Experiences Deemed Religious from Micro and Qualitative to Macro and Quantitative


This joint Religious Studies Project/SSSR session was a symposium that included four presentations, all focused on some variation on the topic of “religious experiences,” a category better described as experiences deemed religious (EDRs; Taves, 2009). Beyond that idea in the symposium summary, the only similarity among the presentations was that that they were almost purely descriptive. There was little if any theoretical synthesis, either psychologically or sociologically, to help the audience gain a conceptual understanding of the processes mediating these or other EDRs.

The combined result of the four presentations is certainly positive for purposes of illustrating ways that qualitative or quantitative research on EDRs can be executed. Three of the four presentations also gave the viewer-listener a relatively vivid picture of the questions posed, the participants involved, and what was actually learned from the studies. This is, of course, all good. The downside, however, which is not at all unusual for symposia of this sort, was that the methods and findings were presented and the presentation then stopped, usually for reasons of time.

As an observer-listener I was left with an illuminating picture of what the researchers were trying to get at and what they found. However, my mind strained at the theoretical emptiness left in their wake – my intellectual need to dig deeper and understand why the findings were what they were. That, of course, is the much more difficult task.

Presentations Snapshot

A brief summary of the presentations looks like this:

(1) In Study 1, seven people were interviewed who are active in Christian snake-handling sects in the rural Southern U.S. states. Their beliefs and practices are derived from a literal application of the “five signs” said to follow believers as listed in the last chapter of the Gospel of Mark. The two life-threatening signs are handling poisonous snakes and drinking deadly poison; Each participant had done both. The interviews focused on the phenomenology of drinking strychnine. In order to confirm its toxicity, an independent lab examined a sample of the liquid used; it was confirmed lethal. Reported effects included a powerful sense of awe, “victory,” a “rush” or mental “high,” and sensations such as peace, joy, satisfaction, and spiritual perfection.

(2) In Study 2, several modern Christian churches were observed, and their clergy interviewed, about the role of popular secular and religious music in worship services. The interviews showed that, for these ministers and worshipers, secular music is thought to be “more real” in helping people confront their own shortcomings. It is included such services in order to facilitate an internal sense of honesty, while comfort and hope are subsequently provided by religious music and other non-musical aspects of the service.

(3) Study 3 focused on natural disaster relief and symptoms of PTSD, as approached by clergy and others in Japan, the U.S., and the Philippines. Clergy of various religions, including Christians and Buddhists, completed questionnaires that asked, for instance, how they perceived disasters, whether they had an obligation to help victims or pray with victims, whether they thought disasters were God’s will, if they see signs of PTSD or lesser symptoms in those they help. The results generally affirmed the clergy’s motivation to help, which seem to help decrease the suffering of the victims.

(4) In Study 4, although research was referred to, the main argument was that researchers should get away from doing research only within their narrow disciplinary boundaries. It was proposed that we should instead aim to “highlight the lines of continuity” between disciplines through research that, for example, combines social and natural scientific methods, using methods that exploit the potentials for cooperative effort between fields.

Qualitative and Quantitative Methods

To be fair, the four presentations were so varied that I would not expect to be able to view them, with much accuracy, through only one theoretical or methodological lens. Study 1 was a content analysis of seven interviews aimed at creating a clear, accurate picture of the mental experiences of people that had drunk a poison. With the research goal thus defined and the available N so small, an in-depth interview method is the way to go. Qualitative methodologies of this sort yield a vividness and completeness in the data that physiological recordings cannot produce.

Does this mean that qualitative research is better than quantitative research? No. Nor does it mean it is worse. It means that for a research question posed as this one was, a qualitative method is better equipped to answer it with data of the form most meaningful to the question. Qualitative methods, such as the use of questionnaires in Study 3, are desirable when the research intent is to go deeply into single cases and yield the most complete graphic possible of what is being examined, whether the case is an individual human, as occurs in psychological research, or an individual village, as in anthropological research. Such methods yield a form of data that are sometimes referred to as “deeper” and “richer.” That is their gift and their strength. Vivid pictures of the phenomenology of EDRs can be painted with such methods.

With the strength of a research method, however, there is a corresponding weakness. And these weaknesses turn out to be overcome by the strengths of other, “opposite” kinds of methods. In the case of the small-N phenomenological interview methods used in Study 1, weaknesses include difficulties in going beyond describing the subjects’ experiences to test theoretical predictions about what might happen mentally when someone drinks poison (or does anything else), why the experience might be interpreted in one way or another by the individual, ways people might respond when the experience is discrepant from that which was anticipated, and so forth. Answers to questions phrased in these ways are more amenable to quantitative approaches that allow for testing hypotheses derived from theories about the processes operating inside human minds, such as, the processes that mediate interpretations and responses to unusual mental events, and the consideration their social and physical contexts. Nonetheless, the theoretical gains of using quantitative methods not infrequently come with a loss of the benefits of qualitative methods.

Multilevel Interdisciplinary Paradigm

What is the solution? The main argument of Study 4 was that for comprehensive knowledge to emerge, we must do more research that combines approaches from different disciplines. I have written extensively about this approach, which I call the multilevel interdisciplinary paradigm (MIP; Paloutzian & Park, 2013; Park & Paloutzian, 2013). It involves researchers from different disciplines not just telling others about their research, but engaging in genuine collaborative work around common questions that cannot be answered by one discipline alone. I think future research within the MIP will demonstrate its capability to accomplish the goals of both qualitative and quantitative research, both within disciplines and across their borders.


Paloutzian, R. F., & Park, C. L. (2013). Recent progress and core issues in the science of the psychology of religion and spirituality. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2nd ed. (pp. 3-22). New York: Guilford.

Park, C. L., & Paloutzian, R. F. (2013). Directions for the future of the psychology of religion and spirituality: Research advances in methodology and meaning systems. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2nd ed. (pp. 651-665). New York: Guilford.

Taves, A. (2009). Religious experience reconsidered: A building block approach to the study of religion and other special things. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Conference Report: The Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Religious Research Association, 2014

by Robert Arrowood, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

IMG_5225On October 31 – November 2, the Marriot Hotel of downtown Indianapolis, Indiana hosted the 2014 annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) in conjuncture with the Religious Research Association (RRA). The major theme for SSSR was “Building Bridges” and beautifully illustrated on the program cover by Kenan Sevinc. From my understanding, this was the first year that the program was in colour. This theme had several interpretations in which it meant building bridges within the study of religion, cross discipline research, and across countries, just to name a few. The major theme for RRA was Revisiting Gender and Religion. The program chair for this conference was Dr. Ralph W. Hood Jr. from The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

The first day of the conference began with several sessions during the morning. The overall topics were quite broad ranging from “Research Perspective on the Church of England,” “Biological and Evolutionary Aspects of Religion,” and “Navigating ‘Norms’ in Society,” among many others. One such presentation from “Navigating ‘Norms’ in Society” was by Cory Anderson from Ohio State University who spoke of the Amish-Mennonite culture of Central America. Anderson spoke of his time living with different Amish-Mennonite communities in Central America and the conversation of non-born Amish-Mennonites into the faith. Interestingly, this religion is growing in popularity in this area. Presentations such as these continued until 11:30 in which a lunch was served in honor of all new members to the society and to present IMG_5242award to many of the presenters. Further, several business items were discussed during this lunch. Of interest, the conference boasted a record number of individual paper acceptances (over 430), 70 organized sessions, and more than 600 people from different backgrounds in attendance. Additionally, 36 different countries were represented through various paper presentations. Although the program chair and committee were concerned that attendance would be sparse due to holding the conference on Halloween, it is clear from these number that this was not the case.

Following the lunch, sessions began again with diverse topics such as “Young People, Religion and Diversity,” Language, Theology, and Space,” and “Advances in Prayer Research.” Of special interest was the panel titled “Secularism & Nonreligion Journal – panel on Atheism and Secularism,” convened by Barry Kosmin. Several researchers presented including John Shook from the University of Buffalo, Ryan Cragun from the University of Tampa, Christopher Silver from the University of Tennessee, and Thomas J. Coleman III from The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. This panel boasted one of the highest attendances in the conference with standing room only in the back. Specifically, “The Six Types of Nonbelief,” by Silver, presented a new taxonomy system for identifying different types of atheism and secularism.

Following the completion of the last presentations for the day, Oxford University Press hosted a new book reception followed by an address by the president of RRA, Joy Charlton from Swarthmore College entitled “Revisiting Gender and Religion,” in concurrence with the RRA theme. The day concluded with three receptions for Graduate Students held at TGI Fridays and a special reception hosted by outgoing SSSR president Jim Richardson honoring those that attended from outside of the USA. A general reception was also held for anyone in attendance to attend.

Saturday began with several paper sessions in the morning with topics ranging from “Church Renewal and Evangelization,” “Sex and Religion,” and “Religion in China” to mention a few. Jun Lu from Purdue University presented on the Chinese governments leading propaganda news source’s inclusion of Christianity in many of its articles. Interestingly, many of these articles were in favour of the religion. IMG_5264Following the many morning presentation, a special plenary lecture was held honouring Dr. Jack Shand titled “Legacy: Who was Jack Shand?” The program chair, Dr. Hood, personally requested this presentation be prepared and presented. Dr. Shand was a member of the Society and upon his death donated a generous gift to SSSR. This presentation was based on an examination of the unprocessed archives of Dr. Shand providing a nice glimpse into his history and his legacy. Following a break for lunch, the conference continued with more panels such as “Religious and Social Identity,” “Research on Pentecostalism,” and “Exploring Catholicism.” One very interesting (and quite unique) presentation by Joshua Ambrosuis was on religion’s impact on space exploration. Ambrosuis suggested that many religions that are opposed to space travel may experience a decline if space colonization does occur in the future due to not making themselves available to those that do colonize space. The day concluded witha presidential address by James Richardson from the University of Nevada entitled, “Managing Religion and the ‘Judicialization’ of Religious Freedom” followed by a reception for anyone in attendance. Following the reception, a special plenary was held providing the debut of Andrew Johnson’s documentary entitled, “If I Give My Soul: Pentecostalism in Rio’s Prisons.”

The final day of the conference had a slightly smaller attendance due to many scholars having to catch plane flights early that morning or even the previous evening. Sunday’s schedule was the same as the previous days with the exception that only morning presentations were given. These presentations ranged from several topics including “God, the Father: Influences of God Attachment and Image,” “Religion, From the East to the West,” and “Young People, Religion and Diversity.” Of special interest was the author meets critic session, “Psychological Perspectives on Religion and Religiosity” by Dr. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi. This was one of the more popular sessions purely based on the number in attendance, especially considering the decrease in those there and it being one of the last sessions. This session, of which I had the honour to convene, allowed three other scholars to comment and critique Dr. Beit-Hallahmi’s book. These “critics” included Dr. Michael Nielsen from Southern Georgia University, Coleman (mentioned previously), and Dr. David Wulff from Wheaton College. Dr. Beit-Hallahmi was allowed to address and comment on each criticism or question posed by the three “critics.” The panel ended with a large picture session with Dr. Beit-Hallahmi, the critics, audience members, and I.


Overall, the conference included several diverse presentations and was able to boast several record breaking achievements. Many disciplines were represented with scholars representing History, Sociology, Psychology, Political Science, different religious affiliations and church denominations, and many others. To my dismay as a psychologist, psychology was somewhat less represented in comparison to many of the other disciplines. Considering the overall theme of Building Bridges and cross collaborative research, I hope to see this discipline increase in attendance in upcoming conferences. The next annual meeting of SSSR and RRA will be held October 23 – 25th, 2015 in Newport Beach California. A call for papers has already been issued.

Back in the SSSR: Reflections on the 2013 SSSR/RRA Conference

SSSR 2013Boston WaterfrontI had the great fortune of attending the 2013 Society for the The Religious Studies Project (RSP).  The 2013 SSSR took place in Boston Massachusetts from November 8th – 10th a few blocks away from the Boston Harbor. Luckily, the overall tone of the conference and the attending scholars, were much warmer than the brisk weather outside the doors of the lovely Westin Waterfront Hotel. This conference report seeks to capture the unadulterated energy and excitement of a young scholar new to the social scientific study of religion and invite more established scholars to reflect on their early days in the field.

Eight AM bright and early the first day of the conference drew my attention to a session on “New Religious Movements” that featured a presentation by a former RSP podcast respondent Dusty Hoesly assessing the possibility of the Universal Life Church (ULC) as a new religious movement. I was surprised to learn that Hoesly’s presentation was, as far as he could tell, one of the first scholarly looks at the ULC group from academia. He provided some interesting data on Kirby J. Hensley, the founder of the ULC. According to Dusty, one of Hensley’s central concerns in founding the ULC was to demonstrate the ‘absurdity’ of governments giving religious organizations tax-exempt status in the United States. Thus by becoming ordained as a ULC Minister, one could start their own ‘church’ from home and at least in theory be tax-exempt. In the latter part of the morning, Dr. Carissa Sharp spoke about ‘the relationship between religious complexity and pro-sociality’. Dr. Sharp sought to challenge current psychological priming methods in examining the prosociality of religion by introducing the concept of integrative complexity (IC) calling for the need of a deeper level of understanding in the connection between religion and prosociality.

The SSSR Presidential Panel: How Religion Works: Disciplinary Perspectives and Bridges was phenomenal!

The SSSR Presidential Panel: How Religion Works: Disciplinary Perspectives and Bridges was phenomenal!

Every seat was full and a row of people stood along the back wall to hear scholars presenting their disciplinary and research perspectives in the social scientific study of religion. Dr. Laurence Iannaccone spoke about looking at religion through an economic lens taking into account the idiosyncrasies that research on religion demands and that economists often ignore arguing for a study of religion and economics in which both contribute to the other. Dr. Gerardo Marti addressed the study of religion from a sociological perspective followed by Dr. Doug Oman (a scholar in the Public Health field) arguing that the boundaries between disciplinary fields are often blurred and can even overlap at times. Dr. Ann Taves was the final panelist. In words that embody her ‘Religious Experience Reconsidered’ approach to religion, she tied together the multiple disciplines represented on the panel and spoke about a careful balancing of what she termed the ‘interdisciplinary hat’, with the ‘discipline hat’ in the study religion from multiple academic perspectives.

Dr. R. Stephen Warner delivered the annual H. Paul Douglass Lecture (sponsored by the RSP podcast by Douglas Pratt that shared a similar ‘tone’. In Warner’s lecture and Pratt’s podcast, both scholars appear to be parsing what can and can not be included in the category of ‘religion’ making them appear as a stable monolith of fixed positive traits, discounting variation among individuals and assigning negative traits to secularity. Warner’s SSSR lecture and Pratt’s podcast problematically essentialise religious identities and appear as a dangerous call for scholars to offer protection for religion in the public sphere instead of simply researching religion (for a further critical response see Beaman, 2013).

Author Meets Critic - Cragun SSSR 2013The second day of the conference it was time to attend my first ‘author meets critics’ with a review of former RSP podcast scholar Dr. Ryan T. Cragun’s What You Don’t Know About Religion (but should). Cragun had pen and paper out taking notes while the invited critics, Dr. Michael Nielsen, Dr. Christopher Chiappari and Dr. Rick Phillips, spoke – as good critics do – with both praise and careful critique. Dr. Cragun announced that a follow up book titled “More Of What You Don’t Know About Religion” is currently in the works and it was refreshing to hear him advocate for conducting science that was not just for other academics in a specific field, but also for the public as a whole. Later that day, I attended an organized panel on the “Biological and Evolutionary Aspects of Religion” that featured an informative talk by Dr. Stewart Guthrie outlining “A Biological, Evolutionary, and Cognitive Approach” to religion. Upon conclusion of the panel, I was fortunate to have Dr. Guthrie spend several minutes that day, at two separate times no less, discussing both the cognitive and psychological study of belief and non-belief with me. Dr. Guthrie clearly understands what it means to a young student such as me when they get to not only ask questions from a top scholar, but also get asked questions back! This teaching style certainly builds bridges and seems to be indicative of the commitment the SSSR has towards fostering relationships between students and scholars. In fact, the theme according to the Dr. Christopher F. Silver, as the Graduate Student Representative for 2014, and RSP podcast interviewee Dr. Ralph W. Hood Jr. as the Program Chair, this theme of mentorship and collaboration seems to be a something that we can expect to continue into the next year.

The final day of the conference I attended a session on teaching psychology of religion titled “Psychological Approaches to Understanding Religion”. One of the panelist, Dr. Kevin Ladd (RSP podcast on the psychology of prayer with Dr. Ladd coming soon), shared a hands on approach he uses to both demonstrate the problems scholars have defining religion, and to give undergraduates practical experience dealing with real problems researchers encounter. He has each student come up with an operational definition of religion to use for research and then to compare with each other student – obviously they can and do vary greatly. This way, students also gain practical experience navigating the discourse in the study of religion as well.

Thomas J. Coleman III with Ann Taves at SSSR 2013

Thomas J. Coleman III with Ann Taves at SSSR 2013

The final session, titled ‘Atheist Worldviews and Communities’ was the culmination of the conference and resulted in dialectic between the scholars and those attending for the final twenty-five minutes. If the seat count on the last day of an academic conference – at the very last panel no less (which people commonly skip out on attempting to get a head start to the airport) – is any indication of the burgeoning interest in a topic then I dare not say what is and there was a quite an audience for this panel! Scholars from sociology, religious studies and psychology brought together multiple perspectives on current atheism research around the United States. An important quote that has guided my studies comes from psychologist of religion Antoine Vergote on the importance of looking at not only studying belief but also un-belief for “one cannot be understood without the other” (1997). What a way to end a conference – with an engaging conversation on the importance of new directions in research!

*The next Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conference will be held October 31-November 2, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.


Vergote, A. (1997). Religion, belief and unbelief: A psychological study (Vol. 5). Leuven     University Press.