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Religion 40 (2010) 300304

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From .of religion to Psychology of.: Commentary on Ann Taves Religious

Experience Reconsidered
Lee A. Kirkpatrick
College of William and Mary, USA

a r t i c l e i n f o

a b s t r a c t

Article history:
Accepted 9 August 2010

I suggest that Taves prescription for Religious Studies and related elds comprises a shift in perspective
for approaching the psychology of religion, from an of-religion perspective to a psychology-of perspective,
and that this reframing has a number of important and promising implications for future progress. I then
use this perspective-shift characterization to extend and comment upon Taves discussion of several key
issues, including the distinction between ascriptive and sui-generis models of religion, the need for
a building-block approach to religion and religious experience, and the problem of dening religion.
2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Psychology of religion
Religious experience
Cognitive science

As a psychological scientist who has spent much of his career studying religion, my interest in Taves (2009) book mainly concerns, predictably,
the psychology of (and cognitive science of) religion.1 Although this is the obvious point of intersection between the elds of Psychology and
Religious Studies, however, it seems to me that the study of the psychology of religion can take two very different forms, depending on whether
ones approach emphasizes the psychology-of part or the of-religion part of the hybrid. My own approach has always emphasized the psychologyof perspective because, like most of my Psychology colleagues, I am interested in the psychology of many things, of which religion is just one;
consequently, my general research strategy involves connecting the psychology of religion to the psychology of other things. This is in contrast, I
presume, to most scholars in the eld of Religious Studies for whom psychology of religion is just one among many of-religion interests, and
whose general strategy involves connecting the psychology of religion to other approaches to or aspects of religion.
Which of these two perspectives one brings to the table in studying the psychology of religion has, I think, numerous important
consequences with respect to the kinds of conceptual and denitional problems that must be tackled and the kinds of solutions required.
Scholars within a eld such as Psychology share a variety of fundamental assumptions, organizing frameworks, theories, and research
methodologies, such that psychological researchers can easily and fruitfully exchange ideas and data regarding very different topics. In
contrast, matters are inherently more complicated and difcult in a eld, like Religious Studies, that is dened by its object of study rather
than any shared conceptual approach or level of analysis; the diversity of often incommensurate background assumptions, intellectual
agendas, and conceptual frameworks might easily lead one to wonder what all these people are doing under the same roof. Consequently, it
is easy to see how the eld could be paralyzed by endless debates about the most fundamental issues, including the denition of the object
and the general strategy for approaching it.
It is this general problem that Taves seeks to address in her excellent book, and it seems to me that the direction she offers out of this
morass involves, in large part, a shift from an of-religion perspective to a psychology-of perspective. My goal in this essay is to explore some of
the implications of this shift with respect to a few of the difcult and complex issues facing Religious Studies that she discusses.
Sui-generis vs. ascriptive models
Although Taves discussion of the history and distinction between sui-generis and ascriptive models of religion within Religious Studies,
similar distinctions (and ensuing conicts) have long existed within the Psychology-of Religion eld as well. For example, Division 36 of the
American Psychological Association carried the name Psychologists Interested in Religious Issues for many years in order to be as inclusive

E-mail address:

In recent years, the label cognitive science of religion has been used increasingly to represent an interdisciplinary eld that aspires to include and integrate research
from psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and other scientic approaches to religion. For purposes of this essay I use the term psychology of
religion rather than cognitive science of religion because my focus here, like Taves, is primarily at the psychological level of analysis.

0048-721X/$ see front matter 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

L.A. Kirkpatrick / Religion 40 (2010) 300304


as possible. The debate that eventually resulted in a name change to Psychology of Religion was vigorous and divisive: Although virtually
all members were psychologists by training and profession, many were oriented much more strongly toward an of-religion perspective than
a psychology-of perspective. Moreover, the eld has long wrestled with the problem of conating psychology of religion and (what is
sometimes termed) religious psychology the former aiming to bring psychology to bear on questions about religion and the latter
attempting to do the opposite.
Viewing the matter from a psychology-of approach, it seems to me important to distinguish two separate issues that characterize Taves
distinction between sui generis and ascriptive models. The rst question is that of whether religious beliefs (including interpretations of
experiences) are ontologically true or not. Of course, as Taves notes, this question is beyond the purview of a scientic approach. We are all
familiar with the genetic fallacy: that logically, the source or origin of a belief is orthogonal to the question of its truth value. Nevertheless,
people on both sides of the question seem to have great difculty overcoming the strong (but completely false) intuition that if the origins of
religion could be explained scientically, this somehow would imply that those beliefs are false. I fear that the ames of this insidious
intuition have been stoked by the popular (infamous) books by Dawkins (2006) and Dennett (2006). Both books are works of philosophy,
focusing on the question of whether religion is true or not; however, both devote considerable space to discussions of the cognitive science
and psychology of religion. The authors themselves are careful to avoid the genetic fallacy but, by addressing the psychological questions
alongside the ontological ones, they may well have (inadvertently, I presume) exacerbated the problem of readers conating, or seeing
a nonexistent logical connection between, the two kinds of questions.2
It is interesting and instructive to note that this difculty is not observed in other areas of Psychology, in which researchers routinely deal with
perceptions, beliefs, and experiences that are clearly true, as well as others that clearly are not. For example, researchers have long studied how
the visual system generates both accurate and inaccurate perception (i.e., optical illusions); any comprehensive theory of vision is expected to
be able to explain both, and research focused on either one usefully informs the other. In countless other cases the question of ontological status is
simply irrelevant. For example, the classic optical illusion known as the Necker cube involves two alternating perceptions of a sketch drawing of
a cube, in which one square sometimes appears to be the near side of a 3-dimensional cube and at other times the far side. Neither interpretation
is true or false, but researchers are still able to study and understand it using their usual theories and methods. These and countless other
examples clearly illustrate that a psychology-of approach can be applied equally to experiences and beliefs irrespective of ontological status. By
the same reasoning, it can be applied to the study of religiosity irrespective of ones own personal belief or nonbelief.
The second distinct issue distinguishing sui-generis and ascriptive approaches from a psychology-of perspective is the question of
whether religious belief and experience can be explained scientically in terms of ordinary psychological processes and systems, or
whether scientic explanations ultimately will need to include reference to unique, religion-specic processes or systems. The recent
Psychology of Religion research literature is replete with arguments for a sui-generis approach in this sense. For example, Piedmont (1999)
has argued for adding a sixth, spirituality-related dimension to personality theorys predominant Big Five model; Emmons (1999) has
argued for a unique spiritual dimension of motivation; Emmons (2000) has argued that a spiritual intelligence dimension be added to
extant theories of multiple intelligences. (See Pargament et al., 2005, for a review). Among evolutionary-minded researchers, the question
often takes the form of whether religion is an adaptation i.e., is produced by evolved psychological mechanisms or systems designed by
natural selection specically for this purpose or a byproduct of evolved psychological systems designed for other (non-religion) purposes.
(For contrasting views on this question see Kirkpatrick, 2006, and Sanderson, 2008.)
Whether a psychology-of approach ultimately is able to explain the origins and workings of religious belief and experience completely in
terms of more general, mundane processes is an empirical question, albeit a much more difcult one than is often acknowledged. For
example, Piedmont (1999) added a number of spirituality-related items to a standard Big Five personality inventory, and showed that
these items statistically constituted a sixth, separate dimension in a factor analysis. However, it is a simple matter to add a set of new items to
any questionnaire and then nd that they statistically load on a new, additional factor. (If you were to add a series of questions to this same
questionnaire asking about physical stature and athletic abilities e.g., height, weight, running speed, strength, etc. a factor analysis would
surely nd that these items constitute a new factor distinct from the usual dimensions reecting neuroticism, extraversion, and so forth).
Other kinds of evidence comprise data showing that a given religion-related measure statistically predicts another variable of interest (e.g.,
mental health) above and beyond what can be predicted from other extant psychological measures. However, such strategies can show only
that the religion-related variable predicts unique variance vis--vis the other variables included in that particular equation. This can be
a powerful approach for testing the limitations or inadequacy of a particular extant theory or measure, but it is a long way from demonstrating that the observed effect of religion or religiousness is unique in the larger sense i.e. that it cannot be explained by any known
psychological theories or processes.
With the issue cast in these terms, Taves appears to point again away from the sui-generis approach; the goal of her building-blocks
approach to understanding religion clearly involves drawing upon our knowledge of non-religion-specic psychological and cultural
processes. I agree, and remain skeptical that unique, religion-specic processes or systems ultimately will be necessary to explain religion
from a scientic perspective. However, I hasten to add and I strongly suspect Taves would agree that the matter is far from resolved.
Religious belief and experience unquestionably involve many building blocks and processes that are not unique to religion, and these
processes should be the central focus of empirical and theoretical research from a psychology-of perspective. But until we have exhausted
this approach, we will not be able to determine denitively whether it proves necessary to postulate, in addition, one or more religionspecic processes or mechanisms as well.
The building-blocks approach
This conceptualization of the sui-generis issue ts neatly with Taves building-blocks approach, which presumes that ascriptions of
religious experience can be understood by identifying the fundamental psychological processes underlying simple ascriptions and then

Both authors intention in including sections devoted to psychology-of questions seems to be to address one natural and reasonable response to arguments about religious
beliefs being false, viz. If such beliefs are false, why do so many people believe them?.


L.A. Kirkpatrick / Religion 40 (2010) 300304

layering additional levels of analysis atop these to explain how these are assembled into composite ascriptions, and so forth. This approach
has always been inherent in a psychology-of approach, as in all sciences: The goal of any scientic enterprise is to explain diverse phenomena
in terms of a smaller number of principles and processes and the interactions among them.
The rst task in adopting this building-blocks approach, of course, is to begin identifying those psychological processes that appear
relevant and potentially useful to the task at hand. Taves begins by drawing upon attribution theory, which is certainly one reasonable place
to start. However, I suggest that this is merely one of many, many processes and systems that will ultimately be relevant for explaining
religion. The framework offered by Spilka et al. (1985) is only the roughest of sketches, and Malles (2004) much-welcome updating and
extension of the model takes us only a couple of small (albeit important) steps further. Taves shows us only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
A perusal of any Psychology textbook reveals that a large proportion of research in many areas of Psychology are directly or indirectly
related to one or another kind of deeming and ascription. The eld of Perception, for example, is all about deeming: How, for example,
does the visual system enable one to deem the stimulus standing before you as Grandma? The subdiscipline of Social Psychology is replete
with data and theory regarding perceptions of other people, such as the tendency to ascribe personality traits to them. From an evolutionary
perspective, much has already been made of the role of evolved psychological systems related to folk physics, biology, and psychology i.e.,
with respect to (hyperactive) agency-detection and theory of mind but these ideas too are merely a starting point in specifying the
evolved psychological mechanisms implicated in religious thinking. Whereas agency-detection and theory-of-mind mechanisms help to
explain why people readily ascribe agency, and in turn imbue perceived agents with beliefs, desires, and intentions, we will need to
incorporate numerous other psychological systems to understand details regarding the content of these ascriptions and attributions. In my
own work, for example, I have argued for the role of specialized evolved systems designed for negotiating functionally distinct kinds of
interpersonal relationships attachment, social exchange, intrasexual competition, kinship, coalitional psychology, and so forth each of
which is characterized by a distinct evolutionary logic and design (Kirkpatrick, 1999, 2005). Whether you deem a supernatural agent to be
a potential attachment gure or a social-exchange partner, for example, would be expected to affect the degree to which this agent is
deemed to be selessly invested in your welfare, or merely interested in your keeping your end of an implicit or explicit social contract.
Of course, this psychological level of analysis is only the starting point for a building-blocks approach to religious experience and to
religion generally. Like Taves, I have focused in this essay primarily on the psychological mechanisms and processes inside individuals
heads. Once people (each equipped with these same mechanisms and systems) begin observing and interacting with one another, additional
levels of analysis and the building blocks appropriate to those respective levels are required to understand how and why some religious
ideas spread more successfully than others, how coordinated group behavior (e.g., ritual) emerges, and how culture evolves over time and
space. In principle, these various levels of analysis should be connected in a vertically integrated manner, with anthropological and
sociological levels of analysis built on top of the psychological one. As Taves correctly notes, achieving such vertical integration within the
social sciences has so far proved elusive, in contrast to the natural sciences in which this crucial principle has long been taken for granted.
Fortunately, however, promising signs of progress have begun to emerge in recent years, as illustrated in a forthcoming forum in this journal
(guest-edited by Edward Slingerland and Joseph Bulbulia).
The problem of dening religion
One of the most vexing and long-standing problems in Religious Studies has been that of dening religion (and religious) in the rst
place. In the nal pages of her book, Taves (2009, p. 165) concludes that I do not think we need to worry so much about dening religion.
How can a eld carrying the moniker Religious Studies not worry about dening religion? The answer again involves Taves shift from an
of-religion to a psychology-of perspective.
For many of the same reasons as in Religious Studies, the Psychology of Religion has long been tied up in knots by the fundamental
problem of dening religion. Indeed, approaching the topic from a psychology-of perspective introduces an additional, corollary problem: In
order to conduct empirical research on religion one needs to somehow measure it. Consequently, debate over the denition problem in
Psychology has often taken the form of debate over measurement. Indeed, the Psychology of Religion has devoted so much energy to this
problem that, in a prominent review of the eld in 1988, a leading research characterized the eld as embracing a measurement paradigm
(Gorsuch, 1988). Although Gorsuch was probably well-intentioned in conferring upon the eld an organizing paradigm, this was frankly
something of an embarrassment, as it suggested that after decades of research, the eld had yet to move beyond this rst step.
There are at least two problems standing in the way of a consensus denition of religion or religiosity. The rst is that religion is highly
multifaceted, in the sense that it combines elements of belief, cognition, emotion, individual behavior, group behavior, moral reasoning, and
other dimensions. Any denition that focuses on any one facet to the exclusion of others will be incomplete, yet no one seems able to nd
the common thread that ties these facets together in a way that clearly differentiates religion from not-religion. The second problem is that
for any one of these facets, the distinction between religion and not-religion is fuzzy at best. Believing in gods who intervene in human lives
is unambiguously religious, but not believing that ghosts haunt ones house. Wearing a rosary is religious, but not carrying a rabbits foot.
A Catholic Mass exemplies religion, but the annual Super Bowl game of American football does not. Each facet is itself a slippery slope,
ranging from unambiguously religious phenomena to unambiguously not-religious phenomena, with a broad swath of grey area in
Once we adopt a strong psychology-of perspective, I believe the denition issue is a red herring, and that researchers are misguided in
assuming that a clear denition (and empirical measure) of religion is necessary to make progress on empirical research. It is of course true
that one must dene the phenomenon of interest, so one can measure it, so one can study it empirically; however, the point is that from
a psychology-of perspective, it simply doesnt matter a bit whether you call the phenomenon under investigation religion or not. There is
no good reason why we cannot proceed to investigate peoples beliefs about gods (or other supernatural agents), or their prayer activities, or
their emotional experiences while participating in rituals, without concerning ourselves at all with the question of whether the
phenomenon of interest constitutes religion.
From this perspective, it isnt clear to me whether Taves proposed solution for Religious Studies to cast a broader net and focus on
things deemed special will prove fruitful or not. In some sense this approach seems to just kick the can down the road, as it remains to be
seen whether scholars can agree on what constitutes special, or in turn what constitutes something set apart, any more than they can

L.A. Kirkpatrick / Religion 40 (2010) 300304


agree on a denition of religion. If so, it might a useful way for the eld of Religious Studies to dene itself. However, once we adopt
a psychology-of perspective to religion, trying to distinguish what things are special is likely to be no more helpful than, and is no more
necessary than, trying to distinguish what things are religious. From a psychology-of perspective, psychological phenomena are equally
worth studying whether they are deemed special or not, just as they are equally worthy of study whether we call them religious or not.
An analogy
To illustrate some of the ideas discussed above, it might be useful to consider how a psychology-of approach might be used to approach
a complex topic far removed from religion: sports. This is a useful analogy because the problems inherent in studying sports parallel those of
studying religion in many important ways, but about which (I presume) most of us have few deeply ingrained preconceptions or biases. Like
religion, sports can be studied with respect to its underlying psychology e.g., the psychological processes and mechanisms that motivate
and enable participating in them or with respect to the interpersonal and cultural processes underlying their (cultural) evolution and
institutionalization over time and place.
First, note that denitional problems abound: What is the difference, for example, between sports and games? Most of us would
agree that football is a sport, and Monopoly is a game, but which is bowling? Hunting is considered sport if done for enjoyment, but not if
the goal is to feed ones family or sell meat as a business; on the other hand, baseball is a sport whether played professionally or by kids in
the schoolyard. Poker is a card game, but professional tournaments are now televised regularly by cable televisions leading sports
network. Some sports involve competition between teams; others involve individual competition between two or more others. (Is golf
a sport if you play 18 holes on Saturday afternoon alone?) We could argue endlessly about such denitions, but with little to gain: Any
particular sport or game, or any particular aspect or feature shared by multiple sport-like things, can be studied empirically with nary
a concern about whether it constitutes a sport or not.
As in the case of religion, this denitional conundrum is exacerbated by a slippery-slope problem precisely because the psychological
(and cultural) mechanisms and processes that underlie sporting behavior and experience overlap considerably with those underlying games
and many other non-sport activities. The inter-individual competition inherent in many sports, along with its concomitant motivation and
emotion systems, has much in common with competition among academics or stock traders. Team sports have much in common with other
kinds of inter-group competitions (and intra-group cooperation) from the corporate world to warfare. Sport for pleasure bears resemblance
in many ways to other sorts of avocations, such as stamp collecting or gardening, whereas professional athletes share all of our concerns
about earning a wage to support their families. Spectator sports are similar in many ways to theater and music concerts with respect to both
the actors and the observers.
If, however, we abandon the attempt to precisely dene sports, our research programs can capitalize on the many similarities between
sport and non-sport things rather than be paralyzed by them. Drawing upon a building-blocks approach, we could identify the particular
psychological mechanisms and processes that underlie both sport- and non-sport things. Indeed, many of these processes would overlap
with those underlying religion, from theory of mind (e.g., anticipating an opponents intentions) to interpersonal competition for dominance and status, to coalitional psychology. At the next level of analysis, we could apply our knowledge of ritual behavior and cultural
evolution to understand organized sports and the annual ritual of the Super Bowl.
Is sport sui-generis? In this case the issue of ontological status is not applicable: Sports are, of course, neither true nor false. (This is an
obvious point where the analogy diverges from the study of religion, but it may be a useful divergence by allowing us to examine other
issues more clearly without this distraction.) However, it would certainly be reasonable to ask if there exist specic psychological processes,
emotions, etc. that are unique to sports, or whether sports reect a specialized psychological adaptation designed to produce them. My own
intuition, as with religion, is that sports probably involve no unique psychological mechanisms or adaptations, and can be explained in terms
of other non-sport-specic processes.
Within any eld dened by its object of study, like Religious Studies, rather than its conceptual and methodological approach, like
Psychology or Cognitive Science, there are numerous, seemingly insurmountable obstacles to creating a coherent, integrated perspective for
the discipline. In my reading, Taves recommended solution involves switching the focus for Religious Studies from an of-religion perspective
to a psychology-of (or cognitive science of) perspective, which in turn leads naturally to the kind of multi-level building-blocks approach that
characterizes any scientic enterprise. Although I admittedly have my own disciplinary biases, this switch seems to me to solve many of the
deep conceptual and meta-theoretical problems inherent in the of-religion approach.
There remains for the eld of Religious Studies, however, the conundrum of how it chooses to dene itself. I suspect that not everyone
will be on board with the idea of shifting away from an of-religion point of view, or of redening the eld more broadly in terms of special
things or the like. Although it is not my place, I would certainly encourage the eld to strongly consider her recommendations. Although
this again might reect my own disciplinary biases, it is difcult for me to imagine that there exist very many interesting questions one
might study regarding religion for which an understanding of the underlying psychology would not be invaluable.
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