Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


COVID, Crisis and the Nature of Religion

Joanna Collicutt

What is the nature of human religiosity? For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, psychologists treated this area of human life as a disposition – something Gordon Allport termed a ‘sentiment’.[1] It was conceived as a kind of personality trait along which people varied: some are more religious than others. Personality traits can be operationalized into psychometrics. As these were developed it became clear that this quality is statistically associated with some undesirable attitudes, for example authoritarianism and prejudice against out-groups. So, there was a concerted attempt to fractionate religiosity and identify what William James[2] had referred to as its ‘healthy-minded’ aspects; this yielded a quality that looks rather like what many today might call ‘spirituality’.[3] Again, this has been treated as a personality trait,[4] and psychometric instruments designed to evaluate individuals’ spirituality are mushrooming, both in the field of psychology of religion but also in health psychology and medicine, where the overlap of ‘spirituality’ and ‘well-being’ is increasingly recognised.[5] 

But other psychologists have approached this quality not as a largely stable trait but as a dynamic state: Kenneth Pargament frames religiosity as an emergent property that ‘comes to life in critical situations’.[6] Crisis and trauma by their nature rock the settled assumptions on which our world views are built, rendering them provisional at best or unfit for purpose at worst. Religion is one way that we negotiate the deeply changed existential landscape that comes with crisis. Some (beginning with Freud) might argue that this reveals the nature of human religion as a psychic crutch, a form of collective neurosis to which we cling when things get tough. Pargament, on the other hand, insists that religiosity is an active psychological strategy ‘the search for significance in ways related to the sacred’[7] a powerful way of making meaning that is not inherently neurotic (though it may become so under certain circumstances). This is the dominant understanding of human religiosity in the discipline of psychology of religion today.[8]

Human beings are meaning-makers and we do this in multiple ways, the least important of which is the one we think of first: rational systematic philosophical argument. We go about it through creativity; ritual, communal or personal; engaging with the natural world; falling in love; appreciating beauty; telling and hearing stories; and attachment to those we perceive as skilled meaning-makers – the wise. Along the way we may experience critical moments of epiphany. At its best, religion offers the opportunity for all these things woven together in an integrated whole that seems to be more than the sum of its parts. Pargament notes that the meaning-making can be one that confirms the broader system of meaning we already inhabit, or productively challenges it so that it is transformed, expanded and enriched.

The psychosocial destabilisation wrought by crisis and trauma is hugely damaging, but it also offers the potential gift of an alternative reality into which we might step. The intensely researched area of ‘post-traumatic growth’ delineates some of the fruits of human engagement with meaning-making in response to crisis: new possibilities; closer relationships with others; a sense of personal strength afforded through having risen to the occasion; and a deepened appreciation of life.[9] We have seen this in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. There has been an explosion of creativity in the humble domestic sphere, in crafting work-arounds in local communities, and in responding to the multiple strategic challenges posed by the situation nationally and internationally. Community cohesion appears to have improved and there has been an increased appreciation of the natural world that has come into its own as human beings retreated indoors and pollution levels dropped. For the first time in many years, Mount Everest was visible from Kathmandu.

The mountain-top is traditionally the location for epiphanies, ‘peak experiences that are often thought of as the heart of spirituality and religion. Indeed ‘spiritual change’ is the final (if vaguely stated) area identified by researchers into post-traumatic growth. This has certainly been an aspect of the current situation. Tired and burnt-out religious leaders (at least in my faith tradition of Anglicanism) have rediscovered their sense of core purpose, liberated from an obsession with buildings and dogma to engage with social justice projects and worship in new ways online. Surveys indicate that many non-churchgoers have participated in such events because they are more accessible and anonymous,[10] but also perhaps because they are part of their ‘search for significance in ways related to the sacred’. 

But what will happen as the lockdown eases and a new kind of new normal emerges, not so radically different from the old? As pollution increases and nature retreats, will society re-fragment? Will social policies be kinder to the old, the homeless, the migrant, and those who serve them? Will spirituality also shrink back into its box until called for at the next personal or national crisis? In The varieties of religious experience William James was sceptical of the ability of human beings to integrate peak experiences and the epiphanies forced on us by crisis into the mundanity of our ordinary lives; we come down the mountain, we shut the window on to the alternative reality, and we forget:

There are moments of sentimental and mystical experience…that carry an enormous sense of authority and illumination with them when they come…and the rest of life either makes no connection with them or tends to contradict them more than it confirms them.[11]

If James is correct in this observation, as I think he is, the ability to integrate the insights achieved during lockdown will not come naturally to us; it will need curating and cultivating. That is what communal rituals of remembrance are all about, literally ‘re-ligio-us’ in their role in binding society together by reminding us that some things must not be forgotten. The social, environmental and indeed spiritual lessons of this lockdown need to become embedded in our consciousness and identity if our society is to flourish in the future, for ‘Growth occurs when the trauma assumes a central place in the life story’[12].

[1] Allport, G. (1950). The Individual and His Religion: A Psychological Interpretation. Oxford: Macmillan, 1950.
[2] James, W. (1902). The varieties of religious experience. Lectures IV & V. 
[3] Batson, C, Schoenrade, P, & Ventis. (1993). Religion and the individual: A social-psychological perspective. New York: OUP.
[4] Piedmont, R. (1999). Does spirituality represent the sixth factor of personality? Journal of Personality, 67, 985-1013.
[5] Dein, S., Cook, C., Powell, A., & Eagger, S. (2010). Religion, spirituality and mental health. The Psychiatrist, 34, 63-64. 
[6] Pargament. K. (2001). The psychology of religion and coping. New York: Guilford, p. 196
[7] Pargament, p.32.
[8] Park, C. (2005). Religion as a meaning-making framework in coping with life stress. Journal of Social Issues, 61, 707—29.
[9] Tedeschi, R. & Calhoun, L. (1995). Trauma and transformation: growing in the aftermath of suffering. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 
[10] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/03/british-public-turn-to-prayer-as-one-in-four-tune-in-to-religious-services 
[11] James, Lecture I.
[12] Tedeschi & Calhoun, p. 85.

Neurology and Religion edited by Alasdair Coles and Joanna Collicutt
Neurology and Religion edited by Alasdair Coles and Joanna Collicutt

About The Author

Joanna Collicutt

Joanna Collicutt is Karl Jaspers Lecturer in Psychology and Spirituality, Ripon College Cuddesdon  and lectures in psychology of religion at Oxford University. She studied experi...

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