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Religious Studies

This guide provides an overview of resources for the academic study of religion.

Psychological Approach

The psychology of religion emerged as a discipline in the nineteenth century, just as various other approaches to religion as an  object of academic study were gaining traction. While other theorists (such as Marx, Durkheim, and Weber) were interested in religion as a social phenomenon, the primary focus of the psychological approach to religion is the way in which religion operates in the mind of the individual.

The major figure in this approach is, of course, Sigmund Freud, who followed Enlightenment patterns in mapping religion as a kind of “neurosis,” a “primitive,” deeply unconscious impulse reflecting humans’ buried fears and anxieties. Freud’s most noteworthy works on religion are listed below.

Another major figure in the psychology of religion is William James, who took a much more sympathetic view of religious phenomena. James focused on the primacy of the role that "religious experience" plays in the mind of the believer or convert (see the Phenomenological tab for more information on James.)

Carl Jung also made important contributions to the psychology of religion.  He had been a disciple of Freud but took a sharply different direction, arguing that religious experience could play a positive role in human psychological health. Many scholars consider Jung's work to be theological in its own right; as such, he was influential upon the thought of noted phenomenologist of religion Mircea Eliade (see the Phenomenological tab for more information on Eliade).

Humanistic psychology and religion were brought together by such thinkers as Viktor Frankl and Abraham Maslow, both of whom sought to find ways in which religion provides meaning and growth for the individual. In addition, a number of psychoanalytic thinkers who followed Freud, such as Erik Erikson, wrote about the ways in which they saw religion as fostering human development and psychological health.

Resources: Freud

Resources: Other Psychological Approaches