In this Issue

Autobiographical accounts

A recently-published compendium provides a glimpse at the lives of influential figures in the psychology of religion.

By W. Paul Williamson, PhD

New York: Springer, 2012. vi + 281 pp. $99.99 hardcover

For anyone with interest in the psychology of religion movement, Jacob A. Belzen’s most recently edited volume will have strong appeal. It is an enjoyable read that offers a glimpse into the lives of some leading psychologists of religion, some who have been read as far back as the 1940s. Within the pages of this book, we learn details of personal experiences — some even from childhood — that helped to shape worldviews and flame interest for particular areas of research. Regrettably, we too often know little of the life experiences that influenced the concern and work of the most notable researchers in our field; fortunate for us, this book attempts to address this void, at least for 15 such people. The self-stories of these authors afford a context for better understanding of their life work, which makes their contributions even more compelling for those who have read and continue to read them.

As Belzen addresses in the introductory chapter, taking on this book was no small task for at least two reasons. First of all, the question must be answered as to whether the psychology of religion has sufficiently recovered from its post World War I decline to even declare its “comeback” into the twenty-first century, and thus merit a book about those who may have contributed toward such a prospect. In view of recent achievements in the sub-discipline — that is, best-selling textbooks/handbooks, well-received journals, and significant research funding — Belzen concludes that the naysayer pronouncement of an obituary for the psychology of religion was a bit premature. If the psychology of religion has indeed experienced a resurrection, it then becomes a burden to decide who shall occupy the limited space in a volume that will commemorate but a few of those most responsible in helping this revival along — and Belzen steps to this task with deliberation. The invited contributors are fairly recent leaders “who have made contributions to the psychology of religion on the level of content itself, not so much those who were primarily involved in organizing the field” (p. 10). Those selected also are said to approximate the gender ratio (2/13) of longtime reformers in the psychology of religion.

The contributors are further meant to be representative of religious affiliation/non-affiliation in the field, methodological traditions, and religious/theological training. However, the editor intentionally decided upon a continental imbalance in favor of Europeans over Americans for two reasons: (1) important work by Europeans often has been overlooked by Americans, in no small part because of language barriers; and (2) European work in the psychology of religion has tended to be more theoretically-based than American work, which largely has been empirically-driven. With settlement on the current status of the psychology of religion and the selection criteria for contributors, Belzen sets about the task of organizing the book.

The selected contributors include 15 autobiographies. In alphabetical order, Americans include Donald Capps; Ralph W. Hood, Jr.; H. Newton Maloney; Argentineanimmigrant to the US Ana-María Rizzuto; Bernard Spilka; and David M. Wulff. Also in alphabetical order, Europeans are represented by Mario Aletti (Italy); Heije Faber (the Netherlands); Bernhard Grom (Germany); Nils G. Holm (Finland); Kate Miriam Loewenthal (the United Kingdom); Pavel ˇRí ˇ can (the Czech Republic); Joachim Scharfenberg (Germany); Daniel Anders Hjalmar Sundén (Sweden); and Antoine Vergote (Belgium). Space here does not allow for summaries of the interesting lives and contributions of these individuals, although it can be said collectively that their stories unfold with a sense of humility, and often with unexpected surprises. For examples, some had never entertained the thought of becoming a psychologist of religion, let alone the prospect of doing something of significance in the field; some did not have the advantage of institutions in their countries that offered psychology programs or psychological training; some studied with major figures such as Heidegger, Otto, Piaget, Lacan, and Merleau-Ponty; and at least one described himself as an “amateur” (though not simply a hobbyist) in the psychology of religion, as his profession is in the practice of psychoanalysis. All this makes for a very interesting read.

Belzen’s selection of autobiographies for this book will necessarily leave some readers wondering why this or that person of renown was not included; even Belzen himself laments that space was not allowed for other major figures in the psychology of religion, such as Richard Gorsuch and Kenneth Pargament. (A case might be made that even Belzen himself is deserving of a chapter in his own right, given his contributions to the psychology of religion, although he does disclose some of himself in the introduction when providing a context for the book.). However, if Americans — in particular — are not familiar with at least some of the book’s contributors, it will be an opportunity for them to broaden their horizons and become more fully aware of contributions made to our field on a global scale, which, after all, seems an important perspective to have for the times in which we live.

Readers of this volume likely will come away with a greater appreciation for the psychology of religion and for the autobiographers who have helped pave a road more widely traveled today. It may be that this or that important leader is missing from its pages, but that would always be the case, regardless of who was included in such a short manuscript. Nonetheless, Jacob Belzen has produced an important work that gives attention, long overdue, to some of the most exceptional people in the psychology of religion around the world — and for this effort, he is to be commended.

W. Paul Williamson is a professor of psychology at Henderson State University. He was the 2001 recipient of the Margaret Gorman Early Career Award from Division 36 and is a past editor of the division’s newsletter.