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What is the Psychology of Religion?


What is the Psychology of Religion?  Let’s begin by looking at definitions of both psychology and religion. Examining their historical and contemporary contexts can allow us to better understand how psychology and religion have developed to form a symbiotic relationship (even though some may contest otherwise, but that’s another post for another day).


The Greek capital letter psi, often used to represent the word, or study of, Psychology.Humans have been pondering questions of a psychological nature for millenia. Early writings of Buddha, Confucius, Socrates and in Hebrew Scriptures provide glimpses into the historical beginnings of psychological queries. The origins of the word psychology have roots in the Grecian words psyche, loosely translated as, ‘soul‘ or ‘spirit‘, and logos, translated as, ‘meaning’ or ‘account‘. Thus, in its earliest form, psychological musings were concerned with ‘accounting for the human spirit‘.

Psychology as a science did not emerge until the late 1800’s, when the first experiment addressing mental processes was conducted by Wilhelm Wundt. The science of psychology began to flourish and branch into many different paths and theories. Today, the broad definition of psychology as, the science of behavior and mental processes, is widely accepted. This definition serves merely as a generalization of the discipline of psychology as a whole and does not highlight the complex nature of human behavior and cognition.


RELIGIONESDeveloping a concrete and universal definition of religion is, in my opinion, an impossible task.  Simply Google ‘define religion’ and you’re guaranteed to get dozens of differing definitions.  Indeed, some scholars spend their entire careers seeking out meaningful definitions that can by relevantly applied to all that encompasses ‘religion’.

For the purpose of this post, I contemplated various definitions of religion presented by scholars over the centuries. I cannot wholly accept definitions, such as social psychologist’s Erich Fromm’s, “[a]ny system of thought and action shared by a group which gives the individual a frame of orientation and an object of devotion.” Religion is both personal and social. It is quite conceivable for a single person to hold religious beliefs that may not be connected to a group, therefore, the first part of the preceding definition does not adequately explain religion.

Carl Jung’s definition is, perhaps, more closely aligned to my understanding of the term religion:

“Religion is a peculiar attitude of the human mind […] that is a careful consideration and observation of certain dynamic factors […] of whatever name man has given to such factors as he has found in his world, powerful, dangerous, or helpful enough to be taken into careful consideration or grand, beautiful and meaningful enough to be devoutly adored and loved”.

Clearly, religion is hard to define; however in order to find merit in any scientific study of religion, and in particular facets of religious behaviour and thought, there must be some universal mechanism for measuring the multidimensional concept of religion.

Psychology+ Religion

Religion can be broadly examined through the various dimensions of religion proposed by sociologists, Charles Glock and Rodney Stark. They proposed five dimensions of religious commitment with which to study the multidimensional nature of religion. These included: the ideological dimension, the ritualistic dimension, the experiential dimension, the intellectual dimension, and the consequential dimension (Paloutzian, 1996).

These dimensions of religious commitment enable researchers with powerful tools to measure the behaviors and mental processes of people from various religious traditions. Through applying the various theories of psychology to the most rudimentary understanding of religiosity, a wealth of knowledge begins to emerge concerning religious behaviors and mental processes that span all faiths and doctrines. Despite the seemingly different beliefs found in the world’s religions, researchers can make generalized statements about the behaviors and cognitive processes that bind them all together.

As with any theoretical work, new ideas will change the shape of what is known today and will invariably lead to new paths of theory. This is especially poignant in research that encompasses any religious domain, due to the very complex nature of religion itself. Undeniably, the process of applying variables and measures to the religious domain with respect to behaviors and cognition can only serve to further enhance future knowledge of how and why religion plays a central role in humankind.

M. xo

Further Reading

Myers, D.G. (2004). Psychology: Myers in Modules (7th Ed). New York: Worth.

Paloutzian, R.F. (1996). Invitation to the Psychology of Religion (2nd Ed). Massachusetts: Allyn & Bacon.


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