Psychology of Religion and Coping: Theory, Research, Practice (Revised)

Psychology of Religion and Coping: Theory, Research, Practice (Revised)

by Kenneth I Pargament

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When faced with a crisis, why do some people turn to religion to help them cope, while others turn away? Is religious belief merely a defense or a form of denial? Is spirituality a help or a hindrance in times of stress? Building a much-needed bridge between two different worlds of thought and practice-religion and psychology-this volume sensitively interweaves theory with first-hand accounts, clinical insight, and scientific research. The book underscores the need for greater sensitivity to religion and spirituality in the context of helping relationships, and suggests a range of ways that faith might be used more fully to help people in crisis.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781572306646
Publisher: Guilford Publications, Inc.
Publication date: 02/01/2001
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 562
Sales rank: 1,255,635
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.14(d)

About the Author

Kenneth I. Pargament, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at Bowling Green State University, where he is also Director of Clinical Training of the clinical psychology PhD program. He is coeditor of Forgiveness: Theory, Research, and Practice (with Michael E. McCullough and Carl E. Thoresen).

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Psychology of Religion and Coping

Theory, Research, Practice
By Kenneth I. Pargament

The Guilford Press

Copyright © 2001 The Guilford Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-57230-664-5

Chapter One


This chapter examines how people involve religion in the search for significance in the face of pain and hardship. I will begin by noting how and why it can be so difficult to apply religious beliefs and practices to the concrete problems of living. Next, I will examine how religion expresses itself in many ways in coping, ways that belie popular stereotypes about religion. Finally, I will consider some of the individual, situational, and cultural forces that shape the many faces of religious coping.


"The prince of darkness may be a gentleman, as we are told he is, but whatever the god of earth and heaven is, he can surely be no gentleman. His menial services are needed in the dust of our human trials, even more than his dignity is needed in the empyrean" (James, 1975, p. 40). James's turn-of-the-century observations seem just as appropriate today. We have seen that many people look to their faith for support and solace in difficult times. Yet many also find it hard to translate the often abstract, seemingly removed historical accounts of the religious world into concrete forms that are meaningful to their current predicaments.Listen to this description of a couple having marital difficulties:

During one argument, the husband confronted the wife and asked what she thought they should do about the marriage, what direction they should take. She reached for her Bible and turned to Ephesians. "I know what Paul says and I know what Jesus says about marriage," he told her. "What do you say about our marriage?" Dumbfounded, she could not say anything. Like so many of us, she could recite the scriptures, but could not apply them to everyday living. Before the year was out, the husband filed for divorce. (Jones, 1991, p. 4)

This is not an isolated case. One of the most common complaints about churches and synagogues is the irrelevance of the religious services and educational programs to the problems of daily life (Pargament et al., 1991). Even the most devout may have trouble applying the abstractions of religion to life's hardships. In psychotherapy with clergy it is not at all unusual to find ministers, priests, or rabbis who fail to connect their faith to their specific problems.

When religion is disconnected from matters of practical importance it is unlikely to have much practical effect. In one study of homilies within Roman Catholic parishes, we found that the relevance of the sermons to daily life was by far the best predictor of the impact of the message on the members (Pargament & Silverman, 1982).

I recall one clergyman who came to therapy in a great deal of distress after suffering an accident that had left him paralyzed. The accident raised many fundamental questions for this man. Why had it happened? Could he have done anything to prevent it? How could he continue to function with his disability? Could he ever find enjoyment in living now that he truly knew how fragile life is? Yet in all his talk about these very basic issues of meaning, responsibility, and finitude he never mentioned a word about religious faith. Perhaps he was reluctant to bring up religious concerns to a psychologist. But when I raised the question of where his religion fit into his struggle, he drew a blank. In spite of the fact that he often worked as a religious counselor to people in dire straits not unlike his own, he himself was unable to move from the generalities of his faith to the specifics of his situation.

Why is it so hard to bring religion down to earth? The problem is, in part, built into religious systems. The religions of the world are vitally concerned with the most important of the human transitions and crises. Every major religious tradition has something to say about birth, the coming of age, the forming of new families, illness, accident, injustice, tragedy, and death. Most of the world's religions offer theologies and rituals for these general classes of events. However, no organized religion can provide a theology for every kind of death that could be experienced. None is able to offer rituals predesigned and tailored to every kind of loss.

But, if no religion is fully elaborated, it is with good reason. A faith too tied to the specifics of a particular time, context, or situation would grow extinct as circumstances evolve. The symbols, rituals, and metaphors so central to religious life all lend it flexibility-an ability to bend, stretch, and generate new forms of expression with changing times and conditions. Moreover, the incomplete character of religion can add freshness and vitality to the spiritual search (Bakan, 1968).

The religion of any particular time and place is faced with a difficult dilemma. If made too concrete, it will lose much of its flexibility, mystery and vitality. Yet if left too abstract it will have little to say to the person confronted with very immediate and very real problems. Theologians are quite aware of this dilemma. The essential function of theology, Tillich (1951) says, is to create a balance between two poles, "the eternal truth of its foundation and the temporal situation in which the eternal truth must be received" (p. 3). A theology that confuses the truth of the moment with eternal truth is as untenable as a theology that is disconnected from present circumstances.

The leaders of religious communities also deal with this dilemma in the more concrete practice of religious life. In fact, perhaps their major task is to bridge the mysteries of the heavens with the realities of earth. In sermons, religious stories, inspirational literature, and pastoral work of many kinds we find the fundamental truths of a religious tradition linked to the situation of the day. Take a few examples.

A minister responds to an abused woman who wonders whether she deserves the treatment she has received:

You are valued in God's eyes; your whole self is regarded by God as a temple, a sacred place. Just as God does not want a temple defiled by violence, neither does God want you to be harmed. God's spirit dwells in you and makes you holy. You do deserve to live without fear and without abuse. (Fortune, 1987, p. 7)

A rabbi likens the Ten Plagues inflicted on ancient Egypt to the plagues facing the world today.

The final and ultimate (of the Ten Plagues) was the loss of Egypt's first-born children and thus the calling into question of its future. As the Jewish community grapples with the issues of a low birth rate, intermarriage, alienation and assimilation and Jewish illiteracy, it must remember that the ultimate plague is that which destroys our future as a community. (Berkowitz, 1989, p. 14)

In any age and in any community, we find the basic teachings of a religious tradition confronting the unique demands of a particular time, place, and people. The challenge for the religious community is to respond to ever-changing circumstances while remaining within the boundaries of its world. This is the "cutting edge of religious life" (Paden, 1988, p. 89).

Psychologists of religion have had less to say about this cutting edge of religion. As we noted earlier, the tendency among social scientists has been to view religion as a general orientation. Typically, religion has been assessed macroanalytically by global, dispositional, distal indicators: how often the person generally attends religious services or prays, how important religion is to the individual. The applications of religion to concrete life situations have gone largely unstudied. Unfortunately, this has left a gap in our understanding.

Take, for example, a study of caregivers to people with Alzheimer's disease and recurrent metastatic cancer (Rabins, Fitting, Eastham, & Zabora, 1990). Recognizing that caregivers of the chronically ill are vulnerable to emotional and physical problems of their own, these researchers were interested in identifying the factors that affect long-term adaptation to the caregiving process. Religion emerged as one of the most important and helpful variables. More specifically, the strength of religious faith reported by the caregivers was related to a more positive emotional state 2 years later, as measured by indices of positive and negative affect. Although this study points to the beneficial role of religious faith for these caregivers, it leaves some very important questions unanswered. What is it about religious faith that is helpful? Does it reassure them that their relative will recover? Does it help them view the illness in a more positive light? Does it provide them with direction and guidance in their struggles? Does it enable them to find meaning in what may seem to be a senseless disease? It is not enough to find that general measures of religious faith or practice relate to general measures of adjustment or well-being. The central question remains: How does religion come to life in the immediate situation?

The coping framework provides one window into this transitional process, this movement from heaven to earth. When we turn our attention to coping, we can see people moving from the generalities of their faith to the specifics of religious action in difficult moments. We now consider some of the ways religion expresses itself "in the dust of our trials."


When psychologists talk about coping, the topic of religion does not usually come up. What discussion it has received has often been oversimplified and negative. The view that religion is simply a defense against the confrontation with reality, argued by Freud (1927/1961) many years ago, still holds wide acceptance among social scientists and mental health professionals. For example, one text on stress devotes one page to religion, and focuses exclusively on its defensive role in the appraisals of situations:

Religion actively offers distortions of perception as "acceptable" ways of dealing with problems, and in many ways the comments made about the use of drugs in altering cognitive appraisal are appropriate here. Although emotional gains obviously accrue from being religious, there is a distinct possibility that the psychological defense strategies recommended by the religion may impair realistic behaviour, and may only be maintained at a cost to physical and psychological health. (Cox, 1980, p. 120)

What does it mean to say that religion is a defense? The term "defense" refers to a particular set of means for attaining a particular set of ends (A. Freud, 1966). By distorting the nature of the real threat or by steering clear of it (i.e., the means or methods of defense), the individual attempts to allay fears and apprehensions (i.e., the ends or goals of defense). Avoidance in the service of tension reduction is the essence of this concept. Defenses are said to be partially successful and partially maladaptive. They may reduce anxiety, but in failing to face the real issue head on, the problem remains unresolved.

Implicit in the view of religion-as-defense are three assumptions: (1) in terms of ends, the basic goal of religion is tension reduction; (2) in terms of the way situations are constructed, religion is a form of denial; and (3) in terms of the way situations are handled, religion is passive and avoidant. Elsewhere Park and I (Pargament & Park, 1995) have argued that these assumptions and the general notion of religion-as-defense are stereotypical. Like other stereotypes, there is a grain of truth to these beliefs, but only that. Religion can serve the purpose of tension reduction, it can distort reality, and it can be passive and avoidant, but it can also be more. In the introductory chapters, I defined religion as a complex multidimensional phenomena. Religion is no less complex or multidimensional when it comes to coping. In the following sections I challenge common religious stereotypes by presenting pictures of some of the many faces of religion in coping: in the ends we strive toward, in the ways we construct situations, and in the specific forms of coping we use in the search for significance.

Merely Tension Reduction? The Many Ends of Religious Coping

In the eyes of many mental health professionals, comfort, solace, and relief are the basic functions of religion. Similarly, some coping researchers have described religion exclusively as a form of emotion-focused coping. It is not too hard to marshal support for this argument. As we saw in the last chapter, people are more likely to turn to God for help in stressful times. And, as we will see in Chapter 10, religious involvement can allay feelings of anxiety and distress among groups in crisis. However, to say that people look to religion for emotional comfort in times of stress is one thing; to say that this is the sole purpose of religion is quite another.

Earlier we described some of the general destinations often associated with religion. We spoke of religion and the search not only for comfort, but for other ends as well: the sacred, meaning, the self, physical health, intimacy, and a better world. In the process of coping with stress, each of these general destinations turns into specific purposes.

People may strive toward something of a spiritual nature.

One of our interviewees in the Project on Religion and Coping (Pargament, Royster, et al., 1990), Jane a 41-year-old woman, described a lifelong search for God in the midst of exceptional hardship and struggle. As a child she had a deep spiritual feeling: "I can remember one instance in particular when I was about four or five when I was sitting in a field behind our house, and the sun was going down, and I just felt like God had his arms around me. I can see him in the sunset, and I can remember seeing him in that field." As an adolescent, Jane had a born-again experience. However, it was a "reverse success story." "I thought that when I became a Christian, when I asked the Lord into my heart, that I just [would never] do anything wrong again. That somehow I'd be transformed into this perfect little person.... And so, the first time I screwed up, I thought, that's it, I blew it, and had nobody to tell me any different." Jane's life went into a downward spiral. She became addicted to heroin, was involved in a series of unsuccessful marriages, and participated in witchcraft and the occult. All of these actions she viewed as misdirected attempts to recover the God she had lost.

The death of her mother was a turning point. At her funeral, Jane was profoundly affected by something a friend said to her:

That when Jesus said, I will never leave you or forsake you, he meant it.


Excerpted from Psychology of Religion and Coping by Kenneth I. Pargament Copyright © 2001 by The Guilford Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1. An Introduction to the Psychology of Religion and Coping
I. A Perspective on Religion
2. The Sacred and the Search for Significance
3. Religious Pathways and Religious Destinations
II. A Perspective on Coping
4. An Introduction to the Concept of Coping
5. The Flow of Coping
III. The Religion and Coping Connection
6. When People Turn to Religion: When They Turn Away
7. The Many Faces of Religion in Coping
8. Religion and the Mechanisms of Coping: The Conservation of Significance
9. Religion and the Mechanisms of Coping: The Transformation of Significance
IV. Evaluative and Practical Implications
10. Does It Work? Religion and the Outcomes of Coping
11. When Religion Fails: Problems of Integration in the Process of Coping
12. Putting Religion into Practice


Mental health practitioners, psychology researchers, and religion professionals and educators; students in these areas; interested general readers. It also serves as a text for courses dealing with the interface of religion, psychology, and mental health.

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