PSYCH 231 -- Psychology of Religious Experience -- Course Syllabus

Winter 2001 -- Tuesdays, 1:00 - 3:30 P.M.


Instructor: Christopher T. Burris, Ph.D.

Office: 222 Admin. Bldg. (St. Jerome’s)         Phone: (519) 884-8111, ext. 213         

FAX: (519) 884-5759          e-mail:

Office Hours: MW 9:30-10:20, T 10:30-11:30; by appt.


CAUTION!!! We are about to engage in an in-depth exploration of one of the topics (along with politics) that, in North American society, is not to be discussed in polite company: religion. Moreover, we are about to examine religion, not as “insiders” (followers), but as critical “outsiders” (psychologically informed observers). It is unrealistic to think that you or I have not formed some opinions, if not deeply held convictions, about the various forms of religion that we will encounter. It is therefore absolutely essential that we (I include myself) strive to maintain an atmosphere of respect and tolerance for differing viewpoints.



What the Course Is Intended to Be: The “official” course description taken from the UW Calendar  is as follows: “Approaches of traditional psychological theories toward phenomena of religious experience, mysticism, and prayer are examined.  The psychological process of creating and naming 'gods’ is considered as well as comparisons among altered states of consciousness including some forms of prayer.” 


We will indeed be exploring some of these issues. In order to do so in a meaningful way, however, we must be mindful of their context. First, we must explore what we mean when we say “religious” and “experience” (and “psychology of,” for that matter). We need to address such core questions as “How do you know, psychologically speaking, when “religious” is an appropriate label?” and “Can any ‘experience’ be religious?” and “How can psychology say anything meaningful about religion? Can (or should) it say anything at all?”


My intent is to offer you an overview, based on psychological research, of the study of the origins, development, and consequences of religion. Thus, in addition to exploring intense mystical or conversion experiences, for example, we will examine the “day-to-day” relationship between religion and social-psychological variables such as adjustment, prejudice, and prosocial behavior. I would suggest to you that the day-to-day stuff is inescapably the context in which the more intense stuff must be considered.



What the Course Is Not Intended to Be: Let me also be clear about what the course will NOT be.


First, this is NOT a “how to” course. If you were expecting instruction in meditation or past life regression,or tips on how to improve your prayer life, you are in the wrong place. Some psychologists of religion take this approach -- indeed, they assume that firsthand experience is the ONLY means of understanding religion -- but I will not. Rather, because my expertise is that of a social-psychological researcher, I will encourage you to adopt the role of observer rather than participant for the purposes of this course, regardless of your religious tradition (or lack thereof).


Second, this is NOT a theology or apologetics course.  That is, I will NOT be setting out to prove or disprove the truth claims of any particular religious tradition. Rather, my goal is to move you closer to thinking about religion psychologically, to ask psychological questions about religion to which theory and research can be applied in pursuit of answers. As you will see very early in the term, this is not necessarily an easily attainable goal (indeed, some would argue that it is not even a desirable one, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves...).


Required readings: There is no textbook as such for this course. There are, however, a number of required readings, which have been placed on reserve in the St. Jerome’s Library for reading and/or photocopying. I am hoping that the use of readings rather than a textbook will be beneficial to you by exposing you to a wider variety of approaches to the psychology of religion than might be presented by a single author or set of authors.


Supplementary resources:  For those of you who are comfortable using the internet, I strongly encourage you to consult the Psychology of Religion Homepage maintained by Dr. Michael Nielsen at Georgia Southern University. It offers a very nice introduction to research methods, current and historical figures, graduate study, books, journals, and other content areas in the psychology of religion, plus a truckload of related links.  The address:


Class and Reading Schedule As mentioned above, assigned readings will be on reserve in St. Jerome’s Library. I am asking that you have each assigned reading completed before you come to the class for which it is assigned (except for the 9 Jan reading, which you should have read for 16 Jan in addition to the 16 Jan reading). I have tried to sample broadly from the currently active contributors to the psychology of religion. Approach each reading thoughtfully, jotting down observations and questions as you go. This will make for better class discussions.


Jan 09   Self and Course Outline; Foundations I


                Reading: Batson, C. D. (1997). An agenda item for psychology of religion: Getting respect. In B. Spilka and D. N. McIntosh (Eds.), The psychology of religion: Theoretical approaches  (pp. 3-10). Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Originally published in Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 5 (1986), 6-11.


                Reading: Appendix: The scientific method and social psychology of religion (pp. 379-386), in Batson, C. D., Schoenrade, P., & Ventis, W. L. (1993). Religion and the individual: A social-psychological perspective. New York: Oxford University Press.


Jan 16             Foundations II (video)


                Reading: any two of Chapters 1-6 in

                Hood, R. W., Jr. (1995). Handbook of religious experience. Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press.


                *Note: Because of the range of options for readings to be completed from the Hood’s Handbook, you will not be quizzed over them. An assignment option will be based on these readings, however. The Batson readings from last week ARE quizzable material.


Jan 23                 Religious Orientation


                Reading: Burris, C. T. (1999). Religious Orientation Scale.  In P. Hill & R. W. Hood, Jr. (Eds.), Measures of Religiosity (pp. 144-156). Birmingham, AL:  Religious Education Press.


                Reading: Burris, C. T. (1999).  Quest Scale.  In P. Hill & R. W. Hood, Jr. (Eds.), Measures of Religiosity                 (pp. 138-141). Birmingham, AL:  Religious Education Press.


                Optional Reading (not quizzable but relevant to an assignment option): Burris, C. T., & Tarpley, W. R. (1998). Religion as being: Preliminary validation of the Immanence scale. Journal of Research in Personality, 32, 55-79.


Jan 30             Religious Development


                Reading: Learning how to pretend and make things up (pp. 89-105) in Fisher, S., & Fisher, R. L. (1993). The Psychology of adaptation to absurdity: Tactics of make-believe. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


Jan 30                (continued)


                Reading: Kirkpatrick, L. A. (1997). An attachment-theory approach to the psychology of religion. In B. Spilka and D. N. McIntosh (Eds.), The psychology of religion: Theoretical approaches  (pp. 114-133). Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Originally published in International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 2 (1992), 3-28.


Feb 06    Intense Religious Experience I (video)


                Reading: Spilka, B. & McIntosh, D. N. (1995). Attribution theory and religious experience. In R.W. Hood,                 Jr. (Ed.) . Handbook of religious experience (pp. 421-445) Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press.



Feb 13    Intense Religious Experience II (video)


            Reading: Facilitators of religious experience (pp. 116-154) in

            Batson, C. D., Schoenrade, P., & Ventis, W. L. (1993).  Religion and the individual: A social-                                    psychological perspective.                New York: Oxford University Press.


Feb 20             WINTER BREAK -- NO CLASS


Feb 27                 Mysticism


                Reading: Wulff, D. (2000). Mystical experience. In Cardena, E., Lynn, S. J., & Krippner, S. (Eds.),     Varieties of anomalous experience: Examining the scientific evidence (pp. 397--440). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. r                      

Mar 06                 Conversion


                Reading: Personal freedom or bondage? (pp. 193-229) in

            Batson, C. D., Schoenrade, P., & Ventis, W. L. (1993).  Religion and the individual: A social-                                    psychological perspective.                New York: Oxford University Press.


Mar 13             Religious Groups (video)


                Reading: Changing beliefs and identities: conversion, religious movements, and defection (pp. 114-138) in Beit-Hallahmi, B., & Argyle, M. (1997). The psychology of religious belief, behaviour, and experience. New York: Routledge.


Mar 20 Religion and Social Consequences


                Reading: Religion and morality (pp. 338-376) in

                Hood, R. W., Jr., Spilka, B., Hunsberger, B., & Gorsuch, R. (1996). The psychology of religion : An empirical approach  (2nd ed.).  New York: Guilford.


Mar 27    Religion and Mental Health


                Reading: Does it work? Religion and the outcomes of coping (pp. 275-314) in

                Pargament, K. I. (1997). The psychology of religion and coping. New York: Guilford.


Apr 03   Big Issues: Integrating All (or Most) of It


                No readings assigned


Marking Scheme: Your performance in this course will be evaluated in three ways...


1) Pop reading quizzes (20%): Past experience has shown that quality of class discussion is improved if people are held accountable for the readings assigned for that class. Therefore, there will be a total of 5 pop quizzes based on weekly readings scattered throughout the term. They will be multiple choice and/or true false, and will consist of 8 questions, each worth 1/2 point. This adds up to 20%. I won’t be testing for trivia, but for main points: If you read and paid attention, you should do fine.


2) Topical Response Essays (40%): Beginning with the unit on “Religious Orientation” and ending with the unit on “Religion and Mental Health,” you will be presented with one or a short series of questions about each unit intended to foster critical thinking about the text and class material related to that particular topic. You will be asked to record your reflections in the form of a short (5 pages or so) paper that will be due the following week,  unless indicated otherwise on the essay handout. There are 8 units in this span: I’d like for you to complete any 4 of your choosing; each will be worth 10% of your total mark. A word to the wise: “Short” does not mean “throw something together the nigh!t before” -- take these seriously, for they combine to form nearly half of your mark.


You may choose to work with up to three other people in this class on each essay. Groups may help with the subject matter considerably because of the diversity of religious and nonreligious backgrounds represented in each. Moreover completion of assignments in groups is encouraged because it personalizes the material and reduces the workload for everyone involved (including me, the reader!). Some assignment options, in fact, may require a group perspective.


Because you have 8 options to choose 4, late assignments will not be accepted. You have much flexibility regarding due dates given the number of options available. Plan wisely, and do not expect an exception to be made for you.


3) Take-Home “Integrative” Final Essay (40%): Very early in this class, you will be asked to identify one or more questions about the “psychology of religious experience” that you would like to answer -- or, at least, begin to answer -- as a result of having taken this class. I will work with you tos20  ensure that the questions you ask are sufficiently broad as well as “answerable” within the framework of the course. For example, “Do Hindus pray more than Catholics?” is answerable, but too specific. “Is religion true?” is sufficiently broad, but not answerable. Throughout the term, then, I encourage you to reflect on how the insights you receive from lecture, assigned readings, discussion, and (gasp!) your own outside research may point to! “answers” to one or more of your initial questions. It is a good idea to keep notes of this as you go along. On April 3rd, I will ask you to submit a paper (12 page minimum, not including references) summarizing what you’ve learned with respect to one or more of the questions you initially posed. Again, this essay can be completed in groups -- obviously, it will be important that group members have the same (or similar questions). I will play “matchmaker” -- that is, assist you in finding others in the class with similar questions -- as much as possible.


As you can see, evaluation in this course is designed to encourage you to THINK about religion psychologically, rather than force you to memorize “factoids” that you may soon forget. My goal is to challenge you, not overwhelm you. I will be there to assist throughout.




1) Refer to this course outline before asking a question about class procedure -- Most of your questions are probably answered somewhere in this outline.


2) CLASS ATTENDANCE/MAKE-UP QUIZZES: Whether or not you choose to attend class is entirely up to you, but you are responsible for all material covered. Should you miss class, for whatever reason, it is your responsibility to find someone who would be willing to provide you with the notes you missed (if you “don’t know anyone in the class,” then it’s time to introduce yourself). If your absence is legitimate -- i.e., due to documented illness, family emergency, etc. -- then I am happy to answer questions about the missed material once you have consulted with a fellow student. If your absence is not legitimate, you are on your own. Please keep in mind that it is unreasonable to expect that I reteach t!he material presented in lectures. Make-up quizzes will be permitted ONLY in the event of documented illness, emergency, or  religious observance. Period. They will NOT be granted because you forgot, overslept, were in a bad mood, had a plane to catch, didn’t come to class or read the course outline, etc. Unless it is  absolutely impossible, I should be notified of the situation BEFORE the missed class, not after. (Reality check: An employer would expect the same courtesy.) See page 1:10 of the UW Undergraduate Calendar0   for additional details. It is your responsibility to know and respect this policy.


3) MARKING SCHEME: The marking scheme described above is what it is. I will not reweight requirements in order to boost someone’s mark. Please don’t expect or ask me to do so. Marks are based on performance on the evaluative tasks specified in this course outline. Period. They are not based on “trying really hard,” “being an A student,” etc. If you are having difficulty in the class, then it is in your best interest to consult me early on. Do NOT approach me about dropping the course late in the term “because this course is hurting my average and it’s ONLY an elective.” Do NOT approach me late in the term to ask “Is there anything I can DO???”, i.e., extra credit, etc. I am happy to work with you, but I will! not bail you out at the last minute or make a deal. Marks are earned but, unlike salaries, they are not negotiable.


4) SPECIAL NEEDS: In the event that you require an adapted learning or evaluation arrangement due to a learning disability or something similar, you MUST provide me with documentation at the beginning of the term from Disabled Student Services in Needles Hall. I am happy to accommodate you, provided that you go through the appropriate channels. I will not consider requests made after the fact, however.


5) ACADEMIC MISCONDUCT: I don’t like cheaters -- they are the embodiment of laziness, disrespect, and an unwarranted sense of entitlement. The University doesn’t like cheaters, either. In fact, the School of Arts now requires its faculty to state that: “All students registered

in the courses of the Faculty of Arts are expected to know what constitutes an academic offense, to avoid committing academic offenses, and to take responsibility for their academic actions. When the commission of an offense is established, disciplinary penalties will be imposed in accord with Policy #71 (Student Academic Discipline). For information on categories of offenses and types of penalties, students are directed to consult the summary of Policy #71 (!Student Academic Discipline) which is supplied in the UW Undergraduate Calendar  (p. 1:11). If you need help in learning how to avoid offenses such as plagiarism, cheating, and double submission, or if you need clarification of aspects of the discipline policy, ask your course instructor for guidance. Other resources regarding the discipline policy are your academic advisor, the appropriate St. Jerome’s departmental chair and, ultimately, the Discipline Advisor for St. Jerome’s University.” Because this is a writing-intensive course, use sources properly -- changing two words in someone else’s sentence and calling it your own is no better than handing me a photocopy of your source with the original author’s name crossed out. If in doubt about how to use sources, ASK.


6) GENERAL COURTESY: Questions and comments in class are genuinely welcome. In order for your questions/comments to be most useful for yourself and others, however, keep on topic, and do not insist that you be heard on every possible occasion or interrupt others who are speaking. Questions and comments outside of class are welcome, too. Please use scheduled office hours whenever possible -- that is their purpose. When office hours (or before/after class) are not convenient, use e-mail for small questions, or make an appointment for bigger questions. When my door is open, you may also drop in, but do not lurk in the doorway: Please knock and ask if it is a good time to talk. When my door is closed, please do not disturb me -- in order for me to stay sane, be my best in the classroom, and keep up with other responsibilities, I need uninterrupted time in my office to work.


7) LIGHTEN UP, DR. BURRIS! Many of the details regarding procedures and expectations for this class may sound rigid and harsh. It’s not my intent to alienate you, or to create an impression that I am unapproachable or downright nasty. The details laid out in this course outline have emerged out of having to answer the same questions or deal with the same awkward situations over and over again from term to term. By being detailed and clear about procedures and expectations at the very beginning, I’m hoping that I don’t have to deal with the same yucky stuff quite as much, so we can get about the business of learning about the psychology of religious experience.                                                           

                                                                Good luck with this course. I hope it is worth your time.