Feature Article

Is Div. 36 a world leader in integrating spirituality across diverse social institutions?

Building the frameworks necessary to properly address religion/spirituality across many of our social spheres.

By Doug Oman, PhD

This past spring, I had the chance to speak in a policy-oriented setting at the United Nations in New York, which reminded me of the strengths of Div. 36 and made me wonder if we should trumpet these strengths more widely. Such an idea may seem paradoxical because our division has only very rarely officially endorsed any political or policy position, and few of our members work directly on policy. Yet our divisional members do a great deal of valuable work that I see as providing important long-term foundations for resolving some of our most perplexing social and political challenges, both in the US and around the world. In this column, I document some of our division's relevant strengths and invite you to join me in asking, Should we as a division more clearly articulate our leadership in this area?

I come to these issues as someone who has taken to heart the collapse of the mid-20 th Century “secularization thesis,” which assumed that scientific progress would lead to the disappearance of religion (Berger, 2002) and as someone who also believes that religious diversity is here to stay, both in the US and internationally. How, then, can and should we live with the fact of religious diversity? Partly, living with religious diversity is a matter of individuals learning how to accept and respectfully interact with people of diverse traditions in their families, schools, workplaces and/or communities. But religion and spirituality are not merely private activities, and it is increasingly recognized that another part of living with diversity involves finding appropriate ways to institutionally address religion, spirituality and religious/spiritual diversity within the wide variety of social institutions that structure our lives in our complex modern societies.

Our division's members, perhaps more than those of any other comparable organization, have contributed greatly to building the tools and frameworks necessary for the long task of properly addressing religion/spirituality across many of our social spheres and institutions. In many such settings, collaboration is essential between religious people and one or more types of professionals. In view of such collaborative needs, the most useful research for guiding professionals in such collaborations is usually research that is both sensitive to and respectful of how relevant groups of religious and/or spiritual stakeholders understand themselves. Of course, if it is to be scientific, such research will usually or perhaps always remain agnostic about the existence of supernatural entities, since supernatural entities are presently and perhaps always beyond the scope of measurement by scientific instruments. But even if it remains agnostic, scientific research can be respectful and non-reductionistic. In the language of anthropologists, such research can be alert to maintaining common ground between insider ( emic ) and outsider ( etic ) perspectives.

Div. 36 members have perhaps most obviously contributed to addressing religion and spirituality in the context of counseling and psychotherapy. More than 20 years ago, Ed Shafranske (1996) edited the first APA-published volume on religion and psychotherapy. Soon thereafter Scott Richards and Allen Bergin (1997, 2000) authored two important volumes on the same topic, and Brian Zinnbauer and Ken Pargament (2000) published a key paper about handling religious diversity in counseling. More recently, Ken Pargament, Ron Pilato, David Lukoff and others have published key papers delineating proposed competencies in religion/spirituality for counselors and psychotherapists (Vieten et al., 2013, 2016). Division members Tom Plante (2009) and Jamie Aten, Kari O'Grady and Ev Worthington (2012) have published books on the topic. Carrie York Al-Karam has done important work on this issue in the Middle East (Al-Karam & Haque, 2015), and division members Ev Worthington, Josh Hook, Don Davis and others have published important reviews and meta-analyses (Worthington, Hook, Davis, & McDaniel, 2011; Worthington et al., 1996). These are only highlights. Many other division members have contributed in diverse ways to this issue.

On a collective level, too, it is important to address religion and spirituality, as shown by other work by our division members. Peter Hill and Brian Dik (2012), for example, edited a volume on psychological contributions and perspectives on the emerging field of workplace spirituality. The recent APA Handbook on Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality, edited by divisional members Ken Pargament, Annette Mahoney and Ed Shafranske (2013), contains chapters on addressing religion and spirituality in a spectrum of institutional settings that include not only workplaces but also healthcare systems, correctional facilities and educational settings.

Addressing religion and spirituality in educational settings seems particularly paradigmatic. Many religious/spiritual people place a great deal of value on sharing treasures and benefits of their tradition or of valid spirituality in general with their children through providing them with a religious/spiritual upbringing. No one should be surprised that a concerned parent would want their child well-prepared for responding to matters of what Tillich (1951, p. 14) called “ultimate concern.” Indeed, some parents view their child's destiny as at stake. People like myself, who disbelieve in the secularization thesis, have no grounds to expect the disappearance any time soon of ardent concern by many parents that their child's schooling should complement and support the child's spiritual upbringing in the family. For this reason, supplying knowledge and tools to help society fairly and effectively address religion/spirituality in educational settings seems particularly important. Lisa Miller, Elizabeth Krumrei, the present author and various others in our division have done work in this area (Gear, Krumrei et al., 2009; Miller & Athan, 2007; Oman, 2016; Oman et al., 2008). Chris Boyatzis, Pam King and many others have also made contributions to the related and broader field of childhood and youth spiritual development (King & Boyatzis, 2004; Roehlkepartain, King et al., 2006).

According to the APA Handbook, from societal and pedagogical perspectives: the integration of religion and spirituality in education is based largely on several objectives: affirming the long-standing aims that have been central to our educational systems; enhancing students' development as self-aware, compassionate and pluralistically competent global citizens; addressing students' spiritual yearnings; and fostering interconnectedness among members of diverse educational, local, national and global communities. (Rockenbach &Townsend, 2013, p. 583)

Perhaps partly in response to the need for addressing religion/spirituality across many different sectors and institutions, some division members, such as Peter Hill, Brian Eck, the late Richard Gorsuch and others have done important work on generating paradigms that integrate spiritual and scientific perspectives (Gorsuch, 2002; Stevenson, Eck, & Hill, 2007). Much of this integration work has been pursued in the context of a single major Western tradition (Christianity), but other integrative efforts are underway — for example, with regard Indian traditions, as reflected in the work of Anand Paranjpe, who spoke last year at a division-organized symposium (Cornelissen, 2002; Rao & Paranjpe, 2016).

Since people everywhere seek the benefits of modern technological civilization, the task of addressing and integrating with diverse, modern social institutions seems a common challenge faced by every religious tradition worldwide. Facing shared challenges often benefits from networking and is legitimized by it. Can the integrative efforts across diverse traditions learn from each other? A sort of “technology transfer” of integrative tools, measures and paradigms has already been occurring to a modest degree among Abrahamic religions (e.g., Abu-Raiya & Pargament, 2015). Can the group of cooperating scholars and traditions be beneficially expanded to encompass a wider range of traditions?

In a forthcoming publication, Anand Paranjpe and I have argued that some frameworks commonly applied to Abrahamic traditions can also be beneficially applied to Indian traditions (Oman & Paranjpe, 2017; see also Oman & Singh, 2016; Rao & Paranjpe, 2016). Many other research tools, ranging from measurement scales to the notion of an “ideological surround” and its linked set of systematic procedures, may also hold promise for useful adaptation across integration efforts in diverse traditions (Andrews, et al., 2017). For ideas on crafting pluralistically responsive institutions, international perspectives may also be very useful (Soper, Dulk, & Monsma, 2017). Of course, alongside diverse religions there exist diverse variants of atheism and other non-beliefs, a topic of study by division members that include Azim Shariff, Neal Krause and others (Gervais, Shariff, & Norenzayan, 2011; Hayward, Krause, et al., 2016).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many concepts developed for the study of religious traditions — including that of spirituality — are also relevant to the study of atheism and atheist identities (e.g., Schnell & Keenan, 2013). Atheism is heterogeneous, and self-identified atheists include not only uncompromising materialists but also many Buddhists who interpret theism as referring to a creator God that is absent from Buddhist teachings. Evidence indicates that like religion, atheism as a social identity can sometimes serve positive psychological functions and foster well-being, as documented in work by Michael Doane (Doane & Elliott, 2015). To my knowledge, no one has yet generated an explicit integration of modern psychology with any version of atheism as atheism — some may suspect this would not be greatly removed from carrying the proverbial coals to Newcastle — but who's to say that such a conscious integration will not emerge?

In sum, Div. 36 members are doing much foundational work to supply tools for a society in which members of diverse religious and non-religious groups are treated fairly and respectfully by major social institutions and each other. In doing such work, perhaps we are making more possible what sociologist Christian Smith (2003, p. ix) has called “structural pluralism,” organizing society in a way that “affirms cultural and religious pluralism as a positive social good and believes that pluralism should be able to find significant expression in public life… acting with nonpreferential neutrality or impartiality…toward different religious and nonreligious groups…. recognize[ing] the existence, validity, and potential civic value of diverse religious communities (and not simply the individuals and their religious beliefs), and their right to live out their religious ways of life not only in private but also significantly in public life.” Smith (2003) advocates such an approach as moving society “away from winner-take-all uniformity” (p. ix).

Yet details of implementation can matter a great deal, and even simple overarching visions of society may raise legitimate questions requiring maximally inclusive community answers. Perhaps the work pursued by our members can most uncontroversially be viewed as the conscientious, competent, timely and energetic development and practice of the applied psychology of religion and spirituality, both individual and institutional. Yet I find myself wondering whether outside of our division one could ever find any comparable concentration of people pursuing nitty-gritty practical work to address religion, spirituality and religious/spiritual diversity across multiple institutions and traditions. Partly due to our diversity, are we not a leading organization in the US, and perhaps worldwide, in pursuing such work? If we are a world leader, can we more clearly and resoundingly articulate our distinctive organizational strength and contributions as a center of such work and articulate the importance of such work for society?

In my address at the United Nations, I was asked to suggest policy implications of the now massive body of empirical research on religion, spirituality and mental/physical health. I suggested that the U.N. could create a clearinghouse to help countries share ideas and best practices for addressing religion and spirituality in healthcare and in other social institutions (Oman, 2017). When such a clearinghouse is created, I have in mind a particular APA division that could supply much expertise and many good ideas. But for now, the identity of that group remains a little-known secret.


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