Psychology of Religion in Vienna

Posted on August 24, 2009


In another of my “I wonder what that field that is relevant to what I do is like” decisions I chose to attend the International Congress for the Psychology of Religion. The schedule is really very relaxed, with just four and a half hours of talks today and only a bit more than that tomorrow and the day after. Also, the meeting is taking place in the grand old main building of the university, all stone arches and sweeping staircases. This all adds to my immediate feeling that this field is becalmed – not having really opened itself to the cognitive and evolutionary approaches that are currently sweeping related disciplines. It is not that there are no talks that concern evolutionary/cognitive work but they are far and few between and, from what I have seen thus far, spend much of the time introducing basic ideas such as minimally counter-intuitive concepts as well as apologising for using ‘new fangled’ paradigms.

At this morning’s plenary I could not help but keep thinking that there were numerous basic questions that the authors did not think to ask but which, if asked, would cast the issues the talk dealt with into much, much sharper relief. The talk concerned ways of designing questionnaires aimed at measuring the – to use the authors’ terminology – existentialist, spiritual and religious orientation of interviewees. The particular problem is that most such questionnaires include in them assumptions linked to being used in religious societies such as the US, and do not apply well to secular societies. What the authors proposed is to think about several dimensions of the different orientations in order to include a proper mix of questions related to them in future questionnaires. As they, themselves, allowed, this would not lead to a universal questionnaire that could be used in any cultural-religious context but, merely, a more flexible tool that could be usefully used in a larger subset of cultural contexts.  While this is a sensible strategy in so far as it goes, I felt that in the long term the more interesting strategy would be to try to think about the evolutionary, cognitive and cultural factors that underlie the distinction between existential, spiritual and religious orientations.

I do not imagine that this approach would be one that found much favour with this group of researchers and I think this would be the case for two reasons. The first one is that they appear to be very much focussed upon getting large amounts of data and limiting theory to the patterns they see emerging from the data they gather. To a certain degree this approach may seem to tend towards naive inductivism but the alternative becomes, in its most extreme forms, an exercise in inventing just-so-stories. The second, and perhaps more profound reason is that the field seems to equivocate in the way it thinks of religion, appearing to avoid clearly stating that it is examining religion as a natural phenomenon. A number of the participants seem to be motivated by their own religious faith, for example. So, the approach I take is bound to be seen as both ‘reductionist’ and, simultaneously, ‘divorced from the data’.

It makes me wonder what reception my talk will have.

In Vienna for the International Congress for the Psychology of Religion