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Fixing Western psychology of religion

Psychology bookPsychologists of religion want to study religion using the highest standards of empirical science. They gather data, they crunch numbers, and they run fancy statistical analyses in order to draw statistically significant conclusions. But when it’s all said and done, is anything like religion still the object of study? Psychologists Brent Slife and Jeffrey Reber (both of Brigham Young University) doubt it. They argue that the reductionism in psychology of religion often leads to a mismatch between what is supposed to be studied and what is actually studied.

As they see it, this mismatch occurs because Western psychologists emphasize empirical method to such a degree that they lose sight of their object of study, and this is especially prevalent when studying religion because of religion’s complexity and depth. Slife and Reber see two methods in psychology that particularly lead to this reductionist trap.

First, instrumentalism. Instrumentalism reconceptualizes religious practices so their meaning for the religious person takes a backseat for their meaning for the scientific investigator. And the scientific investigator primarily (if not exclusively) values only the most efficient means to a particular end. In other words, instrumentalism instructs scientists to measure a practice according to how well it achieves its end. Problematically, a scientific investigator looks for scientifically acceptable ends. For example, the end of prayer would not be God (a religious end—not scientifically acceptable) but happiness or self-satisfaction (a practical end—is scientifically acceptable). Worst still, scientists may treat “God” as a mere ends to some scientifically acceptable means (like happiness).

The second method that tends towards reductionism is operationalism, which translates instrumentalism’s reconceptualization of religion into something observable for scientists. That is, the designated instrumental meaning of religion must now be made empirically observable.

The net result of instrumentalism and operationalism is that the findings of a study in the psychology of religion are doubly removed from the original religious practice studied: religious concepts are made scientifically acceptable (given an instrumental meaning), and then these transformed concepts are made into something observable (operationalized). Ultimately, this means that what was supposed to be studied is not what was actually studied. For instance, if scientists want to study religiosity, they may measure it by the frequency of church attendance, but obviously church attendance is not the same thing as religiosity. Slife and Reber go so far to say, “Indeed, it is safe to say that no operationalization is identical to the construct being operationalized; there will always be important differences.” Consequently, they argue that the thing operationalized never should be presented as the thing studied because the latter is not empirically knowable in principle because it is not observable. Furthermore, scientists tend to disregard the noninstrumental dimensions of religion (or mutate them in instrumental terms).

Slife and Reber argue that the inadequacy of instrumentalism and operationalism has two lessons to be learend. First, any study of an operationalized religious practice is not a study of the religious practice itself. Far from being identical, they may not even be related. Second, the findings from a study of an operationalized religious practice therefore do not necessarily apply to the religious practice itself. Since the relationship between what is intended to be studied and what was actually studied is not empirically knowable, no uncontroversial connection can be drawn from one to the other.

Fortunately, Slife and Reber do not critique without also suggesting a way forward. They offer a pair of solutions. First, they urge psychologists to go beyond using exclusively the empirical method. No doubt the empirical method has its role to play, but, as the saying goes, if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Practically, this would mean an inclusion of qualitative methods where necessary. Second, researchers should demonstrate awareness of the difference between what they intended to study and what they actually studied. This will help them make better methodological decisions, and draw more realistic conclusions from their findings. For Slife and Reber, the best way to achieve this awareness is to have religious and even theological knowledge about the religion under investigation. Only those who appreciate a religion’s fullness will recognize when and where this fullness is being reduced.

For more, see “Conceptualizing Religious Practices in Psychological Research: Problems and Prospects” in the journal Pastoral Psychology.

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