Tag Archives: psychology and religion

Reflecting on religion and psychology

24 Nov


I delivered my annual lecture on Darwin and 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 undergraduate psychology degrees, and delivering my lecture of evolution main me think about what a fascinating it would be for psychologists.

As part of my evolution lecture I look at why ‘anti-science’ might be so focused on a theory that is over 150 years old, and so heavily supported by the weight of evidence. As part of the lecture I played a Youtube video of Ken Ham, a young-earth creationist who advocates a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis. I also looked at Ham’s web site ‘Answers in Genesis’, which provide scholarly explanations for the content of the first book of the Bible. I was particularly drawn to a very detailed exposition of how Noah’s Ark would have worked, including an apparently serious consideration of the necessity of rounding in young dinosaurs as adults would be so difficult to accommodate. If one discounts the terrifying sight, for a rationalist, of young children being told that dinosaurs and man lived at the same time I was drawn to the question of why a literal belief in Genesis might be necessary in order to be a ‘good’ Christian.

For me, as a fully paid up atheist, I can see that much of the New Testament provides a perfectly good guide to how to lead one’s lift, and the spirit of community engendered by organised religion surely ought to be positively viewed by a psychologist of any background. Yet, the insistence on rabid opposition to ‘Science’, and the extraordinary efforts to ‘prove’ the contents of genesis would seem to have no connection to all of the positives of Christianity (or indeed any other religion). All of this led me to wonder (aloud in the middle of my lecture), what drives apparently sincere religious people to focus on what appear to be details irrelevant to their core beliefs. The best I could come up with at the time was ‘cognitive dissonance’. In the same way that some American politicians have made seemingly bizarre statements about abortion I wondered if what might be driving ‘anti-evolution’ was a need to reconcile the dissonant beliefs in the literal truth of Genesis and the weight of evidence for evolution.

One might expect such a thought to provoke concern from religious students, but in fact it produced an entirely rational and very interesting discussion with a group of students after the lecture. All of which leads further down the line that teaching ‘controversial’ topics is a really useful way to get students involved in rational debate. I wouldn’t advocate it unless you have the environment to develop students’ skills in advance, but it you have that it does really seem to work. I’m definitely going to work-up a ‘Psychology of Religion’ lecture for next year

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

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