Towards a psychology of nonreligion within a psychology of religion?

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Note: This post initially appeared on the American Psychological Association blog.

Thomas J. Coleman III, David F. Bradley, & Alex Uzdavines

Today’s psychology of religion has deep historical roots in the version of Protestant Christianity popular in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries (Wulff, 2001). Despite a long history predating even William James, it is only recently that psychology of religion has begun to systematically investigate nonreligious or nonbelieving individuals. As the nonbelieving population continues to grow, and is likely to continue growing (Twenge et al., 2015), this population is increasingly important to study. The purpose of this newsletter article is to provide a very brief overview of two obstacles (the religiosity-health relationship and measurement of religiousness/nonreligiousness) among many facing a psychology of nonreligion within the psychology of religion and spirituality. However, it is first useful to make a brief foray into the history of Division 36 and the field of psychology of religion more broadly in order to better understand the challenges laying ahead.

Division 36 can trace its own roots back to the American Catholic Psychological Association. One of this division’s aims during that era was to “bring a catholic viewpoint to psychology” (in, Reuder, 1999, p. 91). Today, some psychologists, such as Belzen (2010, p. 7), suggest that many members of Division 36 have a “private interest in ‘religion,’” and are “interested in integrating ‘religion’ into their professional work as, especially, clinical professionals.” In many cases, this is unproblematic: one should not equate having a “private interest” in religion for necessarily being biased. After all, most people have some sort of position on religion and spirituality, and “the agnostic and atheist likewise must constantly seek to avoid prejudices that may jeopardize objectivity” (Hood, Hill, & Spilka, 2009, p. 4). Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that a bias exists or is perceived to exist within Division 36. Division 36 president, Michael Nielsen, authored an article in the previous issue of this newsletter titled “Perceptions, in-groups and out-groups: Challenges and opportunities for Div. 36” (2015). In his article, Nielsen draws on the results of former president Julie Exline’s (2013) “Highlights from a recent survey of Division 36,” providing a thorough and thoughtful discussion about recognizing and respecting differences within the organization.

These in-group/out-group perceptions have a firm grounding in reality. At the 2015 APA Division 36 Mid-Year Conference on Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality, a Christian prayer was offered before the conference dinner was served, by default making the prayer part of the formal Division 36 conference programming. Later, a campus ministry a cappella group serenaded attendees. Such decisions create an uncomfortable atmosphere for non-Christians, including nonbelievers, in what, according to the Division 36 mission statement, should have been a nonsectarian event. Afterwards, the invited speaker denigrated non-Christian psychologists in history and lamented non-Christian morality by asserting that the increasing secularity in parts of Europe was responsible for growing drug use and sexual ‘promiscuity’ (c.f., Uzdavines, 2015), again as part of the Division 36 programming.

While researchers’ experiences at conferences and a survey of the membership suggest a tilt in favor of Christianity, Division 36 has actively supported research regarding nonbelievers. At conferences, Division 36 regularly programs sessions and posters dedicated to this minority group. Additionally, Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, a journal sponsored by Division 36, has recently issued a call for proposals for a special issue focused on “atheists, agnostics, and nonbelievers.” This is to be applauded and we hope other organizations and journals will follow suit in adding to the growing resources on the topic of nonbelief, such as the recent issue of Science, Religion, & Culture on “Atheism, Secularity, and Science” (Coleman, Hood, & Shook, 2015). Determining how the psychology of religion and belief engages with what seems, on the surface, to be its antithesis – nonreligion and nonbelief – will require both theoretical and empirical contributions. Division 36’s ongoing support for work on nonbelief and nonreligion will help ensure these contributions continue.

A specific area in need of further theoretical and empirical development is the relationship between religion/spirituality and health. Religion and health has been an area of extensive research for over 20 years. Bearing in mind many important caveats, the overall picture from this line of inquiry indicates that more religious involvement is generally correlated with better mental health (Bonelli & Koenig, 2013). Surprisingly, this correlation tells us very little about possible health outcomes associated with nonbelief. The majority of these studies compare high vs. low religiosity, grouping together people who are nonbelievers with people who are low-commitment believers, despite there being meaningful differences between them. Many studies do not include any nonbelievers, and others that directly test believers vs. nonbelievers fail to match believers and nonbelievers on levels of social engagement (Galen, 2012, 2015). This research also fails to measure secular sources of virtues or values that could be used for comparison (c.f., Koenig 2011). Likewise, the research on the possible prosocial effects of certain types of religiosity suffers from similar problems: conflating low religiosity with nonbelief and failing to correct for the influence of broader psychological processes known to impact prosociality and the measurement of prosociality (Galen, 2012). Importantly, not only is more empirical research required, but new and improved theoretical accounts of how religious and secular variables may interact are needed to drive measure development and data collection. Perhaps a more basic question could serve as a starting point: Is there a psychological variable that is essentially “religious?”

Many of the problems mentioned above stem from issues of measurement. Religiosity or spirituality is (rightly) conceived of as a complex phenomenon. Most religion scales don’t simply measure fervency of belief; instead, they measure “facets,” “orientations,” or “dimensions” of religiosity. The constructs operationalized in psychology of religion are constructed, they are not naturally occurring givens. Many studies of spirituality and health or well-being are plagued with criterion contamination, as many measures of “spirituality” overlap with the health or well-being variables they are attempting to predict (Koenig, 2011). Some scales, such as Hood’s (1975) widely used M-Scale, which is often interpreted as a measure of experiences deemed religious, contain no reference to a supernatural agent or explicit religious activity. Measuring such experiences without reference to the supernatural or religion per se has limitations, but one benefit is that it is easily interpreted by both believers and nonbelievers. In another example, a recent special issue of Psychology of Religion and Spirituality featured an article using a Daoist and Totemic scale (Lee, Beddow, Chan, & Xu, 2015). The items in these measures (e.g., “Balance is important in everything I do”; “We human beings are not superior to animals”), while certainly a component of some values and ideas one might deem as “religious” or “spiritual,” overlap with values and ideas some might consider to be “nonreligious” or “secular.”

There are hundreds of measures of religiosity, some stretching back almost 100 years (Hill & Hood, 1999). However, measures appropriate for a secular or nonbelieving person are less common (e.g., Bradley, 2014; Cragun et al., 2015; Schnell, 2014). If religiosity is as complex and multifaceted as it appears, then where does the worldview of a nonbeliever stand in relation to this diversity? How does a psychology of religion incorporate a psychology of nonbelief? This rather large question is composed of many smaller questions, some of which we have asked here – questions of construct validity and the influence of broader psychological processes – and others which remain unasked. Both theory and empirical research must be brought to bear on the problem. That the “psychology of religion and spirituality” is now taking seriously the “psychology of nonreligion and nonspirituality” is a sign of progress that we believe will benefit our understanding of believers, nonbelievers, and everybody in-between. The ground is fertile for exciting and provocative advances in theory and measurement, as past theory, measures, and methods developed in a different era and for a different population are challenged, reevaluated, and, perhaps, reformulated or rejected.


Belzen, J. (2010). Towards cultural psychology of religion. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

Bonelli, R., & Koenig, H. (2013). Mental disorders, religion and spirituality 1990 to 2010: A systematic evidence-based review. Journal of Religion and Health, 52, 657-673.

Bradley, D. (2014). The Reasons of Atheists/Agnostics for Nonbelief in God’s Existence Scale: Development and initial validation (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from

Coleman III, T., Hood Jr., R., & Shook, J. (2015). An introduction to atheism, secularity, and science. Science, Religion and Culture, 2(3), 1-14.

Cragun, R., Hammer, J., & Nielsen, M. (2015). The NonReligious-NonSpiritual Scale (NRNSS): Measuring everyone from atheists to Zionists. Science, Religion and Culture, 2(3), 36-53.

Exline, J. J. (2013). Highlights from a recent survey of Division 36. Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality Newsletter, 37(1), 1-6.

Galen, L. (2012). Does religious belief promote prosociality? A critical examination. Psychological Bulletin, 138, 876-906.

Galen, L. (2015). Atheism, wellbeing, and the wager: Why not believing in God (with others) is good for you. Science, Religion and Culture, 2(3), 54-69.

Hill, P., & Hood, R. (1999). Measures of religiosity. Birmingham, AL.: Religious Education Press.

Hood, R. (1975). The construction and preliminary validation of a measure of reported mystical experience. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 14, 29-41.

Hood, R., Hill, P., & Spilka, B. (2009). The psychology of religion. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Koenig, H. (2011). Spirituality & health research. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press.

Lee, Y., Beddow, M., Chan, X., & Xu, C. (2015). Evolutionary and cross-cultural investigation of Totemism and Daoism. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 7, 278-285.

Nielsen, M. (2015). Perceptions, in-groups and out-groups: Challenges and opportunities for Div. 36. Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality Newsletter.

Reuder, M. E. (1999). A history of Division 36 (Psychology of Religion). In Dewsbury, D. A. (Ed.), Unification through division: Histories of the divisions of the American Psychological Association (Vol. 4) (91-108). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Schnell, T. (2014). Dimensions of Secularity (DoS): An open inventory to measure facets of secular identities. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 25, 272-292.

Twenge, J., Exline, J., Grubbs, J., Sastry, R., & Campbell, W. (2015). Generational and time period differences in American adolescents’ religious orientation, 1966–2014. PLOS ONE, 10(5), e0121454.

Uzdavines, A. (2015). Psychology of religion at its best…and less best. The Religious Studies Project. Retrieved from

Wulff, D. (2001). The psychology of religion and the problem of apologetics. Temenos, 37-38, 241-261.

Thomas J. Coleman III is a graduate student in the research psychology masters program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and director of the Ralph W. Hood Jr. Psychology of Religion Laboratory. He is an assistant editor for the journal Secularism & Nonreligion and a managing editor for The Religious Studies Project. His interests span research in psychological anthropology, the cognitive sciences and philosophy of science, focusing on theory of mind and folk psychology. Coleman recently co-edited a special issue of the journal Science, Religion & Culture titled “Atheism, Secularity, and Science” with John R. Shook and Ralph W. Hood.

David F. Bradley, MA, is a doctoral candidate in the clinical psychology program at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. He holds a BA in history and MA in mental health counseling from Boston College, in addition to a MA in psychology from Case Western Reserve University. His research interests include identity formation among atheists and other nonbelievers, ways that nonbelief intersects with mental health and well-being, and nonbelievers’ experiences in mental health settings.

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