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 pew.forum.org; 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 https://www.facebook.com/PsychologyReligion

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 www.pewforum.org. There is a report of their research along with details about the different groups such as the folk religious grouping. Full web page link http://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/

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