Cover Story

In the late 1970s, Bowling Green State University psychology professor Kenneth Pargament, PhD, yearned to expand the small body of psychology research on spirituality and religion. Rather than tackle the task alone, Pargament formed a faculty-student research group with the hope that he would not only maximize his efforts and enrich the work, but also inspire the next generation of religion researchers.

"I have always thought the best way to do research was through a team," says Pargament, "particularly in religion--where we all come with our different points of view and it is so important to get different perspectives."

The group, recently named SPiRiT--Spirituality and Psychology Research Team--still thrives nearly 25 years later and has published and generated promising work on the helpful and harmful roles religion and spirituality play in people's lives. What's more, SPiRiT has attracted students and faculty from virtually every religious tradition--Buddhists, Hindus, Catholics, Jews, Christians, Muslims--as well as atheists.

"We insist on sensitivity and respect for all the views," says Pargament. "That has been the glue that holds us together."

The current group has 16 student members and two faculty advisers--Pargament and psychology professor Annette Mahoney, PhD. SPiRiT meets every Wednesday to assess the approximately 15 to 20 research projects they are juggling at any given time, brainstorm new research directions, assign research roles or offer feedback on a dry run of a dissertation defense or other research presentation.

To keep the research focused, SPiRiT concentrates on four topics:

  • The role of religion as a resource--or burden--in coping with life stress. For example, one study examined problem-solving as a collaborative effort between individuals and God. They found that this type of problem-solving was fairly common, and that it was helpful to people across a variety of situations.

  • Sanctification--defined as perceiving an aspect of life as having divine significance and character, such as seeing God manifest in marriage. They have found, for example, that viewing a marriage as sacred is linked with marital satisfaction, better problem-solving and collaboration, and less hostility. The group also examines desecration--or a violation of something sacred.

  • The effectiveness of psychospiritual intervention--such as the blending of spiritual resources into therapy. A recent SPiRiT study showed that a spiritual component in therapy was helpful for women coping with cancer.

  • Religion and the family--specifically, how parents and children experience religion together. For example, a recent student's dissertation research found that parents and children who talked about their religious beliefs were closer and had less conflict than those who didn't discuss religion.

The group is careful to look at both sides of the religion coin, says Mahoney, who leads SPiRiT's research on religion and family. They study not only how religion and spirituality can be helpful, but also the "in-depth ways religion can go awry," she says. For example, in one study the group found that losing something considered to be sacred is connected with feelings of depression and sadness, she says.

Influencing careers

While Pargament says watching SPiRiT's research program unfold has been rewarding, he's most proud of the many students who have used the experience to shape their professional goals.

"Initially, [SPiRiT] was something students did in addition to their studies," he says. "Now most of the students are interested in doing this for their careers."

Take, for example, fourth-year graduate student Gene Ano, who aims to continue his research on religion and include a spiritual component in a clinical practice after graduation.

"This group has had a profound influence on my career, in terms of the way I think, the way I interact with people and in terms of the way I think about religion," he says. Ano, who transferred to Bowling Green from a private Christian school because he wanted a more diverse perspective about religion, has learned to appreciate what other religions bring to the table and the value of studying spirituality empirically.

Luckily for Ano, there are now opportunities in research and practice for students with religion research training, says Pargament. "In the last 10 years, there has been more openness to students with training in spirituality," he explains.

In fact, many former SPiRiT members are successfully integrating their training into their academic and clinical careers, including Regent University psychologist William Hathaway, PhD, who incorporates spirituality into his clinical practice (see page 40), and Nalini Tarakeshwar, PhD, who has developed a psychospiritual intervention for women with HIV/AIDS through the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS at the Yale University School of Medicine.

Without a doubt, Pargament says, working and brainstorming with SPiRiT students over the years has sustained his own interest in religion and spirituality.

"They have helped to teach me about the richness of religiousness and my own particular biases and blind spots," says Pargament. "And as a group, we support each other and remind each other that the psychological study of religion and spirituality is not 'weird.' What's weird is that psychology has tended to overlook a dimension that is so central to the lives of so many people. So, to me, this is learning at its best."

Further Reading

For more information on SPiRiT, visit www.bgsu.edu/departments/psych/Facultyprograms.html/SPIRIT.htm.

  • Mahoney, A.M., Pargament, K.I., Jewell, T., Swank, A.B., Scott, E., Emery, E., et al. (1999). Marriage and the spiritual realm: The role of proximal and distal religious constructs in marital functioning. Journal of Family Psychology, 13, 321-338.

  • Miller, W.R. (Ed). (1999). Integrating spirituality into treatment: Resources for practitioners. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Pargament, K.I., Cole, B., Vandecreek, L., Belavich, T., Brant, C., & Perez. L. (1999). The vigil: Religion and the search for control in the hospital waiting room. Journal of Health Psychology, 4, 327-341.

  • Zinnbauer, B.J., Pargament, K.I., Cole, B., Rye, M.S., Butter, E.M., Belavich, T.G., et al. (1997). Religion and spirituality: Unfuzzying the fuzzy. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 36, 549-564.