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Book Review - The Psychology of Religion

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1998, Volume 15, Number 1, pages 101-103. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach (2nd ed.). 

R.W. Hood, Jr., B. Spilka, B. Hunsberger, & R. Gorsuch. The Guilford Press, New York, NY, 1996, 546 pages.

This book is authored by four full professors of psychology who promise to be “sensitive to the difficulties and limitations of a purely empirical approach” without abandoning “commitment to empiricism as the single most fruitful avenue in understanding the psychology of religion” (p. viii). No biographical information is given other than university affiliations on the title page. This second edition has been expanded with more material on family, schools, “religion and coping,” and more recent research. The book’s format is scholarly, with a preface, acknowledgments, and an annotated table of contents, as well as numbered endnotes throughout the 13 chapters, an impressive 67-page, single-spaced references section; 15-page, 3-column author index; and 10-page, 3-column subject index. The book provides an overview of the subject, then explores the psychology of religion in separate chapters on childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, death and suicide, conversion, mysticism, morality, coping and adjustment, and mental disorders. While classic theorists are cited, such as James, Freud, Piaget, Kohlberg, Bowlby, Erikson, and Eysenck, the citations far exceed those sources.

Chapter 1 describes problems of past research, hindered by a lack of operational definitions and a firm theoretical base. Biological, social, attribution, and disposition theories of religion are reviewed. Starting from classic heredity versus environment might have made the text more easily understood by nonacademic readers. Locke, Leibnitz, and Rousseau - forerunners of today’s major personality theories - are not cited. Chapter 2 explores religion in childhood in the context of major theorists Piaget, Elkind, Erikson, Kohlberg, and Bowlby. Chapter 3 describes religion in adolescence with respect to parenting, peers, college, and gender differences, with reference to Allport’s “religious doubt” and socialization theory.

Chapter 4 explores religion in adulthood. It criticizes many previous studies that classified people by stated faith rather than denomination or depth of commitment. Religious aspects of socialization, marriage, sex, and politics are described. Therapists may question the conclusion that “more recent research suggests religiosity has no inhibiting effect on sexual behavior” (p.128). Despite more than a decade of political activity by the “moral majority” and antiabortion protestors, the area of politics and religion “begs for exacting research” (p.145).

Chapter 5 studies how the threat of death, anxiety, bereavement, near-death experiences (NDEs), AIDS, and euthanasia is affected by religion. Becker, who authored the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Denial of Death, and Kenneth Ring, who wrote The Omega Project on NDEs, get one reference each out of 158. Kubler-Ross, a pioneer in the hospice movement, is not cited. Chapter 6 examines the experience of religion from sensory, behavioral, cognitive, and affective aspects. There is interesting data on biofeedback, altered states, meditation, prayer, speaking in tongues, hallucination, and split brain phenomena.

Chapter 7 explores religious mysticism and possible explanations of erroneous attribution, heightened awareness, evolved consciousness, or a normal function of someone struggling to find meaning. Mystic movements within major world religions are not included (e.g., Gnostic Christian, Sufi Moslem, Hassidic Jews, Zen Buddhists, Hindu yoga). These and ancient mystery cults are evidence of a significant common need met by mystic ideas and ritual. There is no reference to Joseph Campbell, Thomas Merton, or Alan Watts, prolific writers on the subject. Religious conversion is the subject of Chapter 8, described as complex, multifactoral, and varied: “No one process of conversion applies to all conversion motifs” (p. 288). Deconversion is also examined, less researched but similar to conversion phenomena.

Chapter 9 treats social aspects of religion, starting with Neibuhr’s church-sect theory, organizational dynamics, and ends with cults and the anti-cult movement. “Most cults by their very nature can be expected to appeal permanently only to a minority of followers” (p.328). That is perhaps of little consolation to loved ones of the more than a thousand persons who died at Jonestown and Waco. “Research suggests the controversy surrounding new religious movements is not simply an issue of the processes such movements employ to attract and convert members” but “more likely one of the significant tensions that mainstream religions and secular groups have with novel religions” (p.329). Mainstream religions may be defensive about cults, but this is not the sole or major concern.

Religion and morality are considered in Chapter 10, where the authors conclude that “research has generally found that stronger religious beliefs and involvement are associated with decreased premarital sexual activity in a broad sense” (p. 346). The more fundamentalist the religion, the greater the inhibiting effect. The chapter ends with a review of research on the correlation of authoritarianism to religiosity. Chapter 11 examines how religion relates to coping skills and adjustment. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Selye’s general adaptation syndrome are not included.

Chapter 12 discusses religion and mental disorders. Religion is seen as having a socially conforming and behavior-control function which also provides positive role models and a “haven” from stress. Mystical experiences, glossolalia, conversion, and scrupulosity are described. A discussion of the therapeutic aspects of religion, the role of pastoral counseling, and the concerns about sex abuse, aging, ethnicity, and gender closes the chapter.

In this reviewer’s opinion, Chapter 13, “Epilogue,” should have been included in chapter 1. It places the study of the psychology of religion into historical and theoretical contexts. Wundt and James were both open to objective and subjective research studies. Both nomothetic and idiographic research models are useful. The old dichotomy between science and religion is fading and “religion is no longer a marginal concern of psychology” (p. 446). There is a need now for empirically supported theory to “illuminate religious and spiritual phenomena that otherwise may only be seen ‘through a glass darkly’”(p. 452).

This book is valuable as a source book of tables and references that reflect the 1990s approach of psychology as an organized science to religion and cults. It is of limited use to therapists since it is a study-based researcher’s view of the religious experience rather than clinical realities, exceptions, and individual differences.

Frank MacHovec, Ph.D.

Center for the Study of the Self

Gloucester, Virginia

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1998