Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version


Takes religious phenomena as objects of inquiry either to be described or to be explained by principles of psychology. Relationships between psychology and religion are complicated by the fact that little consensus exists on the meaning of either of these terms. Psychology is less a single science than a generic discipline defined by the methods and procedures that, when consensually shared, identify the various schools of psychology. These schools have produced largely distinct literatures and research traditions that collectively constitute the current psychology of religion. Each school is itself heterogeneous so that even in identifying a particular school it is best to refer to it in the plural.

Across schools of psychology, religion is approached substantively or functionally. Substantive approaches define religion by its content or by its specific practices, focusing upon such phenomena as belief in God, conversion, or prayer. Functional approaches define religion by specific processes that explain how religion operates in individual's lives. Debates continue as to whether or not there are unique contents or processes in the psychology of religion. Religious psychology argues for the latter while psychology of religion assumes that processes in religion are not different from in other areas of investigation.

Research in the psychology of religion is best understood within particular schools, which define both the area and the relevant methodological criteria for evaluation. Across schools, criteria are often incommensurate.

Schools of Psychology and Their Research Traditions

Psychoanalytical schools are heavily rooted in the classical work of Sigmund Freud. They have unique methodologies, aimed ultimately at uncovering the unconscious basis of religious beliefs, emotions, and practices. Many of the powerful reductive explanations of psychoanalysis, demanding a naturalistic explanation of all transcendent phenomena, have been themselves challenged within psychoanalysis. The Oedipus complex, central to much of classical psychoanalysis, has been challenged as a form of orthodoxy. However, efforts to test classical psychoanalytic theories by more positivistic methodologies remain controversial, both within psychoanalysis and among those who doubt that theories derived from radically different schools of psychology can be tested by a single set of methodological criteria. It is now widely recognized that illusional processes operating in religion, motivated by both conscious and unconscious desires, cannot be used to justify the ultimately ontological claim that religion is delusional.

This has made psychoanalysis more hospitable to religious phenomena. Many contemporary psychoanalysts have even provided explanations of religious phenomena compatible with religious faith. Hence psychoanalysis is no longer seen as necessarily hostile to religion or capable of giving an exhaustive naturalistic interpretation of religious phenomena. The major methodological approach remains the clinical case study. Biographical analyses of historical religious personages are also common. Psychoanalytic literature remains the most dominant literature in the psychology of religion and no doubt has the greatest cultural impact of any school.

Analytical schools , rooted in the work of Carl Jung, continue to produce an impressive literature. Their orientation tends to be hermeneutical and interpretative rather than causal and explanatory. Focusing upon individual case studies, dream interpretation, and analyses of literature, Jung's rich descriptive vocabulary is used to provide interpretative analysis of religious phenomena particularly appealing to clinical and counseling psychologists. Consistent with Jung's own view, analytical psychology employs a powerful descriptive language that incorporates much of the content of religious traditions in a manner that often provides a novel hermeneutic when combined with interpretations based upon Jungian archetypes. However, many empirical psychologists see such efforts as more akin to literary criticism than legitimate science. Few research scientists have tried to test analytic theories empirically. It is not clear that such tests would be meaningful given the radical discrepancies in the ontological assumptions of measurement and Jungian schools of psychology.

Object relations schools continue the psychoanalytical tradition of interest in religious experience. Like psychoanalysts, they find much to illuminate in religious experience by the reconstruction of early infant states. However, their focus is upon pre-Oedipal states. This has shifted the focus to maternal influences and spawned a large descriptive literature that, like Jung's psychology, has heavily influenced feminist thought. Their methods are primarily clinical case studies of adult subjects. The concept of illusion as an intermediate world between that of private fantasy and objective reality has been deemed to be particularly appropriate to the description of religious phenomena in particular and cultural phenomena in general.

Transpersonal schools explicitly confront spiritual realities in a nonreductive manner. They employ an eclectic mixture of scientific and spiritual methodologies in which the focus is upon transcendent experiences and the conceptual systems that both legitimate and define their reality. Most transpersonal psychologists explicitly assume the ontological reality of a spiritual realm that can be investigated by appropriate methodologies. This has led some to perceive them primarily as a religious psychology and not as a psychology of religion. For more than a quarter of a century, transpersonal psychologists have published a highly successful journal, the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology . Transpersonal psychologies are close to measurement schools insofar as they have spawned a large literature that is both empirically based and of interest to clinicians, counselors, and theoreticians.

Phenomenological schools eschew experimentation and analysis in favor of essentially descriptive approaches to religious experience. Emphasizing the necessity for a critical reflexive awareness of the assumptions, presuppositions, and prejudices that affect what appears to consciousness, phenomenological schools have produced a literature rich in description but with little consensual validation. Their descriptive approach attempts to transcend individual variations in religious experience in favor of uncovering the essence of religious phenomena. Several phenomenologists have attempted to formulate appropriate methodologies by which a more consistent phenomenological database can be obtained. Yet to date there is less consensus on appropriate phenomenological methodologies than upon methodologies accepted by measurement schools of psychology.

Measurement schools dominate the academic investigation of religion in psychology departments that primarily identify psychology as a science within the naturalistic tradition. Having little in common other than a commitment to operationally defining variables in a fashion that permits their measurement, this school provides the essential database for the empirical psychology of religion. For many psychologists, only theories developed with reference to this database are legitimately scientific. Much of the empirical research within measurement schools is essentially correlational, making causal relationships difficult to establish. Multivariate procedures are now beginning to dominate the field. However, hypothesis-testing procedures that employ either quasi- or true experimental procedures are preferred and employed by the more rigorous researchers. No credence is given to the development of a religious psychology; rather, psychology of religion is seen as a specialty within mainstream psychology, most often social psychology. Many investigators would accept the independence of religion and psychology, and not necessarily demand that measurement psychology aim to provide a naturalistic reductive explanation of religious phenomena.

Major Content Areas in the Psychology of Religion

Since its American reemergence in 1960, the measurement-based schools of the psychology of religion have been characterized by their focus upon a limited number of content areas. While having no specialty journal of their own, they have relied upon interdisciplinary journals such as the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Review of Religious Research . To a lesser extent, they have used specialty journals in mainstream psychology to publish their research. More recently, the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion and the Journal for the Psychology of Religion have begun publication. Both are devoted exclusively to the psychology of religion, the latter emphasizing qualitative studies. However, quantitative studies define what most measurement schools will accept as a valid empirical psychology of religion.

Scale construction : Psychometric research has successfully produced a plethora of scales to measure a wide variety of religious phenomena including attitudes, beliefs, and values. It is widely recognized that religion is best measured as a multidimensional construct. Most research has focused upon indices of intrinsic (religion as an end), extrinsic (religion as a means), and quest (religion as a search) dimensions of religiosity. A variety of multidimensional scales also are available to assess images of God, fear of death, religious experience, and prayer. Among general dimensions frequently assessed are religious orthodoxy and liberalism-conservatism. Scales to measure religious constructs have good reliabilities and validities matching those in other areas of mainstream psychology. It is unlikely that a scale to measure any major construct of interest to researchers is not already readily available.

Intrinsic-extrinsic-quest religiosity : Early findings that religion tended to correlate positively with prejudice were a major impetus for psychologists of religion to develop more sophisticated measures of religious orientation. Starting with the seminal work of Gordon W. Allport, studies of intrinsic-extrinsic religiosity have dominated the psychology of religion. Initially focused upon unraveling the nature of the religion-prejudice relationship, extrinsic religiosity—that is, using religion for ulterior ends—generally has been found to be that aspect of religion not only related to prejudice but to a host of other undesirable social and psychological characteristics as well. On the other hand, not only has intrinsic religiosity (accepting religion as an end) most often been seen to be unrelated or negatively related to prejudice, it also has been related positively to a wide variety of desirable social and psychological characteristics. Hence, for many researchers, much of the complex nature of religiosity has been felt to be resolved with intrinsic and extrinsic religiosity clarifying the more functional and dysfunctional effects of religion.

However, a challenge to this established body of research came from the assessment of another dimension of religiosity, that is, quest, or religion as an open-ended search. In terms of prejudice research, quest religiosity, and not intrinsic religiosity, has been found to be largely unrelated to prejudice. It is argued that intrinsic religiosity is only apparently unrelated to prejudice. Instead, it may mask a socially desirable tendency merely to wish to appear unprejudiced. Extrinsic religiosity remains generally positively related to prejudice. Quest religiosity also has been generally found to relate to other desirable social psychological characteristics such as more complex thinking, open-minded attitudes, and a willingness to be appropriately altruistic. Despite numerous criticisms of both the measurement and the research traditions associated with intrinsic-extrinsic religiosity and quest religiosity, these have dominated, and are likely to continue to dominate, the empirical research literature for years to come.

Coping and psychopathology : Perhaps most overlapping with the interests of other schools of psychology, measurement psychologists have explored the complex relationships between religion, coping, and psychopathology. Long past accepting by fiat definitional claims that equate religion and psychopathology, it has been found that religion can differentially function in a number of ways relevant to psychopathology: as an expression of disorder, as a suppressing or socializing device, as a heaven, as therapy, as a hazard. Likewise, religion may aid or foster either problem solving or emotion focused coping. Much of the difficulty of summarizing the massive research literature in these areas is that neither psychological health nor effective coping are definable in neutral terms. Hence measurements are inherently value laden and reflect the implicit or explicit ideological basis of research in the psychology of religion. Much of the research literature finds a positive role for religion in the establishment of a subjective sense of well-being even when objective health factors are not affected.

Religious development : Developmental psychologists often postulated developmental sequences or stages for a variety of phenomena. Psychologists of religion have focused upon these theories to assess both the relevance of stages of intellectual development of the acceptance of religious beliefs and the relevance of stages of moral development relevant to religious faith. Unique to the psychology of religion are theories of faith development. While operationalized and capable of adequate measurement, relationships between various stages of development and religious variables are confounded by complex evaluations unlikely to be empirically resolved. Inevitably, some religious traditions are seen as fostering unhealthy development or unduly attracting those at lower stages of development. Religious fundamentalism has been particularly scrutinized and found deficient within most developmental theories of intellectual, moral, or faith development.

Among those developmental theories that do not postulate stages, increasing attention is given to attachment theory in religious development. Newer developments in attachment theory link it more explicitly to evolutionary psychology, a newly emerging paradigm in mainstream psychology.

Conversion, glossolalia, and religious experience : Long a focus of concern by psychologists, researchers continue to investigate religious experiences such as conversion, glossolalia, and mysticism. Much of this research has fostered the movement of the psychology of religion into mainstream psychology. For instance, role theory from social psychology has been used to illuminate both glossolalia and conversion, while attribution theory has been used to make useful theoretical predictions regarding the conditions under which experiences are meaningfully interpreted as religious. The commonality of religious experiences has been repeatedly documented, substantiating that they are part of normal psychology and need not be assumed to be pathological. Mysticism has been a focus of significant empirical research in survey, laboratory, and naturalistic studies. Factors that facilitate the report of religious experience have been identified and include language, psychedelic drugs, and set/setting conditions. Renewed emphasis has been focused on perhaps the most universal of religious practices, prayer.

Religion and death : Given that the fear of death often has been postulated as a major factor in the origin of religion, it is not surprising that researchers have studied religion and attitudes toward death. A pervasive death anxiety has not been substantiated or found related to religion. Attitude toward death is multidimensional. Perspectives such as death as pain, as an afterlife reward, as courage, as unknown, or simply as an end have been found to vary in complex ways in relation to aspects of religion. Perhaps the most robust finding is that fear and negative perspectives on death and dying are mitigated by belief in a benevolent afterlife, a feature common to many religious traditions. Closely paralleling this is the robust finding that religious participation serves to give social and emotional support to survivors and to keep people integrated with each other in the face of death.

Religion and psychotherapy : The hostility of some schools of psychology (such as classical psychoanalysis) to religion is mitigated by new approaches within all schools of psychology that give validity to religion. Some schools, such as transpersonal psychology, are explicitly spiritual psychologies. Even within mainstream psychology, the scientist-practitioner model has yielded to awareness of the crucial role of values at every level in the therapeutic enterprise. In addition, contemporary philosophy of science has lessened the uniqueness of science as a form of knowing and made sharp demarcations between science and religion less defensible. Hence the explicit recognition of the possible value and use of religion in therapy is no longer a province only of the religious psychologies. Psychology schools can no longer take a hostile or noninteractive stance toward religion. At a minimum, the demand that clinical and counseling psychologies be sensitive to religious beliefs as part of the recognition of their training in multiculturalism assures that the psychology of religion will no longer be seen as irrelevant to the training of clinical and counseling practitioners.

Ralph W. Hood, Jr .


C. D. Batson et al., Religion and the Individual (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993)

R. L. Gorsuch, "The Psychology of Religion," Annual Review of Psychology 39 (1988):201-221

R. W. Hood, Jr., Handbook of Religious Experience (Birmingham, Ala.: Religious Education Press, 1995)

R. W. Hood et al., The Psychology of Religion , 2nd ed. (New York: Guilford, 1996)

S. L. Jones, "A Constructive Relationship for Religion with the Science and Profession of Psychology," American Psychologist 49(1994):184-199

J. McDargh, Psychoanalytic Objects Relation Theory and the Study of Religion (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983)

W. W. Meissner, Psychoanalysis and Religious Experience (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984)

R. F. Paloutzian and L. A. Kirkpatrick (eds.), "Religious Influences on Personal and Societal Well-Being," Journal of Social Issues 51, 2(1995)

K. Pargament, The Psychology of Religion and Coping (New York: Guilford, 1997)

J. F. Schumaker (ed.), Religion and Mental Health (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992)

E. P. Shafranske, Religion and the Clinical Practice of Psychology (New York: American Psychological Association, 1995)

B. Spilka and D. N. McIntosh (eds.), The Psychology of Religion (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1997)

C. T. Tart (ed.), Transpersonal Psychologies (New York: Harper, 1975)

D. M. Wulff (ed.), Psychology of Religion (New York: Wiley, 1991).

return to Encyclopedia Table of Contents

Hartford Institute for Religion Research   hirr@hartsem.edu
Hartford Seminary, 77 Sherman Street, Hartford, CT 06105  860-509-9500