Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Leon Festinger directed a field study of a flying saucer "cult" that has become a classic, both in the social scientific study of religion and in social psychology (Festinger et al. 1956). The study also contributed to the discussion of ethical issues of field research on religious groups, being cited by some as research with serious ethical problems (Richardson 1991). The theory of cognitive dissonance dominated the social psychology journals from the late 1950s to early 1970s and is still an important theoretical idea that appears in virtually all psychology and social psychology texts (Jones 1985).

The basic theory of cognitive dissonance is simple: People prefer a situation in which their cognitions are consistent with each other and their cognitions are consistent with their behaviors. If there are inconsistencies among a person's cognitions, or between cognitions and behaviors, these will cause disquiet in the person, leading him or her to seek some resolution of the discomfort. Research on this basic idea has led to some interesting and counterintuitive results, including those from the When Prophecy Fails study. In that research, the expectation that flying saucers would come to remove all believers at a specific time and place was disproved, but this did not lead to the immediate dissolution of the group. Instead, Festinger et al.'s predictions that the group would seek other explanations that were consistent with the failure to appear, and that they would promote those alternative ideas energetically through proselytizing, were supported. This result made the research an instant classic that aroused great interest and controversy.

James T. Richardson


L. Festinger et al., When Prophecy Fails (New York: Harper, 1956)

E. Jones, "Major Developments in Social Psychology During the Past Five Decades," in The Handbook of Social Psychology , 3rd ed., Vol. 1, ed. G. Lindzey and E. Aronson (New York: Random House, 1985): 47-107

J. T. Richardson, "Experiencing Research on New Religions and 'Cults,'" in Experiencing Fieldwork , ed. W. Shaffir and R. Stebbins (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1991): 62-71

R. Wallis, "Reflections on When Prophecy Fails in Salvation and Protest , ed. R. Wallis (New York: St Martin's, 1979): 44-50.

COGNITIVE MODELS Models of religious experience and religious conversions that focus on the way people process information. These theories are rooted in the field of social psychology, focusing on intellectual processes in forming and sustaining a worldview or on stages of intellectual development. Broadly speaking, there are two main approaches: cognitive structuralism and cognitive re-creation theory.

The theoretical perspective of cognitive structuralism posits an innate developmental structure in the intellectual maturation of humans—irrespective of cultural or religious background. Also known as cognitive developmentalism, structural developmentalism, developmental epistemology, or developmental constructionism, this perspective evolved from the work of Jean Piaget. Because each stage represents a kind of Worldview, scholars believe there are implications for religious education, moral thinking, faith maturation, and the process of conversion.

Lawrence Kohlberg (1981, 1984) identified three levels of moral thinking with two stages at each level—six stages in all. The key to his schema is increased capacity to role-take. James Fowler followed Kohlberg's work with a six-stage model of faith development, emphasizing sophistication in understanding symbolism and in perception of authority. All six stages may occur within any religion; the stages refer to the cognitive processing of symbols and myths, not to the specific content of a faith.

Some structuralists insist that change of stage is as important in transforming one's worldview as a change of one's specific beliefs. Thus each change of stage can be seen as a kind of conversion experience in itself.

Cognitive re-creation theory is based on the premise that an intense reality-transforming experience of conversion or inspiration is closely analogous to the process of artistic or scientific creativity. Developed by Daniel Batson and Larry Ventis (1982), the model focuses on psychological research on the processes of creativity, suggesting four distinctive steps in the formation of an entirely new religious worldview or of an innovative interpretation of a religious tradition: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. The theory includes analysis of the possible role of specialization in right and left brain hemispheres in religious inspiration.

See also Faith Development, Moral Development, Jean Piaget

Keith A. Roberts


C. D. Batson and W. L. Ventis, The Religious Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982)

J. W. Fowler, Stages of Faith (San Francisco: Harper, 1981)

L. Kohlberg, Essays on Moral Development (New York: Harper, 1981, 1984 [2 vols.])

J. Piaget, The Psychology of Intelligence (London: Routledge, 1950)

J. Piaget, The Construction of Reality in the Child (New York: Basic Books, 1954)

J. Piaget, The Moral Judgement of the Child (New York: Free Press, 1965 [1932])

M. M. Wilcox, Developmental Journey (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1979).

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