President's Column

Toward a Globalized Psychology of Spirituality and Religion

Exploring Div. 36's international contacts and collaboration.

By Doug Oman, PhD

Among the more notable developments in Div. 36 in the past few years has been an intensification of contacts with psychologists from other countries and cultures outside of North America. Such efforts seem a natural response to ever-increasing globalization and intercultural contact made possible by the internet, the ease of international travel, and the ubiquity of English in science and scholarship. For Div. 36, our enhanced international contacts raise interesting questions about what we can learn from psychologists of religion/spirituality (R/S) in other countries and cultures, and how we might collaborate with them. It also foregrounds questions about which findings and methods of U.S.-based psychology of R/S readily generalize, and which do not. In this presidential column I cannot grapple with such deep questions. But I do seek to convey some of the excitement and scope of recent divisional and member efforts, and to encourage your support and participation.

At present, almost 5 percent of our divisional membership resides outside of the U.S./Canada, hailing from every continent except Antarctica. About half of our non-North American members reside in Europe, another quarter in Asia, and the remainder in Latin America, Australia and Africa. Some of our international members, such as Vassilis Saroglou (Belgium) and Aryeh Lazar (Israel), have been active with us for many years. And historically, ties have long existed with European psychology of R/S.

But our divisional efforts to reach out more broadly and systematically intensified a few years ago when our former president Julie Exline established our division's International Relations Committee (Hall, 2013). This committee has been co-chaired by Kevin Ladd, whose extraordinary and energetic overseas engagement has greatly benefited these efforts, along with founding co-chair Chris Boyatzis, and incoming co-chair Amy Wachholtz.

The following paragraphs offer a non-exhaustive glimpse of ongoing and emerging international activities of divisional members. I have surely omitted many relevant and impressive activities by members, and for such omissions I apologize. But through a few examples known to me, I hope to convey a sense of our expanding international and cross-cultural connections.

Since the time of the committee's inception, our North America-based division members have traveled with official divisional endorsement to at least three major Asian countries, often repeatedly, beginning with a brief visit to China in 2012 by Bill Hathaway, Kevin Ladd, Daniel McIntosh, Joanne Tsang and Amy Wachholtz. This was followed by longer teaching visits to China of multiple weeks in summer 2013 (Wachholtz and Ladd), summer 2014 (Harris Friedman, Kari O'Grady) and summer 2015 (Hu Xy, Friedman, O'Grady and Ladd). In addition:

  • Terri Gall traveled to Iran in 2014, and attended meetings of the Iranian Counseling Association as an official division representative (Kevin Ladd also represented the division via a prerecorded address).
  • Jean Kristeller, Doug Oman and Kevin Ladd went to Kolkata, India in 2015 for a conference to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Indian academic psychology. Papers from their symposia on Indian/western collaboration — one already published — will appear in the official journal of the Indian National Academy of Psychology (Oman & Singh, 2016).

Unofficially, U.S.-based divisional members have also attended conferences in nearly a dozen additional countries, often attending in groups. For example:

  • Nick Stauner, Sonia Suchday and Kevin Ladd attended the 31 st International Congress of Psychology in Yokohama, Japan in 2016.
  • More than a dozen division members attended the 2015 Istanbul meetings of the International Association for the Psychology of Religion in Turkey.
  • Also in 2015, Ray Palouzian and Kevin Laddwhen were invited to speak at the Seminário de Psicologia e Senso Religioso conference in Curtiba, Brazil, resulting in a collaborative publication (Esperandio & Ladd, 2016; Ladd, 2015).
  • Since 2013, Jamie Aten's team at the Humanitarian Disaster Institute (HDI) has participated in international psychology of religion/spirituality projects or presentations in Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, England, Turkey, Ukraine and Haiti. This year, the annual HDI Disaster Ministry Conference drew participants from 16 countries.

Divisional members have sometimes traveled overseas individually to give invited talks, attend conferences or do research. To my knowledge, locations have included:

  • Democratic Republic of the Congo (Kari O'Grady, 2015).
  • Indonesia (Carissa Dwiwardani, 2016).
  • United Arab Emirates (2014, Kevin Ladd).
  • South Korea (Amy Wachholtz, 2016).
  • India (Sonia Suchday, 2016; Doug Oman, 2016; Amy Wachholtz, 2015).
  • Haiti (Kari O'Grady, 2013).
  • France (Crystal Park, 2013).
  • Netherlands (Amy Wachholtz, 2015).
  • Spain (Kari O'Grady, 2015).
  • Poland (Kevin Ladd, 2016).
  • Switzerland (Peter Hill, 2013; Kevin Ladd, 2015).
  • England and Wales (Kevin Ladd, 2015).

Some of our student members are currently studying psychology of R/S in England (Kyle Messick, Thomas Coleman). But surely these activities — spanning four continents and more than 20 countries in only the past four years — are the tip of the iceberg, considering we have nearly 1,000 members.

It is worth mentioning that these divisional and member efforts come at the same time that our overall organization, the American Psychological Association, is also engaging in international outreach. In the past decade, APA has signed memoranda of understanding with 20 partnering national-level psychological associations in at least six countries in Asia, four in Latin America, seven in Europe and one in Africa. One common benefit from these agreements has been arrangements for reciprocal support for attending conferences.

Where will all these connections lead? It's hard to predict with precision, but the growing magnitude of connections underscores our need to maintain global and cross-cultural perspectives as we conduct our work. To that end, recent divisional programming has included several internationally oriented offerings. One was a symposium on Indian and Islamic psychologies at APA's August 2016 convention in Denver, encompassing presentations by leaders in Indian Psychology (Anand Paranjpe; Rao & Paranjpe, 2016) and Islamic Psychology (Carrie York Al-Karam; Al-Karam & Haque, 2015). Similarly, at our midyear divisional conference in Brooklyn in March, offerings included one symposium on cross-cultural research in multiple cultures, and another symposium on research with Indian samples. The latter is expected to result in a journal special issue. Significant amounts of midyear divisional programming have also focused on minority religious traditions within the U.S., such as Zen/Chan, Sufism and Islam, as well as Judaism and Christianity. An ongoing stream of such activities, perhaps complemented by better infrastructure for expanding our overseas outreach, can help orient us and normalize our recognition that we all operate in an increasingly global, multicultural context.

On a substantive level, I've come to suspect that increased global and multicultural interaction not only may validate some of our instincts about universal aspects of religion/spirituality, but also educate us about limits to generalizability of our current models, challenging us to adapt or replace them to better comprehend what is most relevant in other cultures and traditions. For example, which dimensions of religion/spirituality that were identified in the Fetzer/NIA (2003) set of short measures are most relevant outside of Judeo-Christian and Abrahamic traditions? How must current measures be adapted or augmented in order to assess the most consequential R/S dimensions elsewhere? Can qualitative research shed light on these questions and on the distinctive features of less-studied traditions worldwide? Surely collaboration will be an important tool for addressing these questions (Oman & Singh, 2016).

Having engaged in a small way in cross-cultural outreach, I've begun to suspect that religious diversity is important on multiple levels. On the level of basic science, perspectives from diverse traditions may potentially suggest novel testable hypotheses for expanding the corpus of accepted scientific psychology (e.g., Rao & Paranjpe, 2016). Implications also exist for application. On the level of clinical integration, better understanding of diverse R/S traditions can help improve cultural sensitivity and service by counselors and psychotherapists to their increasingly diverse clientele (Oman & Singh, 2016; Vieten et al., 2016). Perhaps most profound is epistemic integration, a task that has drawn distinguished contributions from many divisional members and leaders over the years (Gorsuch, 2002; Stevenson, Eck, et al., 2007). For some settings, such as sectarian schools and religious counseling, integration of scientific and spiritual perspectives is often desired by many stakeholders. For such purposes, each major tradition naturally seeks its own distinctively tailored integration of scientific and religious perspectives, tools, and practices. Notwithstanding philosophical differences, integration efforts pursued in different traditions face a variety of parallel challenges. To integrate with modern empirical psychology, each must develop appropriate theories and measures, interpretations of findings and applications that support adherents in living out the truths of their traditions in settings influenced if not dominated by a powerful materially focused modern civilization that is often experienced as spiritually unsupportive (Oman, 2016; Oman & Singh, 2016). Not surprisingly, integration efforts in different traditions have sometimes learned from each other (e.g., between Abrahamic traditions). Beyond this, it also seems quite plausible that networks of mutual learning and support for integration can and will embrace all major traditions worldwide.

Clearly, the increasing internationalization of psychology in general and of psychology of religion/spirituality in particular holds many challenges and perhaps even risks, but also offers much opportunity. Our Div. 36 has been increasingly engaged with such efforts. I feel privileged to celebrate internationally oriented activities by so many of our members, and look forward to helping the division as a society as well as individual division members in increasing our internationally and interculturally oriented activities, helping our field and fellow citizens to respond to the challenges and needs of today's world.

About the Author

Doug Oman, PhDDoug Oman, the current president of Div. 36, received his PhD from the University of California at Berkeley, where he is a professor in the School of Public Health, each year teaching a course entitled Public Health and Spirituality (PH281). His research focuses especially on health implications of spirituality, religion and related psychosocial factors such as compassion and altruism. Oman has been principal investigator for two randomized trials of nonsectarian and explicitly spiritual forms of meditation. Another focus of Oman's work has been applying social cognitive theory to understand how people assimilate spirituality through spiritual modeling. He is currently editing a book, anticipated in Autumn 2017, entitled "Why Religion and Spirituality Matter for Public Health: Evidence, Implications, and Resources." Learn more about him at his personal website.


Al-Karam, C. Y., & Haque, A. (Eds.). (2015). Mental health and psychological practice in the United Arab Emirates. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Esperandio, M. R. G., & Ladd, K. L. (2016). Oração e saúde: Implicações para a prática clínica. In M. L. Fernandes, Espiritualidade, saúde e cultura: A teologia nas fronteiras, Juruá Editora, Curitiba, Brazil.

Fetzer Institute / National Institute on Aging Working Group. (2003). Multidimensional measurement of Religiousness / Spirituality for use in health research. Kalamazoo, MI: Fetzer Institute (full text:

Gorsuch, R. L. (2002). Integrating psychology and spirituality? Westport, CT: Praeger.

Hall, E. L. (2013). Giving the psychology of religion and spirituality away [President's Column]. Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality Div. 36 Newsletter, 37 (3, Fall) , 1-4.

Ladd, K. L. (2015). A fé na(s) face(s) da morte: A matriz das relações e teoria da oração mimética corporificada. In T. A. Aquino, M. H. de Freitas, & G. J. de Paiva (Eds.), Morte, psicologia e religião [Death, psychology and religion], João Pessoa, Brazil, Nova Fonte, XX-XX. Published simultaneously in English: Faith in the face(s) of death: A matrix of relations and theory of embodied mimetic prayer. In Grzymala-Moszczynska, H & Motak, D. Festschrift for Pawel Socha.

Oman, D. (2016). International collaboration for living with the richness of spiritual diversity. Journal of the Indian Academy of Applied Psychology, 42, 373-378.

Oman, D., & Singh, N. N. (2016). Combining Indian and Western spiritual psychology: Applications to health and social renewal. Psychological Studies, doi:10.1007/s12646-016-0362-x. Online before print (Viewable: )

Rao, K. R., & Paranjpe, A. C. (2016). Psychology in the Indian tradition. New Delhi; Heidelberg: Springer.

Stevenson, D. H., Eck, B. E., & Hill, P. C. (Eds.). (2007). Psychology & Christianity integration: Seminal works that shaped the movement. Batavia, IL: Christian Association for Psychological Studies.

Vieten, C., Scammell, S., Pierce, A., Pilato, R., Ammondson, I., Pargament, K. I., & Lukoff, D. (2016). Competencies for psychologists in the domains of religion and spirituality. Spirituality in Clinical Practice, 3, 92-114. doi:10.1037/scp0000078