Religious terror, child molesting and the psychology of religion

Posted on August 25, 2009


I was about to go to sleep last night when I had a sudden realisation. I sat up in bed and, to check whether my impression was correct, grabbed the book of abstracts for the ICPR. After flipping through the pages and checking the title of every talk, I saw that my initial idea was indeed right and threw the book down on the bed.

What could be considered the most timely challenges faced by psychology of religion? What phenomena are out there that seem most significant for psychology of religion to get to grips with? What behaviour is linked to religion that it would be highly beneficial for us to understand? Everyone would have their own list but I would be shocked to find that it did not include, on the one hand, religious terrorism and, on the other, institutionalised child abuse. Indeed, I would expect several panels on each of these appalling phenomena. And, indeed, the congress began with a plenary talk about the religious terrorism, followed by precisely no other talks that deal with the issue. On child molesting there are no talks what-so-ever. The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland and other countries has been knowingly protecting child molesters and allowing them to continue to destroy children’s lives for decades and on a massive scale, and the psychologists of religion shrug their shoulders and say ‘not interested’. If any other institution had acted as the Church has, with its highest representatives aiding and abetting criminal activity on a grand scale, with its buildings and establishments knowingly being used to house and provide for the criminals while restraining the victims, it would have been torn apart by an angry public and by legal authorities. Yet, the Catholic Church has arranged for legal protection for the Irish clergy guilty of thus far only partially revealed horrors and almost no-one but the victims protests. At the same time, many religious authorities, both Muslim and Christian, use their pulpits to encourage violence upon those who do not share their faith and, unless they happen to live in a country where their faith is in the minority, are routinely put forward as paragons of morality. And the psychologists of religion have almost nothing to say.

I can think of three reasons. The discipline seems to have solely focussed upon a set of issues, such as people’s ideas about what god is like, that do not include the social effects of religion. Secondly, the methodology of the discipline – pen and paper questionnaires – may not be appropriate for investigating these issues. Finally, a generally pro-religious view-point may discourage looking at them. Needless to say, these are all bad reasons for avoiding the vital questions. Pro-religious individuals should, if their moral sense is not dulled, be appalled by what has happened and wish to understand it in order that it can be made to stop. Indeed, even from a purely pragmatic point of view, pro-religious individuals should wish to stop the harm done to religion by such actions. Also, scientific methodology changes to best deal with the questions asked and there are plenty of existing methods to investigate issues of the psychology of religious terror and child molesting. All that psychologists of religion have to do is to adapt them from their source disciplines. Finally, a discipline must be open to deal with new vital issues that fall within its general purview, otherwise it is failing to respond to reality.