Thursday 1 September 2011

An Empirical Approach to Religious Belief (2011)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXIV No. 2 Autumn 2011

The psychologist, Wilhelm Wundt

By Zenon Stavrinides

The question for psychologists is, how does the meaning believers derive from religion enhance their sense of control and self-esteem?
 Up until the end of the nineteenth century at least, most scholars who worked in what counted as the field of psychology or 'mental science' took it upon themselves to identify the various elements of mental life and the provide an account of their character and interaction in accordance with a set of more or less speculative theories, like the division of the mind into a number of 'faculties' such as cognition, affection and volition, and the catch-all principle of 'the association of ideas'.

All that changed, however, in 1879 when Wilhelm Wundt established the first psychological laboratory in Leipzig in order to study in a scientific spirit the phenomena of consciousness, and soon afterwards William James began to carry his own brand of research in physiological psychology at Harvard University. These two parallel developments on either side of the Atlantic initiated a new and in time very productive tradition of psychology, as a discipline which aimed to achieve an understanding of mental life by employing the working principles and procedures of the natural sciences, principally observation, measurement and experimentation.

Thus it was that during the first half of the Twentieth century a considerable number of universities in Europe, North America and other parts of the world with advanced scientific cultures set up Departments of Psychology with increasingly sophisticated laboratory facilities where researchers formulated problems about human behaviour and mental operations which lent themselves to empirical treatment. Psychologists with acknowledged scientific credentials adopted and adapted ideas, procedures, techniques and equipment which were proving successful in the areas of human and animal physiology, biochemistry, evidence-based sociology, applied statistics, and other human sciences, and framed appropriate hypotheses which were capable of confirmation or refutation by empirical tests.

Both during and after World War II, the insights of psychology were utilized, applied and extended by psychologists working in special units in educational institutions, military establishments, hospitals, industrial concerns and other types of organization. By the middle of the century psychology grew into maturity and stature as one of the recognized sciences with its own characteristic concepts and theories in terms of which wide ranges of problems were investigated, and hypotheses were framed and tested by objective methods.

One of the special branches of psychology is the psychology of religion, the core issues of which received a masterly formulation and treatment in William James' magnum opus, The Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1902.

In the following half-century the psychology of religion grew in complexity and sophistication, along with other areas of psychology. Innumerable studies about the nature, conditions and consequences of religious experience and other kindred topics were carried out in many parts of the world and reported in professional journals of psychology, including a number which were exclusively devoted to the psychology and social scientific study of religion.

The extent of writing on psychology since the second half of the Twentieth century is amply reflected by the fact that the number of words published since 1950 comfortably exceeds the total output of works on the subject produced since the time of the Greeks. This, at least, is the claim of three American psychologists Ralph W. Hood, Jr, Peter Hill and Bernard Spilka in their magisterial critical survey The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach, now in its fourth edition; and with a bibliography that extends over 106 closely printed pages, listing for the most part contributions to the psychology of religion, the claim is hard to dispute. The book presents and assesses a vast range of works in the field, embodying issues, data-based studies, broad theories and specific hypotheses which marked the field in recent decades. This magisterial work offers a synoptic view of the field and should be of great value to professional psychologists, researchers and PhD students working in this area.

It is no doubt significant that the authors draw a distinction between the psychology of religion and religious psychology pointing out that:
... empirical psychologists of religion tend to be primarily social psychologists, [who] come from the psychological tradition of social psychology, not the sociological tradition... The natural-scientific assumptions of psychology remain firm for most of the psychologically oriented social psychologists who do empirical research. Those who confine themselves to natural-scientific assumptions tend to produce a psychology of religion rather than a religious psychology per se
And what exactly does the distinction between the psychology of religion and religious psychology amount to? The authors suggest that:
A psychology of religion places psychological categories at the forefront, and would have psychology explain religion only insofar as its phenomena of religion can be captured within natural-scientific constructs from mainstream psychology. On the other hand, religious psychology gives supremacy to religious constructs, and finds psychology to follow from and to be constrained within the conceptual limits of a natural science whose explanatory power is superseded by religion.
This passage appears to suggest that the psychology of religion and religious psychology operate, so to speak, within the same area of human life and experience, but they operate differently: they differ from each other in respect of the kinds of concepts the use to describe and explain the phenomena of religious life of individuals and social groups, and this must be taken to imply that they differ in the kinds of questions they raise and the kinds of answers the seek.

A scholar in religious psychology may express an interest in how a devout Christian experiences the presence and authority of God in his life and how as a result he understands his duty to his fellow men and women under God's commands. Any advance that may be made on this question must reflect how God's commands manifest themselves in this man's understanding of himself as God's creature ? and here the methods of observation, measurement and experimentation have hardly any application. These methods, however, may be usefully deployed in trying to discover how religious believers within the same or different social cultures respond to specific religious demands for Church attendance, marriage and family, charity or commitment to various social projects; and such inquiry is typical of the psychology of religion.

The domain of the psychology of religion will become clearer once we consider the organization of the material contained in The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach. In the opening chapter the authors set out a number of basic issues which face the psychologist of religion and of which the book provides accounts. These issues - complexly interrelated with one another - include:
* What is religion and what are its practical features?
* What does religion in its various forms mean to the individual, how it is expressed, what does it do for people and their thoughts and behaviour (doctrine, knowledge of sacred writings and principles, emotions)?
* What are the complex ways in which a community's religious faith, experience and activity manifest themselves (ritual and ceremonial behaviour, ethical values, involvement in group life)?
* What does religion come from, in the sense of what are the sources of religious impulses and needs?
* How do men, women and children relate to their faith, and how does the meaning they derive from religion enhances their sense of control and self-esteem?
In a series of chapters the authors expound and evaluate ideas and data concerning the place of religion and its various form of expression in different stages of life, such as childhood, young adulthood, adult life, and old age when the prospect of death is imminent. There are detailed discussions on religious experience, mysticism, conversion, the social psychology of religious organizations, the impact of religion on moral attitudes and behaviour, the effects of religion on such processes as coping and adjustment, and the relation between religion and mental disorder. In each of these chapters, various components of religious faith are highlighted and analysed along a number of more or less quantifiable dimensions such as the following:
1. Content: the essential nature of the component (e.g. specific rituals, ideas, knowledge, principles etc).
2. Frequency: how often the content elements are encountered and acted upon.
3. Intensity: degree of commitment.
4. Centrality: importance or salience.
Each chapter, indeed, each part of each section of each chapter, presents a wealth of empirical material, frequently peppered with complicated statistical data, leading to hypotheses of various degrees of plausibility. Quite plainly, many researchers expended considerable energy, ingenuity and resources to carry out experiments in order to discover features of religious life they deemed interesting. Not all experiments are equally illuminating.

The book contains some experimental reports whose point and importance may be difficult to evaluate. To take an example at random, Ralph W. Hood, Jr (to grace him with his U.S. style nomenclature) and two colleagues report an experiment in which, roughly speaking, a number of religious and non-religious individuals were placed in a sensory isolation tank which was totally enclosed, light-proof and sound-proof to maximise solitude. 

Earlier the subjects had completed the Allport Religious Orientation scale on the basis of which the had been classified as intrinsic, extrinsic and 'indiscriminately pro'. They were told of the typical images they were likely to experience under those conditions, and then they were asked to keep silent for ten minutes and then 'expose' themselves to whatever the experience brought. 

The results, according to the researchers, 'were as predicted': among other things, the intrinsics and 'indiscriminately pro' participants reported more religious interpretation of their experiences than extrinsics. The isolation tank elicited religious experiences in subjects of all religious types, it did not have a similar effect on non-religious individuals. How far experimental conclusions of this kind bear on our understanding of, say, the visions which Saint Bernadette claimed to have had in Lourdes - this being the kind of understanding which religious psychology would seek to achieve - is a moot point.

The heterogeneous empirical data which the book cites and analyses - heterogeneous in character and scientific value - invite debate on the feasibility of bringing it all under a good scientific theory. The authors of our book are well aware of what is at issue, for they write:
One major challenge to a measurement-based psychology of religion is simply put - interest. It is not clear whether the massive literature spawned in psychology in general has yielded fruits relative to the effort. When one considers the explosion of literature in mainstream psychology, it is obvious that no psychologist can master even a small proportion of it... This massive literature has spawned no agreed-upon theoretical integration. There is no such theory in general psychology, much less in the psychology of religion... The rigours of measurement and the cleverness of experimental design fail if the ultimate result is, as is so often the case, trivial or uninformative. The psychology of religion is likely to become more like a quilt, in which measurement will be at best sewn together patches derived from diverse theoretical perspectives.
We may well wonder if the absence of a general theory of the psychology of religion means that this field of research and knowledge lacks 'interest'. After all, there is no all-embracing theory in other human sciences, such as sociology, political science, economics and so on - yet is that so terrible? Ever since James' 1902 effort, the psychology of religion has surely proved its value by the interest of the questions it raises and the insights on the human mind found in its results.

This was a review article occasioned by the publication of: Ralph W. Hood, Jr, Peter Hill and Bernard Spilka's book:
The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach
Hardcover: ISBN-13: 978-1606233030) 636 pp.
New York: The Guilford Press; 4th Edition.

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