Tag Archives: Psychology

The Psychology of Religion

One of my first memories happened at church. We always seemed to arrive early enough to say the rosery, but this one particular Sunday morning, my mom, brother, and I were late. We double-timed it up the concrete stairs to heave open the austere metal doors of the traditional red brick Catholic church only to find the sanctuary doors to be closed. It seemed we were not allowed entry because of our tardiness, so we were confined to a small, cold foyer filled with nothing to look at but posted advertisements for local businesses and two holy water stations. Being only 4 at the time, I quickly became bored. A hymn had started, and I snuck a peak through the closed passageway. The congregation was being led in song: “Here I am, Lord! Is it I, Lord? I have heard You calling in the night! I will go, Lord, if You lead me!…” Powerful words, I thought, and yet I observed no sign of emotion among anyone in the church. Much of the congregation didn’t even sing along.

The fact that I so clearly remember this incident reveals something about my strong religious and spiritual inclination. But the incident also raised a question for me that has become the focal point for much of my professional life: What explains why some people are more religious than others?

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Protesting God

This article was inspired by conversation with Deanna Thompson.

Marian Fontana was living a good life. She had been happily married to her husband, Dave, for 17 years, with whom she had a young son. Marian had frequent “conversations with God,” as she put it. As a normal part of her daily life, she would thank God for all that was going well and ask God to bless others in need.

Then came September 11th, 2001.

When Marian saw the World Trade Center crumble on television, she knew her life was crumbling as well. Dave was a New York firefighter who was called to the scene. After sensing his death, her initial response was to wander into every church in her neighborhood to pray and pray and pray for Dave’s life. But, this prayer was to go unanswered.

After several months of total grief, Marian started to see beauty again. However, her spiritual life was different. As she stated in the PBS documentary, “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero:”

“I couldn’t believe that this God that I’d talked to in my own way for 35 years could… turn this loving man into bones. And I guess that’s when I felt that my faith was so weakened… My conversations with God that I used to have, I don’t have anymore… Now I can’t bring myself to speak to Him… because I feel so abandoned…”

Years later, Marian is doing better. She has written a memoir about her experience (“A Widow’s Walk”), and she reports being less angry. Yet, as she said in a live chat organized by PBS 10 years after Dave’s death, “[I] still don’t have conversations with God the way I used to.”

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Longing for More

What do you really want in life?

It’s a difficult question, but it may be the essential question.

Maybe you would answer with a concrete response, such as “I want sleep,” “I want a new phone,” or “I want to play more golf.”

Or maybe you would reflect more broadly. Some people even go beyond everyday desires to imagine deep yearnings for something more.

Source Sehnsucht (c. 1900). Heinrich Vogeler Wikimedia Commons

Source: Sehnsucht (c. 1900). Heinrich Vogeler / Wikimedia Commons

“Sehnsucht” is a popular German word with no simple English translation (click here for pronunciation). C. S. Lewis often relied on this concept in his writings, defining it as “inconsolable longing” for “we know not what.” Instead of “wishful thinking,” Lewis suggested how Sehnsucht involves “thoughtful wishing.” In my words, Sehnsucht has to do with an intense desire for something beyond our human capacity to fulfill. It is a bittersweet feeling that seeks a slice of perfection at the same time that perfection remains elusive.

To better understand, let’s consider some of the ways Lewis reflected on the concept.

In his “Chronicles of Narnia” series, Lewis states:

“Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning… a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and always are wishing you could get into that dream again.”

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What is “Awe?”

The emotion of awe fascinates as much as it confounds. Scientific and popular attention in awe is surging, yet awe remains one of the most commonly misunderstood psychological concepts in our culture. What exactly is “awe?”

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Confessions of Trump Skeptic

I confess: I have been overly obsessed with American politics for the past 6 months.

This started innocently enough when, last fall, I tried to more deeply engage my Psychology of Personality in social and political issues by having them do case analyses of the two presidential candidates. Although I tried to balance the focus, most media and student attention was focused on Donald Trump, including this outstanding psychological profile of Mr. Trump by my favorite contemporary personality psychologist, Dan McAdams. Through lively discussions with my unusually informed students, I was sucked in.

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Improving the Experience of Online Education

Despite their surge in popularity, many harbor deep reservations about the quality of online courses. There are several possible reasons for this, but perhaps most fundamentally are serious concerns about the experience of online students. In particular, many ask: can online courses provide the kind of experience crucial for students to develop critical thinking, curiosity, and creativity, consistent with the highest ideals of liberal arts education?

I have taught online for several years, and I have struggled with this question as well. However, new thinking and research convinces me that all courses – including those online – have the potential to elicit powerful emotions that can inspire long-term knowledge creation.

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Exclusive and Inclusive Faith

Why is it that the choice among churches always seems to be the choice between intelligence on ice and ignorance on fire? (quoted by Brian McLaren in his book “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?”)

Religions are similar in some ways, especially concerning ethics. However, religions also are very different from each other. In fact, even different subgroups within any religion show vast differences. One of the primary ways in which religions differ has to do with the extent to which they are exclusive vs. inclusive.

One easy way to see that there are differences across religions is to examine membership trends. Although various indicators suggest that formal religion is in decline in much of the world, some conservative religions actually are growing, such as Islam and “non-denominational Christianity.” The declines are coming in more liberal religions. Since World War II, for example, membership in the historical “Mainline Protestant” churches (Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian) has significantly diminished in the United States. Similarly, approximately 4 in 10 adults raised Catholic no longer consider themselves “Catholic.”

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