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Gary Schouborg, PhD
Schouborg, Gary (2001).
"Review: The Psychology of Religion: A Short Introduction, by Kate M. Loewenthal. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8 n.1, 90-91.
Kate M. Loewenthal, The Psychology of Religion: A Short Introduction (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2000, x + 182 pp., £9.99, $15.95, ISBN 1-85168-212-0 (pbk).
Anyone inclined to extol religion as teacher of mankind's highest values or to condemn it as cause of holy wars would do well to read The Psychology of Religion to understand both its benefits and its dangers. This small volume is a well-organized book of succinctly identified loose ends. The available empirical evidence does not lend itself to sweeping generalities, but suggests that religion, like other fields of human endeavor, is a mixed bag.
Loewenthal, a Reader in Psychology at the University of London, understands the psychology of religion as the study of religious behavior, thought, and feeling. She argues that the complexity of the field comes primarily from difficulties in defining religion, with many still-unsettled issues of defining, analyzing, and measuring religious parameters. Her frankly empirical approach may disappoint those readers who are more interested in those transcendent aspects of religion that they consider empirically unmeasurable. However, only if their transcendent is completely unrelated to everyday living will they find empirical parameters entirely irrelevant.
Loewenthal acknowledges psychologists’ past hostility to religion, but notes their growing awareness of its benefits as well as pathologies. She observes that the majority of researchers have been Jewish yet have been predominantly focused on Christian forms, but that current researchers increasingly acknowledge this limitation and are broadening their focus and methodology to accommodate religious forms more generally. After discussing these and other relationships between religion and psychology in Chapters One and Two, Loewenthal proceeds to lay out the empirical findings.
Chapter Three discusses religious behavior: prayer and its effects, both real and perceived; religious speech and language; and related social behavior. Chapter Four discusses religious thoughts: belief, changes in belief over one’s lifetime; and faith and its development. Chapter Five discusses religious feelings: their early origins in childhood; positive and negative feelings; and religious-related psychopathology. Chapter Six discusses how religion affects behavior: the relationship of religion to morality, stress, prejudice and identity. Loewenthal notes the paradox that religious commitment is highly correlated with prejudice in spite of its common teaching of universal brotherhood. Identifying with a religious group has both integrating and divisive effects.
Limiting herself to A Short Introduction, Loewenthal's discussion of any topic is necessarily cursory. Specialists may find generalizations to pick at, but within the constraints of her own goals she succeeds admirably in pulling together a wealth of material, providing a balanced view of the available evidence, and carefully noting where there is consensus or controversy and to what degree hypotheses are supported by empirical evidence. She limits itself to chronicling scholars' various studies without discussing their philosophical underpinnings. For example she simply mentions, without further explanation or critical discussion, Spero's "careful argument" that one may need to assume the existence of God in order to explain certain psychological facts.
Two philosophical issues that I would like to see Loewenthal address in further writing are whether transcultural psychological norms of mental health are possible and whether dogmatic forms of religion are necessarily developmentally immature.
In discussing the problem of Western psychology's interpretation of the behavior of other cultures, Loewenthal tells us of a psychologist who, upon seeing "strictly-orthodox Jewish" boys swaying back and forth while praying and studying religious texts, conjectured that they were all disturbed. Loewenthal legitimately criticizes the psychologist for being insensitive to the meaning and function the behavior might have for another culture. However, her briefly stated objection is open to being read as simplistic cultural relativism. Yes, behavior cannot be understood apart from its cultural meaning; but that meaning is embodied: exists in a body that constrains what meanings can be functional, and exists in a culture that might be open to exploring the internal consistency of its norms. Therefore, a behavior’s being culturally approved does not necessarily exclude it from being diagnosed as pathological.
Loewenthal often opposes dogmatism to psychological maturity, defined as "readiness to face complex problems; readiness to doubt and to be self-critical; an emphasis on incompleteness, since mature religion involves a continual search" (137). This assumption begs for more nuance than permitted in A Short Introduction. Consider a dogmatic religion that emphasizes fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding). It absolutely commits itself to certain beliefs but acknowledges that understanding their implication for one’s life is a constantly evolving process. Such a religion might qualify as mature——i.e., as a continual search, but within certain constraints. The character of even the most rigid believers raises interesting philosophical issues. For psychology itself cannot say that their immaturity invalidates their belief. Believers might find psychological “ill health” a price worth paying to gain what they perceive as closeness to God. The moral: psychology can tell us what is developmentally mature, but not what should be the highest human value. That is a matter for philosophical reflection and personal preference.