A Closer Look

Religion can be a loaded topic—particularly in psychology, where historically it has been an object of mistrust.

But in recent years, APA's Div. 36 (Psychology of Religion) has taken a different approach to religion and spirituality, seeing them as integral aspects of the human experience and therefore factors that should receive more positive attention in therapy and research, says Div. 36 President Lisa J. Miller, PhD.

"It is a highly represented hope in the division that we can offer something to psychology that broadly expands the theory and method by which we understand human experience, so that we better understand spiritual experience and its primacy in human development," says Miller, an associate professor of psychology at Columbia University who studies spirituality in children and adolescents.

The division's 1,315 members include clinicians and clinical researchers from a variety of backgrounds and affiliations, including both secular and religious schools, as well as social and personality psychologists and positive psychologists, whose research on human virtues overlaps with areas such as how spiritual or religious values may enhance well-being, says Miller.

"There is really a connection to a search for spiritual truth in human experience, and members share this connection across religious denominations," she says.

The division's raison d'etre is to promote scholarship and exchange in these and other areas. Its activities include a mid-winter meeting; symposia and other sessions during APA's Annual Convention; continuing-education workshops; and a newsletter. The division's most recent offering is its new APA journal, Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, which aims to beef up research in the field and is edited by division Past-president Ralph Piedmont, PhD, of Loyola College of Maryland.

The scholarship produced from such exchanges has led to a commensurate boom in the area's literature, notes Pepperdine University psychologist Edward Shafranske, PhD, who was division president in 1993–94, and again in 2001–02.

Over the last decade, the number of research citations in the area increased fourfold, Shafranske reports, and in the same period, APA published several books that address spirituality as a central aspect of psychotherapy, including one he edited that helped launch the area, "Religion and the Clinical Practice of Psychology" (APA, 1996).

Together, these developments show that "religion and spirituality are no longer forgotten factors in psychology and mental health," Shafranske says.

Catholic roots

The organization began in the 1940s as a group of Catholic psychologists who felt marginalized by the profession on one side and their institutions on the other. Eventually, they were more fully accepted in both spheres and voted to broaden the association's appeal by renaming it Psychologists Interested in Religious Issues, or PIRI, says former division President Mary Reuder, PhD.

After a struggle to become an APA division, PIRI finally gained acceptance in 1976. In 1992, the division renamed itself again as Psychology of Religion, a phrase more similar to other divisions' names and one with a solid academic history. Recently, in fact, members have discussed the possibility of expanding the name to Psychology of Religion and Spirituality to better represent the breadth of what it aspires to capture, Shafranske notes.

Over the years, the division has been led by psychologists of varying religious and other persuasions, including Catholics, mainstream Protestants and, most recently, evangelical Christians. The changes reflect those in society, observes Reuder: "In another 10 years it will be a totally different pattern," she predicts.

Despite the division's efforts to reach out to psychologists from all backgrounds, Reuder adds, it has been difficult getting members of religious persuasions other than Judeo-Christian to join—something the division plans to keep tackling, she notes.

The right direction?

Some division members are concerned that the subfield is too narrowly focused on clinical applications of religion and spirituality on the one hand and on research slanted toward only the positive aspects of religion and spirituality on the other.

Former Div. 36 President David M. Wulff, PhD, of Wheaton College in Massachusetts, for instance, expresses concern that the original intent of the field—to undertake a disciplined, nonsectarian scientific examination of a broad range of religious experiences, beliefs and practices—is being supplanted today by narrower, more sectarian agendas.

"I'd like both researchers and practitioners to take a more critical look at recent trends in the field, and to rethink what religion and spirituality are about and how we have been approaching them," he says. "Psychologists of religion would do well to be more open to today's more sophisticated qualitative methodologies, which bring a number of new tools to bear on the realm of human experience and its expressions."

Shafranske agrees the field has some growing to do, but he says that it is attempting to correct some of its shortcomings. For example, researchers are starting to lay a research foundation that more accurately defines and measures constructs, such as religion and spirituality, so that broader areas can be tackled in the future—a task he and other division members hope the new journal will address.

"We are still maturing," says Shafranske, "but I expect that in the future, the division will continue to play a vital role in the advancement of the field."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, NY.

At a glance

Div. 36 promotes research on religion and spirituality; encourages using such research in clinical and and other applied settings; and fosters dialogue between research and practice on the one hand and between religious perspectives and institutions on the other. The division is nonsectarian and welcomes the participation of all those who view religion as a key part of human functioning. The division's quarterly Psychology of Religion newsletter contains original articles, book reviews, announcements and news of interest to its members. Visit www.apa.org/divisions/div36.


Division President Dr. Lisa Miller studies the relationship between spirituality and mental health.