Monday, February 13, 2012

Zenon Stavrinides - Taking an Empirical Approach to Religious Belief

This review article from The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXIX No. 2 is in response to the publication of The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach, by Ralph W. Hood, Jr, Peter Hill, and Bernard Spilka. The review suggests that this is a book I will want to own at some point.
Taking an Empirical Approach to Religious Belief
Zenon Stavrinides

The question for psychologists is, how does the meaning believers derive from religion enhance their sense of control and self-esteem? 

A review article occasioned by the publication of: 
Ralph W. Hood, Jr, Peter Hill and Bernard Spilka's book:
The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach
Hardcover: ISBN-13: 978-1606233030) 636 pp. 
New York: The Guilford Press; 4th Edition.

 Up until the end of the nineteenth century at least, most scholars who worked in what counted as the field of psychology or 'mental science' took it upon themselves to identify the various elements of mental life and the provide an account of their character and interaction in accordance with a set of more or less speculative theories, like the division of the mind into a number of 'faculties' such as cognition, affection and volition, and the catch-all principle of 'the association of ideas'. 
All that changed, however, in 1879 when Wilhelm Wundt established the first psychological laboratory in Leipzig in order to study in a scientific spirit the phenomena of consciousness, and soon afterwards William James began to carry his own brand of research in physiological psychology at Harvard University. These two parallel developments on either side of the Atlantic initiated a new and in time very productive tradition of psychology, as a discipline which aimed to achieve an understanding of mental life by employing the working principles and procedures of the natural sciences, principally observation, measurement and experimentation. 
Thus it was that during the first half of the Twentieth century a considerable number of universities in Europe, North America and other parts of the world with advanced scientific cultures set up Departments of Psychology with increasingly sophisticated laboratory facilities where researchers formulated problems about human behaviour and mental operations which lent themselves to empirical treatment. Psychologists with acknowledged scientific credentials adopted and adapted ideas, procedures, techniques and equipment which were proving successful in the areas of human and animal physiology, biochemistry, evidence-based sociology, applied statistics, and other human sciences, and framed appropriate hypotheses which were capable of confirmation or refutation by empirical tests.
Both during and after World War II, the insights of psychology were utilized, applied and extended by psychologists working in special units in educational institutions, military establishments, hospitals, industrial concerns and other types of organization. By the middle of the century psychology grew into maturity and stature as one of the recognized sciences with its own characteristic concepts and theories in terms of which wide ranges of problems were investigated, and hypotheses were framed and tested by objective methods.
One of the special branches of psychology is the psychology of religion, the core issues of which received a masterly formulation and treatment in William James' magnum opus, The Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1902. 
In the following half-century the psychology of religion grew in complexity and sophistication, along with other areas of psychology. Innumerable studies about the nature, conditions and consequences of religious experience and other kindred topics were carried out in many parts of the world and reported in professional journals of psychology, including a number which were exclusively devoted to the psychology and social scientific study of religion. 
The extent of writing on psychology since the second half of the Twentieth century is amply reflected by the fact that the number of words published since 1950 comfortably exceeds the total output of works on the subject produced since the time of the Greeks. This, at least, is the claim of three American psychologists Ralph W. Hood, Jr, Peter Hill and Bernard Spilka in their magisterial critical survey The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach, now in its fourth edition; and with a bibliography that extends over 106 closely printed pages, listing for the most part contributions to the psychology of religion, the claim is hard to dispute. The book presents and assesses a vast range of works in the field, embodying issues, data-based studies, broad theories and specific hypotheses which marked the field in recent decades. This magisterial work offers a synoptic view of the field and should be of great value to professional psychologists, researchers and PhD students working in this area. 
Read the whole article.

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