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Psychology of Religion's Future

by Michael E. Nielsen, PhD

        At the October 1995 meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in St. Louis, Missouri, two sessions of the conference were devoted to the future of the discipline. Four experts in the field, Richard Gorsuch, Ralph Hood, Bernard Spilka, and Pat Schoenrade, were invited to give their views on the psychology of religion. They were asked to respond to three questions: Over the next 25 years, where is the psychology of religion headed? How would I change the direction in view of my own? Does (or can) the psychology of religion inform religious practice? I enjoyed their thoughts, and have written this summary so that others may benefit from the conference. After reading this, I'd like to hear what you think of the discipline's future. Please email me with your thoughts!

        Dr. Richard Gorsuch

        Dr. Richard Gorsuch is Professor of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He is well-known for his knowledge of statistics and measurement, having written a text on factor analysis (a statistical technique) and developed data-analysis software. In the psychology of religion, he may be best-known for his 1984 American Psychologist article titled Measurement: The Boon or Bane of the Psychology of Religion.

        Dr. Gorsuch began by describing his philosophy of science as that of a "postmodern constructionist." He calls himself "postmodern" because of his belief that science does not generate certain truth, and "constructionist" because he sees the process as that of building an understanding of the phenomenon one step at a time. In Gorsuch's view, we emphasize consistencies in data (broadly defined), and as we accumulate these consistencies, we develop a better understanding of the phenomenon.

        Some consistencies in data that need more attention, according to Gorsuch, include the following:

        • the correlation between parent's and children's religious belief;
        • the finding that women's participation in religion exceeds men's;
        • the development of an intrinsic orientation;
        • the effect of religion in preventing substance abuse.

        Part of the discipline's difficulty in making progress is due to a lack of "community effort." That is, we coordinate our efforts all too infrequently. For example, rather than reinventing the wheel by developing new scales to measure religiousness, we need to build on the work that exists already. Another symptom of the difficulty of the field is that most of its researchers have not themselves taken courses in the psychology of religion. Consequently, it is not unusual for our knowledge of psychology to be greater than our knowledge of religion.

        Gorsuch sees psychology of religion's future as being no brighter than it is now, unless we take control. We can do this in several ways. First, we need to increase the exposure of the field in the broader psychological community. Second, we need to increase the amount of funding for research of religious phenomena. Doing this would make it possible to conduct the longitudinal research needed to answer some of the more interesting and important questions facing psychologists of religion. Finally, Gorsuch reminded us that it is important to understand that measurement is a means to an end, and not an end itself.

        Dr. Ralph Hood

        Dr. Ralph Hood is Professor of Psychology at the University of Tennessee--Chattanooga. He is past editor of the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, and now edits the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

        Dr. Hood is concerned about the field because, in his view, senior people seem to be saying that the psychology of religion isn't interesting. Evidence of this is a low number of psychology manuscripts submitted to JSSR, as well as a low number of subscriptions to IJPR.

        From Hood's perspective, the field is composed of three general groups. First, there are psychologists of religion. These people seek to bring the field into the mainstream of psychology, usually meaning mainstream social psychology. Within this group Hood sees two segments. The first focuses on measurement, and the second focuses on using experimental or quasiexperimental techniques. In straddling the two disciplines, Hood characterizes them as being very proficient in psychology, but weak in religion.

        The second group Hood sees are religious psychologists. These people are better at the religious side of the equation, but as a rule their psychological research techniques are poor. Hood hopes that they seek to strengthen their psychology so that the field can benefit from their understanding of religion.

        The third group are those who advocate psychology and religion. These people seek to combine meaningfully the strengths of the psychological and religious disciplines. Hood cites Laurence B. Brown's new book, The Human Side of Prayer, as characteristic of this group.

        As you might guess by reading these characterizations, Hood hopes to see improvements in the way that religion and psychology are combined. Researchers in the field need to use more approaches to psychology and to religion, which are epitomized by David Wulff's book, Psychology of Religion: Classic and Contemporary Views. Hood also hopes to see more clinical psychological research and theory used by psychologists of religion, along with an increased awareness of the importance of spirituality. These are important areas that can benefit the field.

        Dr. Bernie Spilka

        Dr. Bernard Spilka is Professor of Psychology at the University of Denver. He is well-known as a central figure in the discipline, and has been instrumental in helping several younger scholars begin their careers. In his own humorous style, he began by saying that he could say anything that he wanted because at his age, he's the one least likely to be here in 25 years when their remarks are evaluated!

        In response to the question, "Where should we go in the next 25 years?" Dr. Spilka noted that the past decade has seen many changes. Attachment theory, role theory, developmental issues, and coping theory are among those that have been introduced. The next step is to transform these theories into research. This is most likely to come by adapting perspectives and techniques from mainstream psychology. In doing this, Spilka stressed the importance of placing data within a theoretical framework. He recommended the program of research developed by Ken Pargament as setting the pattern to be followed. Pargament has conducted a series of thoughtful studies on religion's role in coping with life's stresses. By drawing on mainstream psychological theories, Pargament's research has improved our understanding of both religion and psychology.

        Spilka names spirituality as an area that needs more attention from researchers. At this point, spirituality remains an ill- defined and "fuzzy" concept. Because most of what we have are measurements of institutional devotion, we need to improve our tools for measuring spirituality so that we may better understand religious commitment that is not part of cultural institutions.

        Another area that needs attention, according to Spilka, is our adherence to rigorous scientific methods. A reliance on data is essential in our effort to understand religious behavior and thought, and our research methods must be held up for public scrutiny. After having done such studies, we then must write more actively for religious practitioners (clergy, etc.) than we do now. Doing this will increase the impact of our work.

        Dr. Pat Schoenrade

        Dr. Patricia Schoenrade is Associate Professor of Psychology at William Jewell College (Missouri). She has worked closely with Dan Batson on research concerning the Quest religious orientation, and she is coauthor with Batson and Ventis of The Religious Experience: A Social-Psychological Perspective.

        Dr. Schoenrade describes the psychology of religion as being somewhat child-like. We look at the world with wide-eyed wonder and say "wow!" Although there are positive effects of our appreciation for the phenomena we study, a negative effect is that we struggle with being organized. For example, we continue to grapple with such basic questions as, "Is religion conceptually unique from cognition and other psychological phenomena?" We would make better progress toward answering questions such as this if we were to face the phenomena from a more organized set of perspectives.

        Cross-cultural experiences, according to Schoenrade, will become increasingly important. For example, how do people in cultures throughout the world explain the meaning of life? Questions such as this are becoming critical in many areas of psychology, and Schoenrade pointed out their relevance to understanding religious phenomena as well.

        Speaking to those who advocate phenomenological psychology, Schoenrade reminded the audience of the importance of scientific rigor and the need to maintain scientific values even if we do phenomenological research. In this vein, Schoenrade suggested that not all data should be treated as equally weighted; in the sciences, some data are more valuable than others. Like all people, psychologists who study religion are involved in our work. By using scientific research methods, we increase the replicability of our results.

        Finally, Schoenrade echoed Spilka's sentiments when she said that we are not in danger of our research being misapplied--instead, we are in danger of having it ignored. We need to seek opportunities to teach others in both religion and psychology about the results of our research.


        The main themes that I noticed concerned methodology--how psychologists study religious behavior and thought. How should psychologists focus their efforts to understand religious phenomena? In general, there seems to be a consensus among the people in this session that scientific research should be theory-driven, so that data help us understand better the theories that might be applied to other situations. None of the participants were terribly optimistic about the future, but their hopes seemed to increase if certain things occurred:

        • more research that addresses theoretical issues;
        • more research based on developmental and clinical perspectives;
        • increased cooperation among psychologists who study religion;
        • better communication with religious practitioners.
        I have been at this work just a few years, yet I tend to share their assessment. For example, despite Gorsuch's widely-read article decrying indiscriminate efforts to measure religiousness, many researchers ignore his sage advice. If we increase the degree of cooperation among ourselves, our future will be much brighter.

        I also believe that we need to communicate better with people in other disciplines. The psychological study of religion has much to offer, but in order for people to benefit from our work we must let them know about it! Whether we are talking with professionals (psychologists, clergy, etc.), students, or to others who simply have an interest in the topic, we must do it more actively and effectively than we do now. (Yes, that is one reason why I decided to develop these www pages!)

        Now, I have told you what other people think about the future of psychology and religion. I would like to know what you think of the future. Please send me an email note (or essay!) about what you think the future of the discipline will be like. What will make the future better than the present? Send me your thoughts!

        Michael Nielsen, Ph.D.
        Department of Psychology
        Georgia Southern University
        Statesboro, GA 30460-8041

        © 1995, Michael Nielsen

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