President's Column

Perceptions, in-groups and out-groups: Challenges and opportunities for Div. 36

How our differences can enrich us, make us stronger and add vitality to our discussions.
By Michael Nielsen, PhD

It is considered bad form to begin a speech with an apology, but, given that I am not able to attend, I owe you an apology. My ticket was purchased and my room reserved, but my doctor gave me news that requires me to rearrange my priorities. I'll simply say that the words, “We need to rule out cancer,” have a way of grabbing one's attention.* I do plan to be with you all in Brooklyn at our midyear meeting. With the good help of Kevin Ladd, Liz Hall, the Executive Committee and many others, our work will continue here.

Now, before I begin my remarks, I have an unusual request. I would like you to take a moment and introduce yourself to the people near you. Really. Look nearby to find someone you don't know. Say “Hello,” introduce yourself and tell your new acquaintance something about you. There is a point in doing this.

Thank you for doing that. I am deeply honored to serve in this position, and I have thought long and hard about Div. 36 and the message that I think would benefit us most at this time. I offer these thoughts from my heart, with sincerity and honesty.

We in the APA are at an interesting point in time. I chose my title well before the Hoffman report was released but it is, unfortunately, consistent with the title of my address. There is a certain irony here for me, because nine or 10 years ago I nearly abandoned my membership in the APA over the issues described in the Hoffman report. A friend and fellow member of Div. 36 convinced me to remain. He very wisely said that organizational change comes slowly but, if organizations are to change for the better, they need good people in them. The more I listened to him, the more I realized that he was right. Years later, his words continue to ring true. Our organization needs good people, working together, to achieve our common goals.


Our ability to achieve our common goals is limited by the fact that psychologists, like all people, are inclined to see binaries. We draw “us versus them” dichotomies quite easily, seeing “our” group as the honorable one, and the “other” group as flawed or worse (Taylor & Doria, 1981). Sometimes we do this because our values are threatened. Other times, it is our identity that is at stake. I'm concerned that when we do this in Div. 36, we impede our shared goals. It matters, how we perceive the world and the people around us.

So, what are our goals? We can look toward our mission statement for one perspective:

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.

Breaking that down, we see several potential dividing lines:

  • Theory, research and clinical practice.
  • Science, clinical and applied practice.
  • Religion and spirituality.
  • Sectarian and nonsectarian.
  • Psychologists and others.

These potential divisions not only represent challenges to Div. 36; they also offer us opportunities. Let me explain what I mean.

Two years ago, Julie Exline (2013) conducted an informative survey of our membership and identified many potential areas of division. It is worth taking a moment to remind ourselves what that survey revealed.

In terms of age we tend to be well along in our careers, with an average age of 52, but we range in age from 21 to 86.

Respondents in that survey show that we are on many different, but related, professional paths. Included among us are: faculty (53 percent), mental health professionals (36 percent), graduate students (16 percent), religious/spiritual professionals (14 percent), retirees (9 percent), administrators (4 percent), and postdocs (2 percent) or others (7 percent). This sums to more than 100 percent because many of us fill more than one category, like myself — I'm part faculty member, part administrator. Dimensions such as age, or the professional track we pursue, carry the potential to divide us as we focus on the concerns of our own interests, and neglect or even dismiss people following other career tracks or who otherwise seem different from ourselves.

It will be no surprise that religiousness has a great potential to divide us. In terms of religiousness, 71 percent of Div. 36 members are Christian, 9 percent agnostic/atheist/nonaffiliated, 9 percent spiritual but not religious, 5 percent Jewish, 1 percent Muslim, and 6 percent other. We will talk more about this in a moment.

We also see differences in where we work: private practice, counseling center, religious institution, small college or large university. Psychologists in any of these settings may be interested in religion and spirituality for personal reasons, or because they see religion and spirituality as tools for understanding clients, or for reasons of scholarly interest or professional development. But, the daily work routines associated with these diverse settings also can lead to very different experiences. How much time is devoted to individuals versus groups? How much time can we use to pursue scholarship? What of professional development? And how can Div. 36 help in these efforts?

Questions such as these can reflect differences in how we engage with APA and with Div. 36. Are we attending the convention in order to gain continuing education credits? To present our own research? To learn about the field in order to share with our students? To better serve our clients? All of these are important to the discipline and important to Div. 36. They are reflected in our mission statement, as they should be.

Research Institutions

In this regard, I would like to share faint recollections from a conversation I had with Ray Paloutzian many years ago. We were talking — dreaming, really — about the possibility of having more members of Div. 36 in R1 (research) institutions. At that time there were precious few psychologists in research institutions who were interested in religion and spirituality. We talked about a day when this might change, when we might see increased scholarly attention to religious issues. A higher profile in the broader discipline could lead to a better understanding of spirituality in people's lives. I think we are beginning to see this; several of our members now are at R1 institutions. In a related vein, the division's journal has done very, very well, and we owe Ralph Piedmont and his team a round of applause in gratitude for the work they have done. We also are seeing articles relevant to our division being published in a variety of APA journals, and even in the flagship journals of other organizations. This bodes well for the discipline, especially if we work to ensure that the people who are doing that research, are welcomed into Div. 36.

As we look forward, we must recognize that developments like these mean that we are moving slowly toward becoming more like the major subdisciplines in psychology. The psychology of religion and spirituality may or may not one day achieve the stature of a social or a developmental psychology. But, some of the concerns relevant to psychologists in those divisions most certainly are becoming more important to members of our division. The pursuit of grant dollars, or a focus on research more than on teaching or practice, means that Div. 36 will see more opportunities to advance knowledge through increasingly competitive avenues. That is exciting for one who wants to see us better understand people's religious and spiritual lives. But, it also means that we may increasingly look at others in Div. 36 as competitors. After all, the big leagues of academia can be adversarial, as people vie for funding or other limited resources. We have seen the basic processes documented in classic social psychology experiments (Sherif & Sherif, 1953), and we need to be prepared against it happening in our division.


One of the important things that Julie Exline found in her survey is that many people value Div. 36 for its supportive and welcoming tone. It is, for many people, a haven where people find collegiality and mentorship. We might wonder, “How do we maintain collegiality as we grow?”

In some ways, we already face this challenge in our membership. We have the potential to fracture and to subdivide in terms of each of our demographic, philosophical and personal belief dimensions. In fact, an important finding in Julie's survey may be a surprising one: our least satisfied, and more isolated, members among us are those who are older, and are not personally religious. This might be surprising, as we may believe those of us who are “more seasoned” to have had ample time to form the human connections that help make organizational membership rewarding. But Julie's data indicate that the feelings of support are truer for those of us who hold personal religious or spiritual beliefs; those of us who do not, feel less connected, and are less satisfied with their experience in the division. Indeed, that is true of our colleague who talked me into remaining a member of APA a decade ago. He told me recently that he simply doesn't feel very welcome at division meetings. This news saddened me, and it should sadden all of us who are interested in maintaining a vital and engaging organization.

Engaging Other Psychologists

We also need to be aware of how others in psychology perceive us. On one hand, in the nearly 20 years since APA began publishing books dealing with religion and spirituality, we have seen that psychologists have great interest in the things that we do. On the other hand, surveys of introduction to psychology textbooks continue to reveal little, if any, coverage of the topics we study. We have an opportunity for us to improve how our work is presented to other psychologists, as well as to their students. Much of this work happens at the individual level, in the courses we teach, and in conversations with colleagues about the relevance of religion and spirituality to understanding human behavior. Doing this by using the tools of the broader discipline will help us to make our point more clearly. When the opportunity arises to talk about the role of religion and spirituality in people's lives, talk about relevant research and its implications for people. What does it tell us about why people do what they do? Illustrate points using examples that come from the literature or from clinical cases involving religion. Think about the question, “How is religion or spirituality relevant here?” and then, share your ideas with your colleagues at work.

Personal Perspectives

In the opening chapter of the “APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality,” Ken Pargament and his coauthors write: “It is hard to find anyone who is neutral when it comes to religion and spirituality, including those who define themselves as nonreligious and nonspiritual, scientists among them. It is also difficult to engage in calm and dispassionate conversations about this domain.” (Pargament et al, 2013, p. 3).

We can see this in the reactions of people around us. One year, when I attended a conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, I forgot to take off my nametag when I left the conference to go shopping. A shopkeeper saw my nametag as I was shopping and said, “Unh uh! You can't do that!” My immediate reaction was to reply, “I'm just looking at earrings for my wife!” “No,” he exclaimed, “you can't study religion scientifically.” Of course, this led to an interesting conversation about the forms that research can take, and what we can know from research. Talking to that businessman was one of the highlights of that conference.

We can see something similar in our own colleagues. I spoke once with a psychologist at the Southeastern Psychological Association meeting, who suggested that research on religion and politics should always include a disclaimer, indicating the researcher's personal affiliation regarding the topic. He was of the opinion that it is impossible to be unbiased on such issues and that the public has a right to know the nature of the researcher's biases. If you study politics or religion, he wants to know whether you are a Democrat or a deacon. He, our textbooks would say, is a “cognitive miser,” using social categorization to make quick judgments about the merits of research.

Another way to frame this issue is to see it as a question of objectivity in research: Is objectivity truly possible? This is an enduring question, one that will continue to be discussed in research seminars for years. I would argue that it is especially relevant to us in Div. 36. Based on our survey data, most of us have some sort of religious affiliation. It behooves us to be aware of this, and to try to do the best scholarship we can do, as we pursue our research questions. Use rigorous methods, and seek to publish in the best outlets available. This is an important means by which we can improve the stature of our field within psychology.

What I am saying is nothing that we haven't heard before. Our mentors in graduate school told us the same thing, didn't they? What might be different is the fact that most of us did not have a mentor who studied the psychology of religion. We were accepted into a counseling psychology program, or a developmental psych program. We learned those theories and developed as scholars in that area and, at some point in the process, began to ask questions about religion and spirituality using the techniques and theories common to that subdiscipline. Sometimes the questions that we asked about religiousness and spirituality are borne from dispassionate curiosity but, sometimes they came from our personal interests.

This has been true of much of my own research. A study I did regarding religious conflicts saw its beginning in my own, internal conflicts (Nielsen, 1998). My research dealing with Mormonism is rooted in the fact that I was raised in that faith tradition, and I couldn't help but use research to seek answers to the basic psychological question, “Why do people do (or believe, or think) the religious things that they do?” Because my faith tradition helped make me what I am, it shouldn't be a surprise that I study what I do. Those who know me know that I am Mormon, albeit not a stereotypical one. That is, I am a Mormon who is socially liberal, and relatively agnostic on questions of deity. At the same time, I am Mormon enough that if I do, in fact, have cancer, it won't be because of smoking.

Why is this relevant to Div. 36? Because I do think that we sometimes avoid questions regarding the ways that individual experience and personal identity inform our research and our therapeutic work. But these are important issues. We can see this in one of my favorite recent books, Jacob Belzen's (2012) “Psychology of Religion: Autobiographical Accounts.” Reading the stories from people who have studied the psychology of religion, we see that personal interest, family background and other factors help to shape us as psychologists, and often give direction to the work we do.

People around us naturally wonder about our identity, and how it informs our research. I experienced this most recently in a project regarding the ordination of women in Mormonism (e.g., Cragun & Nielsen, 2015). The goal of the research team is to better understand the factors that predict a person's support for, or opposition to, women's ordination in the LDS church. At the present time, priesthood offices in the LDS church are limited to males, but some feminists have urged that this be reexamined. This has been a hot topic among Mormons, hot enough that we received some 60,000 completed responses to our questionnaire in about two weeks. We also received intense correspondence from people about the survey. Some asserted that the survey is invalid because some of the researchers had in the past supported women's ordination. Other people claimed the survey to be invalid because one of the research team members once was Mormon but has since left the church. And, of course, still others argued the opposite: that the survey is invalid because some of the research team members remain faithful LDS churchgoers.

I suspect that many of us have faced similar questions about our research, or about our interactions in the therapy room, or our efforts to teach students. People around us want to know where we stand on religion, so that they can make judgments about us and about our work. They want to categorize us, to fit us into preexisting boxes, so that they can applaud us, or dismiss us, and quickly embrace or reject our work. Cognitive psychology tells us much about this process, and we might be tempted to disregard it when we see it coming from the general public.

But, I would suggest that we in Div. 36 sometimes do the same thing, with each other. We want to understand where someone is coming from. We want to know if they are like us. We seek confirmation that our ideas are accurate representations of the world around us.

This is normal. After all, psychologists can be cognitive misers, too. But the more we do this, the more we risk forgetting that we share important goals. That is an important lesson we can take away from social psychology. Working together on a shared goal improves our interactions with each other, and our evaluations of each other. It also helps us accomplish our over-arching goal. Remember our mission statement, quoted above?

I am firmly convinced that the more that we focus on this mission — on the things we share in common — the better our progress will be toward our common goals. All organizations are imperfect. But organizations can do things that are beyond the ability of individuals, so, we are part of them anyway, working to improve them as we pursue our common goals. 

Think for a moment — what other group does the things that Div. 36 does? There are a few that focus on psychology and religion, or social science and religion. I am happy to be a member of several of those organizations. But in my opinion, Div. 36 has tremendous potential to help us all achieve our common goals, and to bring the psychology of religion and spirituality more fully into the mainstream of psychology.

How do we accomplish this? One important step is to reduce us versus them thinking within our group. Yes, we have our differences, but I would argue that our differences enrich us, make us stronger, and add vitality to our discussions. So, when we disagree with a colleague, do it civilly. Remind ourselves that we really do share important goals with that person, even if we think he or she is mistaken or misguided. And then, go one step further and consider working with that person, to see if you can arrive at a better understanding through shared experience. We know that this works in other areas of life (Allport, 1954; Nielsen & Cragun, 2010). Let's try it in our work as well.

Now, you see why I asked you to introduce yourself to the people sitting near you. This is a beginning. It is up to each of us to take the next steps, and begin working toward our shared goals. If we do this, we can accomplish great things together.

*I am happy to say that cancer now has been ruled out and I'm waiting for confirmation of a more manageable diagnosis.


Michael Nielsen l.


Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice . Cambridge, MA: Perseus.

Belzen, J. A. (Ed.) (2012). Psychology of religion: Autobiographical accounts. New York: Springer.

Cragun, R. T., & Nielsen, M. E. (2015). The Mormon gender issues survey: A quantitative analysis of U.S. respondents. In G. Shepherd, L. F. Anderson, & G. Shepherd (Eds.), Voices for equality: Ordain women and resurgent Mormon feminism . Draper, UT: Greg Kofford Books.

Exline, J. (2013, March 23). Setting Priorities for Division 36: Results from a survey of our membership. Mid-Year Conference of the Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.

Nielsen, M. E. (1998). An assessment of religious conflicts and their resolutions. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 37, 181-190.

Nielsen, M. E., & Cragun, R. T. (2010). Religious orientation, religious affiliation, and boundary maintenance: The case of polygamy. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 13, 761-770.

Pargament, K. I., Mahoney, A., Exline, J. J., Jones, J. W., & Shafranske, E. P. (2013). Envisioning an integrative paradigm for the psychology of religion and spirituality. In K. I. Pargament, J. J. Exline, APA handbook of psychology, religion, and spirituality. Vol. 1: Context, theory, and research. Washington, DC: APA.

Sherif, M., & Sherif, C. W. (1953). Groups in harmony and tension: An integration of studies of intergroup relations. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Taylor, D. M., & Doria, J. R. (1981). Self-serving and group-serving bias in attribution. Journal of Social Psychology, 113, 201-211.