Lee Kirkpatrick sets out with an ambitious agenda to “formulate a scientific, comprehensive, explanatory psychology of religion”(p.2) while making it clear that such a goal is unattainable within the context of a single volume, or even a single lifetime. With a carefully constructed framework, and a disciplined and systematic approach to the task, Kirkpatrick invites the reader on a journey that follows his own path of study and thinking. The ultimate destination for the author would be to “bring about a comprehensive, paradigmatic psychology which could then be carried over into the domain of religion” (p.343).
The journey begins with a comprehensive discussion about attachment theory that provides the basis for Kirkpatrick’s fascinating argument that for many believers God really is an attachment figure, and that the relationship is not just an analogous one. “The attachment system is a 'real' system in the brain/mind, instantiated in brain circuitry to organize a variety of more domain-specific modules in a particular way, as designed by natural selection to fulfill the adaptive functions identified by Bowlby” (p.56). According to Kirkpatrick, Bowlby’s model of attachment hypothesized three important stimuli that provided further fuel for the God as an Attachment Figure argument. These were “(1) frightening or alarming environmental events, that is, stimuli that evoke fear and distress; (2) illness, injury, or fatigue; and (3) separation or threat of separation from attachment figures ” (p.61). The author contends that if his hypothesis is true than people should turn to God and “evince attachment-like behaviours under these conditions”(p.61).
Kirkpatrick meticulously associates the theoretical functions of attachment figures with perceptions many people have of a personal relationship with God, and draws the reader on with persuasive arguments that flow from this contention. He covers much ground in the chapters exploring religion as an attachment process, and plunges into the maze of themes jostling for attention, making them stand neatly in line and come forward for attention one by one. Religion and love, God as a parental figure, Individual differences in images of God, and many more are investigated with convincing supporting evidence for the author’s proposed connections between the psychological and religious. Themes linking psychological attachment styles of secure, anxious/ambivalent, and avoidant with internal working models of self and others with corresponding patterns of attachment to God inform the chapter on Individual Differences in Attachment and Religion (The correspondence hypothesis). The next section of the book proposes a compensation hypothesis, or God as a Substitute Attachment Figure and provides an equally fascinating and interesting read.
Chapters 7, 8, and 9 introduce and explore Attachment theory and Evolutionary theory in a clear and concise way, logically progressing from one idea to the next. Kirkpatrick does not argue here, that religion is in itself an adaptation “humans do not possess, as part of our species-universal evolved psychological architecture, mechanisms designed by natural selection specifically for the purpose of generating religious belief or behaviour as a solution to any particular adaptive problem”(p.238). He proposes that when people think about God, that thinking is shaped by the “cognitive, emotional, and behavioural machinery of the attachment system in conjunction with the details of their own individual attachment-related experience” (p.239).
The final four chapters move beyond attachment and intrapersonal and interpersonal relating into the broader domain of psychological mechanisms involving processes for negotiating a wide network of social relationships. Kirkpatrick again chews over many complex interlocking ideas such as Power, status and Intrasexual Competition, Kinship, Reciprocal Altruism and Social Exchange, and Coalitional Psychology. Throughout the discussion, Kirkpatrick consistently returns to the core theme, and proposes ways in which these ideas can be integrated with perceptions of God as all of the above through the operation of evolved cognitive machinery. A pertinent set of questions about The Cognitive Origins of Religious belief entice the reader to continue the journey through the psychology of thinking, including an intriguing foray into anthropomorphism and parapsychology. The author then proceeds, in his chapter Beyond Genes, with a response to criticisms that evolutionary explanations of behaviour are reductionist in their attempts to explain all behaviour in terms of inclusive fitness. He maintains that “Natural selection does not produce behaviour; it produces physiological and psychological systems that in turn, in interaction with the environment, produce behaviour” (p.303).
Whether Kirkpatrick succeeds in his aim of providing a framework for an Evolutionary Psychology of Religion is for the individual reader to determine. This reader was utterly convinced and totally beguiled throughout the narrative. Kirkpatrick has a skilful way of presenting complex ideas and maintaining the reader’s interest throughout what is really a monumental work. The book is highly recommended by this reader to anyone interested in social and personality psychology and the psychology of religion, as well as clinical psychology and religious studies.