PSYCHOLOGY OF
RELIGION
Historical Context, Underlying
Assumptions, Perspectives on
Religion
Historical Context
USA
TENSION & OPPORTUNITIES

The psychological study of religion in the
USA illustrates tensions and opportunities
that exist between psychology and
religion. It also demonstrates the
multifaceted views taken by psychologists
as they address areas of living that have
personal implications.
BIOGRAPHICAL APPROACH

Many psychological theorists have had
interesting perspectives on religion:
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
William James (1842-1910)
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)
Alfred Adler (1870-1937)
Carl Jung (1875-1961)
Gordon Allport (1897-1967)
Abraham Maslow (1908-1970)
Erik Erikson (1902-1994)
WILLIAM JAMES (1842-1910)

Major work, Varieties of Religious

James distinguished between institutional
religion and personal religion.
Experience
– Institutional Religion: This refers to the
religious group or organization, and plays an
important part in society’s culture.
– Personal Religion: This refers to the individual
who has a mystical experience, one that can
be experienced regardless of the culture.
SIGMUND FREUD (1856-1939)
Freud laid the foundation for psychoanalysis
which has had tremendous influence on modern
culture.
 In his broad theories, he attempted to explain
how we are influenced by past events and by
things outside our conscious awareness.

FREUD…PSYCHOANALYSIS

As a therapy, psychoanalysis is based on the observation
that individuals are often unaware of many of the factors
that determine their emotions and behavior. These
unconscious factors may create unhappiness, sometimes
in the form of recognizable symptoms and at other times
as troubling personality traits, difficulties in work or in
love relationships, or disturbances in mood and selfesteem. Because these forces are unconscious, the
advice of friends and family, the reading of self-help
books, or even the most determined efforts of will, often
fail to provide relief.
PSYCHOANALYSIS…
Freud suggested that people experience conflicts
between what they do (represented by our ID) and what
we are told by society and parents that we should do
(represented by our Superego). This conflict is resolved
by the Ego.
 Freud viewed religion as originating in the child’s
relationship to the father; hence in many cultures God is
viewed as a Heavenly Father. In this way, religion reflects
an attempt to fulfill our wishes and is an illusion.
 The popularity of the psychoanalytic perspective has
declined to 10% in the APA and 5% in the APS.
 However, psychoanalytic interpretations of religion
remain popular in some circles.

ALFRED ADLER (1870-1937)

Primary work portraying his ideas, Individual
Psychology
One of Adler’s most famous ideas is that we try
to compensate for inferiorities that we perceive
in ourselves.
 A lack of power often is at the root of inferiority.
 One way religion enters into this picture is
through our beliefs in God, which are
characteristic of our tendency to strive for
perfection and superiority.

ADLER: RELIGION AS
COMPENSATORY

Example: In many religions God is
considered to be perfect and omnipotent,
and commands people likewise to be
perfect. If we too achieve perfection, we
become one with God. By identifying with
God in this way, we compensate for our
imperfections and feelings of inferiority.
ADLER: GOD AS MOTIVATOR


Adler is interested mainly in the idea of
God as a motivator, and not in the
question of whether or not God exists.
What is important is that “God”
(conceptually) motivates people to act.
Adler suggests that we are left with two
options:
ADLER: OUR OPTIONS
1.
2.
We can either assume that we are at the
center of the world –both ours and God’s –and
that God will care for us as we wait passively
for attention, or…
We can assume that we are the center of the
world, and actively work to achieve society’s
interest.

Adler’s point is that if we assume that we have power over
our surroundings, then we will act in ways to benefit the
world around us. Our view of God is important because it
embodies our goals and directs our social interactions.
ADLER: SOCIAL IMPACT
According to Adler, religion is important in that it
exerts a great influence on our social
environment, and represents a powerful social
movement.
 When compared to science (another social
movement), religion is more advanced because
it motivates people more effectively.
 Adler’s assertion was that only when science
begins to capture the same motivational fervor
as religion, will the two be equal in the public’s
eyes?

CARL JUNG (1875-1961)

Jung was concerned with the interplay
between conscious and unconscious
forces. He proposed two kinds of
unconsciousness:
1. Personal Unconscious (or shadow): This includes
things about ourselves that we would like to
forget.
2. Collective Unconscious: This refers to events that
we all share by virtue of our common heritage
(humanity).
JUNG: ARCHETYPES

The word "archetype" was coined by Carl Jung,
who theorized that humans have a collective
unconscious, "deposits of the constantly
repeated experiences of humanity.... a kind of
readiness to reproduce over and over again the
same or similar mythical ideas...." This shared
memory of experiences has resulted in a
resonance of the concepts of hero and heroine
(or, gods and goddesses) that transcends time,
place and culture. Jung called these recurring
personalities archetypes, from the Greek word
archetypos, meaning “first of its kind.”
GORGON ALLPORT (1897-1967)



Classic work, The Individual and His Religion
Allport made important contributions to the
psychology of personality, refining the concept
of “traits.”
Allport classified the use of religion as:
1. Mature: Mature religious sentiment occurs when a person’s
approach to religion is dynamic, open-minded, and able to
maintain links between inconsistencies.
2. Immature: Immature religious sentiment is self-serving and
generally represents the negative stereotypes that people
have about religion.
ABRAHAM MASLOW (1908-1970)
Maslow developed a hierarchy of needs, ranging
from lower level physiological needs, through
love and belonging, to self-actualization.
 Self-actualized people are those who have
reached their potential for self-development.
 Maslow claimed that mystics are more likely to
have had “peak experiences,” experiences in
which the person feels a sense of ecstasy and
oneness with the universe.
 Maslow’s theory of “psychological health” is
value-based.

ERIK ERIKSON (1902-1994)
Erikson is best known for his psychology of
development.
 Erikson believed that proper psychological
development occurs in a series of eight stages
that follow a sequence.
 Associated with each stage is an identity conflict
involving a positive resolution (or, “virtue”) and
a negative resolution (or, “pathology”).
 Erikson considered religions to be important
influences in successful personality
development, promoting virtues and prohibiting
pathologies.

UNDERLYING
ASSUMPTIONS
THE PLACE OF RELIGION IN
AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGY
UNDERLYING ASSUMPTION

The Psychological Assumption of
Reductionism: This view asserts that
scientists understand something by
examining the effects of its component
parts (phenomena, observable to the
senses) and as such is at odds with the
religious assumption that the world cannot
be taken at face value (i.e., there is “more
than meets the eye”).
UNDERLYING ASSUMPTION…
Psychologists who study other phenomena assume that
those phenomena are real.
 Those psychologists who study religion address it as a
reality that can be received only in a “state of faith.”
 This sets up a tension between psychology and religion.
 For example: The act of faith is so critical to religious
knowledge and experience, but in psychology skepticism
(all knowledge is uncertain, contra. dogmatism that
asserts a matter of opinion as though it were fact) is an
enduring value, but in religion it is an intermediate step
on the pathway to belief.
 The methods and theories (assumptions) of psychology
have appeared to be incompatible with the more
subjective and experiential methods of religion.

PSYCHOLOGICAL
PERSPECTIVES
SCHOOLS OF PSYCHOLOGY
Psychoanalytical
Analytical
Object Relations
Unconscious
motives for
religious
beliefs (Freud)
Reduces
religious belief to
some natural
attempt to cope
with life.
“Archetypes”
Considered by
explain
most
religious belief psychologists as
(Jung)
“unscientific”
Maternal
Methodology:
influence on
Case Studies and
the child
Group Samples
(Freud)
Transpersonal Confronts spirituality
directly, often
assuming the spiritual
phenomena are real
(Maslow)
Small, but growing
influence among
psychologists.
Phenomenological
Favor description and
critical reflection over
experimentation and
measurement.
Methodology:
Experience-based
and reflective in
analysis.
Measurement
Use mainstream
scientific psychological
methods
(experimentation and
correlation) to study
religious life (Allport)
Methodology:
Measure belief
according to
certain social
behaviors and
attitudes.