Michael E. Nielsen, Ph.D.
Georgia Southern University February, 2000
Following the early period, American psychology's push toward behaviorism resulted in the neglect of spiritual matters. The reductionist methods of behaviorism left little room for matters of faith, or for any other theoretical constructs that were not measured directly. Consequently, psychology left religion for other topics that were considered to be more scientific, and several decades of neglect ensued.
Psychologists' interest in religion resumed in the 1950s. Gordon Allport's (1950) attempt to describe the role of religion in people's experience began his indelible mark on the field, and to this day his Intrinsic - Extrinsic distinction in religious motivation remains the most influential approach in psychological studies of religion in the USA. In the years since then, several developments have combined to suggest, according to the traditional view of psychology of religion, that the field is experiencing a resurgence of interest. These include the establishment of professional journals giving an outlet to psychological research on religious topics, a division of the American Psychological Association dedicated to the psychological study of religion, and the apparently increasing availability of college classes focusing on psychology of religion.
This pattern of decline and growth, which I have summarized very briefly, has been challenged recently by the view that religion was never particularly welcomed by mainstream psychology. Instead, the psychology of religion appears to have been on the periphery of the field throughout its development (Wulff, 1998). Utilizing publication records and other historical data, Wulff found that early journal publications in the field essentially ended when the American Journal of Psychology ceased operations in 1925, and when an editor open to religion left his position at Psychological Bulletin in the 1930s. Although some books devoted to psychology of religion continued to be published in the first half of the 20th century, the inevitable retirement of a few well-known psychologists coincides with the decline of the field during the early 1900s.
An important factor in the field's development and current status is the establishment of journals that are favorably inclined to empirical studies of religion. The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Review of Religious Research, and The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion as well as other similar outlets have enabled psychologists to publish research focusing on aspects of religious belief and behavior, furnishing a venue that is valued by other psychologists. Still, psychology of religion continues primarily because of the sustained efforts of a few psychologists who find outlets for their research in journals such as these, and not because it has achieved the status of a subdiscipline comparable to clinical, social, or developmental psychology (Hood, 1999).
Organizations in Psychology and Religion
It also is worth noting that the relatively small membership of Division 36 is characteristic of other scholarly divisions of the APA, which tends to focus on mental health and practice issues. This provided the impetus behind the establishment of the American Psychological Society (APS)in 1988. The APS focuses its effort on psychological science, and provides something of a counterweight to the APA's emphasis on mental health care. At this point in time, however, the APS has no special sections or divisions, whether for psychologists who study religious belief and behavior, or for any other areas of psychology.
Other groups exist for psychologists interested in religion. Among the more prominent of these is the Association for Transpersonal Psychology, which focuses on matters of altered states of consciousness and spirituality rather than on organized religion. Its journal, Transpersonal Psychology, publishes work by psychologists such as Ken Wilbur. It offers an outlet for theory and research relevant to religious experience, particularly if the research uses methods outside the bounds of traditional empirical psychology.
In addition, there are several organizations that promote psychology and specific religious traditions such as Christianity or Judaism, as well as groups of what are known as pastoral psychologists. These organizations tend to focus most strongly on the application of psychology to mental health issues in a religious setting. The American Association of Pastoral Psychologists is one such group; another is the Christian Association for Psychological Science, which serves the evangelical Protestant community. Although their combined memberships include thousands of people, organizations such as these seem to represent a second-class status in psychology for at least two reasons. First, there exists a parochialism in American psychology that values psychology over other mental health professions, and doctoral training over master's training for the delivery of mental health care services. Because social workers, ministers, and other professionals are more likely to be found in these organizations, and because they are more likely to hold master's degrees rather than doctoral degrees, they are not held in high esteem by mainstream psychology. (Please note that I am merely describing a bias I see in my profession, not advocating that bias.) A second reason is that the underlying values of the organization -- for example, that spirituality is taken to be a primary concern, and psychology is used as a means to achieve spiritual growth -- raise suspicions among psychologists who prefer to see their science as value-free and unbiased. Nevertheless, psychologists, social workers and clerics from these organizations represent the primary source of mental health care for many people, and the practical impact of these organizations should not be underestimated.
Finally, there are interdisciplinary organizations such as the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Religious Research Association. Psychologists involved in research on religion often use these organizations' journals as publication vehicles, and much of the work published in these journals is very fine in quality. At the joint conference of these organizations, sociological research predominates, but I, personally, find the meetings to be stimulating for the cross-disciplinary views that I hear.
More generally, religious studies in the U.S. has been termed the "hidden discipline" (Wentz, 1999). The study of religion at public universities and colleges is uncommon (Sollod, 1992). Many universities have no formal degree program in religion, and where such programs exist, they typically are small in size and may not even be independent. Instead, they frequently are part of a degree in philosophy. Thus, the situation facing psychology of religion may not be unique when viewed in the broader context of religion in American academia.
Psychological Perspectives on Religion
Transpersonal schools attempt to confront spirituality directly, often with the assumption that spiritual phenomena are real. They utilize a variety of methods in an attempt to study transcendent experience. Phenomenological schools focus on the assumptions underlying religious experience and on the commonalities of that experience. They favor description and critical reflection over experimentation and measurement.
Measurement schools are the dominant mode present in American psychology of religion. They share a desire to use mainstream psychological methods (scientific experimentation and correlation) in order to study religious life. By the nature of the phenomena, true experiments are relatively uncommon, but they are the preferred research tool. Significant areas of research include a broad range of interests. The construction of scales to measure religious belief and practices has been an ongoing concern. As demonstrated by Hill and Hood's (1999) compilation of scales, tremendous effort has been devoted to the measurement of religious phenomena, perhaps to the detriment of other, more theoretically important, issues (Gorsuch, 1984).
Within the measurement tradition, Allport's intrinsic - extrinsic religious orientation model has shaped the field for over 30 years. Studies investigating the relations of intrinsic and extrinsic orientations to numerous social behaviors and attitudes are abundant. The intrinsic - extrinsic perspective serves as the conceptual basis for important studies conducted by Batson and others (e.g., Batson, Schoenrade & Ventis, 1993). Research investigating the role of religion in coping and in psychopathology also is common. Foremost among these is Pargament's (1997) work on the ways that people use religion to cope with stress. Developmental psychologists have investigated the possibility of stages of religious development. Attachment theory has received increasing attention in this area (e.g., Kirkpatrick, 1992). Cognitive psychology has been applied to religion by Spilka and his students (e.g., McIntosh, 1995) and others. Social psychological theories, such as attribution theory, have been utilized in order to examine the conditions under which experiences are considered to be religious, or to understand religious conversion. Fear of death and its role in religious experience have been studied at length, as have the association between religion and psychotherapy. In each of these areas, the measurement schools have sought to apply traditional scientific methodologies of description, correlation and experimentation to religious phenomena. In doing this, they have demonstrated that religion is relevant to our understanding of human behavior and thought.
There is some evidence of increasing interest in religion among American psychologists, or at least of increased visibility of religious issues among psychologists. For example, religion was the cover story of the August 1996 APA Monitor, the monthly news organ of the American Psychological Association. The APA also has published several books that address the role of religion in counseling or clinical psychological practice. Among these books is one by Richards and Bergin (1997) who suggest not only that therapy is more effective when it respectfully addresses clients' religious beliefs, but also that it is possible to have a "theistic" psychology that includes God. A more encyclopedic view of religion in clinical psychology in the USA is found in Shafranske's (1996) book, which offers several different perspectives -- all basically favorable -- on the relevance of religion to therapy. In many ways, the beginning of this movement seemed to gain momentum in a debate between Allen Bergin (1980) and Albert Ellis (1980), published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Not only did this debate highlight the distinct difference in the naturalistic assumptions underlying Ellis's view, and the theistic assumptions of Bergin's view, they also coincided with an increased post-modern concern regarding values and assumptions in science more broadly. This climate of questioning scientific assumptions has made psychologists more open to the study of religion and its application to mental health issues.
It also is worth noting that student interest in psychology of religion is sufficient to maintain courses at several colleges and universities, including public and religiously affiliated institutions. These courses represent the diverse ways that psychologists view religion. Examples of such courses can be found at https://www.psywww.com/psyrelig/syllabi/syllabus.htm.
Current Trends and Future Directions
Among the several reasons for holding limited expectations for the future is the likelihood of continuing tension between mainstream psychology and religion. The two domains are based on different assumptions about what constitutes valid evidence, and this will remain a source of difficulty. Still, many psychologists are trying to address these varying assumptions. The success of Richards and Bergin's (1997) book, which was among APA's best-selling books in the year following its publication, suggests that individual psychologists are grappling with religion in their professional practices. Although some clinical and counseling psychologists consider religion to be merely a source for coping resources, others are intrigued by the possibility of a 'theistic' psychology and by attempts to integrate psychology and religion more explicitly and completely. This suggests that issues related to religion will continue to receive attention from psychologists in the future.
Among research psychologists the tensions in assumptions will, in all likelihood, continue. As neuropsychology, evolutionary psychology, and other sub-fields continue to advance, the difference between knowledge gained by scientific and religious means will remain evident. Psychologists interested in religion may address these gaps by developing successful theory and research. For example, attachment theory can be seen in terms compatible with evolutionary psychology. Such research, however, suggests a field that focuses on psychology more than it does religion. The distinction between psychology of religion, which emphasizes how psychology enlightens our understanding of religion, and religious psychology, emphasizing religious interpretation of psychology, has been a long-standing issue in the field, and it is an issue that will not go away soon.
An additional, continuing problem in psychology of religion is research funding. The field has never received much support for research in America, and as a result there are significant gaps in our understanding. Research is hampered in several ways by this lack of funding; at best, it means that good research progresses more slowly than it would otherwise, but often the lack of funding makes it impossible to conduct a sound study. For example, the field sorely needs good longitudinal studies, but the problems and expenses associated with this method of research makes it difficult to perform without funding support. This will continue to hinder progress in the field. A related problem comes from the fact that most psychologists who are interested in religion are counseling or clinical psychologists maintaining a practice. The demands of maintaining a clinical practice makes it difficult for them to contribute to the research base on which psychology of religion rests. Nevertheless, there is some reason to be more optimistic than in the recent past. The Council on Spiritual Practices has instituted a competition to support doctoral dissertation research that investigates religious experience. The Templeton Foundation also has begun to support social scientific research on forgiveness, which may include religious themes. These competitions may improve the funding of research on religion. Another reason for optimism may reside in the APA's recent efforts to establish a "positive psychology" which would focus on factors that may contribute to mental health. At least one prominent psychologist has noted the effects of religion in promoting mental health (Myers, 2000) and it seems likely that such efforts will continue. Regardless of the support for research, it is of great importance that research be methodologically sound. If psychology of religion is to have an impact on the broader psychological community in America, it must be methodologically rigorous (Batson, 1996).
Note: I gratefully acknowledge Elizabeth Weiss-Ozorak, whose comments on an earlier version of this manuscript improved it. The errors remain mine.
© Michael Nielsen