In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Psychology and Religion

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Research Methods
  • Development
  • Transformation
  • Death and the Afterlife
  • Evolutionary Theories

Psychology Psychology and Religion
Kathryn A. Johnson, Matthew J. Scott, Jordan W. Moon, Adam B. Cohen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0066


Interest in the psychology of religion seems to wax and wane with current trends in psychological research. At the beginning of the 20th century, many of the founding fathers of psychology—notably William James—were intensely interested in religion. However, as behaviorists and psychoanalysts came to dismiss religion as either irrelevant or as psychopathology, religion fell out of favor in psychology. In the 1950s, however, social psychologists began to approach religion from an empirical perspective. Attention in the field was largely directed toward religious orientation, addressing questions related to prejudice, altruism, and mental health. These approaches continue today. There is also a discussion of religion in cognitive science today. Coupled with advances in evolutionary psychology, recent theorizing in the field approaches religion as based on a complex of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that may either be adaptive or arise as by-products of other processes. The attacks of 11 September 2001 seem to have spurred this growing interest in religion.

General Overviews

The psychology of religion is a rapidly developing field, and no single unifying theory explains individual and group religious experience. Psychoanalysts and research psychologists approach the psychology of religion in very different ways. Moreover, the field draws on a number of academic disciplines, including philosophy, sociology, anthropology, religious studies, economics, political science, and (rarely) theology. Paloutzian and Park 2005, Spilka and McIntosh 1997, and Fuller 2008 provide topical and/or theoretical overviews of the field. Putnam, et al. 2010 is written by political scientists who provide a historical overview of religion in America to the present day.

  • Fuller, Andrew R. 2008. Psychology and religion: Classical theorists and contemporary developments. 4th ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

    In addition to a much-needed discussion of phenomenological approaches to the psychology of religion, this book includes a valuable chapter on Alan Watts’s theorizing about Eastern religions.

  • Paloutzian, Raymond F., and Crystal L. Park. 2005. Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality. New York: Guilford.

    Provides an excellent collection of in-depth articles on the diverse themes within the psychology of religion, including religious struggles, mystical experiences, fundamentalism, and meaning systems.

  • Putnam, Robert D., David E. Campbell, and Shaylyn Romney Garrett. 2010. American grace: How religion divides and unites us. New York: Simon & Schuster.

    An easy-to-read book meant for the general public, filled with statistics on religion in America over the past fifty years.

  • Spilka, Bernard, and Daniel N. McIntosh. 1997. The psychology of religion: Theoretical approaches. Boulder, CO: Westview.

    Tackles diverse perspectives in regard to theorizing about religion, with essays ranging from a discussion of attribution theory to the presentation of a sociocognitive model.

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