President's column

What is Div. 36?

The Div. 36 president describes the vision, nature and purpose of the division.

By Kevin L. Ladd, PhD

Not infrequently, I am asked, “What is Div. 36?” The question may come from a fellow traveler seeking to alleviate the monotony of an airport layover or it may come from someone truly interested in the answer. For most people, quoting from our mission statement suffices:

"The Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality is a division of the American Psychological Association that promotes psychological theory, research and clinical practice to understand the significance of religion and spirituality in people's lives and in the discipline of psychology. The society facilitates the interchange of ideas between science and clinical and applied practice and seeks through its activities to increase public awareness of psychological dimensions of religion and spirituality. The society is nonsectarian and does not espouse or endorse any particular religious positions or beliefs. It welcomes psychologists and others from around the world interested in the psychology of religion and spirituality.”

For others, however, this sort of formal response is not satisfactory; they are looking for more than name, rank and serial number. That's when a real conversation begins.

Defining the nature of our group has never been a simple task because we have been in flux for much of our collective history, wrestling with our legacy and emergent identity. A portion of the definitional challenge is derived from external sources arguing that the subject matter of the division is psychologically irrelevant even though a majority of Americans embrace some form of faith-based lifestyle. A second source of ambiguity is from within as members sort through questions about the relation between their psychological training and personal belief systems.

On the first count, we have seen considerable advances, with notable increases on both research and application fronts. History will sort out the extent to which those changes are due to various forces such as the field's increased sensitivity to diversity and/or an awakening to the financial opportunities associated with the topics of religion and spirituality.

On the second count, while members will always have personal and professional questions to address (as they do in all divisions), the division's consistent reiteration that it is first and foremost dedicated to using the tools of psychology to understand the human condition has helped to clarify our nature and mission. This second point, however, has multiple layers of complexity that are not so readily apparent in other divisions. For instance, Div. 10 explores topics of aesthetics, creativity and art. Various members of that group have strong and differing opinions regarding approaches to these topics; they try to convince others of the validity of their own position. Similarly, Div. 19 highlights issues relevant to military psychology and conversations are robust. Within Div. 36, we have similarly vibrant discussions about which theoretical frameworks best articulate the psychological facets of religion, spirituality and related concepts. Debates abound, replete with carefully layered nuances and the interactions are highly productive.

At another level, in Div. 10, there are certainly people who could say, “Stanislavsky changed my life. Read his words and your life will be changed.” In Div. 19 there are certainly people who could say, “Carl von Clausewitz changed my life. Read his words and your life will be changed.” In those instances, the speakers are, in fact, attempting to convert the listeners to Stanislavkianism or von Clausewitzism. The proselytizing calls are heeded, ignored or contested, and the interactions are highly productive. If you've read this far, you're already swapping names in the above examples with some that might arise in Div. 36 contexts.

The difference, of course, is that Stanislavsky and von Clausewitz are not commonly linked to any metaphysical system of beliefs. Their writings are part of an academic context and statements made about their works do not carry the same sort of implications as when the name or writings associated with a tradition-specific deity are invoked. The former represent professional, academic statements and the latter characterize personal, theological statements. This is why appealing to the glories of Stanislavsky or von Clausewitz is unlikely to deeply offend a listener, but why a listener might well take umbrage with extolling the glories of any particular tradition's deity.

We are not the only organization that faces this challenge related to levels of discourse and meaning. The International Association for the Psychology of Religion is one example of a peer group that must navigate similar terrain. In that group, as in Div. 36, the goal is for the focus remain on psychological frameworks as mechanisms to help understand how beliefs and behaviors comingle. This position helps to maximize representation of membership diversity and provides an intellectual home for a vast array of people without impinging upon or imposing personal predilections concerning religion and spirituality.

It is possible, of course, to argue that this goal is inherently elusive because all conversations are value laden; there is a need to be explicit about the value system at work. Having psychology at the center of the discussion does not preclude such efforts, but it does require that the efforts are clearly identified as such. For instance, if a person whose primary worldview revolves around the Flying Spaghetti Monster wants to deliver a lecture or submit a manuscript detailing a Pastafarian perspective on the psychology of religion and spirituality, the proposal would be duly evaluated on its scientific merits. If accepted into the program, the abstract would be expected to clearly portray the nature of the presentation, and people could make an informed decision with regard to attending the session.

The same process is applied to all Div. 36 submissions, whether for conference presentations or journal articles. Journal articles are, of course, the easiest to keep on track and in alignment with the division's mission statement. At the other end of the spectrum, we've all had experiences with presentations that wander afield from their abstracts, sometimes to good effect, but not always. In those instances where even the very best-laid plans cannot prevent the a veering off from the requested and agreed-upon course, the system typically does a good job of being “self-correcting” in a gentle but consistent fashion. With intentionality we move collectively toward our goals of mutual awareness and respect, keeping psychology at the center of our dialogue.

This is, again, not a challenge unique to our division or even unique in a larger sense to the psychological study of religion, spirituality and related concepts. For instance, “back in the day” I clearly recall attending various professional psychological meetings where keynote addresses were thinly veneered messages of political advocacy. That and other forms of “devotional” presentations within any context can make people uncomfortable, not so much because of any antipathy toward the speaker per se but because the listener was anticipating one type of event and ended up with another. (Think Academy Awards here for a non-psychological comparison.) I'm reminded of a meeting of Div. 8 (Society for Personality and Social Psychology [SPSP]) that was held in Tampa, Florida. The convention center was hosting not only SPSP but also a gathering of pirates. In that instance, the manner of dress and, admittedly to a lesser extent, the manner of speech (it is surprising how often SPSP presenters spontaneously blurt out “argh” or “matey”) quickly alerted attendees if they had unintentionally wandered into the wrong zone.

We don't have those same overt social cues within our division, so we rely on other guidelines, such as our mission statement, to craft our expectations. Over the years, people have become increasingly sensitive to this fact, and it has proved helpful to our members. Part of the positive effect of this collective development includes the fact that the division has avoided becoming a knee-jerk politically correct organization. Instead, it offers a rare forum in which to discuss the gamut of traditions, both explicit and implicit. Part of the richness of that discussion often includes personal descriptions of experiences within the different traditions. Those properly contextualized events provide critical insights for the improvement of our practice and research. Far from alienating people, the encounters deepen understanding and increase professionalism. This is what Div. 36 is at its best.

As part of our ongoing efforts to make clear the inclusive nature of our division, we have worked hard to diversify the composition of our journal personnel; broaden the perspectives comprising our executive committee; interact explicitly with other divisions via task forces; and promote through programming a broad array of research, including diverse beliefs and non-belief. Part of our ongoing commitment on this front includes intentionally seeking opportunities to rotate the location of our midyear event so that it is hosted by a broad spectrum of institutions; experiencing the range of our membership is part of the divisional learning environment. (If you and your institution can help us achieve this goal, please feel free to contact me .)

In sum, one answer to the question “What is Div. 36?” is that the organization is a collection of people seeking to better understand the psychological role of the full range of beliefs and, in so doing, better understand themselves and constantly refine their interactions with others. It's not a perfect answer, but I think it is pointing us in a helpful direction.