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The Psychology of Religion -- A Book Review by Sutton




Ralph W. Hood, 
Peter C. Hill, &
Bernard Spilka.

Reviewed by 

Geoffrey W. Sutton

This is the book I wish I had when taking my first course in the Psychology of Religion in the early 1970s.  I can certainly recommend this book to professors and to anyone who wants to learn more about the scientific study of religion. Perhaps my only advice would be to check out the latest edition.

I read and taught from the fourth edition of this classic psychology of religion text, which provides an important survey of the state of empirical research in the psychology of religion and spirituality. When I wrote this review, I had just finished teaching a course titled the Psychology of Religion and was pleased I had chosen this text because of the comprehensive and balanced overview the authors offer. 

All of the authors are psychological scientists. New to this edition is Peter Hill, Professor of Psychology at Biola University’s Rosemead School of Psychology. Ralph Hood is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Bernard Spilka is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Denver.

The authors aim “to present a comprehensive evaluation of the psychology of religion from an empirical perspective (xii).” They recognize the cultural trends that have influenced recent research. First, the emergence of numerous studies on spirituality adds a nuanced dimension to the traditional study of the psychology of religion. Second, the authors note the impact of research funds from the John Templeton Foundation. Third, religious fundamentalism, evident in the attacks of September 11, 2001, have stimulated much research and commentary in the past decade.

The authors cover a broad range of topics in 13 chapters with an epilogue. In the first three chapters, they provide a broad foundation for understanding religion, an empirical approach to the psychological study of religion, and the biological basis of religious behavior. They review the problem of defining the construct religion along with the related notion of spirituality. Although the authors do not formally divide the text into discrete units or sections, the next four chapters examine religion through the lifespan with chapters on childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and aging. The final chapters cover various topics including conversion, mysticism, morality, health, psychopathology, and coping. The epilogue addresses the need for theory and thoughts about the future of this growing field. The end material contains an extensive reference list that provides a significant basis for further research (pp 489 – 596) as well as author and subject indexes. I would suggest a glossary for future editions.

Although the authors did not organize the text in terms of a particular theory, they discuss a variety of promising theories related to the variables under discussion. Two theories that show promise in explaining a broad spectrum of phenomena are attribution theory and coping theory. Of particular value in organizing the material are various tables that present pertinent survey data, examples of measures, and key constructs with various definitions. The text also includes research boxes containing helpful summaries of studies that have had an impact on the field.

The Psychology of Religion is more than an academic textbook. It is a helpful summary of this growing field for educated readers interested in gaining an in-depth overview of the subject matter along with a comprehensive reference list to guide further investigation. I think it would be of particular relevance for clinicians interested in the integration of psychology and religion and spirituality. Readers will find that most studies deal with the psychology of Christianity in the United States and other English speaking countries. This limited scope reflects the state of the field and not the omission of the authors. In addition, as the authors often remark, most research is heavily dependent on self-report measures. Clearly, the field is ripe with opportunity not only because of the limited availability of carefully designed empirical studies but also because of the expanded interest in religion and spirituality from a scientific and clinical perspective.

Since this book was written, a number of handbooks have become available. Nevertheless, I think there will always be a need for a textbook for undergraduates. Future editions should continue to meet this need. As of 2020, there is a fifth edition available.


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