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Jan Van der Lans (1933-2002)

Psychology of religion in Europe has lost one of its prominent representatives: on July 6, 2002, Jan (Johannes Maria) van der Lans passed away, just a few days before his 69th birthday.

Van der Lans was a 'real' psychologist of religion: it was both his education and his profession. This tended to put him 'between' generations: whereas the previous generation of Dutch psychologists of religion did not have much training in methods like statistics, and while many younger psychologists of religion have tried to employ hermeneutic and interpretative methods, he received his academic training (after his training as a Roman Catholic priest) at a time when psychology had turned to operationalization, quantification and measurement to prove its 'scientific' nature.

As a result, Van der Lans preferred to work with quantitative methods, which also allowed him to strip off the sometimes heavy theological character of much of the psychology of religion of the sixties and seventies. He had part-time appointments in the psychology department and the theological faculty of the Catholic University of Nijmegen, and although his work was certainly not without theological preferences and bias, he presented himself at both institutions as an empirically oriented psychologist. (Yet in his teaching he showed a much broader orientation: his lectures also dealt with history and the foundations of the field, with psychoanalysis, theories on symbols, etc.)

He also straddled the generations in the sense that he was an energetic worker at a time in which interest in the psychology of religion had declined after the widely received activities of his teacher, Han Fortmann (1912-1970), who had gained almost legendary status in the Netherlands, and before the renewed rise of contemporary international interest in the subject. Promoted to a professorship at the department of psychology in 1987, he spent the last decades of his career deeply involved in administrative labour, both at his own university and on a national level. After his retirement in 1998 he continued many of his administrative functions and was valued, as was his work, by a diverse range of people.

Stimulated by Fortmann, he decided to do an experimental study on meditation, theoretically based on the work of the Swedish psychologist of religion Hjalmar Sundén (1908-1993). This dissertation, dated 1978, was published in a prestigious Dutch series in general psychology in 1980. Sundén developed into a kind of scholarly foster parent for Van der Lans: he learned Swedish, not in the last place to be able to read as much of Sundén's work as possible, and frequently went on holiday to Scandinavia, where he developed good relations with a number of colleagues.

In 1979 these contacts came to benefit the entire psychology of religion in Europe. Van der Lans was among the critics of the Internationale Gesellschaft für Religionspsychologie; he opposed the dominance of the German language and felt that its style and work were not in accordance with modern psychological scholarship. On various occasions he tried to improve things within the organization and to improve the way it presented itself to other scholars.

Faced with the reluctance to change of the then Board of the Association, Van der Lans, with the help of colleagues from other European countries (mainly Scandinavians and Belgians), organized a symposium for psychologists of religion in Europe which was highly rated by participants and which turned into a triennial event. Van der Lans' approach dominated these symposia for a long time: it became an explicit aim to concentrate on psychology of religion only, and not to blend the image of the symposia with input from other fields, related as they may be (this led to a rather restrictive policy for inviting participants).

Feeling obliged to Sundén who remained in support of the Internationale Gesellschaft, he never wanted to turn the group involved in the symposia into a formal organization, however, and always hoped that the 'old' Association would be reorganized some day. After his retirement, he stepped down from leadership in the European group, and although intending to resign from the Board of the Internationale Gesellschaft, he wholeheartedly supported the preparations for the reorganization of the Association in Soesterberg last year.

That psychologists of religion in Europe have come to know one another, that collaboration has developed on several points and that networks have been built and reconstituted can in no small part be credited to him. We regret having to do without his wise advice and support, and shall remember him as a devoted and loyal colleague, a pillar of the field in Europe.

July 12, 2002
Jacob A. Belzen