Why do we shy away from teaching the psycholgy of religion to undergraduates ???

30 Apr

I’ve been thinking this week about why we don’t teach the psychology of religion to undergraduate students. A few things conspired to send me in this direction, a colleague of mine is looking at ‘the teaching of controversial topics’, I’m heading for the end of the academic year and so I’m thinking about new material for next year and finally, I read an excellent article in ‘The New Yorker’ by Gary Marcus on Psychology and Religion. It’s difficult to think of a universal human behavior that we don’t address an undergraduate level, which makes religious belief even more conspicuous by its absence from our curriculum. I’d did think about whether my own institution was odd in some way, but a quick Google search threw up only one undergraduate module at a UK HEI, what sound like a really interesting course at Newcastle.

So, if undergraduate psychology courses are avoiding ‘religion’, why might that be the case. Well , I think you can discount the idea that it isn’t very interesting to psychologists, after all it’s difficult to think of a more universal and persistent human behavioural trait. This seems to leave ‘fear of causing offence’ as the most likely explanation for its absence. Given that over the last year I’ve discussed evolution, evil, conspiracy theories and terrorism in lectures without causing obvious offence it makes me wonder why religion should be such a taboo topic.

Having given it a lot of thought, in my own case I think the avoidance of teaching ‘the psychology of religion’ is a product of an interesting piece of cognitive dissonance. I spend a lot of time encouraging students to think about everyday issues in a ‘scientific’ manner (i.e. weighing all of the evidence, reading original sources etc etc) and yet some of the very scientists I encourage them to emulate seem to bypass thinking ‘scientifically’ when it comes to religion. The most obvious culprit here is Richard Dawkins. Dawkins’ enormous contribution to science is obvious, and yet when it comes to religion he seems  increasingly to exhibit the same ‘fundamentalist’ tendencies that  he rails against in others. Most recently he has said that he has never read the Quran, but this is OK as he didn’t need to read Mein Kampf to understand that the Nazis were evil. Avoiding for a moment the lovely example of Godwin’s Law, this line of argument might work in a ‘pub’ discussion and indeed might have logical validity, but in a scientific discourse surely ‘I haven’t read the primary source material but I know your wrong anyway’ wouldn’t stand up.

SO I’m left with the ironic situation that the reason I don’t teach about ‘the psychology of religion’ is that the one of the prime examples of exactly the sort of thinking I want students to develop (Dawkins) doesn’t use that sort of thinking when it comes to religion. I’d love to know what other people think :

Is an avoidance of teaching ‘the psychology of religion’ widespread ?

Could you teach ‘the psychology of religion’ without causing offence ?

Am I right that it could be Dawkins’ ‘fundamentalism’ that is putting me off ?

Leave a comment below, I’d be really interested to hear what people think


3 Responses to “Why do we shy away from teaching the psycholgy of religion to undergraduates ???”


  1. More on teaching controversial topics | Teaching Rational Thinking - June 20, 2013

    […] A few weeks ago I wrote about teaching ‘the psychology of religion’, and why universities might avoid it in undergraduate programmes. A newspaper story in the British press this weekend has made me think about another ‘controversial topic’, domestic violence. […]

  2. Reflecting on religion and psychology | Teaching Rational Thinking - November 24, 2013

    […] Evolution this week, and almost inevitable it led me to think again about psychology and religion. I’ve written before about the strange absence of ‘religious belief’ from most UK u…, and delivering my lecture of evolution main me think about what a fascinating it would be for […]

  3. The start of a new year, and my mind turns to economics (in praise of @TimHarford) | Teaching Rational Thinking - September 17, 2014

    […] I’ve written elsewhere about my surprise that so few undergraduate psychology programmes addre…, so for the first time this year I’ll include a ‘psychology of religion lecture’, and given that this first running of the new course will finish at the time of a UK general election, I’ll also include. ‘The psychology of politics’ for the first time, however the thing that is really interesting me at the moment is economics. One of my great thinking heros, Jim Flynn, has written about the laws of  ‘supply and demand’ being one of the key ideas that people should grasp, but I’m going to try a different tack from just teaching introductory economics. […]

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