Handbooks have a specific goal in academia. They are designed to give the reader an overview encompassing the breadth of progress in that field’s various subdisciplines. This permits the reader (often someone in one of those subspecialties) to get a grasp of the larger context of the field as a whole. The editors of the Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality have achieved that goal and more. They have proposed a “multilevel interdisciplinary paradigm” that attempts to link the various subfields together and provides a framework that resists the temptation towards theoretical reductionism that can plague any academic discipline.
The psychology of religion and spirituality has expanded dramatically as a research area over the last 15 years. The field now encompasses substantial research in diverse areas. The clear organization of this handbook facilitated grasping the important concepts in each subdiscipline. The editors introduced five themes in the first chapter to help the reader interpret and synthesize subsequent chapters. These themes included the advocacy of pluralism in research methods and theory development, understanding religion as a meaning system, expanding and integrating the research paths of the various subdisciplines, and contextualizing the place of the psychology of religion in the field of general psychology. The book was divided into five subsections.
Part one focuses on foundational aspects of the discipline, some of which were controversial. Defining the constructs of spirituality versus religiosity, for example, drew attention of not only a chapter devoted specifically to this challenging distinction but that of several authors writing in their subspecialty area. Evolutionary psychology was introduced as a foundational aspect of the field. This certainly will generate future debate as many researchers in the discipline are religious or spiritual themselves. The need for more varied research strategies such as field studies, qualitative, and longitudinal studies in predominantly quantitative empirical subdisciplines was acknowledged.
Part two continued with developmental aspects of religious and spiritual life. The chapters on childhood development, adult, and gerontological development highlighted the need for further theoretical development in each stage of our existence. Not surprisingly, cognitive theories of development had prominence and authors noted the need for further advancement in other theoretical areas.
Part three examined neuropsychological, cognitive, emotional, and personality aspects of religion. This writer found the early theoretical formulations emerging in neuropsychology to be particularly interesting. More substantial research and theoretical development, of course, could be seen in the other four areas. For example, Piedmont in chapter 14 proposed a spiritual or mystical personality construct as an additional dimension to be added to the popular Five Factor model of personality currently espoused by many personality theorists. Evidence to support his proposal was presented.
Part four examined various constructions and expressions of religion. As the editors had advocated, understanding religion and spirituality as meaning systems appeared as a key thread across several chapters. Spiritual struggle, religious conversion, fundamentalism and authoritarianism, mystical experiences, forgiveness, and the reemergence of virtue as a psychological field of study highlighted this section.
Part five examined applied areas such as the role of religiousness and spirituality in physical and mental health, integrating spirituality as a component of psychotherapy, religious dimensions of coping, workplace spirituality, and understanding terrorism. Of the topics examined in this section, sadly, understanding terrorism demonstrated the greatest need for both preliminary research and theoretical development. The author of this particular chapter did an excellent job of highlighting the important role the psychology of religion can play in more effectively addressing this serious issue.
The book ended with the editors tying the previous chapters back into their advocacy of the multilevel interdisciplinary paradigm and the four other previously mentioned key themes. The case for this paradigm was well made. Now, however, the human tendency towards reductionism will likely battle with this well thought out and logically presented paradigm. Describing religion and spirituality as dynamic constructs with multiple theoretical underpinnings as opposed to merely neuropsychological processes, social processes, or other processes particular to the specific scientist’s predilection will require disciplined integrative work on the part of each subdiscipline. Several years from now the next edition of this handbook will likely reveal the outcome of this ambitious and promising multilevel paradigm proposal.