Working towards a Chinese psychology of religion

Buddhist Temple. Golden statue of Buddha-- southern Xian (Sian, Xi'an), Shaanxi province, China

Psychology of religion has become a fairly common and well-respected field of study, with a rich history featuring geniuses such as William James and Sigmund Freud. In the West, one cannot study religion without encountering psychology of religion. But therein lies the problem: in the West. Other nations without the West’s history have not focused on psychology of religion in the same way. Psychologists Yongsheng Chen and Xiaojuan Chen (both of Zhejiang Normal University, China) suggest ways of constructing a psychology of religion in China.

As Chen and Chen see it, there are three ways to do psychology of religion. First, scientific empiricism. Here what counts are material, physical, and above all quantifiable things. Second, postmodernism. In postmodernism, the emphasis shifts from quantitative research to qualitative research (for example, interviews, personal journals, and stories). Finally, psychology of religion can be problem-oriented and free to use what method best addresses the problem.

The scientific method of materialism best suits modern day China because China’s government mandates a materialistic ideology. Chen and Chen quickly point out that this does not eliminate all other approaches to doing psychology of religion. For instance, one could employ the methodologies of dialectical materialism and historical materialism. Granted, materialism must be part of the equation, but this need not mean the exclusive use of scientific materialism. That said, most of the funding for psychology of religion comes from the Chinese government, and this leaves next to no room for non-materialistic approaches.

Importantly, Westerners commonly misunderstand the Chinese government’s stance on religion. Chinese citizens actually have a constitutional right to religious freedom. Of course, this does not mean the same thing as it does in Western contexts. For the Chinese government, one gains religious freedom only by abiding by the laws that regulate religion. As long as religious people follow the rules and participate only in government-approved religious activities, they have the right to their religion. The flip side to this, Chen and Chen argue, is that this means Chinese citizens also enjoy the right not to have a religion. China treats believers and non-believers equally, and religion truly becomes a personal choice.

That said, the Chinese government once had a very different attitude. During the “cultural revolution,” the government destroyed religious sites and persecuted those who practiced religion. Not surprisingly, scholars feared to mention or study the psychology of religion because of all of the dangers associated with the government’s anti-religious policies. Westerners’ misunderstanding of current Chinese policy towards religion certainly has a basis in history, but in more recent times China has ennacted reforms, and this reopens up the possibility of a Chinese psychology of religion.

Chen and Chen conclude by outlining some of the tasks a Chinese psychology of religion must accomplish. Native Chinese religious belief stems from a fusion of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism (although Buddhism originally comes from India, not China). Chen and Chen equate Chinese “folk belief” with Western “spirituality.” Chinese folk belief usually consists of worshipping and petitioning gods, abiding by Confucian morality (which includes virtues such as loyalty, filial piety, benevolence, and love), and ancestor worship. A Chinese psychology of religion could focus on Chinese “folk belief” just as Western psychology of religion has focused on Christianity and spirituality.

If Chen and Chen succeed in realizing their vision, it will be interesting to see if a Chinese psychology of religion focused on folk belief differs in significant ways from Western psychology of religion influenced by Christianity. Either way has worthwhile ramifications. If a stark difference does appear, then this will help Western psychologists of religion filter out their Christian bias and move towards a more “pure” psychology of religion (postmodernist objections notwithstanding). On the other hand, if no significant difference appears between Chinese and Western psychologies of religion, then this means psychologists have succeeded to at least some degree in getting at what it means for a person to be religious and have religion rather than being distracted by the content of that religion.

For more, see “Methodological Issues in Psychology of Religion Research in the Chinese Context” in the journal Pastoral Psychology.

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