Tag Archives: psychology of religion

Firefly and the Psychology of Religion — Complete Series

Here are the links to the entire series on Firefly and the Psychology of Religion.


Malcolm Reynolds’ Loss of Faith Part One — Firefly and the Psychology of Religion

Malcolm Reynolds’ Loss of Faith Part Two — Our Father Who Ain’t Good For Much, Fei Hua Be They Name

Malcolm Reynolds’ Loss of Faith Part Three — We Are Just Too Pretty for God to Let Us Die
Malcolm Reynolds’ Loss of Faith Part Four — God Ain’t Welcome
Malcolm Reynold’s Loss of Faith Part Five — Where Do We Go From Here?

Malcolm Reynolds’ Loss of Faith Part Five- Where Do We Go From Here?

This series on Firefly and the Psychology of Religion is written by Dr. Charles Hackney. Chuck is associate professor of psychology at Briercrest College and Seminary, and author of the book Martial Virtues: Lessons in Wisdom, Courage and Compassion from the World’s Greatest Warriors.
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In this series of posts, we are employing the theoretical and empirical literature in the psychology of religion as we examine the character Malcolm Reynolds (“Mal”), and the loss of faith that accompanied his defeat at the Battle of Serenity Valley. A crisis of faith like Mal’s is often a turning point, after which a person’s religious life is never the same. This could result in a turning away from religion, or a deepening and maturing of one’s faith (Exline & Rose, 2005). In previous posts, we examined factors in Mal’s family background, and the nature of his faith, that may have predisposed him to react to his defeat with apostasy. We then examined Mal’s resentment toward God, using Julie Exline’s research on the topic. Today, we wrap things up by considering Mal’s future.

Will Mal be able to get past his resentment toward God? When Exline and colleagues (2011) conducted their study of cancer survivors, it was in the context of a one-year follow-up. Firefly is set six years after the Battle of Serenity Valley, and the film Serenity takes place in the year after that. Mal has retained his resentment toward God for seven years. Mal’s emotional state seems to have worsened at the beginning of Serenity. His moods are darker, his approach is more ruthless, and one of his crewmembers comments that he has “driven” two other crewmembers off the ship through his behaviour. This deterioration may be explainable in connection with other factors, such as the abortive nature of his relationship with the character Inara or the increased stress of trying to survive outside of Alliance control, but it is also consistent with the research literature on the emotional and relational correlates of religious struggle.

However, during the events of the film, Mal seems to turn a corner. He reconnects with lost friends, he chooses to make a principled stance in the face of evil, and at the end of the film he makes a speech about the power of love. It is possible that these events will lead him toward some sort of resolution, either a return to a renewed and more mature form of his earlier faith (Exline & Rose, 2005) or the establishment of a more secure irreligious identity (Strieb et al., 2009). It is unfortunate that Firefly was so prematurely cancelled, as we will not have the opportunity to observe Mal’s long-term grappling with matters of faith and meaning, or to reflect on what Mal’s struggles might have shown us about our own struggles.

Another unfortunate result of Firefly’s early demise is the conspicuous lack of evidence on which we can base an analysis like this one. With so few clues present in the series and the film, these posts have by necessity been short on data and long on speculation. What can be said is that the few bits of data that are available to us line up fairly well with the existing scholarly literature on the psychology of religious struggle and apostasy. Your feedback on these posts has been appreciated, and further input is welcome.

References:
Exline, J. J., & Rose, E. (2005). Religious and spiritual struggles. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality (pp. 315-330). New York: Guilford Press.
Exline, J. J., Yali, A. M., & Lobel, M. (1999). When God disappoints: Difficulty forgiving God and its role in negative emotions. Journal of Health Psychology, 4, 365-379.
Strieb, H., Hood, R. W., Jr., Keller, B., Csöff, R. M., & Silver, C. (2009). Deconversion: Qualitative and quantitative results from cross-cultural research in Germany and the United States. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Malcolm Reynolds’ Loss of Faith Part Three- We Are Just Too Pretty for God to Let Us Die

This series on Firefly and the Psychology of Religion is written by Dr. Charles Hackney. Chuck is associate professor of psychology at Briercrest College and Seminary, and author of the book Martial Virtues: Lessons in Wisdom, Courage and Compassion from the World’s Greatest Warriors.
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In this series of posts, we are employing the theoretical and empirical literature in the psychology of religion as we examine the character Malcolm Reynolds (“Mal”), and the loss of faith that accompanied his defeat at the Battle of Serenity Valley. A crisis of faith like Mal’s is often a turning point, after which a person’s religious life is never the same. This could result in a turning away from religion, or a deepening and maturing of one’s faith (Exline & Rose, 2005).

In the last post, Mal’s family background was examined in light of Paul Vitz’s “defective father hypothesis.” Today, we examine another of the “risk factors” that may have predisposed Mal to respond to Serenity Valley with apostasy: the relative maturity of his faith.

When we see Mal in the Battle of Serenity Valley, there is no questioning the sincerity of his faith. But the maturity of that faith is a separate matter. We are shown only one clue in connection to this issue in the Battle of Serenity Valley. Mal announces his intention to shoot down an enemy aircraft, and when his comrade Zoe asks if he thinks that they can succeed, Mal holds up the cross that he wears around his neck and says, “You even need to ask?” What we see here is Mal connecting his belief in God to victory in battle.

This kind of “magical thinking” (a focus on supernatural forces bringing about what one wants) characterizes what Gordon Allport (1950) called “immature religion.” When confronted with suffering and evil, the religiously-immature person typically cannot continue as before. “A faith centered in self-advantage is bound to break up” (p.120). The outcome of such a crisis will either be an intensification and maturation of one’s faith, or else a collapse into turmoil and doubt. Allport recounts two cases of veterans (both of Protestant upbringing) who were severely wounded in battle. One’s reaction involved a deepened spirituality and commitment to God, while the other became a militant atheist.

Religious struggle provides opportunities for either psychological growth or deterioration, depending on how one handles the situation (Raiya, Pargament, & Magyar-Russell, 2010). One aspect of this is the attempt to find an explanation for one’s struggle that fits within the pre-existing religious framework. Hunsberger, Pratt, and Pancer (2002) examined how young people dealt with their struggles and religious doubts. Those who sought out and consulted “anti-religious” literature for guidance were more likely to have become less religious two years later, while those who sought out “pro-religious” literature were more likely to have increased in religiousness and decreased in doubt two years later.

Would Mal’s religious struggle have ended differently if he had “done his homework” after Serenity Valley? It is impossible to say, but a study of scripture and history might have shown Mal that, whether one is talking about the Christian samurai at the Battle of Sekigahara, the fall of the Roman Empire, or Israel enduring the Babylonian Exile, being one of “God’s People” has never guaranteed victory in military conflicts.

In the next post, Mal’s disappointment and anger toward God will be discussed in light of Julie Exline’s research on religious struggle.

References:
Allport, G. W. (1950). The individual and his religion. New York: Macmillan.
Exline, J. J., & Rose, E. (2005). Religious and spiritual struggles. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality (pp. 315-330). New York: Guilford Press.
Hunsberger, B., Pratt, M., & Pancer, S.M. (2002). A longitudinal study of religious doubts in high school and beyond: Relationships, stability, and searching for answers. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 41, 255-266.
Raiya, H. A., Pargament, K. I., & Magyar-Russell, G. (2010). When religion goes awry: Religious risk factors for poorer health and well-being. In P. Verhagen, H. van Praag, J. Lopez-Ibor, J. Cox, & D. Moussaoui (Eds.), Religion and psychiatry: Beyond boundaries (pp. 389-411). London: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Malcolm Reynolds’ Loss of Faith Part Two- Our Father Who Ain’t Good for Much, Fei Hua be Thy Name

This series on Firefly and the Psychology of Religion is written by Dr. Charles Hackney. Chuck is associate professor of psychology at Briercrest College and Seminary, and author of the book Martial Virtues: Lessons in Wisdom, Courage and Compassion from the World’s Greatest Warriors.

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In this series of posts, we are employing the theoretical and empirical literature in the psychology of religion as we examine the character Malcolm Reynolds (“Mal”), and the loss of faith that accompanied his defeat at the Battle of Serenity Valley. A crisis of faith like Mal’s is often a turning point, after which a person’s religious life is never the same. This could result in a turning away from religion, or a deepening and maturing of one’s faith (Exline & Rose, 2005). Today, we examine one of the “risk factors” that may have predisposed Mal to respond to Serenity Valley with a loss of faith.

The psychology of atheism (lack of belief in a god or gods) and apostasy (renunciation of one’s religion) are understudied topics when compared to the research that falls within the category of “psychology of religion,” whether one chalks this discrepancy up to ideological biases within the social sciences (Stark, 1999), or to less sinister methodological difficulties (Bainbridge, 2005).

Psychologists who examine the irreligious, in the same way that psychologists of religion investigate variables that influence conversion into a faith (e.g., Granqvist & Hagekull, 2001), investigate variables that influence deconversion out of a faith. One such investigation involves the effect of family background, and one’s childhood relationship with one’s parents, on the way in which one views God.

In the Firefly episode “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” Mal mentions having grown up without a father. Instead, he was raised by his mother and “about forty hands” on his mother’s ranch. Paul Vitz (1999), Professor of Psychology at NYU, argues that some atheists adopt their position as the result of unresolved difficulties involving their fathers. Vitz employs the same logic that Sigmund Freud used in The Future of an Illusion (Freud, 1927) to explain belief in God. Freud connects belief in God to a desire for a caring and protective father. One’s feelings toward one’s father are connected in Freudian psychoanalysis to the Oedipus complex (Freud, 1913), which occurs as a part of natural personality development between the ages of three and six.

Children at that age begin to comprehend the concept of gender, and they feel attraction toward their opposite-sex parent (yeah… Freud was a twisted little freak-monkey who had sex on the brain). This makes the same-sex parent a rival, and the child experiences hatred and resentment toward the same-sex parent. Even if this conflict is resolved in a relatively healthy manner, Oedipal urges are never entirely dispelled. But if the Oedipus complex is not properly resolved, it may result in a fixation at that stage of development, influencing the way in which the child comes to understand authority and sexuality. As Freud describes God as a projection of our father image onto the universe, a desire to be loved and sheltered by one’s father can result in a desire that there be a loving and sheltering “heavenly father.”

Vitz extends Freud’s theory, connecting rejection of God to unresolved Oedipal issues that result in animosity toward one’s own “defective” father. Such animosity may come about for a number of reasons, including the father being “absent through death or by abandoning or leaving the family” (Vitz, 1997, p.9), as is clearly the case with Mal’s father.

As Gordon Allport put it nearly five decades before Vitz, “It seems curious that Freud insists that belief in God is a projection of dependence and love associated with the earthly father, he overlooks the fact that by the same token atheism may be construed as the projection of ambivalence or hatred associated with the male parent” (Allport, 1950, p.118). As partial support for his “defective father hypothesis,” Vitz offers profiles of such prominent atheists as Karl Marx, Madelyn Murray O’Hair, Baron d’Holbach, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Sigmund Freud himself, all of whom had fathers who were absent or weak or abusive. Mal’s fatherless childhood may have predisposed him to respond with resentment when God appeared to fail him at Serenity Valley.

In the next post, we will use the very few clues that are available to us to consider the maturity of Mal’s faith before the Battle of Serenity Valley.

References:
Allport, G. W. (1950). The individual and his religion. New York: Macmillan.
Bainbridge, W. S. (2005). Atheism. Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, 1, 1-24.
Exline, J. J., & Rose, E. (2005). Religious and spiritual struggles. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality (pp. 315-330). New York: Guilford Press.
Freud, S. (1913). The interpretation of dreams (A. Brill, trans.). New York: Macmillan.
Freud, S. (1927). The future of an illusion. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
Granqvist, P., & Hagekull, B. (2001). Seeking security in the new age: On attachment and emotional compensation. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 40, 527-545.
Stark R. (1999). Atheism, faith, and the social scientific study of religion. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 14, 41-62.
Vitz, P. C. (1997). The psychology of atheism. Paper presented at New York University. New York, NY.
Vitz, P. C. (1999). Faith of the fatherless: The psychology of atheism. Dallas, TX: Spence.

Malcolm Reynold’s Loss of Faith Part One– Firefly and the Psychology of Religion

This series on Firefly and the Psychology of Religion is written by Dr. Charles Hackney. Chuck is associate professor of psychology at Briercrest College and Seminary, and author of the book Martial Virtues: Lessons in Wisdom, Courage and Compassion from the World’s Greatest Warriors.

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The television show Firefly centres around a crew of misfits who operate on the space vessel Serenity. The show is set in the distant future, a time in which Earth had become overpopulated and humanity responded by moving out into space and terraforming a large number of planets and moons into suitable habitats. At the time in which the events of the show take place, the inhabited planets had recently been unified, with or without their consent, by the Alliance. Malcolm Reynolds (often called “Mal”), the captain of Serenity, had fought on the losing side of this conflict, and he and his crew now eke out a living on the fringes of the Alliance, supporting themselves through smuggling and other criminal activities.

In the pilot episode of the series, we see that Mal took part in a pivotal battle (the Battle of Serenity Valley) between the Alliance and the “Independents” who resisted the Alliance’s hegemony. Mal was a Sergeant in the Independents’ forces, and he is shown to have been a person of cheerful optimism and sincere Christian faith. Mal believed that God would provide victory for the Independents and their righteous cause. When the Independents were crushed by the Alliance, Mal’s faith was similarly crushed. Six years later, Mal (now captain of a space ship named after the place of his defeat) has become hardened and embittered (though he retains a sense of humour and a deep nobility of character), and he demonstrates resentment toward God in particular and religion in general. In the few episodes of Firefly that were produced, and the spinoff film Serenity, this is demonstrated primarily in his interactions with Shepherd Book, a wandering priest who joins Mal’s crew.

Topics in this series of posts will include an examination of Mal’s loss of faith, drawing from the small but growing research literature on the psychology of religious conflict and apostasy. Certain “risk factors” in Mal’s background and personality, known to increase the likelihood of apostasy, will be identified. Mal’s reaction to the Battle of Serenity Valley will be analyzed as a case of disappointment and anger directed toward God. Finally, questions will be raised about Mal’s future as it relates to this issue.

Part Two: Malcolm Reynolds’ Loss of Faith Part Two- Our Father Who Ain’t Good for Much, Fei Hua be Thy Name

Part Three: Malcolm Reynolds’ Loss of Faith Part Three – We Are Just Too Pretty For God to Let Us Die

2010 in Review — Top Posts

Last week I posted my favourite posts of 2010. Today I list the top posts based on page hits.

10. Big Tent Christianity. My contribution to a synchroblog back in August.

9. Why Christians Shouldn’t Worry About the Neuropsychology of Religion. A guest post by Charles Hackney.

8. Training Up Pastors — Issues for Female Pastors. Part of the Training Up Pastors series that I wrote.

7. Training Up Pastors — Going to Seminary. Another installment in the Training Up Pastors series.

6. A Letter to the Church in North America — Canada. This was part of a synchroblog I participated in.

5. Canadian Christian Blogs. I have put a permanent link to this ever-growing list of fantastic blogs up at the top of my blog.

4. Vampires, Werewolves and Christians, Oh My! I loved this post. Of course any time I can bash Twilight, it’s a good day.

3. Clark Pinnock — Obituary and Write-ups. This was just a post linking to some of the great tributes to Pinnock after his passing.

2. Genesis 1-3: Asking the Wrong Questions?

1. Christians and Immigration. I wrote this post as part of a synchroblog. It continues to get hits every week through weird google search terms like, “how canada churchs can helps me imagrate to canada”.

Up and Down, Up and Down

This is our fifth and final installment on Psychology and Religion with Dr. Charles Hackney. Check out the previous articles in the series:

Moral Psychology and Smell
Psychology and the Book of Ecclesiastes
Questing Without Becoming a Spineless Wimpy Lily-Livered Milquetoast
Why Christians Shouldn’t Worry about the Neuropsychology of Religion

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Our Spiritual Cognitions Go Up and Down, Up and Down, Up and Down:
by Charles Hackney

Today, we will be taking a cognitive approach to religion. Cognitive psychology is the study of the ways in which we process information. Recently, Brian Meier and colleagues used the tools of cognitive psychology to investigate the ways in which we process information about spiritual matters.*

God, being a spirit, cannot be directly perceived using our physical senses, so we are provided with symbols that convey something about God. For example, we shelter under God’s wings (Ruth 2:12; Psalm 17:8; Psalm 36:7; Psalm 57:1; Psalm 61:4; Psalm 63:7; Psalm 91:4), even though he does not literally have physical wings. The same goes for God’s arm (Isaiah 42:10), hand (Exodus 7:5), feet (Nahum 1:3), and nostrils (2 Samuel 22:16). God is also described in terms of light (2 Samuel 22:29), fire (Deuteronomy 4:24), lightning (Psalm 29:7), and the sun (Psalm 84:11). These things tell us about God, revealing a piece of truth in terms that we can understand.

The symbols Meier and colleagues investigated involve vertical space. In a series of experiments, they tested the idea that people will automatically associate the divine with highness.

In the first experiment, the researchers found that participants processed words associated with God (like “creator” and almighty”) faster if they were paired with words associated with the concept of “up” (like “high” and “above”), and they process words associated with the Devil (like “demon” and “Satan”) faster if they were paired with words associated with the concept of “down” (like “bottom” and “descend”).

In the second experiment, participants processed words associated with God faster if those words were placed higher on a computer screen, and they processed words associated with the Devil faster if those words were placed lower on the screen.

In the third experiment, participants were shown pictures, and later asked to remember where those pictures had been on the computer screen. There was a tendency for participants to recall God-related images as having been higher on the screen than they actually had been, and to recall Devil-related images as having been lower on the screen than they actually had been.

In the fourth experiment, participants were asked to look at pictures of strangers and guess whether or not those strangers believed in God. The higher on the computer screen the pictures were, the more likely people were to guess that the stranger was a believer.

Taken together, the results of these experiments show that people tend to make automatic connections between God and being “up.” I have seen this in my own ways of approaching God. Even though I know (at an intellectual level) that God is not actually located above my head (especially given our existence on a spherical planet), I am more likely to raise my head when I pray than to point my head toward the lower left corner of the room. If I feel humbled, I am more likely to lower my eyes than to raise them or shift them off to the side.

In the Bible, we also see God being given an elevated location. Moses went up Mount Sinai to meet with God (Exodus 19). Psalms 120 through 134 are the Psalms of Ascent, sung by pilgrims going up to Jerusalem. The author of Psalm 144 asks God to “reach down your hand from on high” to rescue him. Jesus was lifted up in the same way that the bronze serpent was lifted up (John 3:14). After the resurrection, Jesus was “taken up” into the sky (Acts 1:9).

Why this powerful connection between God and height? Why does scripture describe God as being “up,” when technically God is equally accessible in all directions?

I guess it’s the psychologist in me, but my first thought is to go to the power of early childhood experiences. We come into the world, surrounded by people on whom we are utterly dependent. These people are tremendously stronger than we are, considerably more knowledgeable, able to accomplish feats that are beyond our comprehension, and yes, very much taller than we are. This may be one reason why parental language is also prominent in the Bible’s descriptions of God. Our early lives are spent “looking up” at these powerful caregivers, so when we think of God, we automatically “think up” at him.

Thank you for joining us in this series on the psychology of religion.

*Meier, B. P., Hauser, D. J., Robinson, M. D., Friesen, C. K., Schjeldahl, K. (2007). What’s “up” with God? Vertical space as a representation of the divine. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 699-710.

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Chuck is Associate Professor of Psychology at Briercrest College and Seminary and author of Martial Virtues. Originally from Fairbanks, Alaska, Chuck has been living in Canada since 2003. He is married to a beautiful Canadian woman, me!

Moral Psychology and Smell

This is the fourth article in our series on Psychology and Religion with Dr. Charles Hackney.
For previous entries, check out:
Why Christians Shouldn’t Worry About the Neuropsychology of Religion
Questing Without Becoming a Spineless Wimpy Lily-Livered Milquetoast
Psychology and the Book of Ecclesiastes

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Don’t Be a Fustilarian
Charles H. Hackney, PhD

“The Smell of Virtue: Clean Scents Promote Reciprocity and Charity” was published this year in the journal Psychological Science.* The authors, a team of researchers from Brigham Young University, University of Toronto, and Northwestern University, performed two experiments in which participants were exposed to different kinds of smells and asked to engage in moral activities.

In the first experiment, half of the participants were led to a room that had been sprayed with citrus-scented Windex, while the other half were assigned to an otherwise-identical room with no added scent. All of them were then asked to play an “investment” game that involves trusting another player with in-game money. Whatever money the “investing” player entrusts to the “receiving” player gets tripled, and it is then up to the “receiving” player to decide how much to give back to the original investor. All the participants were told that they were playing the “receiver,” and that the other player had entrusted them with all of their cash. So how much money would they give back, and how much would they keep for themselves? Participants in the Windex-scented room returned almost double the amount returned by those in the no-scent room!

In the second experiment, a new set of participants were again divided into clean-scent and no-scent rooms. This time, they were asked to work on a packet of paperwork that included a flyer requesting volunteers for Habitat for Humanity. The participants rated how interested they were in volunteering, as well as their willingness to donate money to the cause. There was significantly more willingness to volunteer demonstrated among those who sat in the Windex-scented room.

*sniff sniff* Ahhhh...morality.

The connection between morality and concepts like cleanliness and purity is a strong one. Jonathan Haidt’s research indicates that “purity” is one of the five foundations of morality (the others being harm, fairness, authority, and loyalty). In 1605, Francis Bacon wrote that “cleanness of body was ever esteemed to proceed from a due reverence to God, to society, and to ourselves” (The Advancement of Learning), which later became the saying “cleanliness is next to godliness.”

In the Bible, a large amount of the Old Testament Law is based on images of cleanness. One example of this is the rituals surrounding the Day of Atonement. Aaron the High Priest was required to bathe and put on a special set of clothes before approaching the Ark of the Covenant. The man who handled the scapegoat (which carried the sins of the people) also had to bathe and wash his clothes before he could come back. The remains of the sin offerings had to be burned, and the one who burned them also had to bathe and wash his clothes.

The connection between moral purity and scent is also found in the Bible. Ecclesiastes 10:1 compares foolishness to the stench of spoiled perfume oil. Several of the Old Testament sacrifices are described as a “pleasing aroma” to the Lord, but when the people become corrupt, the smell of their sacrifices make God sick to his stomach (Isaiah 1:13). 2Corinthians 2:14-16 says that Christians are “the aroma of Christ” to God, and that other people will find that aroma to be either the smell of life or the smell of death.

Your vocabulary word for the day is “fustilarian.” Webster’s Dictionary defines a fustilarian as “a low fellow, a stinkard, a scoundrel.” The word comes from the same root as “fusty,” which means “smelling of mildew or decay,” like old furniture or a rotting log. And what should be done to a fusty fustilarian? A fusty fustilarian deserves to be fustigated! (“Fustigate” means “to hit someone with a large stick”)

So see to it that your morals are not stinky, and you just might avoid a severe beating.

Next time, we will take a look at a cognitive study examining religion and height.

*Liljenquist, K., Zhong, C., Galinsky, A. D. (2010). The smell of virtue: Clean scents promote reciprocity and charity. Psychological Science, 21, 381-383.

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Chuck is Associate Professor of Psychology at Briercrest College and Seminary and author of Martial Virtues. Originally from Fairbanks, Alaska, Chuck has been living in Canada since 2003. He is married to a beautiful Canadian woman, me!

Psychology and the book of Ecclesiastes

This is the third in our series on the psychology of religion. In previous posts, we discussed the neuropsychology of religion and C. Daniel Batson’s “Quest” orientation.

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Today, we are taking a look at a topic that is near and dear to my heart, as it involves the subject of my doctoral dissertation: terror management theory. I first heard about this theory when I was in graduate school, and my first reaction was surprise at the strong connections that I saw between this theory and one of my favorite books in the Bible: the book of Ecclesiastes. So here is a very brief run-down of the basics of terror management theory, and how it relates to Ecclesiastes.

Terror management theory (TMT) was developed by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski, a team of social psychologists. These psychologists were inspired by the ideas of Ernest Becker, and wanted to see if Becker’s ideas could be translated into a testable psychological theory. TMT is based on a set of principles of human nature, principles that are said to lie beneath our motivations:
(1) Humans are unique in our ability to think about the future.
(2) This advanced cognitive ability brings with it an awareness of our inevitable mortality.
(3) This awareness clashes with our natural desire for self-preservation (this is where the terror comes from).
(4) Human motivation is based on the many ways available for dealing with this anxiety.

“We’re all going to die sometime. It’s only a question of how and when. You will too, Captain. Don’t you feel time gaining on you? It’s like a predator; it’s stalking you. Oh, you can try and outrun it with doctors, medicines, new technologies, but in the end, time is going to hunt you down… and make the kill.” –Star Trek: Generations

The primary way of dealing with our death anxiety is by searching for something that has meaning in the face of death. At a broader level, our basic beliefs about the world and our place in it (called the “shared cultural worldview” by TMT scholars) buffer against this existential terror by reassuring us that the reality of death does not render our lives meaningless, that we still have value, and that we will somehow deny death. Death is denied when we attain either literal or symbolic immortality. Literal immortality is commonly promised by religious worldviews, telling the adherents that they will live after death. Symbolic immortality is found when we do something that will “live on” after our own deaths; examples include having children, creating works of art, getting your book published, participating in politics and shaping society, and having a bridge named after you. For those who want a good introduction to the theory, research and application of TMT, I recommend In the Wake of 9/11, written by the creators of TMT.

Ecclesiastes is also a story about the search for meaning in the face of inevitable mortality. The author (identified as “Qohelet,” a word meaning “Teacher” or “Preacher” or “Leader of the Assembly”) is an old man looking back at his life, asking what it has all meant. The answer is twelve chapters of “not a whole heck of a lot.” Qohelet is rich and powerful enough to do pretty much whatever he wants, and he sets out to try and answer the question of life’s meaning. The results are depressing, and all because of death. He tries living as a party animal, he sets himself to study and increases in wisdom and knowledge, he amasses wealth, he commissions great building projects (Ecclesiastes 2).

What he finds is that it is all ultimately meaningless. Money is great, but then you die and everything you worked to accumulate goes to someone else. Wisdom is great, but then you die and you’re just as dead as the biggest idiot to ever walk the Earth. Buildings with your name on them are great, but then you die and then who knows what will happen to them? Pleasure is great, but it’s a bit hard to enjoy the party knowing that the grim reaper is sitting there staring at you like Banquo’s ghost.

“Death stalks you at every turn! DEEEEAAAAAATH!”

About the best thing you can do with life is try to chisel a few bits of fun out of this pathetic existence before you snuff it (Ecc 9:7-10).

The only thing that “saves” Ecclesiastes (and saves me from reacting to this teaching by getting depressingly drunk) is the conclusion. Having examined and rejected all sorts of possible sources of meaning “under the sun,” Qohelet finally finds something meaningful. He doesn’t find it under the sun. Instead, what he says is: “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” (Ecc 12:13-14).

In TMT terms, Qohelet rejects all forms of symbolic immortality as ultimately unsatisfying. Only the literal immortality found in one’s standing before God can truly “buffer” against the psychological threat posed by inevitable mortality.

Another upside to this focus on literal immortality over symbolic immortality is that, once one’s life is aligned with what really matters, the rest of it (which had previously been meaningless) becomes infused with eternal meaning. Work, play, family, art, science, all of the things done “under the sun” suddenly find the meaning that otherwise disappears like a vapor when they are pursued as ends in themselves.

Now, having narrowly avoided crippling existential depression, we’ve come to the end of this brief examination. Next time, we will shift gears a bit and focus on a specific study that I found fascinating, and talk a bit about what morality smells like.

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Chuck is Associate Professor of Psychology at Briercrest College and Seminary and author of Martial Virtues. Originally from Fairbanks, Alaska, Chuck has been living in Canada since 2003. He is married to a beautiful Canadian woman, me!

Questing Without Becoming a Spineless Wimpy Lily-Livered Milquetoast

This is Part Two in the Psychology of Religion series. Check out part one here.
In today’s installment we are examining the concept of religious orientation, with an emphasis on C. Daniel Batson’s “Quest” orientation and the ways in which this concept can be misused by Christians.

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Questing Without Becoming a Spineless Wimpy Lily-Livered Milquetoast
Charles H. Hackney, Ph.D.

Research in the psychology of religion tends to move from the primitive to the complex, and the movement often follows a certain pattern. When psychologists investigate how religion is involved with some psychological or social phenomenon (volunteerism, for example), the first question tends to be “Does it make a difference if the person is religious?”, and we see studies in which the researcher is doing something like comparing self-identified churchgoers versus non-churchgoers in relation to the psychological phenomenon (so, to continue the example, a study might compare the average volunteerism rates for churchgoers versus non-churchgoers to see if being religious is associated with more volunteering). If the researcher wants to get more sophisticated, the next question tends to be “Does it make a difference how religious the person is?”, and then we get things like correlations calculated between scores on religiosity measures and the number of hours spent volunteering. The next level of sophistication often involves the question “Does it makes a difference in what way the person is religious?”

The primary approach to this question comes to us from one of the key figures in the psychology of religion, Gordon Allport. Allport proposed a fundamental distinction between what he called “immature” and “mature” religion. This was later rephrased as “Extrinsic” and “Intrinsic” religious orientations. According to this approach, two people can be equally “religious” (defined in terms of things like going to worship services and attending Bible studies and bringing homemade pumpkin cake to a church potluck), but be religious for very different reasons. The Extrinsically-oriented “use” their religion as a means to some other end, such as community networking, emotional comfort, or the opportunity to meet nice girls. The Intrinsically-oriented “live” their religion as an end in itself. Worship through song, for example, is not valued because it feels uplifting, it is valued because it is worship and God is worthy of praise.

C. Daniel Batson proposed a third orientation, called “Quest,” in which religion is seen as an ongoing journey in which we grapple with the difficult questions of existence in a lifelong process of learning and growing. Batson and Shoenrade’s Quest scale assesses three aspects of Quest-oriented religion: 1) “readiness to face existential questions without reducing their complexity,” 2) “self-criticism and perceptions of religious doubts as positive,” 3) “openness to change.” In connection to one of the best movies ever made, I will refer to people with kind of orientation as “Questarians.”

The idea of being a Questarian works on a number of levels. Theologically, it is vital to recognize the tentativeness of our ideas about God and the Christian life, and to be willing to change our minds if we encounter a better theology than the one we currently embrace. Stanley Grenz, for example, states that “all theological assertions are historically conditioned” (p. 6) and that “no theological system encompasses reality in its fullness. The topics the theologian studies—God, the human person, and the world as a whole—lie ultimately beyond the ability of the human intellect to grasp fully. Therefore, every theological system will have limitations.” (p. 10). Stephen Moroney, in his examination of how sin influences our ability to reason, points out that the mind of a Christian is not instantly, or fully, purged of the distorting effects of sin. So an acknowledgement that our best attempts to answer important questions will always fall short of perfect truth is a correctly-humble attitude to take. The idea of life as a journey has scriptural support (Philippians 3:12-14), and fits with the work of a number of Christian scholars who take a “narrative” approach to understanding the Christian life. There are also philosophers and psychologists who have focused on understanding a human life in terms of “narrative” and “quest.”

The psychological research on Quest orientation has generally been favorable toward this approach to living one’s faith. The data seem to indicate that Questarians are more helpful, less prejudiced, more morally-principled, less willing to simply accept what others tell them to believe, just in general more way-cool types than non-Questarians. So should all us Christians be balls-to-the-wall Questarians? It works theologically, philosophically, psychologically… to quote another great film, “How is this a bad plan?”

Not so fast, Jacopo. Like most things, there’s a right way and wrong way to go about this. Quest can go wrong when it stops being a “quest” so much as an “aimless wandering.” There seems to be some overlap between the ideas expressed by the concept of “Quest” and less desirable concepts such as “struggling with doubt” and “sophomorically rejecting orthodoxy.” So it’s important to distinguish between them.

Doubt can be a good thing, though seldom a fun thing. Gordon Allport argues that the “mature religious sentiment” is “fashioned in the workshop of doubt.” Similarly, Dostoevsky says, “My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.” Like the physical exertion necessary to build muscles, and the mental exertion necessary to cultivate the intellect, Quest religion is a struggle that can result in greater spiritual strength. But doubt can also cripple and poison one’s faith life. I found Philip Yancey’s advice for doubters helpful. In his book, he gives eight tips for turning unhealthy doubt into healthy doubt. I have found the first tip to be the most valuable: “Question your doubts as much as your faith.” Not all doubts are reasonable. We have been told (correctly) that our faith must be strong enough and our beliefs well-supported enough to withstand questioning. What happens if we turn that spotlight on the nagging doubts? Which of those are powerful enough to withstand questioning?

The second issue is the reason for the title of this post. Healthy questing is not the same thing as a blanket rejection of anything touched by words like “tradition” or “orthodoxy.” In 1902, William James complained about the “one-sided absolutizing” that kept getting in the way of having intelligent discussions about religion. It’s been a hundred and eight years; things haven’t improved. We still tend to polarize issues, push them to extremes, and demonize anyone who doesn’t line up 100% with our way of thinking. Talk to some Christians, and you might get the impression that you must either be a full-bore fundamentalist or a radical liberal, with nothing in between. The moment you start questioning why we believe what we believe, someone will accuse you of stepping on the slippery slope to relativism. Say anything suggesting that maybe your parents’ generation did something right, and someone will accuse you of being a roadblock on the path of progress. Quest religion is especially vulnerable to this second extreme, as questions and the individual journey are given priority over the acceptance of institutional forms and received teachings. This makes it easy for people to toss around perfectly good concepts (like Quest) as lame excuses for developing a self-centered approach to the Christian life. If there is something that I do not like in the church, saying that I’m on a quest is a perfect excuse for walking away. (I will refer to these individuals as “PseudoQuestarians”)

This is not to say that there is never a time or place for the individual taking a stand against the group, and this is not to devalue individuals wrestling through tough issues and coming to conclusions that might differ from others’ conclusions. What I am talking about is the temptation to dress up moral and intellectual laziness with smart-sounding words. Like rebellious teenagers who talk big about thinking for themselves, and end up rebelling in precisely the same way that their friends rebel, a PseudoQuestarian’s “personally-developed” theology is likely to precisely mirror whatever positions are currently popular, rejecting “traditional” Christian ideas at exactly the points where “traditional” Christianity diverges from the current zeitgeist. This is why a PseudoQuestarian is a spineless wimpy lily-livered milquetoast, projecting a façade of rugged intellectual individualism over unthinking conformity.

While a Quest approach will encourage us to acknowledge our ignorance, it does not require us to abandon the concept of truth. PseudoQuestarians may talk about orthodoxy being “limiting,” or their approach as “transcending boundaries,” in the name of “inclusiveness,” but without limitations and boundaries, a quest becomes aimless wandering. Let’s look at three illustrations.

I play World of Warcraft (“The first Step is admitting that you have a problem.”). For those of you who have never played, a central feature of the game is the completion of quests. A non-player character will offer you an assignment, with a reward promised when you complete it.

This structure is inherently limiting. If I want the reward, then I must do what the quest-giver wants, and if I make an individual choice not to do what the quest-giver wants, I will not get the reward. If the quest is to slay twelve Murlocs, with a high-quality dagger as the reward, and I choose instead to slay fifteen Furbolgs, then I’ve chosen not to receive that dagger. There certainly is freedom and choice involved if I want the dagger (if I so desire, I could kill the Murlocs on the north end of the coastline instead of the south end, or I could choose to kill six Murlocs, then get in some fishing, then kill the other six), but it is a contextualized and bounded freedom.

Second example (one of my favorites): The Hobbit. JRR Tolkien’s story is a classic example of a quest. “Far over the Misty Mountains cold, To dungeons deep and caverns old, We must away, ere break of day, To seek our pale enchanted gold.” This, too, is a set of limitations on the actions of Bilbo and the dwarves. Stay on the path. Do not deviate from it. Avoid getting eaten. Slay the dragon (somehow). This is also an example of the roles of both ignorance and knowledge in a quest. At the beginning of the journey, Bilbo had no idea how to kill a dragon, had no idea how tremendously useful a magic ring could be, and had no idea of his own potential as a friend and a fighter and a burglar. This does not mean that Bilbo abandoned all forms of knowledge about the quest. He knew about the gold and the dragon. He knew that Gandalf was a source of trustworthy knowledge. He knew that there would be dangers (though he did not know exactly what they would be).

Third example: Pilgrim’s Progress. In this allegory, the main character (“Christian”) is on a quest to get to the Celestial City. This story is loaded with all the things that a Questarian would appreciate. Christian never once claims to have all the answers, in fact it seems that half the time he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. Christian is willing to go against the advice of his family, his community, the people of Vanity Fair, and characters such as Timorous and Mr. Worldly Wiseman. Christian’s path is filled with doubt and struggle, including having to slog through the Slough of Despond, to escape from Doubting Castle, and to avoid Legalism, Formalism, and Hypocrisy. However, Christian is by no means free to pick and choose what he believes, but submits to instruction from those who know the path better than he does. Every time Christian turns away from the path, he ends up in trouble, and the path can only be legitimately accessed by the Wicket Gate. In fact, one of the characters (Mr. By-Ends) prides himself on his freedom to live by the spirit of the times and go with the flow when it comes to religion. When Christian says that questing toward the Celestial City means “you must go against wind and tide… you must also own Religion in his rags, as well as in his silver slippers; and stand by him, too, when bound in irons, as well as when he walketh the streets with applause,” By-Ends accuses him of “imposing” and “lording it over” By-Ends’ faith (sound familiar to anyone?).

There is a difference between being on a quest and doing whatever you want. A quest is defined by its goal, and the methods that lead the Questarian toward that goal are not infinite. Progress in the Quest means sticking to the path.

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Up next in this series, Terror Management Theory and the book of Ecclesiastes.