Presidential Address

Explaining the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality without Explaining It Away

Div. 36 President Timothy A. Sisemore’s address to the division.
By Timothy A. Sisemore, PhD

I stand before you because, in some strange twist of fate, I am becoming the president of Div. 36 this weekend. I reviewed the names of my predecessors in this position and was awed by the prestigious list and challenged to pick up the mantle with a sincere commitment to serving and advocating for this wonderful group of folks. I particularly want to thank outgoing president Annette Mahoney, who has done more than most folks will ever know to improve and strengthen this society. I hope I can do half as well as she has done.

For many of you who don’t know me, I thought maybe a brief introduction is in order. Little did I know that, when I took introductory psychology more than 40 years ago at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, that the instructor would become a lifelong mentor – namely the inimitable Ralph Hood. I also trained with Paul (PJ) Watson, who has been my friend all along as well, with both of these scholars spurring me on in my career. Very few people have been so blessed to have such life-long relationships with such great people.

My career is an odd one, for sure. I am a clinician by training but wandered deeper and deeper into academia over time, serving on the faculty of Richmont Graduate University as director of research until a year ago. I have done research. Most notably for this talk, I helped develop the Dimensions of Grace Scale, but likely my most significant contribution to the psychology of religion and spirituality is as a codifier as I wrote a recent textbook of the discipline for John Wiley. But at my core is a clinician, and I keep an eye to the practical in all I do. It is also probably fair to disclose, for the sake of openness, that I am a professing Christian.

A word on Div. 36 is also in order. The society has been a part of APA for over 40 years (roughly as long as I’ve known Ralph), though the name has evolved a bit over time. Div. 36 may have the potential to be one of the most diverse divisions in APA, given that its membership includes researchers and clinicians, scholars from a wide variety of training backgrounds and individuals of numerous forms of religion, spirituality and naturalism. But maybe the most challenging aspect of this diversity is the implicit goals of members.  There are the pure scientists driven by simple curiosity about the topic, but some study with the hope of proving or at least improving religion and spirituality. Conversely, some hope to use science to disprove or explain away faith in the transcendent. This may be a unique problem for us. I struggle to imagine someone in, say, Div. 35 (Society for the Psychology of Women), who has an agenda to undermine the value and equality of women. There may be some, but I hope not. To push to comparison a bit, no one in that division is open to a discussion of whether women exist or not, or if they exist, are they beneficial or harmful to humankind. Yet, the psychology of religion and spirituality opens the door to these issues regarding people of faith, potentially giving conflicting directions and agendas to our membership.

Our diversity here can be a strength, if we are understanding and humble. It can also potentially hamstring the project of a viable psychology of religion and spirituality (PRS). I hope some of my comments will help to bring this issue into focus.

I’m sure I am biased on this, but we may have one of the most fascinating and challenging fields in psychology. Religion and various spiritualities are found all over the world and take on a remarkable variety of forms. But because these are so intertwined with the transcendent and so varied, they pose unique challenges for scientific inquiry.

Let me read our mission statement as approved several years ago: “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 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.” My talk today will reflect on a couple of points in this mission statement, with a goal of possibly clarifying some these.

Specifically, I want to comment on how we envision the goal of explaining (or “understanding,”, to use statement’s word) religion/spirituality. What are we aiming for?  And how might our work connect the realms of theory, research and practice? And might we need to broaden the approaches we’re taking to understanding? But also, in doing so, how are we to serve the public? What do we wish to accomplish with our knowledge? What do we mean by the “significance” of religion and spirituality? What are we serving: our philosophical agendas or mere knowledge as knowledge? That we seek clinical applications implies that we want to use our knowledge in some way. But toward what end? I will argue for a goal of helping all people of all (non)religious/spiritual groups flourish.

The first part of the discussion will be around the explanatory aspects of the psychology of religion and spirituality. We will consider the value of science, look at some of the limitations of science in general and then in studying the spiritual as well, and then I will offer some thoughts on a fresh perspective on this.

We begin with some thoughts on the value of science. A commitment to science is the glue that holds Div. 36 together and the one core value all members hold in common, and that value is readily evident in our mission statement. A problem arises, though, when we use one view of epistemology to study people and groups that may not share it or who may see knowledge as stemming from other sources of authority, e.g., it is revealed by a deity.

The scientific study of religion goes back at least to William James and his classic lectures (1902/1985) that invited us to stand back from religious experience and try to look at it objectively. Indeed, science is the best way to obtain objective knowledge, and it is the sine qua non of a healthy PRS. Nothing that follows is intended to replace or disparage science, but only to broaden and nuance how we approach it.

Science can be a vital bridge to connecting with religious experience and belief. This value is clearly seen in the ongoing project of Ralph Hood who has given us such phenomenal and phenomenological insight into serpent handlers (e.g., Hood & Williamson, 2008), bringing their beliefs and practices to a broader community and seeking it more objectively while owning that there is a subjectivity to this practice that outsiders likely miss. Indeed, most religious traditions value and promote science – particularly when it is done without prejudice to the religious community. This certainly has led to mistakes – Galileo being a prime example. Still, most religions value science. The effort to bridge the objectivity of science with the subjectivity of faith may particularly be facilitated by scientists who are also persons of faith and can articulate the “language” of the faith communities being studied. For those who do not share the subjectivity of faith, it is important to attempt to learn its “language” accurately.

Science has done great things for humankind, and we are forever indebted, but it has its limitations. It is designed to consider things that are objective – observable and measurable. That is no problem if we are studying chemistry or biology or geology. We can break apart, weigh and in various other ways explore the nature of the physical world and how it operates. Still, in this there is some subjectivity, as we will see shortly. It is very helpful as witnessed by our field and its body of knowledge. We can measure religious behaviors and to some extent, belief. Measurement has been a focus of PRS for quite some time and rightly so. But science is not as well equipped to explore the ephemeral world of religion and spirituality, much less to address the question of whether the transcendent exists.

The current context of science is an historical anomaly, as most all of human history has been colored by some form of religious or spiritual belief. Hood (in press) cleverly explains the change when he notes that we live in “a secular age in which God and nature have switched position relative to which is reality and which is metaphor.” Easily, we treat the spiritual reality the faithful as metaphor if we are not cautious. Technically, though, science seeks only to “bracket” the issues of the transcendent, setting them aside to focus on what is observable and measurable. But in practice that can mean they are simply ignored (Hood, 2012; Porpora, 2006). Religious and spiritual beliefs and behaviors that we study ideally will be understood in the context of our subjects’ supernatural worldview and not a “nothing but” interpretation from agnostic science. Undoubtedly this is difficult, but I believe a stronger PRS may depend on grasping more the subjectivity of faith. After all, it is a bit ironic to study faith with reason and rely on our faith in reason as we do so.

Even William James, the “father” of PRS (I know that is debatable) saw this problem: “There is a notion in the air about us that religion is only an anachronism, a case of ‘survival,’ an atavistic relapse into a mode of thought which humanity in its more enlightened examples has outgrown, and this notion our religious anthropologists at present do little to counteract” (1902, p. 387).

Or more recently, Charles Taylor has stated, “Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an ‘enchanted’ [medieval] world, and we do not” (cited in Hood, in press). What happens when those who live in a secular world study those who live in in one that is “enchanted?” This is not a question I think PRS can ignore. It may be that we need to spend a bit more time on theory, even though that is not rewarded as much in our institutions.

Let me reiterate: We have to pursue objectivity, but the point I hope to develop is that in doing so we must be humble that we cannot truly and fully explain the spiritual. I thought it interesting that the American Psychologist just published a review article on parapsychology (Cardeña, 2018) that gave some room for it to have a reality. Maybe we can learn something from this. We can easily overestimate what science can do, making it a “snake oil” to explain everything. It would be all too ironic if we held so tightly to science as a perfect system and left no room for nuance, so that we began preaching it as the “only” way, for that would make us as scientists a new group of fundamentalists in a sense. I turn to a couple of philosophers to help us nuance our view of science.

Let’s begin with the influential philosopher of science, Michael Polanyi, and some points taken from his important work, "Personal Knowledge" (1962). Polanyi’s theme for his work is “to show that complete objectivity as usually attributed to the exact sciences is a delusion and is in fact a false ideal” (p. 18). And this is even more applicable to a more inexact science like PRS. Moreover, Polanyi observes that the enterprise of science also begins with a belief: a belief in the methodology of science as a way of knowing. We may then try to evangelize those who don’t share this belief. I can’t say that is wrong, but if we do, we must at least be modest in owning science’s limitations as a source of knowledge.

For example, science is not as precise as we like to think and ultimately only offers probabilities. Statistics offer “statements about probable events and not probable statements about real events” (p. 25, italics in the original). Even the questions we raise stem from personal interest and desires. Yes, emotion moves us to study what we study and not other things. We are motivated and are not disinterested. Thus, what one studies tells us something about the one who does the study too. The questions we ask and how we frame them are subjectively shaped.

Then there is the issue of interpretation and how we order the information we obtain. This, too, has a personal element. For instance, statistics give us options in solving for factors, but we choose a model we think fits best and then choose names for the factors, imposing a bit of ourselves onto the pure data. But as psychologists, we study behavior and behavior is action. Actions are more than descriptive knowledge in many cases. To write a paragraph on how to ride a bicycle in not to know how to ride one. I remember a foster child we had in our home and my efforts to explain in words how to tie a necktie. Not a success. I yielded and stood behind him to demonstrate as I actually tied his tie. I use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy often in my practice, and part of it is a strongly scientific theory of language called relational frame theory. It assumes part of our knowing is the relationships among concepts in our brains not just the data itself. I think Polanyi would agree this illustrates his point. To describe religion/spirituality (R/S) from the “outside” will fall short of truly and completely explaining what it is in the subjectivity of the people we study. We can know, but we know imperfectly. In the best of all worlds, our descriptions are asymptotic, approaching a line but never completely reaching it.

Polanyi found considerable concern with the nature of language as used in the scientific enterprise, being rather alliterative in the process. He noted that language is inherently interpersonal and thus social as it is designed to communicate with others. So it must have a common connection with the intended recipient. Particularly the clinicians in the crowd will be mindful of the importance of communicating in terms the client understands. I know one of my favorite aspects of therapeutic work is communicating and adapting ideas to understanding of persons from all walks of life and of all ages. Yet, the client is always the criterion of success. If what I say does not resonate (I’ve seen the confused gazes), it will be of little use, no matter how evidence-based my technique is.  Scientists must communicate with one another clearly, and we have developed quite an extensive vocabulary toward that end. However, when we turn to the persons of faith we study, we must make sure we understand their language and they ours. This also applies to using our knowledge in the public arena in general.

Polanyi’s second “I” is “impassioned.” Science is never cold and dispassionate. We have some emotion behind our decisions to study, be it plain old curiosity and anxiety created by not understanding something or even frustration with a group that holds views that contradict or challenge ours. Most of my mentoring of research has been with master’s students, but when given freedom to choose a topic, well over half of them choose something that relates to some personal value or life experience. Let’s face it, we who do PRS research don’t do so because we hope to copyright something that will bring us fortune. There are often more personal motivations.

The challenges of interpersonal communication and the emotion that motivates scientists mean that our language will be imprecise (the third I). There is always some gap in what is known, how it is expressed and how it is understood. To assume our findings are self-evident indicates some hubris. We all know that numbers are not what studies are about. It is the interpretation of those numbers and here the issues of language show up.

But some knowledge is not even expressible in language. I mentioned the challenge of tying a tie, but more to the current point is that the depth of many religious beliefs and experiences is ineffable. Polanyi summarizes, “Strictly speaking nothing that we know can be said precisely, and so what I call ‘ineffable’ [the fourth I] may simply mean something that I know and can describe even less precisely than usual” (Polanyi, 1962, p. 87-88).

Finally, Polanyi observes that all science is rooted in “a vision of reality, to which our sense of scientific beauty responds” and thus suggests “to us the kind of questions that it should be reasonable and interesting to explore” (p. 135). There is often then a difference in how the psychologist views the world and how persons of faith do. We see as “beautiful” things that conform to and confirm our sense of how the world ought to be and how it ought to be explained. But given that science is at best agnostic, this may not jive with how the world is seen by our subjects and clients, and so we miss part of the meaning. For we do well to understand what things mean to them, and not just to ourselves. Again, good clinicians have experience with how this is experienced in therapy as we are tempted to impose an understanding of things that is alien to the client. A patient who believes in demons or jinn, for Muslim clients, will find little comfort in a therapist who dismisses these as merely mental constructs to describe unconscious aspects of the self. And that therapist will score zero empathy points for what the notion of demons means to the client. Good therapy and good research should hold in common an explicit appreciation for the linguistic and conceptual distance between psychologist and the other.

So to summarize what we’ve covered from Polanyi: there is a personal and subjective element in our knowledge, even as we aspire to know objectively and scientifically. And let me make clear, Polanyi held science in high esteem but was modest in his expectations of what it can do. The problem of personal knowledge shows up in our choosing science/empiricism as a worldview to begin with and then in our emotional involvement in choosing topics and specific questions. While numbers are vital, our interpretation of them is what ultimately drives knowledge and thus subjectivities in interpretation are critical. Language also shows up as an issue in writing science given linguistic differences. (I recall a discussion with the Scottish editor of my first book. When I used the term “spanking” for corporal punishment, she replied that this carried sexual connotations in Great Britain. She then suggested replacing it with “smacking,” but that has more unpleasant connotations in the U.S.) Language is social, so whatever care we take to express what we can well in our writing, it is what people take from it that carries influence. The goal is for the reader to think our thoughts after us, something we emotionally desire. And after all of this, we do well to recognize that there is some knowledge that is simply ineffable. Our best efforts still leave us limited in how we can explain religion and spirituality and particularly the subjective experience of them. A “how to ride a bike” essay will always fall short of communicating the subjective knowledge it aims for. That does not mean it will not be helpful but will have modest expectations in its goals. So also, science is immensely helpful, but it will be better if we do science with a more conscious awareness of its challenge and limitations.

Let me just add a few words to this base on the seminal work of Ludwig Wittgenstein.  As one who knew language and its limitations well, he observed, “There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical” (Wittgenstein, 1922/1999, 6.522).

There will always be more to experience than we can say. We encounter this in many ways: watching a sunset, hearing a symphony, a romantic evening with a beloved partner or even the wonder of grasping an intellectual insight. If this is true in these more “natural” realms, what is to be said of those experiences historically described as “mystical” or “transcendent?” We can know about them, but likely our science will never be adequate to enable us to truly know them as experienced by others.

I turn to my third point under the “explaining the PRS” heading. I have offered my support for science as the thing that ties the PRS together and as a sine qua non for our division. Yet I have pointed out some of the natural limitations to what science can do in general and suggested these may be exacerbated in the study of religion and spirituality. In brief, I am suggesting a need for a fresh perspective: a humbler approach to our enterprise. It is an issue that has been exposed in psychology as a whole with the challenge in replicating our findings, something that was brought up to the public by the New York Times recently (Carey, 2018, July 16). I offer four suggestions:

First, based on what we’ve covered, we might do well to be more self-aware of our biases. In Peter Hill’s (2018) keynote to the division this past spring, he noted how we can put our views onto our subjects rather than appreciate their views. In particular, he observed that at times “fundamentalists are being studied not in terms of what they believe, but in terms of what we as psychologists believe about them.” When we adapt such a “holier than thou” approach to the groups we study, we risk becoming the “religion of psychology” by holding our views as the ultimate reality and then interpreting all others in the light of them. Again, science is essential, but it is not the way to all knowledge, and it is particularly tricky to apply to groups that either do not share the worldview of science or place it alongside other views of reality and how to understand it.

Hill goes on in his address to note the need for a “first person perspective” in the PRS. That is, to see our subjects and clients from their point of view and not just from our own. Hood’s (Hood & Williamson, 2008) long and fruitful project with serpent handlers is paradigmatic for this perspective. Another example of this might be taken from my presentation (Sisemore, 2018) on the Pentecostal movement, where early research stigmatized them by saying they lacked self-esteem because of their views. A first-person perspective in later research found that the operative element was a sense of humility before God. The former was prejudiced by the individualistic, secular worldview of the researchers that dismissed the subjective sense of the subjects studied. As Polanyi (1962) noted, we do well to be aware of our conflicting visions of reality and to attend to the views of our subjects (or clients) with intentionality.

Research cannot be conducted without some type of theory, yet in the push for empirical precision, theory development is often shuffled to the background. While a novel, parsimonious theory might be one of the best doors to fruitful research, publications often give little room for this. Theory may best flourish in a multi-disciplinary and multi-perspective environment as it may not always lead directly to testable hypotheses. For all the empirical problems with psychoanalytic theories, we cannot underestimate the value of Freud and others in moving psychology forward, even as it has taken some creativity to do empirical research on this. 

Such theorizing might flourish best in an interdisciplinary and international setting. For many scholars around the world, science is broader than pure quantitative empiricism and builds good theory that may not be as conveniently testable. From what I have learned, this penchant for pure empiricism may have formed rifts in the international community that studies PRS. It is a sad note in Christian history how doctrinal divisions have led to so many competing groups. One of my goals and hopes is to see Div. 36 interacting with more divisions of APA (and great work is being done here already, let me say), but also with other scholars of religion from around the world, who may be less empirical but offer marvelous insight that might be adapted into hypotheses and who would benefit from interacting more with what we are finding with our Western psychological approaches. Acknowledging the limitations of science can open the door to broader discussions and move knowledge forward.

What I am suggesting is that we become more humble scientists. Rather than a form of fundamentalism where we think we have the only “truth,” humility will help us to grip our data a little less tightly and focus more on the other and for the benefit of the other, not just us. If we are to inform public discussion, we must be honest in the limitations of our data. (How ironic when social scientists overgeneralize data to promote our point of view.) Our role as scientists gives us access to immensely vital information that can and should inform the public discussion. That is not the same, though, as saying it gives us some type of moral authority that goes beyond the data. Science is the best way to learn what happens or is likely to happen, but in itself it lacks the authority to say what “ought” to be. Scientists have such values and certainly should. But this may be particularly problematic in addressing religious persons and issues when religion often claims to have a moral authority.

I believe this is a central point in our “post-truth” era where discussion and understanding seem irrelevant and power assertion is the preferred approach to social discourse. If we allow science to slip into this quagmire, we may lose the core value of science — its objectivity and neutrality. I do not claim to know how to do this, but I do believe we need to be careful and intentional in sharing our science while not going beyond the data. When social issues trouble us, we may do better to take that emotion, as Polanyi observed, and turn it into better research on the topics of the day. Psychology should be a valued source to inform the discussion based on our research but not a platform to promote personal agendas because of the “power” of the organization.

To conclude this first section, I want to put our clinicians in the forefront for a minute, for I haven’t forgotten you but am one of you. What I am saying is basically what we are taught in working with clients:  we are to be understanding of the diverse clients we see and work clinically from that understanding, honoring the ways the client may differ from us. Aware of our penchants to enact our perspectives from our position of authority, we are trained to be self-aware and move into the world of our clients and see them as they see themselves. We are careful not to impose our values and biases on them because of the implicit power of the therapeutic relationship. We use our science to inform our theories and techniques but are careful to adapt them to the client’s view of reality. All I suggest, then, is that these same principles guide our science as well.

I am reminded of the clever pop physics book, "We Have No Idea" (Cham & Whiteson, 2017),which stresses that we know something about only 5 percent of the universe. In comparison, our knowledge of religion and spirituality is important but clearly limited. Psychology has given us great insight into religion and been beneficial to people in all walks of life, but it is ultimately incapable of fully understanding them and achieving the mission of Div. 36. Our discipline is not even designed to address the existence or nature of the transcendent, for it is by definition agnostic, acknowledging we lack the methodology to determine if there is “something more” than the physical. We ideally want to explain religion and spirituality, but in taking a first-person perspective, we don’t seek to explain them away. So how do we better understand people of faith? And what will we do with the knowledge we gain? We will finish our discussion with a brief exploration in this area.

Div. 36 is not alone in considering ways to do good science but try to understand our subjects within context. The indigenous psychology (IP) movement has been doing that for several decades and is embracing religion and spirituality as forms of indigenous groups when these shape the person’s view of reality and include the community of faith. Indigenous psychology originated in the challenge of grasping non-Western cultural constructs that did not fit into Western psychological language and so sought to adapt methods to understand these constructs and people groups. The key here is that IP acknowledged that some social constructs (back to the language issue) did not fit well into Western categories, and so science needed to broaden its approach to learn about them. This flows from what we have already discussed by expanding methods of study. Hill (2018) recently called for more qualitative work, and methods such as grounded theory seem especially helpful in allowing the constructs for study to emerge from the community instead of being imposed from without. Let’s consider what an indigenous approach to PRS might look like.

IP suggests that we adapt our approach to the first-person perspective of our subjects as we consider religious and spiritual individuals and groups. We take into consideration their worldview or view of reality by getting inside their thinking as individuals and communities. This may require listening prior to measuring. Each group is seen as its own. When we were developing the Dimensions of Grace Scale mentioned earlier, I recall one reviewer basically saying this was only a worthy measure if it applied to more religion, which in this case, it did, but I wonder why this is true? This seemed to suggest a notion that all religions are the same and so measures we develop should encompass them all. I don’t think this is an empirical assumption but an effort to impose sameness, like a “spiritual gloss,” while overlooking the uniqueness in differing groups. Returning to an earlier example, I do not see why the idea of demons in Christianity and jinn in Islam need to be identical, for they are not.

Language is a major issue and we need to address it. We may need to “translate” our terms into those of the groups we study. We noted this above with the confusion of low self-esteem with humility. We can do this with models as well, as I (Sisemore, 2014) illustrated in an adaptation of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to a Christian worldview. Some terms fit, others can be adapted and some are incommensurable. The model of therapy adapting science to the individual needs of clients is again a helpful model.

But the central goal in an indigenous psychology is the honoring of the groups we study, without regard for how different they are than us. Rogelia Pe-Pua (2006), a leader in the IP movement, has offered five principles for research that might be adopted for research with religious and spiritual populations as well as naturalistic groups we study. First, she notes that the quality of relationship between researchers and participants will be the key to the quality of the data. Ralph Hood’s success with the serpent handling groups is that he took time to earn their trust and brought them to see that he had their best interests in mind. Second, “researchers should treat research participants as equal, if not superior” (p. 123). Certainly, our research ethics aspire to this, but even as we may not inflict pain or suffering, we may misrepresent the people we study. Maybe the “golden rule” of do to others as you’d have them do to you applies here. Third, “we should give more importance to the welfare of the participants than to obtaining data on them” (p. 123).  This is also consistent with research ethics. I recall tracking down a subject who noted suicidal ideation on a survey, so we could make sure she had access to help if needed. The humanistic value of caring for others is in play here, and to fulfill this principle, we will need to genuinely care for the people we study. Fourth, as we’ve already mentioned, methods are adapted to be appropriate to the population being studied and suited to their cultural norms. Finally, returning to the language issue, “the language of the people should be the language of research at all times” (p.124). This can mean our seeking to understand terminology from their language and adapting our language to it. I still recall my first literature review for the grace project and finding that PsycArticles’ only reference to “grace” at the time was to the TV show "Will and Grace"; not exactly what I was looking for.

Let’s customize some of this for PRS. First, we must show respect for the religion or beliefs of the people being studied, no matter how much we disagree (Allwood & Berry, 2006). I doubt any of us would say we do otherwise (well, maybe a few would), but a little reflection might be in order. In my PRS textbook (Sisemore, 2016), I cover the empirical data but include in most chapters a first-person story illustrating a topic from the chapter. Though various religious traditions and atheism were represented, some concluded the book was too “pro-religion.” I wonder if such a criticism has been leveled at sexual diversity texts for being “too pro-gay” if they gave a voice to sexual minorities. I hope not. We will never understand others if we lack a desire and capacity for empathy.

As already discussed, the agnostic, empirical science of the West is not a universal view and while it strives for objectivity, it is not obtained. We are encouraged to be mindful of how groups we study may not share this value. When we study belief in the West (and this holds for many faiths, not just Christianity), the form of belief may be more like that of the dominant culture than the group’s intrinsic view of reality. The secular culture has spilled back onto religious populations so that many who say they adhere to a faith are little affected by it. That is an interesting phenomenon in itself. But for many, faith is the factor that shapes reality and how they live. These individuals and their groups are properly treated as indigenous groups. 

Work is beginning in the work on indigenous approaches to religion. Fatemi’s presentation at APA last summer spurred my interest, and we were on a panel together with others of similar interests. Joshua Knabb and I are currently putting together a book on indigenous religious psychologies with contributors from a variety of religious and geographical backgrounds. This work will need to grow into more of a clinical component along the way.

Some of the specifics of this approach would include developing indigenous constructs rather than force-fitting them into Western categories. Good definitional work will facilitate developing indigenous measures, similar to the way our group has done this with "grace" as a term with indigenous religious meaning (Bufford, Sisemore, & Blackburn, 2017). Conversely, we have much work to do in adapting our constructs and techniques to the language of these groups. The ideal of adapting to clients that I offered earlier is wonderful, but the truth is that it is not often accomplished in reality. Our clinical training programs have much room for growth in preparing psychologists to understand religious variations.

And borrowing a term from P.J. Watson (Watson et al., 2003), we need to view them from their own “ideological surround,” even as we know there is work to be done to adapt to that. In my recent study of Pentecostal Christians, I am challenged to see their “immanent supernaturalism” as they see it rather than from my own cooler, Calvinistic view. In reading and building relationships with Pentecostals, I have understood better and grown in respect. But this took work, even though it is a group also nestled under the broad category of Christian.

We come full circle back to the mission statement. I suggest we seek to understand R/S not by imposing our views on these groups but by listening and adapting our methods. That is, our understanding is to occur within their context so that is true understanding. I also believe we can understand better by interacting more with the divisions of APA. There are excellent efforts underway, and I hope they spread into other areas. I also think we need to take more initiative to work with other groups with similar purposes from around the world. Religion and spirituality are complex, so interdisciplinary studies will be helpful in accomplishing this mission. Working with philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, ethicists, neuroscientists, theologians and others will help us develop better theories that we can test with our improving scientific methods, even if those are not shared by all the groups we work with. We want to promote the understanding of religion and spirituality, for they are a source of great comfort and meaning to many even as some versions have been shown to harm people. 

What of “public awareness?” The public in not just a homogenous group. Particularly, I take this to mean we serve people of faith by enhancing their self-understanding and show what helps and what does not as we support their flourishing as humans. Similarly, with naturalist groups, we would show how values such as meaning do not have to come from a belief in the transcendent. We would also exemplify a model of different religious and naturalistic convictions working together for the good of the broad “public.” In the end, we parallel the notion of multiculturalism by seeking an openness to diversity and an eagerness to better understand religious “cultures” without imposing ours on them.

The phrase “promoting … clinical practice to understand the significance of religion and spirituality in people’s lives” in the mission statement is a bit confusing. This may entail a study of how R/S play a role in well-being and distress, but likely the major emphasis needs to be on how to understand the role of R/S for clients in their understanding of problems and the social community in which they experience them. We will need to be active listeners and learners to appreciate the deep and nuanced ways R/S shape and impact clients’ lives. We have much work to do in adapting or translating evidence-based approaches to differing faiths, and in researching traditional religious “interventions” for scientific merit and in knowing and using spiritual interventions that have empirical support (e.g., Plante, 2018). Our aspirations here have been good, but much work is to be done to better understand the role of R/S in well-being and mental health and to better educate clinicians on working with R/S clients.

PRS then is not a project to explain away faith but is approached modestly to understand these ubiquitous human dimensions from with the vision of reality of the subjects or clients. I would love to see greater cooperation between basic PRS scientists and clinical ones, connecting the data to clearer application. All of this would serve the goal of PRS that I suggest: promoting human flourishing for those who are R/S and those who are not. If I had my wish, that phrase would be added to the mission statement of the division.

To conclude, I am thrilled to be part of the mission of Div. 36 and to have occasion to promote it in my tenure as president. R/S are variegated and fascinating dimensions of human existence and worthy of our scientific efforts. But in so doing, we must do so humbly, recognizing the limitations of science in general, and in the challenges touching on the transcendent in particular. I hope we do so with great respect for our fellow humans who differ from us in so many ways, including not sharing our scientific epistemology in many cases. All of this is with the twin goals of understanding R/S in the context of those who have faith and those who do not and in our use of that knowledge in public discourse and clinical application, to promote human flourishing.


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Author Bio:

Tim Sisemore, PhD, is president of Div. 36 (Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality). He has served in numerous academic and clinical roles and is author of "The Psychology of Religion and Spirituality: From the Inside Out" (John Wiley & Sons), nine other books and numerous articles. He currently works for TeamHealth serving residents in long term care facilities.