Some Snippits from the Psychological Study of Religion

I am always fascinated by the variety of ways in which people try to scientifically test ‘religion’. Here are a couple of quotations I have come across recently that somewhat whetted my appetite.

“In practice, experimentation requires much effort, imagination, and resources. The subject of religion seems too complex and too ‘soft’ for the laboratory. It is filled with much fantasy and feelings, two topics which academic psychology finds hard to approach. One solution is to report on a naturally occurring quasi-experiment. In the first celebrated quasi-experiment in the literature, Francis Galton (1883) looked at the effects of prayer on health and longevity. He found that members of royal families, who were regularly wished long lives in their subjects’ prayers, did not live longer than those same subjects. They even died, on average, younger than their subjects! Similarly, relatives of the ‘prayerful’ did not recover any faster from illnesses than other people.”

From Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin, and Michael Argyle. 1997. The psychology of religious behaviour, belief and experience. London: Routledge, p. 47, citing Galton (1883) Inquiries into Human Faculties and Developments

I’m very interested in this sort of research, and intrigued that it was happening as early as 1883. Of course it is always going to be affected by all sorts of subjectivities, and by the ever present charge that any deity could intervene to influence the results of such attempts to scientifically test their influence… but interesting nonetheless.

“Darley and Batson (1973) wanted to test whether the parable of the Good Samaritan, taken from the New Testament and presented as a model of true altruism, would affect helping behaviour. In this story a traveller, robbed and severely beaten, is saved by a kind stranger. Christian seminary students, who had just read the parable, and some who were supposed to give a talk about it, were put in a situation where they could help someone in apparent distress. The experiment was well designed. There were two experimental variables, being exposed to the parable (or not) and being told to hurry, or not to hurry, in going to another office in order to help the experimenter. On their way to the office, after having met the experimenter and being asked to help, the students ran across a man who was clearly incapacitated. The results showed that the parable of the Good Samaritan had no effect on the students’ readiness to help, while the instruction to hurry did.”

From Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin, and Michael Argyle. 1997. The psychology of religious behaviour, belief and experience. London: Routledge, p. 47 citing Darley and Batson (1973) “From Jerusalem to Jericho…” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27, 100-108.

This doesn’t tell us too much about religion… the relevant text could have been anything ‘presented as a model of true altruism’… but I guess it shows that people behave as people in certain situations. It probably suggests something about the kinds of circumstances where people allow their ‘religion’ to influence their actions.

Just a couple of interesting little excerpts that caught my eye :-). If anyone knows of any interesting studies into similar areas, please do let me know.

 

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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

2 responses to “Some Snippits from the Psychological Study of Religion”

  1. David Shepherd says :

    I can’t offer many references to studies, but it does appear that both studies are flawed in their methodology if they are intended to: a) demonstrate the efficacy of prayer, and; b) demonstrate the efficacy of parables.

    ‘God Save the Queen’ may not extend the monarch’s longevity – but how many of the subjects truly desire it to be the case. Where there is a shared desire to assist there is some ‘evidence’ of success (http://www.godandscience.org/apologetics/prayer.html) while I am sure that there are plenty of examples where intercessionary prayers have not been answered.

    The Good Samaritan ‘experiment’ adds an element that was not in the parable. the parable is told to demonstrate the teaching that you should love your neighbour. The Jews and people of samaria had a history of emnity, so for the samaritan to help the Jew demonstrated the teaching. The injunction to ‘hurry’ from a person in authority does not feature in the parable, so making the experiment incomparable.

    Interesting though….

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