What is the Psychology of Religion?


Psychology is defined as the scientific study of the mind and behavior (1). The psychology of religion draws on this definition but treats with primacy the topic of religious motivation. According to Professor Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, this field asks,

“Why do people engage in religious acts? Why does a particular individual engage in religious acts? These are the questions put before the psychologist of religion, as varied from the questions put before the historian or the sociologist of religion” (2).

The psychologist of religion not only needs proficiency in psychology but also requires a knowledge of history and theology. This is because one of the basic questions she needs to answer is what exactly constitutes a religious act. An answer to this question is not a psychological one but a historical and theological one. Beit-Hallahmi puts it this way,

“The notion of the transhistorical and transcultural nature of certain behaviours is especially prevalent in the study of religion. Religious beliefs and religious sentiments seem to have been in existence everywhere and in every historical period. Telling the cultural and temporal from the transcultural and transhistorical may be one aim of the psychology of religion” (3).

But she also realizes that religious behaviours are complex and relate to many psychological variables.

Historical Theorists

The psychology of religion gained traction only recently as an accepted academic study within the United States: “In America the psychology of religion has always been a marginal discipline driven by a relatively few investigators who used their power to sustain some visibility for an area of investigation that has never been, nor is now, central to the concerns of the discipline” (4).

Many of its historical theorists of the early late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were on the periphery of scholarship. Although books in the area were published by thinkers such as Starbuck (1899), Coe (1916), Pratt (1920), and Thouless (1923), it was perhaps only G. Stanley Hall and William James who were recognized by mainstream psychologists. Both men had a secure place within the history of psychology as a scientific discipline which was also matched by their status in the history of the study of religion. Hall was the first president of the American Psychological Association and presided over its initial annual meeting in Philadelphia in 1892, and his intellectual investments within the psychology of religion led him to create the Journal of Religious Psychology, which first published in 1904. James also completed important texts on both psychology and the psychology of religion. He gained a reputation for his works Principles of Psychology (1890) and Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Throughout his academic career, James took seriously the reality of religion, spiritualism, psychic experience, and psychic phenomena, and attempted careful descriptions of their content. This was also a challenge for James given that these areas were perceived by mainstream psychologists, including Hall, to be an obstacle for the reputation of psychology as a natural science. Psychology did not wish to include religious and spiritual knowledge claims, which lead to its scholars abandoning James’ sympathetic method. It took almost half a century for the psychology of religion to experience a revival in America and it resurged at the time of the founding of the Committee for the Scientific Study of Religion in 1949.

Challenges to the Psychology of Religion

A challenge to the psychologist of religion is in providing psychological descriptions of religious persons. Before he can even begin a description he needs to have an idea of what the religious person is like, who he is, and how he is different from the non-religious person (5). This has, however, proven challenging because motivations are not necessarily clear. This will often require a careful probing of the distinction between genuine religious motives and secondary motives. It is essentially a distinction between what one might say is a “true believer” who puts her heart and soul into her faith and the follower of religion who only pays lip service to its tenets for some other reason. How is the psychologist of religion meant to engage these dynamics in religious life? This obstacle is further enhanced given that the psychology of religion requires historical knowledge. Providing a description of historical persons faces the same challenge when trying to distinguish between genuine motives and secondary religious motives.

A second challenge, which has been a thorn in the side of many scholars of religion throughout the history of religious studies, is accounting for the diversity of the phenomena of religion. The psychologist of religion faces a field so diverse it is not possible to speak of religion as a whole; Instead one must speak of,

“…specific religions, faith groups, denominations, sects, cults, or individuals, perhaps even further qualified by adjectives such as liberal, orthodox, fundamentalist, evangelical, Hindu, Shiite, Sunni, capitalist, Marxist, anabaptist, militant, pietistic, established, in free-church tradition, etc.” (6)

Definitions of religion have been several and none of them have obtained consensus within the scholarship of religion. Some scholars, such as Ninian Smart, have proposed looking to the manifest features of religion, such as in his seven dimensions (Doctrinal, Mythological, Ethical, Ritual, Experiential, Institutional, Material) of religion rather than necessarily having to agree to a commonly accepted definition (7).

The Depth Dimension to the Psychology of Religion

One cannot speak much about the psychology of religion without eventually referring to depth psychologists such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and others, who have provided theories of religion that look at the role of the human psyche.

The depth dimension looks internally inside the person and not “out there” in the world or at a transcendent reality (8) According to Freud’s critical representation of religion, the answer to the origin of religion and religious behaviour is found within the invisible realities of the subconscious and the Oedipus Complex. Although Freud viewed religion as a mental illness, other depth psychologists such as Carl Jung believed religion to draw upon images and ideas that belong collectively to the human being. These images find expression within religion itself, as well as philosophy, folklore, mythology, and literature. Religion is thus not an unhealthy phenomenon but something representative of true humanity. The assumption nonetheless is that religion across human experience has to do with the mind and that by explaining the relationship between the mind and religion one will better understand religion itself and come to firmer answers as to why human beings are religious and believe what they do.

Current and Future Work within the Psychology of Religion

One promising area for the psychology of religion is in its work with neurobiology. Neurobiology studies human anatomy and physiology of the neural system, and some have suggested that the two fields have great potential to work with each other,

“Psychologists of religion may assist neurobiology by providing research data that could serve as material for constructing testable neurobiological hypotheses, data resulting, for instance, from studying an individual’s perception of God and the numinous, the psychological characteristics of meditation, deep prayer, contemplation etc.” (9).

More recently, the psychology of religion has become involved with clinical practice as it encourages a comprehensive approach to human suffering and healing (10). Some of the physical, emotional, behavioural, and social problems of clients are often related to religious meaning-giving systems and religious attitudes. As such, the ‘clinical psychology of religion’ applies insights from the psychology of religion and general psychology, and attempts to engage the relations between religion, worldview, and mental health (11). This psychologist deals with psychodiagnostics and psychotherapy but concentrates primarily on the role religion or worldview plays in mental health problems.

Depth psychology within the psychology of religion will continue to develop, especially because the concepts presented by historical theorists such as Freud have failed to obtain consensus. There have been many theorists with a positive outlook on religion, including contemporary ego psychologists and object relations theorists, who have followed a similar path to develop literature and an entire field of studies in religion and personality (12). It is expected that this field will continue to contribute to contemporary understandings of religion.


1. Mischel, Walter. “Psychology.” In Encyclopedia Britannica. Available.

2. Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin. 1980. “Psychology of Religion – what do we know?” Archive for the Psychology of Religion 14(1), p. 228.

3. Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin. 1980. Ibid. p. 230.

4. Hood Jr., Ralph. 2000. “American Psychology of Religion and the “Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.”” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 39(4), p. 531.

5. Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin. 1980. Ibid. p. 231.

6. Pruyser, Paul. 1987. “Where Do We Go from Here? Scenarios for the Psychology of Religion.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 26(2), p. 173.

7. Smart, Ninian. 1992. The World’s Religions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 22.

8. Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin. 1980. Ibid. p. 232.

9. Reich, K. Helmut. 2004. “Psychology of Religion and Neurobiology: Which Relationship.” Archive for the Psychology of Religion 26, p. 117-133.

10. Shafranske, E. P. 2005. “The Psychology of Religion in Clinical and Counseling Psychology.”  In Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, edited by Raymond Paloutzian and Crystal Park, 496-514. New York: Guilford Press.

11. van Uden, Marinus, and Pieper, Jos. 2003. “Clinical psychology of religion: A training model.” Archive for the Psychology of Religion 25: 155-164.

12. Daniel, Pals. 2006. Eight Theories of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 78-81.

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