The science we know as psychology has its roots in the ancient cultures of the East. Our understanding of the human psyche is built on the framework which pre-dates the scientific method. It prompts us to ask some important questions. Has psychology grown past its ability to be compatible with religion? What is the psychology of religion and spirituality?
A familiar spark drives our desire to seek answers to the unknown. Both religion and science have different ways to approach this quest. Are they compatible or even complementary? All good questions.
The Psychology of Spirituality
We need to define the terms of the subject if we are going to find the answers to questions above. There are three main elements to this inquiry: spirituality, religion, and psychology.
What is Psychology?
Psychology is a complex blend of theory and verifiable fact. It comes from a long line of deep thinkers. The modern version of this discipline became a distinct branch of science in the 19th century (1).
The pioneers of psychology wanted to set it apart from philosophy and religion. They shifted the basis from esoteric philosophy to evidence, and the use of the scientific approach. Yet, the roots of these earlier esoteric traditions remain a part of its framework. The psychology of religion and spirituality will always be linked. The Latin word psychologia was first used by the humanist Marko Marulić in his book It was published in 1510.
Psychology is the study of thinking and behavior. It is a science which uses data to substantiate its conclusions. You can gather data directly or indirectly. For example, questionnaires are a direct method of gathering data. Observation is an indirect method of obtaining data. The trick is to interpret the data with accuracy.
Statistics help us determine the accuracy of the conclusions we derive from the data. When data is plotted on a bell curve, if the result falls within the top 1 to 3% of the bell curve, you a have reasonable degree of accuracy. Tools like the Enneagram have this kind of accuracy when administered correctly. Just because a tool is popular doesn’t mean it is accurate. The Myers-Briggs Indicator is an example of pseudoscience with little accuracy and reliability..
It’s also apparent that some other early psychology developers, like Carl Jung (1875-1961) Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), collaborated. So, it’s not surprising to find similar or identical ideas described in different ways.
One of the earliest forms of psychology is “Freudian Psychology,” which compartmentalizes thinking into three parts, the Id, Ego, and Super Ego. This structure mirrors earlier forms you find the tradition of the Enneagram, only with different labels. The Enneagram uses instinct, personality, and cultural narrative.
Claudio Naranjo (1932-2019), a medical doctor, continued to work on the Enneagram and other therapies like Gestalt. George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (1866-1877) was an explorer who developed his methods of psychological development. These scientists of consciousness wrote and published several works. It is obvious they all borrowed ideas from each other.
So, it is easy to conclude that modern psychology has its roots in the ancient systems of consciousness exploration. The advent of contemporary publishing methods helped to spread knowledge and theories.
On the other hand, the Freudian method assumes everyone has suppressed sexual issues. By focusing on one of the instinctual variants, it overlooks the other two, self-preservation and social. The Enneagram is, therefore, a more holistic approach.
There are several branches of psychology, each focusing on one aspect of human development.
What is the Psychology of Spirituality?
According to Immanuel Kant, religion is the codification of rules for morality. It’s not enough to have rules if you don’t have someone to police and enforce them; that’s where the concept of God comes into the mix.
Morality tells what is right and wrong. God is the supernatural entity that rewards those who obey and punishes those who disobey. These issues are what most people in the West equate with spirituality.
Spirituality deals with the spirit, which is synonymous with consciousness. Consciousness expresses itself in awareness. Psychology is merely the rebranding of the exploration of human thinking and behavior that you find in many ancient and indigenous traditions. We’ve already mentioned the Enneagram. It’s a precursor to modern psychology; we’ve mentioned the spiritual ties of psychology with its early investigators.
The psychology of spirituality is living life focusing on “we and not me.” What does living a life with this kind of focus? It is a positive action-based life with a wide-angle focus—it champions causes that benefit humankind and the planet.
What is the Psychology of Religion?
A Religion is a belief system that uses mythology and superstition as a basis for its answers. It centers o a higher power or God and codifies mortality “in relation” to the doctrines of their myths. Organized religions have many variations and sub-sects due to “divinely” inspired texts and teachers who put their spin on the dogma.
Some religions do not have an imaginary friend or enemy, like Buddhism, which focuses on approaching life as an experiment to enrich the lives of everyone and everything. According to Kant, religion is morality. (2)
The Psychology of Religion and Spirituality
Psychological disciplines come from the need to give credible answers to the operation of the human mind. There are many types or brands within the model we know as the psychological sciences.
However, some of the most well-known typologies are lacking in scientific validity. Yet they are still used because it has become popular like all things spiritual. One good example of a popular tool with absolutely no credible science is the Meyers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator system. The Meyers-Briggs Foundation created this test in 1917. It uses a questionnaire of varying lengths depending on the version and produces a wide variety of results for the same person.
Meyers-Briggs cannot provide clinically sound and reliable testing results, yet is championed by many in the consulting industry, using it as a basis for many other testing instruments. It “resembles” more reliable tools but is easily administered and incorporated into different tests.
At best, it provides a snapshot of how an individual may perform “today,” but the profile changes depending on the day, the mood, and the task. So, it is not a good indicator of personality type or instinctual stack.
On the other side are tools like the Enneagram Personality Profile and MMPI. These tools also use questionnaires, but provide repeatable and clinically reliable testing results. However, it is a much more involved test to administer and requires more work to ferret out the results. So, it is not used as much in business or clinical counseling because it requires a higher level of proficiency to administer.
Interconnected and Intertwined
The psychology of religion and spirituality is connected by similar subject dealing with the same core elements of spirit and soul. Are these elements enough to make them similar? Just because they talk about the same things doesn’t mean they are the same.
We know the branch of human understanding as the psychological sciences were born out of philosophy. It began as the experimental study of human behavior. In 1854, Gustav Fechner created a theory about how humans process experience and derive judgments. He conducted thousands of experiments which today are known as Signal Detection Theory.
Immanuel Kant questioned the validity of calling psychology a science in the first place, since the results cannot be quantified and validated correctly. He regarded it as another “theory of spirituality” (Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, 1786) (3). Psychology still fights to prove its validity as a true science rather than a philosophical approach.
“Psychology deals with the objects or phenomena given in internal experience and their relations, just as the natural sciences deal with the objects or phenomena given in external experience and their relations.” — Immanuel Kant
The field of spirituality is the source of religion and psychology—all three are attempting to answer the same questions. Most times, they share the same ideas. The purest form of spiritual exploration that exists today is in shamanism. Here, we find both process and metaphor, which seek to explain the domain of human experience.
Religion follows Shamanism. However, religion is absent any type of processes for exploration. It relies on mythology and superstition to derive its answers.
Spiritual Versus Religious Psychology
Many people view the psychology of religion and spirituality as two completely different approaches.
Religious psychology projects ideology as a pattern for describing aspects of the psyche. So, it is limited by the boundaries of the religion and the accuracy or lack thereof.
The psychology of spirituality looks at the psyche through methods that test its assumptions against evidence. So, it isn’t bound by the confines of any single worldview; it evolves with new facts. Religious psychology is a closed system, whereas spiritual psychology is open to revision with new findings.
“Spirituality is rebellion; religiousness is orthodoxy. Spirituality is individuality; religiousness is just remaining part of the crowd psychology. Religiousness keeps you a sheep, and spirituality is a lion’s roar.” — Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Osho
Religion boils down to theology based on mythology and superstition. It’s a way to explain the unknown using the linchpin of an imaginary friend. It uses this anchor on which to build any number of beliefs.
Once you buy into the idea of God, then religion provides you with any flavor of theology to control your mind. You suddenly become a “chosen one.” You become one of the few who “get it.” Once you are in the club, you must accept all the other things that come with the membership. You hate who the religion tells you to hate, and now you have God’s permission to do so—this is the psychology of religion.
“The object is evident in the name of the discipline. Similarly, theology (theologia) is the study of God. The object of theology is not the church’s teaching or the experience of pious souls. It is not a subset of ethics, religious studies, cultural anthropology, or psychology. God is the object of this discipline.” — Michael Horton
The psychology of spirituality seeks equality, justice, and sustainability for everyone and the planet. Spirituality is an action verb for “doing the right thing, with everyone and everything in mind.” The psychology of religion and spirituality couldn’t be farther apart.
Spirituality deals with the spirit and soul. These are ancient words synonymous with what we call consciousness. So spirituality is about exploring consciousness. Religion is about the promotion of mythology and superstition as fact. So spirituality and religion are not the same. Nor are they are not compatible.
Science is a structured way of finding truth using evidence. So this means science is not compatible with religion. Science can be compatible with spirituality to the extent they share the same goals.
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(1) A History of Modern, Psychology, Duanep/Schultz, University of South Florida
(2) Origin And Growth Of Religion, by Muller, F. Max, 1879 www.new.dli.ernet.in/handle/2015/181143
(3) Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, 1786, Translated by Ernest Beloet Bax 1883.