At five o’clock every morning I was awoken by the unfamiliar sound of a Call to Prayer. Yes, I was definitely somewhere else. That call would be the background noise to the next four days of conference.
The International Association for Psychology of Religion held their biennial conference in Istanbul from 17 – 20 August 2015.
Istanbul was a fitting location for an international conference on psychology of religion, straddling as it does, two continents – Europe and Asia. For the first time we held our conference in a Muslim-majority country. We were located on the Asian side of the city, in the Faculty of Theology, Marmara University. Although academics from the United States of America and Western Europe were in the majority, there were many other psychologists from Eastern Europe, Turkey and beyond.
With one pre-conference day of lectures, 5 keynote speakers and 161 scheduled presentations taking place in 5 different lecture halls, it was only possible to attend a small number of presentations. The following comments therefore reflect my own interest, particularly in the areas of atheism and mystical-type experiences.
So here are a few of my highlights from the conference:
Firstly, it is always a special treat to listen to Dr Ralph W Hood (http://www.utc.edu/psychology/profiles/faculty/hood.php) of University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. He is a giant in the field of psychological research into mysticism. For nearly half a century he has pioneered research into reports of mystical experience. He spoke about his years of research and the ontological basis of his work. He advocates the position that all mystical experiences have a common core that transcends individual cultures; that the cultural influence is on the interpretation of the experience, not on the experience itself. He is the creator of the Mysticism Scale, the most widely used measure of mystical experience. This is based on work of philosopher Walter Stace who argued the case for a common core for these experiences. I always find what Dr Hood has to say interesting, and I have a huge respect for his body of work, even though I am coming from a different perspective in my own study of atheists who claim to have had mystical experiences. I am open-minded as to whether or not all mystical-type experiences have a common core or alternatively, whether experience is always culturally mediated. It was a most enjoyable and informative lecture.
Secondly I would like to mention developmental psychologist Dr Paul Harris, of Harvard University. http://www.paul-lansley-harris.com/ There is much debate in the psychology of religion over whether belief in God is innate or socially acquired. Dr Harris described his work with young children. He found that by the age of about six, most children can tell the difference between stories of real events and stories of pretend events (e.g. fairy stories). The children in his study were also told a short biblical story of a miracle, and asked whether it was a real story or a pretend story. He found that those who regularly attended church with their parents and/or went to parochial (faith) schools classified the biblical story as true, whereas those who neither attended church regularly nor went to a parochial school were likely to say it was a pretend story. The results suggest that belief in God is largely socially acquired, This is an important contribution to the debate. I liked the simplicity and clarity of his experiment, but I did not find the result surprising given the amount of time and effort the various religions invariably devote to teaching their religion to their children. In Great Britain, where an increasing percentage of the population claim to have no religion, the role of faith schools is currently a hot topic.
Thirdly I will mention the presentation by Dr Will Gervais of University of Kentucky on prejudice against atheists. Dr Gervais was not present at the conference, so a video of his presentation was shown instead. Here is a link to a similar presentation he gave that was recorded on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LP-p3H8xvgI
His presentation was simultaneously funny and shocking. Prejudice against atheists is a world-wide phenomenon, even in Great Britain and Western Europe where religious affiliation has been declining for decades. I recommend you have a look at the video!
Lastly I will mention what I found to be the most poignant session in the conference. Turkey is host to almost 2 million refugees from the civil war in Syria. In this session a group of Turkish psychologists: Onver Cetrez; Valerie De Marinis; Halina Grzymata-Moszczyriska; Nazil Balkir and Maria Janas described their work with some of these refugees. They researched the effects of trauma and sources of resilience among these forced migrants. They found that the most commonly mentioned source of coping was ‘hope for the future’. This is an on-going research study and not all the results are available yet. It is hoped the findings will prove useful for both the migrants and their host communities.
Up until now I have not mentioned my own research. This was my first presentation before other psychologists of religion. For a few years now I have been studying atheists who claim to have had a mystical-type experience. Many of my findings correspond to existing findings in the field, but I also have a few findings that appear to be novel. I found that one of the clearest differences with atheists and believers was the attribution they made as to the source of their experience. The participants in my study were likely to attribute the experience to rational and natural causes, such as a temporary unusual brain function, rather than to supernatural causes. I also found they were likely to the see the experience as arising as a direct response to the circumstances in their lives in the period prior to the experience and in several cases, they were likely to devote a great deal of time and effort to reconciling the meaning they gave the experience with their atheist identity.
Some research trends that caught my attention during the conference included an increasing contribution, particularly from Muslim psychologists, on the psychological study of Muslims and their religiosity; continuing work on creating an adequate instrument for measuring levels of spirituality and increased interest in atheists and atheism. Perhaps one day in the not too distant future our discipline will be known as Psychology of Religion, Spirituality and Atheism! Some other things I noted included an increasing number of presenters thanking The Templeton Foundation for funding their research. While I appreciate it is immensely helpful to have generous financial resources for the psychology of religion, I am not sure it is desirable to have one dominant source of funding that might skew the types of research topics studied. Also, I was disappointed to see that by far the majority of lecturers and presenters were male. Where are all the women psychologists of religion?
Overall however, the conference was interesting, even, dare I say it, inspiring.
One last thought……
Psychologists strive for objectivity, but it has been argued that they can never be totally objective. Religion, or lack of it, is arguably one of the strongest influences on our perspective on reality. I found myself wondering where the psychologists at the conference stood in terms of their own religious commitment. What led them to study psychology of religion? After all it is hardly the most lucrative or career-enhancing branch of psychology. I wondered therefore, in the same way that researchers acknowledge those who have funded their research, perhaps they should also acknowledge their religious position …. just a thought…
A big thank you to our hosts at Marmara University who could not have done more to welcome us and make our stay so enjoyable.