The psychology of religion tries to study religion so far as it can be explained psychologically. Dan Merkur in his “Psychology of Religion” in The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion (ed. John T Hinnels) notes that some devotees of religion are not terribly pleased about such attempts as it seems to reduce religion to psychology. Others however see it as a way of purifying religion of the things which are human.
Seth D Kunin’s book Religion: the modern theories, also explores psychological approaches to the study of religion. He reminds us that as well as Freud and Jung, William James has had a very important role in modern thinking on the psychology of religion.
William James was born in New York, and was the son of theologian Henry James (1811-1882). His most important work, The varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature meant that as well as being considered a leading psychologist – one of the inventors of American psychology, he was also considered a leading philosopher and religious thinker. James called his own lectures which formed the basis of the book a “descriptive survey” of the varieties of religious experience but this was only part of the story. In fact they defended James pragmatic view of religion against other psychology accounts of religion which saw it as an abnormal state of mind, or attempts to reduce religion to an intellectual activity. William James defined religion in terms of individual experience. He writes:
“religion … shall mean for us the feeling, acts and experience of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they consider to be divine.” (James, 1902)
James does not make any comment about whether the divine exists and he does not suggest that religion has a single source in the human psyche. Religion is not uniquely found in one or other way of understanding (theological, sociological or psychological) so James is different from theologians, sociologists and psychologists who claim religion is comprehensively explained from their exclusive vantage point as a discipline (a way of explaining).
James thinks that religion has a function in making aspects of life which are intolerable, tolerable. It is fairly clear that people often rely on religion to help us face the challenges of suffering, illness, loss and death. Religion also helps us to get by as individuals in society.
Dan Merkur writes about James’ particular interest in the study of the process by which a non-religious person became religious – conversion. In other words James is interested in how religion differs from what we could call irreligion? This led him to look at religious experience- seen as a feature of conversion (remember Saul in the New Testament for instance). He observes that religious experiences all include four elements: they are ineffable, authoritative, limited in duration and the mystic is passive. Religious experience is much more important than religious institutions in James’ view and this should really be the main focus of the study of religion. Without those religious experiences leading to the formation of religion, the institutions would never exist. Psychologists then are in a particularly good position to study religion because they are experts in the study of the mind and that is where experience is located.
So while James provides a psychological defense of religion against Freud and others who see it in rather negative terms he also identifies experience as being an important feature of the study of religion rather than simply doctrine or institution. This is rather more challenging for traditional theological ideas of religion and religious traditions.