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Psychology of Religion


I. Methodological Premises - II. Criteria for a Psychological Interpretation of Religiosity - III. Religiosity’s Interpretative Models - IV. Religiosity as a Multidimensional Process - V. Religiosity and its Motivational System - VI. Towards a Process of Continuing Education to Religious Maturity - VII. New Religious Movements.

I. Methodological Premises

Psychology of religion takes into consideration behaviours and attitudes a person or a group define as religious, because they are connected with faith in a supernatural being or with a view of life which does not exclude the sacred dimension and seeks to understand its motivational factors.

As a positive science, based on the study of psychological constants and variables in the origin and structuring of the religious attitude, the psychology of religion does not amount to a deontological study of a person’s duties or of some specific moral needs to meet, nor does it amount to a rational study deducing what have to be the dimensions of a “healthy” or a “genuine” religiosity, neither it is a psychology drawing on theological premises, meant to describe and to interpret the effects on human behaviour of supernatural factors. Remaining faithful to its specific and qualified viewpoint, it stops one from sliding onto an interpretation level that would turn it into a pseudo-science, exclusively used by spirituality, while forcing it to lose its own total and indispensable autonomy.

The deep empirical imprint of psychology as a science enables it to study the psychic life of a person, highlighting its latent meanings and intentions as part of their religious experience, although the subjects themselves are not clearly aware of it.  Since, then, in the realm of psychology nothing is reduced to linear causality, the study of psychic life experience takes into consideration a dual movement involving the weight of personal choices, on the one hand, and the influence of religious symbolism, on the other.

Notably psychology holds that a person is not a mere rational being, or a mere product of the environment and education; one has to acknowledge autonomous representations, interests, dynamics and processes, which, by meeting with symbols of religion and guiding their interpretation, contribute to each one choosing, embracing or rejecting life’s religious dimension. That means that each person lives their religiosity within a broad psychic experience which includes central experiences going back to one’s childhood and to multiple subsequent experiences. Thanks to the essential freedom bound up with life’s responsibility, these experiences are not given such an important role as to make it possible to step back and to take a mature position before them.

Psychology, on the other hand, acknowledges that religiosity, strongly marked by historical and cultural features and enlivened by the wealth of inherited traditions, results in religious symbols strongly branding psychic experience. If religiosity is experienced in an environment marked by democratic relations, for example, it will turn out to differ from that experienced in dictatorial structures. Likewise, within the same socio-political system, religiosity itself will be merely external, if it is bound up with a ritualistic notion strongly underlining the need for consensus, or internal, if it leads to constantly improving human beings by promoting their relationship-building with the transcendental dimension.

Looking from what can be experienced and lived out at a psychic level stems the fundamental principle that psychology of religion is not qualified to say anything about the reality or the features of supernatural life, to which a religious behaviour refers.  Methodologically excluding transcendental reality from its scope produces a dual effect. Firstly, psychology of religion does not hold itself qualified to prove or to dismiss proper religious statements, and is then located before and outside important issues regarding the subject of its investigation. As a result, from its own point of view, it is irrelevant that the phenomenon that is said to exist, and that is called for as a driver of religious behaviour, actually exists. Indeed, psychologists do not go any further than making psychological remarks, since they hold they are only able to approach the psychological truth of the religious attitude, to disclose the factors affecting its onset, its driving motives and intension, its perceiving, affective, cognitive and decisional aspects, as well as the conflicts influencing its development, either facilitating or delaying it.

Secondly, psychology of religion is based on the belief that it is impossible to introduce the action of supernatural reality to explain a given behaviour. Admittedly believers do believe that the spirit of God enlightens their minds and prepares them to understand Christ’s own words. Moreover, they are convinced that prayer and rituals entail faith in divine action, at least in the form of their personal inclination to accept it and to recognise the signs of its presence. Furthermore, thanks to this attitude, they manage to explain not only extraordinary events (conversions, mystical experiences, martyrdom), but faith itself. Psychology, on the other hand, can only observe these dynamics and these beliefs and take them into account, since they also have clear psychological implications, but it cannot grasp the proper religious meaning of faith statements, since from a genuinely psychological point of view they cannot be empirically verified or falsified.

II. Criteria for a Psychological Interpretation of Religiosity

It is thus necessary to identify the criteria by which psychology correctly and honestly approaches a person’s religious experience. The first criterion arises from the consideration that every single deed has to be contextualised within the person’s all other deeds, just as the person with all her functions turns out to be related with others and with the whole. That, in turn, means that an intention underlies each deed and therefore every correct interpretation entails the need to remain faithful to the intentional meaning the person attributes to it. The actual deed does matter, but it is even more important to seek to understand what the person intends to accomplish by it,  what aims he/she intends to achieve, what other behaviours he/she refers to, what dynamics have facilitated that choice. The motivating factors at a conscious and an unconscious level can only be highlighted through a personal encounter and by using  instruments and techniques, such as structured, semi-structured or projective tests.

The second criterion emerges from the fact that religiosity is not something separate from the whole of human experience, i.e. it is not a segmental deed that is juxtaposed to other activities (as a workman, a sportsman, a teacher or a believer), but it is set within an horizon of wholeness and integrity amounting — according to the appropriate phrase used by the American psychologist G.W. Allport — to a “unifying philosophy of life.” (Allport, 1963, p. 294). As a consequence, believers give an ultimately religious meaning to all their activities (their work, sport, job, political commitment) and frame all the choices they make, the plans they work out, the limitations they show within a religious perspective, obviously bearing in mind the various stages of their own psycho-physical growth to maturity.

The third criterion is the dynamic development through which every religious behaviour “is created” along with the person, being bound to his/her own history and, at the same time, to the broader history that affects the whole of humankind and is reflected, with understandable diversifications, in every moment of the evolution of individuals and of the group they belong to. This gives rise to a double level of manifestation of the evolutionary or genetic aspect of religiosity. The first level is related to reality and stresses the fact that there is an evolution that keeps pace with the chronological psychic and social growth and which justifies questions such as: can a person not fully developed from the physiological point of view be held capable of a moral behaviour? Is it possible to be “holy” during the childhood or the pre-adolescence, when we are far from achieving autonomy and responsibility? The second level is related to the “chances” and underscores the fact that there is also a logical evolution, not necessarily chronological, in each own history, on which basis one recognises that it is possible to move towards more mature forms of religiosity and, consequently, to accept that every age can have its own “maturity,” which needs to be continuously superseded.

The fourth criterion emerges from the fact that one cannot demand a psychological interpretation of the religious attitude leaving aside the meaning that it acquires in a given historical context. For example the rise and development of individuals’ religiosity differ in a mainly Catholic or mainly Islamic or Buddhist cultural context; the religious set-up is different in a historical moment considering the experience of faith as an undisputable reference point, or in a historical phase marked by cultural pluralism and inter-religious dialogue. There is a great difference in terms of religious dynamics between a country with a long tradition founded on the doctrine of the Fathers, and the one of a country where the Gospel has only been proclaimed in recent centuries and which therefore shows a different cultural and historical intensity. A Catholic Eucharist, for instance, cannot be grasped in depth unless one takes into account its importance in Catholic theology as a sacrifice of Christ and of the Church. Likewise, in fact, one cannot fail to consider the social expectations centred on that life experience in certain traditionally religious contexts. Obviously, a different point of view applies to where society or the context have now become secular and no longer value such significant events.

III.  Religiosity’s Interpretative Models

Psychology in general — and in particular psychology of religiosity, as one of human life’s areas which is analysed in more depth — is not a unified field from the research and theory point of view. It is a heterogeneous field with diversified interpretations, each of which is based on assumptions operating within a clearly defined cultural framework. In this respect it is possible to refer to “models” which, in their originality and singularity, offer constantly new interpretation of the psychological meaning of religious attitudes.

The psychodynamic model, rooted in the thought of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), with its remarkable modifications through subsequent re-workings, interprets the relationship between man and religion as a possible search for an illusory entity which, by granting protection and safety, may replace the father’s figure with whom an irreconcilable conflict had arisen in the early years of one’s life. As a result, the religious entity would represent a sort of prop for weak and limping people, needing to be freed from the oppressive and obsessive burden of unresolved forms of neurosis.

The social model, on the other hand, placing more emphasis on the social forces that most influence the majority of personal behaviours and life choices, interprets religiosity as a result of good examples of the psychological and social processes operating in real life and is more inclined to underline compliance with norms established by a given group. The cognitive model, in turn, arises from the conviction that our mind processes information before actually responding to it, which would mean that a person responds to the meaning of a stimulus, that is to its interpretation, rather than to the stimulus itself.

The existential humanistic model takes as its own starting point the assumption that a person is born with a positive potential to grow, that is with a tendency to become ever more human. As a result, the stress is placed more on the maturing and growing than on the final static situation, and religiosity is interpreted as one of the ways through which it is possible to fully realise oneself — according to the specific view put forward by Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) — or to find the single, original task of one’s existence — according to the pathway proposed byViktor E. Frankl (1905-1997).

Finally, the trans-personal model tends to overcome the illusory limitations of the individual in isolation and of the differences in nationality, culture, professional orientation and personality, moving towards a holistic and systemic understanding of existence for which higher reality may only be experienced subjectively, through creativity, cosmic love, a brilliant insight, states of mystical enlightening.

 IV. Religiosity as a multidimensional process

A number of research projects have been carried out over the last fifty years by psychologists of religion, in order to define and measure the notion of religious experience. The basic assumption has been that it cannot be reduced to a single dimension, but that it entails a wide and multiple range of dimensions which can be grouped around three nucleuses: faith (as a system of beliefs and motivations), religious experience (emotional involvement) and religious practice (rituals and social organisation). Such dimensions, however, are no firm indications of how religiosity as a whole works. In fact, individuals may actively operate within religious organizations not out of a genuine expression of their religious faith, but only in search of friendship, social contacts, prestige, support for their own value system. Conversely, the very absence of such indicators has to be interpreted ambiguously: deeply religious people may indeed show nothing of that sort (cf. Wullf, 1991, p. 204).

Throughout the extensive scientific work carried out by Gordon W. Allport (1897-1967) an important place is reserved to the study of religious feelings, and this applies both at a personal and at an interpersonal level. Allport’s investigation starts from considering mutually contrasting phenomena, such as good disposition, cruelty, authoritarianism, prejudice and tolerance, which are justified in the name of religion. In order not to be bogged down in fruitless polemics, Allport then holds that such phenomena are to be understood only in view of the dialectics of religiosity, which “is a continuum extending between the type of religious feeling only endowed with an instrumental meaning lying outside life’s scope and the type of sentiment which is in itself a prominent justification in life and so has an inner value of its own.” (Allport, 1963, p. 193). Such a continuum embraces innumerable forms of religious expression, dynamically present at the same time, but which do not amount to independent categories within which an individual is set and constantly dwells always and everywhere.

For Allport, “extrinsic” is a kind of religiosity that is experienced as a means of improving confidence in oneself, of regulating a certain lifestyle, of achieving any goals. It arises from a child’s needs for safety, mutual exchange, defence, ethnocentrism and, as such, cannot be downgraded to a utilitarian mind frame and notion. “In theological terms, the extrinsically religious person turns to God” even though […] “In motivational terms, the extrinsic religious sentiment is not a driving or an integral motive. It serves other needs: the need for security, the need for status, the need for self-esteem. In terms of developmental psychology, the formation is immature.” (ibidem, p. 194). On the other hand, Allport considers “intrinsic” that kind of religiosity which, if it is lived out in depth, grants faith a value in itself, transcending individuals themselves, entailing sacrifice and commitment, accounting for life’s main motivation. This growing religiosity acts as a driver for individuals pushing them to constantly overcome their limitations. “is not primarily a means of handling fear, or a mode of conformity, or an attempted sublimation of sex, or a wish-fulfilment […]. It is a hunger for, and a commitment to, an ideal unification of one’s life, but always under a unifying conception of the nature of all existence” (ibidem, pp. 194-195). Such a kind of open religiosity allows individuals to perceive the stimuli coming from outside and consequently make any changes to their own personality. In other words, intrinsic religiosity makes it possible for people to come to a full acceptance of themselves which in turn produces a gradual self-transcendence. Hence it does not simply support human beings in their development, but motivates them to lead a religiously involved and committed life.

Wishing to analyse what influence was exerted by an individual’s religious involvement and the latter’s impact on his or her life, Gerhard Lenski thought that what he needed to do first of all was to investigate the different religious orientations to be found in the Judeo-Christian world and then to identify how to measure individuals’ commitment in the various social and religious activities. The first part of his research enabled him to shed light on a number of orientations, including “mysticism, devotionalism, asceticism, ceremonialism, doctrinal orthodoxy, millennialism, ethicalism” (Lenski, 1963 p. 22), along with the related ways of thinking and acting. In particular, he dwelt on two of them: devotional orthodoxy, which “stresses intellectual assent to prescribed doctrines,” and devotionalism, which “emphasizes the importance of private, or personal, communion with God” (ibidem, p. 23). On the basis of this theoretical framework, Lenski devoted himself to the scientific parameters by which one may grasp the degree of individual involvement in the religious context. His research particularly unveiled two: “associational involvement,” expressed in taking part in the community’s religious rituals and, more specifically, in institutional  activities, and “affective involvement,” referred to interactions occurring within a primary group (family, friends), by way of sharing a common religious and cultural heritage. His research also highlighted that “orthodoxy and devotionalism are not merely two alternative measures of ‘religiosity’ as is so often imagined. On the contrary, they are separate and independent orientations, and each has its own peculiar consequences for the behaviour of individuals.” (ibidem, p. 24).

Robert O. Allen and Bernard Spilka, on their part, worked out an analytical criterion which takes into account two socio-psychological variables involved in the relationship between prejudices and religion. On the one hand, there is the “consensual orientation,” for which religion is “tied to prejudicial attitudes. While verbally conforming to ‘traditional’ values and ideals, these are vague, undifferentiated, bifurcated and neutralised or selectively adopted.” On the other hand, there is the “committed orientation,” which utilizes an abstract, philosophical perspective; multiplex religious ideas have a relatively clear meaning and an open and flexible framework relates religion to daily activities (cf. Allen and Spilka, 1967). The “consensual religious orientation,” then, refers to the reception of socially accepted norms and is expressed in the shortage of religious values, in the detachment from everyday life, in adopting a neutral position vis-à-vis radical choices, in placing greater emphasis on faith’s concrete and literal traits, in vague and intolerant beliefs. A “committed religious attitude,” on the other hand, points to a personal and devout involvement in accepting religious values, permeating daily actions; it is deeply rooted in religion’s abstract principles, nurturing a precise, homogeneous and well-organised theoretical system, both tolerant and not rigidly bound to dogmatic formulations.

An empirical study carried out by L. Gorlow and H.E. Schroeder enabled them to identify a more or less exhaustive set of reasons for participating in religious activities (cf. Gorlow and Schroeder, 1968). Seven interpretable clusters of people (types) emerged: “humble servants of God,” distinguishing those subjects that display a passive relationship with the divine; “self-improvers,” valuing religious experience inasmuch as it facilitates self-understanding, a knowledge of one’s own limitations and the freeing from anxiety; “family guidance seekers,” in order to achieve personal confidence as well as to find indications for sorting out daily problems; “moralists,” specifically those who are excessively helpful to others; “the God-seekers,” not driven by a dependence attitude, but seeking an active and maturing relationship; “servants of God with social orientation,” displaying a desire to both experience God, his power, his love and his example, and to take part in social life with others, sharing one’s own faith with them; “religious eggheads,” valuing their religious experience not much as  a personal relationship with God but more as an intellectual search, focussing on study and theoretical debate.

To be able to grasp how individuals perceive the characteristic statements and representations of the religious tradition they belong to, R.A. Hunt took as his starting point an analysis of religious language, identifying a possible three-fold attitude. The ‘literal’ position may reflect an individual who follows a literal interpretation of religiosity and who has not examined the relationship between his religious statements and other cognitive, conative, and affective areas of his life (cf. Hunt, 1972, p. 43). It is, therefore, an unconditional acceptance of traditional religious doctrine, which can easily be measured with investigating and recording tools. The “anti-literal” attitude is the one that justifies the refusal of religion’s underlying values seen as trifling and insignificant. Such a refusal of faith as a whole, which Hunt relates to that of adolescents confronted with their parents, when they are worried about their identity, is justified through the lack of scientific backing. The “mythological” attitude reflects the possibility of reinterpreting religious statements in order to identify their deepest meanings beyond their merely literal expression. The subject embracing this attitude is able to make a synthesis between what is affirmed by religious orthodoxy and the needs of our contemporary world, which represents a mature form of commitment.

Charles Y. Glock and Rodney Stark, finally, have raised the possibility of identifying some general areas, which may be thought as the “core dimensions” of religiosity (cf. Glock and Stark, 1965, pp. 19-20). Following the identification of five general membership expectations present in religious institutions, five other dimensions emerged for classifying people according to their degree of commitment and involvement in the religious dynamics. Such dimensions turned out to be universal, as it is possible to find within them all the various manifestations that characterize different religions.

The first dimension to be identified was the “experiential,” one referring to the whole range of feelings, perceptions and emotions, both at individual and at group level, deriving from the communication network with the transcendent. Basically it is feelings which can be grouped around four nuclei: interest, or need to refer to an ideology transcending the immediacy level; knowledge or awareness of the existence of the divine; faith, or ability to believe that one’s own life is valued by God and is in His hands; fear, or a feeling of alarm for the judgment expressed about one’s behaviour. The second dimension, the “ideological” one, is made up of the set of expectations that the subject has regarding contents of faith and varying both across religions and within the same religious tradition. In view of this dimension the subject is also able to recognise the validity and reliability of the different religious beliefs. The third dimension is the “ritualistic” one and concerns all the religious practices the believer is called on to enact and which regard worship, worship of the divine entity, prayer or taking part in sacraments. It can take the form of ritual practice, if it refers to rituals one necessarily has to go through to be able to define membership, or as a devotional practice, if it regards the informal, spontaneous and private religious practices. The fourth dimension is the “intellectual” one and refers to those expectations according to which believers should possess a minimum amount of information concerning the basic beliefs of their faith, the contents of their rituals, of their traditions, of their sacred texts. Obviously, this does not mean that knowledge automatically gives rise to faith, or that the latter should lead to knowledge: indeed, a believer may well possess little information on the contents of his or her faith, despite fully accepting it and actively living it out. Rather, it enables the subject to cope more and more frequent needs to tackle messages and opinions coming from a different source, in order to meet the need for a cultural tool kit that may give dignity and a significant weight to one’s own system of beliefs. Finally, the “consequential” dimension of religiosity refers to the effects that may be found in one’s daily life, in existential decisions, in the fact of being prepared to serve others and in enacting moral norms, as well as to welcome socially acceptable prescriptions and behaviours.

 V. Religiosity and its motivational system

Research and its applications by a number of scholars in different and diversified cultural contexts highlight three particularly significant points: they definitely confirm that religiosity shows multi-fold dimensions and contains many variables, despite its connections with the different interpretative models available; its key components concern the system of convictions and existential motives, the emotional involvement and rituals in a concrete socio-cultural context; the consequential dimension, in both its modal and social forms, is held to be a dependent variable rather than an integral part of the religiosity notion, as the social and moral consequences do arise from the religious phenomenon, but do not overlap with it.

However, the core element of religiosity is the motivational system determining the orientation and intensity of a subject’s behaviour, by setting off, guiding and supporting over time the search for suitable answers to questions regarding the meaning of one’s existence by facilitating a gradual selection amongst the various hypotheses presented. For some having a religious experience means seeking reassuring answers when facing frustrations, due both to inhibitions brought about by  society and to the inexorable law of fate and death, as well as to misfortunes related to wicked and nasty natural incidents. For others religiosity consists in an attempt to find encouragement in group membership in defending a system of behaviours and moral choices seemingly threatened in a social context abolishing or overturning all the values that previously guaranteed and safeguarded humankind. For others it is a response to intellectual thirst which – though never quenched or possibly quenched – would like to come up with precise answers concerning what one has to do every day, or would look for supporting and comforting elements to one’s own interpretative hypotheses, whether for or against divine intervention. There are also others for whom religion is the refuge they seek in the face of the anguish tormenting them and arising from experiences of marginalization, isolation, rejection within the family, depression: in such cases the only necessary measure to be taken is to call for the Almighty’s protection, to perform rituals to overcome one’s sense of guilt, to identify a hierarchical order to be able to survive, to plunge into eternal blessedness in order to exorcize fear.

There is yet another order of motives making experience profoundly rich and a genuine growth factor. It emerges when the person’s ear and heart are attentively ready to perceive the cry rising all around and the person asks what can and must be done to give a hopeful response. This really means stepping back from oneself, from one’s own daily life, from concerns related to work, politics, sport and social conventions. And at the same time it is about testing oneself, one’s own skills, experiencing the possibility of giving oneself up to pursue a disinterested and voluntary form of service. From a psychological point of view, then, a religious response to existential questions may well refer to an unconscious need for atonement, distraction, flight from one’s world, mere intellectual curiosity, a passive adjustment to fashionable trends or to friends and family pressures. In this case, though, sooner or later, its frailty will show, in certain cases paired with a degree of regression to states of child dependence, or will be considered something pointless, trifling, unnecessary. Yet it may well be the expression of life viewed as an “open task,” that is a life prepared to dialogue and oriented to innovation, capable of intercepting questions continuously arising from daily life, in order to extend interests and responsibilities. In this case, God and faith will not represent travel mates who chastise or promise substitutes for happiness and well-being, but will be development opportunities respectful of one’s own growth pace and will point to prospects of commitment and meaning from which one may win the strength to continue along the way. Religiosity, then, will not be opposed to conditioning factors or childhood traumas, or to unfavorable circumstances, but will undergo a wide transformation which will make it an independent and specific source of well-being, liberating energy and loving drive.

 VI. Towards a process of continuing education to religious maturity

The long track to be followed to differentiate the various constituting elements of human religiosity necessarily leads one to wonder in what ways such a vital aspect of human life can reach its maturity and especially whether there is such a thing as religious maturity.

According to Allport then, there are only a few individuals who can pride themselves on their religious maturity, because for most of them religious values are not sufficiently integrated within their personality systems but rather express a “different” behavior, diversified and detached from life and the value frameworks adopted by it. On his part, Freud believed that religion even had a perverse and neurotic sense, whereas Jung, taking his own clinical experience as his starting point, stressed the connections of most of neurotic situations with religious problems though related to a kind of religiosity bound to religious archetypes and to elements of the archaic and collective unconscious, rather than to a sense of personal responsibility.

However important it is to take into account the possibility of achieving religious maturity, in this context it is equally important to consider the problem from a process point of view. If, on the one hand, religious maturity can be expressed by its contents to enable the individual to know if and when he or she has achieved it, on the other hand, there is an area which cannot be misunderstood: the area of “how” a person attains maturity in terms of religiosity. In other words, one may talk about “why” a person is or is not religiously mature, and this leads to develop the contents of such maturity, if it is ever reached. However, one can also refer to the dynamics underlying that development and concerning people’s lives at the various stages they go through. In that case the multidimensional approach to religiosity turns out to be a useful one (although it is not the only one) to claim that a person’s religious life keeps developing, right from early childhood. And that is what matters.

In this case, talking of religious maturity means looking at how the concept of sacredness evolves in its different dimensions, how it integrated into a global context and expressed throughout the individual person’s day, in their own context and in ways that differ from individual to individual, and from culture to culture. It means being able to work out an explanatory hypothesis of one’s own existential difficulties while appealing to the “radically different.” Without impinging by any means on institutional and dogmatic religiosity, this predominantly psychological dimension can turn out to be useful to outline some of the easily recognizable features identified by the literature on the subject. This dimension makes it possible to move beyond the problem of potential maturity in the field of religion, by conversely giving priority to what is actually there, that is a continuum of religiosity each person recognizes on the basis of the integration of different psychological components acting together to make that person potentially religious.

Human beings cannot do without religion, not only the one confessed and institutionalized, but above all the silent and suffused one, which underlies their behaviors and the different forms of religious acculturation it is subject to. Interpreting a person’s “mature” religiosity, then, entails constant reference to elements showing up all along its developing stages, and thus to the different dimensions concurring to building up a sense of the sacred. In this respect, psychology of religion teaches to consider the individual as a developing being, whose attitudes towards the Absolute are not dissociated from the development of his or her personality. At the same time it stresses how a multidimensional approach enables one to distinguish the different aspects concurring to a person’s own religiosity, including religion’s basic structural integration process as a phenomenon (cf. Hyde, 1990).

Thus we aim to show that the religiosity continuum, in which every person recognizes the development of their religious experience, represents the backdrop of its  different concurring elements (at the cognitive, emotional, motivational levels, etc.), as different aspects contributing to shape the religious experience of one individual or another, with the psychological as well as cultural background they have. Yet it also includes the “trend” dimension in which this continuum moves, that is the tension through which this movement towards gradual maturity comes to integrate the different parts into a single organic structure. Such aspects have to be taken into account simultaneously to facilitate a dynamic rather than a static interpretation of what can be defined as an ongoing build-up of religious maturity. Indeed, “religiosity, once it achieves maturity, is not fixed on structures accomplished once and for all. It always remains an “open task” for the individual. Basically originating and developing on the dialectic relationship between complementary elements of human experience, mature religiosity… necessarily feels a tension towards greater and all-encompassing truths; it openly embraces the risk entailed by this search.” (Milanesi and Aletti, 1977, p. 235).

Just as for Piaget (1896-1980) each phase of a child’s cognitive development is enough to be able to claim its own maturity, so too the general process of a person’s religious growth to maturity may be said to share in the individual maturity phases following on one another as the subject grows up, and at the same time to transcend them, by way of integrating them to achieve greater maturity. The latter cannot only be an idealistic one expressing an unattainable form of religiosity, with God proposing unattainable things to come into contact with Him. These may even signal an inner drive every person can be aware of and therefore embrace opening up to the mysteries of the Absolute. One of the consequences of such a proactive attitude is to be able to identify in the current form of one’s religiosity the growth and development history of religious experience. “The global character also extends in time; a mature form of religiosity is the one that integrates into the present attitude the whole of the subject’s preceding religious and psychic history.” (Milanesi and Aletti, 1977, p. 234).

This entails two positive attitudes to religiosity: first of all, the “here and now” of the religious experience is taken into account as an expression of the individual’s basic attitude and as a prerequisite for a present and real relationship-building with the absolute; then, religiosity is actually understood to embrace a wider process than the one currently underway. Indeed it embraces the individual’s whole life looking back at the whole development ever since they learnt the first prayers from their parents as they looked forward to an active future relationship with God. Therefore, if a person’s faith looks immature and insufficiently endowed with adequate information at an institutional level, or if it is poor in terms of the worship rituals proposed at a given age, this does not mean that a person does not have a religious experience of their own enabling them to attain a present but also a future level of relationship with God. Thus, defining a person’s faith as more immature than another’s would mean taking responsibility for judging the life experience of another human being.  

Integrating present and past within an individual’s present life, on the basis of the intentional and proactive aspect of their religiosity, is a useful tool to interpret that religiosity at any levels and at any stages in life. Children do not respond to institutional aspects and understanding criteria as provided for by religious training agencies, as they are unable to evaluate and to judge other people in an intentional way; adolescents do not manage to be continuous in their expressions of faith but are attracted by the security of their family’s religious creed and by the uncertainty of the community’s creed; mentally retarded individuals experience their own religiosity in line with their own cognitive‑emotional‑motivational framework; any age has its own level of expression of its own religiosity, so to each moment corresponds an intrinsic maturity which refers to the dimensions  concurring to a person’s “overall religiosity.” In other words, “religiosity represents a complex form of conduct integrating all the levels and phases of that conduct itself.” (Milanesi and Aletti, 1977, p. 229).

It is here then that one finds the focus of overall religiosity, which combines the various developing components duly laid out to nurture a form of progress that may truly meet human needs. We can then agree with Hyde as he claims that there is a kind of maturity provided for by the level of religious knowledge which is referred to by the different agencies of religious training (school, catechism, etc.), and there is a kind of maturity provided for by the different expressions of religious belonging according to the different faiths. Yet, it is also possible to consider the maturity deriving from the planning and motivation ability of adult individuals, which is itself in continuous evolution. Indeed the latter satisfies the pull they feel to improve their condition, a process in which religiosity has a major part to play (cf. Hyde, 1990, pp. 342-343).

As a result, the idea of a gradual and ever increasing movement is the best  interpretative way to grasp religiosity within the personal development framework. Analysing such a process means taking into account each own harmonious personality development, not only from a functional point of view, as could happen if one made reference to a static kind of maturity individuals may or may not achieve, but especially from the “tensional” point of view. Religious people, then, gradually develop what they experience of their relationship with God at the present time, in which they include their past history and project into a future religious development process which “tends towards,” in the sense that it may not be limited by any cultural and psychological fragment which may influence its course, but rather it is enriched by the different contributions concurring to make it truly religious. The tension towards a target that may always be reached, because it is aligned with everyone’s psychological dimensions, represents the interpretative grid of evolutionary processes characterising the development of everyone’s religiosity. In this respect it is significant to review some aspects which play an essential role within the economy of the process of religious maturity.

The key element is a proactive tension enabling people to identify within themselves a set of factors concurring to express the intention to “be” religious rather than “doing” and “consuming” religion. Reference here is to be made to what Allport identifies as “religious feeling,” defined as a “disposition, built up through experience, to respond favourably, and in certain habitual ways, to conceptual objects and principles that the individual regards as of ultimate importance in his own life, and as having to do with what he regards as permanent or central in the nature of things.” (Allport, 1951, p. 63).

This shows that the yardstick of the evolution process in question is provided by the religious fact as an experience belonging to individuals relating with the absolute and marked by the development of an intentionality meant to provide room for the individual as a protagonist of religiosity. People are intentionally oriented to live out religiosity as an integral part of their existence, despite their different ways of expressing it according to their development phases, as they try to identify satisfactory responses to questions regarding meaning which life continuously asks them. One has bear in mind, though, that by “religious responses” we do not mean the contents a given behaviour or understanding may demand (which would lead one back to a quantitative measurement of religious maturity), but the different “containers” in which the development of religious intentionality takes shape.

An essential feature for the “religiosization” process to truly meet this intentional criterion is the way in which the person is or gradually becomes more and more aware of his/her own growing religious responses as well as able to compare them with different experiences in their life. Gaining awareness of these different religiosity “containers” indicates a desire to realize the different stages through which religiosity develops and to define a pathway for the future progress. This is what the perception of a sacred dimension is aimed at. Those young people who only have a fragmentary and restricted consideration of religiosity are not the kind of young people who reject religion (as shown by most research), but they are young people who are hardly “aware” of the religious drive present in themselves (cf. Mion, 1993). The same applies to other situations in which religiosity is not clearly apparent in its manifestations, or where these are not sufficiently diversified to be able to classify them according to the expected standards of religious maturity.

Gaining awareness, then, represents the fundamental strategy of an intentional process within which the continuous development of religious maturity moves. In this case, in the background lies the process of gaining awareness of the different dimensions concurring to that development: one’s own wishes, feelings, emotions, external influences, etc. Such an awareness, regarded as a differentiated whole, enables a person not to dissociate religious experience from his or her overall existence, and at the same time offers them a concrete opportunity to “enact” religiosity (consequential character of religious maturity), in order to feel involved and therefore to choose behaviours, feelings, notions, etc. which may truly match their own identification in relation to the others, insofar as distinct from ourselves.

Awareness, then, is bound to enhance the ability to access reality. Yet, this is not always the case. Evidence of this is that people often “own” this precious asset which is their religious experience without being aware of it and so bury it as an unnecessary talent or as something too important to run the risk of wasting it. Often the product of a functional notion of religiosity, in which rituals and actions of church practice represent the main concern to be able to do everything according to the prescribed standards (not only institutional but also unconscious ones), strips every person’s religious potential as a human creature of its spell, and tends to bring about experiences of dependence on one’s God.

Intentional religiosity, on the other hand, embraces a full “contact with,” rather than a state of merging with the absolute. In psychological terms this basically develops through a condition of identification of self-awareness vis-à-vis what is understood as lying outside one’s own borders. The contact with the “totally other than oneself” represents an active phase throughout which individuals make use of their communication networks with the external environment, obviously not only at a verbal level. The contact that is made is not a static one, but it is meant to be a continuous process in which individuals become aware of themselves, of their own functional limitations, as well as of their different growing dimensions, focussing their attention on others. This positive religiosity movement is based on the assumption that a person that is in touch with his own religious development (in the sense of knowing again and again that the religiosity continuum re-presents itself as a process of continuous growth for the person in the different dimensions) may be able to recognise God as Other with a capital O, the God-with-us, the fundamental-Other of their own human experience.

The shift from I to You as different‑from‑oneself, as an expression of the shift from heteronomy to autonomy of one’s own sense of the sacred dimension, somewhat represents the core of this process of religious training, in which the contact becomes a way of interacting with oneself and of recognising the others, in order to identify the potential hidden in each person. Such a process, which covers the whole lifespan, is the essential premise for the development of religiosity to really be autonomous, despite being enriched by a number of conditioning factors. Obviously, just as this maturation process is not limited to a single period or even more to a single dimension, it also presupposes the direction this religious sentiment of the individual takes. By recognising that otherness, seen as a fundamental tendency of human maturity, in addition to being a constitutive element of every psychological recognition carried out by the person, it represents the best location where the religious subject interacts with and enriches that relationship with his or her deeply human, and at the same time divine, experience. Then, by defining religious maturity according to the process aspect it shows in individuals’ own life, we are bound to recognise the “already” and “not yet” facets through which every person currently lives out an involving relationship with God at a multidimensional level, as he or she is well aware that every constitutive dimension of the human psyche will contribute to increase the sense of their developing religiosity.

What Strunk affirms is still defensible. Through understanding the multiple meanings of this interpretation of religious maturity, he believes that religion, in its ongoing development, is a dynamic organization of cognitive-affective-conative factors possessing certain depth qualities verging on the sublime, including a highly articulate and refined system of beliefs, purified through critical processes from childish desires, intensely pursued and comprehensive enough to provide a positive meaning for all life incidents. This system of beliefs, despite being a searching force, will include the conviction of the existence of a higher Power, towards which a person can experience a feeling of friendly continuity. That conviction is founded on “received” ineffable experiences. The dynamic relationship between this system of beliefs and these experience landmarks engenders feelings of admiration and fear, along with a sense of unity with the whole, humbleness, enthusiasm and freedom. With great strength it determines the individual’s responsible behavior in all areas of personal and interpersonal relationships, including the spheres of moral life, work and so on.

 VII. New religious movements

In recent years the interest of the psychology of religion is turning to the interpretation of all religious forms, be they aggregating or not, which are defined as New Movements; sometimes they are difficult to be classified and have no precise Church teaching background. Their rise is due both to their opening to the eastern world and to their greater contact with a US background. Up until some years ago the term used with a rather scornful tone to define them was “sect.” Deriving from the Latin verb sequor “to follow,” this word indicates a doctrine, a teaching or a party referring to a founding leader, whose personality attracts a great deal of followers feeling bonded by a strong sense of community and belonging. Quite often reference has been made to the supine sectum of the verb secare, to indicate a group within the sect which has broken up from the main trunk of one of the great religions, criticizing its teaching and institutional methods.

It is quite important, though, to draw a clear distinction between those Movements referring to noble and consolidated religious Oriental traditions, and particularly to Hinduism and to Buddhism, and those Movements which, without any references to doctrines, or in clear opposition to other widespread and widely accepted doctrines, show a strict fundamentalist orientation. The swift spread of the New Religious Movements as a phenomenon is no doubt a relevant one from a sociological point of view, but even more from a religious and psychological point of view. Sociologically speaking, New Religious Movements members show a dual character especially due to the extraordinary variety of aggregating forms: on the one hand, due to the lack of institutional references, they tend to look universal, oriented to welcoming any proposals, prepared to take any paths in search of their inner life and capable of submitting to any hygiene and health practices, as long as they can reach well-being; on the other, they are a dissident minority, intolerant in their behavior and looking to find new members, sometimes with a narrow view of interpersonal relationships and a great charge of fanaticism, leading them to seek isolation from the social context and to reject any relationship with those who do not share their religious beliefs.

From the religious point of view, the New Religious Movements move away from great religions and, by self-defining themselves as autonomous religious forms, established by a charismatic leader, they develop their own “theological” view of life and history, in addition to an often childish relationship with transcendence. By so doing, they exclude any interreligious dialogue and any opening to doctrinal debating. From the psychological point of view, the focus must then be shifted to the personal dynamics at play in an individual deciding to join a New Religious Movement as well as to the needs that seem to be met by joining it. Research shows that these groups promise to free man from negative influences, diseases, unhappiness, existential issues, sentimental disappointments, psychological uneasiness at a personal or at a family level. At the same time, they offer a warm caring welcome, trust, understanding and love. The almost universal presence of a leader, a spiritual guide, more often a guru or a teacher, every member must refer to at any stage life, is aimed not so much at identifying answers to existential questions – which are often supplied in advance – as at creating a fully harmonized group. There is also quite a strong social control amongst members, based on unquestioned acceptance of dogmatic principles, institutional behaviours, rigid internal hierarchies, complex admission and initiation rituals, constant checks on commitment and membership enhancement.

There are quite a few critical points in the membership of a New Religious Movement: the relatively high emotional charge you can feel within a group results in a decreasing interest in other social contacts and in the creation of a tightly-knit network, which often turns into a tight-jacket; the lack of a historical and cultural background and the exclusive reference to the existential experience of the “moment” and to the needs related thereto prevents a critical interpretation of the origins of the movement one belongs to; the emphasis that is repeatedly placed on the inner charge and on the pseudo-perfection to be achieved through often alienating techniques and methods. All these elements set single individuals so much at the centre of their own concerns that the pursuit of social prestige and self-affirmation become inevitable. Finally, leaving a Movement, which is often made difficult by verbal and physical threats, is associated with strong feelings of guilt for deciding to be cut off from salvation for ever.


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Paolo Zanna