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How Successful Have Psychological Approaches Been in Accounting for Religious Belief and Experience? Compare and Contrast Two Approaches and Critically Assess Their Contribution to Our Understanding of Religious Behaviour

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William James (1842-1910) is considered by many theorists in the discipline of the psychology of religion to be the father of the field, and many of his ideas are influencing research to this day. This essay will attempt to outline two psychological explanations for religious behaviour, and assess how successful these approaches have been in accounting for such behaviour. There are many differing psychological theories that attempt to explain religiosity, but the following assessment will primarily focus on developmental, social and evolutionary explanations for religious behaviours. Religious behaviour is a relatively broad term encompassing everything from evangelical, fundamentalist behaviours to individuals who simply hold a belief in a �higher power’ but do not partake in ritual acts (such as regular church visits). For the purposes of this paper, religious behaviour is defined according to James (cited in Kirkpatrick, 2005) who referred to religion as belief in the existence of an unseen or supernatural force which may explain the creation of life and the universe.

One of the main approaches to the progress of religious thought from the developmental perspective is based on the notion of naÐ"Їve and vitalistic thinking of children. Young children are able to create theories about objects and people based on innate thought processes (the three main domains are physics, biology and psychology). These naÐ"Їve theories allow infants to understand that certain actions have consequences (e.g. вЂ?when I push something off the table, it will fall down’). Along with this children tend to have an innate vitalism to their reasoning whereby inanimate objects are assumed to have thoughts and feelings (Morris, et al, 2000), and many things (e.g. people) in the world have вЂ?energy’, this is what keeps them alive (Lindeman and Saher, 2007). Though many of these naÐ"Їve theories are over-written when other knowledge is acquired, some are built upon when new evidence is supplied. Certain forms of vitalistic thinking are adapted when new information is acquired, though the reasoning behind the thought process remains relatively unchanged (e.g. belief in paranormal activities, superstitions, etc.). This attribution of intentionality and vitalistic thinking, though declines from childhood to adulthood, tends to remain through life and is built upon through experience and acquired knowledge, both adults and children assign intentionality to mundane objects and hold superstitions, though вЂ?believers’ tend to assign more intentionality than вЂ?non-believers’(Lindeman and Saher, 2007). This form of thinking which can remain with us throughout life may be able to explain where the idea of religion stems from, and why it generally remains with us throughout life. However, it does not explain why some people are believers and some are not, if humans are all born with this form of thinking, and we tend to retain it through life, beliefs in a supernatural power (i.e. God/Gods) should be relatively standardised throughout the world, with the degree of belief being similar throughout. It also does not explain why there are so many differing belief systems throughout the world

Another area of developmental psychology which attempts to explain where religion comes from, why so many believe, and why there is so much variation from one individual to the next is based on human attachment relationships. The attachment system has evolved in humans (and other animals) to maintain proximity to a primary caregiver in order to keep infants safe from various dangers (Bowlby, 1969). The primary caregiver (usually a mother) offers a secure base for an infant to explore their world, as well as a safe haven during times of distress (Bowlby, 1973). It is well documented that this childhood relationship forms the basis for future adult relationships (Ainsworth,1985; Hazan and Shaver, 1987), it has also been suggested that religion in itself can be a form of relationship (Greeley, 1981), and God (throughout this paper, the term �God’ shall refer to a supernatural force or entity in which an individual maintains a belief) can be an attachment figure (Kirkpatrick, 2005).

God can be seen as an ideal attachment figure (Kaufman, 1981), an entity that will always offer support and a safe haven for the individual, something which a human attachment figure can never offer, due to our mortality. Religion can be seen as a form of adult attachment (Kaufman, 1981) as physical proximity is not possible, though psychological proximity is via prayer etc. upon talking to believers, they generally claim �God is always with them’. However, even adults need some form of physical proximity to their primary attachment figure during times of extreme distress (Ainsworth, 1985). However, Reed (1978) stated that physical proximity in such a relationship may be facilitated by religious iconography, church visits, etc. The idea of religion offering a safe haven during times of distress can be supported by reports of church attendance increasing during times of mass distress (e.g. after the 2004 tsunami), also during times of war, soldiers report developing a relationship with God even when they have never been particularly religious in the past (Allport, 1950). Further, when an individual feels they have been abandoned by God, their reaction is similar to the loss of an attachment figure, displaying feelings of loss, abandonment and grief (Bowlby, 1973). However, much work in this area concentrates on deconversions of concentration camp survivors and soldiers (Allport, 1950) and it may be difficult to separate feelings of being �abandoned by God’ and the emotional trauma of their experience.

Research has also shown that insecurely attached individuals have an insecure attachment to God, and are more prone to both conversions and deconversions (Kirkpatrick, 2005). The previous statement seems contradictory, but it mirrors the attachment style of the individual as insecure individuals either seek proximity to a caregiver, seek to avoid their caregiver, or fluctuate between the two (Ainsworth, 1985). This theory offers an explanation for the individual differences in religiosity, which is not offered by the evolutionary explanation as detailed below. It describes how each individual’s religious relationship differs, and is based on their early childhood experiences. However, whilst it is a well documented fact that though early attachment relationships tend to be a precursor to later relationships (Ainsworth, 1985), attachment styles are not always stable throughout life (Lewis, et al, 2000). Depending on social experiences, particularly the behaviour of the attachment figure, attachment

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