Cognitive Approaches to Religion

Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality / edited by Raymond F.
Paloutzian, Crystal L. Park.
Cognitive Approaches to Religion

Elizabeth Weiss Ozorak

In the lead essay for the 2001 issue of theAnnual Review of Psychology, Albert Bandura noted that a paradigm shift has occurred in the field in the past few decades. Psychology no longer views human behavior only as a set of predetermined responses to environment, or as the output of a complexly programmed computer; instead, people are recognized as agents capable of performing intentional acts with a view toward achieving goals that are congruent with a particular set of beliefs. In this view, belief systems are pivotal, as they provide people with a working model of the world that helps them make behavioral choices. Under this paradigm, research on all aspects of cognition has flourished and a number of intriguing theoretical frameworks have been advanced.
As Andresen (2001) notes, this productive climate offers great opportunities to develop cognitive approaches to the study of religion. In spite of these opportunities, cognitive-psychological research on religion remains-with a few exceptions-sporadic and incompletely connected: it is indicative that of the 10 contributors to the Andresen volume, just one is a psychologist (Barrett) and just one is a psychiatrist (McNamara). The fields of anthropology and comparative religion are heavily represented in current cognitive research, with important contributions from sociology, philosophy, and cognitive neuroscience. The good news for psychologists of religion who feel they may be toiling in obscurity (Pargament, 2002) is that there are some exciting opportunities for collegiality beyond our own backyard.
These chapters illuminates some of the connections between existing lines of work and suggest ways in which researchers might capitalize, within and across disciplinary lines, on the field's developments to date. In the first sections, I introduce current cognitive models and briefly describe research on religion that has looked at some aspect of that model. The following sections describe the main directions cognitive research on religion has taken in the last several years and questions that remain open in each. The concluding section reviews some of the cutting-edge issues in cognitive research and suggests ways in which these might be applied to research on religion, to the benefit of both.

The Modal Model

Textbooks of cognitive psychology almost always include a discussion of the so-called modal model of cognition, initially described by Atkinson and Shiffrin (1971). In this model, environmental input enters the sensory registers and from there is encoded into short-term, or working, memory. Some of this material makes it into long-term memory, where it is organized according to existing knowledge structures, such as categories, schemas, and scripts in a richly interconnected network. Although there have been some recent criticisms of this model (Nairne, 2002), it undergirds most cognitively oriented work over the past 30 years and today.
At each stage of encoding, the information becomes less precisely like the original input and relies more heavily on meaning provided by reference to preexisting knowledge and beliefs. For example, a colleague's friendly greeting goes into the sensory registers as a fairly accurate visual image and auditory trace, but the words and expression become fuzzy in working memory as part of my attention is occupied with choosing an appropriate response. The resulting long-term memory is gist only, and if I greet this colleague regularly, eventually my long-term memories of these occasions will mush together into one collective generic account.
As the disparity between original information and encoded information increases, the effects of prior knowledge and beliefs are more clearly observed. Memories of conversations, to use the preceding example, owe much to our cultural scripts as well as to our impressions of the conversational partner. Over time, the dialogue we recall bears more resemblance to the roles we imagine for ourselves and our conversational partner than to the original utterances. In addition, our schemas about the relationship between the two of us (i.e., relational schemas) and the kinds of conversations we habitually have willstrongly influence the conversations we recall (Baldwin, 1992). What we experience and what we know-or think we know-is always framed by what we experienced before and believed already. Through these framing effects, both our personal histories and our group identities (culture, ethnicity, faith community, gender, etc.) have substantial impact on what we perceive and remember.

Applications to Religion Research

A number of theorists maintain that religious cognition is produced by exactly the same processes as other kinds of cognition. Contributors to the Andresen (2001) volume largely support this perspective (notably Barrett, Guthrie, Lawson, and McCauley), as does Boyer (e.g., 2001), whose work informs many of the chapters in the book. Boyer maintains that the human mind has evolved with certain adaptive predispositions and restrictions, and that religious forms invariably reflect those characteristics, just like other cognitions and cultural practices. This produces a limited set of recurring concepts across religious and cultural groups. Concepts of agency, social exchange, moral sense and misfortune, Boyer (2003) argues, show distinct family resemblances even across cultures that superficially seem very different, and religious versions of these are similar to nonreligious versions (e.g., many religions involve one or more omniscient beings, but this is similar to the ways in which a close relative or friend might be able to guess a person's intent without hearing it articulated).
In addition to their focus on innate cognitive mechanisms, these theorists seem to -217- concur at least implicitly that normal cognitive processes are sufficient to explain reli-gious belief and experience. Guthrie (2001) focuses largely on perception and interpretation; McCauley (2001) and Whitehouse (2002) emphasize the role of memory in determining religious practice and experience; Barrett (2002) and Lawson (2001) concentrate on knowledge structures. A parallel analysis from a behaviorist perspective, relational frame theory (Barnes-Holmes, Hayes, & Gregg, 2001), takes a similar view, although the vocabulary used is more behavioral in flavor.
A few theorists (e.g., Oser & Gmeunder, 1991; Sinnott, 2000) assert that religious cognition is indeed distinctive, raising the possibility of a sacred agency being partially responsible for the patterns of religious cognition that are observed. Most cognitive research neither affirms nor denies such a possibility, but it remains a contentious implicit question. I return to the question of "true or not" later in the chapter because it continues to affect the development of the field.


As Hill (1997) notes, association to cognitive networks can occur in automatic processing, such as pattern recognition, as well as in controlled processing, such as reasoning.
Religion, which often involves strongly ingrained knowledge representations and habits of thought, probably relates to effects in every aspect of information processing in those to whom it is deeply important. Recent evidence supports the priming effect of religious terms (Wenger, 2004), as well as perceptual differences related to religious style (Ash, Crist, Salisbury, & Dewell, 1996). Possibly people with different perceptual styles aredrawn to different manifestations of religious faith; longitudinal data from the teen years into adulthood would help to establish which comes first. Watts and Williams (1988) suggest that divergences in perception, both between religious and nonreligious individuals and among those of different faiths, are partly a matter of selective attention, which in turn would limit what is available to memory.


I have described at length elsewhere a general model of how memory might shape and be shaped by religious experience (Ozorak, 1997). Briefly, since memory content is extensively structured by preexisting patterns, both culturally given and personally salient, our experiences tend to confirm our expectations, religious and otherwise. To give one example, Szuchewicz (1994) has documented how a prayer group's selective attention to contributions that related to the day's Scripture reading produced a shared impression that the Holy Spirit "always" guided the group in terms of a specific theme. A combination of priming by the Scripture itself, the group's reinterpretation of contributions to make them match in some way, and a failure to rehearse contributions that could not be made to fit accounted for the consequent strength of this impression, which was then overtly confirmed by the leader at each session.
McCauley and Lawson (McCauley, 2001; McCauley & Lawson, 2002) point out that memory is essential for ongoing transmission of religious practice, particularly in preliterate cultures. They postulate-and support with anecdotal evidence from various cultures-a predictable underlying grammar of ritual due to the specific functions and limitations of human memory. For example, rituals believed to involve the direct intervention of a superhuman agent rely on high sensory and emotional stimulation rather than rehearsal to be memorable. By contrast, the ritual frequency hypothesis (White-house, 2002) maintains that it is frequency of performance (rehearsal) alone that dictates the need for sensory and emotional extremes. -p.218-

Clarification and elaboration of these hypotheses might benefit from systematic study of individuals with imperfect or incomplete memory of various important rituals.
For example, anecdotal evidence from pastors and lay ministers who visit elderly shut-ins (e.g., Cartwright, 1995, personal communication) suggests that certain rituals become deeply ingrained and the ability to access them persists even in the face of massive general memory deterioration. A cognitive analysis might show which prayers and practices are recalled verbatim, and perhaps discern some patterns: frequency of rehearsal, early age of encoding, emotional valence, overall significance to the religious group, and McCauley's (2001) dimension of proximity to a supernatural agent are all candidates for producing resilience in recall.

Knowledge Structures and Framing

Religion has been described as a schema (McIntosh, 1995) or perhaps a cluster of schemas (Ozorak, 1997) that are used to organize new information and to guide decision making, even outside an explicitly religious context (of course, for some religious adherents, there is no such thing as an aspect of life outside the religious context). The framing of choices and interpretation of outcomes has substantial long-term effects for motivation and persistence (Bandura, 2001). Religious frames may not be rational (Chaves & Montgomery, 1996), but that does not mean they are not adaptive. As Cantor (2002) points out, people may use irrational beliefs to keep themselves motivated and actually spur better performance. Religious or other supernatural causal attributions may be used in this way (Deconchy, Hurteau, Quelen, & Ragot, 1997). In addition, definitions of success and failure in religious systems may be different from success and failure according to the cultural status quo (Patzer & Helm, 2001). Certainly, many religions and some nonreligious philosophies help believers to distance themselves from past failures and approach the future with a positive outlook (Barnes-Holmes et al., 2001).

Judgment, Decision Making, and Problem Solving

Retrieval from memory is easier than reasoning, so people tend to stick with earlier solutions, whether or not they still work. When there is no earlier solution, people rely on schemas, scripts, and causal theories to shape courses of action rather than bottom-up problem solving. Subjective utility theory-the notion that people choose on the basis of what they want tempered by what they expect-is the dominant model of decision making (Hastie, 2001). However, what utility theory fails to supply is information about how people arrive at what they want (past history and cultural scripts largely determine what they expect).
Religious values provide one impetus toward choice, either through assent to the religious organization's position (applying a past solution) or through weighing that position against other values (Dillon, 1999). However, research on religion and decision making has focused mainly on choices involving contraception (Iyer, 2002) and sexual abstinence (Paul, Fitzjohn, Eberhart-Phillips, Herbison, & Dickson, 2000) or explicitly religious choices (e.g., Chaves & Montgomery, 1996). For those with highly elaborated religious schemas, many choices likely reflect religious values. Exploring these would address decision theory's need for more information about how values and goals contribute to perceptions of utility (Hastie, 2001).

Religion-based problem-solving research has focused mainly on coping (see Parga-ment, Ano, & Wachholz, Chapter 26, this volume). This research often has a strong cognitive component insofar as it focuses on appraisal. Maltby and Day (2003) found that positive religious coping is associated with tendencies to appraise problems as challenges rather than as threats or losses. Reich (2002) suggests that problem solving involves a comparison of appraisals such that "rivaling descriptions" are coordinated and set in a larger context (p. 15). If Reich is correct, some of the inconsistencies Maltby and Day (2003) found in appraisal effects may be due to participants' attempts to reconcile competing appraisals. It would be interesting to extend the study of religious appraisal effects beyond crisis situations.

Insight and Intuition (Implicit Knowing)

If there is a unique form of religious cognition, Watts and Williams (1988) argue, it is in the form of insight and intuitive knowing. Miller and C'De Baca (2001) suggest that insight is "more than cognitive" (p. 38), involving the opportunity for self-transformation through recognition of an "authentic truth" (p. 40) that demands a new way of acting.
They point out that not all insight is religious in nature; and of course, all religiously inclined people may not be equally open to intuitive knowing. Psychiatrists in a Canadian sample claimed that therapy is more likely than religion to yield transformational insights (Baetz, Larson, Marcoux, Jokic, & Bowen, 2002); by contrast, Miller and C'De Baca (2001) lamented that transformational insight seemed to occur almost everywhere but in therapy.
Obviously, the jury is more than out on religious insight-it has barely convened. However, good studies of insight in problem solving exist, and two plausible theories arecurrently being tested. MacGregor, Ormerod, and Chronicle (2001) suggest that people look for insight only after it becomes apparent that the current approach cannot lead to a solution (progress-monitoring theory). Knoblich, Ohlsson, and Raney (2001) propose that people often need to revisit their initial construal of the problem in order to attain insight (representational change theory).
Although the theories differ on some points, they concur that self-imposed constraints on the definition of the problem or the strategies considered for solving it are frequently the cause of mental impasse, and that insight occurs when these restraints are removed or tempered. Religion, because of its strong affective components, might provoke such impasses as well as resolve them. However, both models have been tested only on well-defined problems like dot connection or matchstick arithmetic problems, and need to be explored in ill-defined problem situations (i.e., when the rules, the criteria for success, and/or the problem itself remain unclear; most significant real-world problems fall into this category). It would be worth examining people's reported experiences of applying their faith to problem solving to see whether the patterns of thought predicted by either theory occur, and, if so, what factors seem to make one or the other prevail-for example, quest orientation, rigidity of belief system, or group norms for doubt and disagreement.

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Counterintuitive Ideas

A shared quality of religious belief systems is that they deal with mysterious or counterintuitive phenomena-events or entities that cannot be fully accounted for by mundane explanations. Contrary to the commonsense notion that religion is used to pro-vide explanations for such phenomena, Boyer (2003) argues that religious belief systems generate mysteries, much like other supernatural thinking (such as magic, folk legends,and dreams). Certainly, in many societies, religious explanations often run counter to the kinds of explanations found in other domains, creating tension for believers rather than resolving it (Evans, 2001). Boyer and Ramble (2001) have shown that information with counterintuitive features is more easily remembered and has greater impact over time than similar information with no intuitive violations. On the other hand, supernatural agents and events typically rely on schemas that largely conform to normal schemas; in other words, there is an optimal level of bizarreness (Boyer, 2003). For example, ghosts and spirits violate our understanding of physics but not our understanding of psychology: they go through walls, but have human-like passions and, if they talk, converse in recognizable patterns. In a less common pattern of intuitive violation, zombies conform to the normal physical properties of bodies, but are psychologically peculiar.
Sinnott (2000) argues, in contrast, that the ability to assimilate counterintuitive religious ideas is a consequence of what she callspostformal cognition, a mature ability to hold apparently contradictory logics in dialogue with one another. This capacity develops through experience and makes possible a unified sense of reality, much like Reich's relational and contextual reasoning (Reich, 2002). The problem with both this line of thought and Boyer's is that cognitive capacities may explain what it is possible for us to believe, but they do not tell us why particular beliefs emerge from the set of possible beliefs. In addition, paradoxical beliefs do not seem to be limited to people with mature cognitive abilities.


Schemas and Scripts

Social cognitionis thought involving social interaction and ourselves as social beings. Like other forms of cognition, it relies heavily on schemas and scripts. Since religion is an important part of many people's self-concept and provides numerous contexts for interaction, it is sure to play a role in social perception, social memory, and relational reasoning. It is worth asking how religion figures into people's schemas and scripts and how it affects social-cognitive processes that have been widely studied, since religion sometimes engages people in scripts that diverge abruptly from the cultural norm (e.g., Ingram, 1989). In addition, the variations induced by social group memberships such as race, class, gender, and the like need to be addressed.

Basic Dimensions of Religious Schemas

Twenty years ago, Moehle (1983) analyzed an extensive set of reported religious experiences in an attempt to identify the salient dimensions along which they varied. The three dimensions that emerged were level of personal control, spiritual-temporal, and social-individual. Schemas involving personal control are obviously central to coping with crisis (e.g., McIntosh, 1995; see Park, Chapter 16, this volume), but pertain to many other aspects of cognition as well. Given the vast amount of work on locus of control in the past two decades, Moehle's dimensions deserve to be revisited (see Haidt & Rodin, 1999, who argue that control and efficacy are natural bridges to a wide variety of topics in- and out -221-side of psychology). One natural connection might be with prayer, which also has been analyzed for categorical differences (Ladd & Spilka, 2002). Ladd and Spilka'sinward, outward, and upwarddistinction appears to relate to Moehle's social-individual dimension, while intercession and petition, and possibly other categories of prayer, seem based in locus-of-control appraisals. Likewise, the patterns of perceived ritual efficacy found by Barrett (2002) suggest specific scripts about control by a god with extraordinary powers versus by others. Such scripts undoubtedly reflect both cultural and religious variations in locus of control as well as possibly universal ways of constructing causal equations (Boyer, 2003).

Attributions of Causality

Perceptions of control and efficacy are part of the general grammar of causal attribution. An attribution theory for religious applications has been mapped (Spilka, Shaver, & Kirkpatrick, 1985) and tested in a number of ways. There is evidence that religious attributions are favored for events with far-reaching consequences, especially positive ones (Lupfer, Tolliver, & Jackson, 1996). Both religious orientation (Hovemyr, 1998) and religious conservatism (Kunst, Bjorck, & Tan, 2000) affect the way in which individuals make attributions. When religious attributions are made, individuals often perceive divine or supernatural causes working indirectly (e.g., through other people) rather than through direct action (Weeks & Lupfer, 2000). It would be useful to analyze religious attributions with respect to violations of intuition, to see whether these attributions differ from mundane explanations as Boyer (2001) would predict.

Relational Schemas
As previously discussed, relational schemas predict and shape interactions with others (Baldwin, 1992). These schemas seem to fit with utility theory in that they involve a combination of expectancies and values, although they also involve strongly associated scripts or predictable sequences of behavior. Baldwin and his colleagues have demonstrated in several studies that these schemas prime self-evaluations, interpretations of ambiguous behavior, and personal goals for the interaction (see Baldwin & Baccus, 2003, for an overview).
For religious believers in some traditions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the faith tradition suggests certain kinds of relational schemas that do or should operate between the individual and God and between the individual and the community. Hill and Hall (2002) examine several classic theories of relationship, such as attachment theory and object relations theory, for patterns that might characterize relational schemas between Christians and the God they worship. Ozorak (2003b) found that volunteer service activated religious relational schemas for college students who described themselves as religious.

Judgment and Framing

Schemas affect judgment in part by the way in which they frame the options. A number of researchers have looked at the role of religious contexts and beliefs in framing judgments, with mixed results. Cohen and Rozin (2001), for example, found that Jews and Christians reached different conclusions about the moral wrongness of thinking about a -222- sinful action, although participants of both faiths tended to agree about the wrongness of related actions. Cobb, Ong, and Tate (2001), in contrast, found no religious differences in judgments of wrongdoing, and in fact concluded that religious reasoning was similar to nonreligious moral reasoning; however, they asked only about wrong actions, not about wrong thoughts. Turiel and Neff (2000) are probably right to insist that culture, religion, gender, and social position interact in complex ways to produce moral judgments, and that individuals' choices may distinguish between the morally best choice and the pragmatically best choice given the social context.
The way in which information about religion itself is introduced in studies seems to exert some influence on judgment. Peeters and Hendrickx (2002) demonstrated that judgments of hypothetical people followed two patterns, a Self-Other narrative response that generated a single representation with affective connotations and a Third Person response that compiled information in a more science-like fashion. Judgments of the person's religious attitudes, like judgments of personality, triggered the Self-Other response, while information about the person's doctrine generated the Third Person response.

Cognitive Dissonance

Just as religion may be said to create as many counterintuitive notions as it explains, it causes as much cognitive dissonance as it resolves (Exline, 2002). Given the recent national focus on issues surrounding homosexuality, both inside and outside of mainline churches, it is unsurprising that identifying oneself as a homosexual Christian often creates cognitive dissonance internally and externally (Mahaffy, 1996). Homosexual Christians whose own beliefs were at odds with one another had more difficulty resolving the dissonance than those who attributed the dissonance they felt to external causes such as other people's prejudices. When the church is actually supportive, dissonance is minimized (Rodriguez & Ouellette, 2000).
In the case of conflicting beliefs that pit two culturally supported identities against one another, such as creationism, which pits fundamentalist Christianity against the scientific establishment, believers who cannot withdraw comfortably from either one may simply opt to live with both in tension (Evans, 2001). Deconchy et al. (1997) found that religion-like "fantastic" explanations seemed to buffer problem solvers from learned helplessness, but their participants were not put in the position of having to defend these explanations in social contexts.

Social Perception / Social Identity

The cognitive dissonance we feel when some aspect of a strongly held belief or cherished behavior runs counter to a prevailing social norm reveals the presence of a complex selfschema that incorporates elements of our various social identities as well as a sense of continuity based on prior experiences. Culturally weighted categories such as race or ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or social class may entail constraints that shape the individual's construction of identity and so take on a personal meaning over time (Frable, 1997). Level of commitment to a particular reference group affects how much an individual will be influenced by the norms of that group. Those whose religion is highly salient to them show different patterns of values than those without a strong religious identity -223-(Lau, 1989) and adhere more to religious group norms of behavior and cognition (Wimberly, 1989).
Dufour (2000) proposes that we construct our identities as we mature, in part by sifting through the cognitive and behavioral components provided by our various reference groups, including the faith community for those who are raised with one. Where the components seem to conflict, they are "tried on" in turn to see how the individual might reconcile them, perhaps through a process of reinterpretation. In some cases, where practice has been suppressed among a persecuted religious minority, this sifting reaches back across generations to preserve something that is newly valued (Jacobs, 2000).
Many Americans describe their acquisition of religious beliefs as a logical process (Kenworthy, 2003), perhaps because this fits the preferred cultural script for attitude formation. However, relationships appear to be central to the development of religious identity (Ganzevoort, 1998a; Jacobs, 2000), especially close family relationships (Ozorak, 1989). Social comparisons with peers from the same faith group can cause polarization of belief and entrench oneself more firmly in a religious identity. Perhaps both peer and family influences are based partly in spiritual modeling, as described by Oman and Thoresen (2003). Porpora (1996) found that religiously oriented people are more likely to have personal heroes whom they try to emulate, perhaps in part because they feel themselves at odds with the dominant culture.

A religious identity can have strong effects on self-perception. For African Americans, religion seems to buffer self-esteem (Ellison, 1993); the reverse can be true for gay and lesbian Christians who feel rejected by their church (Mahaffy, 1996). Among samples of university students, intrinsic religiosity has predicted a tendency to see oneself as more virtuous than others (Rowatt, Ottenbreit, Neesselroade, & Cunningham, 2002), especially in the face of negative feedback (Burris & Jackson, 2000). In fairness, others may be equally likely to resort to religious stereotypes: a huge archival study found that religious people are generally perceived as nicer (Brennan & London, 2001).

Judgments of Others

Religious people's judgments of others are not always nice (see Donahue & Nielsen, Chapter 15, this volume, for a fuller treatment of religion and prejudice). However, it appears that the mixed relationship between religion (or at least Christianity) and prejudice is the result of separable factors, including right-wing authoritarianism and Christian orthodoxy (Laythe, Finkel, Bringle, & Kirkpatrick, 2002). Begue (2001) has also demonstrated a "black sheep" internal prejudice effect among Catholics with respect to other Catholics who practice or favor abortion.
Simple framing effects such as thehalo effect-the tendency toward evaluative consistency, positive or negative-account for some bias in perceptions of others. We tend to like those who are like us and project additional good traits onto those already identified with; the reverse is true for those unlike us or identified with a bad trait. Beyond these, Hewstone, Rubin, and Willis (2002) have described several theoretical models of biases in social perception that help to explain how religion might affect the perception of others. Optimal distinctiveness theory posits that we need to see ourselves as both assimilated and different, leading us to compare and contrast ourselves with others so as to bol-ster both perceptions. This is related to the self-esteem bias, which encourages us to see ourselves as first among equals in general. Subjective uncertainty theory and terror management theory both suppose that we forge identity with groups having clear norms in order to build our confidence, but believe ourselves to be superior examples of those norms so as to allay anxiety. These theories fit the data on self-perception discussed earlier, and they clearly apply to religion. 
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Group Identity Effects

A recent review article on identity discussed the roles of gender, ethnicity or race, sexual orientation, and class in shaping social schemas (Frable, 1997). The omission of religion was odd in light of the article's focus on Latino Americans, whose Catholicism was likely an important part of their identity. Even in the so-called melting pot of the United States, cultural groups like the Amish are identified primarily by religion, although they also use a unique German dialect (Hostetler, 1993). To complicate matters, these group identities interact in multifarious ways, as is obvious from a brief mental review of the churches (let alone the temples, mosques, etc.) in any city familiar to the reader. These group identities must be kept in view when studying religion, even though most studies cannot include them all as variables.
Gender is probably the group variable most widely included in studies of religion, since it is easy to identify participants, or ask them to self-identify, as male or female.
Women have different religious experiences and roles from men even in relatively egalitarian U.S. churches and synagogues. Women also think about religion differently than men do (Neitz, 1995; Ozorak, 1996), affecting the religiously based choices they make (Ozorak, 2003a).
Culture is trickier to include because there are so axes of difference: important divergences can emerge between even apparently similar Western countries (Dillon, 1996; Jablonski, Grzymala Moszczynska, & van der Lans, 1994). The best solution is probably to encourage research with a wide variety of ethnic, religious, and cultural groups so as to avoid reaching erroneous conclusions about what is universal (Boyer, 2003).


Social Responses to Language

Language is a social medium; language choices on all levels can have tremendous significance for speaker and audience alike (Edwards, 1985). Ethnic and religious minorities have strong responses to the use of the home language rather than the majority tongue (Edwards, 1985; Hostetler, 1993). It is no surprise that Hebrew has powerful meaning even for Jews who do not speak it or that Catholics are still divided over whether the Mass should be said in Latin. Changing from traditional masculine language for God and for humanity to more inclusive terminology remains a sticking point in many U.S. churches, although clergy who use inclusive language are not necessarily disparaged (Greene & Rubin, 1991). Given the concern among the faithful about these social aspects of religious language and the well-demonstrated psychological effects of language use (Romaine, 2000), this area of research deserves much more attention.

Discourse and Narrative

Religions, Niebuhr (1941) has argued, survive on their stories. What has proved especially vexatious to Jews and Christians is that they share key elements of their central stories, and yet the same story seems to have different meanings for the two faiths (Goldberg, 1991). There is some evidence that even within faith groups the same narratives are understood in slightly different ways, with important implications (Dillon, 1999). Widely publicized Scripture-based disagreements over issues like the ordaining of women and the status of homosexual members dominate U.S. Christianity. Discourse analysis, with its attention to levels of language, illuminates such debates and misunderstandings.
Discourse analysis distinguishes between the surface code (what is actually said, verbatim), the textbase (the meaning of the words that are used), and the situational model (the view of the world on which the meanings rest). For example, the contrasts drawn by Goldberg (1991) between Jewish and Christian interpretations of the Exodus story might be explained as an identical surface code masking differences in the situational model-here, the assumptions made about the nature of God. The cultural scripts shared by American Jews and Christians may obscure the differences of underlying worldview in this context.
Christian arguments about "literal" interpretation of Scriptures-bearing in mind that most Christians cannot read the original biblical languages-are fundamentally about discourse, in particular the difficulty for modern readers to be certain about the textbase underlying some of the surface code as well as a social context that was very different our own (Borg, 2004). The interpretation issue dominates the painful deliberations about the acceptability of homosexual relationships (e.g., what exactly did the writer of Leviticus 18:22 mean by the word that has been translated, centuries later, as "abomination"?). These are psychological issues, not just linguistic ones, both because language is always collectively constructed in a particular social context and because the consequences of interpretation bear so much emotional weight.
In addition to the shared discourse that underlies religious faith, individuals construct their own religious narrative. These stories, while intensely personal, substantially reflect the social constraints provided by the faith and by the culture generally (Ganzevoort, 1998b). The process of putting oneself in the context of the wider religious narrative and of ordering one's experiences to make them coherent to oneself and others seems to be essential to religion. A religion "works" to the extent that its story plays out satisfactorily in the lives of those who believe in it (Day, 1993; Goldberg, 1991). Religious knowing that derives from experience seems able to transform lives in a way that no amount of doctrine or teaching can do (Watts & Williams, 1988). It seems fair to conclude with Day (1993) that religious narratives are always performative rather than merely descriptive.

Narrative as a Vehicle for Transformation

If religious narratives are performative, they offer consequential opportunities for transformation. Just as the individual who says "I do" in the course of a marriage ceremony emerges as, in some sense, a different person, the religious individual can be changed by the process of assenting to a new narrative. In fact, this seems to occur often in Christian conversions (Stromberg, 1993), and the conscious construction of the narrative seems to enhance the result (Liu, 1991).
Some people actively choose a new narrative or a new interpretation of an older narrative because they want to change (Miller & C'De Baca, 2001). The processing of reconfiguring a story gives power to the one who does it (Carlson & Erickson, 2000) and can offer the opportunity to build in a higher purpose or a role for God. Religious communities sometimes support their members in such reconstructive efforts (Mankowski & Thomas, 2000; Rappaport & Simkins, 1991). Mattis and Jagers (2001) found that this kind of empowerment through individual and shared narrative work is commonly used by African Americans, frequently drawing on their religious tradition.


The Truth Question

The question of whether religion is "true" or not has haunted the psychology of religion for decades (Pargament, 2002). Some cognitive theorists argue for a clearer focus on mechanisms, so as to avoid any suspicion of "defensive motives" (e.g., Belzen, 1999, p. 236) or a "metaphysical agenda" (McCallister, 1995, p. 314). Others have insisted that the "truth question" must remain open (e.g., Argyle, 2002; Ozorak, 1997), in part because psychological inquiries are about the human end of the equation, not about what, if anything, is on the other end of our perceptions. Most psychologists of religion have chosen to ignore this elephant in the living room. However, many good researchers are probably dissuaded from studying religion at all because they don't want to share space with an elephant, real or not.
Public discussion of religion is now mainstream, but as the gaps described in this chapter show, research needs to catch up with that shift. If psychology were to adopt the multilevel interdisciplinary paradigm proposed by Emmons and Paloutzian (2003), which welcomes data from many levels of analysis without devaluing either the other levels or religious phenomena themselves, the field would be well on its way. What follows are some specific suggestions for implementing such a paradigm.

Measures and Method

Grant (2001) has suggested that the study of religion would be greatly helped by the adoption of more sophisticated methods from other areas of his discipline (sociology). Expanding his point to include psychology, two areas of fruitful inquiry emerge.

Narrative Analysis

Many studies of religion, including a substantial percentage of those cited here, use some form of narrative data (see Hood & Belzen, Chapter 4, this volume). However, as Grant (2001) points out, most of these do not make use of the sophisticated methods now available for analyzing discourse, including optimal matching strategies modeled after DNA research and semantic network analysis borrowed from cognitive anthropology. Psychology itself has taken a renewed interest in narrative research (see, e.g., McAdams, Josselson, & Lieblich, 2001). With the groundswell of interest in related disciplines, the time seems ripe to try some of these more positivistic approaches along with the qualitative approaches already in use. In addition, narrative data seem particularly appropriate for the longitudinal studies that are needed to confirm direction of effects.

Implicit Measures
Implicit measures of cognitive function are at the cutting edge of the field (Fazio & Olson, 2003). Association tests with selective priming are often used in research on attitudes to avoid alerting participants to the focus of the research. To my knowledge, this kind of test has not been used on religion, but it could be. In addition, a wide variety of linguistic measures has been developed, such as counts of specific word types and changes in the structure of explanations (Pennebaker, Mehl, & Niederhoffer, 2003). Strong emotional states have been shown to generate predictable patterns of change in language.
These would be appropriate for the study of religion, and would fit well with a narrative research agenda.

A popular proverb says "Well begun is half done." What follows are three areas of research that are already "well begun." In each case there is substantial public interest and a burgeoning record of research that includes religion in some way. What is needed, in each case, is more work on the cognitive aspects of the connection to religion.

Ten years after physician Larry Dossey published his first book on the power of prayer in healing (Dossey, 1993), the topic made it to the front cover ofNewsweek: "God & Health: Is religion good medicine? Why science is starting to believe" (Kalb, 2003). At the same time, linkages between religion and health were already being explored in mainstream psychological journals (e.g., George, Ellison, & Larson, 2002; Powell, Shahabi, & Thoresen, 2003; see Oman & Thoreson, Chapter 24, this volume). In this case, a cognitive model of these linkages has been suggested (Dull & Skokan, 1995), but it has yet to be taken up by other researchers. Systematic tests of the model's propositions and perhaps some theoretical tinkering are in order.

Psychological Well-Being
Subjective well-being is emphasized in U.S. culture and has begun to receive attention from psychologists. A plethora of research confirms connections between religion and well-being (e.g., Fabricatore, Handal, Rubio, & Gilner, 2004; Taylor, 2001; see Miller & Kelley, Chapter 25, this volume), although such connections are far from absolute or automatic (Exline, 2002; see Exline & Rose, Chapter 17, this volume). Clinical literature-much of it involving narrative-suggests that religion can be used to reinvent the self in ways that improve subjective quality of life (Carlson & Erickson, 2000; Magee, 2001).
Such research would benefit from a cognitive model and some experimental tests of the model using the kinds of linguistic techniques already described.

In post-9/11 America, religion and politics have become habitual strange bedfellows. Researchers had already begun exploring the relationship of religion to political action or inaction in particular groups, including African Americans (e.g., Lee, 2003) and Christian fundamentalists (e.g., Hood & Smith, 2002), along with a few general studies (e.g., Djupe & Grant, 2001). However, the political events of the past few years seem to have lent the topic a new urgency, both in the United States and elsewhere (e.g., Brewer, Kersh, & Petersen, 2003; Duriez, Luyten, Snauwaert, & Hutsebaut, 2002; Gopin, 2002). Researchers are beginning to ask whether religions affect the nature and extent of political participation in the same way as membership in other social groups or there is something special about the role of religious imperatives in political activity; and not only that, but whether religion can be used to encourage peace as well as war and violence (see Silberman, Chapter 29, this volume).
Cognitive psychology is just one component of the theoretical approaches needed here. Religion needs to be factored into broader cognitive theories of political participation (e.g., Lavine, 2002), and social cognitive mechanisms need to be identified more clearly in studies of war and peacemaking (e.g., Gopin, 2002); interestingly, a recent Associated Press (2003) story described a social-cognitive approach to rehabilitating AlQaeda recruits that is apparently proving somewhat successful.


As Bandura (2001) observes, fortuitous events shape fate, but people can "make chance happen" by the actions they take and by putting themselves in the way of particular experiences (p. 12). Thus, just as environments shape people, people shape environments-particularly social ones-and they do so, most frequently, on the basis of their beliefs.
Religions are an important core of highly primed beliefs for many people. Cognitive research that fails to take this into account will inevitably fall short of what it might discover. The literature shows that religious beliefs and associations impact information processing from its initial stages through all kinds of complex reasoning, especially in social contexts.
Bandura (2001) notes that the dawn of the 21st century finds the Western world in a period of social fragmentation. The complex problems we face require collective action, and yet for a variety of reasons, mental as well as environmental, we have a strikingly low sense of collective efficacy. It could be argued that religions, with their counterintuitive notions of efficacy, extensive effects on information processing, and extended social connections, provide one of the few remaining sources of collective efficacy-a capacity that, as history shows, can be used for good or ill. Understanding the ways in which religious cognition shapes human action is overdue to become a top priority for psychological research.


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