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The Psychology of Religion: A short Introduction
Book Review
Naumana Amjad

Book Name:          The Psychology of Religion: A Short Introduction

Author:                  Kate M. Kowenthal

Publisher:             Oxford: Oneworld Publications

ISBN:                      1-85168-212-0


The relationship between science and religion has gone through many stages from total rejection to tentative acceptance to efforts at building interface between science and religion. The current attempts at meaningful science-religion discourse with the aim to discover areas of mutual relevance was initiated in physical sciences, and psychology seems to have followed suit albeit reluctantly. Despite the substantial early work of William James, the status of religion as a legitimate subject matter for psychology, during the greater part of the twentieth century, remained peripheral, an area no respectable religion experimental psychologist will venture upon. For the social scientists, religion remained a set of practices supporting a belief system which might or might not have any psychological benefit.

This situation has changed and publication of books and research journals on psychology of religion are now undertaken more often. This will perhaps help remove the reservations (a polite word for blinkers) Pakistani mainstream psychology academia has harboured about the study of religion for many decades. I can recall (now with amusement, though at that time it was highly discouraging) the difficulty I faced in getting a research proposal on Meditation approved by the department where I teach. A senior professor of applied psychology exclaimed: “You should have gone to the Islamic Studies department.” There were always hints that religious experience could only be included as a sub-hypothesis, that the main effect should be some other factor like attribution or coping or depression. Students were hard put to find a supervisor who could agree to supervise a dissertation on religiosity or spiritual attitude. Hence it gives me great pleasure and sense of camaraderie to read and review this book The Psychology of Religion by Kate M. Lowenthal.

The book under review is written by a psychologist who teaches a course on psychology of religion. This simple statement is a prelude to the comments that follow. In my opinion, the author’s experience has equipped her with the balanced scholarly approach that characterises this book. Years of facing queries from students who are trying to place and understand a supra-rational human experience and human behaviour through the paradigms and tools of empirical science can only make one cautious as well as objective in approaching this area.

The plan of the book is very logical. It begins by examining and tracing the course which the relationship between religion and psychology has taken over time. The author acknowledges that the study of religion has mainly focused on Christianity and considers the limiting effects of this trend. The learned author has somewhat tried to make amends by including brief but balance introduction to five major religions of the world. This is followed by a detailed examination of religious behaviour including rituals like prayer as well as religious discourse. This is the first book, to my knowledge, which has given attention to religious conversion and included accounts of factors which lead to change of faith. The division of religion into behaviour and experience, inner and outer, is a useful one, and bears witness to the author’s clarity of conception in this domain.

The chapter on religious feelings discusses both positive and negative feelings like guilt and shame, and provides evidence for their link with mental health, well being and psychology.

The last chapter examines the effects of religion on behaviour, thought and feelings. The role of religion in promoting or dealing with prejudice is analysed objectively by presenting up-to-date research evidence and avoiding unsupported conclusions or assumptions. The same chapter also deals with issues of identity belonging to religious faith, and how it helps in coping with stress. Logically, this same religious identity can also be related to inter-group prejudice and the author brings relevant research to inform readers of this relationship. Each chapter is concluded with a summary which must be helpful to students and serves a rehearsal function for long term storage as well as links to next chapter.

We find in the book just the right combination of caution and conjecture which blends well with the subject matter. However, the author has firstly and lastly maintained a true scientific inquiry and unbiased style.

The reviewer can sense a sympathy which is well concealed, but it is so refreshing to find in someone balancing between sheer selling religion for psychological benefits and equally biased and convenient naiveté that attempts to “explain away” religion. None of these approaches comprises honest inquiry. Both do not do their homework. Hoewethal has done better.

She has done her homework well, maintained a good research standard throughout, and has refrained from venturing into areas for which she has not found the evidence, or where research has not been done.

As a truly welcome and long awaited work, it will be an invaluable source book for students in this area and reference guide for future researchers.

Despite these merits, I find certain theories simplistic. For example, the treatment of inner life is brief, and omits research on meditation. There is a substantial body of work in Buddhist psychology which is hardly attended to. Although the sources consulted for research are impressive and fairly exhaustive, I sincerely feel that a little more attention to the research published journals from Islamic countries would have enriched the passing reference to Islam.

The book is aimed primarily at the beginners level, hence the brevity. It can be emphasised that each theme – inner life, religious behaviour, etc. – can be developed and enlarged into a detailed treatment. Since most of the empirical research is in Christian faith, the author cannot be blamed for lopsidedness in this regard. But research is available on religious coping,1 aggression among students of religious schools,2 spiritual attitude and well being,3 on perception of God and its relationship to depression,4 and on effect of parental loss on Coping with Stress,5 to quote a few only from Pakistan.






1. See, Rukhsa na Kawthar and M. Akram, Cognitive Appraisal and Coping of Patients with Terminal Versus Non-terminal Diseases, Journals of Behavioural Science, vol. 9, no. 1-2 (1998), 13-28; Nu‘mana Amjad, Study of Religious Meditation: Effect on Well Being, Journals of Psychology, vol. 1, no. 4 (Lahore, 1999).

2. See, Shazia Agha and Ruhi Khalid, Aggression among School Children, A Comparison of Religious Schools (Madrasahs) and Mainstream Schools, Master’s Research Thesis, Department of Applied Psychology, University of the Punjab, (Lahore, 1997).

3. See, Nu‘mana Amjad, Traditional Islamic Science of Behaviour and Modern Empirical Psychology: Points of Convergence and Conflict, Islamic Thought and Scientific Creativity, (1996).

4. See, Maryam Hayder and N.Y. Faruqi, Perception of God among Psychiatric Patients, Master’s Research Thesis, Department of Applied Psychology, University of the Punjab, (Lahore, 2000); Rukhsana Kawthar, Cognitive Appraisal and Coping in Physically Disabled Peopled in Pakistan, Pakistan Journal of Psychological Research (forthcoming).

5. Rukhsana Kawthar, Effect of Parental Loss and Gender of Adolescents on their Coping with Stress, a paper presented in the Fifth International Muslims Psychology Conference held in Lahore on February 16-18, 2001.

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