Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1939-) Professor of Religion at Columbia University who, with Phillip Shaver (1975), introduced the insights of psychology's attribution theory into the study of religion.

Attribution theory is concerned with people's explanations of the causes of experiences or behaviors. Proudfoot and Shaver argue that "religious experiences" can be explained as diffuse emotional states or ambiguous states of physiological arousal that are interpreted through a religious meaning-belief system. Advocates of the attributional approach have sought to go beyond Proudfoot and Shaver's emotion-attribution theory and articulate a general attribution theory , which sees religion as a broad-scale meaning-belief system that potentially supports causal attributions in many spheres of life. The explanatory task is to determine the factors that make a religious interpretation seem appropriate for a given event or experience.

In his American Academy of Religion award-winning book Religious Experience (University of California Press 1985), Proudfoot further applies attribution theory to religious experience in the context of a more philosophical and critical investigation of the idea of religious experience as it has developed through the past 200 years. He pays particular attention to the work of the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher and to William James. Drawing on philosophy of mind and language in addition to cognitive psychology, Proudfoot concludes that religious experience cannot be independent of but instead assumes religious beliefs and practices as well as linguistic practices and grammatical rules for labeling experiences.

See also Attribution Theory, Mysticism

David Yamane


W. Proudfoot and Phillip Shaver, "Attribution Theory and the Psychology of Religion," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 14(1975):317-330.

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