Psychological Approaches to the Study of Religion

In practice, experimentation requires much effort, imagination, and resources. The subject of religion seems too complex and too ‘soft’ for the laboratory. It is filled with much fantasy and feelings, two topics which academic psychology finds hard to approach.

Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin, and Michael Argyle. The Psychology of Religious Behaviour, Belief and Experience. London: Routledge, 1997, p. 47.

Psychology of religion involves the application of psychological methods and interpretive frameworks to religious institutions, as well as to individuals of all religious or noreligious persuasions. Last November, Chris had the pleasure of chatting to Professor Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi about the psychological approach, how one applies it to the study of religion, and the various challenges and advantages contained therein. This interview was recorded in the heart of New York City, and we can only hope that the ambient noise adds to the character of the interview.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi studied clinical psychology in Israel and the U.S. and is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Haifa. He has published extensively in the critical theory of academic psychology with focus on the psychopathology of religion. His books include Despair and Deliverance: Private Salvation in Contemporary Israel (1992), Psychoanalytic Studies of Religion: A Critical Assessment (1996) and The psychology of religious behaviour, belief and experience (1997) with Michael Argyle. He is also author of The Israeli Connection (Pantheon 1987), concerning the Israeli armaments industry, and Original Sins: Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel (Olive Branch 1993), a counter-mystification of the origins, accomplishments, contradictions, and betrayals of Zionism.

In answer to the question “what can science say about atheism?”, Professor Beit-Hallahmi published the article “Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion, and Erica Salomon’s response essay.

3 replies
  1. Avatar
    Alfred A. Barrios, Ph.D. says:

    Your professor of psychology completely misses the point. He seems to think that the psychology of religion’s main purpose is to study and understand the behavior of religious people. What led them to their particular religion – Why they chose one religion over another. The way I see it, the study of religon from the view of psycholgogy is to try to present a clear, scientific picture and understanding of what causes religious phenomena (e.g., faith healing, overnight religious conversions, the power of prayer, etc.). Are these religous experiences real or just the product of vivid imaginations? I get the impressions from what I hear the professor saying that he is more interested in finding out why religous people rely on supernatural ways of helping them in their lives, rather than investigating the reality (or non-reality) of religious experiences from a psychological point of view. Along these lines, I think you might be interested in reading my article, “Science in support of religion: From the perspective of a behavioral scientist”. You can find the article in the articles section of my website, My purpose in this article is to span the gap between science and religion by presenting rational, scientific explanations for religious phenomena. In my article I answer questions that have never really been answered before. I am talking about the really big questions: Is there a God? Is there free will? What is the real basis of altruism? Is there life after death. Is there a Devil? Is there heaven and hell?, etc.

  2. Avatar
    Alfred A. Barrios, Ph.D. says:

    I am very disappointed that I never received even one comment on what I had to say. I truly believe that my approach to the psychology of religion is the correct approach. What I have done is present rational explanations for religious phenomena as opposed to the usual supernatural explanations. And when I say I have presented explanations for these phenomena I am not saying that I am explaining them away. On the contrary, my article shows that these religious phenomena are real. I.e., I show that faith healing is real; that praying can produce real results; that there is free will; that there is a heaven and a hell; that religion as I define it is a most necessary thing in all people’s lives. Those of you out there who have always wondered about the realities of religion; who have wondered whether there is or is not a God, I would stongly urge you to read my article: “Science in support of religion: From the perspective of a behavioral scientist”. You can find it in the Dr. Barrios Articles section of my website, I would especailly like to hear from the people who run The Religious Studies Project.


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