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Religion and Psychology

Psychologists have long studied religion and religious practices. Using principles of traditional psychology, researchers try to understand religious experience, including prayer, cults, and mystical experiences. The study of religion and psychology began in the early twentieth century, but faded before it was revived in the 1980s, when the American Psychological Association began to formally investigate aspects of religion in psychology. The only classic text relating to the psychological study of religion, Varieties of Religious Experience, was written by William James in 1902.

Sigmund Freud, who called religion an "illusion," nonetheless studied religion with great interest, and wrote three books and some papers on his studies of how religion impacted human lives. Later psychoanalysts has studied the psychological value of religion. However, only a few psychologists, including Paul Meehl, Erich Fromm, Abraham Maslow, and Solomon Asch, deemed belief systems, moral and ethical conduct, and the reasons people abide by a certain religion as significant factors in human behavior.

Psychologist William James studied the intricate influences of religious conversions, mystical experience, saintliness, and prayer on a person's belief system. Twenty-first century psychologists investigate such topics as cults, confession (particularly as it is practiced among Roman Catholics), ritual, faith healing, and explanations for miracles. Modern psychologists actively pursue the interrelationship between religion and psychology and note that just as religion influences human existence, human perceptions also influence the practice of religion.

Psychologists use various methods to study religion. They have used personal revelations, observation through clinical means, participant observation, surveys and interviews, and examinations of religious documents, treatises, and journals. All these methods must be used to help psychologists understand such a complex topic. A concept such as faith is not easily categorized or discussed, despite scientific analysis. Understanding the psychological origins of religion is difficult as well. Modern psychologists tend to focus their study on individual practices rather than the historical nature of religion as a whole. They look for psychological underpinnings of religion on modern people. This also means that an individual's religion and belief system changes as that person ages. As their mental and emotional development progresses, so their image of God and religion does also.

There are many areas of interest to psychologists. Psychologists hold special interest in the social dynamics of religions and their organized structures. They study the influence that these bodies have on the lives of their members and the communities in which they exist. Some psychologists analyze the workings of cults and how these social groups differ from more traditional religions. Many psychologists and religious leaders are attempting to integrate theology and psychology through these pursuits.

The ever-growing group of psychologists attempting to define the psychology of religion include the religiously devout as well as atheists and agnostics. In a study published in the June 2000 issue of Health Psychology by the American Psychological Association, Michael E. McCullough, of the National Institute of Healthcare Research noted that "the odds of survival for people who scored higher on measures of public and

Research shows that religious people, like this man, tend to report greater happiness than non-religious people. (Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbestiz. Reproduced with permission.)

private religious involvement were 20 percent higher than those people who scored lower on such measures." The analysis was done of 42 different studies and examined 125,826 people, and shows a correlation between participation in a religion and an increased life expectancy. As McCullough added, "this is a phenomenon that deserves a lot more research attention than it has traditionally received." As a result, religion is likely to become a central area of focus in psychology well into the twenty-first century.

Jane Spear

Further Reading

Collins, G. R. Religion and Philosophy. Encyclopedia of Psychology, Second Edition. Ray Corsini, Ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons 1994.

Neuhaus, Richard John. Religion and Psychology. National Review, Feb. 19, 1988.

Further Information

American Psychological Association. 750 First Street, N.E., Washington, D.C., USA. 20002-4242, 202-336-5500, 800-374-2721.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Perception: early Greek theories to Zombie