Beginning to study religion around the world

Religion is just about everywhere, but psychologists of religion have not studied it much beyond the United States and Western Europe. The International Death Survey was a step to address this cultural myopia, focussing on religion's relationship to death.

Go to the profile of Jonathan Jong
Aug 21, 2019
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When we try to explain some aspect of human behaviour, social psychologists typically reach either for cognitive factors or motivational factors. The distinction is a fuzzy one, but roughly speaking a cognitive factor is one about abilities and tendencies, whereas a motivational factor is one about needs and desires. The idea that some people are religious because they are not very smart is an example of a cognitive explanation of religious belief, as is the related but distinct idea that some people are religious because they think less analytically than atheists do. As a graduate student, I did not find these sorts of explanations especially interesting. 

Rather, I as drawn to motivational theories that posited psychological needs and desires as causes of behaviour. Perhaps people are religious because they have a need to explain all the weird and wonderful things they see around them, from comets to coincidences, dreams to death. Speaking of which, perhaps people are religious because they fear death, and beliefs about souls and gods and the afterlife are obvious solutions to our inevitable mortality. Naïvely, just before starting my career as a researcher, I made a list of all the motivational factors that interested me: things like the fear of death and need to explain the world, as well as the desire not to be lonely and the wish for a just world. There were at least a half dozen things on the list, and I felt confident that I would be able to run several studies on each of them by the time I finished my PhD. in three years. Over a decade later, I have barely moved off the first item on the list.

Do you believe in God?—is fraught with historical and cultural traps. What word should we use for “God” in Japanese? Kami is the most obvious, but it is also quite ambiguous, referring to deities very generally. Amenominakanushi is much closer to the idea of God as creator, but it is quite specifically Shinto. Similarly Shu would be too Christian. Psychological measurement is difficult enough in a single cultural context: adding translation to the mix compounds the challenge, and success is impossible to guarantee.

International Death Survey was my first attempt to face the challenge, and I do not yet know if I succeeded. I worked with professional translators and psychologists and religious studies scholars, and produced what we hope are adequate translations of questions about various aspect of people’s attitudes toward death and their relationship to religious or supernatural beliefs. The dataset we obtained can—if we have done a decent job—help to answer questions about the motivations behind religious belief, but also those about how attitudes toward death change with death-related experiences or about how different aspects of religiosity—beliefs, behaviours, experiences—are related to one another. It is not the only multi-country dataset in the world that includes questions about death or questions about religion, but the combination is unique, and other multi-country datasets rarely contain a small handful of questions about these topics. Conversely, studies that do delve into religiosity as a main variable of interest tend to focus on relatively few cultural contexts. The fact that Scientific Data has published more than one is itself a remarkable thing to be celebrated. 

Despite its name, focussing on the death-y aspect, the hope of the International Death Survey is that it encourages more cross-cultural psychological research on religion. Indeed, I hope it encourages more cross-cultural psychological research in general. If psychologists want to understand humans and not just Americans or Brits or Kiwis or whatever, then we have to look far beyond our traditional local samples, testing the same hypotheses in diverse cultures.

The data descriptor Death anxiety, exposure to death, mortuary preferences, and religiosity in five countries is now available here.


Go to the profile of Jonathan Jong

Jonathan Jong

Research Fellow, Coventry University

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