Explanation and Understanding in the Psychology of Religion: Paradigms, Methodologies, and the Future of a Burgeoning Field

By Hatala, Andrew R. | International Journal of Psychology Research, October 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Explanation and Understanding in the Psychology of Religion: Paradigms, Methodologies, and the Future of a Burgeoning Field


Hatala, Andrew R., International Journal of Psychology Research


INTRODUCTION

The psychology of religion could be said to have, in a sense, two spirits. On the one hand, the field generally signifies "the systematic application of psychological theories and methods to the contents of religious traditions and to the related experiences, attitudes, and actions of individuals" (Wulff 2001, p. 15). On the other hand, psychological researchers "are crediting the claims for mystical and religious experience and are attempting to devise psychological methods and theories adequate to the investigation of such phenomena" (Main 2006, p. 167). Thus these two perspectives generally vary as to their dealings with the "object" of investigation. Are the contents of religious and spiritual phenomena-existence of an afterlife, spiritual reality, eternal soul, etc-factual or simply evidence of the myth-making capacities of the human mind? From its inception to contemporary times, most psychologists investigating religious or spiritual phenomena would argue that psychology is not concerned with the truth or falsity of religious claims, but rather with the fact that such ideas can and do exist (Allport 1952; Belzen 2001, 2010; Fontana 2003; Hill, Hood and Spilka 2009; James 1902; Jung 1969; Kirkpatrick 2005; Tiger and McGuire 2010). This being said however, it seems that how religion and spirituality are defined, operationalized, measured and generally approached in psychology can vary between two poles-those sensitive to the contents of religion and those who are not2.

On one end of the spectrum are those who investigate religious experiences from the standpoint of the participants under study. These researchers are primarily concerned with the meaning of religion (Glazer and Flowerday 2003), or view religion as an "inner process" to be understood empathetically with regard to its meaningful structure underlying ritual, sacred objects, stories and symbolic images (Wulff 2001). This perspective was largely developed by what Wulff (1997) calls the "German schools" of philosophy and promoted a psychology of religion that retained a strong connection with theology throughout its development. These perspectives are exemplified throughout history in Schleiermacher's (1799/1996) theory of religion as the feelings of absolute dependence, Wundt's (1911) Völkerpsychologie that suggests religion involves the notion that our world is part of a larger supernatural one, and also Otto's (1950) "Wholly Other" or mysterium tremendum et fascinans, which expresses the dual character of religious experience as frightening and overpowering on the one hand, and alluring or fascinating on the other. Due to the inherent sensitivity towards religious phenomena often coupled with these perspectives, rigorous research arguably involves a measure of artistic sensitivity (Spranger 1952), deep inner piety (van der Leeuw 1938), personal familiarity with religious experiences (Ryba 2006), and a gift for acute self-observation (Gurwitsch 1966).

On the other end of the spectrum are those who typically investigate religious or spiritual phenomena from the standpoint of "objective" observers (Wulff, 2001). Religious phenomena tend to be seen as a naturalistic process to be explained in terms of its origins or functions. Starbuck's (1899) pioneering attempts to gather large numbers of data to quantify and to further discern general trends-of which William James (1902) based many of his descriptions-quickly became a paragon of this approach within the American psychology of religion. Along these same lines was another prominent researcher, James Leuba (1925) whose research into mystical experiences suggests they have their origins in neurophysiological processes and are the results of abnormal suggestibility. As opposed to developing theory from religious phenomena, this perspective typically conducts research within, or rather "applies," one or another psychological framework developed completely apart from religious influence, such as attribution theory (Spilka et al. …

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