Archive for Sunday, September 28, 2003

Psychology, spirituality ‘destined for partnership’

September 28, 2003


Carl Jung believed religion was central to being human, while another 20th century giant in psychology, Sigmund Freud, thought religion a mass neurosis.

Psychology and religion seem to me to be rivals, at least a little. They live in the same neighborhood, know a lot of the same people -- but wouldn't want to be confused by a passing stranger.

Nevertheless, lots of people commit themselves to a chair in a therapist's office or a seat in a church, synagogue or mosque with the same goal in mind: greater calm or life satisfaction.

I sense that psychology and religion are getting a little closer these days.

Some psychologists are starting to scrutinize religion -- or, to use the more comfortable and trendy word, spirituality.

Todd Little, Kansas University associate professor of psychology, notes that researchers now focus on prayer, on attendance at religious services, on social interactions and on people's feelings about how religious they are -- all as separate aspects of religious experience.

In a recently published study, Little and two former graduate students from his days at Yale surveyed 744 seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders. They were looking at five aspects of religious life to see which were most strongly linked to depression.

Little found that the social experience of religion -- whether the kids felt supported or not by the members of the church or synagogue -- had the biggest influence on the absence or presence of depression.

How much support the kids felt they were getting was more closely linked to depression than how often they went to church or engagement in private spiritual practices like prayer.

"Religion and spirituality are very much a social activity," Little said. "When you're in a congregation that's providing a lot of support -- great. When you're in a congregation that's making a lot of demands -- not so good."

We need, as human beings at any age, to feel related to the groups we belong to, Little says, but we also need to feel as if our differences from the group are respected.

Little's paper, published in the Journal of Clinical and Adolescent Psychology, mentions in passing some studies involving adult religiousness and depression.

It seems that for grownups, being religious in order to receive favors is associated with depression. So, too, is seeing the negative things that happen to oneself as God's punishment.

I said earlier that psychology and religion share a kinship. But in one regard, they are divided, according to Kenneth Pargament, a psychology professor at Bowling Green State University.

Pargament, contends that psychology is about increasing peoples' feelings of control over their lives. Trouble is, accidents and losses rob us of that feeling.

Spirituality, Pargament writes, helps us deal with what he calls the "significant portion" of our lives that is utterly beyond our control.

Because humans need both a sense of personal power when they're near one of life's frightening edges and a way to navigate when they go over that edge, psychology and spirituality are, I suspect, like it or not, destined for partnership.

Roger Martin is a research writer and editor for the Kansas University Center for Research and editor of Explore, KU's research magazine Web site, which can be found at Martin's e-mail address is

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