‘Religion is a powerful human reality’

Ian Florance talks to Sara Savage about her life and work

‘Religion is a powerful human reality’
Ian Florance talks to Sara Savage about her life and work

Sara Savage was setting up a video camera for a shoot the next day when I met her at the Margaret Beaufort Institute, a theological college. She works in the Psychology and Religion Research Group at the University of Cambridge (www.prrg.org.uk), where she is Senior Research Associate. Sarais Associate Director within the applied wing of the group, the newly formed Cambridge Centre for Applied Psychology and Religion. It seemed an unusual environment to find a social psychologist. How did she get here?‘I was born in Rochester, New York and had my first career as a dancer. I started with a degree in fine arts, got lost, then turned to modern dance and danced for 12 years. During that time I also became a choreographer and a teacher. A lot of that time was spent touring – I danced in 17 countries I think – and that time resembles being in the military: strict discipline, an organised lifestyle and intense friendships.’

Why did you make the transition to being a psychologist? ‘A number of reasons. I had a major kidney illness, underwent surgery and was unable to walk down the street – not exactly the ideal condition for a dancer. While recovering, I had a dream in which a voice told me to “Turn left”. I’d spent years training my body; it was now time to train my mind. Touring had interested me in cross-cultural issues. I’d read some psychology. So, I became a mature student.’

By this time Sara was living in the UK and soon had dual nationality. She started studying at the Open University before moving to the University of Surrey after being encouraged by a tutor. ‘While I tend to “go for it” once I have an idea or project in mind, my life and career have hugely benefited from “permission givers”.’

Like many people, undergraduate psychology was not what she’d expected. ‘I cried my way through statistics. But discovering social psychology was revelatory because it made me realise that while dance is about the experience of being a human being, choreography is social psychology. Piaget was right – the first way we know ourselves and the world is through our bodies. And then that experience is shaped by social psychological processes. To my surprise I did really well in my degree. Partly this reflects what mature students bring to study. They can relate theory to real-life experiences. When attempting to build good research design they can draw on life experiences to understand why it’s important.’

Sara describes another instance of permission-giving at this stage. ‘Everyone else knew what they were going to do after their psychology degree. I didn’t. So I went to the careers office and was helped to realise that I felt alive in the university environment.’ This seems a long way from dancing. ‘No, I think there are huge similarities. Exams are performances. Your colleagues are your co-performers. There’s structure. You study to keep your knowledge up to date, just as you have to practise continually to hone your performance skills. Both are lives of dedication and companionship.’

Sara says her first degree gave her ‘the tools to investigate my big questions – most of which circle around religious faith. I went on to do a PhD at Cambridge on the social and cognitive aspects of Christian fundamentalism.’

I asked Sara where this interest had come from. ‘I had a religious experience when I was 18 and I am a Christian. My PhD led on to the theme which is central to all my work – the interplay between theological world views and social psychological processes. I’ve seen how the social construction of faith can make it deeply harmful, so my work is as much about that as it is about the positive aspects of faith.’

Sara’s job within the research group resulted from a piece of serendipity. Sara’s husband Mark was a chemistry teacher and researcher but decided to enter the Anglican ministry. She went with Mark to an interview at Ridley College, Cambridge. Hearing Sara’s own interests, the principal suggested she meet Fraser Watts, who had just been appointed Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at Cambridge. This was a surprise since the role was expected to go to a physicist or cosmologist: Fraser is a clinical psychologist (and former President of the BPS). Sara wrote to him. The Research Group was set up soon after 1996, with an initial project to help churches make better use of psychology. Sara joined as a researcher in 1998.

‘My tutor at Surrey had tried to persuade me not to combine my interests in theology and psychology; as a mature student there simply wasn’t any obvious career path. But the work in Cambridge has allowed for those combinations. For a start Fraser, the director of the research group, encourages multidisciplinary thinking across all fields of psychology, philosophy, theology, science and the arts. We are a very empirical team, but open to many other disciplines along with the empirical approach.

The Psychology and Religion Research Group has three main streams, Sara explains. ‘The experimental stream researches religious cognition – for instance, concepts of God, issues to do with measurement, the impact of belief and prayer, anger at God, and the way religious meanings are made. The theoretical steam works in areas such as theological anthropology and the psychology of forgiveness. My work is centred in the practical, applied stream, though I also contribute to and receive from the others.’

Sara describes her first five years within the group as focusing on ‘the church as an organisation, and pastoral theology’. Her publications include books on psychology for Christian ministry, a study of the world view of Generation Y, the church as an organisation, and the Beta course, a multimedia pastoral care course which interweaves psychology and theology to address real-life problems; she is also Chair of the British Association of Christians in Psychology. She emphasises one aspect of her work: ‘As I say, I’m a believer and study positive issues within faith, and try to improve what churches do. But I’m very aware of and concerned about unhealthy religion. Social psychology is a good tool to examine where religion goes wrong, and to help people make choices when bad religion closes those choices off. I see myself as neither sceptical nor starry-eyed – I’m a critical friend. That’s why 9/11 and 7/7 had a huge impact on my work. My colleague José Liht and I agreed that religious radicalisation, evident across faiths, poses a real challenge to security and social cohesion. We had to do something about it.’ As a researcher can you actually do anything about these issues? ‘The most ethical intervention is understanding. If you show understanding you can help other people.’

So, Sara and her colleagues started intensive research into fundamentalism, and religious radicalisation, including Islamist radicalisation, but with an eye to radicalisation within other faiths as well. ‘This work has combined many of my interests. During my PhD I saw the impact of low levels of integrative complexity (IC) in action among both Christian fundamentalists and ‘extreme’ liberals. Peter Suedfeld’s concept of integrative complexity is a measure of the degree to which thinking and decision making recognises multiple viewpoints. It has two components. Differentiation looks at how far people perceive the validity of different perspectives when considering a complex social issue, and the values that underpin these. Integration examines how far people are able to weave together those different perspectives into some kind of overarching schema.’

There are decades of robust research showing a relationship between the level of IC with the outcome of intergroup conflict: one famous study examines the integrative complexity of decision makers during the Cuban missile crisis. How has Sara used this kind of analysis? ‘I’ve worked with 30 bishops applying IC to moral disputes – through them we hot-housed the skills needed to raise integrative complexity. It became clear to my colleague Eolene Boyd-MacMillan and me that this core life skill is something that can be learned, and natural resistance to doing the hard work of IC can be overcome.’

‘While mainline religions do have the resources to enable high IC, simplified versions of any ideology, including religious ones, display low levels – there is an active effort to avoid acknowledging the validity of other viewpoints. As you would expect, the real problems arises when you get into the very low IC, binary, black-and-white way of thinking – we are good, they are bad; we are right, they are wrong. This low IC is evidenced on both sides of the radicalisation question – recruiters seek to produce low IC in their hearers, in those who may be vulnerable to being radicalised. On the other hand, we demonstrate low IC when we view such others merely as “fundamentalists”, “terrorists” or “radicals”, without trying to gain a deeper understanding.’

The intensive research work is currently informing projects that focus on raising integrative complexity in the religious domain. ‘We plan for these projects to be rolled out in schools for all young people, and also to faith groups, particularly younger members.’ Sara and her colleagues have also developed  a professional development course for newly qualified imams which is being delivered by London Metropolitan University. She is quite specific that this is not an attempt to replace one belief system with another. ‘It’s not telling people what to think but providing the skills and the right environment for them to see multiple perspectives and arrive at win/win integrations. We’re facilitating a core life skill that enables religious people to reclaim what is rightfully theirs. The approach is ethical and I’m proud of that.’

It must have been a challenge to get to know Muslim culture. ‘It’s been a wonderful four years of interfaith dialogue. I’ve learnt about the wisdom  of other faith traditions. It’s confirmed my view that, despite popular contemporary polemics, the great religions are not simplistic but are highly integrative and complex ways of viewing the world. In particular, I’ve enjoyed talking with Muslim religious leaders. The ones I’ve met love the whole idea of integrative complexity. As they point out, their own rigorous training concentrates on examining different texts, traditions and viewpoints and through ‘courteous disagreement’ and consultation, finding nuanced integrations. The issue for them today is exercising their high-level skills in a way that can relate to modern Western society.’

Sara says that her work raises many wider issues. ‘We happen to have started working with faith communities but the approach can be applied in many arenas of life. Before 1989 we lived in what appeared to a binary world with two main centres of power. The Berlin Wall collapsed, but we still use binary cognitive models in our complex multifactorial world. Human beings seem to search for binary oppositions – terrorists vs. civilisation; “fundamentalist” atheists vs. “fundamentalist” believers; political right vs. political left; arts vs. science. This is understandable because these binary oppositions enable you to belong to an ingroup, feel certain about the rightness of your cause, and create for yourself an instant drama and meaning.’

‘Of course sometimes the last thing you need is to integrate different perspectives. Low IC is sometimes necessary. When your life is in danger it tends to focus the mind. Your brain will automatically switch to survival mode. But we often react to perceived threats to our values or our ingroup prestige as if our lives are at stake. Raising IC means transcending our fight/flight/freeze reaction. It enables us to transform conflict at many levels – from the personal to the international level. High IC can be taught, but it’s not a simple cognitive trick. It’s an intense emotional, relational and physical exercise, requiring meta-cognition.’

I contacted Sara originally because I wanted to discuss how psychology was practiced among UK Muslim communities. Over the past year, a number of interviewees have mentioned religion and spirituality as client issues. So, I asked Sara, what reaction does she get from other psychologists when she describes her work, so outside the usual categories of psychologist? Sara answered that she doesn’t get any uniform reactions but went on to explain: ‘There’s a psychological dimension to every aspect of human life. Religion is a powerful human reality. It goes way back in human history and still has a huge influence, even in secularised European society. In my view, secularisation has impoverished certain understandings – you can’t understand much of history or culture unless you have some knowledge of theology and religious practice. We’re missing something important if we don’t seek to understand religion, to improve the well-documented positive effects of faith and to ameliorate the damage when it goes wrong. But, as I say, there are other fields where IC can be of help, in schools, within personal relationships, with politicians, and that sets our agenda for the future.’

Just before I left the Institute, Sara introduced me to her colleague José Liht, who comes from Mexico. ‘We’re working on these projects together. I love working in teams. Academia tends to ascribe work to individuals. But most of the work we do here is collaborative. I think that’s a good model for psychology – people from different cultures, with different beliefs and different knowledge and skills working together to address a significant issue. In a way, the research group is an attempt to put integrative complexity into action.’

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