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The psychology of Religion

The task of psychology of religion is to study humans experiences of a reality that can be
defined as spiritual, religious or paranormal, for instance, mystical experiences, experiences of
Gods guidance, healing, visions, possession and conversion. Psychologists of religion study how
these experiences are manifested, how they arise and what purpose they serve for individuals and
groups. Psychology of religion also studies the rites and actions of religious people, for instance,
meditation, ascetic exercises, prayer, the reading of the Koran, pilgrimage, and the link between
religiousness and other types of behaviour.

Research and education in psychology of religion are done at both departments of psychology
and departments of religious studies all over the world. Modern psychology of religion research
is characterized by a diversity of methodology and theory. However, it is generally agreed that
this diversity is an asset that gives a nuanced insight into the complicated reality we call religion.

Because the task of psychology of religion is to study experiences and behaviours from highly
diverse religions and cultures, the question often arises to what extent psychological processes
are universal or specific to a certain culture. This in turn raises questions on whether it is possible
and without problems to use methods and theories that have developed in the Western World
when studying religion in other parts of the world. In this way, it is possible to see distinct points
of contact between psychology of religion and cultural and cross-cultural psychology.

At the department of religious studies in Ume, the main focus is on qualitative psychology of
religion. Qualitative methods of collecting and analyzing data have developed enormously in
recent years within social and behavioural sciences. Since religious experiences and actions are
often symbolic and carry meaning, we have endeavoured to relate to streams of modern
qualitative psychological research that emphasize that man is a social creature who tries to create
meaning. This is primarily about social constructivism and narrative psychology.


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The Psychology of Religion

The psychology of religion tries to study religion so far as it can be explained psychologically.
Dan Merkur in his Psychology of Religion in The Routledge Companion to the Study of
Religion (ed. John T Hinnels) notes that some devotees of religion are not terribly pleased about
such attempts as it seems to reduce religion to psychology. Others however see it as a way of
purifying religion of the things which are human.

Seth D Kunins book Religion: the modern theories, also explores psychological approaches to
the study of religion. He reminds us that as well as Freud and Jung, William James has had a very
important role in modern thinking on the psychology of religion.

William James was born in New York, and was the son of theologian Henry James (1811-1882).
His most important work, The varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature
meant that as well as being considered a leading psychologist one of the inventors of American
psychology, he was also considered a leading philosopher and religious thinker. James called his
own lectures which formed the basis of the book a descriptive survey of the varieties of
religious experience but this was only part of the story. In fact they defended James pragmatic
view of religion against other psychology accounts of religion which saw it as an abnormal state
of mind, or attempts to reduce religion to an intellectual activity. William James defined religion
in terms of individual experience. He writes:

religion shall mean for us the feeling, acts and experience of individual men in their solitude,
so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they consider to be divine.
(James, 1902)

James does not make any comment about whether the divine exists and he does not suggest that
religion has a single source in the human psyche. Religion is not uniquely found in one or other
way of understanding (theological, sociological or psychological) so James is different from
theologians, sociologists and psychologists who claim religion is comprehensively explained
from their exclusive vantage point as a discipline (a way of explaining).

James thinks that religion has a function in making aspects of life which are intolerable,
tolerable. It is fairly clear that people often rely on religion to help us face the challenges of
suffering, illness, loss and death. Religion also helps us to get by as individuals in society.

Dan Merkur writes about James particular interest in the study of the process by which a non-
religious person became religious conversion. In other words James is interested in how
religion differs from what we could call irreligion? This led him to look at religious experience-
seen as a feature of conversion (remember Saul in the New Testament for instance). He observes
that religious experiences all include four elements: they are ineffable, authoritative, limited in
duration and the mystic is passive. Religious experience is much more important than religious
institutions in James view and this should really be the main focus of the study of religion.
Without those religious experiences leading to the formation of religion, the institutions would
never exist. Psychologists then are in a particularly good position to study religion because they
are experts in the study of the mind and that is where experience is located.

So while James provides a psychological defense of religion against Freud and others who see it
in rather negative terms he also identifies experience as being an important feature of the study of
religion rather than simply doctrine or institution. This is rather more challenging for traditional
theological ideas of religion and religious traditions.