Thursday, September 26, 2013

Forgive? Yes. Reconcile? Maybe.

Forgive? Yes. Reconcile? Maybe.

A TODAY story by Rebecca Ruiz has a headline that reads, “How do you forgive a killer? A mother moves past tragedy?” A powerful photo shows Mary Johnson hugging Oshea Israel—the man who murdered her son.  The story includes other examples of people who suffered major hurts but found their way to forgiveness.

Last week I referred to the CNNblog about the Piers Morgan interview with Rick and Kay Warren. I wrote about attributions and coping with loss. But there’s more. There’s a story about forgiveness. But not reconciliation.
Rick “One of the hard things was forgiving the person who sold him the gun... Because I didn't want to forgive him.”
Kay  “I don't want to be tied to that person emotionally for the rest of my life”

Most religions include guidance about relationships and a part of that guidance includes the repair of damaged relationships. In the Christian tradition, forgiveness comes from God. And people are expected to draw upon that love-motivated forgiveness to forgive others. Indeed, Christians view forgiveness as a mandate (Matthew 18: 21-22).

Christian and secular psychologists have conducted numerous studies and offer guidance to the general public as well as counselors. Forgiveness is letting go of the painful, anger-inducing memories that motivate thoughts or even plans for revenge. Hurt people not only avoid the people who hurt them but also avoid dealing with their painful memories. As a consequence, a grudge state ensues and traps the unforgiving person in their past. They are bound to the hurtful person. They are not free. The goal --help people let go of the past—let go of the memories—the feelings, thoughts, and avoidance so they can be free to focus on the present and the future.
Unforgiveness binds people to their offender.

Researchers like Ev Worthington and Robert Enright have made the point that forgiveness is not condoning, denying, excusing, forgetting or pardoning an offender. When researchers offer such guidance it is because they hope to straighten out confused thinking that can become barriers to forgiveness. It is so easy to hold on to the past and so hard to let go. We naturally demand justice. Some think we “let a person off the hook” with forgiveness. But that’s not what forgiveness means.
When victims forgive, they receive release from the pain.
And the power the offender had over them.

But now I wonder if psychologists have done too good of a job of convincing people to let go. Here’s what I mean. If we brush off the past too quickly and move ahead, we can buy trouble. What kind of trouble? A quick assessment that does not dig deeply to identify the hurts can leave some ugly diseased memories that will come back the next time some story or other trigger causes the emotional pain to flare up. Avoid the setback caused by quick and surface forgiveness. We need to take time to assess the damage in detail and be sure we have released the anger. People need to get their "pound of flesh," says my friend, psychologist, Grant Jones. I’m not saying people have to see a psychotherapist— people just need to be sure to get at the heart of the pain and truly let it go. Indeed, some psychotherapy sessions get pretty intense following a major hurt. Powerful emotions can appear when therapists help clients express deep seated anger as if talking to the offender or writing a letter-- a letter that one should never mail. But hurtful experiences are different and people respond in different ways. Some people are more sensitive than others. So a major hurt for one person may be less for another. Assessing the hurt is an individual thing.

 The confusion over forgiveness and reconciliation continues. Psychologists insist forgiveness happens inside a person. Forgiveness is for our health and well-being. It frees us up. It is personal and does not involve the person who hurt us. That works well when the offender is dead but when the offender is part of our family or workplace then what? If you are a religious person—do you really think your faith teaches you to just forgive and not interact with that person ever again? I admit that it makes good sense to work on forgiveness—letting go of that horrid set of thoughts and feelings that are disturbing. But a lot of people believe forgiveness means you have to interact with the offender—at least tell the person you forgave them. I think this is a big part of the problem for a lot of people. The problem is the confusion over forgiving and reconciling.

In 2000, a researcher, Jason Kanz, reported that most of his college student sample thought forgiveness included reconciliation.
I have some more data. I admit it isn’t much but two graduate students, Jaimée Allman and  Jennifer Krause helped me get some answers. One of the questions we asked two groups of people was: 
“I think true forgiveness means you also reconcile with the person who offended you.” 
We asked people to indicate their agreement or disagreement. And here are the numbers. In one sample (Christian university),72.2% agreed with the statement. In the other sample (community college), 81.9% agreed.

So, in the minds of a lot of people forgiveness is bound up with reconciliation. My take is it will be hard for people to forgive abusers and murderers if they believe they must also reconcile with the offender. And when many people write about forgiveness, they often report on acts of reconciliation and do not separate the acts of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Reconciliation can be a matter of life and death. Forgiving an abusive person is a good idea. Let go of the past and move on. But reconciling with a person who has not changed and will likely continue on a path of violence is dangerous. This is the common sense behind the idea of separating the two concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation. Let go of the hurt. But assess the risk of harm before reconciling with an offender. Sometimes we need someone else to help us be objective.

So most scholars agree, Christians are expected to forgive others—even multiple times. There is no similar mandate to reconcile. But I suspect the common belief many hold that forgiveness entails reconciliation has to do with the command to love others. Love motivates forgiveness. Love of others motivates a movement toward others. Love leads to reconciliation. Now love can bind people to others in a faith community for the good of all. I get that. In communities where’s there’s good faith and plenty of trust, it is a good idea to forgive inwardly and look at the offender in a new way. But wisdom surely sets boundaries. Those who seek to abuse and destroy others cannot be in the same community as long as they remain bent on destruction. It seems so obvious—until you see people working to love and forgive and being re-victimized by those who prey upon the vulnerable. So I write,
Forgive? Yes! Reconcile? Maybe.
Mary Johnson hugging Oshea Israel, beautiful.
But not all stories end that way.

Two recommendations:
A book for a general audience by Robert Enright Forgiveness is a Choice
A book for Christians by Ev Worthington, Forgiving and Reconciling.
[Disclosure: Ev Worthington is a friend. I do not know Robert Enright. I do not receive funds for these recommendations.]

For more news on Psychology and Religion, Like / follow on

Kanz, J. E. (2000). How do people conceptualize and use forgiveness? The forgiveness attitudes questionnaire. Counseling & Values, 44, 174-189.

Sutton, G. W. (2010). The Psychology of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Restoration: Integrating Traditional and Pentecostal Theological Perspectives with Psychology. In M. Mittelstadt & G. W. Sutton (eds). Forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration: Multidisciplinary studies from a Pentecostal perspective. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.

Sutton, G. W. & Mittelstadt, M. W. (2012). Loving God and loving others: Learning about love from psychological science and Pentecostal perspectives. Journal of Christianity and Psychology, 31, 157-166.

Worthington, E. L. (2006). Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Theory and application. New York, NY: Routledge.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Suicide: A Pastor's voice

"I have cried every single day since Matthew died…"

September 17, 2013. In an emotional interview with Piers Morgan, Pastor Rick Warren and his wife, Kay responded to questions about their son’s suicide in April 2013.

Because he is a well-known Evangelical Pastor, I expect Rick Warren to turn to God for support. But I also expect him to be real. To show his emotions. To be one of us. And he was. And so was Kay. And it was clear that Kay and Rick supported each other.

In my previous post I wrote about attributions. Ironically, I referred to people with a purpose having no clue the author of The Purpose Driven Life would offer a powerful story a week later. And not surprisingly, I found a mix of attributions as Rick and Kay spoke about the tragic suicide of their son. I also found evidence of another powerful explanatory theory, coping theory. KennethPargament explains coping theory so well in The Psychology of Religion and Coping.

“Everything that happens in the world God allows, he permits, 
because it couldn't happen without his permission.” 
Rick sets the context for causes of events. Whatever happens, God is there. But in his view, the proximal causes are natural. “My son took his own life. It was his choice.” Such actions are not predetermined. In this view of human nature, people are causal agents. They have choices. And there is another cause. When asked about guns, The Warrens were thankful California had tight gun laws because those laws interfered with access to a lethal weapon. So laws can be a natural factor too.
And there was the gun seller: “One of the hard things was forgiving the person who sold him the gun... Because I didn't want to forgive him.” So here too we see another causal agent—the seller. And this seller appeared to be a responsible agent for he is identified as one Rick struggled to forgive. In the clips I saw, no other person was identified as a person who needed to be forgiven. Forgiveness is a powerful way to cope with loss.

“I never questioned my faith in God. I questioned God's plan.”
How do Christian beliefs help people cope? A few quotes are helpful here.
“Grief is a good thing. It's the way we get through the transitions of life."
“I know God is a good God.”
“But we live in a world where there are free choices, so if I choose to do wrong, I can't blame God for that. So God isn't to blame for my son's death.
And there is a blessed hope. Kay quoted 1 Corinthians 15:43 Clearly, in addition to prayer and support from many, they turned to the Bible and found encouragement in the hope of Christians for ultimate healing, the resurrection.

As they retold the sequence of events leading up to the realization that Matthew had died, Kay and Rick shared the tension and the horrible feeling of being out of control. What more can loving parents do? Laws protect the privacy of our mental health records and our freedom from being held against our will. And Matthew set a boundary trap- a threat- if his parents called the police.

Parents like Rick and Kay love their children. Yet even love is not enough strong enough. “If love could have kept my child alive, he'd be alive today, because he was incredibly loved.”

As long as the Warrens continue to live out their faith in such a public and authentic way, they will help so many find ways to cope with death and other life tragedies. As well as that horrible feeling of being out of control. Resuming life following powerful losses tests the limits of so many. Although most turn to their faith, others turn away from God. Leaders like Rick and Kay offer models to the faithful. Models of effective coping.  And ways to find a path to God’s sustenance. Some Christians do not share the same beliefs. Other people find solace in other religious practices and words of comfort. More comments on how people responded to the Warrens can be tracked on twitter at #WarrensOnCNN

Mental Illness
In this interview, not a lot was said about mental illness. Apparently Matthew had a long history of mental illness and had sought professional help. But it wasn’t enough. Yet a timely and interesting poll by Lifeway Research found half of American Evangelicals expressed a powerful curative attribution for mental illness: Prayer and Bible Study alone can cure a serious mental illness. This is a topic for another post.

A reflection
When it comes to dealing with tragedy, it helps to have leaders show the way. We don’t expect our leaders to have all the answers but we search for meaning. And a way to lessen the pain of loss. It helps to know the tears go on and on. It’s comforting to think we might find some purpose. Some way to redeem a lost life. To do good in their name. And so the Warrens set up a foundation in Matthew’s name.

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What do you think of Rick and Kay’s story?
How does your faith help you cope with loss?
If you are an agnostic or atheist, what beliefs or practices help you cope with loss?
Constructive comments and corrections are welcome.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

People with a Purpose

How religious people create meaning

God let me live for a purpose.
I know God has a plan for my life.
But for the grace of God, there go I.
All things work together for good…
That’s a sign from God that we need to repent or ...

Religious and spiritual people have attributed life events to God or gods, or other supernatural forces for millennia. Attribution theory is one of the leading social and cognitive psychology theories in the psychology of religion that helps guide research.

Attributions explain life events

We attribute positive outcomes like winning a game or lottery and getting a plum job and negative outcomes such as vehicle accidents, house fires, and the life changing powerful tsunamis, tornadoes and earthquakes to natural causes or to supernatural interventions. We explain events based on a sense of how it happened. When perplexed, many spiritual people seek answers from God or their spiritual advisers. The clergy appear on TV and issue pronouncements following a tragedy. Some warn of God's wrath. Some call for repentance. Others encourage a focus on more natural causes and guide people toward resources.

Why do people make attributions?

There are three reasons people make attributions. Attributions are tied to our ability to survive and adapt. Attributions help us cope with life events.

1. Meaning- People have a strong need for answers about why things happen and how are things and people connected. When we understand causes we might be able to identify cures or fixes. Clergy and others offer answers to account for the bad things in life. People say, "I don't understand why God..." And clergy and friends offer answers.

2. Adequacy- People seek a personal sense of worth, esteem, and capability. We require a basic sense of adequacy to stay in the game and keep trying in the face of adversity. Clergy and friends provide support and encourage people to trust in God or spiritual beings to make up for human weaknesses. 

3. Control- People need to feel that they can do something about whatever has happened. If I can’t make a difference, I might as well give up. Why try? So people look for ways to gain mastery. Clergy and friends often encourage people to pray. When disaster strikes, people are reminded that any small gift helps so even poor people give what they have. Prayer and donations are ways people seek to overcome the helplessness and lack of control that accompanies so many life events like tornadoes, automobile accidents, deadly diseases, and attacks from highly armed gangs and militia.
Ancient Greeks sought answers at Delphi

What kind of attributions are common?

Two categories sum up most of the attributions people give. This is from the perspective of the psychology of religion.

1. Naturalistic explanations (attributions). Most contemporary westerners rely on explanations like bad brakes, diseases, healthy living, and learned skills to explain outcomes and risks. If natural attributions fail, some turn to the supernatural.

2. Religious/spiritual explanations (attributions). Many people attribute causes of events to spiritual activity. Sometimes people offer both natural and spiritual explanations. For example, Pentecostals used to hold healing services at outdoor meetings. And many old-timers relied on God alone to heal. More recently, they pray for God to guide physicians when having a risky surgery or seeking a diagnosis. And students pray for God to help them with the challenge of school exams.  Athletes point to the sky to attribute their success to God.
Bricks from a destroyed Assemblies of God church offer meaning to members surviving the Greensburg, KS tornado.

How do people choose between
 natural and religious attributions?

Two groups of factors.
1. One group includes several features of a person’s external environment—situations and the events themselves.
2. A second group includes characteristics of the person—dispositions, attitudes, and personality traits or patterns.

   External:  Situations influence attributions

Research indicates that most, but not all, intense religious experiences occur when people are involved in a religious activity or setting. The social context matters. It’s not just the place but the people that are there as well. Consider the contrast between people worshiping with others in a religious service compared to the same people enjoying a sporting event at a local pub.

Another aspect of context is salience. Symbols and cues can make a difference. If there are religious symbols or expressions that remind people of spiritual ideas then those ideas will be available in memory hence the availability hypothesis also called the availability heuristic. In a sense, people "shoot from the hip" -- people select a mentally available and plausible explanation.

   External:  Event characteristics influence attribution
The event to be explained—motorcycle accident, cancer, death of a child or loved one—affects how people search for meaning.

   1. Importance. People identify importance in different ways. Events that are life threatening and hard to explain are more likely to lead to religious attributions. The phrase, act of God, expresses this idea. Both good and bad events are often seen as God’s will. A person who survived a car wreck may say, “God saved me for a purpose.” Though the loved ones of any that died are left to wonder why God chose one and not the other. When explanations fail, some report, “God works in mysterious ways.” The phrases work for many but others find them annoying --especially when an important event evokes powerful emotions. 

   2. Positive-Negative valuation. Most positive outcomes of events are attributed to God. Even long-term disabilities can be valued positively if people believe God has a plan for their life or a lesson to learn. Some attribute negative events to God. They may believe that God has punished them or their nation.

   3. Category. Some common, low threat events are usually attributed to natural causes like human error or investing extra time and energy to achieve a short-term goal. Finding God’s will for a life partner is often on the mind of those looking for a spouse. If it works out, they may look back and share how God brought them together—the proverbial match made in heaven. Events that are vague and hard to control are likely candidates for religious attribution. Though I am aware of many who attribute finding a parking place to God’s personal attention. Such a boost to self-esteem.

Internal: Personal characteristics. In a previous post I referred to six dimensions of functioning. Researchers have identified several factors that can be reviewed within that six part rubric.

   Spirituality or religiosity. The stronger a person’s spiritual heritage, the more likely they will report religious experiences and conversion. They know their beliefs and use religious language to explain how God is at work in their life. We might say their faith is integrated into their life.

   Cognition. Children learn the language of their faith at an early age. The vocabulary is stored in memory along with scriptural quotes, and inspiring stories. Music and art and ritual strengthen the memories. In a religious home surrounded by religious family and friends, their minds are full of spiritual words and images. A mind full of scripture is ready to interpret life from the perspective of that faith. 

   Observable behavior patterns, attitudes, or personality traits. People appear to make attributions that support their sense of self-worth or self-esteem. High self-esteem is linked to positive and loving images of God. Negative opinions of oneself may also be consistent with attributing troubling events to God’s judgment or a need for redemptive work to address personal sin.

Another dimension of personality is internal versus external locus of control. An internal locus emphasizes a personal sense of control. An external locus views control as outside oneself. Kenneth Pargament and others have included God as a factor in control and conceive of passive and active interactions between individuals and their God. In a collaborative relationship both the person and God are active in controlling events. This is like a covenant relationship. A passive person may defer to an active God. An active person may view God as passive—perhaps close to the idea, “God helps those who help themselves.”

Physiological or biological experiences. In the Christian Bible, the apostle Paul wrote about his thorn in the flesh-- some condition that God would not remove. Jesus corrected the thinking of Pharisees who attributed a young man's blindness to sin and asked Jesus to identify the source of sin. There's little doubt that one's physical status affects other parts of our system. When life threatening events are personal--biological-- people want immediate answers.

Emotions. I speculate that attributions are compatible with how a person feels about the event. Negative attributions would be associated with feeling depressed or angry and may include severe anxiety. Positive attributions evoke joy and pleasurable feelings. A warmth that might be viewed as godly love.

The forgoing five dimensions of a person's SCOPE of functioning occur within a Social context as noted in the section before the five personal dimensions. For more on the SCOPES model see my previous post.

Hood, R.W., Jr., Hill, P.C., & Spilka, B. (2009). The psychology of religion: An empirical approach (4th ed). New York: Guilford.
Paloutzian, R.F. (1996). Invitation to the psychology of religion. (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Pargament, K. I. (1997). The psychology of religion and coping: Theory, research, practice. New York: Guilford.
Spilka, B., Shaver, P., & Kirkpatrick, L.A. (1985). A general attribution theory for the psychology of religion. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 24, 1-118.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

10 Reasons to Study the Psychology of Religion

10 Reasons to Study the Psychology of Religion

Most of the world’s 7-billion people are religious. And religious beliefs and rituals touch so many aspects of life. Regardless of a person’s religious or spiritual beliefs, here are 10 reasons I think all people should study the psychology of religion.
Chart based on data from; Percentages rounded

1. Birth. Most people are excited to welcome a baby into the world. Soon after the precious child arrives, the family gathers to celebrate the birth in a religious ceremony. The child may be christened, dedicated, or circumcised. Religious families make a commitment to care for the child and raise the child in their faith.

2. Death. People die and religious people gather to honor the dead in a religious ceremony. The living mourn their loved one but many look to the day when they will be reunited. People who were in pain are said to be better off in a realm beyond death where this is no pain. Friends and relatives of the deceased comfort the mourners with reminders that the loved one is now with God or with other ancestors. Some religions guide adherents in how to bury their dead and how long to mourn. Some religions require burial and others permit cremation. There are honorable and dishonorable ways to treat dead bodies and the places of the dead.

3. Disaster. Hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, and tsunamis destroy peoples’ lives. And people all over the world turn to God or gods seeking comfort and support. Others are motivated to help because of their religious beliefs. For some, helping with food, clothing, medical needs, and shelter are expressions of ministry. For others, the same activities are a means to win the needy to their religious beliefs.

4. Gender roles. Many religions describe acceptable roles for women and men in society, in religious ceremonies and organizations, and within families. Ancient religions often restricted religious leadership to men in civil and religious positions. Also, men were usually the heads of households and designated to be responsible for their wives, children, and other persons such as slaves. Some religions have changed to affirm more egalitarian roles for women. The variations in approved roles are considerable as is the degree to which people follow the teachings of their religious tradition. Gender distinctions often involve acceptable forms of clothing that are different for women and men. To violate certain roles or forms of clothing is to sin and put one’s eternal life in jeopardy.

5. Health. Many religions offer guidance for healthy living. Certain foods and practices should be avoided. Drunkenness is a sin as are other excesses. Things that destroy the body may be regarded as sinful so the abuse of drugs becomes a matter of right living. Some religious groups limit what types of medical care are acceptable and what types are not. Some groups prefer to rely on prayer. Others groups encourage people to combine modern medicine with prayer. Some groups encourage fasting or prescribe rules for fasting and feasting.

6. Life. Religious teachings govern so much of daily life for so many. Some teachings set specific guidelines for daily prayers. Daily scripture reading is often encouraged as well as regular times to gather with other believers in worship or other religious practices. Of course, many of the holy days within a week (e.g., Sabbath, Sunday) or throughout the year mark special occasions when the faithful observe special diets, feasts, and other forms of celebration. Prayers, songs, and dances are often associated with special days. 

7. Marriage and divorce. Marriage ceremonies bring families together for a time of celebration. Many marriage ceremonies are presided over by a religious leader who performs religious rituals such as prayer and scripture reading. Religious songs may mix with secular songs. Religions also offer teachings that promote faithfulness in marriage. Religious leaders usually discourage divorce. Finally, religions offer guidance on the forms of marriage such as one man and one woman or polygamy. And more recently, some religious groups changed their traditions to approve same-sex marriages. For more on marriage, See previous posts.

8. Meaning. Religions offer a broad basis for meaning often in the form of ancient stories, poems, and proverbs spanning centuries of time. And religious teachings often advise people on a meaningful life in this world and beyond. One psychological theory relevant to an understanding of meaning is attribution theory. Religious people often attribute good outcomes to God or gods and evil outcomes to people, punishment from God or gods, or evil sources such as the devil in Christianity. Religious traditions often answer the why questions, which are beyond the observable world described by science.

9. Sex. Religions offer guidance about right relationships. A common teaching is the blessing of sexual relationships within marriage and strong prohibitions against adultery. Some teach that sex is for procreation whilst other religious traditions celebrate a broader sense of the joy of sex. Some religions prohibit contraception. Others limit the type of contraception.

10. War. Throughout history, many groups of people have fought wars in the names of their gods. In some cases, warring groups professed to serve the same god. Before going to war, nations or religious people seek the blessing of protection from their gods. Victories over enemies are attributed to a nation's god. And defeat may be attributed to sinful living or the forces of evil. In some cases, the god of the victorious nation or tribe was seen as more powerful. Some groups believe war is wrong and seek to avoid military service on religious grounds. Religious teachings warn against murder-- often taken to mean the killing of people from one's own tribe. But religious teaching is also used to justify killing others as ordered by God.

Religion can be a matter of life and death.

For news stories about psychology and religion see

Most of these general ideas came from The Psychology of Religion by Ralph Hood, Jr., Peter C. Hill, and Bernard Spilka (2009). Published by The Guilford Press, NY.

For a report on the percentage of people affiliated with different world religions, see There is a report of their research along with details about the different groups such as the folk religious grouping. Full web page link