Psychology and Spirituality: A House Divided

The relationship between psychology and spirituality is divided within itself. On the one hand there is the psychology of religion, which has recently broadened to become ‘the psychology of religion and spirituality’. On the other hand there is ‘transpersonal psychology’, which largely eschews religion and often seeks to integrate psychology and spirituality.

On the face of things you would expect the psychology of religion and spirituality to be quite close to transpersonal psychology, but in fact there is little connection between them, even some mutual distrust. It is worth examining the reasons for this. There seem to be several factors that make any integration between them quite hard to achieve.

One important issue is, of course, about religion. Religion is a divisive issue in our society, and often polarises people. Psychologists working in the psychology of religion and spirituality are often personally sympathetic to religion, even if that is not explicit in their work, whereas the most people in transpersonal psychology are outside the religious stable, and are distrustful of religion.

This shows itself in the scope of what is studied. The psychology of religion and spirituality studies spirituality wherever it occurs, whether within religion or outside it. Transpersonal psychology, for the most part, studies spirituality only outside the context of religion, and is often explicitly committed to doing so.

Fraser Watts spirituality holdingThere is also sometimes a division over research methodology. The psychology of religion and spirituality tries to be objective and detached, even if those engaged in it are personally sympathetic. Transpersonal psychology is more interested in experiential research, and sometimes sees the spiritual transformation of the researcher as an integral aspect of the research. Transpersonal psychology is more likely to think you have to be personally engaged in spiritual practice to understand spirituality.

Indeed, transpersonal psychology often wants to incorporate the values of spirituality, and to become a distinctive integration of psychology and spirituality. It aspires to be a special kind of psychology, whereas the psychology of religion and spirituality wants a close relationship with general psychology, and wants to study its distinctive subject matter in just the same way as psychology might study anything else.

I think it is not going too far to say that transpersonal psychology is itself a kind of quasi-religion; it is at least a kind of special spiritual path. That may partly explain the negative attitude to religion often found in transpersonal psychology; it is antithetical to religion because it aspires to replace it.

For these various reasons the prospects for an integration of these two branches of psychology seems poor. However, I would argue that the field would be enriched by such an integration. Where there are divergencies, it would be more fruitful to argue them out than to ignore those with different assumptions, methods and aspirations.

I found this division evident in a recent conference of the British Association for the Study of Spirituality (BASS). It was a division that also struck my namesake, Galen Watts (no relation), and he has discussed it in terms of the distinction between the study ‘of’ and ‘for’ spirituality.

I will shortly also discuss these issues further myself at a conference of the Transpersonal Section of the British Psychological Society (Sept 22nd – 24th), at which the Section will celebrate its 21st birthday.

– Fraser Watts