Friday, January 31, 2014

Rape and Religion


What can 

Earlier this month, January, 2014, major news sources told of a gang rape of a young Hindu Indian woman who violated village norms by having an affair with a married Muslim man and did not pay her portion of the fine. President Obama called. Recently, newly elected problem of predatory priests within the worldwide Catholic church, which of course is not alone among religious groups dealing with the problem of predatory clergy. The U.S. high rate of rape within the U.S. military. Laws against rape are close to universal. But rape happens. And rape happens often.


The Bible contains classic tales of romantic love as in the story of Isaac who was smitten with love for Rebekah whom he met at the local watering hole (Genesis 24). But there are also horrific stories of rape and laws about rape. I’ll reference one story as evidence. A man on a trip offered his concubine as a substitute for himself to local men who were insisting this traveler-guest’s local host give up his male guest so the male villagers could have sex with him. The details can be found in Judges 19. The woman was raped and abused through the night and left barely alive outside the house.

In ancient Israel, a man who sexually violated a young woman was required to compensate her father and treat the woman as his wife (Exodus 22:16-17Deuteronomy 22: 28-29). Though many condemn the apostle Paul for his limitations on the role of women in the church, others find evidence of progress in his push for loving and respectful treatment of women in his admonishments to husbands to love their wives (e.g., Ephesians 5: 25). Rape has been a problem throughout recorded history. Religious and spiritual leaders deal with sexual assault in many ways. They recount the horrors or rape, make laws against rape, warn of punishments both in life and eternity, and encourage people to seek sexual satisfaction in the context of a loving marital relationship.

Different cultures define rape in different ways. In the U.S., the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) revised their legal definition in 2012. Different definitions can lead to higher or lower crime statistics.  Here’s the definition: “The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” (FBI, 2012, January 6)


A scientific understanding of human nature involves an examination of biological and psychosocial influences. Sometimes, better understanding leads to policies to control violent behavior. Some confuse understanding with condoning or excusing behavior. Psychologists seek to promote rather than decrease well-being. 

Whatever is true about human nature does not mean behavior ought to be permitted or excused.

Psychological scientists (See William McKibbin and others 2008 reference below) have drawn upon the principles of evolution to explain behavior but human behavior patterns are complex. And rape is a complex behavior. Understanding complex behaviors requires an understanding of natural selection and the development of brain structures and circuits (that is, mechanisms) that interact to produce complex behavior patterns. In terms of sexual activity, adaptive patterns of behavior would persist when they led to reproductive success. Any set of adaptive patterns depends on the interaction of many brain-based psychological mechanisms.

Rapists have always faced costs. If men with a high biological propensity to rape have persisted, it would appear that they have impregnated many women throughout history and that whatever penalties existed, they were insufficient to eliminate or significantly reduce rape. From an evolutionary standpoint, rapists would target young women as victims because the likelihood of conception is highest for women in the early to mid-20s. And in fact, the primary victims of rape are young women. Of concern are the admissions by men that under certain circumstances about a third would commit rape.

It is obvious that people have a persistent and pervasive drive to have sexual relations. But under what combination of male characteristics and situations would a man rape rather than seek consent? McKibbins and others (see below) have studied the research and suggest five types of rapists. Each type is understood in terms of internal motivations and situations. These are hypotheses which will require further study and likely modification or rejection as scientists seek to understand why men rape.

Five Types of Rapists

1. Disadvantaged men. These men have limited ways to obtain sex with a consenting woman. The evidence comes from data indicating most rapes are committed by men with low socioeconomic status.

2. Specialized rapists. Researchers have found that men incarcerated for rape are more aroused by violent and coercive sex than are men who do not rape. Other data suggest these men may act as if they were competing against others because they appear to ejaculate quickly and they appear to impregnate women at high rates.
The pregnancy rate from rape (6%) may be twice that of pregnancy rates (3%)
from consensual sex (Gottschall & Gottschall, 2003).

3. Opportunist rapists. These men appear able to detect when women are vulnerable and the risks of retaliation or punishment are low. A well-known aspect of war is the rape of women by male warriors, which is found in biblical sources as well as accounts of modern wars. Some scientific support can be found in evidence that women who have an adult relative nearby is less likely to be raped than those without such a family member.

4. High-mating-effort rapists. Psychopathic traits characterize these rapists who tend to have long histories of sexual activity. For these men, social context may have less influence because they force women to have sex in many situations. Early sexual promiscuity and early sexual experience is a predictor. 
The risk of date rape is higher under three conditions.
            1. The man initiated the date
            2. The man spent money on the woman
            3. The man provided the transportation.

5. Partner rapists. These rapists appear to respond to perceived competition. Partner rape accounts for a large percentage of rapes. 
As many as 26% of married women have reported rape. 

And until recently, married men were assumed to have the right to sex with their wives without consent. The research suggests that these rapes are more likely when a man knows or suspects his wife or partner has been unfaithful. Men are more aroused by sexual images suggesting a competitive situation.


There is so much more to be learned about rapists and rape victims. And we need to know effective methods for protecting all persons from sexual violence. The consequences of sexual violence are largely born by girls and young women. The effects are many and include physical and emotional trauma, which can last for years. Many must cope with infectious diseases for life. Religious beliefs about contraception can influence the rate of pregnancy following rape. Religious beliefs about abortion obviously influence how a girl or woman manages her pregnancy.

In most religions, clergy are men. And most rapists are men. Beliefs about rapists, clergy, sex, women, psychopathology, and psychology can influence how well a religious group identifies clergy predators, investigates reports of sexual violence, acts to protect victims or high risk persons from initial and repeated sexual violence, and cares for the victims of abuse. In addition, religious beliefs will likely influence what a group does for women who are pregnant as a result of sexual violence regardless of the perpetrator. In the U.S., the cost of having a child and raising a child is expensive and rising.

A challenge for religious organizations will be to learn more about human sexuality and sexual violence. Many religious groups have policies and programs in place. These should be evaluated for effectiveness. 

Another challenge for readers is to check the website of their faith group and see what resources are available for members who are victims of sexual violence. Students and parents of students can do the same search at their school websites. Where resources are lacking, an opportunity is available.

I will include some references and other resources below.

Links to related posts
Relationship Betrayal a post about infidelity, including emotional betrayal
Lessons from Sodom A post about the demand for sex by the people of Sodom
Love A post about spiritual and other dimensions of love
Apologies following clergy sexual abuse a post about the problem of clergy abuse and the problem of apologies

Links to Resources
There are many resources on the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention CDC Sexual Violence Page. And they offer links to other organizations and resources.
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence NCADV.
One religious resource is FaithTrust Institute (A Multifaith organization)
A Catholic Resource can be found at 

Gottschall, J.A. & Gottschall, T.A. (2003). Are per-incident rape-pregnancy rates higher than per-incident consensual pregnancy rates? Human Nature, 14, 1-20. Link

McKibbin, W. F., Shackelford, T. K., Goetz, A. T., & Starratt, V. G. (2008). Why do men rape? An evolutionary psychological perspective. Review of General Psychology, 12, 86-97. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.12.1.86 (This article includes extensive references to research.)

Sutton, G. W., McLeland, K. C., Weaks, K. Cogswell, P. E., & Miphouvieng, R. N. (2007). Does gender matter? An exploration of gender, spirituality, forgiveness and restoration following pastor transgressions. Pastoral Psychology. 55, 645-663. doi 10.1007/ s11089-007-0072-3

Thomas, E. K., & Sutton, G.W. (2008). Religious leadership failure: Forgiveness, apology, and restitution. Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 10, 308-327.

Thomas, E. K., White, K., & Sutton, G.W. (2008). Religious leadership failure: Apology, responsibility-taking, gender, forgiveness, and restoration. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 27, 16-29.

Sutton, G. W., & Thomas, E. K. (2005). Can derailed pastors be restored? Effects of offense and age on restoration. Pastoral Psychology, 53(6), 583-599. doi: 10.1007/s11089-005-4822-7.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Can optimism lead to a better marriage?


Can optimism lead to a better marriage?

A recent study suggests that one type of optimism is helpful and another type is not so helpful. In their review of research, Lisa Neff of the University of Texas at Austin and Andrew Geers of the University of Toledo, reported an emerging belief that optimistic expectations would promote better relationships because people should be motivated to overcome difficulties.

In a previous post I reviewed some research on optimism and spirituality. Most religions strongly support marriage. In this post I look at a study about optimism in a marriage.

When there is conflict, optimists are more constructive and they ending up feeling more satisfied with the outcome of the conflict. Also, the relationship has a better chance of survival.

In a 2-year study, optimists had fewer drops in satisfaction than did pessimists.

So what’s not to like about optimism?

Some research suggests that expecting great outcomes can create a false sense of security, which prevents people from working on troublesome issues. Sometimes overoptimistic people act like everything will work out okay. This neglectful attitude can let problems worsen. In this case, optimism is a liability—not an asset.

How might optimism be helpful?
    If couples find that experiences confirm their expectations then a positive upward spiral can develop.

What’s the difference between general and specific optimism?
         General optimism is like a disposition or a personality trait.
“Overall, I expect more good things to happen to me than bad,” or
“ I’m always optimistic about my future”
Examples of specific optimism focused on a relationship are:
 "I expect my partner and I will always communicate well,” or
“I expect my partner and I will always be affectionate with one another”

Some details of the current study
The researchers recruited newlywed couples who were in their first marriage and had been married less than 6 months. There were 61 couples. On average, the wives were 23.5 years old and the husbands were 25.6 years old. Most couples identified themselves as Christian (64%), white (85%) with incomes in the range of $25,000 to $35,000 per year.

The couples completed questionnaires early on and at two follow up periods—6-months and 1-year.

So what happened?
Those with high dispositional optimism consistently participated in more constructive contributions to solving problems. And those low in optimism reduced their problem-solving ability.

In contrast with general dispositional optimism, optimism focused on the relationship was a liability. When there were problems to resolve, those low on relationship focused optimism performed better than those high on relationship optimism. Things were worse for those with high relationship optimism when couples faced serious challenges.

Spouses with higher dispositional optimism were more stable in marital satisfaction levels.  Those higher in relationship focused optimism began at a high level of marital satisfaction but ended up with steeper declines as the relationship continued.

This high level of initial optimism and steep declines finding is interesting because of research indicating couples high in love and affection that drops off considerably during the first year are at high risk for divorce.

It is not clear from this study what level of optimism is best. Older research on optimism suggests a moderate level of optimism is best (Baumeister, 1989).


Neff, L.A. & Geers, A.L. ( 2013). Optimistic expectations in early marriage: A resource of vulnerability for adaptive relationship functioning, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105, 38-60.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Overcoming Prejudice Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Baptist minister as were his father and grandfather. He was born 15 January, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. According to, Martin Luther King Jr. was influenced by theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. Following the arrest of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. met with other leaders to plan a bus boycott. In 1959, Martin Luther King Jr. visited Gandhi’s birthplace in India.  The experience influenced his focus on nonviolent activism.


American religion is as clear as black and white. For centuries, religious groups were divided by color. As recently as 1998, nearly 50% of U.S. congregations were primarily made up of one racial group.

In 2013, LifeWay Research conducted a phone survey of Protestant Pastors between September 4-19. Most (86 percent) say their congregation is predominately one racial or ethnic group.

American Religion and Prejudice Against African Americans

Deborah Hall, David Matz, and Wendy Wood conducted a meta-analytic review of research between 1964 and 2008. The studies mostly included White Christians in the USA.
Here’s a summary of key findings.
  • People who strongly identify with their religious community (in-group identity) were highly likely to have negative attitudes toward racial groups outside of their group.
  • Acceptance of people who were different was primarily focused on people within their religious group.
  • Only agnostics or those with a "quest orientation" toward religion were racially tolerant.

Here’s a quote from page 134.
Stronger religious identification seemed to organize people’s social perceptions in much the same way as other social identities, leading the religious to respond to diverse others as outgroup members. As noted in the introduction, this perception might reflect the practice of religion largely within race such that race serves as a proxy for religious group identity. Furthermore, religious groups may promote ethnocentrism by sharply differentiating between believers and nonbelievers.
Christianity and Prejudice: An Experiment

Researchers Megan Johnson, Wade Rowatt, and Jordan LaBouff at Baylor University conducted two experiments to assess the effects of presenting people with Christian Religious ideas on increased racial prejudice. This technique called priming, has subtle but measurable effects on attitudes. As the authors point out, just holding a cup of hot coffee can increase thoughts (prime) that other people are warm – having generous or caring characteristics. When people are primed to be polite vs. rude, the polite primed people interrupted less. In some religious studies, groups of people were asked to list the three greatest events in history. Those primed with Christian words listed more Biblical events than those primed with neutral words. Many studies support the use of priming.

Johnson and her colleagues conducted two experiments using priming. In the first experiment they found that those primed with Christian ideas were more likely to reveal a negative shift in attitudes toward African Americans. Priming with Christian concepts led to more general negative feelings toward African Americans compared to those in the control group. The authors caution that the effects  are small.

In their discussion, Johnson and her colleagues offer the following context for thinking about priming and religion (page 123).

… priming religion increases prosociality (Pichon et al., 2007), generosity (Shariff & Norenzayan, 2007), cooperation (Preston & Ritter, 2009), honesty (Randolph-Seng & Nielsen, 2007), and problem-solving effort (Uhlmann et al., 2009) and decreases moral hypocrisy (Carpenter & Marshall, 2009). In contrast, priming religion also increases aggression (Bushman, Ridge, Das, Key, & Busath, 2007), submitting to requests for revenge (Saroglou, Corneille, & Van Cappellen, in press), support for terrorism (Ginges et al., 2009), and altruistic punishment among religious people (McKay, Efferson, & Fehr, 2009). Some experiments are paradoxes within themselves, demonstrating prosociality toward one group and discrimination toward others: Priming religion leads to allocating more money to in-group members than out-group members (Shariff, 2009) and helping religious individuals less than individuals whose
group identity has been made more salient (Randolph-Seng, 2009). These findings suggest that ‘‘religious prosociality is not extended indiscriminately: the ‘dark side’ of within-group cooperation is between-group competition and conflict. The same mechanisms involved in in-group altruism may also facilitate out-group antagonism’’ (Norenzayan & Shariff, 2008, p. 62).

Although negative attitudes based on skin color have improved in the U.S. since the Civil Rights era, problems of prejudice remain. Religious communities composed mostly or exclusively of one racial or ethnic group are likely to continue to view others as outsiders. And outsiders are considered inferior in various ways to insiders. The in-group bias effect is a powerful dynamic.

Including people within a religious group or other group is a primary way for religious organizations to lessen group-based racial or other prejudice. Clergy can call attention to prejudice. Churches can hold workshops on respect for people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. And churches can work to partner with churches whose membership includes persons of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

In 2013, a large number of Americans maintain segregated relationships. According to a Reuters report, "about 40 percent of white Americans and about 25 percent of non-white Americans are surrounded exclusively by friends of their own race..."

The work of researcher Patricia Devine of the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests ways that individuals can change their implicit prejudicial attitudes. Implicit biases are those quick negative responses to people from other racial or ethnic backgrounds. The response is so automatic that people are unaware that they exist. So, the first step is to recognize the bias exists. Next, the person must be concerned about the harmful effects of the bias. Third, the person needs to work at consciously replacing the bias with accepting and welcoming responses consistent with their value system.

If Devine is correct, White American Christians who wished to follow the biblical mandate of loving other persons, would need to become aware of any quick (implicit) negative responses toward Black Americans. Understand the harmful effects of discrimination. And work at warm and friendly responses that are more consistent with the biblical command to love one's neighbor as oneself (Matthew 22: 37-39).

Of course, we do not need to limit our focus to the traditional racial prejudices within the United States. We can take the ideas about in-group bias and overcoming prejudice to promote respectful treatment of all people.

Quest orientation: "Quest components include a readiness to face existential questions without reducing their complexity, a perception of religious doubts as positive, and an openness to future change in one's religious views." See more about Quest and the work of Daniel Batson.

Johnson, M.K., Rowatt, W.C., LaBouff, J. (2010). Priming Christian religious concepts increases racial prejudice. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1, 119-126.

 Hall, D.L., Matz, D.C., & Wood, W. (2010). Why don’t we practice what we preach? A meta-analytic review of religious racism. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14, 126-139.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Life Death and Religious Cultures


Life and Death
 in 2013

The world’s largest religions generally promote a prolife position. Life is valuable from the moment of conception until death. In many countries, people of faith are outspoken about some aspect of life and death. Overall, the world is a less violent place (Pinker, 2011), although it may not seem like it to those in war torn areas or to those who pay attention to news reports without an historical context.

In Western Democracies, prolife has often been thought of in terms of a moral position against abortion. But in the view of many, including my own, prolife describes a culture that values life rather than death. In this summary, the reports offer brief quantitative information with links to sources for those interested in details. What’s missing from many reports is a careful look at the quality of life. This post is a look at the current state of a culture of life around the world. I am also on the lookout for more details about the link between religion and matters of life and death—not just beliefs—but data supported associations.

The USA is largely populated by people who believe in God and identify as Christian. President Ronald Reagan proclaimed the first National Sanctity of Human Life Day on January 22, 1984, which was linked to the 11th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision on abortion. Reagan later designated the third Sunday in January as Sanctity of Human Life Day. I take a look at the data about life in several categories. 

According to the Central Intelligence Agency, (CIA) the US ranked 51st in average life expectancy among listed countries with an average age of 78.62 years. My obvious thesis is that a longer life is one indicator of how much a culture supports life.

The CDC reports data on contraception, which is an obvious indicator of intent to prevent life. The most common type of contraception in the US is the pill for women ages 15-29. The percentage of women age 15 to 44 using the pill is 17.1 percent. And 16.5 percent use female sterilization. For men,  6.2% are sterilized.

In August 2013, the Guttmacher Institute reported that there were 62 million US women of childbearing age (15 to 44). Of these, about 70% were at risk of having an unplanned pregnancy because they are sexually active, do not wish to become pregnant, and are without adequate contraception. The pregnancy odds for couples who do not use contraception is about 85% in a given year. Most US women only want two children, which means they will need to use some form of contraception for nearly three decades. Some data were available based on religious beliefs (, August, 2013):
Some 68% of Catholics, 73% of Mainline Protestants and 74% of Evangelicals who are at risk of unintended pregnancy use a highly effective method (i.e., sterilization, the pill or another hormonal method, or the IUD). Only 2% of at-risk Catholic women rely on natural family planning; the proportion is the same even among those women who attend church once a month or more.
The year 2013 was the 40th anniversary of the U S Supreme Court decisions (Roe v. Wade; Doe v. Bolton) that decriminalized abortion. In recent years, antiabortion groups have engaged in a variety of actions that limit the ability of women to obtain a legal abortion.

Abortion and Faith. According to the Guttmacher Institute: “More than seven in 10 U.S. women obtaining an abortion report a religious affiliation (37% protestant, 28% Catholic and 7% other), and 25% attend religious services at least once a month. The abortion rate for protestant women is 15 per 1,000 women, while Catholic women have a slightly higher rate, 22 per 1,000.”

According to Cheryl Sullenger of Operation Rescue, 2013 was a record year for closing abortion clinics. “The total number of surgical abortion clinics left in the U.S. is now 582. This represents an impressive 12% net decrease in surgical abortion clinics in 2013 alone, and a 73% drop from a high in 1991 of 2,176.

The laws in the 50 US states vary in terms of the rules under which a woman is allowed to obtain an abortion. Guttmacher ( updates text tables that classify the different limitations. Here are some ways the details of state laws are grouped: Physician and hospital requirements; Gestational limits; Partial-birth abortions; Public funding; Coverage by private insurance; Refusal (The right of individuals, hospitals or others to refuse to participate in an abortion); State-mandated counseling for a woman seeking an abortion; Waiting periods (usually 24 hours); Parental involvement (consent, notification). Several states passed laws that increased restrictions in 2013. Several states passed highly restrictive laws in 2013 e.g., Kansas, Texas, North Dakota.

Amnesty International reported 43 US executions in 2012. Capital punishment is legal in 32 states. As of November 20, 2013 CNN reported, 3,108 inmates in 35 states were awaiting execution. In addition, the US government and military have about 63 persons in line for the death penalty. In terms of the world, the US ranked fifth highest in executions in 2012.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC; reports data for U.S. self-inflicted injury and suicides. Emergency department visits for self-inflicted injury were 713,000.  Suicide ranks 10th in causes of death with 38, 364 per recent data (2010). Most completed suicides are due to firearms (19,392). Suicide rates remained high in the US military despite prevention programs.  More people died by suicide than were killed in combat. Through April, 2013, the suicide rate was one suicide every 18 hours. (NBC news).

The U.S. CDC reported the number of visits to emergency departments for treatment following an assault was 2 million. There were 16,259 homicides with most a result of a firearm (11,078).

In a disturbing investigation, the BBC issued a report on child abuse and child death in the United States
  • Every five hours a child dies from abuse or neglect in the US.
  • The latest government figures show an estimated 1,770 children were killed as a result of maltreatment in 2009.
  • A recent congressional report concludes the real number could be nearer 2,500.
  • In fact, America has the worst child abuse record in the industrialised world. Why? The BBC's Natalia Antelava investigates.


The CIA publishes a world fact book. Life expectancy was the highest for Monaco at 89.63 years. And 33 counties had an average life expectancy above 80 years.

 According to the GatesFoundation, “more than 220 million women in developing countries who don’t want to get pregnant lack access to effective methods of contraception and voluntary family planning information and services. Less than 20 percent of women in Sub-Saharan Africa and barely one-third of women in South Asia use modern contraceptives. In 2012, an estimated 80 million women in developing countries had an unintended pregnancy and at least one in four resorted to an unsafe abortion.”

On December 20 news stories reported that the Spanish government acted to tighten restrictions on abortion, which would be allowed only in cases of rape or serious health risks to the mother or the unborn child. According to the BBC, five countries have a total ban on abortion: El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile, Honduras and Dominican Republic.

 In their State of the World report, Amnesty International reported a majority of countries (140; about two-thirds) abolished the death penalty by the end of 2012. Among the world’s industrialized democracies, only the US and Japan retain the death penalty (CNN).

 According to the International Association for Suicide Prevention, at least 100,000 adolescents commit suicide each year. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 24. For a detailed report of suicide in the UK see

A UN report from 2010 put the number of annual deaths due to homicide at 468,000.
Globally, the total number of annual deaths estimated by UNODC to be homicides in 2010 was
468,000. More than a third (36 per cent) of those are estimated to have occurred in Africa, 31 per
cent in the Americas, 27 per cent in Asia, 5 per cent in Europe and 1 per cent in Oceania. When
relating these figures to the population size of each particular region a slightly different picture
emerges showing that the homicide rate in Africa and the Americas (at 17 and 16 per 100,000 population, respectively) is more than double the global average (6.9 per 100,000), whereas in Asia, Europe and Oceania (between 3 and 4 per 100,000) it is roughly half.


The recent health care contraception provisions in the U.S. (Affordable Care Act) brought to light the traditional teaching of the Catholic church, which affirms the sanctity of life and opposes contraception.

Gallup published polling data in 2012 indicating most Americans think birth control is morally acceptable. When moral acceptability was analyzed by religious affiliation, 89% of Catholics and 90% of non-Catholics found contraception morally acceptable.

The Catholic church has consistently affirmed the sanctity of life and taught against abortion. A summary of the positions of the large world religions is available from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. All of the major faith groups oppose abortion. But some include exceptions.

Survey data from PewResearch (2013) indicate about half view abortion as morally wrong in the U.S. The strongest opposition to abortion came from White Evangelical Protestants (75%). Others opposed to abortion by religious group were: Hispanic Catholic 64%; Black Protestant 58%, White Catholic 53%, White mainline Protestant 38%, Unaffiliated 25%.

In a PBS report on suicide, Betty Rollin provided an overview of the history of suicide in Christianity. There are seven biblical accounts of suicide without indications of condemnation. She traced the origin of suicide as sin to St. Augustine. In 1983, Catholics changed the code of canon law permitting a person who died by suicide to have a Catholic funeral and burial. Comments from Rabbi Joseph Ozarowski and Imam Inamul Haq as well as Christian Reverend Jerry Andrews refer to the seriousness of taking one's own life in their faith traditions. The PBS story also focused on the difficulties of survivors in coping with the suicide of a loved one and wondering about their eternal state.

It is hardly newsworthy that religious persons are against murder. But some wonder about euthanasia. The Catholic Church is clear in its opposition to ending the life of another person.

Many people have been concerned about the welfare of animals and the environment. In recent years, some Evangelical Christians have expressed concerns under the banner of Creation Care. Unfortunately, the senseless destruction of animals persists as people desire parts of some animal bodies for unsupported claims of benefits for health or virility. One example is the ivory trade. Other people destroy habitats needed to support life. Still others adopt and abandon pets. There are more issues than I can cover. If you have links to data concerned with life beyond human beings and the environment, please post in a note.

You can find a summary of the positions of the major world religions on the BBC ethics page for euthanasia. Most religions oppose euthanasia

Prolife is about a culture of life.

If you have credible research sources with additional relevant data, please post in a comment with a link.

Friday, January 3, 2014





When I go to the gym today (or maybe tomorrow), I expect the parking lot to be full. This time of year, a lot of people resolve to improve their lives. We want to get healthy and get rid of bad habits. Unfortunately, within a few weeks or months optimism wanes. And many fall back into old ways.


Years ago, Martin Seligman studied depression in animals. His research seemed to suggest that animals “gave up” as if they learned to be helpless. When Seligman and others examined how people thought about circumstances, they detected pessimistic thinking. And in contrast, researchers found positive thinking in others. Seligman has been instrumental in the development of positive psychology and has become well known for his work on learned optimism.


What do we know about learned optimism and life? Here’s a summary from Snyder, Lopez, and Pedrotti’s book on Positive Psychology. People who face life with an optimistic view experience
  1. More productive work records
  2. Greater satisfaction in their relationships
  3. More effective coping with the stress of life
  4. Superior physical health
  5. Better academic performance
  6. Superior athletic performance
  7. Less vulnerability to depression


Researchers find that optimists and pessimists view life’s challenges in different ways. They make different attributions about the causes of bad outcomes and good outcomes. Optimists distance themselves from the negative and connect to the positive. 

When faced with a bad experience, optimists do three things:
1. Link bad outcomes to the actions of other people or events (external attributions)
2. Interpret bad events as unlikely to happen again (low probability attribution)
3. Describe a bad outcome as specific to one situation (specific attribution)

In contrast, pessimists respond as follows:
1. Link bad outcomes to their personal actions (internal attribution)
2. Interpret bad events as typical (constant or stable attribution)
3. Describe a bad outcome as just another example of a negative life (global attribution)

People can change not only their current thinking but their past- well sort of. Dr. Tim Wilson of the University of Virginia has studied how people improve their life functioning when they spend time editing their life stories. When people are encouraged to re-interpret past life events in different ways, their future functioning improves. You have probably had the experience of wishing you had not said or done something or wished you could erase an old memory. It turns out that when people write about their troubling memories and do some editing, they are able to be freed from the negativity. Research indicates that story editing works to help people change the way they see the world and this change in perspective leads to long-term changes in behavior.

Optimism and Religion

Turn on the TV and you will find Christian ministers offering encouragement and words of hope. And you will find other preachers listing the evils in the world and warn of destruction. In tough times, many people turn to their faith to cope. In fact, psychological scientist, Kenneth Pargament has written extensively about religion and coping in his classic book, The Psychology of Religion and Coping. Pargament reviews a great deal of research. In some cases, religious people find their faith helpful-- especially when life’s situations seem beyond their control. Others find their faith insufficient and end up feeling worse or even switching to another faith or no faith at all.

Perhaps it is not surprising to find that people interpret life events in different ways when drawing upon their religious traditions. The biblical story of Job illustrates a number of negative attributions offered to Job by his wife and friends when he struggled to cope with great personal disasters. As readers, we see another perspective. There is a spiritual backdrop to the story—events beyond Job’s control. Bad things do happen to good people.

I have often heard disparaging remarks about Christians, especially young Christians, who seem full of joy and spout bumper-sticker-like slogans about God’s goodness and how they can “do all things through Christ (Philippians 4:13).” Similarly, highly intelligent friends and religious scholars attack those preachers who seem to offer platitudes for life instead of deep theological insights. Years ago, similar disdain could be heard about Norman Vincent Peale (The Power of Positive Thinking; Audio clips) or Robert Schuller (Possibility Thinking). 

Yet many continue to benefit from the messages of hope and optimism and such publications as Guideposts. Indeed, some research shows that the poor and needy often use religion to cope with life’s problems. People seek hope. And hope is linked to optimism. I suspect that the popularity of preachers that offer messages of hope and optimism will continue. Whether shallow or deep, optimistic speakers are meeting a human need.

Perhaps the idea of another perspective is what links religious-based optimism and religious-based pessimism to the growing psychological research on optimism. Perhaps we could all ask, How does our faith link to optimism or pessimism?


Trying to think positively about negative life events can sound silly or even perverse to a person who is depressed and mired in negative thinking—especially if they recently experienced serious losses. To a realist a moderate degree of optimism is optimal for a productive life (Baumeister, 1989).  I have some ideas that may help build optimism. But they won't cure depression. People with depression need professional care.
or a pessimist, optimists can be annoying. Yet there is research suggesting that

Seven ways to build a more optimistic approach to life:

1. Read stories of success. Meditate on stories that show how people overcame challenges in their lives. If you are spiritual, draw upon the stories of faith in your tradition. Many are inspired by those who overcome a tragic life event.

2. Avoid taking excessive responsibility for bad outcomes. Consider the role other people and natural events play in the bad experiences of life. If you are Christian, remember that not all bad things are the result of personal sin or even the evil of those around you. Most things in life have multiple causes.

3. Edit your negative life stories. Learn from the work of Tim Wilson that small changes in our perspective on old life stories can improve current functioning. Why not edit an old script today?

4. Balance exposure to negativity in movies and music with entertainment that is uplifting and offers encouragement.

5. Limit exposure to negativity on social media feeds--and in person. Stop flooding your mind with messages of hate and pessimism. Avoid the trap of thinking a particular leader or other person is 100% evil and can do no good just because some people don’t like some aspect of their politics or social values.

6. Value the concerns of pessimists—especially the intelligent people who can see downside risks. But don’t ignore a focus on possibilities. Pessimists do offer protection from foolhardy plans but they may not always be right. And pessimists may be blind to possibilities.

7. Create an optimistic cue. People need reminders. Learning a new habit—a new way of thinking—requires some effort. Changing habits takes time. Place an object in your car, home, or office. Choose something that will remind you to think of positive outcomes when inclined to dwell on the negative. Perhaps a picture of children or grandchildren will inspire you to think of the future. A photo of an amazing sunset, mountain scene, or favorite awe inspiring waterfall will lift you out of the mundane challenges in an office, home, or routine. An object or gift from a loved one or close friend can boost your spirits. And people of faith can find inspiring quotes to help look beyond personal limitations.

Developing optimism is not a cure-all. People with depression often need professional help. Medication and psychotherapy do help people with depression. Attempts to develop optimism that fail may just make things worse for people with depression when those attempts fail. So, if you know someone who is depressed, do encourage them to get professional help.


Video: Martin Seligman on optimism

Baumeister, R. (1989). The optimal margin of illusion. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 8, 176–189. doi:10.1521/jscp.1989.8.2.176

Pargament. K. I. (1997). The psychology of religion and coping: Theory, research, practice. New York: Guilford.
Snyder, C. R., Lopez, S.J., & Pedrotti, J.T. (2011). Positive psychology: The scientific and practical explorations of human strengths (Second edition). Washington, DC, Sage.

For more videos on positive psychology, see my Positive Psychology Playlist on YouTube