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Theorists’ Approaches to Religion

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Religion is a social phenomenon that has been studied by theorists from various perspectives. With secularization of society in the twentieth century, religion stopped being a dogma imposed on a person, which did not cause its failure; on contrary, secularization of society helped to reveal its hidden resources. Suggested by a number of researchers, idea of close connection between religion and psychology made it possible to discover religion’s role in psychological guidance, recovery and motivation.  Comparing the approaches suggested by Erikson, Pargament, James and Frankl, it is possible to state that it is Viktor Frankl’s approach that looks most persuasive because it is not only aimed at compensation and coping, but also at responsible and active creation of life.

Erik Erikson, a proponent of psychoanalysis’ school and an author of eight stages’ approach to human life, ascribes a certain role to religion, which is obviously changeable throughout these eight stages. In fact, depending on major experiences at each stage, a corresponding concept of God and religion is shaped. Thus, for instance, the notions of basic trust and basic mistrust are introduced by him as the key ones for the first stage. Erikson claims, that while originating from and directed at the mother by a child, trust or mistrust spread to his or her vision of God as a larger world. The relation between basic trust and religion is two-fold: on the one hand, basic trust serves as a foundation which makes religious belief to grow; on the other hand, it is religion that reinforces the feeling of trust in the adult life without regression to the first stage. Thus, Erikson believes that religion has a compensatory function and regulates adequate level of confidence. Stage approach suggests that the image of God is transformed: at first, he is a creator and a reason for all things to happen, than he is seen as almighty and protective, at the latent phase he is all-knowing, and then he acquires rational traits. Throughout each stage of life God takes those kinds of features, which help him adapt to major challenges of this stage. Compensatory function of religion can be revealed through prayer as an instrument of many religions. While the meaning of each prayer can be different, it addresses the major factors of compensations: establishing trust, asking for protection, acceptance, and so on.

While Erikson focuses mostly on the subconscious mechanism of adaptation that religion gives throughout a person’s life, Kenneth Pargament believes that a person can have a more active resource potential out of religion. He introduces a concept of religious coping, which deals with methods that help cope with stress by using religious implications or rituals. He suggests that three approaches can be applied: cooperation with God to solve issues, letting God to solve issues and independent role of a human to cope with their problems. Thus, the advantage of this approach is possibility to regulate the level of passive behavior or activity depending on a situation: in some situations, like a death of family member, acceptance is needed, while in other situations, such as financial difficulties, active participation and mobilization is a better approach. Researchers point out, that religious rituals can be effective tools of religious coping. Thus, for instance, sweat lodge ceremony which is part of North American Indians religious practice proves to be effective as a therapeutic method. Comparative research involving ninety-four participants made the researcher come to the conclusion about the religious coping potential of the ritual: “Sweat participants reported more Spiritual Connection (experiencing a sense of connectedness with forces that transcend), Religious Direction/Conversion (looking to religion for finding a new direction for living or a radical change in life) and Punishing God Reappraisal (redefining the stressor as a punishment from God for the individual‘s sins) and less Spiritual Discontent (expressing confusion and dissatisfaction with God‘s relationship to the individual in the stressful situation) than non-sweaters” (Mawson).

While Erikson and Pargament consider religion as a tool of help and coping, William James is more interested in the dynamics of religion as an emotional process. He introduces the term “religious experience”, which he treats as a realization of communication potential between a believer and God.  He is not interested in religion as a collection of dogmas, rules and recommendations. Thus, James’ advantage is having empirical approach to religion, which considers a believer and his individual feelings the major data of religious study. He, thus, confirms flexibility and subjectivity of religious experience, which changes throughout time and from one person to another. As followers of James claim, “People experience time together in many religious settings, but especially in rituals... Rituals, in this view, help people "tune-in" to one another, to share an inner state of consciousness. Seen in this light, the experiences people have in religious settings are profoundly social--and in a quite basic way.” (Spickard). So, as it can be seen in most religious traditions, social religious experiences are important to reinforce faith and unity: this is true for instance for church services in Christianity and Islam, where people participate in a ritual which brings them together and shifts from experiencing the individual to the collective religious experience.

Viktor Frankl treats religion as a highly effective instrument of psychotherapy, although therapeutic effect is not its core meaning. According to his theory, the major function of religion is giving meaning to human existence. He believes that every individual has a unique place and function in the universe as it meant for them by God. When a person realizes his or her role as an indispensable cell in a huge organism, this causes responsibility to emerge. Responsibility helps take conscious decisions correlated with spiritual values offered by religion. Thus, being guided from inside, a person undergoes a spiritual transformation and acquires meaningful vision of his or her place. Thus, religion helps solve existential crisis, which according to Frankl results from the absence of meaning. This existential vacuum, as he names it, is the major reason for neuroses, suicides and other negative phenomena, so common for the Western world. The recovery of meaning through taking personal responsibility is possible only if a person sees a larger picture of his bond to other people, to the past and the future. Setting up connection becomes possible through religious experiences, which properly address existential questions and give motivation to act according to one’s spiritual role. Frankl believes in establishing direct relationship between a person and God, as he states the following concept “if religion is to survive, it will have to be profoundly personalized” (Viktor Frankl on Religion). This approach to religion leads to action in contrast to reaction, which is often dictated by organized religion. The best example of Frankl’s approach is his own tragic experience as a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camp. Obviously, there was no opportunity for religious rituals that official religion would offer. So, the two factors helped the man to survive: his personal contact with God and belief in the ultimate meaning of his own life given by God.

To conclude, it is worth saying that each of the mentioned approaches is worth attention as it covers a significant aspect of interaction between religion and psychology. Erikson and Pargament focus on the value of religion in adaptation and coping, James deals with actualization and personalization of religious experience. Yet, Viktor Frankl’s approach seems to be the most powerful one, as it addresses the core issue of human life: search for meaning. Unless this basic function as a key to meaning is not performed by religion, other suggested mechanism can fail. Besides, Frank’s approach is quite constructive, as it suggests an active and responsible role of an individual in his or her own spiritual perfection and offers a powerful resource for doing that.

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