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The social psychology of religion: Current research themes

Coyle, A and Lyons, E (2011) The social psychology of religion: Current research themes Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 21 (6). pp. 461-467.

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In the Western world in recent years, concerns about the (potential and actual) social and political implications of the rise of ‘fundamentalist Islam’ have seen a range of questions being raised and culturally debated concerning the social risk/value of Islam in particular and religion in general and its role within the state. These debates have often become polarized, with anti-religious definitive positions attracting considerable attention, most notably in the form of Richard Dawkins’ (2006) best-selling book, The God Delusion. This book (and those embodying the same outlook published around the same time and subsequently) represents belief in God as irrational and constructs religion as having a corrupting influence on values and ethics and as having lain at the heart of a variety of social evils across history. This body of literature has inspired critical responses from religious and, more frequently, specifically Christian writers (for example, see Beattie, 2007; Ward, 2008). Some of the questions raised in these debates invoke standard social psychological concerns such as identity, group processes and intergroup relations, with a focus on trying to understand what fosters pro-social and anti-social behaviours that appear to be motivated and justified by religion. These questions have been studied in relation to religion by scholars within social psychology and within the psychology and sociology of religion, even if the complexity of the issues identified in this research has not always been reflected in cultural debates. For example, the Dawkins-related and other literature has sought to defend the Western liberal ‘moral zeitgeist’ against what it has constructed as the threat posed by inherently prejudiced (fundamentalist) religion. However, social psychological research on prejudice and religion suggests a complex relationship between the two, with religion potentially promoting prejudice and also potentially attenuating it, depending upon contextual and mediating factors (see Hunsberger & Jackson, 2005). More generally, it has been proposed that to understand religiously-based social behaviours, it is necessary to see them as regulated by a set of personal, social and cognitive systems of meanings, with these systems interacting with each other and with religion (Paloutzian & Silberman, 2003). Such viewpoints are quite different from the simplistic, decontextualized understandings of religious behaviours that are sometimes seen within current cultural debates. It therefore seems an opportune time to review some of the themes that are currently being explored within research that can be located under the heading of ‘the social psychology of religion’. However, exactly what constitutes ‘the social psychology of religion’ is open to debate, as is the nature of broader domain, ‘the psychology of religion’.

Item Type: Article
Divisions : Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences > School of Psychology
Authors :
Date : November 2011
Identification Number : 10.1002/casp.1121
Related URLs :
Additional Information : This is the accepted version of the following article: Coyle A, Lyons E. The social psychology of religion: Current research themes. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology 21(6):461-467, which has been published in final form at
Depositing User : Symplectic Elements
Date Deposited : 28 May 2014 13:31
Last Modified : 09 Jun 2014 13:48

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