PSY 358 Life University Psychology of Religion Reflection Paper

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The contemporary debate over forms of religious expression is as old as religion itself. The long tradition of church-sect theory suggests that religious organizations are in a constant process of change – some adapting to cultural changes, and other trying to resist change. The temptation to postulate unique psychological processes involved in religions distant from one’s own is unlikely to be fruitful. Individuals committed to cult and sect forms of religion struggle no less for significance and meaning in their lives than so those committed to more mainstream forms of religious faith. This, combined with the discussed in the Chapter 10 on the emergence of forms of spirituality in opposition to religious, suggests that the empirical study of the dynamics within and between religious groups has a certain future (Hood et al., 2018, p. 307) .

The claim that unique psychological processes must be involved in the maintenance of religious groups in tension with their culture is as conceptually unenlightened as it is empirically ungrounded. Polemical terms such as “brainwashing” are clearly less than useful. If we maintain the concept of “cult,” it is because accurate descriptions of phenomena are crucial in science, and perhaps even more so in the social-scientific study of less popular forms of religions. We ought not to abandon terms whose usefulness is only threatened by popular ignorance. The fact that, in the end, evaluations must be made is all the more reason to make them only with descriptions of religious groups that are fair and accurate (Hood et al., 2018, p. 307) .

The extension of research on cults to GATTs must be cautious but has clearly established empirical parallels that must be acknowledged. How psychology will change in the face of globalization is uncertain. However, as noted in Chapter 8, Pickren (2009, p.87) warns that “the 21st century is unlikely to be another American century in psychology.” This is not to dismiss the methods and procedures currently in use, but only to suggest that in a global environment other approaches must emerge. AS we focus upon religion has been focused upon and studied by WEIRD people – the acronym for “Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic” societies (Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010). When American psychologists confront more extreme religious groups, especially GATTs, the limitations of the WEIRD perspective have clouded their ability to understand such groups, but a clearer understanding is sorely needed. Even the American Psychology Association (APA) itself has recently been chided for it clandestine support for of the Bush administration’s use of torture and similar tactics in the wake of 9/11. What is widely referred to as the “Hoffman report” (Hoffman et al., 2015) forced resignations at the APA, as well as a clear affirmation of an ethics rule that forbids American psychologists to play any role in what are perceived by some to be terrorist tactics (Hood et al., 2018, p. 307).

Finally, Psychologists of religion can no longer ignore the rising number of persons who are neither religious nor spiritual. Although self-identified atheists remain rare in the United States, they are more frequent among eminent scientists and in western European cultures that are already strongly secularized. The psychological processes involved in the rejection of God are likely to mirror those involved in the acceptance of God; however, the ontological question of God’s existence cannot be answered by those whose task is purely psychological (Hood et al., 2018, p.308).


Hood, R.W., Hill, P.K., & Spilka, B. (2018). The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach (5th Ed). New York: The Guilford Press Religious experiences are as varied as the interpretations individuals can bring to their lives. It is less relevant to seek the common elements of religious experiences than to find higher-order abstractions for identifying a class of varied phenomena. The James-Boisen formula that religious experience is a successful resolution of discontent is basic to most faith traditions. However, few studies have placed religious experience within a context to determine its functionality over time. Methodological considerations still loom large in the evaluation of empirical research. Although few researchers are now satisfied with correlation studied, debates that have dominated the empirical psychology of religion continue between those who favor the rigor and control provided by laboratory research (Saroglou, 2014) and those who seek to place the study of religion within a cultural and historical perspective (Belzen & Hood, 2016). Others have provided examples of multidisciplinary research using both qualitative and quantitative methods and both idiothetic and nomothetic methods, without privileging any one method over all others (Streib & Hood, 2016). The particulars of discontents and resolutions are provided by Sudén’s role theory, which not only allows tradition, text, and practice to model appropriate perceptions and interpretations that facilitate religious experiences within a faith tradition, but permits longitudinal studies needed for true tests of the James-Boisen formula (Hood et al., 2018, pp. 352-353).

Common religious practices, such as prayer and meditation, have been studied in terms of the psychological correlates and subjective contents of these experiences. AS we shall see in Chapter 11, more and more true experimental methods are applied to areas in which experimentation was long thought difficult if not impossible. Some have, as it were, facilitated a sense of divine presence not in the church, synagogue, or mosque, but in the laboratory. Speculations about the neurophysiology of dramatic religious experience, such as glossolalia and hallucinations, demand additional empirical investigation with new neurophysiological techniques that continue to be developed. Dynamic theories illuminating the processes involved in determining the content of hallucinations have been tested and promise to foster both controversy and additional research (Hood et al., 2018, p. 353).

Imagery has returned as a focus of research, as methodological behaviorism has been seen as too limited in scope for any deep study of religion , and metaphysical behaviorism has been found no more philosophically adequate than is the methodological exclusion of the transcendent from a field in which transcendence may be an essential defining characteristic. Entheogen remain of interest, despite legal impediments in the United States to research. The fact hat religious imagery can be facilitated by entheogen, in the appropriate set and setting, assures the continued relevance for the psychology of religion of techniques to alter states of consciousness – not simply out of curiosity, but as a response to realities that remain ontologically relevant to any nonreductive psychological exploration of religion or spirituality (Hood et al., 2018, p. 353) .


Hood, R.W., Hill, P.K., & Spilka, B. (2018). The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach (5th Ed). New York: The Guilford Press.

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