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The Psychology of Religion and CopingReview - The Psychology of Religion and Coping
Theory, Research, Practice
by Kenneth I. Pargament
Guilford Press, 1997
Review by Debbie Hill
Nov 30th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 48)

In the past, religion qua culture provided a consistent and valuable Weltanschauung, but this is no longer true in most modern societies.  The plurality of our society and world today coupled with the speed of change and communication sets the stage for a psycho-religious perspective on coping.  How we choose to cope now falls more on the individual for making sense of crises that bombard us.  Those crises may vary from one individual to another, but most have to do with universal situations: birth, illness, and death.  “We are most vulnerable to events that affect the things we care about for which we perceive fewest resources and greatest burdens.” The individual must decide to cope in some way.  The question is where, how and why they make those choices.

Unfortunately, when psychologists talk about coping, religion rarely comes up--at least in a positive light.  On one extreme, psychoanalyst Freud thought religion was simply an illusion and on the other extreme, cognitive behaviorist Ellis considered it virtually mental illness.  Supporters of religion respond with the charge that psychology has erroneously elevated the person to the level of the sacred.  Pargament is trying to mediate this dispute by averring that psychology and religion need not be mutually exclusive elements of an individual’s healthy personality.

The capacity for religion to play a role in psychological processes is woefully underappreciated, particularly in coping with crises. Those in the “helping professions” are usually, at best, uncomfortable with discussing religion and spirituality with patients and clients. The findings in a review of the empirical literature and the results of Pargament’s study, the multi-year Project on Religion and Coping, however, are that religion is not inconsistent with an internal locus of control.  For example, it generally does not espouse passivity in situations of social oppression. Measures of religiousness actually correspond to active rather than avoidant forms of coping.  Pargament posits the difference between psychologists and religionists thusly: the former help people to believe in their own power to effect change, and the latter help people to believe in a higher power to effect change (or at least acceptance or contentment) in areas where personal power is impotent.  Pargament wants psychologists to consider that “religion is perhaps uniquely equipped to respond to those times when people are faced with limits of their own power.”  It can give people the capacity to go beyond personal limitations for solutions.  For example, spiritual support and explanation and the belief in a sacred control of things that are out of personal control can be positive and productive coping mechanisms.

The Project on Religion and Coping was an “intensive analysis of several hundred members of Protestant churches and Roman Catholic parishes who had experienced a major stressful life event within the past year.”  The researchers employed participant-observation research, devised scales, held interviews with clergy, church members and nonmembers.  Using this research as a basis for his theories, Pargament is addressing major stresses in a person’s life rather than daily, ongoing coping mechanisms.

The layout of the book follows a logical progression.  The theoretical material presents meanings and definitions of religion and coping and ways in which they come together.  In the practical application area, such questions as how helpful or harmful is religion, and how knowledge of psychology of religion and coping can help people are explored.  Past research and suggestions for future research are presented throughout the book.

Religion is defined in the broadest sense as both an individual and a corporate enterprise.  Since coping emphasizes process, the author uses a functional understanding of religion that focuses on the process of religion rather than its beliefs: the functional search for significance related to the sacred.  Like religion, coping is a search for significance but not of the sacred (in spite of some theorists’ attempt to elevate the personal to the ultimate).

Pargament presents several assumptions about coping as a pragmatic (he refers often to William James’ thoughts on pragmatism) process: people seek significance in their lives and the world is interpreted in terms of that significance.  We bring an orienting system to the crisis, therefore, we usually use the path of least resistance as a method of coping as long as it works.  Coping employs methods that will result in the greatest gain to significance at the least cost, especially in times of crisis.  When some part or the whole fails, we resort to a variety of changes in an attempt to cope well.  Effective coping is defined by “the degree to which variable elements of the coping process are well integrated and flow smoothly;” it is not a random process.  Pargament has found that there is no single method of coping that is “good” for everyone in every situation.  The ability to be flexible is usually the key to success.

In attempting to answer the question of why religion and coping converge, the researchers found--not surprisingly--that there was greater use of religion in coping among those who are relatively more committed and involved in their religion.  The specific groups that stood out in the literature were those who appeared to experience comparatively less power in the society in which they live: blacks, poor, elderly, and women.  (Pargament does not address what might be a singular response on the part of a poor, black, elderly woman.)  He posits that this is so because religion is more likely to be used when it is more available to individuals compared to alternatives.  Religion seems to be more compelling to those who are more acutely (and chronically?) aware of human limits and perceive a need for transcendence from a restrained human reality to one that is more ultimate.  However, again, there was no single way that was effective for everyone.

Does religion work as coping mechanism?  Is it effective?  Is religion helpful, harmful, or irrelevant in coping?  The short answer is Yes.  However, because people are religious in so many different ways, Pargament contends that these are the wrong questions.  The relationship between coping and religion depends on several factors: the type of religious coping, the type of group, the type of outcome and the problem that is the crisis.  In his research, he has found that it makes more sense to measure the types and degree of religious involvement in coping with crises separate from their end result and then address the relationship between the two to determine their effectiveness.  In general, when there is a poor “fit” between the individual and a that person’s orienting system and religion, then the individual tends to be worse off and must make significant changes to cope effectively.  So, as there is no single way to be religious, there is no single way of effectiveness.  The outcome of religious coping is determined more by what a person does in a specific situation to “maximize significance,” that is, to make the experience meaningful and understandable.  Religion has the capacity to be both helpful and harmful.

How can helpers (medical, religious and psychological) incorporate religion into their therapy?  First, the helper must realize that there is no way that they can be absolutely neutral in these situations.  Their own orienting system and views on religion will affect their therapy.  Pargament discusses several typical situations of how religion is or isn’t used effectively.  For him, the best perspective is to favor a religious pluralism whereby the therapist appreciates a variety of “solutions” to the problem and is supportive of changes in one’s religious coping (to maximize significance) if it is needed but without forcing anyone.  However, he realizes that this is very difficult to do--it requires the therapist to have an extensive knowledge of religious thought and practices.  At the very least, he asserts that religious concerns and practices should become a routine part of assessment.

In the end, neither psychology nor religion holds all of the answers to life’s most difficult questions.  Pargament believes that psychology could learn a great deal from the theologies of the religious world and their varying methods of coming to terms with human finitude, and religion could learn more about psychological theories and methods of change in order to enhance personal power.

This is an excellent book for anyone in the helping professions as well as for those on the receiving end of that help.  Pargament clearly explains his theories, provides research to support those theories and indicates where there is a dearth of appropriate research.  It behooves all of us to pay attention to this issue.


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