Psychiatry, psychology and religion all draw on long-held traditions of human thought and practice. Scientists, philosophers and theologians have sought for centuries to understand the ways in which humans attempt to comprehend and interact with their world and to give meaning to their lives.
• Psychological Science
• Health Psychology
Mental health and religion: Before psychology rose as a field of study, religious inquiry into thought and behavior tended to center on action and nature. Beliefs centered on people’s choice to be good or evil, that the Devil guided them toward bad behavior, or that God made them a particular way. Some felt, based on religious beliefs, that those who now might be diagnosed as mentally ill acted out because of demonic possession.
In the beginning of psychiatry, practitioners often dismissed the relation of religion. Sigmund Freud believed that faith itself is an irrational and illusory act, and that its practice becomes a compulsion neurosis. Still, he and others, such as William James, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler and Erich Fromm, were interested in the psychology of religion, the psychological study of religious experiences, beliefs and activities.
Research has shown that those who practice faith tend to report higher levels of happiness than those who don’t. This offers a large frontier for researchers to examine why and how this impacts people’s lives. With the established link between physical health and psychological well-being, the role religion plays in the latter might help demonstrate how religion can affect peoples’ physical health in positive ways. Researchers might also be able to discover the origins of religious delusions in patients with psychotic or manic episodes, whether this is linked to religious experience and how it has impacted religious narratives and beliefs.
Some research indicates that people experience faith in different ways, with different levels of religious fervor and patterns of religious practice, possibly with a biological basis. Understanding better what attracts certain people to religion, and what attracts them to certain types of religious experience, can be helpful in understanding the human mind.
Current research: Scientists have studied the brains of nuns, monks and others and noted that their brains are active in certain areas during intense religious experiences. Other studies have noted activity in particular brain areas while subjects are engaged in the spiritual practice of speaking in tongues. Though some religious scholars argue that such experiments merely record emotions and don’t fully understand religious experience, researchers say they could raise profound questions about the nature of God and the human soul.
Geneticist Dean H. Hamer claims in his book, “The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes” (2004) that he identified a set of genes that indicate higher “self-transcendence” ratings in people who have them, prompting him to argue that there is a biological basis – and genetic predisposition – for spiritual experience.
Biologist Richard Dawkins argues in his “The Selfish Gene” (30th-anniversary edition, 2006), that altruistic behaviors by humans (often tied in society to religious association and sense of community) are more related to genes that seek to help related organisms reproduce to replicate copies of themselves than true altruism. This theory goes on to surmise that genetically speaking, people develop community not out of a sense of connection with others or a supreme being, but to survive and pass on their genes.
The Center’s work: MU’s Center on Religion & the Professions is conducting cutting-edge work in the area of spirituality, mental health and neuropsychology. Dr. Brick Johnstone, chair of the MU Department of Health Psychology, leads a diverse team of professionals and faculty with expertise in religious studies, cultural anthropology, social work, medical sociology, neuropsychology, health psychology, rehabilitation medicine and oncology. The pilot project investigates relationships among spirituality, religion, mental health and physical health in individuals with various medical conditions, chronic illnesses and disabilities.
The Center is also studying relationships among spirituality/religion and mental health outcomes among all populations and spirituality/religion differences between cognitively impaired and cognitively intact individuals, as well as the neuropsychology of spiritual experience. Other Center studies look at the efficacy of mindfulness-based stress reduction on persons with chronic disabilities; transcendence and right hemisphere functioning; and spirituality as a personality construct. The Center is applying for grants to study the relationship between neuroscience and religion and to fund additional projects on the neuropsychology of spiritual experience.
Religion and recovery: For a long time, the role of religious leader and counselor was the same. People took for granted that they would seek support or advice of a clergy person, as well as spiritual leadership. Taken to a higher degree, in the Old Testament prophecy, the messiah (understood as Jesus Christ to Christians) is described in Isaiah 9:6 as “Wonderful Counselor” (man of insight and wisdom). The advent of psychological science gave people the opportunity to seek counsel from a non-religious perspective, which continues to be controversial among some religious groups.
Today we see a blend of the traditions in church-based counseling services as part of regular ministry offerings. Some counselors work out of religious institutions or receive referrals from them. Not all counselors are licensed by state boards; instead religious organizations and denominations have the power to grant counseling certification for church counseling settings. This raises issues of training and quality of care for some, but it also offers the researcher a chance to examine how the counseling is done differently in these settings.
Counselors of faith working within religious or secular settings may face the professional challenge of when it is appropriate to insert personal faith into the counseling setting, such as quoting a biblical passage, praying with a patient, prescribing prayer or urging a patient to seek salvation as a therapeutic technique. Practitioners can be aware of the diversity of religious belief and perspective in those who come for psychiatric care and discern whether a religious approach is appropriate. Patients also have the opportunity to seek counseling in a religious or non-religious setting, based on their preference.
Some practitioners may explain the value of psychological science to patients accustomed to tackling psychological issues from a purely spiritual perspective. Some argue for the appropriateness of combining psychological and spiritual elements in recovery. Religion has played a large role in the addiction and recovery movement, from the “higher power” referred to in the popular 12 Steps programs, to religiously based recovery programs such as Celebrate Recovery and Reformers Unanimous, which are specifically Christian-based. The Unity School of Christianity, a New Thought church, incorporates some aspects of psychology in its emphasis on positive thinking.
Issues today: Researchers can examine how types of people experience different levels of religious fervor and patterns of religious practice in order to help understand what attracts certain people to religion, and what attracts them to certain types of religious experience. Researchers and others could pursue whether research into spiritual experience destroys the notion of the soul, or whether there is one core religious experience or many ways of being religious.
Studies could examine where biology and psychology begin and end, and how each impacts or is impacted by religious experience. What are the key areas of disagreement between scientists and theologians? Can a biological basis for the experience of God be equated with God? What theological questions need to be addressed in this area? What impact does practicing religion, or how it is practiced, have on mental health? Research is being done that attempts to combine the two disciplines, in publications such as the Journal of Theology and Psychology, and through inter-disciplinary work done by the Center.