Many psychological theorists have had interesting perspectives
on religion. Here you will find an overview of some of the classic
views: William James, Sigmund Freud,
Carl Jung, Gordon Allport,
Abraham Maslow, and Alfred Adler. A recent addition to this page is a synopsis of Erik Erikson's work. (Others will be added to this list as time permits.)
For more information on any of these people, check their work listed on
my resources page. Other good sources for further information are Fuller's
Psychology and Religion book, or Wulff's Psychology of Religion
book, which also are listed in my resource page.
A U.S. psychologist and philosopher, James served as president of American Psychological Association, and wrote one of the first psychology textbooks. In the psychology of religion, James's influence endures. His Varieties of Religious Experience is considered to be the classic work in the field, and is worth reading by anyone who is interested in psychology and religion. Indeed, references to James's ideas are common at professional conferences. It reminds me of the saying, "to learn a new idea, read an old book."
James distinguished between institutional religion and personal religion. Institutional religion refers to the religious group or organization, and plays an important part in a society's culture. Personal religion, in which the individual has a mystical experience, can be experienced regardless of the culture. James was most interested in understanding personal religious experience.
If personal religious experiences were what James preferred, dogmatism was something that he disliked. Dogmatic thought, whether religious or scientific, was anathema to James. The importance of James to the psychology of religion--and to psychology more generally--is difficult to overstate. He discussed many essential issues that remain of vital concern today.
A psychiatrist, Freud laid the foundation of psychoanalysis and has had a tremendous influence on modern culture. Many of people's beliefs about unconscious thought, childhood, and parenthood stem from Freud. In his broad theories, he attempted to explain about how we are influenced by past events and by things outside our conscious awareness.
Very simply stated, Freud suggested that people experience conflicts between what we want to do (represented by our Id) and what we are told by society and parents that we should do (represented by the Superego). This conflict is resolved, to a greater or lesser degree, by the Ego. Freud viewed religion as originating in the child's relationship to the father; hence in many cultures God is viewed as a Heavenly Father. In this way, religion reflects an attempt to fulfill our wishes, and is an illusion.
Freud strived to be objective, although by current standards the methods Freud used probably allowed his biases to influence his data. His influence in psychology has declined over the years; fewer than 10% of the American Psychological Association describe themselves as having psychoanalytic perspectives. In the American Psychological Society, that figure drops to less than 5%. Still, psychoanalytic interpretations of religion remain popular in some circles.
An Austrian psychiatrist who parted ways with Freud, Adler emphasized the role of goals and motivation in his Individual Psychology. One of Adler's most famous ideas is that we try to compensate for inferiorities that we perceive in ourselves. A lack of power often lies at the root of feelings of inferiority. One way that religion enters into this picture is through our beliefs in God, which are characteristic of our tendency to strive for perfection and superiority. For example, in many religions God is considered to be perfect and omnipotent, and commands people likewise to be perfect. If we too achieve perfection, we become one with God. By identifying with God in this way, we compensate for our imperfections and feelings of inferiority.
Our ideas about God are important indicators of how we view the world. According to Adler these ideas have changed over time, as our vision of the world--and our place in it--has changed. Consider this example that Adler offers: the traditional belief that people were placed deliberately on earth as God's ultimate creation, is being replaced with the idea that people have evolved by natural selection. This coincides with a view of God not as a real being, but as an abstract representation of nature's forces. In this way, our view of God has changed from one that was concrete and specific to one that is more general. From Adler's vantage point, this is a relatively ineffective perception of God because it is so general that it fails to convey a strong sense of direction and purpose.
Much of Adler's writing is devoted to social movements. In this context, religion is important in at least two ways. First, we need to understand that Adler is interested mainly in the idea of God as a motivator, and not in the question of whether or not God exists. What is important is that God (or the idea of God) motivates people to act, and that those actions do have real consequences for ourselves and for others. Adler suggests that we are left with two options. We can either assume that we are at the center of the world--both ours and God's--and that God will care for us as we wait passively for attention, or we can assume that we are the center of the world, and actively work to achieve society's interest. Adler's point is that if we assume that we have power over our surroundings, then we will act in ways that benefit the world around us. Our view of God is important because it embodies our goals and directs our social interactions.
The second way that religion is important is that it exerts a great influence on our social environment, and is important as a powerful social movement itself. Compared to science, another social movement, religion is more advanced because it motivates people more effectively. According to Adler, only when science begins to capture the same religious fervor, and promotes the welfare of all segments of society, will the two be more equal in people's eyes. (Some people would say that this is already happening.... What do you think?)
For a time Jung was Freud's pupil, but left Freud's following when they disagreed over the importance of sexuality and spirituality to one's psychological development. (Freud emphasized sexuality over spirituality; Jung disagreed.) Their parting is described as being quite intense, almost as though Jung were being excommunicated from Freud's "church."
Jung was concerned with the interplay between conscious and unconscious forces. He proposed two kinds of unconscious: personal and collective. Personal unconscious (or "shadow") includes those things about ourselves that we would like to forget. The collective unconscious refers to events that we all share, by virtue of having a common heritage (humanity). For example, the image (archetype) of a mythic hero is something that is present in all cultures. Archetypes such as these might be viewed as Gods, because they are outside the individual's ego.
Jung had much to say about Christian and Eastern religions. He was fascinated with non-Western views, and sought to find some common ground between East and West. In doing so, Jung had a very broad view of what it means to be empirical. Suppose, for example, that I hear a voice from deity but that you do not, even though we are sitting next to each other. If only one person experiences something, for Jung it is an empirical observation. For most contemporary scientists, however, it would not be considered an empirical observation. Because of this, there has been regrettably little research in the psychology of religion from a Jungian perspective.
Allport made important contributions to the psychology of personality, helping to refine the concept of "traits." His interest in differences among individuals--which is what personality psychology is--carried over into his work in the psychology of religion. His classic book, The Individual and His Religion, shows Allport's interest in people as individuals. It also illustrates how people may use religion in different ways. Mature religious sentiment is how Allport characterized the person whose approach to religion is dynamic, open-minded, and able to maintain links between inconsistencies. In contrast, Immature religion is self-serving and generally represents the negative stereotypes that people have about religion.
Later, Allport and Ross devised "religious orientation" scales to measure these two approaches to religion. The intrinsic religious orientation reflects an interest in religion itself. The extrinsic orientation toward religion is one where religious behavior is a means to some other end. Consider, for example, the motivations behind people's church attendance. Intrinsically oriented people attend church as an end itself, while extrinsically oriented people may do the same action because it is a way to meet people, or because it helps them cope with stress in their lives. Religious orientation has remained a focal point in the psychology of religion, despite periodic criticism that it has outlasted its usefulness.
What makes someone psychologically healthy? This was the question that guided Maslow's work. He saw too much emphasis in psychology on negative behavior and thought, and wanted to supplant it with a psychology of mental health. To this end, he developed a hierarchy of needs, ranging from lower level physiological needs, through love and belonging, to self- actualization. Self-actualized people are those who have reached their potential for self-development. Maslow claimed that mystics are more likely to be self-actualized than are other people. Mystics also are more likely to have had "peak experiences," experiences in which the person feels a sense of ecstasy and oneness with the universe. Although his hierarchy of needs sounds appealing, researchers have had difficulty finding support for his theory.
An important criticism that Maslow leveled at psychology concerned scientists' efforts to keep values out of their work. Most psychologists see this as an attempt to avoid bias, but to Maslow it reflects a lack of value for things that are important. According to Maslow, a science without values can not be used to show that murder or genocide is bad. This can be remedied by adopting a broader approach to the subject matter, and by concerning ourselves with people's choices and values.
One outgrowth of Maslow's work is what has become known as Transpersonal Psychology, in which the focus is on the spiritual well-being of individuals, and values are advocated steadfastly. Transpersonal psychologists seek to blend Eastern religion (Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.) or Western (Christian, Jewish or Moslem) mysticism with a form of modern psychology. Frequently, the transpersonal psychologist rejects psychology's adoption of various scientific methods used in the natural sciences.
The influence of the transpersonal movement remains small, but there is evidence that it is growing. I suspect that most psychologists would agree with Maslow that much of psychology -- including the psychology of religion -- needs an improved theoretical foundation.
Erikson is best known for his theory of psychological development, which has its roots in the psychoanalytic importance of identity in personality. Erikson believed that proper psychological development occurs in a series of eight stages, which must follow a specific sequence. Associated with each stage is a positive resolution of an identity conflict, a "virtue," or a negative failure to resolve the conflict, a "pathology." A positive resolution to the conflict helps prepare the person to move on to address challenges of the next conflict. Erikson's theory places most of the emphasis on the first two decades of life, with six of the eight stages happening by young adulthood. Still, Erikson is noted for extending the notion of development into adulthood.
His biographies of Gandhi and Luther reveal Erikson's positive view of religion. He considered religions to be important influences in successful personality development because they are the primary way that cultures promote the virtues associated with each stage of life. Religious rituals facilitate this development. Erikson's theory has not benefited from systematic empirical study, but it remains an influential and well-regarded theory in the psychological study of religion.