants, that does not allow the scientific conclusion that their God does/does not exist.

Of course there’s nothing to stop you from reaching that personal conclusion, and Freud would be the classic example of this path. After treating many neurotic (excessively anxious) patients over many years, he found that once their treatment progressed and they were getting better, they lost their belief in God. Freud’s classic observation is…

“The psycho-analysis of individual human beings, however, teaches us with quite special insistence that the god of each of them is formed in the likeness of his father, that his personal relation to God depends on his relation to his father in the flesh and oscillates and changes along with that relation, and that at bottom God is nothing other than an exalted father.”

Freud, Totem and Taboo (The Penguin Freud Library Volume 13, Penguin 1990, p.209)

So for Freud, religion in an adult is unhealthy and in treatment the root cause of a patient’s belief needs to be identified and confronted. At that point (in his experience) their belief will disappear because ultimately God is just a product of wish fulfilment, a cosmic comfort blanket you made in the image of your father, rather than facing the harsh realities of the real world. Whilst Freud cannot scientifically conclude that God does not exist, he’s seen enough people for whom their God vanished when they got better, hence his personal (rather reductionistic) opinion that “God is nothing but…”.

Whilst at first sight Freud might sound like he has nothing helpful to say to those with religious/spiritual inclinations, actually I think he does. The construction of God out of what-is-not-God is the very definition of idolatry, and the Judaeo-Christian God has traditionally warned against this human tendency. So, if attended to carefully, Freud’s words could be taken as a warning against “unconscious idolatry” (both in the sense of originating in the unconscious and also something of which we are unaware). Iconoclasm (the breaking of icons – fixed images) is a positive in spirituality, and surely something of which a real God would approve? If your God disappears when exposed to Freud’s scrutiny, then perhaps that’s for the best as it doesn’t sound much like who God might actually be? And it might even do you a favour.

Jung (a disciple and colleague of Freud in his early days before they fell out) formed a quite different opinion on the psychological place of religious beliefs, after his own substantial therapeutic experience. He writes…

“I have treated many hundreds of patients… Among all my patients in the second half of life – that is to say, over 35 – there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost that which the living religions of every age have given their followers, and none of them has been really healed who did not regain his religious outlook.”

Carl Gustav Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul (London: Routledge, 2001), p.234

In contrast to Freud, Jung believed that a religious outlook is not unhealthy or even just ok, but actually psychologically necessary for human health. At this point it’s important to understand that Jung is not saying he believes in God! (Well, certainly not your God, anyway). But rather that, psychologically speaking, religion is good for people (which for him explains its omnipresence in human society and history). Indeed, he saw a major issue for modern Western society in that individuals were increasingly abandoning religious traditions and therefore leaving themselves exposed to the ravages of the powerful forces that live in the unexplored unconscious.

So two quite different personal opinions from two well known psychologists! Neither professing personal belief in God, but holding opposite opinions on the necessity and psychological benefits of religious belief for an individual.

Suggested Texts

If, having read the brief preamble above, you like the sound of the field of the Psychology of Religion, I can recommend a couple of books to explore this area further…

Andrew R. Fuller, Psychology & Religion: Eight Points of View (London: Littlefield Adams Quality Paperbacks, 1994)

This is a great place to start. Following on from the idea introduced above about the multi-faceted nature of the psychological study of religion, Fuller nicely and succinctly sets out the views of eight different thinkers in the field, including Freud, Jung, Maslow and Frankl. There’s also a really useful final chapter on “Developments” which summarises the work of a number of additional names in the field. The text is easy to read for the non-specialist and each chapter has a useful “Evaluation and Conclusions” section. A great place to start.

David M. Wulff, Psychology of Religion: Classic & Contemporary. 2nd ed. (New York : John Wiley & Sons, 1997)

Prepare yourself for a comprehensive (even encyclopaedic) introduction to the psychology of religion. All the angles are covered, so whichever approach personally resonates with you there’s plenty to mull over. 760 pages of scholarly goodness in all, with the bibliography & references section alone taking up 50 pages and a fantastic index of people and topics! But it’s in such a readable format, and you don’t need any existing academic background to follow it – a real joy!

Wulff himself provides a well balanced and insightful commentary, summary and critique for each of the chapters. This is the classic undergraduate “textbook” on the subject (if you’re lucky enough to find a University that teaches the Psychology of Religion) but it doesn’t read like a dull textbook! I can’t recommend this highly enough for further study.