Faith and psychology in historical dialogue

John Hall, Leslie Francis and Brendan Callaghan SJ on the roots and resurgence of interest in psychology and religion

Psychology as we know it today emerged in the post-enlightenment period from roots in theology, as well as anthropology, physiology, education and philosophy. This has contributed to the ongoing debate around the tensions between psychology (as a natural science of behaviour), the human spirit, theology, religious experience and practice.

Psychology is thought of as a relatively new discipline, but its subject matter has been addressed throughout the more ancient history of philosophy and theology. Early thinking on the nature of piety and religion followed a number of trends.

Descriptive reflections on the relationship between faith and daily living can be found in writings now seen as the scriptures of the major world religions, and from St Augustine onwards the theological tradition has offered sophisticated accounts of the person. This trend is illustrated by the traditions of the medieval mystics, and the work of 18th- and 19th-century philosophers and theologians.

A second trend, dating back to the Greek rationalists and the Roman epicureans, is explanatory. Long before Freud these explanations invoked the role of fear, of dreams, and the idea of projections of idealised humanity. However, to contrast these descriptive and interpretative traditions aggravates an unhelpful dichotomy. The Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, writing in the early 18th century, transcends this distinction in his demonstration of the interpenetration of dialectic and hermeneutics (or interpretation) (Frank, 2005).

A significant proportion of early scientific and therapeutic psychologists came from a religious background, or were heavily influenced by religion. Ivan Pavlov was the son of a Russian Orthodox priest and Wilhelm Wundt was the son of a Lutheran pastor. The overlap (and competition?) in psychological thinking and practice between the interests of religious ministers and carers, and scientists and secular practitioners, has been evident for the past century.

Sigmund Freud wrote on both primitive and developed religion over a number of years, from Totem and Taboo in 1913 to Moses and Monotheism in 1939. Describing himself as ‘A godless Jew’ he saw religion as essentially an ‘illusion’ – a social neurosis. By contrast Carl Jung, the son of a Swiss Reformed pastor, saw the absence of religion as the chief cause of adult psychological disorders. His approach, developed in many publications over 30 years (see, for example, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, 1933) was based on his concept of the ‘collective unconscious’ of the human race, seeing religion as primarily experiential.

The term ‘psychology of religion’, commonly used from the late 19th century, simplifies a complex concept now more often expressed in terms of religions, spirituality and transcendence. It also conceals the narrow focus of earlier work, which was almost solely on faiths within the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The stance of psychology of religion is one outside any of the religious traditions, whose credal statements and theologies are not treated as authoritative of themselves. Rather, they are treated as objects of examination according to the ‘rules of engagement’ of psychology. It should be distinguished from religious or pastoral psychology, which draws on the insights and beliefs of religious tradition, perhaps articulated in a developed theology, alongside psychological evidence and argument. Serving different purposes, each can be intellectually valid and respectable, but it is important that the one is not confused with the other. However, Psychology of Religion continues to be the most frequently used title of both books and research journals in this field.

The formal study of the psychology of religion first gathered momentum in the United States, perhaps because of both the religious diversity of the country and the spirit of progressive reform present in both the social sciences and liberal Protestantism. The 1899 book The Psychology of Religion, by the American Edwin Starbuck, is usually cited as the first text book in the field; the psychoanalytically influenced 1923 book with the same title by Robert Thouless is often cited as one of the earliest British books.

An influential early British study of the relationship between personal behaviour and religious affiliation was Francis Galton’s study on the efficacy of prayer, first published in 1872. William James’s The Varieties of Religious Behaviour, based on documents from people who were conspicuously religious, is seen as an early classic, and was first presented at Edinburgh as the Gifford Lectures in 1901–02. Reading through later British texts from this period, written as often by doctors and theologians as by psychologists, the strong influence in Britain of the ‘New Psychology’ of both Freud and Jung is apparent.

Somewhere in the last two decades of the 19th century, there was systematic university-level teaching of empirical psychology of religion already taking place in the UK. A very early textbook by the Jesuit priest Michael Maher, published in 1890, was in use at what was to evolve into Heythrop College, University of London. Founded as a Roman Catholic seminary, Heythrop had a long tradition of teaching what would now be called philosophy of mind, but was then called ‘rational psychology’. Onto this tradition, a decade before William James’s Gifford Lectures, was grafted the teaching of empirical psychology to young Jesuits preparing for ordination as priests. As evidenced by his textbook, Maher was very careful to delineate the different methodologies involved in the different disciplines. He included under ‘empirical psychology’ a range of subjects that may sound familiar, including the study of language and languages, developmental psychology, cross-cultural studies, animal psychology, physiology, pathology and psychiatry, psychometrics and psychophysics.

The tradition of teaching empirically based psychology to Jesuits in training continued through the 20th century. In 1970 Heythrop became a college of the University of London, as a specialist school in philosophy and theology, and in the early 1980s psychology of religion began to be taught as a formal subject, with an option paper made available initially in the undergraduate degree programmes and later in a taught master’s degree in pastoral psychology. Finally, in 1998 a full MA degree in psychology of religion was launched.

There were two main ways in which psychology was embraced by the churches in Britain during the inter-war period. The first way was through informal and loosely structured pastoral and ‘medical’ cooperation (medical in this context referring mostly to psychotherapists or medical psychologists). The second way was more formally through the establishment of a number of organisations, such as the City Temple psychological clinic in London, set up by the Methodist minister Leslie Weatherhead, and the Guild of Pastoral Psychology established in 1937 to promote the work of Jung.

Following the Second World War, therapeutic and empirical approaches to psychological understanding of religion developed slowly in Britain, limited by the slow growth in number and size of university psychology departments. As an example of therapeutic approaches, the Leeds-based Methodist minister and psychotherapist Harry Guntrip was concerned to communicate psychological thinking to ministers through his Psychology for Ministers and Social Workers (1949). The Oxford-based Michael Argyle, better known as a social psychologist, charted the research field as it was in the mid-1950s in his foundational book Religious Behaviour (1958), continuing up to his last book Psychology of Religion: An Introduction (2000), which offers an informed and balanced overview.

The subject undoubtedly languished academically in Britain until a revival of interest, usually dated from the mid-1970s (Francis, 1978). This renewed interest in the psychology of religion has been characterised by new thinking and research that both addresses the methodological complexities in the field, and also pays attention to and draws from non-Western faith traditions, from both Africa and Asia. The developments in the scope of the field have been along two main paths: the academic study of the interface between psychology and religions, and pastoral psychology, or the role of psychology in the service of faith communities.

Religion under the spotlight of psychology
The range of academic work on the relationship between faith and psychology can be illustrated by the work of three research centres in England. The first of these is the Alister Hardy Research Centre for Religious Experience, founded in Oxford by the eminent zoologist Sir Alister Hardy in 1969 (and now located in Lampeter), carrying out, as the name indicates, studies of religious experience largely based on their extensive archive of personal experiential accounts.

The centre became the focus of a number of researchers, including the Australian Laurence Brown, who was Director for a formative period in the 1990s. Another set of studies stimulated by the centre was carried out by David Hay, leading to his Religious Experience Today (1990), and new work using the archives continues to be published.

Two major research centres applying psychological theories and methods within the framework of theological and church-related concerns were established in the 1990s. Fraser Watts’s research group at the University of Cambridge, the Psychology of Religion and Religious Research Group, is dedicated to exploring the interface between psychology and religion in theoretical, empirical and applied ways, through three subgroups. The Theology and Theory subgroup seeks to clarify the conceptual relationship between the two disciplines; the Religious Cognition Research Laboratory conducts empirical research into religious cognition; and the Cambridge Institute for Applied Psychology and Religion relates psychological research to educational programmes. Examples of the published work of these groups are Jesus and Psychology (Watts, 2007), concerning the connection between psychology and the Jesus of the Gospels, and an examination of the major themes linking psychology and Christian ministry in Psychology of a Christian Ministry (Watts et al., 2002).

Leslie Francis’s research group, established at the University of Wales and recently transferred to the University of Warwick, has framed the psychology of religion within the context of empirical theology. This research group has focused on five main themes: clarifying the relationship between theology and psychology; employing psychological theory within the context of biblical hermeneutics; drawing on personality psychology to illuminate areas of congregational life and aspects of ministry (including clergy work-related psychological health and burnout); exploring individual differences in the attitudes and beliefs of clergy, churchgoers and church-leavers; and examining the association between religion and values among young people. Examples of their work on the connections between theology and psychology, and between hermeneutics and psychology, are displayed in Faith and Psychology (Francis, 2005) and Preaching with All Our Souls (Francis & Village, 2008).

Psychology in the service of faith communities
There are a number of ways in which these insights have been applied to support the ministry of churches and local faith communities. A distinctive approach to counselling within a Christian context was founded in 1962 by the psychiatrist Frank Lake under the title of the Clinical Theology Association. This movement was among the first to organise training seminars for both ordained ministers and lay people, and was followed by other organisations, such as the Westminster Pastoral Foundation, offering professional training for counsellors. Many ordination training courses now include pastoral psychology within basic training. Psychologists within faith traditions have set up their own interest groups, such as the British Association of Christians in Psychology. There now many examples of psychologists and psychological therapists, some of whom are also ordained ministers of religion, offering educational and training opportunities, as well as informal support, to local faith congregations, in for example applying insights from social psychology in resolving conflict within congregations (see Savage & Boyd-Macmillan, 2010).

Within the past 30 years there has been a resurgence of interest in Britain in the range of relationships between psychology and religion. Much of this growth can be attributed to the emergence of a number of individuals who are both psychologically and theologically trained and who have sustained innovative research and educational programmes – such as the Godly Play initiative to develop spirituality in children (see – and the diffusion of this understanding through an expanding range of publications and learning opportunities.

Box 1: ‘Us’ and ‘them’
While open to some methodological criticism (e.g. Mavor et al., 2011), the work of Altemeyer and Hunsberger (e.g. 1992) on religious fundamentalism has had considerable influence. One suggestion that seems to warrant reflection from both theological and psychological viewpoints is that of what Bob Altemeyer (2003) calls ‘religious ethnocentrism’.

In coming to committed belief, and to committed membership of a community of belief, there is a risk that I will learn to make ‘us-and-them’ judgements that exclude all others who do not share my belief. Altemeyer, looking at early patterns of learning and levels of scores on measure of fundamentalism, notes that ‘Religious fundamentalists tend to have a very small “us” and quite a large “them” when it comes to faith.’

How to enable people to acquire beliefs and values on which to base their lives, without at the same time being trained in religious ethnocentrism, calls for further debate between religion and psychology. Given the depth of commitment characteristic of many of the founding figures of psychology, it is no surprise that psychology, too, has its own communities of belief, fundamentalisms, and even its own ethnocentrisms. Dialogue promises to be fruitful – and far from dull.

John Hall is at the School of Health Care, and at the Centre for Health, Medicine and Society, at Oxford Brookes University [email protected]

Leslie Francis is at the Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit, University of Warwick and is Canon Theologian at Bangor Cathedral, Wales [email protected].

Brendan Callaghan SJ is Master of Campion Hall, University of Oxford [email protected]

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