Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality

Concepts and Applications

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Fraser Watts
Cambridge Studies in Religion, Philosophy, and Society
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , March
     234 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This concise yet comprehensive survey of the psychology of religion builds on Fraser Watts’s numerous previous contributions to the field but adds to these by examining the emerging psychology of spirituality as well. Watts’s Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality provides an excellent overview of the ways in which psychology has illuminated religious phenomena and experience as the field of religion and psychology has developed historically. In addition, he deftly summarizes contemporary advances in the psychology of religion and spirituality by incorporating insights from neuroscience and other newer psychologies. The volume is not overly annotated; however, it does provide more than adequate references for anyone desiring more information about the vast array of topics the book covers ranging, for instance, from psychoanalytic interpretations of religious experience to embodied cognition’s role in spiritual practices.

The opening chapters tackle conceptual issues, such as what is meant by religion and psychology, and focus on the question of why people are religious. The next section explores the complexity and multidimensionality of religion and highlights the traditional breakdown of religion into practices, beliefs, and experiences as well as giving some attention to current interests in spirituality. Watts succinctly and cogently notes how psychology sheds light on all of these aspects of religion. Another part of the book finds Watts indicating how the psychology of religion contributes to the understanding of religious development, the varieties of religious orientation, and the role of religion in relation to health and adjustment. In the final chapters Watts explores the application of psychology of religion in scriptural and doctrinal studies and theological anthropology. He also comments on insights into the phenomena of conversion and personal transformation that the field provides. This text is remarkable for the clarity of its presentations and even those without an extensive background in psychology will easily follow the discussions.

Clear strengths of the work are the breadth of Watts’s approach to both religion and psychology, and his willingness to take a critical perspective on past research in the field of psychology of religion as well as to offer informed suggestions about further areas in need of investigation and analysis. Throughout, Watts is evenhanded and so notes both strengths and weaknesses in the various psychologies he surveys. His discussion of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis is careful to point out the diverse strands in Freud’s psychology of religion and the limitations of his perspective, but Watts complements that discussion with consideration of more recent psychoanalytic perspectives on religious experience. He appropriately draws attention to the work of the psychoanalytic object relations theorist D. W. Winnicott on transitional phenomena—subsequently appropriated by Ana Maria Rizzuto, Paul W. Pruyser, and W. W. Meissner—as a lens for viewing religious experience in terms of its uniqueness and transformative potential.

Although Watts does reference other religious traditions, Christianity is most often his point of reference, especially in light of the vast amount of research he has done on it. He values both the typical objective approach to religion and spirituality, but also can see the contribution which an insider perspective offers. In more than one place he argues for the value of a two-factor approach to religion and religious experience in which there is attention to the phenomenon of religious experience itself, and attention to that experience viewed in the light of a distinctive religious interpretative framework. It is here that Watts makes connection to the familiar debate between the so-called perennialists and the constructivists regarding religious experience. It is unfortunate that Watts does not make any reference to the work of Ann Taves who also commented on this debate and chose to focus on experiences which people deemed religious. But this omission does not, in any way, detract from the overall achievement of Watts, and his effort to guide people through the terrain of the psychology of religion and spirituality.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Raymond Studzinski is associate professor of religion & personality at the Catholic University of America.

Date of Review: 
July 21, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Fraser Watts has combined a distinguished career as a psychologist with a distinguished record in theology and religious studies. For almost twenty years at the University of Cambridge, he led one of the largest research groups in psychology and religion. He received the American Psychological Association William Bier Award, and founded the Cambridge Institute for Applied Psychology and Religion.


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