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Handbook Psychology of Religion 2nd Ed - Book Review

 Handbook of the Psychology     

 of Religion and Spirituality

     2nd Ed.


   Raymond F. Paloutzian

    & Crystal L. Parks, Eds.

Reviewed by

  Geoffrey W. Sutton

As I write this review, world leaders, both secular and religious, have attempted to separate the heinous actions of murderous groups identifying with religion from the majority of people who practice their religion in peaceful ways. As the editors observe, the importance of religion and spirituality hardly needs justification. The editors and authors of the thirty-three chapters clearly focus their attention on a psychological perspective without ignoring the contribution of sociologists and anthropologists. They accomplish this by focusing on two meta-themes, which the editors propose will take scholars beyond the endless attempts at formulating definitions of the terms religion and spirituality. 

The first meta-theme views the study of religion in the context of meaning systems, which enable people to integrate their beliefs, feelings, and behavior with the ongoing stream of information one encounters in life. 

The second meta-theme is an affirmation of a “multilevel interdisciplinary paradigm,” which encourages researchers to examine any topic at any level of analysis in an effort to build a richer understanding. In this view, there is a place for the neuroscientist to examine the role of neurochemistry and neuroanatomy in religious experience as well as for the scientist collecting thematic material by interviewing practitioners about their experiences wherever they worship or practice their faith.

This handbook is divided into six parts that focus on progress since the first handbook was published in 2005. In reading the chapters and checking the dates on the references, I found that, for the most part, the authors provided sufficient context to track the historical trajectory of a particular subfield even though the focus is on the proliferation of research in the past eight years. Both the subject and author indexes are extensive and will serve readers well in tracking a particular topic. For example, entries for the following topics include multiple subtopics taking up more than half of a column: Developmental Psychology, Forgiveness, Meaning systems, Mental health, Moral concern, and Religious coping. In contrast, several high-profile media topics garnered a few pages of references (number in parentheses): abortion (1), homosexuality (4), LBGT or LGBTQ (0).


Part I consists of seven foundational chapters. I consider the first two chapters as two parts of a State of the Field report. The editors provide an overview of progress in chapter one, and chapter two reviews progress on defining the elusive concepts of religion and spirituality. The other basic chapters cover measurement, research methods, psychodynamic and evolutionary approaches, and cross-cultural comparisons. Part II consists of three chapters covering research on religion and spirituality through the lifespan.

 In Part III readers will find contributions to the study of religion from various disciplines within general psychology. These include neuropsychology, cognitive psychology, social psychology, cross-cultural psychology, and focal chapters on purpose, affect, and personality.

 Part IV consists of several classical issues. The lead chapter, by Crystal Park, re-iterates one of the key themes—Religion and Meaning. Other classic topics include spiritual struggles, spiritual transformation (conversion, deconversion), mystical and related experiences, ritual and prayer, fundamentalism, and two more recent areas of research—forgiveness and the role of religion in self-control.

 Part V has a pragmatic focus. Chapters focus on the interaction of religion and spirituality with health, mental health, coping, mindfulness, and psychotherapy. Two other chapters consider spirituality in the workplace and the link to terrorism.

 Part VI includes one chapter. The editors offer thoughts on directions for the future of the field. The lengthy chapter title refers to the future of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. The inclusion of spirituality is in itself evidence of change, as the field has been known for decades as simply the Psychology of Religion.

 This second edition of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality is a valuable tool for anyone interested in research and a richer understanding of how individuals and groups understand and practice their faith. In some ways, the discipline could be called the Psychology of Christianity. Thus, the book is of high interest to readers living in Christian cultures or wanting to understand the nuances of Christianity played out in the lives of its adherents, regardless of official church doctrines. This limitation to research on Christians is no fault of the handbook, but it does serve as a reminder that more research is needed to better understand that near universal aspect of human nature deemed religious or spiritual. 

Another issue a novice reader might conclude is that researchers understand this core aspect of human behavior by relying on surveys. There are some experiments, interviews, and comparative group studies, but surveys have, in fact, dominated the field. Given the increasing interest in religion and spirituality, this, too, should change in the years ahead as scientists build models and conduct studies likely to expand understanding in laboratory and field experiments as well as quality longitudinal studies.

 Clergy and other religious leaders are well aware that what is taught in places of worship or written in the Bible and other sacred texts is often at variance with the way people live out their faith. This handbook addresses the understanding of human nature and its relationship to religion and spirituality. This understanding is necessarily incomplete without considering the theological context in which people practice their faith, but in these thirty-three chapters, readers will find intriguing insights into how people pray, rely on the Bible and other texts for guidance, convert and deconvert from one belief system to another, and struggle with doubt. Of practical relevance to ministry are summaries of findings linking religious faith to a variety of health and mental health conditions. The growing body of research on the role of religion in terrorist activities might be of interest to some readers. I expect this book to be a tremendous resource for professors and students of religion and religiously linked interdisciplinary studies in seminaries and universities around the world.



Paloutzian, R. F. & Park, C.L. (Eds.). (2013). Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality, 2nd. Edition. New York: Guildford.

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