Modern psychology considers the implications of that old-time religion

September 29, 1991|By New York Times News Service HC B

Eddie, 16, had a record of nine arrests, including rape, assault and battery and drug dealing. But something happened that set him straight: He found religion.

"One day Eddie came into our group and announced he'd been %% saved," said the Rev. Wayne Muller, who ran a therapy group in Santa Barbara, Calif., for teen-age gang members on probation. "He said he felt happy all the time. He'd given up drugs and crime and was going to nightly revival services."

Eddie's tale of salvation is as old as the Gospels. But in recent years stories like his have been changing the way psychology regards religion.

While Freud dismissed religion as little more than a neurotic illusion, the emerging wisdom in psychology is that at least some varieties of religious experience are beneficial for mental health.

The result is that growing numbers of psychologists are finding religion, if not in their personal lives, at least in their data.

What was once at best an unfashionable topic in psychology has been born again as a respectable focus for scientific research.

Some of the research confirms what programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous have long taken as a tenet of faith: that compelling beliefs such as Eddie's "improve your mental health, especially in resisting temptation and organizing your life in terms of what matters and what does not," said Dr. David Rosenhan, a psychologist at Stanford University who, though an atheist himself, is studying religious commitment as a psychological force.

The emerging consensus among psychologists studying religion is that the spiritual life is more often of psychological benefit than not andthat it is time for a scientific look at religion that does more than dismiss it.

The quickening of interest by psychologists in religion is witnessed by a series of research papers presented in early August at the meeting of the American Psychological Association in San Francisco on topics ranging from the psychological origins of the cult of the Virgin Mary to the effectiveness of religious faith in coping with chronic pain and arthritis.

The researchers are conscientious about making their own religious beliefs -- or lack of them -- explicit. But they try to separate their beliefs from their research. The aim to accept their subjects' beliefs at face value and explore their psychological impact.

Last year a study of children's religious beliefs by Dr. Robert Coles, a child psychiatrist at Harvard, became the best-selling "The Spiritual Life of Children" (Davison/Houghton Mifflin); the book showed that even children from non-religious families had active spiritual lives.

And earlier this year a lead article in American Psychologist by Dr. Allen Bergin, a psychologist at Brigham Young University, argued that "there is a spiritual dimension of human experience which the field of psychology" cannot ignore.

To be sure, the new research does not find all religious experience to be uniformly beneficial.

"Some ways of being religious correlate with greater mental disturbance," said Dr. Bergin, "while others correlate with greater levels of mental health."

The research shows that it does not matter so much what particular creed people hold, but rather how they hold it. Several studies have found poorer mental health among people who see religion as a means to a social or emotional end.

Researchers contrast this spiritual orientation, which they call "extrinsic," with an "intrinsic" outlook, in which people's religious beliefs form a personal commitment that they translate into action regardless of social or emotional concerns.

People with an extrinsic religious attitude have a what's-in-it-for-me attitude, "whether it's making business contacts at church or finding personal comfort to make themselves feel better," said Richard Gorsuch, a psychologist at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.

Although there is a great difference between belief motivated by the idea that God will help one out and churchgoing inspired by the desire for social contacts, psychologists have found that both share a deeper common thread.

As religious motives, both use religion in the service of worldly goals, and people with both orientations tend to score in the same range on tests of emotional health.

By contrast, those with an intrinsic orientation find their main motives in their religion and try to express their religious beliefs in their other dealings in life regardless of social pressures.

"The extrinsic person says the prime reason to pray is because I have a problem I want God to solve," said Dr. Gorsuch. "The intrinsic person says the prime reason is for communion with God."

In this analysis, "Job's was an intrinsic religiosity, because he could still maintain communion with God even though everything had gone wrong," Dr. Gorsuch said. "An extrinsic person in those circumstances would say, 'That religion's no good. It doesn't work for me anymore.' "

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