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Psychology 357, Spring 1997

Dr. Michael E. Nielsen
Office: MPP 2031
Phone: 681-5344
Office Hours: Mon. - Fri. 11:00 - 11:50, or by appointment

Course Description & Objectives

This course is a survey of psychological perspectives on religious experience. We will begin with an overview of psychological theory on religion. During this part of the course, we will be using Fuller's book. Next, we use Elliott's book to examine the thoughts of psychologists and others regarding religious and spirituality. The remainder of the course will focus on research conducted by psychologists who take different theoretical perspectives on religion. Throughout the course, we will hear from several guest speakers about their diverse religious experiences. At the conclusion of the quarter, you will understand the research trends regarding religious development, religious experience, conversion, personality and religion, and religious behavior, and the theories on which that research is based.

Required Texts

Elliott, W. (1995). Tying Rocks to clouds: Meetings and conversations with wise and spiritual people. New York: Doubleday.
Fuller, A. R. (1994). Psychology and religion: Eight points of view (3rd ed.). Lanham, MR: Littlefield Adams.
Nielsen, M. E. (1997). Psychology of Religion [World-Wide-Web resource pages]. Available .
Paloutzian, R. F. (1996). Invitation to psychology of religion (2nd ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Recommended Text: For students who are interested in exploring the relations between psychology and Christianity, I recommend:
Myers, D. G., & Jeeves, M. A. (1987). Psychology through the eyes of faith. New York: Harper Collins.

Requirements and Grades

Grades will be based on a variety of exams projects. The following is a summary of the various exams and projects; more details on each of these will be given in class.


Two unit exams will be given during the quarter. The exams will consist primarily of short essay items. Each unit exam will be worth 150 points. The final exam, worth 200 points, will be a "take-home" essay exam.

Discussion Leader

You will be responsible for leading the discussion for 2 (approximately--depends on class enrollment) chapters from Elliott's book. As part of this, you will provide the class with an overview of the important points from that chapter. This will be worth 200 points.

Class Email List

As a class, we will have an ongoing email "discussion list" devoted to psychology and religion. This has several purposes, including (but not limited to) (a) helping you think about the subject outside the confines of the classroom; (b) giving you an opportunity to learn what your peers' views are; (c) provide exposure to electronic communication; (d) give reticent students a less intimidating way to express their ideas; and (e) provide a vehicle for you to improve your writing skills as you consider the subject.

While working on this portion of the course, keep these things in mind.

  1. You are expected to submit one post (email) each week, but of course you are welcome to write more frequently. You should check your email at least two or three times per week.
  2. Twice during the quarter (coinciding with Exam 1 and Exam 2) you will give to me a portfolio of the email messages you sent to the class. This means that you should save your email messages and print them so that you can submit them for grading. In your portfolio, annotate your messages with comments about what you have written. Why did you say what you said? Have your views changed? In other words, think about what you're writing.
  3. Email is very informal, but I expect proper English. Do not use abbreviations such as IMHO, BTW, or other e-mail short-hand. (Smileys are permitted, however, :-) Also, because this is an informal medium, you may be tempted to think casually about the issues. Don't! Your postings should emphasize, in order of decreasing importance,
    • commentary on the texts we are reading, with appropriate questions, and citations so that others can find the material that prompted your thoughts;
    • constructive and friendly feedback given to your classmates (No "flaming");
    • your own perspectives and experiences that are relevant to the issues we are reading and discussing in class.
    Because of the informal nature of email, you may feel inclined to share with others information that you would not normally share. Remember, this is a very public forum.
  4. Your portfolio will be submitted for grading at exams 1 and 2. It will be worth 150 points at each grading (300 total).


Grades will be calculated by summing the points earned from your exam scores (50% of course grade), your discussion leadership (20% of grade), and your contributions to the class email discussion (30% of grade). There are 1000 points possible; grades are assigned according to the following minimal point scale: 900 = A, 800 = B, 700 = C, 600 = D, < 600 = F.

Other Course Policies

Policy on Honesty

Academic dishonesty includes giving or receiving assistance on an exam, use of notes or books during an exam, falsifying information on an assignment or project, or claiming credit for an idea or statement that belongs to someone else. Academic dishonesty may result in an "F" for the course, and the student may be referred to the Office of Judicial Affairs. If you have questions about whether or not a specific act would be considered dishonest, please read the student conduct code and then discuss the matter with me!


Attendance in class is important and expected. Much of our learning will happen when we discuss ideas with each other; when one person doesn't attend class, we all miss something (and someone) important. Students who fail to contribute to the discussion, whether by excessive (more than five) absences, by failing to come to class prepared, or by simply remaining silent, jeopardize their grade. If a student jeopardizes his or her grade, I will speak at least twice with the student individually and discuss the potential problem and remedies. If improvement is not made, the student will lose 50 points.

I understand that some people talk more than others; I don't measure a person's contribution to the discussion simply by the volume. The quality of a person's remarks is much more important than "how much" they talk. The most important thing that you can do to contribute to the class discussion is to read the material before class, and come to class prepared with questions. Think while you read!

It is important that students make every effort to take exams on the scheduled date. Infrequently, however, events such as hospitalization preclude attendance at examinations. Make-up exams will be available on the last day of class, and will consist of essay questions on the topics assessed on the missed exam.

Office Hours

If you have any difficulty with the course content, feel free to stop by my office during the hours indicated above, or by special appointment. Particularly after the first exam, but well before the last day to withdraw, be sure to see me if you are having problems. The week of final exams is obviously not the time to get serious about the course, so see me early. I am here to help! I use e-mail frequently, so you may find it convenient to contact me via e-mail. I will respond to your e-mail as quickly as I am able, usually within a few hours of receiving it.

Study Habits

A "full" course load is considered to be 15 credit hours per quarter. National accreditation committees--the people whose "stamp of approval" gives meaning to a university degree--base this on the assumption that students study at least two hours outside of class for every hour that they are in class. I base the course on this assumption. Thus, for a 5-hour class such as this, you should expect to work at least 15 hours each week (5 hours in class, 10 hours studying outside of class). Notice that a person who takes a 15 hour course load is committing to be involved in school 45 hours each week, which is why 15 hours represents a full schedule--it is the equivalent of a full-time job, plus overtime. Each day, you should devote at least two hours to studying for this course. In order to be successful in this course, you should do the following:
  1. Read the assigned readings before we discuss them in class. This way, you can ask questions when we are going over the material.
  2. Come to class every day. Pay attention, ask questions, and enjoy yourself.
  3. Reread the material following class. One of the main reasons that I assign only about 12 pages of reading each day is so that you also have time to reread the material following class.
  4. Spend at least 10 hours studying for this class each week. Students who do this are much more likely to succeed than students who do not do this!
  5. Study consistently. Don't rely on "cramming" to get you through the class. You will recall the material better if you study every day.
  6. Remember that learning is fun! Ask questions about the material as you study. Become involved with the subject. Learning is exciting, and you are fortunate to be in school. There are millions of people throughout the world who wish they had the opportunity that you now have. Enjoy it, and take advantage of your chance!

While we're on the subject, here's something to think about. A colleague sent this to me, and although I do not know the original source, I believe the statistics are sound. If we could, at this time, shrink the earth's population to a village of precisely 100 people, with all existing human ratios remaining the same, it would look like this:

As you can see, being in college is a rare privilege. Please make good use of this opportunity!

Tentative Schedule

The following schedule is an outline. This schedule lists the topics that we will discuss each week. Note that in the brackets, the reading assignments are abbreviated: E = Elliott, F = Fuller, N = Nielsen, and P = Paloutzian. So, for example, during the week of April 7, we will read from Fuller's chapter 1, and from the copy of James's Varieties of Religious Experience on my web page. In order to know the details of the reading assignments, it is essential that you attend class. Reading assignments will be announced at the beginning of each class period.

Important Dates

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