Student Article

Towards a psychology of nonreligion within a psychology of religion?

Obstacles facing a psychology of nonreligion within the psychology of religion and spirituality.

By Thomas J. Coleman, III, David F. Bradley, and Alex W. Uzdavines

Today's psychology of religion has deep historical roots in the version of Protestant Christianity popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Wulff, 2001). Despite a long history predating even William James, it is only recently that psychology of religion has begun to systematically investigate nonreligious or nonbelieving individuals. As the nonbelieving population continues to grow, and is likely to continue growing (Twenge et al., 2015), this population is increasingly important to study. The purpose of this article is to provide a very brief overview of two obstacles (the religiosity-health relationship and measurement of religiousness/nonreligiousness) among many facing a psychology of nonreligion within the psychology of religion and spirituality. However, it is first useful to make a brief foray into the history of Div. 36 and the field of psychology of religion more broadly in order to better understand the challenges laying ahead.

Div. 36 can trace its own roots back to the American Catholic Psychological Association. One of this division's aims during that era was to “bring a catholic viewpoint to psychology” (in, Reuder, 1999, p. 91). Today, some psychologists, such as Belzen (2010, p. 7), suggest that many members of Div. 36 have a “private interest in ‘religion,'” and are “interested in integrating ‘religion' into their professional work as, especially, clinical professionals.” In many cases, this is unproblematic: one should not equate having a “private interest” in religion with necessarily being biased. After all, most people have some sort of position on religion and spirituality, and “the agnostic and atheist likewise must constantly seek to avoid prejudices that may jeopardize objectivity” (Hood, Hill, & Spilka, 2009, p. 4). Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that a bias exists or is perceived to exist within Div. 36. Div. 36 president, Michael Nielsen, authored an article in the previous issue of this newsletter titled “Perceptions, in-groups and out-groups: Challenges and opportunities for Div. 36” (2015). In his article, Nielsen draws on the results of former president Julie Exline's (2013) “Highlights from a recent survey of Div. 36,” providing a thorough and thoughtful discussion about recognizing and respecting differences within the organization.

These in-group/out-group perceptions have a firm grounding in reality. At the 2015 APA Div. 36 Mid-Year Conference on Psychology, Religion and Spirituality, a Christian prayer was offered before the conference dinner was served, by default making the prayer part of the formal Div. 36 conference programming. Later, a campus ministry a cappella group serenaded attendees. Such decisions create an uncomfortable atmosphere for non-Christians, including nonbelievers, in what, according to the Div. 36 mission statement, should have been a nonsectarian event. Afterwards, the invited speaker denigrated non-Christian psychologists in history and lamented non-Christian morality by asserting that the increasing secularity in parts of Europe was responsible for growing drug use and sexual “promiscuity” (c.f., Uzdavines, 2015), again as part of the Div. 36 programming.

While researchers' experiences at conferences and a survey of the membership suggest a tilt in favor of Christianity, Div. 36 has actively supported research regarding nonbelievers. At conferences, Div. 36 regularly programs sessions and posters dedicated to this minority group. Additionally, Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, a journal sponsored by Div. 36, has recently issued a call for proposals for a special issue focused on “atheists, agnostics, and nonbelievers.” This is to be applauded and we hope other organizations and journals will follow suit in adding to the growing resources on the topic of nonbelief, such as the recent issue of Science, Religion, & Culture on “Atheism, Secularity, and Science” (Coleman, Hood, & Shook, 2015). Determining how the psychology of religion and belief engages with what seems, on the surface, to be its antithesis — nonreligion and nonbelief — will require both theoretical and empirical contributions. Div. 36's ongoing support for work on nonbelief and nonreligion will help ensure these contributions continue.

A specific area in need of further theoretical and empirical development is the relationship between religion/spirituality and health. Religion and health has been an area of extensive research for over 20 years. Bearing in mind many important caveats, the overall picture from this line of inquiry indicates that more religious involvement is generally correlated with better mental health (Bonelli & Koenig, 2013). Surprisingly, this correlation tells us very little about possible health outcomes associated with nonbelief. The majority of these studies compare high versus low religiosity, grouping together people who are nonbelievers with people who are low-commitment believers, despite there being meaningful differences between them. Many studies do not include any nonbelievers, and others that directly test believers versus nonbelievers fail to match believers and nonbelievers on levels of social engagement (Galen, 2012, 2015). This research also fails to measure secular sources of virtues or values that could be used for comparison (c.f., Koenig 2011). Likewise, the research on the possible prosocial effects of certain types of religiosity suffers from similar problems: conflating low religiosity with nonbelief and failing to correct for the influence of broader psychological processes known to impact prosociality and the measurement of prosociality (Galen, 2012). Importantly, not only is more empirical research required, but new and improved theoretical accounts of how religious and secular variables may interact are needed to drive measure development and data collection. Perhaps a more basic question could serve as a starting point: Is there a psychological variable that is essentially “religious”?

Many of the problems mentioned above stem from issues of measurement. Religiosity or spirituality is (rightly) conceived of as a complex phenomenon. Most religion scales do not simply measure fervency of belief; instead, they measure “facets,” “orientations,” or “dimensions” of religiosity. The constructs operationalized in psychology of religion are constructed, they are not naturally occurring givens. Many studies of spirituality and health or well-being are plagued with criterion contamination, as many measures of “spirituality” overlap with the health or well-being variables they are attempting to predict (Koenig, 2011). Some scales, such as Hood's (1975) widely used M-Scale, which is often interpreted as a measure of experiences deemed religious, contain no reference to a supernatural agent or explicit religious activity. Measuring such experiences without reference to the supernatural or religion per se has limitations, but one benefit is that it is easily interpreted by both believers and nonbelievers. In another example, a recent special issue of Psychology of Religion and Spirituality featured an article using a Daoist and Totemic scale (Lee, Beddow, Chan, & Xu, 2015). The items in these measures (e.g., “Balance is important in everything I do”; “We human beings are not superior to animals”), while certainly a component of some values and ideas one might deem as “religious” or “spiritual,” overlap with values and ideas some might consider to be “nonreligious” or “secular.”

There are hundreds of measures of religiosity, some stretching back almost 100 years (Hill & Hood, 1999). However, measures appropriate for a secular or nonbelieving person are less common (e.g., Bradley, 2014; Cragun et al., 2015; Schnell, 2014). If religiosity is as complex and multifaceted as it appears, then where does the worldview of a nonbeliever stand in relation to this diversity? How does a psychology of religion incorporate a psychology of nonbelief? This rather large question is composed of many smaller questions, some of which we have asked here — questions of construct validity and the influence of broader psychological processes — and others which remain unasked. Both theory and empirical research must be brought to bear on the problem. That the “psychology of religion and spirituality” is now taking seriously the “psychology of nonreligion and nonspirituality” is a sign of progress that we believe will benefit our understanding of believers, nonbelievers and everybody in-between. The ground is fertile for exciting and provocative advances in theory and measurement, as past theory, measures, and methods developed in a different era and for a different population are challenged, reevaluated and, perhaps, reformulated or rejected.

References

Belzen, J. (2010). Towards cultural psychology of religion. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

Bonelli, R., & Koenig, H. (2013). Mental disorders, religion and spirituality 1990 to 2010: A systematic evidence-based review. Journal of Religion and Health, 52, 657-673. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10943-013-9691-4

Bradley, D. (2014). The Reasons of Atheists/Agnostics for Nonbelief in God's Existence Scale: Development and initial validation (Master's thesis). Retrieved from https://etd.ohiolink.edu/

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Uzdavines, A. (2015). Psychology of religion at its best…and less best. The Religious Studies Project. Retrieved from http://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/2015/04/22/psychology-of-religion-at-its-bestand-less-best/ 

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