Can you feel the vacuum? Younger Americans in the age range 18-34 are rapidly moving away from organized religion and religious belief!
This appears to be a trend, according to the General Social Survey, which has been tracking religious preferences in America since 1972. You might wonder if this trend is due to bad theology, bad publicity, or maybe just too much reliance on a pure scientific world view.
But, with my interest in psychology, I have a reason to point out that, once you do hold to some religious belief, there are certain benefits that go beyond the theological basics. These benefits include some things that participants are aware of, and some they are not. The discipline of psychology of religion likes to investigate both of these things.
So how have religion and psychology historically intersected? A little background: There was a time in American Protestantism when the pulpit greats consciously tried to utilize pop psychological insights to make their preaching more relevant, not only to the saving of souls for the next world, but also to problems of everyday living in this world.
Famous preachers of their day such as Harry Emerson Fosdick and Norman Vincent Peale reached out to the spiritually hungry with sermon themes aimed at peace of mind and solving personal problems. In fact, you can today still hear acclaimed sermons that draw on psychological savvy.
“Why not make religion applicable to personal and interpersonal issues?” you say; but the deliberate use of psychology from the pulpit wasn’t always so in this country. There was a clear historical movement “from salvation to self-realization.” Now, some feel that the departure from an emphasis on sin and salvation was a mistake: Too much psychology and not enough theology.
So a divorce has been suggested between religion and humanistic psychology, because this self-fulfillment psychology seems to make us too selfish. Yet, at the very same time, there is a remarriage between religion and psychology. It comes to us in the form of a psychology of religion as a tool for asking questions about psychological effects of religious practice. (Psychology is as persistent as the summer rains; it keeps coming back. Everybody seems to love psychology, both in the universities and in the general population.)
Even if the Protestant church expansion of the 1950s had never given an early voice to so-called secular psychology, the more current study of psychology has found its place anew in turning around and investigating religion. Among other things, psychology of religion looks for a measurable psychological effect on people who participate in organized religion, today. This is true for all religions, whether Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist or Muslim. One study said that improved mental health could be statistically shown in persons who participated in religious activities, especially if they weren’t fanatical about it.
But generally, there are healthy benefits of religious participation, well researched. I will list a few that could be expanded on in future columns:
• Religion offers a positive view of the world as a mostly safe place because God is viewed as being in charge.
• Participation in religious ceremony helps us deal with the stresses of inevitable events in the adult life-cycle: birth, marriage, vocation, illness.
• Religion has a framework to help us make sense of life’s great mysteries, including mortality and death itself.
• Concepts of serenity, hope and morality are central elements of religion.
• Religion promotes a world view where unconditional love makes sense.
• Most religious participation provides a supportive sense of community.