Psychology and religious studies: Towards greater understanding

Christopher Harding is a historian whose work explores how religion and the ‘psy-disciplines’ have interacted in the world. As he notes in his interview with Krittika Bhattacharjee these constitute a very broad range of academic disciplines and various insights from these disciplines have been applied by different groups and cultures in different ways. Some of these uses of psychological insight by individuals and groups lead to clashes with religious insights and beliefs – but it is misleading to see these clashes as being between the psy-disciplines themselves and religion(s). They are instead fascinating case studies of how worldviews syncretize, a process that occurs both beyond and within academia.

This article will focus on something slightly different and look at the interactions between the psy-disciplines and religious studies. There is considerable overlap between the subject areas of religious studies and the psychological sciences but often theories and methodologies do not cross the divide between the social sciences and the humanities. Psychology, and the other psy-diciplines, have a lot to offer religious studies. They also have much that they can and should learn from religious studies in turn. Working together, and allowing the strengths of the two disciplines to complement each other, has the potential to advance both fields and is probably necessary if either discipline wants to gain a full appreciation for its shared subject matter.

Psychology is a discipline that cuts across many others. Although it is often perceived narrowly, as either experimental or clinical psychology, it is a much broader and more diverse discipline. Psychology brings a range of rigorous methodological tools to the study of human (and animal) life and these can be applied to the study of religion at many different levels – from examining internal experiences through to the social dynamics of groups and the influence of culture. Questions such as: “How do people experience the world?” “What do people believe?” “Why do they believe it?” and “How do these beliefs influence behaviour?” are all central concerns to psychologists.

My own academic background was originally in Theology & Religious Studies. I moved into Psychology, as a postgraduate, because many of the same tools and theories that are useful to explore other aspects of human life are also appropriate for the study of the religious and the spiritual. Extensive research has been conducted by psychologists, and continues to be conducted, exploring beliefs, values and perceptions. However, despite being a central part of the lives of so many people, religion and spirituality continues to be a fringe concern for many psychologists – perhaps because they are frequently perceived as being unscientific. However, an increasing number of psychologists are now turning their attention to issues of religion and spirituality, with organisations like the International Association for the Psychology of Religion and the Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality making considerable progress.

Even though psychology has developed a wide range of excellent and rigorous tools that can be applied to the study of religions and spiritualities, inadequate religious literacy can lead to theoretical naivety. Too much psychological research continues to be focused on North America and Europe and to accept, often uncritically, a Judeo-Christian perspective. Psychological research into religions and spirituality also continues to show insufficient awareness of the complexity and diversity of religious beliefs and groups.

Scholars in religious studies tend to be much more aware of global diversity and to research the lived experiences of communities that are far removed from the undergraduate populations of Western universities that psychologists often rely on for their work. Ethnographic approaches can yield incredibly rich data, and years studying particular communities can lead to a depth of expertise and understanding that psychologists cannot easily gain. The recent moves in religious studies towards appreciating lived religion, and of critically examining what religion even is, are ones that the psychology of religion also needs to take – but it is an area where it currently lags behind.

As a researcher who keeps a foot in each camp, I can appreciate both the strengths and weaknesses of each discipline’s approaches. I am also acutely aware that it is unrealistic to expect individual scholars to be experts in both fields – let alone in cognate disciplines like the anthropology and sociology of religion too. The solution, I believe, is to encourage far greater interdisciplinary collaboration between the fields. ‘Interdisciplinarity’ and ‘Impact’ are currently buzzwords in academia but they are both crucial concepts for the academic study of religion. Religion and beliefs cut across so many facets of life and can have profound consequences on the world – so understanding what people are doing and why is critical.

Combing the greater religious literacy, and more globally sensitive perspectives, of religious studies scholars with the expertise and methodologies of psychologists, and other social scientists, about human beliefs and behaviours has the potential to significantly enhance human understanding. Such collaborations can sharpen research tools and increase the validity of findings. Interdisciplinary teams, combining social scientists and humanities scholars, can approach problems from multiple perspectives and untangle webs of complexity that each would struggle to do alone. Working together, interdisciplinary teams can both explore concrete problems with real implications and enrich their parent disciplines.

Radical experiences that can change worlds

Radicalisation, Fundamentalism and Terrorism are emotive topics in the 21st Century. All three terms are frequently the subject of distorted, and often highly prejudicial, usage in public discourse. It is precisely because of their contemporary relevance, a relevance that can literally have life-or-death consequences, that they are an important area for academic research. Matthew Francis’ podcast provides an excellent introduction to many of the problems caused by a simplified understanding of religion and radicalisation. As he argues, distinguishing between the three terms is crucial if we want to understand any of them and the processes that they are associated with. Not all radicals are terrorists, and not all terrorists are radicals. A narrow focus on particular forms of radicalism is limiting and dangerous, if we want to understand the processes involved we must view them in a broader context.

Radicalisation, Francis suggests, is almost synonymous with socialisation. It is the process, or processes, by which an individual or group come to hold ideas or beliefs that are deemed to be ‘radical.’ At its core, radicalisation is simply the process of religious or ideological change when that change occurs in a direction that is considered to be radical. The observation that ideas are not inherently radical, but that the term is a relative one that involves comparisons to social norms, is of critical importance. The value judgments that we ascribe to ideas are not innate to them but are instead reflections of our own beliefs. These beliefs and norms vary between societies and over time within society. It was not long ago that, in the United Kingdom, allowing women the right to vote, or homosexuals the right to marry, was considered radical and dangerous by the majority of people. Today, in many parts of the world, both of those ideas are still considered to be radical and dangerous. The ideas have not changed and yet our judgments of them have. The radical has become normal. Similarly, ideas that were once considered normative are now considered by many to be radical. The subjective nature of what is, and is not, considered radical requires researchers to suspend judgment about particular views and focus on the dynamics through which the beliefs and values of individuals change.

A second important insight into radicalisation discussed in the interview is that ‘sacred ideas’ are a core part of any and all ideologies. These are ideas, often implicit, that are considered to be absolutely true and non-negotiable. Secular examples include the belief that people have the right to freedom and self-determination, or that society has an obligation to protect children from abuse.  More controversial examples might be the belief that one’s own race or nation are superior, or that the strong deserve whatever they can take. Recognising that individuals can be radicalised to hold non-religious ideologies is important both to understand the processes of radicalisation but also to understand the growth of other social movements. These ideological movements are diverse and can come from either end of the political spectrum. Marxist ideologies and nationalisms and the emerging alt-right both involve strongly held, radical convictions. However, radicalisation is not always bad. New ideas can be improvements on old ones. Radicalisation, as a process of change, is not inherently good or bad but can be either depending on the particular ideologies involved.

Moving the frame of reference beyond just religious ideologies is an important step in the process of understanding radicalisation but it is also dangerous to go too far in that direction. Individuals who seek to sever the link between religious radicalisation and religion usually have good intentions and yet, as Francis suggests, that step is as misleading as portraying all religion as inherently bad. There are many individuals for whom religious motivations are of central importance and whose actions are driven by religiously radical ideas. For example, the conservative Christian who attacks an abortion clinic in order to prevent the ‘murder’ of the unborn does so out of deep religious conviction and without the belief that abortion is murder it is highly unlikely that they would commit such attacks. It is important to be aware of all the varying, and often conflicting, motivations that drive individuals to commit extreme actions in the name of an ideology but to focus purely on non-religious factors like economics would omit an important piece in the puzzle.

The work of Tanya Luhrmann (1991, 2004, 2012) is of relevance here. Her work has explored how individuals ‘learn’ to have spiritual experiences that reinforce developing worldviews. She describes this process of learning to attribute particular thoughts, feelings and experiences to a divine or otherwise supernatural source as ‘metakinesis’. Metakinesis, she argues, is similar to other learning processes that teach an individual to become an expert in a particular field. As an individual begins to view the world through a particular religious perspective, and interpret events in the way encouraged by the community they are joining, they find value in the traditions and practices. These practices, however, can do more than simply providing an interpretative framework for ambiguous events. The Spiritual Disciplines Project, an experiment that Luhrmann ran at Stanford University, showed that individual who pray or meditates repeatedly actually becomes more attuned to particular sensations and have increased spiritual experiences. These experiences reinforce the worldview that lead to the practice in the first place, frequently leading to increased immersion in it. Luhrmann’s early work with British magic-users and her more recent work with American Evangelicals both support the idea that religious practice can actually alter how individuals perceive and experience the world. This is, of course, a claim that many religious practitioners would agree with – spiritual practices are often intended to cultivate closer relationships with the divine. When studying radicalisation, the impact that spiritual experiences and practices can have on reinforcing ideological positions should not be neglected in favour of more ‘mundane’ influences. As Francis notes, the process of radicalisation is complex and nuanced. The role that spiritual experiences can play in encouraging individuals to adopt beliefs that are considered radical should not be overlooked. People gradually adopt ideologies through their experiences of the world and spiritual experiences can have an impact just like any other event that an individual considers significant.

It is only by appreciating and integrating the many different factors that cause people to adopt and disseminate beliefs that others consider strange or radical that we can fully understand the process of radicalisation. Doing so is important not only to devise strategies to counter the spread of ideas which are deemed dangerous but also to facilitate the spread of radical ideas that are deemed positive. Technological advances mean that ideas can now spread at a rate that was unthinkable mere decades ago. In this context, it is imperative that academics continue to focus their efforts on understanding the psychological and sociological dynamics by which ideas are spread. Equally, it is important that this research is communicated clearly and publically so that dangerous misconceptions are not allowed to flourish.


Luhrmann, T. M. (1991). Persuasions of the witch’s craft: Ritual magic in contemporary England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Luhrmann, T. M. (2004). Metakinesis: How god becomes intimate in contemporary U.S. Christianity. American Anthropologist, 106(3), 518–528. doi:10.1525/aa.2004.106.3.518

Luhrmann, T. M. (2012). When God talks back: Understanding the American evangelical relationship with god. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

How to solve a problem like World Religions? An interdisciplinary approach.

The deluge of responses to Teemu Taira’s recent RSP podcast show that “What is religion?” (and so implicitly, “What is secular?”)  remains the subject of ongoing debate that is unlikely to be resolved soon. As Donovan Schaefer explains in his interview with Christopher Cotter, however, there are considerable problems with the idea that secularism is either the opposite of religion or its absence. The subtraction story of secularism, the idea that you can simply remove ‘religion’ and be left with something neutral, is simply not true (Taylor, 2007). Secularism is itself an ideology that presents both a characterisation of how the world is and how it should be. Schaefer suggests that the conceptualisation of religion as something concrete that can be removed to leave an objective, rational base is a consequence of the World Religions paradigm and its roots in 19th Century scientific rationalism. Challenging this simplistic conception of religion and its consequences lies at the core of the Critical Religion movement. Schaefer’s interview is an invitation to explore how we can do that most effectively. How do we translate critical insights that have significant real world implications into ideas that can easily be transmitted to students and the wider public?

To answer that, we must consider why we teach about religion(s) at all.  As teachers, it is important that we both impart knowledge about our subject areas but also that we should challenge and expand the worldviews of our students to help them develop as individuals. To do that successfully we need to find a starting point that is sufficiently familiar and accessible to our students, so that they can engage in constructive dialogue. As Schaefer notes, despite its flaws the World Religions paradigm was an improvement on previous colonialist approaches and it remains a useful pedagogical tool. If people already think in terms of an implicit World Religions paradigm, then it provides a sensible starting point for teaching.

According to the latest British Social attitudes report 64% of British 18-24 year olds do not belong to a religious tradition and so ignoring secularism in the study of religion and beliefs is an untenable approach. The vocal claims of so-called New Atheists, about non-religion and ‘rationality’ should be critically examined, just as the claims of religious and other social groups should be scrutinised when they have public implications. Challenging the assumptions of these students and encouraging them to examine their own intellectual heritage is also an important step towards teaching them to understand the beliefs of those from other cultural traditions. Schaefer is correct that encouraging critical thought about secularism and religion should be seen as complimentary exercises. Exploring these topics can stimulate both academic and personal development.

Schaefer lays out two possibilities for mixing Secularism Studies and World Religions. The first option is to focus on the form of secularism that is most familiar to our students, that of the contemporary West, and to locate this secularism as part of the Christian tradition in which it has its historical roots. This view positions the Enlightenment as a consequence of the Reformation and views the split between those who accept the (more or less) literal truths of Christian tradition and those who reject them as part of a long line of doctrinal schisms. Positioning a secularism such as New Atheism in this way highlights its historically contingent nature and can lead to fruitful discussions and debates in a teaching environment. However, such an approach can be criticised for neglecting secularisms that have or could arise in other contexts. Schaefer’s second option is a better, albeit more time consuming, approach that examines secularist trends within each of the World Religions and stresses how they are all historically contingent. The choice between these two options will probably be made pragmatically, depending on both the teacher’s expertise and the time that they can devote to secularism within a broader course.

There is, perhaps, a third and more radical way that still retains the broad strokes of the World Religions paradigm but which critiques it more directly and opens up the issues and core themes for discussion during future weeks. At the risk of sounding partial, perhaps the solution is a greater integration of psychology and the social sciences into the conceptualisation and teaching of religion. By starting with the questions of why people believe what they believe, and what distinguishes religious beliefs from other beliefs, the problems of both the World Religions paradigm and Secularism Studies are placed into a wider context. Questions like how we construct worldviews and conceptions of ourselves are fundamental to understanding lived and implicit religion and other existential cultures (Lee, 2015). “What do you believe?” and “Why do you believe it?” are, perhaps, the most important questions that religious studies should be challenging non-academics to ask themselves. Answering these questions sets the stage for subsequent discussions about the differences between various existential cultures, for the diversity of religious traditions, and for an appreciation of the complex and often contradictory beliefs and behaviours of individuals (Chaves, 2010). Is it practical to introduce such an approach into a single World Religions course? Like Schaefer, I am unsure – it is something I would like to have the opportunity to try but can only theorise about currently. It should, however, certainly be possible within the broader context of a Religious Studies degree.

The danger raised at the end of the interview by David Robertson about potentially reinforcing unhelpful models of religion is real. Is the main reason that people think in terms of the World Religions paradigm because that is how they are taught religion in schools and because that is how religion is generally conceptualised in the public sphere? As Fitzgerald (2000) noted, that paradigm is beneficial to many and it is now heavily entrenched. Perhaps a more radical approach, based as much in the social sciences as the humanities, can fix that – but until then Schaefer’s suggestion to inhabit the paradigm and critique it from within is a sound option for teaching religion in higher education. It is certainly better than ignoring secularism entirely and, within a British context at least, the introduction of humanism or secularism in religious studies classrooms and lecture halls as a method of critiquing the world religions and introducing wider conceptual problems should be encouraged.


Chaves, M. (2010). Rain Dances in the Dry Season: Overcoming the Religious Congruence Fallacy. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49(1), 1–14. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2009.01489.x

Fitzgerald, T. (2000). The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Lee, L. (2015). Recognizing the non-religious: Reimagining the secular. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, C. (2007). A secular age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.