I just realized a few minutes ago that I haven’t ranted about my Psychology of Religion class yet (…on here anyway). And it definitely deserves some ranting.
So I’m taking this class this term – Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. And despite what you might infer from the title, it is not located within the Psychology department. Instead, it’s cross-listed under both the Religious Studies department and the Spiritual and Personal Development department. Before the classes started, I was curious as to why that was. But now I know why – it has very little to do with psychology.
Now, sure, we do talk about what different psychological theorists have said about religion. People like William James, Sigmund Freud, Abraham Maslow, Gordon Allport, for example. And that has been interesting. And the textbook is fairly decent. But the prof is another matter. Throughout the course, it’s been a struggle not to completely challenge him on his personal philosophy as well as his academic methodology. I know that sounds strange, and normally I would never challenge a professor like that….but this guy needs to be challenged.
During the first class, he went over some of the major theorists and topics that we would be covering in the class. After mentioning a few of them, he said that each theory has valuable insights to share, and that we needed to view them in complementarity in order to get a fuller picture of religion. Now, while I agree with that to a certain extent, he implied that all of these viewpoints should be given equal weight. And one of these viewpoints was the field of experimental psychology. That made me cringe. Experiments are one of the most powerful tools we have for determining cause and effect. And to place this on the same level as some guy just sitting around and thinking about things, or with a guy who examines a few case studies and creates an elaborate theory from them, is just wrong. Certainly theoretical contributions are important. But we cannot divorce theory from data. Otherwise we risk having these very complex, internally consistent theories that end up not describing anything that actually exists in real life. Of course experimental psychology has its strengths and weaknesses and limitations. But I dare say it has many more strengths and many fewer weaknesses than the case study method. I know that psychology is a difficult field to bring into the realm of science. Dealing with concepts such as consciousness and abstract notions such as love, self-image, justice, etc – these are all difficult to measure. And the psychology of religion is even more difficult. But that doesn’t mean we should just give up on trying to create rough measures to try to tap into them and just rely on what we think is right. Come on. Equally valid? Gimme a break.
Anyway, that was a minor issue for me, ultimately. What really made me realize why this guy’s course was not in the Psych. department was the class when we talked about experiments done to determine the effects of healing. Normally when someone thinks of healing, they probably think about people laying hands on another person, or praying for healing, or something like that. So this one guy set up an experiment, and what did he use? Mice, of course. Because that really taps into the whole idea of healing. Now, I do realize that this does eliminate the problem of the placebo effect – if someone expects to be healed, it often actually has an effect. So I understand the rationale for using mice – they presumably aren’t expecting to be healed. But really…mice? This researcher found a person who claimed to have the gift of healing, and he separated mice into groups – a group who was held in a tray by the healer, a group who just had a heated tray (to see if the heat from the healer had any effects), and a control group. Over something like two weeks, the mice in the first group showed great improvement over the other groups. (One experiment used goiters, and another experiment used mice who had a piece of skin removed.) So what can we say about these results, then? Perhaps that this guy has the ability to heal mice. Big whoop. Or perhaps that there is some connection between mice and humans that we don’t fully understand. Or perhaps mice are smarter than we think, and actually expected to be healed.
Or perhaps…just perhaps…this guy’s methodology was bad. That was the biggest thing that annoyed me. My prof handed out sheets briefly summarizing the experiment, but we didn’t get the actual published article. So how could I be sure that it was a sound experiment? When I got home, I tried to look it up, and it turned out that the studies were published in the Journal of Psychical Research. Which is, of course, a ridiculous journal that also publishes research on stuff like ESP. One of the most important parts of scientific research is the peer review process, where other scientists can take a look at it and determine whether it was methodologically sound and that your analysis was done correctly. But what happens when you get a bunch of scientists together that all believe the same thing to begin with? Where’s the critical eye that is so crucial to the process? Not there, that’s for sure. If this study had been published in a well-known psych. journal, then I’d definitely have to take more notice of it. But I couldn’t even find a copy of the journal article anyway, because my library doesn’t subscribe to that journal. So what am I supposed to conclude about this study if I can’t even actually examine it for myself?
My professor also told us about another couple studies done by the same researcher. After the brilliant idea to use mice, he also decided to follow that up with…bean plants. Yes, of course! What a great idea! So he got someone who was known for being very good with plants – someone with a “green thumb”, as it were – and did a couple experiments with them. He “wounded” the seeds with saltwater, and then had the guy hold the pot with the seeds in the experimental condition for 15 minutes at the beginning of the study. And those plants grew much higher than controls. In another study, he had the guy not even touch the plants at all, but just hold the saltwater solution. And the plants that had that solution poured on them did better than those with a regular, “untouched” solution. Like, come on, give me a break. Even if this study was flawlessly conducted, what does it prove? That there’s some sort of energy being passed from this guy to plants? I’d sooner believe that invisible gremlins were watering the plants when no one was looking. This has nothing to do with “healing”. It has to do with gardening. The only thing to conclude from this is to call up that gardener and get them to plant your flowers for you.
And that, along with a few other equally trite experiments, was the professor’s lip service toward the field of experimental psychology. From these inane experiments, his conclusion was that consciousness must be much broader than we perceive it, which allows us to affect other life forms and pass positive or negative energy. But where are the real experiments? What about the several studies on prayer and healing that have been done? What about research on the persuasive tactics of religions? Or the numerous studies on the effects of religious priming on various behaviours? These are all studies that he could have used, that were all published in respectable journals, and critiqued and replicated by other respectable scientists. Heck, at the very least, he could have given us some better studies on meditation – the ones he talked about were useless. Man, that class made me angry.
It’s not that I have a problem with religion, or with studying it, or theorizing about it. I mean, I enrolled in the class because I was interested in it, and in learning about the research that has been done about it. But this guy just pisses me off. He’s more concerned with trying to convince us that meditation is an “entirely different state of consciousness” (which, even if it is, so what?) and that brains are just filters for a broader consciousness that connects us all. When I looked up his profile on the Religious Studies website, it mentioned that he does a lot of research (if you can call it that) on dreams and dream analysis. He apparently has catalogued and analyzed over 5000 of his own dreams. Seriously, what a waste of time. Psychology moved on from that like 40 or 50 years ago. Now we actually use, you know, real methods. Like experiments and brain scans and autonomic measurements and seven-point scales and priming…etc. I don’t have a problem with alternative theories…what I have a problem with is ignoring all the mountains of research that have been done in favour of stupid theories on brains as “filters” for all-pervasive consciousness that will make us feel one with the universe. There have been a couple times where he has mentioned that scientists have a bias against these sorts of alternate theories. But it’s called skepticism. It’s an important tool for, you know, not being gullible. If these people that do experiments on healing and ESP and alien abductions could provide a solid, double-blind experiment that could be reviewed and replicated, things would change. But complaining that scientists are being too scientific is like complaining that astronomers aren’t paying attention to your astrological theories. THAT’S A GOOD THING. You should do the same…
Anyway, we are now discussing Transpersonal Psychology, which talks all about alternate states of consciousness like meditation and dreaming and such. The chapter we had to read had something very interesting to say. After talking about the development of the theory, etc. it started going into the “state of the world” today. You know, talking about holes in the ozone layer, overpopulation, wars, corruption, and so on. And then it said that we have the solutions to these problems – stuff like renewable energy, for instance. But then it said that without helping people to achieve these alternate states of consciousness and assisting them in feeling “oneness” with humankind and with life, we could not solve these problems. And that’s where I got confused. First off, I don’t think I need to meditate to feel like I’m connected with others. I can just sit and think and say, “Hmm, they’re human, I’m human…I guess we’re pretty similar!” Or even if I couldn’t do that, I can connect with enough people, like my friends and family, to understand that being selfish all the time makes things worse. I don’t think I need to enter some mystical realm of oneness to figure that out. Secondly, if we already have the solutions (or are developing them), as the article says, where’s the problem? All we have to do is….implement them. How is that so difficult to figure out? So instead of actually building solar panels and ending conflict, we need to just sit around and feel all lovey-dovey and get the warm fuzzies. That seems like making the problem worse…because while you’re sitting around achieving transcendence, the African kids are still dying. But hey…you feel more connected to them!
It’s this sort of thinking that just angers me. I don’t like the idea that all opinions and theories are “equally valid.” That’s just complete crap. There are some opinions that are informed, and some that are not, and the former are much, much more valid than the latter. Now, certainly we don’t understand everything, and so there is definitely, definitely room for alternate theories. But the theories can’t just be pulled out of one’s nether regions. They actually have to be able to explain the data better than the last theory. And that requires that we have data to explain. So research – good research – needs to be done to drive the theoretical contributions of science forward. Moreover, as much as mice and bean plants may tell us about how to control the rodent population and keep your garden healthy, it tells us little about religion. The theory can’t be so removed from the data that the data become irrelevant. Healing mice goiters does not convince me that consciousness doesn’t lie within the brain. And I’m not even necessarily a strict monist – I’m open to the idea that we may have immaterial “souls” like dualists would claim. I remain fairly agnostic on the issue, because I don’t think there is definitive evidence that supports one over the other…and that includes the evidence of miraculous bean plant healings. It’s gonna take something a little more definitive than that.
But at any rate, with that said, I do support that sort of research. Hey, if you can come up with a robust experiment to test your theory, great! Go for it. I’d rather you do that then just come with a theory off the top of your head and then publish seventeen books about how it must be the absolute truth. At least the attempt to prove your theory scientifically is a start. But anyway…I’ve gotten a little off-topic, but let’s just say that the class infuriates me. Some classes, it’s been a struggle to just sit there and keep my mouth shut. I really want to confront the professor. But I also want a good mark in the course. So I suppose the only thing to do is to write my comments in the course evaluation at the end of the term. I doubt that I’d be able to convince him – at 5000 dreams in, I think he’s got a significant investment in his current beliefs – but at least it will make me feel better. Who knows – maybe I’ll feel more at one with the universe afterwards.