Posts Tagged ‘Psychology’

Beyond Allport’s Paradox: The Religion and Prejudice Equation: Part Three

June 6th, 2014 No comments

The following is adapted from an essay submitted to the Department of Psychology, University of Carleton, in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the B.A. with Honours degree.  Read Part One here, and Part Two here.

Religiousness vs. Spirituality

Clearly, social scientists face many challenges when applying religion as a variable to other factors such as prejudice. In an attempt to clarify how religion should be studied, researchers have begun to assess how individuals and religious professionals view religion and spirituality. Despite these admirable pursuits, these investigations are revealing just how complex these challenges are, and that there appears to be little consensus.

In a study conducted by Zinnabauer, et al. (1997), individuals (N = 346) from various religious and secular institutions were surveyed about the meaning of religiousness and spirituality. Several measures, including closed and open-ended questions were conducted. Participants provided written definitions of religiousness and spirituality, answered Likert-type scales measuring their degree of religiousness/spirituality, and chose the most personally relevant statement designed to assess the interdependence of religiousness and spirituality in their beliefs. Overall, the results suggest that religiousness and spirituality were viewed as interdependent, but separate terms, both of which encapsulate the sacred.

A more recent study by Marler and Hadaway (2002) supports these results by showing that most individuals do not differentiate between religiousness and spirituality. In this study, 64% of Protestant participants responded that they considered themselves religious and spiritual. Only 27% of the respondents viewed themselves as one or the other.

In another study designed to explore concepts and definitions of religiousness and spirituality, Marler and Hadaway found that 63% of participants believed that religious and spiritual were distinctive, but codependent ideas. The samples from these studies consisted of self-identified marginal Protestants. These are Protestants who considered themselves affiliated with the tradition, but who may not adhere to rigorous practices, such as attending church frequently. The researchers cautiously conclude that their samples may identify more with being spiritual than religious because they consider themselves less religious than their counterparts who may adhere more strictly to traditional religious practices.

Yet, another study suggests that spiritual and religious may be two independent constructs. Saucier and Skrzypinska (2006) explored two constructs, tradition-oriented (TR) and subjective-spirituality (SS), which they hypothesized related to religious and spiritual respectively. Their sample of 375 participants was assessed on over twenty different measures including: attitude scales, authoritarianism measurements, social dominance orientation ratings, Big Five personality inventories, and various demographic elements. In general, the results of their comprehensive study demonstrate that TR and SS were separate facets. Further analysis suggests that the word spiritual may actually muddle self-report assessments, but that words such as religious and mystical carry more concrete distinctions for people. In addition, the term spiritual can often diverge into two areas: one associated with the tradition and authority of institutional religion; the other associated towards a more subjective and individualized mystical belief system. They argue that religious and spiritual should not be treated as similar measurements, and that a distinction needs to be made between TR and SS systems of belief.

Finally, a pilot study by Hyman and Handal (2006), confirms the inconsistencies present in the previous three studies surveyed in this paper. Researchers surveyed a small sample of religious professionals (N = 32) from the three major monotheistic traditions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Their analyses showed that even among religious professional no consensus could be determined as to whether religion and spirituality were independent or interdependent terms. Thus, it appears that the research into defining religiosity is as paradoxical as the research which attempts to correlate religiosity with other factors, such as prejudice.


Social scientists who study religion have many challenges facing them. One important consideration might ask whether it is even possible for researchers to reach a consensus on the construct of religion given its fluid nature of changing across time and cultures. It might also be considered as to what, if any steps, researchers need to make in order to develop more meaningful investigations.

The challenge of defining religiousness is certainly an issue that will plague these studies, but it should not negate the necessity to find more consistent approaches. One way in which this may be accomplished is through more research that assesses what religion means to individuals and groups. To date, there have been only a handful of studies that address these challenges. These research investigations must account for not only the traditionally religiously-affiliated, but also individuals of new religious movements, the SBNR affiliated, and those of the irreligious persuasion. While this will certainly provide more complex data, it may also provide more accurate representations of thoughts, practices, beliefs and behaviours of religiosity.

Religious identification also changes with time and culture. How people thought of their religious selves half a century ago is much different than how this identification is made today. It will, in all likelihood, change again in the future. Religious identification is also vastly different from one global context to the next. For example, the place of religion in the life of the individual in North America will differ dramatically from that of someone in Asia or Middle Eastern nations. Thus, it would be prudent of researchers to account for these variations and be mindful that research may have to be confined to the context under which it is being studied. This may mean ongoing issues that limit applications across populations.

While reductionist approaches to studying religion have been becoming the norm in modern investigations, the complexity of religion may not be suitable for such methods. Conversely, broader research approaches do not necessarily equate to more reliable results. The value of understanding religious phenomenon as it means to people and groups in different times and cultural contexts is even more pronounced. If religion changes with time and culture, then research approaches must also adapt to accommodate for the fluidity of religious phenomenon. Finding an appropriate balance that reduces religion for sake of ease in studies, while maintaining the essences of religious diversity is paramount for future researchers in the psychology of religion. Researchers must also be mindful of overly broad definitions that could erroneously incorporate other phenomenon not related to the sacred. This is indeed a monumental task facing researchers – one that admittedly may be elusive. Nevertheless, these limitations are important to consider in future research.

Another area of particular concern with research investigating religious phenomenon in relation to items such as prejudice is the role of social, cultural, and political factors. Religious prejudice investigations cannot claim relevancy unless these extraneous factors are also examined. Assuredly, these factors will change, much like the concept of religion does. They play a vital role in understanding what influences religious prejudice to flourish. Without accounting for the influence of these variables, researchers will be left with investigations that may be only marginally applied across time and populations.

Despite these seemingly insurmountable issues, research into religious prejudice is vitally important. The consequences of such prejudice can lead to marginalization, violence, and in some cases fatalities. Developing a more robust understanding as to how and why religious prejudices arise is an important first step in finding methods to combat this serious social problem. As previously identified, this issue is on the rise. It is doubtful that without appropriate research that it will merely diminish. Through empowering investigations into religious prejudice with more insightful and relevant studies, researchers will be poised to provide more applicable solutions to ensuring a more peaceful co-existence among the various religious groups. The prospect of peace is assuredly one of the most valuable pursuits that social scientists can endeavor toward.

M. xo


Marler, P. L., & Hadaway, C. K. (2002). “Being religious” or “being spiritual” in America: A zero-sum proposition? Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 41(2), 289-300. doi:10.1111/1468-5906.00117

Saucier, G., & Skrzypinska, K. (2006). Spiritual but not religious? Evidence for two independent dispositions. Journal of Personality, 74(5), 1257-1292. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2006.00409.x

Zinnbauer, B. J., Pargament, K. I., Cole, B., Rye, M. S., Butter, E. M, Belavich, T. G., . . . Kadar, J. L. (1997). Religion and spirituality: Unfuzzying the fuzzy. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 36(4), 549-564.

Hyman, C., & Handal, P. J. (2006). Definitions and evaluation of religion and spirituality items by religious professionals: A pilot study. Journal of Religion and Health, 45(2), 264-282. Retrieved from


Beyond Allport’s Paradox: The Religion and Prejudice Equation: Part Two

June 4th, 2014 No comments

In the second installment of my blog series entitled, Beyond Allport’s Paradox, I review some studies on religious prejudice and follow-up with a brief analysis and critique .  Read Part One here.

Literature Review and Meta-Analyses

Summary: Allport and Ross (1967)

In Allport and Ross’s 1967 study, they examined religiosity as a factor in prejudice using the Intrinsic/Extrinsic Orientation scale. Applying it to religion, they surmised that intrinsically motivated individuals live their religion, while extrinsically motivated people use their religion. Their sample of religious individuals consisted of six American Christian groups who were identified as church goers. One of their hypotheses was that the intrinsically oriented are much less prejudiced than the extrinsically oriented. The conclusion of their study aptly demonstrates the inconsistencies in such research. An analysis of the subsamples indicates that for at least two of the groups, the extrinsically orientated were less prejudiced than the intrinsically oriented. The researchers suggest that local social factors may have contributed to this disparity, particularly due to the fact that these groups showed higher levels of prejudice to one of the three target groups, African Americans. In addition, one of these subsamples showed the reverse trend across all three target groups compared to the other five subsamples.

Analysis: Allport and Ross (1967)

This brief example highlights two of the fundamental problems previously identified. Despite the sample seemingly identified as a homogenous group of Christian church-goers, there were differences. Closer examination shows that each subsample was denominationally different. Perhaps, this played a role in the inconsistent results. In addition, the researchers attempted to reduce religion to a sample of individuals who attended church regularly. The narrow definition of religion used in this study would not be adequate to apply to the SBNR group or other religious groups who reject institutional worship. Given the trends previously indicated, whereby more and more religious people are moving away from institutions, this research fails to hold up across time. Finally, as the authors indicated, there may have been socio-political factors contributing to these disparities. This becomes more salient when noting that this study was conducted during a period in American history that was experiencing some highly contentious racial issues, specifically directed toward African Americans.

Summary: Hasnain and Abidi (2007)

A study originating in India by Hasnain and Abidi (2007) explored the role of religiosity in prejudice and ethnocentrism. Muslims and Hindus were identified as either religious or non-religious based on the frequency of prayer offered. Researchers hypothesized that prejudice and ethnocentrism would differ between the religious and non-religious groups. The results showed that religious people – regardless of their religion – showed higher prejudice and ethnocentrism than nonreligious people, suggesting that religions do not teach intolerance, but that some other factor may be responsible.

Analysis: Hasnain and Abidi (2007)

Two items are particularly interesting to note in this study. For these researchers, the terms Muslim and Hindu may carry more of a cultural label rather than a religious label. In the review of the literature for this paper, there was no research originating from Western countries that defined these groups as anything other than religious. Thus, it would be difficult to replicate this study in countries outside of India. Given the heated nature of some Muslim-Hindu relations in India, it is also possible that results of this study were confounded by local socio-political factors. In addition, religion was defined in very narrow terms, specifically if the participants regularly offered prayer. This reductionist approach negates other factors that contribute to the richness of the religion spectrum. Further, it cannot be adequately applied across populations. Many individuals self-identify as religious regardless of the number of times they may pray. Prayer is also just one of many rituals encompassed within religious practices.

Summary: Ysseldyk, Haslam, Matheson, and Anisman (2011)

This research study examined differences in feelings of Atheists and religious individuals toward (ir)religious groups under group-based threat. Researchers hypothesized that both religious and irreligious people would report more ingroup favouritism and outgroup derogation when the ingroup was threatened. There were some particularly curious findings in this research that suggest further challenges to definitions of religious identification. The first was that self-identified Jewish participants displayed more positive feelings toward Atheists than toward all other religious groups. Atheists were consistently rated most negatively by the other religious groups. Secondly, both Jews and Muslims felt colder to each other than they did toward Christians.

Analysis: Ysseldyk, Haslam, Matheson, and Anisman (2011)

The aforementioned results give ample demonstration of how cultural influences of a given time can influence religious labels. Closer examination of the religious group that defied expected results may suggest that re-evaluations of defining such a group is in order. Jewish participants were drawn from a Canadian sample. Most often these individuals identify with the Reform tradition of Judaism, a very liberal, Americanized denomination of the faith. Thus, this branch of Judaism may be viewed as more modern and progressive than traditional forms of the faith. It may also carry more of a cultural symbolism, rather than religious. This socio-cultural phenomenon may help to explain the differences. In addition, ongoing socio-political hostilities in traditional Middle Eastern homelands of both Muslims and Jews may also contribute to explaining the negative feelings shared between these two groups. Again, the role of culture and politics appears to be confounding research results and limiting application of the examination to time and place.

Summary: Hewstone, Newheiser, and Voci (2011)

This investigation explored the strength of religious attitudes, social dominance orientation (SDO), intergroup contact, and mortality salience on attitudes towards Muslims. It revealed some conflicting conclusions pertaining to the role of religious strength in prejudice. The researchers intended to show that religiosity was a greater predictor of prejudice. In this study, the researchers statistically controlled for individual differences in order to assess the role of religious strength in prejudice. Self-report methods assessing religiosity, SDO, and intergroup contact were completed by both groups. Religious individuals were identified by those indicating a religious affiliation, while non-religious participants were those indicating Atheist, Agnostic, secular, or no response. A reformulation of the data on religious attitude responses yielded three factors (certainty, personal relevance, ambivalence). Paradoxically, the results of this study suggest that individuals who indicated high certainty – or ambivalence – toward religion showed decreased negativity.

Analysis: Hewstone, Newheiser, and Voci (2011)

The authors’ own discussion indicates the potential confounding influences to the contradictory conclusions in this research. They suggest that strength of social and political ideologies may be related to the religion-prejudice relationship. This seems particularly relevant given that the target group of this study was Muslim, and the fact that this study was conducted post 9/11. In addition, the participants were exclusively from a Western society. Also, the manner in which the researchers identified religious and non-religious individuals is not particularly useful for assessing what it is about religion that may influence prejudicial attitudes. Self-identified religious affiliation is a label that can carry subjective meanings. As previously indicated, within a faith tradition there can be vast differences between individuals. This study is also a good example of how incorporating numerous variables and religious measurement scales does not necessarily lead to more consistent research findings. Perhaps then, the issue of finding an appropriate definition of religiousness first, remains a concern that ought to be seriously addressed.

Summary: Rowatt, LaBouff, Johnson, Froese, and Tsang (2009)

This research examined associations between general religiousness and tolerance toward disadvantaged social groups. Three separate hypotheses were tested, and included: 1) general religiousness promotes acceptance, 2) mainstream religion is associated with selective prejudice and, 3) extraneous (or confounding) variables explain associations between religiousness and prejudice. Examining data from the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey (BRS), a mixed mode method (telephone and self-administered mail-in), a sample of 1588 U.S. citizens was used in which responses were converted to z-scores. Using correlational and multiple regression analyses, the results indicated that general religiousness was positively associated with intolerance toward homosexuals and slightly negatively associated with racial prejudice when controlling for other variables. This demonstrated support for an association between general religiousness and selective intolerance, while virtually no corroboration was found for the extraneous variable hypothesis. Some results indicated that certain demographics appear to be associated with attitudes and prejudice.

Analysis: Rowatt, LaBouff, Johnson, Froese, and Tsang (2009)

Religiousness was measured by a four-item assessment that gaged degree of religiosity and commitment to certain activities such as prayer and attendance at services. In addition, approximately 75% of participants self-identified with a Judeo-Christian affiliation. While such activities may fit well within the practices of many of these participants, they are not representative of traditions outside the mainstream Western establishment. Further, given increases in the SBNR group, it is doubtful that this method of defining religiousness would be particularly relevant for this religious group. Finally, the link between prejudice toward homosexuals and religiousness in this study may be confounded by socio-political factors, given the antagonistic climate toward same-sex marriage occurring in the United States at the time this research was undertaken. The authors’ concede that the findings in this study may not be applicable across cultures and times. The role of culture, politics, and, other social factors seems particularly poignant in this investigation. In addition, the methods used to define religion also provide more evidence for the issues of applying such definitions across religious identifications.

Summary: Gervais (2011)

This paper explored the relationship between perceived prevalence of Atheists and prejudice. Contrary to other studies that suggest outgroup size is positively correlated with increased prejudice, the main hypothesis was that decreases in prejudice would occur where increases in presence of Atheism was found. Four studies were implemented to examine the researcher’s hypothesis. Study 1 explored the global association between prejudice toward Atheists and Atheist demographic representation by examining data from the World Values Survey (WVS). Study 2 examined 104 individuals’ responses from a web-based questionnaire assessing anti-Atheist prejudice, perceived Atheist prevalence, belief in God, and belief in a dangerous world. Study 3 and 4 extended the findings in the previous studies by experimentally manipulating perceived prevalence of Atheists and assessing the relationship with anti-Atheist prejudice. Generally, beliefs about the prevalence of Atheists decreased prejudice towards them. In Study 3, however, distrust of Atheists was reduced, but not general prejudice.

Analysis: Gervais (2011)

The results of this study are mixed and may be confounded by the method in which the researcher chose to define Atheism. This problem is particularly salient in Study 1, which captured Atheist prevalence with a single item that asked whether participants believed in God. This implicitly implies a monotheistic, patriarchal worldview of the divine – or a very Judeo-Christian centric worldview. Given that this item was extracted from a worldwide survey, it is particularly problematic as it does not assess the religiosity of groups that may hold alternate theological worldviews, including polytheistic or feminine-centered views of the divine. Further, it does not account for religions that may be considered atheistic, such as Buddhism. By the author’s own admission, a trust-biased single item was used to assess anti-Atheist prejudice in a political context. This cannot be adequately applied to more general measures of prejudice, particularly given the traditionally strong ties between politics and religion in many countries around the world. These limitations suggest, again, that researchers must reassess their definitions of religion. They must be mindful of any inherent biases they may bring into their study, particularly as it pertains to the superimposition of their own religious worldviews onto a global context.

*** Stay tuned for Part Three of Beyond Allport’s Paradox ***

M. xo


Allport, G. W., & Ross, J. M. (1967). Personal religious orientation and prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 5(4), 432-443. doi:10.1037/h0021212

Gervais, W. M. (2011). Finding the faithless: Perceived atheist prevalence reduces anti-atheist prejudice. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(4), 543-556. doi:10.1177/0146167211399583

Hasnain, N., & Abidi, K. (2007). Does religiousness promote prejudice and ethnocentrism? Psychological Studies, 52(2), 123-125.

Hewstone, M., Clare, A., Newheiser, A-K., & Voci, A. (2011). Individual and situational predictors of religious prejudice: Impact of religion, social dominance orientation, intergroup contact, and mortality salience. Testing, Psychometrics, Methodology in Applied Psychology, 18(3), 143-155.

Rowatt, W. C., LaBouff, J., Johnson, M., Forese, P., & Tsang, J. (2009). Associations among religiousness, social attitudes, and prejudice in a national random sample of American adults. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 1(1), 14-24. doi:10.1037/a0014989

Ysseldyk, R., Haslam, S. A., Matheson, K., & Anisman, H. (2011). Love thine enemy? Evidence that (ir)religious identification can promote outgroup tolerance under threat. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 15(1), 105-117.  doi:10.1177/1368430211410996


Beyond Allport’s Paradox: The Religion and Prejudice Equation: Part One

June 3rd, 2014 No comments

The following is adapted from an essay submitted to the Department of Psychology, Carleton University, in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the B.A. with Honours degree.  


Psychologist Gordon Allport posited that religion was paradoxically linked with prejudice.  It has the ability to produce or protect from prejudice.  Ironically, social scientific investigations of religion and prejudice are also paradoxical.  The following literature review and meta-analyses will explore how religion is defined in social scientific literature, the impact of time and culture on religious prejudice, and the influence of religious trends, such as the ‘spiritual, but not religious’ groups.  This paper suggests that research into the link between religion and prejudice is confounded by inconsistent definitions of religiosity that cannot be applied across time and cultures. Concluding statements suggest future considerations for researchers, including more studies of the meaning of religiousness to diverse groups of individuals and adaptability to fluid social and political factors that may confound research results.  

Beyond Allport’s Paradox: The Religion and Prejudice Equation

Psychologist Gordon W. Allport is famous in part for his studies that attempted to understand what he called the paradox of religion.  He suggested that religion can give rise to or diminish prejudice (Allport, 1966).  The following research intends to explore beyond Allport’s thesis by demonstrating that not only is the object of study (religious prejudice) paradoxical, but that the method of study holds this quality as well.

Psychological research into the religion-prejudice equation lacks a cohesive methodology and is inherently confounded by a host of individual and socio-political variables.  Two issues will be highlighted.  The first is that simply defining religiosity as a measurement is vastly different across the studies reviewed.  Second, the application of this measurement across cultures and times fails to provide the robustness that one would expect from such investigations.  Most noteworthy is the lack of applicability of religiosity as a measurement that is relevant between samples and across populations.  The scope of this paper posits that research into the link between religion and prejudice is confounded by inconsistent definitions of religiosity that cannot be applied across time and cultures.

The relevancy of continuing such research might be questioned given the methodological issues identified.  A review of recent headlines demonstrates that religious prejudice is becoming more, and not less, salient. Thus, solutions to this issue are urgently needed. In 2012, an anti-Islamic video posted to social media site YouTube set off a series of violent protests in the Middle East that resulted in numerous deaths.    In August of that year, a gunman went on a mass killing spree at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.  For a number of years, there have been reports about the systematic suppression and persecution in China of various religious groups, most notably, Falun Gong practitioners.  A North American study released by the University of British Columbia’s department of psychology revealed that Atheists were considered less trustful than all other religious groups, and comparably as distrusted as rapists (Gervais, Shariff, & Norenzayan, 2011).  Most recently, it was reported that the Boy Scouts of America had finally overturned a ban on homosexuals being permitted membership to their organization, yet have maintained the prohibition on Agnostics and Atheists.  Indeed, a comprehensive study by the Pew Research Center (2012a) shows a marked increase in social hostilities, government restrictions, and harassment of various religious groups around the world.

The following will begin with an overview of research approaches in social scientific investigations of religion and discussion surrounding new religious classifications. Next, summaries of psychological research examining the link between religion and prejudice with accompanying analyses of the aforementioned issues of defining religiosity, generalizing across populations, and the confounding influences of socio-cultural/political factors will be presented.  Finally, social scientific scholarship will be reviewed that addresses these challenges in empirical investigations, specifically with a focus on the emergence of the rapidly growing spiritual, but not religious (SBNR) affiliation.

The Social Scientific Study of Religion

 Traditionally, social scientific research has approached the study of religion using broad concepts to classify religiosity under either the functional or substantive perspectives.  The former focusing on the role of religion in one’s life, while the latter encompassing one’s beliefs, actions, emotions, and connections relative to the sacred (Pargament, 1999; Zinnabauer, Paragament, & Scott, 1999; Zinnabauer et al., 1997).  These approaches have generated a bewildering array of religious variables, with just as many meanings attached to those variables.

Complicating this matter further is the fluid nature of religion itself.  In the last several decades, traditional religiosity has been replaced or complimented by the concept of spirituality.   More and more people are turning away from institutional religion toward an individualized spirituality (Zinnabauer et al., 1999).  An analysis of global religious trends by The Pew Research Center (2012b) shows that 16% of the world’s population identifies as religiously unaffiliated with many proclaiming the SBNR classification.  For social scientists researching religious phenomenon, this group is one that must be seriously considered – particularly now that it is the third largest religious group worldwide, ahead of two major world religions: Buddhism and Hinduism (The Pew Research Center, 2012b).  Yet, more recent research shows how defining religion as a construct has become even more complex with the inclusion of SBNR.  Consequently, modern perspectives have taken a more reductionist approach by attempting to narrowly define the construct.  Particularly, there has been a movement to view spirituality as functional, individual, and positive.  In contrast, religion is relegated to the substantive, institutional, and negative (Pargament, 1999; Zinnabauer et al., 1999).  The recent movement to polarize and ultimately reduce these definitions has not led to more consistent research findings.

*** Read part 2 of Beyond’s Allport’s Paradox here***

M. xo


Allport, G. (1966). The religious context of prejudice. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 5(3), 447-457. Retrieved from

Gervais, W. M., Shariff, A. F., & Norenzayan, A. N. (2011). Do you believe in atheists? Distrust is central to anti-atheist prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(6), 1189-1206. doi:10.1037/a0025882

Pargament, K. I. (1999). The psychology of religion and spirituality? Yes and no. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 9(1), 3-16. doi:10.1207/s15327582ijpr0901_2

Pew Research Center. (2012a) Rising tide of restrictions on religion. Retrieved from

Pew Research Center. (2012b). The global religious landscape. Retrieved from

Zinnbauer, B. J., Pargament, K. I., & Scott, A. B. (1999).  The emerging meanings of religiousness and spirituality: Problems and prospects. Journal of Personality, 67(6), 889-919.

Zinnbauer, B. J., Pargament, K. I., Cole, B., Rye, M. S., Butter, E. M, Belavich, T. G., . . . Kadar, J. L. (1997). Religion and spirituality: Unfuzzying the fuzzy. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 36(4), 549-564.



The Five Aggregates: Buddhism and the Human Personality

May 14th, 2014 No comments

The Five Aggregates (khandhas)

According to Buddhist thought, in particular the Theravāda tradition, the human personality is composed of five aggregates (khandhas).  These constituents are often referred to as, ‘The five aggregates of clinging’.  The five aggregates, in addition to the chain of dependent origination (paṭiccasamuppāda), are believed to play an integral role in the formation of suffering (dukkha) or ‘clinging to the wheel of suffering’.  The existence of suffering is known as the first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.  Attachment or clinging to any of the khandhas continues the wheel of suffering, through the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (saṃsāra).  It is the eradication of these attachments and the realization of the self as impermanent that leads an individual to the path of eliminating dukkha.  Although no formal definition of the aggregates is found in Buddhist literature, they can be rudimentarily defined as: matter (rūpa); feeling (vedanā); perception (saññā); volition (saṅkhāra); consciousness (viññāna).


Defined as matter and form, rūpa is comprised of four primary elements: earth, water, fire and air.  In the context of the human being, these elements are linked to various physiological processes that reflect the nature of these forces.  The earth element emulates bodily elements which are solid such as teeth, nails and bone.  This element supports the others, much like the earth itself supports the various forms that inhabit its sphere.  Liquid bodily constituents such as blood and saliva are represented by the water element, which is further characterized for its liquidity and binding nature.  The heat produced to process foods is represented by the fire element and is indicative of the quality of temperature.  The last of the primary elements, air, is attributed to motion and mobility.  This element is represented in biological functions such as the various abdominal gases.  These four elements are interdependent – each relying on the existence of the others.  Further, they are believed to exist in equal quantities, yet varying intensities in all matter.  Rūpa is the only physical or material aggregate, while the remaining four are more aptly described as cognitive.  The realization of the impermanence of matter, including the physical self, is integral toward eradicating dukkha.


Vedanā, described as feeling, sensation or emotion, is typically categorized as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.  The experience or perception of vedanā occurs through the six sense organs.  Five of these sense organs are physical, including: eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body, while the sixth, mind, falls into the mental realm.  Despite vedanā being primarily based on the physical senses of the body, there is an integral mental aspect comprising them as well.  The eradication of vedanā, particularly craving arising from pleasurable sensations, is an important aspect for the annihilation of dukkha.  Emotions are a fundamental aspect of being human; however, it is the assessment, attachment and proliferation of these emotions that lead an individual toward a path of unhappiness or a path of the eradication of suffering.  While vedanā is an aspect of craving that leads to unsatisfactory states, it can also be attributed to states that are more wholesome and conducive toward annihilating dukkha.  This is primarily achieved by one who has mastered acknowledging and then ‘letting go’ of vedanā.  While vedanā can lead to detrimental states, such as craving, it is not the only contributory factor to these states.


Craving can also arise from certain conditions of saññā, which is typically defined as perception; however, more accurately thought of as recognition.  Similar to vedanā, saññā is categorized by six sense areas: visual form, sound, smell, taste, touch, and mental form.  It is also further classified as wholesome, unwholesome or neutral.  Saññā is responsible for how an individual perceives feelings (vedanā), and may have both positive and negative effects on the eradication of dukkha.  Wholesome saññā leads to the recognition of the nature of certain liberating characteristics of existence, such as impermanence, selflessness, and pain.  In contrast, unwholesome saññā leads to the interpretation of reality that is not favourable toward liberation and the eradication of dukkha.  It is the propagation and attachment to obsessions that hinder spiritual progress.  In order for spiritual progression to occur, an individual must recognize notions of the permanent self as merely obstacles on the path of enlightenment where one recognizes the true nature of reality as impermanent and without self or ‘selfless’.


The fourth aggregate, saṅkhāra, is the most difficult of which to formulate a concrete definition.  It is often associated with volition, will and disposition.  Saṅkhāra is also viewed as all conditioned phenomena encompassed within the entire universe.  Philosophically, this can be thought of as all things that cause and are caused.  The concept of karma (kamma) is also connected to saṅkhāra as seen through the association of volition viewed as any action which produces a result.  Saṅkhāra falls under the realm of mental formations that have an imminent influence on an individual’s situation.  There are 52 mental elements that constitute saṅkhāra and these can be further categorized as positive, negative or neutral.  The kind of saṅkhāra results from its interaction with the other aggregates and the subsequent influence this has on an individual’s kamma.  Particularly, this cognitive phenomenon plays an important role in the formation of the final aggregate; however, the interdependent nature of all five aggregates must be recognized as a fundamental aspect in binding an individual to dukkha.


The fifth and final aggregate, viññāṇa, is most often translated as consciousness; however, it is as difficult to define as saṅkhāra.  As with previous aggregates, viññāṇa can be divided into six categories of sense.  These six kinds of consciousness are visual (eyes and material forms), auditory (ears and sounds), olfactory (nose and smells), gustatory (tongue and tastes), corporeal (body and touching), mental (mind and cognitive states).  Viññāṇa is seen as displaying or manifesting the characteristics of the other four aggregates, that is all conditioned phenomenon.  These inseparable components arise together and create the formation of an abstract, intangible mental representation of the self.    It is the realization of the impermanent nature of the self that leads to the eradication of dukkha.

These five khandas are integral to the theory of dependent origination (paṭiccasamuppāda).  The relationship of each of these aggregates to each other, and to paṭiccasamuppāda, speaks to the conditioned causal nature of all things.  It is the conditioned arising of form, feeling, sensation, mental formation and consciousness that lead to ignorance, craving and clinging which bind an individual to the wheel of suffering.  As such, an individual will continue to experience dukkha through rebirth (saṃsāra).  Through meditation practices an individual may realize all that causes is caused, and the impermanent nature of reality and the self.  It is here where one finds enlightenment and freedom from the wheel of saṃsāra.  This freedom leads to the state of nirvana (nibbāna) which is the highest attainment of the Buddhist practitioner – namely, the transcendence of mind and matter.

M. xo

Further Readings:

Bodhi, Bhikku. (1976). Aggregates and Clinging Aggregates.  Pali Buddhist Review 1(2), 91-102, accessed March 14, 2012,

This article provides an explanation of the meaning of “clinging aggregates” as a whole concept, rather than breaking the aggregates down into their separate parts.  It further illustrates the relationship of the aggregates to the concept of dukkha.  Beginners will find this article difficult without established knowledge of the meaning of each of the aggregates.

Boisvert, Mathieu. (1995). The Five Aggregates: Understanding Theravada Psychology and Soteriology.

Boisvert provides a comprehensive overview of each of the aggregates and their relationship to the theory of dependent origination.  Overviews of many arguments and translations assist in understanding the complex nature of translating the ancient texts.  For beginners this book would be the most useful for providing more in-depth knowledge on the subject, particularly within the Theravāda tradition.

De Silva, Padmasiri. (2005). An Introduction to Buddhist Psychology, 4th Edition.

This easy-to-read book provides an overview of general concepts in Buddhism that relate to general psychological models.  Beginners will find this book as a straight-forward introduction to many Buddhist concepts that intersect with psychology, including discussion of the five aggregates.

Kalupahana, David J. (1987).  The Principles of Buddhist Psychology.

This complex and comprehensive book provides a comparison of Buddhist thought and psychological concepts.  A chapter entitled, “The Buddha’s Conception of Personhood” provides a discussion on each of the aggregates.  A good book for beginners who are interested in gaining knowledge of the aggregates and many other concepts of the notion of self and the mind in Buddhist thought.

Categories: Psychology Tags: , ,

Why Does Jesus Appear in Cheese? [VIDEO]

May 7th, 2014 No comments

Cheesus. You may have heard of him. It’s the ‘cheesy’ name given for savior sightings à la fromage.  It’s not just cheese that Jesus is appearing in either. He’s making the rounds in baked goods, crumpled clothing, rocks, trees, and even ultrasounds.  The video compilation below shows just how much he gets around.  Sure, some of them display what appears to be a classic Jesus silhouette.  Others, well, you be the judge:

Sightings of Jesus is apparently not all that unsual.  More specifically, seeing images of famous mugs in common objects (known as face pareidolia) is a normal psychological function. Of course, how one interprets those images is entirely another matter. This phenomenon can be caused by our brain trying to interpret incomplete visual input. Our brains attempt to fill in missing bits with familiar images. Someone’s experiences and expectations will also pay a role in determining whether it’s Jesus, Mary, Beyonce, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster who appears.

For more information on face pareidolia research being conducted at the University of Toronto, check out this article.

M. xo

Categories: Psychology Tags: ,

Illusion in the Freudian Theory of Religion: Part Two

April 30th, 2014 No comments


Read Part One here.

Freud put forth some intriguing ideas about the origin, motivation and tenacity of religion.  He has, however, been harshly criticized for his lack of validity, and some have suggested that he, himself, engaged in mythologizing and counter-narration of already established myths. A brief overview of the validity of his work in terms of its ‘historical’ accuracy and evidentiary value will demonstrate that much of his theories are based on unsubstantiated reconstructions of Biblical history and weak scientific inquiry.  Despite these weaknesses, it will be suggested that the primary benefit of Freud’s theory doesn’t lie in its robust application, historical accuracy or scientism, but rather its use of illusion and fantasy as an explanatory mechanism of religious motivations.

In his critical appraisal of Freud’s theory, Michael Palmer suggested that there are three types of evidence that Freud provided in support of his hypotheses – anthropological, historical and psychological.[1]  Indeed, several scholars and authors have criticized Freud for the lack of validity in the evidence he used to put forth his ideas.  Using Palmer’s triad, a brief examination of these components will assist in ascertaining as to what extent Freud’s theory is rooted in the scientific paradigm of which he so staunchly advocated and to the veracity of his application of anthropological considerations.

From the overview of Freud’s work presented at the beginning of this paper, one of the anthropological foundations of his theory rests on the notion of a primal horde.  This Darwinian idea allowed Freud to substantiate his Oedipal theory which would become his psychoanalytic basis for religion.  While Darwin’s postulations are intriguing, it is important to point out that there is little valid data to support the universality of the primal horde.  In fact, research has demonstrated a remarkable variation in the social organization of primates,[2] and while there is noticeable similarity between the social organization of some primates and that of very early man, the generalization of this observation in Freud’s account is highly misleading.  Freud does not shy away from universal application of this sort, and this manifests as a blatant weakness in his theories.  When examining the matrilineal family structure of some societies, the theory of primal hordes fails miserably.  In these societies, the women provide authority and discipline for the clans.[3]  This suggests a fundamental flaw in Freud’s attempt to apply such reductionist ideas to the highly dynamic nature of social structures and its various components, such as religion.

Paul Ricoeur, who has written extensively about Freud’s theories, suggested that, “…the truth is that the primal parricide is merely an event constructed out of ethnological scraps….”[4]  Freud attempted to integrate his father complex (Oedipal) ideas with several observations taken from the social scientific realm in order to further validate his claim that the foundation of religion was rooted in supressed childhood wishes.  The problem with Freud’s attempt isn’t the fact that he looked for evidence to support his claims, but rather that the evidence he used wasn’t as empirical or accurate as one might expect from scientific inquiry – an inquiry of which he not only advocated, but also suggested as the only valid truth, calling it, “…our only way to the knowledge of external reality.”[5]

Perhaps, this propensity for Freud to use lacklustre science in explaining cultural phenomenon was due to the fact that his main research method was generalizing from individual case studies to the entire human population.[6]  It is little wonder that Freud employed this technique because the foundation of his practice of psychoanalysis was one of historical reconstruction through revealing the repressed past in an effort to understand one’s psychological problems in the present.  Through the use of free association, in which the patient was walked through reconstructing their past, classical psychoanalysts provided interpretations of any sensitive memories which might suggest suppressed feelings, desires or struggles.[7]

It is undeniable that one of the most obvious weaknesses of Freud’s theory is the exclusion of matriarchal societies, which speaks to the lack of universality in extending his thesis beyond paternally dominated religions, particularly of monotheistic traditions.  Interestingly, Freud acknowledged this as an issue by suggesting, “…I am at a loss to indicate the place of the great maternal deities….”[8]

Conceivably, the most controversial narrative Freud provided was the integration of his primal horde and totemism theories into a historical reconstruction of the biblical Moses.  This re-imagining of the historical origins of monotheism provides little more than an unsubstantiated counter-narrative.  Claims such as the name Moses meaning ‘child’ in Egyptian, or the fact that circumcision, which was widely practiced among Egyptian people[9] and adopted by the Jews, do not provide the evidence that Freud was desperately seeking.   Similarly, we find dubious assertions in the claims that Moses was executed by the Israelites or that the monotheism of Amentohep IV actually had an influence on the development of Judaism. Instead, Freud appropriated these biblical myths and attempted to weave a narrative of the history of religious origins which seemed to fit his psychoanalytic theory of the origin of neuroses.  His counter-narrative provided the link he required to justify his claim that religion was a neurosis of mankind.  Freud did so by providing an original sin which was repressed and remained latent, followed by a return of the repressed manifested as guilt, culminating in the establishment of an illusion as a defence against the resurfacing of these repressed memories.[10] In the story of Moses, and subsequently the story of Jesus’ execution, Freud delivered a recurrence of the memories of the first primal scene that allowed him to apply his Oedipal theory to the origins of religion.  In essence, it appears as though he has conveniently rewritten Biblical history in order to accommodate and advance his own psychoanalytic theories.  Ironically, the very nature of Freud’s theory that religion is an illusion seems to be predicated on illusory bits of history and evidence itself.

Given that Freud applied certain psychoanalytic concepts to his theory of religion, it behooves a brief examination of the criticisms and commentary that have been expended on these notions.  Many have suggested that Freud’s psychoanalysis lacked the fundamental requirements of scientific theory and empirical verification.[11]  Particularly, critics have lambasted its use of subjective interpretation of dreams and memories,[12] in addition to its use of individual case studies which were generalized to the entire human population.[13] These points assuredly strengthen the arguments criticizing psychoanalysis as an unempirical and unverifiable science, yet some of Freud’s psychoanalytic concepts do show validity in follow up studies; however, it’s the application of these concepts in which Freud erred.

The heart of Freud’s postulations on religion is embedded in the Oedipal complex theory.  Indeed, Freud, himself believed the Oedipal complex to be the single greatest claim to psychoanalytic fame.[14]  Given this grandiose claim, it’s little wonder that there has been much research around verifying its importance or, indeed, existence as part of the development of the human psyche.  Overall, research has demonstrated that there is evidence to support the existence of the Oedipal complex; however, there is little evidence to suggest that it can be generalized to all human beings, nor can it be claimed that it plays a central role in the development of mental processes.[15]

Wish fulfillment and repression are two other bases for the Freudian account of religious motivation.  The concept of wish fulfillment has been largely drawn from his work on the interpretation of dreams, specifically their latent meaning.[16]  As previously pointed out, the highly subjective nature of dream interpretation provides for an extremely weak methodology.  Clearly then, it cannot be considered scientific as such.  While we find little evidence to support the applicable robustness of either the Oedipal complex or wish fulfillment, the concept of repression as a defence mechanism has been widely recognized as verifiable.[17]

Finally, Freud adopted the concept of a collective unconscious or archaic memory heritage as the mechanism by which people acquired ideas and memories from their ancestors.  Although these theories weren’t cornerstones to psychoanalysis, they do play an integral role in his theory of religion.  Obviously, a concept of inherited memory is difficult if not impossible to test, and as such is highly unscientific.[18]

Ultimately, Freud’s psychoanalysis gravely lacks adequate application of the scientific model.  His observations were drawn from unrecorded and recollected therapy sessions with his patients, and his concepts have, for the most part, remained untestable.[19]  Thus, the bulk of Freud’s basis for his theory of religion is “…decidedly interpretative rather than empirical,”[20] because he based so much of this theory on his psychoanalytic model.

Freud clearly viewed himself as a scientist; however, he is more aptly viewed in the context of this paper as a culture theorist.  Perhaps in part due to the reductionist nature of his scientific pursuits, his cultural theories have been widely regarded as attempts to advance his own psychoanalytic model.  Additionally, his work has been accused of being piecemeal, limited in focus and the speculations of an aged man.[21] Given the aforementioned criticisms and inherent problems in his approach, is it possible to identify any worth in his theory of religion – other than merely part of the history of the psychology of religion?

Clearly, Freud’s use of psychoanalysis as a scientific explanation for the motivations and origins of religion is unfounded; however, his work is regarded as influential in the psychological study of religion because it helped advance discussion concerning the cognitive aspects of religion.  Further, it drew analogies to the inherent need of people to feel safe and secure, which is arguably an intrinsic function of religion.[22]  Ultimately, Freud’s theory of religion should not be regarded for its scientism, or for its rejection of religion as a meaningful element in human life.  It is best interpreted as a tool for understanding the manifestation of symbol systems and the use of fantasy in positive personal and social development.[23]  This stands in marked contrast to Freud’s assertion that religion functioned as a negative consequence of repressed wish fulfillments.  Thus, Freud’s theory of religion can be linked to other cognitive developmental strategies involving fantasy and illusion such as creativity and imagination, which demonstrate a vital relationship between reality and the use of fantasy in the positive development of the human being.[24]  Through re-assessing the Freudian critique of religion a new appreciation of his work as a rich account of how fantasy and illusion influence experiences of external reality can emerge.[25]

Freud may have insisted that religion has negative consequences for the individual, and indeed society, by keeping it stuck in a state of childlike dependence; however another view can be adopted – one that speaks to the unfettered power of illusion in its ability to help the human species to reconcile those aspects of life which are conceptually out of the human ability to understand.[26] Perhaps the strongest argument for this view of religion can be found in Freud’s own views on the relationship between man and nature, and the subsequent need, “…to defend us against nature.”[27]  In this standpoint, we can draw parallels between the use of illusion and fantasy – or religious narratives – as a means to cope with the unknowable, volatile, and devastating events affecting human life.  Beverley Clack aptly suggests, “[r]eligion offers solace in the face of chaos.  It is this that connects religion most clearly with the concerns that drive the construction of phantasy: the attempt to limit pain and to master reality.”[28]  Accordingly, religion becomes a mechanism, propelled through the use of illusion and fantasy, which serves to regulate feelings of mortality, helplessness, and uncertainty.  The nature of the human species as self-aware inevitably leads to these postulations and the necessitation to mitigate the discontent that arises from these inherently emotional aspects of being human.  In this manner, Freud’s belief that religion was illusion may be accurate; however, his view of religion as neurosis should be more accurately articulated as religion as a source of inspiration for the human species.

There is no denying Freud’s influence on our understanding of the human mind – in particular, his enormous influence on engaging future scholars in debate concerning the curiosities of the psyche and the role of human cognition in the creation of cultural systems.  There is also little doubt that Freud rejected religion as a means in which to understand the world, although his motivations for doing so remain unclear.  Further inquiry into Freud’s life would assuredly lead to many assumptions; however, this remains outside the scope of this paper.  It also would fail to prove useful toward reconciling the argument herein.  Certainly, he was a highly polemical figure who sparked discussion and much criticism; however, these criticisms have not been fully warranted.  It behooves his critics to revisit his work for not its factual, empirical, or historical value – despite Freud attempting to conform to these standards – but rather for its interpretative value.  This is where we find the true essence of the Freudian theory of religion.  A theory which speaks to the depths of the human psyche and the fantasies employed to navigate through an often turbulent life.  Through reassessing Freud’s critique, one might rightly suggest that he was indeed a friend of religion, albeit a hesitant one.

 M. xo

Suggested Readings:


[1] Palmer, Freud and Jung, 61.

[2] Ibid., 62.

[3] Ibid, 65

[4] Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, trans. Denis Savage (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 208.

[5] Freud, The Future of an Illusion, 55.

[6] Roderick Main, “Psychology of Religion: An Overview of its History and Current Status.” Religion Compass 2, no. 4 (2008): 715.

[7] David G. Myers, Psychology, 7th Edition in Modules (New York: Worth Publishers, 2004), 668-69.

[8] Freud, Totem and Taboo, 192.

[9] Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy, 245.

[10] David Humbert,“The Return of Adam: Freud’s Myth of the Fall,” Religious Studies 29, no. 3 (Sep. 1993):  293.

[11] Robert Banks, “Religion as Projection: A Re-Appraisal of Freud’s Theory,” Religious Studies 9, no. 4 (1973): 412- 20; Palmer, Freud and Jung, 63-64; Ricouer, Freud and Philosophy, 345-75.

[12] Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy, 346.

[13] Main, “Psychology of Religion,” 715.

[14] Banks, “Religion as Projection,” 413; Paul Kline, Fact and Fantasy in Freudian Theory (Edinburgh, GRB: T & A Constable Ltd, 1972), 348.

[15] Palmer, Freud and Jung, 64 – 65; Kline, Fact and Fantasy, 348.

[16] Banks, “Religion as Projection,” 414-15.

[17] Ibid., 413-14.

[18] Kline, Fact and Fantasy, 351.

[19] Ibid., 1-2.

[20] Main, “Psychology of Religion,” 715.

[21] Howard L. Kaye, “Was Freud a Medical Scientist or a Social Theorist? The Mysterious ‘Development of the Hero’,” Sociological Theory 21, no. 4 (2003): 378.

[22] Raymond F. Paloutzian, Invitation to the Psychology of Religion, 2nd Edition. (Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 1996), 47-48.

[23] DiCenso, “Totem and Taboo”, 561; James DiCenso, “Religion as Illusion: Reversing the Freudian Hermeneutic,” The Journal of Religion 71, no. 2 (1991): 178.

[24] Clack, “After Freud,” 204.

[25] Ibid., 210.

[26] DiCenso, “Religion as Illusion,”179.

[27] Freud, Future of an Illusion, 26.

[28] Clack, “After Freud,” 214.

Categories: Psychology Tags: , ,

Illusion in the Freudian Theory of Religion: Part One

April 28th, 2014 No comments

Adapted from an essay submitted March 2012 to the the Department of Religion, Carleton University



Sigmund Freud, 1921

Sigmund Freud’s theory of religion, as outlined in his seminal works, Totem and Taboo, Moses and Monotheism,and The Future of an Illusion, undoubtedly contributed to numerous classical and contemporary scholars pointedly labelling him as an enemy of religion.  Despite identifying with a Jewish heritage, many have suggested that Freud was – for all intents – an atheist who viewed religion as merely another manifestation of his psychoanalytic concept of wish fulfillment.  Freud’s reductionist treatment of religion established his adherence to scientific principles, which he viewed as the only means in which to understand the world.  In fact, religion was just another stepping stone for humanity on its way to the scientific age, one in which illusions and fantasy played no part in reality or understanding the human condition. Ironically, in his attempt at developing a theory of religion, he cast aside doctrines of scientific principles and cast a blanket of suspicion over the validity of his claims.   His theory is intriguing, innovative and bold – especially given the time period in which he first advanced his ideas.  Yet, despite his tenacious pursuit of explaining the origination and purpose of religion in scientific and historical terms, he failed to develop a theory that could be described as such.

He staunchly advocated methods of rational inquiry and empirical methodology, and through case studies and observational techniques he developed theories to explain the human psyche and a greater understanding of cultural phenomenon.  Despite these ambitions, many of his theories have gone largely unproven; ironically because they lack universal application as a result of limiting research methods.  His theory of religion is based on several of his psychoanalytic concepts, and as such suggests inherent weaknesses in his approach; however, Freud may have been his own worst enemy due to his refusal to waver from the scientific paradigm in an attempt to explain external reality.  In fact, his critique of religion may actually provide a more positive explanation than the one he overtly claimed.  Far from the parallel of religion as neurosis, his theory suggests that religion works as a mechanism through using illusion and fantasy as a means to resolve reality and the uncertainty of the human condition.  In this view, Freud’s religion becomes a positive mechanism for the development of the human psyche, similar to other concepts such as creativity and imagination.  Thus, Freud – or at least his theory – can be understood as an advocate for religion rather than a dissident.

Freud’s work in religion began in 1907 with a short essay entitled, Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices.  This paper heralded the beginning of a tumultuous relationship between Freud’s psychoanalysis and religion.  In it he drew parallels between the expression of belief in the religious and acts of neurotic psychiatric patients, which he called “ritualistic”.  Both, he suggested, had a shared origin in repressed instincts and supressed childhood experiences.[1]  Specifically, Freud viewed religion as an illusion based on early childhood fantasies, which had been supressed.  Re-emerging in adulthood, these suppressed instincts would ultimately influence the way in which the adult viewed the world,[2] such that reality would become distorted.  Religion was thus realized as a coping mechanism for unrealized childhood wish fulfillment, which ultimately had harmful consequences for the adult human.

Totem and Taboo (1913) by Sigmund Freud

In Totem and Taboo, Freud introduced the concept of totem prohibitions and their relation to modern day religiosity.  In his introductory chapter, he defined totems and their role within the social organization of a tribe, as the first tribal ancestor – animal, plant or force in nature – which held a unique relationship with the tribe.  This relationship was such that a taboo against killing the animal emerged – except for the ritualized annual act of killing and devouring the totem.[3]  This totem meal was instituted in an effort to obtain the power and strength of the totem animal.  Additionally, a strong familial connection to the totem extended throughout the entire clan such that every member of the tribe was deemed blood related.  This led to the practice of exogamy which created a second taboo in the totem social system, namely the incest taboo.[4]  Freud believed that these original taboos signalled the start of morality and ultimately of a social structure[5], which later propagated into religion and other cultural phenomenon.

Freud created a narrative using these totem taboos that extended his thesis in Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices and integrated previously developed theories of psychosexual development, specifically the Oedipus complex.  Drawing heavily from Darwin’s work on primal hordes, Freud described the later manifestation of these primal hordes into totems and subsequently modern day religious traditions.  He postulated that a lone dominant male maintained his status and claim to all females in the tribe through driving out young males to find mates in different totems.  The outcast males then came together and conspired to kill their father.  Subsequently, the sons consumed the father in an effort to assume his power.  Despite their efforts to end the patriarchal horde, the sons became consumed with guilt.  A brother horde was created and soon the practice of exogamy was reinstated, in effect supressing the motivation for the original sinful act.[6] With guilt subsiding and longing for a father-ideal, of which none of them could obtain, the brothers conceived of a symbolic father-figure in the totem animal[7] and commemorated the killing of the father through the annual totem meal.  This ritual was created to relieve the brothers’ guilt through honouring the father and attempting to harness his power.[8] Freud theorized the ceremony and associated symbolic father-image were the precursors to the creation of gods and modern religion.

Additionally, he surmised that the ceremonial act of the totem meal was similar to the obsessive thinking and ritualistic act of the neurotic patient.  Fearing the negative consequences of acting against prohibitions and taboos, these rituals provided both patient and prehistoric man a way in which to supress forbidden impulses and unconscious desires[9] – specifically, the latent desire to kill the father and wed the mother (Oedipus complex).[10] Moreover, the rituals served as a way to reconcile the guilt stemming from these unconscious wishes.  Freud believed that this original sin of the brother horde and the subsequent guilt brought about the totemic religious system which would later become a base for all future religions.[11]  In this way, the totem feast became, “…the repetition and commemoration of this memorable, criminal act with which so many things began, social organization, moral restrictions and religion.”[12]

Freud extended this theory further by suggesting that religious gods were always modelled after an idealized father-figure which was greatly influenced by the individual’s relationship with their own father.[13] The paradoxical nature of this relationship was exemplified by the simultaneous disdain and love for the all-powerful father-figure.  Here, the unconscious wishes of the child, the repressed guilt in the neurotic adult due to those childhood wishes, and the religious person converge in the Oedipus complex, and manifest in various ways in which humans view the world.

In The Future of an Illusion, Freud bridged his postulations on religion as illusion with his work in Totem and Taboo.  In it, he discussed the nature of ambivalence toward the father figure through suggesting that children experienced jealousy and fear toward the father for his all-powerful role, but also looked to the father for protection and care.  As the child grew and experienced the harsh reality of life, the realization that he was destined to be helpless forever emerged.  In order to harness the protective feelings experienced from their own father as a child, the adult transferred the father-image into gods that were both feared and revered.[14]

Freud suggested that modern day monotheistic patriarchal religion developed from this idea of helplessness, particularly in reaction to the harsh and unknowable power of nature.  Mirroring the father-child relationship, the relationship between man and nature was such that man was ultimately at the mercy of natural forces, thus creating fear, helplessness, and awe.  In order to adequately resolve these feelings and to identify with nature, man projected his image into illusory beings with humanlike traits in an effort to establish a relationship with these unknown forces.[15]  Realizing that this helplessness would not cease during the course of the adult’s lifetime, the father-figure beings were created as more powerful than any individual to whom the adult could conceive – namely, the father.[16]

It is important to discuss what Freud meant by illusion.  He believed that illusion stemmed from wishes and fantasies and were similar to psychiatric delusions.  The differences between the two are that delusion suggested a struggle with reality while illusion wasn’t necessarily opposing reality.[17]  Essentially, illusion was motivated by repressed fantasies and the content of the illusory narrative was possible, although not always probable.  For Freud, the narratives of religions were certainly possible, but mostly improbable.  As such, he considered them neurotic fantasies.  Freud translated this hypothesis into the notion of religion as illusion, and ultimately called religion, “…the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity,” [18] rooted in the infantile Oedipal stage.  For him, religion was keeping humanity stuck in a childlike wonderment that abandoned reality for the safety and security of fantasies.  The only proper course of action was the turning away from religious proclivities holding humanity in a middle stage of development and adopting the scientific view of external reality, which more adequately explained the world than religious doctrine.[19]

Finally, further development of his critique of religion was put forth in Moses and Monotheism, in which he applied his theory to the development of firstly Judaism, and then Christianity.  Using the story of Moses from the Hebrew Bible, Freud reimagined the narrative through claiming that Moses was born to Egyptian nobility.  He further claimed that an early form of Judaism was founded on an ancient Egyptian Aton religion, prominent under Pharaoh Amenhotep IV and was known as the only form of monotheism in Ancient Egypt.[20]  Freud speculated that this was the precursor to the rise of the first of the great monotheistic religions, Judaism.  He drew comparisons to the Mosaic religion and the Aton religion highlighting such points as a strict adherence to monotheism, which was very uncommon in the time period.  He also suggested that Moses gave the Jewish people more than just a new religion, but also the law of circumcision which was believed to be widely practiced in ancient Egypt. [21]  Additionally, Freud suggested that the Jewish people revolted against Moses for imposing this new religion on them and subsequently killed him.  He pointed to narratives in the Bible which described these uprisings.[22] In what he described as a latent period in the history of the Jewish religion, Freud suggested that after revolting and killing Moses, that the people turned away from the new religion and returned to their polytheistic ways with a particular emphasis on the worship of the volcano-god Jahve.  A long period of denial followed in which both the killing and the religion given by Moses were supressed.  It was only through oral traditions, which were kept alive by a few loyal followers, that the story of Moses came to permeate the cultural consciousness of the Jews and counter the non-objective historical accounts that were given forth. [23]  Freud said, “[i]t was this tradition of a great past that continued to work in the background, until it slowly gained more and more power over the mind of the people and at last succeeded in transforming the God Jahve into the Mosaic God and in waking to a new life the religion which Moses had instituted centuries before and which had later been forsaken.”[24]   This reworked Mosaic mythology provided Freud with the opportunity to tie in his theory of religion introduced in his previous works – particularly his notions of guilt and fantasy as outlined in the Oedipal concept.

Here Freud demonstrated the restoration of the father as he previously discussed in Totem and Taboo through the growing feelings of guilt among the Jewish people and the resurfacing of suppressed memories of the original sin of killing the father as proclaimed by a Jewish rabble-rouser, Paul of Tarsus.  Redemption and salvation were brought to the Jewish people and indeed all of civilization through the sacrifice of the son of god, Jesus.[25]  It was the leader of the brother horde, Freud suggested, that would be most befitting as a potential sacrifice.  He further illustrated connections to his theory by pointing to the Holy Communion ritual, one in which the flesh and blood of Christ is symbolically ingested, as similar to that of the totem feast.[26]  This account showed how Christianity rose from Judaism, but more specifically how the father religion was replaced by the religion of the son through the transference of repressed guilt.  It is here that Freud attempted to connect totemism to monotheism.  Obviously this re-envisioned account created much public criticism of Freud, as he had essentially claimed that the Judaic religion was not founded on the word of God, but rather the edicts of the Egyptians.

In support of this reimagined historical account of the rise of Judaism and then Christianity, Freud offered up the concept of an archaic heritage which he suggested may involve inherited memory traces that could help to explain why individually different people respond in remarkably similar ways to the same experiences.[27]  Essentially, this concept put forth the notion that repressed memories were passed on from generation to generation and remained dormant during the latency periods of mankind.  This concept allowed Freud to connect how the memory of Moses’ murder survived for generations and the subsequent guilt that consumed the Jewish people.

 Read Part 2 of Illusion in the Freudian Theory of Religion here.

M. xo

Suggested Readings:

[1] Kirk A. Bingham, Freud and Faith: Living in Tension (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003), 31-32; Michael Palmer, Freud and Jung on Religion (New York: Routledge, 1997), 12-13.

[2] Beverley Clack, “After Freud: Phantasy and Imagination in the Philosophy of Religion,” Philosophy Compass 3, no. 1 (2008): 203-204.

[3] Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo, trans. A.A. Brill (New York: Vintage Books, 1946), 134. Freud suggested that animals and plants were most often adopted as the tribal totem.  Taboos against destruction of the totem led to a refusal to kill the animal and avoidance in harvesting the plant.  Although he didn’t specifically address the plant totem in his discussion on the annual totem meal, it is feasible to extend the hypothesis and suggest that the totem plant may have been eaten once a year.  Freud did not include a discussion of the tribal totems identifying with forces of nature.

[4] Ibid., 5-7.

[5] Ibid., 45-48.

[6] Freud, Totem and Taboo, 182-83; Palmer, Freud and Jung, 23.

[7] Palmer, Freud and Jung, 25.

[8] Freud, Totem and Taboo, 183.

[9] Bingham, Freud and Faith, 35.

[10] Palmer, Freud and Jung, 24.

[11] James DiCenso, “Totem & Taboo and the Constitutive Function of Symbolic Forms,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion  64, no. 3 (1996): 572; Palmer, Freud and Jung, 25.

[12] Freud, Totem and Taboo,183.

[13] Ibid., 190.

[14] Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, trans. W.D. Robson-Scott (Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, 2010), 41-42.

[15] Ibid., 29-30

[16] Ibid., 52

[17] Ibid., 54

[18] Ibid., 76.

[19] Ibid., 55.

[20] Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, trans. Katherine Jones (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), 7-26.

[21] Ibid., 28-29.

[22] Ibid., 58. Freud speculated that uprisings which were supressed by the God Jahve during the time of “wandering in the wilderness” may have been during Moses’ time, despite biblical texts failing to explicitly suggest such postulations.

[23] Ibid., 85-86.

[24] Ibid., 87.

[25] Ibid., 109-10.

[26] Ibid., 111.

[27] Ibid., 125.

Categories: Psychology Tags: , ,

What is the Psychology of Religion?

April 22nd, 2014 No comments

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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Nature-Connectedness: The Greening of Behaviour, Well-Being and Christian Imperatives: Part 3

February 24th, 2014 No comments

Read Part One and Two

Getting Back to Nature – A Christian Imperative

“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion … over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26)

“And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31)

In perhaps one of the most significant articles in religion and ecology discourse, Lynn White Jr. (1967) in his article, The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis, discussed the impact of Westernized Christian tradition on the proliferation of the misuse of science and technology that ultimately led to perpetuating a polarity between humankind and nature. Acknowledging that people remarkably and often unintentionally impact the natural world (p. 1203), he suggested that a historical overview of the advent of the ecological crisis was warranted. White discussed the rise of Western industrialization, leading to modern science and technology as harbingers of doom for nature (p. 1204). In a critical examination, White admonished the Western Christian tradition for spreading ideological narratives from the Biblical account of the story of Creation that called for a fundamental reign of humankind over nature (p. 1205-1206). He suggested that solutions to the ecological crisis should be one of a religious nature because its origins were based in religion. Further due to the influence of the Christian tradition on science and technology, he believed that further remedies of this nature could not aid in a resolution because they were ultimately based on religious ideology (p. 1206-1207), therefore a religious response could be the only proper course of action.

White’s arguments provide a sound base for what roles, if any, religion and science should impart in the continued efforts toward ecological salvation. Clearly, this argument lays the blame squarely at the foot of the Western Christian tradition and as such has incited much response from the community. Responses have ranged from outright denial to acknowledgment of partial culpability; however, there appears to be a growing trend of redefining the terms and understanding of dominion or stewardship as suggested in the Genesis account. Indicative of this sentiment have been many messages and appeals from leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly Pope John Paul II.


Christian Perspectives

In a 1990 address celebrating World Day of Peace, Pope John Paul II discussed an emerging adversary to world peace – the present day ecological crisis (Message of His Holiness, Intro., par. 1). Pointing to the same passages in the book of Genesis that White used in his argument, in which Adam and Eve were granted dominion over the Earth (Gen 1:28), he expanded the interpretation to suggest that dominion was granted on condition that it was carried out with love and care. He further suggested that it is through sinful acts of rebellion against the Creator’s instructions that have led to the present day environmental devastation (Sec. I, par. 2).

The Pope’s message also discussed the negative impacts of consumerism, irresponsible use of science and technology, a complacent disregard for life, and the lack of education encompassing an environmental ethic. These, he theorized, are all factors that have contributed to ecological devastation affecting every life on the planet. The solution he put forth called for a united world of peoples who step into their place as proper stewards of creation (Sec. II – Sec.V).

His Holiness also exalted the benefits of the human-nature relationship, “[o]ur very contact with nature has a deep restorative power; contemplation of its magnificence imparts peace and serenity” (Sec. IV, par. 8). In closing his address, Pope John Paul II alluded to a kinship with nature by urging people to keep, “[…] alive a sense of ‘fraternity’ with all those good and beautiful things which Almighty God has created,” (Sec. V, par. 5).

Clearly, one of this generation’s most influential leaders of the Christian tradition felt a deep urgency over the state of matters concerning the environment. In addition, he appears to have intuitively connected with notions of the beneficial effect of nature on not only one’s physical well-being, but also one’s spiritual well-being. His ecotheological contemplations lay forth a path in which Christians can breathe new life into the Biblical account of Creation, including a new standard of humankind’s call to stewardship of the earth.

Renowned ecotheologian and Catholic priest, Thomas Berry, has written much on the subject of the relationship between humans and nature. He suggested that, “[w]e have indeed become strange beings so completely are we at odds with the planet that brought us into being” (Meadow Across the Creek, 2000, par. 9). Discussing the upbringing of children in industrialized nations, he posited that a learned alienation from nature imparts indifference concerning the effects of future economic aspirations that exploit the environment (par. 9).

One response Berry (2003) offered to reconnect humankind with the earth was to usher in an age which he dubbed ecozoic. In this new era, Berry believed that people will and must come to appreciate not only the intrinsic value of all life forms (pg. 569), but also their role as a supreme manifestation and celebratory agent of the universe (pg. 565). Endowed with the ability of self-awareness and heightened intelligence, humankind is tasked with responsibility of stewardship (p. 565) in such a way that honours the symbiosis of all species and the earth itself (pg. 568).

Berry’s reflections suggest a deep spiritual connection and rational understanding about people in relation to the environment. He discussed the inharmonious consequences of human actions on the balance of nature and how this reflected a tragic implementation of the gifts and burdens of intelligence and self-awareness (p. 565-567). Despite the culpability of people on the present state of the natural environment, he acknowledged that future pursuits must still maintain the interests of humans, but also maintain the health of the planet (p. 566-567). Through initiating responsible ecological and economical governance Berry suggested, “[…] that the well-being of each [is] fulfilled in the well-being of the whole” (p. 570). It is in recognizing that the “[…] universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects,” (p. 570) that the greater potential of humankind may be actualized.

Berry’s profound spiritual reflections show a remarkable integration of the views of his traditional faith, but also those stemming from an understanding of a universal consciousness. It is through the integration of multi-faceted frameworks of spirituality and scientific practice that a new era of environmental ethic can arise to influence humanity in shifting their current relationship with the earth.


Toward an Integrated Environmental Ethic

The aforementioned research and philosophical discourse highlights a need for an integrated framework to be adopted in order to appropriately respond to the environmental crisis. Lynn White Jr. made the argument that the most adequate responses must be ones rooted in religion; however, scientific knowledge must also be included in the solution. Religion may offer a motivation toward ecological salvation, but science can assuredly offer important tools and methods that will be invaluable toward implementing responses and measuring successes thereafter.

Science and religion have historically been polarized in such discussions; however, both can provide immense benefits. As has been demonstrated, theologians and ecological thinkers often begin by asking important questions that should, and must, be investigated with the rigor of the scientific discipline. One of humanity’s greatest assets is the ability to ponder profound existential issues, and then follow through with logical methods of inquiry. How then, can humankind use these powerful forces to advance a responsible ecological age, while still advancing the human potential in all its pursuits?

Throughout this paper the concept of interdependency has been explored in relation to people and nature. This same concept can be examined in the context of this issue between religion and science, both of which are inherently human concepts of viewing the world. Striving to integrate these concepts can only serve to benefit broadening humanity’s understanding of these important issues.

As noted, much of the research undertaken has stemmed from ecospiritual ideas. These thinkers expressed concern for the alienation of humans from a fundamental part of their being – nature. Clearly, the scientific community has become more interested in these ideas as evidenced from the growing body of research concerning people and the environment. Similarly, science is both validating these claims through a methodological approach and providing important tools in which to understand the causal links between people and nature. Thomas Berry (2003) advocated this integral framework where science, technology and religions forge a new ecozoic era and universe story.

Religion and ecology literature is replete with discussions on whether anthropocentrism or biocentrism is the problem and/or solution to the unfolding crisis. The examination in this paper suggests that anthropocentrism and biocentrism may not be mutually exclusive ideas in the search for an appropriate response. The research indicates that humans receive enormous benefits from being connected or having a kinship with nature. Human needs and interests are fulfilled when the needs of the environment are also fulfilled. This speaks for an anthropocentric ideal in which human behaviour and utilization of the planet’s resources are based on what is in the best interest of humanity.

Interestingly, this adapted anthropocentric notion may also have elements of biocentrism. Human interests are fulfilled through having a deep interest in maintaining a healthy environment and forging a deep connection to nature. Additionally, as the aforementioned research suggests, pro-environmental behaviour may also increase identification with the environment, thus resulting in a greater appreciation for the inherent worth of the environment. This would suggest that claims of anthropocentrism, argued to be inherent in religious traditions such as Christianity, would not necessarily negate an appropriate response to the environment.

Similarly, the concept of stewardship in the Christian ideology can be integrated into a robust environmental ethic. Historically, there may be evidence to suggest that the dominion argument had precedence over stewardship in humanity’s relations to nature; however, religious traditions evolve and adapt in accordance with the acquisition of knowledge and shifting societal ethics. Clearly, as evidenced by the messages from Pope John Paul II and Thomas Berry presented in this paper, a shift in ideological territory is taking place. Christians are heralding a renewed response to their relationship with the environment; perhaps in part due to the growing scientific evidence that highlights humanity’s culpability in the destruction of God’s Creation and in addition to empirical inquiries into the value of nature for people. Reinterpretation of Biblical passages allows for the integration of this knowledge into an appropriate and decidedly Christian response. Part of this response may include the atonement for past sins perpetrated on God’s Creation. Additionally, Christians can seek guidance and a new ethic based on revisiting their sacred text for renewed revelation.

In light of the research and philosophical discourse above, stewardship can provide a bridge for which Christians may develop a deeper connection to nature. If the research holds true, a deeper kinship with the environment will result in an increase in positive actions toward the environment which ultimately will fulfill God’s mandate to care for the land He created. Befittingly, these actions and connections will likely increase the well-being of the Christian community which could be interpreted as divine reward for fulfilling divine providence.

Essentially, science and religion are working in parallel toward the same prospect. One institution doing so based on divine mandates and influenced by modern knowledge; the other based on contemporary methodologies and influenced by spiritual reflections. Clearly, this suggests that cooperative efforts toward ecological sustainability are already underway. The future challenge will be maintaining this synergy, while valuing the insights each paradigm can offer toward the effort.

M. xo


Bible, The King James or Authorized Version of the Holy Bible.

Berry, T.  (2000). The Meadow Across the Creek.  In The Great Work.  Retrieved from

Berry, T. (2003). The universe story: its religious significance. In R.S. Gottlieb (Ed.), Liberating faith: religious voices for justice, peace, and ecological wisdom (565-572). Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

John Paul II.  Message of His Holiness Pope John Paul II for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace. 1 Jan. 1990. Retrieved from

White Jr., L. (1967). The historical roots of our ecologic crisis. Science, 155 (3767), 1203-1207.

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Nature-Connectedness: The Greening of Behaviour, Well-Being and Christian Imperatives: Part 2

February 18th, 2014 No comments

Missed Part One?  Read it here.

Translating the Nature-Connectedness Hypothesis into Theoretical Frameworks

The groundwork of any psychological research involves the study of various facets of human nature and behaviour. There are numerous branches of psychology that focus on specific frames of reference to focus investigations, such as social, physiological, forensic, personality, etc. The emerging sub-discipline of ecopsychology (also related to environmental psychology and conservation psychology), “[…] proceeds from the assumption that at its deepest level the psyche remains sympathetically bonded to the Earth that mothered us into existence” (Roszak, 1995, p. 5). Clearly, this focus of empirical research sounds remarkably similar to the aforementioned hypothetical musings of Wilson, Naess, Louv and Jung. Although these ideas are not new, scientific inquiry is a refreshing course of action that may provide stronger evidence for the validity of these philosophical claims.

It is important to point out that while psychological inquiry does make use of scientific empirical techniques that the essence of this study is inherently speculative (p. 14). The mysterious nature of the mind makes even the soundest theory difficult to prove conclusively. Additionally, no two people are exactly alike; therefore, psychology can most often speak in terms of generalities and correlations. Despite the seemingly inconclusive quality of this research, it is still extremely valuable in assisting to understand the motivations and behaviours of people. This can be a powerful tool in influencing policies and actions of social institutions.


Toward Environmental Well-Being

Some research inquiries assist to further understand human motivation toward positive environmental action. P. Wesley Schultz (2000) conducted research on the role of empathy with nature on concern for the environment. Drawing on previous research that suggested that an individual’s value system could determine the extent of environmental concern, Schultz constructed a research design to measure three factors of value-based environmental concern.

The first, egoistic concerns, suggested that people will have greater concern for environmental issues that affect them personally. Altruistic concerns proposed that concern is derived from the degree to which environmental crises affects others, including individuals, communities, nations, and/or humankind. The last concern, biospheric, assumed that interest in the environment is propelled by a deep value for all living organisms (p. 392).

Schulz did not believe that these concerns worked independently; however, he suggested that the degree to which an individual felt interdependency with self, others or all living organisms could propose motivating foundations with regard to environmental concern (p. 393-394). Further, he posited that individuals could have differing motivations for their concern about the same issue (p. 392). For instance, individuals protesting the destruction of a local forest may be engaged in the environmental cause because the forest represents a personal place of leisure (egoistic). It could also provide important community recreational and aesthetic attributes (altruistic), and it may also be a place of great bio-diversity worthy of protecting for its own sake (biospheric). Egoistic and altruistic concerns may be easier to activate as they appear to direct concern toward more localized and personal areas of interest, while biospheric concerns could propel wider reaching implications of global concern, such as issues surrounding carbon emissions.

Drawing on past research on inducing empathy to increase helping behaviour, Schultz assigned two groups of participants into either an objective condition or perspective-taking condition. Participants were shown a series of images depicting people engaged in outdoor recreational activities, animals in nature, and animals being harmed in the natural environment. Following, participants completed a questionnaire designed to measure environmental attitudes and the three proposed value-based factors (p. 398-399). The results indicated that when shown images of animals being harmed, biospheric concerns were activated in the perspective-taking condition significantly higher than those in the objective condition (p. 400), suggesting that empathy toward nature seems to increase concern for it, thus potentially highlighting an important element in which to engage individuals in environmental issues. The link between connecting to nature and pro-environmental behaviour will be discussed further in subsequent sections.

In his discussion, Schultz pointed out that more psychological research is needed to understand motivations and behaviours with regard to people and the environment, especially in light of the growing ecological crisis facing the world. He acknowledged that much of the research is disjointed – drawing from models within the field of social psychology – and that there has yet to be a comprehensive and organized theory to understand ecological behaviours (p. 401). He suggested, “[…] that any activity that reduces an individual’s perceived separation between self and nature will lead to an increase in that individual’s biospheric concern” (p. 403).

As Schultz aptly demonstrates, psychology is making strides toward narrowing the gap between philosophical ideas concerning nature-relatedness and the scientific understanding of this phenomenon.

A 2004 paper documented investigative research, influenced by the work of famed ecologist Aldo Leopold. Using the Connectedness to Nature Scale (CNS), the research sought to test Leopold’s assumptions that people need to feel a kinship with nature in order to respond to environmental crises as if their own welfare was at stake (Mayer & Frantz, p. 504-505). In addition, parts of this study were designed to test Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis using established measures of previously conducted social psychological inquiry derived from theories of the need to belong to groups (p. 509). The results of this work demonstrated that the CNS is a reliable and valid measure that supports Leopold’s postulations.

Overall, the researchers concluded that people do need to feel connected to nature in order to protect it; however, the researchers also noted that a cause-effect relationship cannot be cited because of issues of bi-directionality (p. 512). In essence, does a deep affiliation with nature lead to environmental behaviour or does environmental behaviour lead to a deeper affiliation with nature? These are important elements for future research to investigate in order to provide even more robust theories that can be adopted by social institutions seeking to integrate methodological frameworks into responsible environmental directives.

The authors also noted that some people can and do engage in self-destructive behaviour, either consciously or subconsciously, and therefore increasing connection to nature may have little impact on positive environmental behaviour (p. 512). For example, this insight demonstrates that knowledge, such as the negative environmental impact of burning fossil fuels, may be difficult to manifest into positive change, particularly due to cognitive processes that override the integration of this logic. Immediate gratification and short-term benefits may supersede the long-term gains derived from an ecologically superior course of action. For instance using public transit may be more environmentally friendly; however, using one’s own vehicle may provide greater comfort and decreased travel time. Clearly, individuals’ actions toward the environment are mitigated by numerous factors, suggesting further research is warranted.

Research published in 2011 in the Journal of Environmental Psychology examined how commitment could impact environmental behaviours. The authors postulated that dedication to nature could lead to pro-environmental behaviour (Davis, Le & Coy, p. 257). Drawing from work on interdependency theory and other such commitment models, the research sought to draw conclusions on the relation of an individual’s dedication to the environment and one’s willingness to sacrifice to sustain it.

Overall, the study demonstrated that commitment to the environment does lead to positive environmental behaviour, especially when instances of experience in nature are fulfilling. Additionally, individuals’ sense of purposefulness in their actions toward the environment also tended to increase commitment and positive ecological behaviour. The authors cautioned that results are correlational only; suggesting that one cannot ascertain whether commitment affects behaviour or behaviour affects commitment (p. 263). Of positive note in this study, is the attempt to bring together fragmented frameworks of inquiry into a combined analysis.


Toward Individual Well-Being

The aforementioned studies demonstrate just a small sample of the robust investigations being conducted into the motivations of human behaviour toward ecological well-being. If, as has been put forth, there is an interdependent relationship between people and nature, what can this research reveal about the influences on individual well-being when engaged in ecologically positive practices?

Paul Stevens (2010), in an article published in Perspectives in Public Health, presented a comprehensive overview of research in the area of individual well-being resulting from interaction with the natural environment. He documented research that demonstrated most individuals display a preference for natural environments, which are posited to produce relaxation, focus, and emotional engagement. Additionally, ecotherapy models have advocated that feeling disconnected from the environment could result in various maladaptive psychological symptoms such as anxiety and depression, which is mitigated through increased contact with the natural world (p. 267). This appears intuitive when considering that people often recharge their bodies and minds through breaks from the hectic technological world by getting back to nature through hiking, camping, or exotic vacations on tropical beaches. People seem to instinctively know that nature has a restorative quality that nourishes the body and soul.

Perhaps more intriguing is research indicating a decrease in biological ageing with subsequent increases in the availability of green space in areas where people live (p. 268). Clearly, there is a causal connection; however, it’s difficult to ascertain the cause-effect relationship. Perhaps, individuals who have more natural settings nearby are likely to get out and enjoy those spaces more frequently – resulting in increased exercise, a healthier body and a healthier mind.

Stevens concluded his overview by stating, “[e]nvironmentalism has never just been about the loss of habitats and other species becoming extinct – it is fundamentally linked to all aspects of who we are, individually and collectively. Well-being requires a healthy environment, local and global, to ‘be well’ in” (p. 268).

Shifting ecological arguments from focusing solely on other species and future generations, to the present state of human well-being, may induce social institutions to radically alter paradigms. Acknowledging the importance of a healthy environment for a healthy individual may increase environmental protection regulations, similar to other health regulations surrounding tobacco and alcohol control or food safety. There’s legislation designed to mitigate psychological and emotional harm to an individual in the form of various anti-discrimination laws and guarantees of certain rights and freedoms; therefore it’s not difficult to imagine legislation that lessens harm to individuals resulting from lack of access to a clean and healthy environment. It appears that as a collective the global community sees the various facets of well-being as important to foster and protect; therefore, protecting the environment which provides so many benefits for humans appears intrinsic to these pursuits.

Specific research undertaken at Carleton University has focused on the correlation between happiness and nature-relatedness. This research utilized the Nature-Relatedness Scale (NR) to measure identification with nature, as coined by Arne Naess and discussed previously in this paper. Thought to be an enduring and stable aspect of an individual, NR reflects differences in the degree of connectedness to the natural environment (Nisbet, Zelenski & Murphy, 2011, p. 304).

The results of three studies conducted demonstrated a positive association between NR and various facets of well-being (including positive affect, purposefulness, and personal growth). Additionally, the research suggested that NR could help mitigate negative emotions and mood or affective conditions. Further, it was shown that students enrolled in environmental courses tended to show higher states of well-being versus students not enrolled in these courses, even when highly stressful academic demands were included (p. 316). This investigation showed that these results were similar regardless of age or occupation of the participants (p. 317), suggesting that they could be generalized to the larger population.

Similar to previous research discussed, there are notable limitations that should be highlighted. This study showed a correlational link between NR and well-being. Additionally, concerns of the complexity of what role NR may play in not only well-being, but pro-environmental engagement were cited (p. 318). Despite these limitations, this research provides strong support for the psychological benefits of humans relating to the natural environment.

The aforementioned ecopsychological pursuits demonstrate that there is an important link between people and nature that certainly requires continued investigation. A failure to advance this inquiry would seemingly result in the loss of opportunity to increase the well-being of not only the earth, but also its various inhabitants – including humankind. It appears intuitive that this research should and must continue, and that influential social institutions must support and even adapt these ideas into a framework that assuredly can only benefit their communities.

One of these institutions, particularly influential in the Western hemisphere, should take interest in this research as a means in which to engage in dialogue and effect a new environmental age of awareness. Religious institutions heralding a Christian perspective will find these insights not only offer adaptive methods to shepherd an age of environmental integrity, but will also offer devotees a path to greater well-being. In addition, a greater spiritual fulfillment may be sought through penance of historical actions that have been suggested as the root cause of the alienation of humankind from nature which may have led to the present day ecological crisis.

***Read Nature-Connectedness, Part 3***

M. xo


Davis, J. L., Le, B., & Coy, A. E. (2011). Building a model of commitment to the natural environment to predict ecological behaviour and willingness to sacrifice. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 31, 257-265.

Mayer, F. S. & Frantz, C. M. (2004). The connectedness to nature scale: a measure of individuals’ feeling in community with nature. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 24, 503-515.

Nisbet, E. K., Zelenski, J. M. & Murphy, S. A. (2011). Happiness is in our nature: Exploring nature relatedness as a contributor to subjective well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 12, 303-322.

Roszak, T. (1995). Where psyche meets gaia.  In T. Roszak, M.E. Gomes & A.D. Kanner (Eds.), Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth, healing the mind (pp. 1-17). San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books.

Schultz, P.W. (2000). Empathizing with nature: the effects of perspective taking on concern for environmental issues. Journal of Social Issues, 56 (3), 391-406.

Stevens, P. (2010). Embedment in the environment: a new paradigm for well-being? Perspectives in Public Health, 130 (6), 265-269.

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