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Bruce R. Hunsberger

Bruce Hunsberger, photo by Wilfred Laurier University

Bruce Hunsberger died from leukemia in Waterloo, Ontario in October, 2003, just a mile or so from where he had begun life in 1946. You probably would not have guessed that he would become one of the eminent contributors to the psychology of religion if you had spied him as a youth under the front porch secretly playing card games with friends (forbidden by his Mennonite parents). Or if you had seen him romping for hours each day playing street hockey (forbidden by city ordinance)--which was routinely reported by an objecting neighbor who got Bruce more than one ride in a police car before he was 12.

But if you knew that Bruce ended up one of the foremost researchers on religious socialization--in particular in how religious doubts develop, how religious authority becomes questioned, how apostasy sometimes results-- you might sense the connection between these small beginnings and the large ends.

Bruce was a good student in school, but as he said himself, seldom as good as he should have been. He coasted, so much that he placed in the bottom half of his class at the University of Waterloo at the beginning of his undergraduate career. Then he got interested in sociology, and posted good marks in his last two years--good enough to get accepted into the graduate social psychology program at the University of Manitoba in 1969.

He took two seminars with me in his first year, and I quickly stole him from the colleague to whom he had initially been assigned. Bruce was bright, insightful, hard-working, etc., but most notably, he was funny. His seminar presentations and mealtime conversations were laced with brilliant humor. At times you thought you were in a Monty Python sketch while chatting with him. He knew insanity when he saw it, even when his “betters” were the insane ones. For example, toward the end of his graduate school days he wrote a 90-minute musical revue entitled “Regression Night,” performed for the department by the graduate students, that gently but unerringly lampooned our department and its “politics.”

Back in the early 70s social psychology was focused on attitude change, and Bruce had done his master’s thesis on cognitive dissonance theory. This led to wondering what students do when some of their religious beliefs are challenged by their professors. (Professors then were often labeled “atheistic” or “atheistic Communist.”)

I had collected some data on the religious beliefs of the Class of ‘73 when they had first entered university, and Bruce decided he would interview as many of them as he could for his doctoral dissertation, to find out how their education had affected their religiousness. (Today you would need a structural equation model and so on to get a Ph.D. for this, but those were simpler times, with precious little statistical software and no PCs.) Bruce found that, contrary to everyone’s expectations, overall the students came out of university as religious as they had been when they went in. Whatever “lost sheep” there were had usually wandered off before they matriculated.

After a year teaching introductory psychology in northern Manitoba, Bruce took a position at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo in 1974. He would spend the rest of his career there, lecturing and researching just a block from the street where the police had swooped down in the 1950s trying catch the “juvenile delinquent street hockey gang” red-handed. His investigations of the psychology of religion was part of his deeper interest in how we become the people we become. But for Bruce, religion had been such a major presence in his youth that any account of how he got where he got had to deal with that issue. His area of specialization came most naturally to him. Like many others, he studied what intrigued him about himself.

And study it he did, big time, winning at a relatively young age the Gordon Allport Prize given by the American Psychological Association for his research on the psychology of religion. Bruce’s research will endure, I believe, because he studied things that really mattered, was very thorough, wonderfully careful about measurement, and blessed with a strong ability to criticize his own work as well as he criticized othes'. He never took a misstep conceptually, and always followed the data.

Persons unfamiliar with Bruce’s research on doubt and apostasy, and his collaborations with Mike Pratt and Mark Pancer on the adjustment experiences of first-year university students, will still know him as the co-author of the major textbook in the psychology of religion. Many met him at conferences and found him interesting and interested, kind and helpful.

His students found him the same way, I am sure. Bruce taught many courses at Laurier, including social psychology, the psychology of religion, even the psychology of music. But he was best known, and widely admired, for his intro psych class, where his humor and knack for illustrative demonstrations delighted as well as educated hundreds of students at a time.

Bruce was remarkable in many ways, one of them being that he was the same person no matter who you were. Whether he was your student or your teacher, your advisor or your colleague, your linemate on a hockey team or someone you met at a conference, Bruce acted the same way. He was himself. There was never any pretense, never any fake, never any mask.

Bruce was an agnostic, which helped him study both believers and atheists with an open mind and an even hand. It also meant he had no belief in God to sustain him when he learned in 1994 that he most unexpectedly had leukemia. He did not flinch, and was quite realistic about his fate, telling friends that no, he was not going to be cured, that he knew the disease would eventually kill him. He then lived the next nine years of his life productively and happily, cherishing each day with the person who had most made his life worthwhile, his wife Emily.

Bruce never complained about his illness so far as I know, not even at the very end when all inevitably collapsed. Instead, he bore the pain, the hospitalizations, the treatments with his great sense of humor, cracking jokes about “publish or perish” and “battery acid chemotherapy.” The laughter probably prolonged his life; it certainly made it more enjoyable.

In the end, the disease won and took a model father from his children, Paul and Carol, a totally loving partner from his wife Emily, a dear friend from my wife Jean and our children, and my best friend from me. He is, of course, missed every day by all of us and many others.

Written by Dr. Bob Altemeyer
Psychology Department
University of Manitoba

Bruce conducted fascinating research, much of which is contained in these books he wrote with his colleagues, Drs. Bob Altemeyer, Bernie Spilka, Ralph Hood, and Richard Gorsuch:

Amazing Conversions

The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach