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Westmont College  Fall 1999 Semester

Psychology of Religion Syllabus


Professor:                            Raymond F. Paloutzian                            Office:                             Bauder Hall 104

                                Office Hours:                                T H 1:00-3:30

                                Phone:                                 565-6233

Class Meets:     T H, 10:00-11:50 in Bauder Hall 101                            Email:                   


Course                                Examination of theory and research on the psychological and social psychological understanding

Description:             of religious belief and behavior. Topics include conversion, intrinsic and extrinsic religious orientation, religion and social behavior, theories of religion, special groups and phenomena, religion and mental health, religious development, religious experience, and spirituality.


Format:             Lectures and discussion will develop content area in a step-by-step manner, and will make reference to and complement reading material. Class material will also update reading material, as well as elaborate the research and theoretical implications and the practical applications of the content. Depending on class size, questions, comments, and discussion will be encouraged. I would also like to use class time to communicate the practical difficulties and challenges, as well as the excitement, of doing research in this area.


By the end of the course you will have an increased understanding of the complexity, richness and psychological bases for religious beliefs and behaviors, be better able to understand your own religious life, explore the importance of religious phenomena for the field of psychology, analyze the strengths and weaknesses of a psychological approach to studying and interpreting religion, and understand the interaction of personal and social dimensions of religion.


Books & Readings:             Paloutzian, R.F. (1996). Invitation to the Psychology of Religion, 2/e. Allyn & Bacon.


Jeeves, M.A. (1997). Human Nature at the Millennium. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.


Emmons, R.A. (1999). The Psychology of Ultimate Concerns. Guilford.


Fuller, A.R. (1994). Psychology and Religion: The View Both Ways, 3/e. Rowman & Littlefield.



Reference Readings:

Various authors:

Original journal publications, handouts


Religion in an Age of Science

Batson, Schoenrade, & Ventis:

Religion and the Individual, (2nd edition)


Prolegomena to the Psychological Study of Religion


Advances in the Psychology of Religion


Psychology of Religion. Chapter in Annual Review of Psychology,

Hood, Spilka, Hunsberger, & Gorsuch:

Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach, (2nd edition)


Psychology of Religion:  Personalities, Problems, Possibilities

Meadow & Kahoe:

Psychology of Religion


Psychology of Religion: Classic and Contemporary (2nd edition)



The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion

Review of Religious Research


Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion

Journal of Psychology and Judaism


Journal of Psychology and Theology

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology


Journal of Religion and Health

Journal of Religious Gerontology


Requirements:        Students should read assigned material before class, and actively and regularly contribute to class discussion. Grades will be based on exams, papers, and projects, with class contributions used as a weighting factor at the professor's discretion. All assignments and attendance are required. Make-up exams are not given. Quizzes may be given at any time. Format of exams and papers will be discussed in class.


Intellectual The process of this course requires academic integrity and respect for intellectual property.

Property:        You are responsible for your own intellectual work, both in producing it and in protecting it from misuse. Evidence of unethical conduct in this regard results in being dismissed from the course with a failing course grade. Lesser consequences are at the professor's discretion. All work done for this course must be original and unique to this course.

PSY 175 Course Description


Conceptual Framework for Ways of Relating Psychology and Religion. The guiding framework for interpreting the interrelationships between psychology and religion, and between science and religion, more broadly, is as follows: They may be seen as being (1) in conflict with each other, (2) independent of each other, (3) in dialogue with each other, and (4) integrated with each other around some higher level conceptualization. Various research topics exploring a wide range of human religiousness will be examined and evaluated within this conceptual framework. Special attention will be made to consider both the psychological and the religious/theological ways of looking at an issue. Parallel issues in the science-religion dialogue taken from other areas of science will be discussed in order to convey the breadth of the issues, familiarize students with the wider domain of material, and show how the occurrence of these in psychology is but one instance of them.


Religion, Theory, and the Psychology of Religion. The course will begin by examining attempts to define religion in both religious and psychological ways. I will then present a language that will enable us to discuss religion psychologically, and to examine the question of whether it is possible to understand religion psychologically or scientifically at all. The question at this stage is, "Is the psychology of religion even valid?"  The history of the conflict between psychology and religion will then be studied, and through an examination of this history, a student will gain an understanding of the more fundamental issues that have been at the heart of the apparent conflict between science and religion more generally. Parallels to be drawn at this point between the psychology-religion conflict and conflicts in other areas include such things as the creation versus evolution debate, and the debate over the age of the universe.


The purpose of this historical section is three-fold: First, it acquaints the students with the intellectual history of the discipline and its issues. Second, it acquaints them with the broader issues at the interface between science and religion generally. Third, it raises the specific issue of whether science can "explain away" religion (or contrariwise, whether religion can make scientific understanding of human nature invalid). This issue is, of course, fundamental; it can be understood by relating the material to the four ways of relating science and religion to each other, as noted above.


In order to respond to this issue, the course then has a substantial section on the philosophy of research in the psychology of religion. This is broken down into two subsections: The first of these is a thorough discussion of the philosophy of science revolving around the question of whether psychology (or any science) can explain away religion, i.e., the fallacy of reductionism. Issues such as the nature of theory construction and falsification, determinism, causality, probability, naturalism and religion, and the role of models are all dealt with in the context of psychological understanding of religion. To put the discussion in current context, a brief section on the role of post-modernism and its argument about the meaning and interpretation of scientific data is included. The second subsection presents methods of doing research with an emphasis on a variety of empirical approaches in psychology, exposure to and use of some of the measurement tools, and contrasting this approach with that of religious studies. The scientific and religious studies/theology methods are compared, and whether or not doing scholarship in one domain assumes a particular orientation with respect to the other is explored.


Research Areas. Based upon the above foundation, a variety of research topics within psychology of religion are then taken up. The first of these is religious development in children, including the cognitive stages that unfold in the process of the development of religious understanding, and religious development through the lifespan with special emphasis on the nature of doubt (both scientific doubt and religious doubt). The lifespan developmental models describe the change in thought from relatively concrete, "either/or" ways of thinking to relatively abstract, "both/and," complementary ways of thinking about religious issues. It will be pointed out that this developmental sequence has some similarity to the four ways of relating science and religion presented above, and in fact, all four happen in the larger dialogue arena such as when creation versus evolution, or the age of the earth, is debated.


The next topic taken up is religious conversion; both the older notion of conversion types and the more recent conversion process models are elaborated. In addition to the psychological models, particular attention will be given to conversion from a variety of religious perspectives including Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, Catholic, mainline Protestant, and Evangelical Protestant.


The next topic concerns the relation between religion and mental and emotional experience. Again, apparently competing ways of understanding human experience are possible (i.e., "God brought this experience into my life"  versus "This experience was a consequence of biological and psychological mechanisms"). Both religious and psychological material will be examined in order to understand these. Particular attention will be given to the psychological and possible physiological mechanisms that mediate mystical experience. The psychological theories include religion-as-schema, cognitive-arousal theory and the attribution of religious meaning to events, and attachment theory which is rooted in the biological and evolutionary approach. As in the topic of conversion, noted above, there are also different faith perspectives on religious experience.



The discussion will then extend to the question of whether there is a biological basis for religious experience and attitudes. The research on the genetic bases of religion, brain mechanisms involved in the experience of God, and the arguments for morality derived from the new science of evolutionary psychology are considered.


The course next turns to the consequences of religion in life, as religion is typically evaluated by non-participants based upon what it actually does to or for people, rather than merely on what participants claim that it does. The first line of research in this section is on the relation between religion, social attitudes, and social behavior. The topic of intrinsic and extrinsic religious motivation and its derivatives has been a primary driver of research for twenty-five years and is therefore central to this component of this course. The second line of research concerns the relation between religion and mental disorder and mental health. Whether religion is an end in itself or merely a means to an end is also dealt with. The third line of research concerns the relation between religion and physical health. As with previous topics, the different ways in which this relation can be understood (i.e., either faith or medicine can heal, versus an integration of the two; or "sin causes disease" versus "disease causes sin") will be examined. Particular attention will be given to the most recent research on the relation between psychological well-being and physical health status, with emphasis on a new cognitive model of religion's influence on health.


Finally, the end of the course will reflect back on the fundamental issues between scientific psychology (and science broadly) and religion. We will examine the status of the dialogue and attempt to state the sort of intellectual work that needs to be done next.


Specific Student Goals


  1.     Explore scientific and religious ways of understanding human behavior, with particular attention to where these ways are in conflict, parallel each other, and dialogue with each other, and can potentially be integrated.


  2.     Understand the ways of relating science and religion broadly; in particular apply this understanding to the context of scientific psychology.


  3.     Understand why scientific psychology cannot explain away religion, why religion cannot explain away psychology. To the contrary, the student should understand how psychology and religion are mutually interactive and interdependent; students should move towards being able to conceptualize this as they move toward higher levels of thought.


  4.     Students should learn scientific thinking, theorizing, and the interplay between theory and data within the context of psychology of religion.


  5.     Students should learn to base conclusions on evidence, and to understand the rationale behind different forms of evidence being considered valid from different disciplines.


  6.     Students should learn to challenge conclusions pronounced by experts (religious and scientific); students should learn to understand the limits and meaning of conclusions based on empirical data—what sorts of questions such data can and cannot answer.


  7.     Students should become free to appreciate what psychology of religion research has too say and its contribution to religious understanding. Students should become free to explore their own religiousness without fear. This would include personal lessons, understanding the professional role of the psychology of religion in psychology, and understanding the professional role of the psychology of religion in religious studies and theology.


  8.     Students' reliance upon simple "formula religions"  should be reduced. They should move beyond reliance upon simple, popularized "religious psychologies"  as ways of understanding human functioning.


  9.     Students should develop critical thinking based upon evidence. At the same time, they should learn the habit of intellectual humility and the appreciation of contrary points of view.


10.     Students should move beyond an adolescent-level understanding of how to interpret religious scriptures.


11.     Explore the boundaries and edges of the interrelationship between scientific psychology and religious studies/theology.


12.     Students should learn to read and evaluate the primary literature relevant to this interdisciplinary dialogue.


13.     Students' minds should strive towards conceptualizing knowledge as a unity. They should learn how to think through the issues that appear to be barriers to that unity, and eschew a compartmentalized "either/or" notion of knowledge and thinking. This should be fostered both generically, relating scientific and religious issues as a whole, and specifically in the context of psychology of religion.


Typical Class Format


It is expected that it will take more than one class session to work through each topic as listed in the weekly reading schedule. Although there will be some flexibility in the way each class session is conducted, the general procedures that will be followed in each class session can be described as follows:


1.            Openers. I will begin each session with a set of opening remarks designed to raise the issue(s) of the day and set the stage for what follows. These will highlight material from the assigned readings, include comments from the past dialogue in this field, and perhaps bring in a current social issue that illustrates the point.


2.       A main event. The main class activity for the day (or, on occasion, for a two-day cycle) will center around some "main event."  The main event will be the stimulus that provokes thought about the issues. Examples of stimuli that will serve this function are audiovisual presentations of religious behavior or religious issues, student presentations, group debates, and so on. I have used a variety of these successfully in the past. For example, a videotape of a religious faith-healing service includes interviews with physicians about the physiological aspects of healing, interviews with hypnotists regarding mental control of physiological processes, live footage of the healing service and behavior of participants, and ample room for attributing such phenomena to natural processes, supernatural agency, both, or neither. This is a potent stimulus that raises issues such as mind-body interactions, supernatural versus naturalistic ways of explaining, and the nature of evidence that should or should not be required to evaluate truth claims. Similarly, I have in the past had great success in having students debate an issue such as whether a religious conversion is caused by God or whether it is a result of "nothing-but" psychological or brain mechanisms, and whether these ways of explaining are compatible or incompatible. In general, the main event serves the purpose of focusing the attention of the students on one event or issue common to them all, and sets the stage for the next part of the process.


3.            Reaction/Response. First, there is a response by students to the main event and the issues raised therein. Both personal and intellectual reactions are encouraged. This allows us to list the specific questions and issues to be discussed in greater depth. Second, there is a reaction by the professor, again both personally and in light of his knowledge base in the history of the discipline.


4.            General Discussion. The issues will then be discussed in open forum with all students participating. A deliberate effort will be made to understand and, if possible, resolve the issues in light of arguments from psychological research, religious studies, and the four-fold conceptual framework that serves as the course guide that describes a range of positions on the question of the compatibility of psychology and religion.


5.            Closure. A brief bit of closure will be drawn by summarizing the main points from the main event, the readings, and the discussion. An attempt will be made to cast these in the four-fold framework and to make suggestions for how the issue should be dealt with next.