President's Column

Giving the psychology of religion and spirituality away

The president of Div. 36 considers the best way to proceed with the division's core mission.

By M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall, PhD

One of the invigorating streams of thought in the psychology of religion and spirituality in recent years has been fueled by positive psychology, and specifically, the study of character strengths or virtues. In this, my first presidential column, I'd like to focus on one particular virtue: gratitude. This has not been one of the “hot” character strengths studied in our division, but is an important one to consider at this particular point in our divisional history. So my question is, what would it look like to be generous as a division? What would it look like to give the psychology of religion and spirituality away? What would it look like to be open-handed with the wealth of knowledge and insight that we have about our field?

This question comes in the context of a particular historical force molding the development of our division, characterized by widespread apathy or hostility on the part of the larger psychological community toward religion. Many influential giants in psychology's history, such as Freud, Skinner, and Rogers, had little use for religion. Edward Shafranske's surveys of the religiosity of psychologists repeatedly showed a large gap between psychologists and the general population, with psychologists overwhelmingly reporting less religiosity and belief in a personal God (Shafranske, 2001).

The consequent marginalization of the psychological study of religion and spirituality has been a focus of division leadership since the early days of the division. We fought to be accepted as a division and to be accepted as a legitimate area of psychological study (Reuder, 1999). Advocacy on the part of divisional leadership led to successes. In 1986 president Richard Gorsuch was invited to write a chapter on the psychology of religion for the Annual Review of Psychology. Ralph Hood, who succeeded him, furthered the efforts to get the variable of religion into textbooks of psychology. However, the tide was shifting, and a sea change was coming. Influenced by a greater cultural acceptance of spirituality and by the solid research of our members, religion and spirituality were being perceived in more positive ways. The watershed moment was, perhaps, when Ed Shafranske's just-released book, Religion and the Clinical Practice of Psychology was the best-seller at the 1996 APA annual convention. It became clear that former antagonisms were waning.

But the molding influence of our history had left its mark on our division. We had become accustomed to a certain posture: a defensive one, in which we responded to marginalization by minding our own business and turning our efforts inward. If psychology didn't want us, we weren't sure we wanted them either! We did things by ourselves, for ourselves. And this posture became reified through our habitual ways of doing things.

It's time to unlearn that posture. While we may still face pockets of indifference or hostility, there are also many open doors, and I hope we take the initiative to step through them. In fact, this is part of our newly-adopted mission statement, which says in part, that the division “seeks through its activities to increase public awareness of psychological dimensions of religion and spirituality.” So it's time to unlearn old habits, to re-examine the structures within our division that have reified those habits, and to learn to connect more fully with our discipline.

My presidential initiatives have to do with providing scaffolding for movements within our division and the larger APA to support giving the psychology of religion and spirituality away. And let me say here that if any of these initiatives spark your interest, please let me know and I will be happy to help you get involved.

Maximizing our Presence at the 2014 Convention

You may have heard rumblings that a major change is occurring beginning at next year's annual convention. While I think the changes represent an improvement to the overall convention experience, they will also mean a drastic reduction in the hours allotted solely to our division. But there will be many hours allotted to cross-divisional programming — which means that we need to intentionally collaborate with other divisions to keep our division represented well at the convention. To this end, I've established a Task Force for the transition to the new convention format, comprised of Innocent Okozi, David Wang, Kevin Ladd, and myself — all of us with experience as program chairs and/or hospitality suite coordinators. We have been working diligently to raise awareness of the new crossdivisional programming and to make connections with other divisions around topics of common interest.

If your research is relevant to at least one other division, please consider submitting a cross-divisional program. If your submission is not accepted for cross-divisional hours, it will still be eligible for our own division's programming — so you lose nothing by submitting, and potentially gain a wider audience for your work. Please note the November 1st deadline for submissions.

Continuing our International Collaboration

In recent years a number of opportunities have surfaced to collaborate with researchers in the psychology of religion from other countries. In response to this, Julie Exline established a task force to explore ways of effectively initiating and maintaining these contacts. The resulting International Relations Committee, co-chaired by Kevin Ladd and Chris Boyatzis, has made a lot of headway in the past month, recruiting members, deciding on a vision and mission statement, and proposing a number of goals and initiatives. If you have an interest in the intersection of religion and culture or in world religions that are not well represented in our US context, you may be interested in becoming involved in one of their initiatives.

Collaborating with the APA Ethics Office

We have been approached by representatives of the APA Ethics Office who are interested in how our expertise can be utilized by the larger APA to inform professional ethics. After a couple of meetings, we're not quite sure what this collaboration will look like, but it may involve the formation of an ad hoc committee of psychology of religion consultants available when religious issues emerge, or a synthesis of available sources on ethics in working with religiously-committed populations. We will be co-hosting an event with the APA Ethics Office at next year's annual convention in Washington, D.C. If you have expertise in the intersection of religion and ethics, please let me know!

Reaching out Geographically

We have more members on the East Coast than in other areas of the country, and some of this may have to do with the fact that our very successful midwinter meeting has been held on Loyola's campus in Baltimore for the past 11 years. We are very grateful for the support of Loyola and the work of Ralph Piedmont during this time, but it's time now to expand our horizons. So the 2014 midwinter meeting will be held April 25–26 in sunny Southern California, hosted by my own institution, Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University. This new location will allow for active involvement and member recruitment in the institutions on the west coast. Our hope is to develop a rotating schedule, so that members from all parts of the country can easily attend this event. Plan on spending a few days here, and bring the family! We're within a half hour of Disneyland, the beach, Hollywood, and several other southern California destinations.

Collaborating with Other Key Divisions

At the 2013 annual convention in Honolulu, we collaborated with Div. 44 (Society for the Psychological Study of LGBT Issues) to host “twin” conversation hours in each of our hospitality suites. The topic of conversation was potential collaborations between our divisions. As a result of that very productive discussion, I have established a task force on LGBT issues that will collaborate with Div. 44's task force on religion and spirituality on a number of initiatives. Mark Yarhouse has agreed to chair this new task force, which will explore joint projects such as applying for CODAPAR grants, conference presentations, developing resources, etc. This may form a model for collaboration with other divisions in the future. If you see the need for more intentional collaboration with other divisions and would like to be involved, let me know!

As I look around at the larger field of psychology, I see many places where our expertise is needed (whether they know it or not!). On the research side, we know the best ways of understanding and measuring religious variables, and have accumulated mountains of research on the relationships between religion/spirituality and other variables. On the clinical side, we have a wealth of clinical experience and research demonstrating the importance of including spirituality in the care we give to clients. Perhaps we can do a better job of giving our wealth away, enriching our field and ourselves in the process.


Reuder, M. E. (1999). A history of Division 36 (Psychology of Religion). In D. A. Dewsbury (Ed.), Unification through division: Histories of the divisions of the American Psychological Association (Vol. 4, pp. 91–108). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Shafranske, E. P. (1996). Religion and the clinical practice of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Shafranske, E. P. (2001). The religious dimension of patient care within rehabilitation medicine: The role of religious attitudes, beliefs, and personal and professional practices. In T. G. Plante & A. C. Sherman (Eds.), Faith and health: Psychological perspectives (pp. 311–338). New York: Guilford Press.