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Religion and Mental Health

Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 7: 102–115 (2010)
Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd DOI: 10.1002/aps
International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies
Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 7(2): 102–115 (2010)
Published online 12 March 2010 in Wiley InterScience
(www.interscience.wiley.com) DOI: 10.1002/aps.240

Religion and Mental Health:

Theory and Research



This article provides an overview of psychiatric and mental health research on religion.
First, conceptual models of religion and of mental health used throughout this literature
are described. Second, published empirical research in this fi eld is summarized,
including fi ndings from epidemiologic, clinical, and social and behavioral investigations.
Third, promising theoretical perspectives for understanding a putative religion–
mental health connection are elaborated. These are based on respective behavioral,
biological, psychodynamic, and transpersonal interpretations of existing research
fi ndings. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Key words: religion, spirituality, mental health, psychiatry, research


Recently, the idea of a “religion–health connection” (Ellison & Levin, 1998) has
gained traction among clinicians, due to a growing body of research. Literature
reviews (e.g. Levin & Chatters, 1998) and academic (Koenig, 1998a; Koenig,
McCullough, & Larson, 2001) and popular (Levin, 2001) books have focused
attention on social, behavioral, epidemiologic, and clinical research papers that
total in the thousands. These studies explore the impact of religious indicators
on psychiatric and mental health outcomes in population, community, and
hospital samples: rates of mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety; levels
of psychological distress, using numerous assessment instruments; dimensions of
psychological well-being, such as life satisfaction and happiness; patterns of selfdestructive
behavior, including the addictions; and mental health care utilization.

The weight of evidence, on average and across studies, suggests that religion,
however assessed, is a generally protective factor for mental illness.
Until now, most scientifi c effort has been devoted to accumulating empirical
evidence. Less effort has gone to stepping back and asking, “But what does this
mean?” Data alone do not increase understanding of a topic without theoretical

Religion and mental health

Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 7: 102–115 (2010)
Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd DOI: 10.1002/aps

models that help us make sense of said data. Such perspectives are akin to lenses
that enable us to “see” fi ndings that might not fi t into our scientifi c worldviews
and thus be cast aside or disparaged. Identifying perspectives to explain and
interpret fi ndings on religion and mental health is thus important and timely,
especially as supportive fi ndings have been misinterpreted – on both sides of the
issue. That religion might have something to say about mental health, for good
or bad, has been a sensitive and contentious issue within psychiatry, dating to
Freud, as familiarity with the history of psychiatry attests.

A case in point: the 1994 revision of the American Psychiatric Association
(APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which
added a new diagnostic category (V62.89) termed “religious or spiritual problem.”
In earlier versions (e.g. DSM-III-R), the sole references to religion were as a sign
of psychopathology – as features of cases exemplifying cognitive incoherence,
catatonia, delusion, magical thinking, hallucinations, or schizotypal disorders
(Larson et al., 1993; Post, 1992). Once this oversight was dissected, the new
construct was rolled out in the DSM-IV, defi ned broadly as a circumstance
whereby “the focus of clinical attention is a religious or spiritual problem”
(American Psychiatric Association, 1994, p. 300). Examples include loss of faith,
conversion-related problems, and questioning of faith or values. This new category
signifi es that psychiatrists have become sensitive to the idea that certain
expressions of faith, where “distorted or disrupted rather than inherently so”
(Levin, 2009, p. 91), may be sources of certain kinds of psychological distress
(Turner, Lukoff, Barnhouse, & Lu, 1995).

The years since have seen a sustained increase in research on religion and
mental health. The time is right to step back and evaluate where we are and
what we know about the relation between these two constructs. Accordingly,
this paper tries to explain and interpret observed associations from behavioral,
biological, psychodynamic, and transpersonal perspectives. Each perspective
suggests ways to make sense of fi ndings and each helps to place fi ndings into a
larger context that may enable a better understanding of etiology and more
effective treatment.


As religion and health research has gained acceptance in psychiatry and psychology,
a misperception has arisen that such studies are a new development.
Not so. Nor is this a novel topic for these fi elds. Scholarship on religion and
psychiatric disorders dates to the nineteenth century, most famously in the writings
of Freud. Less known are earlier discussions within the nascent pastoral
care movement, exemplifi ed by Observations on the Infl uence of Religion upon the
Health and Physical Welfare of Mankind (Brigham, 1835), authored by a founder
of the APA. The British Medical Journal (Review, 1905) noted, with an optimistic
tone refl ecting the place of religion in medical discourse of the time, “The
interdependence of religion and health, which may both be regarded as inherent
Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 7: 102–115 (2010)
Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd DOI: 10.1002/aps
birthrights of mankind, is a broad fact which is generally accepted and which is
capable of easy demonstration” (p. 1047).

For many clinicians and scientists of the day, religion was highly relevant – for
better or worse – as an etiologic, therapeutic, or palliative agent in psychotherapy.
Whether thought to be a malign or salutary infl uence on mental and
emotional well-being, the sphere of religiousness, faith, and sacred beliefs and
experiences had been a source of exploration for decades. Whatever one’s beliefs
or preferences about faith or God, it at least was agreed that these things

The polarities of early discourse on this subject are represented by Freud and
James. In The Future of an Illusion (Freud, 1927/1961b) and Civilization and Its
Discontents (Freud, 1930/1961a), Freud asserted that “religion and science are
moral enemies and that every attempt at bridging the gap between them is
bound to be futile” (Gay, 1989, p. xxiii). Religious practices, and belief in God,
moreover, were taken by Freud as signs of obsessive neurosis, narcissistic delusion,
and an infantile life outlook, and thus a dangerous threat to individual psyches
and to society. They were believed to be determinative of, or indeed to refl ect,
an unhealthy psychological status.

James was not as pessimistic. In The Varieties of Religious Experience (James,
1902/1958), he identifi ed two types of religious expression, the “religion of the
sick soul” and the “religion of the healthy-minded soul.” The former is a product
of a damaged psyche, expressed as “positive and active anguish, a sort of psychical
neuralgia wholly unknown to healthy life” (p. 126). In extremis, this includes
loathing, irritation, exasperation, self-mistrust, self-despair, suspicion, anxiety,
trepidation, and fear. The latter is grounded in “the tendency which looks on
all things and sees that they are good” (p. 83). Healthy-minded religion is the
faith of the literally healthy minded, whose psyches are implicitly hopeful, optimistic,
positive, kind, and prone to happiness.

Others who followed James also saw benefi t in expressions of religion – e.g.
Jung (1934, 1938) and Fromm (1950) – but the psychiatric profession as a whole
remained dubious. Not unanimously, but largely so, and not without reason.
Unchecked manic expressions of religion have been, throughout history, sources
of delusion, instability, and pathology, readily visible to clinicians who serve,
essentially, as fi rst responders for people whose religious practice has taken
pathological form. Yet, until recently, there was minimal interest in testing the
idea that religion lacked positive instrumentality for mental and emotional
well-being. A presumption of guilt was tacit, with little impetus to validate this
view. After half a century of scholarly disinterest (see Beit Hallahmi, 1989),
things began to change in the 1950s and 1960s (see for example Allport,

The advent of psychology’s third and fourth schools encouraged critical
examination of issues related to the human spirit. Humanistic and transpersonal
theorists (e.g. Maslow, 1964; Tart, 1975) were infl uenced by yoga, Vedanta, Zen,
the esoteric traditions, and various integral perspectives (see Chaudhuri, 1977;
Religion and mental health
Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 7: 102–115 (2010)
Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd DOI: 10.1002/aps
Ghose, 1950; Wilber, 2000). 

While not mainstream within psychiatry and psychology,
the subject of spirituality, broadly constructed as related to the quest
for human potential and fl ourishing, became an acceptable, or at least tolerated,
topic of inquiry. A broad take on spirituality was emphasized, focusing on a wider
swath of experiences than the traditional usage of this concept contexted within
normative religion. Rather than defi ned solely as a state of attainment resulting
from a lifetime of religious observance and piety (a theological defi nition of
spirituality), the new wave of psychologists explored spirituality in the context
of the developmental process of attaining transcendent union with something
“beyond” than the individual ego, such as the eternal source of being.

Concurrently, the putative mental health consequences of formal religious
involvement became a topic for empirical study, especially within community
and geriatric psychiatry and social, developmental, and health psychology. The
pioneering Midtown Manhattan Study, began in the 1950s, was one of the earliest
and is still among the most comprehensive and insightful epidemiologic
explorations of psychiatric morbidity and its sociodemographic determinants.
The study features analysis of variations in the prevalence of certain diagnoses
and subsequent use of mental health services. The initial volume of fi ndings,
Mental Health in the Metropolis (Srole, Langner, Michael, Opler, & Rennie, 1962),
is a classic text of social psychiatry and psychiatric epidemiology. The study is
highlighted by a detailed analysis of the impact of religious affi liation (Srole &
Langner, 1962). Investigators found that “religious origin” – Catholic, Protestant,
or Jewish – is a source of signifi cant variation in symptom formation, psychiatric
impairment, patient history status, and attitude toward mental health

While investigations of physical morbidity had been ongoing for decades,
prior to this study psychiatric epidemiologists showed less interest in the impact
of characteristics or functions of religion on population rates of psychopathology.
The Midtown Manhattan Study led to other studies, which have since snowballed.
In the early 1980s, literature reviews began summarizing this work, by
then consisting of about 200 empirical studies of various outcomes (e.g. Gartner,
Larson, & Allen, 1981; Larson, Pattison, Blazer, Omran, & Kaplan, 1986). The
verdict was consistent. According to one authoritative review, “The mental
health infl uence of religious beliefs and practices – particularly when imbedded
within a long-standing, well-integrated faith tradition – is largely a positive one”
(Koenig, 1998b, p. 392).

These early efforts at quantifying the impact of religious identity, belief, and
practice on mental health were not the whole of the religion–mental health
discussion. In 1980, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) published
Religion and Mental Health (Summerlin, 1980), an annotated bibliography of 1836
entries – journal articles, chapters, books, reports, other media. Approximately
1500 of these had appeared just since 1970. Empirical research studies, clearly,
were just one expression of a more widespread intellectual and professional
engagement of this subject.

Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 7: 102–115 (2010)
Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd DOI: 10.1002/aps

Since then, fi ndings have accumulated from large research programs, such as
by Koenig and colleagues at Duke University (see Koenig, 1999). Yet this subject
remains provocative due to issues related to conceptualizing religion and to
theoretical perspectives that underlie a religion–mental health connection.
While study designs and analyses are increasingly sophisticated, the fi eld as a
whole has been less successful in making sense of results. For example, statistically
signifi cant fi ndings implicating religious membership, church attendance,
belief in God, and so on in rates of psychiatric symptoms or well-being do not
tell us about a salutary infl uence of spirituality, no matter how much some wish
it were so. Spirituality remains underinvestigated, not just in studies of mental
health but in all domains of religious research.

To understand how faith impacts on something as personal as psychological
status, thoughtful investigation of spirituality would be more fruitful than continued
enumeration of discrete religious behaviors. Features and correlates of the
trajectory of inner evolvement toward perceived union with the transcendent
– a decent functional defi nition of the spiritual process – seem to tap dimensions
of life experience more germane to the struggle to maintain intrapsychic equilibrium
than counts of participation in congregational events. But this is a
hypothesis, not a conclusion. Researchers, generally speaking, have shown little
enthusiasm for addressing issues not easily amenable to conventional approaches
to religious assessment (see Levin, 2003).

In studies of physical and mental health, the most common religious measures
are single-item questions on affi liation and attendance at worship services. Such
questions (ostensibly) emphasize something observable and quantifi able. For the
most part, investigators have avoided assessment of attitudes, beliefs, states, or
experiences. Very little is thus known about their impact on outcomes of interest,
such as rates of mental health or psychological well-being.

Likewise, most studies focus on dimensions of well-being: life satisfaction,
congruence, happiness, positive affect, depressed mood – constructs for which
validated indices are available. Fewer studies explore religion’s impact on psychiatric
diagnoses, except for attention to its etiologic or preventive role in clinical
depression and anxiety disorders and to some addictive behaviors. Most of these
studies use single-item measures or unidimensional indices.

While findings are often interpreted as relating to richly nuanced and multidimensional
spirituality–mental health connections, this is not true. Most findings are results of analyses of one-off measures of public and private religious
behavior, mostly in relation to single-item measures or unidimensional indices
of self-reports of general or domain-specifi c well-being. Moreover, these are
mostly prevalence (cross-sectional) studies of religion as a correlate of distress/
well-being in general populations; they do not examine religion as a therapeutic
agent for existing pathology. These are thus not studies of healing but of prevention.
Further, existing studies have been conducted mostly within populations
of US Christians of one denomination or another. To be clear, this is not problematic,
in and of itself; this is a thriving area of study at the forefront of several
Religion and mental health
Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 7: 102–115 (2010)
Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd DOI: 10.1002/aps

fi elds, including religious gerontology, health psychology, and medical sociology.
But it is important to underscore these points, as this work is often tacitly
believed to imply a presumably global and therapeutic impact of spirituality on
mental health, something it does not address. There is reason to believe that
religion or spirituality may function in this way, but the wealth of fi ndings accruing
on religion and health have little to say about such an effect.


Empirical investigations of religion and mental health include epidemiologic
studies involving population-based national or community samples, clinical
studies of psychiatric outpatients or inpatients, and social and behavioral research
on psychological distress and well-being. Due to a wealth of published work over
the past two decades, this review is selective rather than comprehensive. Many
good reviews are available, and interested readers are directed to them for greater
detail (e.g. Levin & Chatters, 1998; Koenig et al., 2001).

Early systematic reviews of studies of religion in psychiatry journals identifi ed
a paradox: research on the impact of religion was not uncommon (139 published
analyses just between 1978 and 1989), but conceptual and theoretical engagement
was lacking (see Larson et al., 1986; Larson et al., 1992). In 78 percent of
studies no hypothesis was tested, in 64 percent no adequate statistical analysis
was conducted, and only superfi cial measures were typically used (e.g. broad
categories of affi liation). Findings were largely positive – indicative of a generally
salutary effect of religious identity or practice – but what they implied was
unclear. The subject was still touchy for academics; the unspoken “R word,” as
one paper described it (Larson, Sherrill, & Lyons, 1994).

Over the past 20 years, empirical study has expanded greatly, highlighted by
large funded research programs. The fi rst edition of his Handbook of Religion
and Health (Koenig et al., 2001) summarized hundreds of studies analyzing
effects of dimensions of religion on depression, suicide, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia
and other psychoses, alcohol and drug use, delinquency, features of
personality, and other outcomes. The weight of evidence was positive: over half
of the studies in these categories point to a statistically signifi cant protective
effect. Nevertheless, besides Koenig’s own work and that of several of his colleagues
and collaborators, most studies are one-off analyses from small samples
of convenience.

Medical sociologists, health psychologists, and gerontologists have done a
more sophisticated job at identifying impacts of religious life on mental health
indicators. Studies of dimensions of psychological distress and well-being, many
of them large-scale probability surveys, consistently fi nd a protective effect of
religious participation (see Levin & Chatters, 1998). Within the gerontological
literature, especially, features of institutional religious involvement (e.g. attendance
at worship services) and non-institutional involvement (e.g. private prayer,
Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 7: 102–115 (2010)
Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd DOI: 10.1002/aps

embeddedness in religious support networks) have been associated with positive
mental health outcomes and high scores on scales and indices assessing psychosocial
constructs such as self-esteem, mastery (self-effi cacy), optimism, hope,
and dimensions of well-being. This overall fi nding has been replicated across
age cohorts, in both sexes, and regardless of social class, race or ethnicity,
religious affi liation, and specifi c diagnosis or outcome measure (see Levin,
1997). Much of the literature focuses on symptoms of mood disorders, such as
depression or anxiety, and many studies have found a health-promoting
effect of religion on overall and domain-specifi c life satisfaction, happiness,
and positive affect. Sophisticated systematic reviews and meta-analyses (e.g.
Smith, McCullough, & Poll, 2003) provide depthful critiques of conceptual,
theoretical, and methodological issues and offer guidance for the next generation
of research.

To summarize, religious involvement, broadly defi ned, exhibits a salutary and
primary-preventive function in relation to psychological distress and outcomes
related to mental health and well-being. Findings are consistent, and a protective
effect of religiousness seems to be especially salient among older adults. But it is
important not to overinterpret this overall result.

The present author (Levin, 1996) has identifi ed common misinterpretations
of the larger religion–health literature; the same points are applicable to mental
health. For example, results are often taken to mean that religious involvement
promotes healing. It may, but, as noted, studies do not address that topic; they
focus almost exclusively on primary prevention. Nor do fi ndings mean that religious
people do not become ill; of course they do. When examining population
rates of morbidity, however, there is a modest advantage, on average, attributable
to religious practice. Nor do fi ndings tell us much about spirituality. While that
would be a fi ne research topic, studies mostly look at the impact of affi liation
with and participation in established religions. Studies also do not provide evidence
for or against a healing power of prayer. Nor do they suggest that religiousness
or faith (or spirituality) is the most important factor in health. As a public
health scientist, the present author fi nds this latter claim especially unfortunate.
These factors may measurably impact on morbidity, both physical and mental,
but tobacco use and socioeconomic disparities, for example, far outweigh a religious
effect. Finally, and this goes without saying, studies of religion using epidemiologic
or social or behavioral research methods cannot tell us anything
about the possibility of a “supernatural” infl uence on health or the human body
or mind. If folks are looking to scientifi c research (on health, of all things) to
validate the existence or motives of God, then they are looking in the wrong

So what can we conclude for certain? Simply this: there is considerable
evidence that one’s religious life has something signifi cant to say about one’s
mental health. This includes both the “being” and “doing” aspects of religion
– our religious identity and how we believe or feel or act as a consequence.
This does not mean that religious people do not become ill – one of the usual
Religion and mental health
Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 7: 102–115 (2010)
Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd DOI: 10.1002/aps
misconceptions of this work, noted earlier – just that higher categories of response
to questions about religious participation are associated with lower rates of symptoms
or pathology or with higher scores on well-being measures. No more, no
less. The take-home point is simply that religion merits a place at the table with
those factors known to impact the risk or odds of subsequent psychiatric morbidity
in adult populations. This, we can say, is the “what” of a religion–mental
health relationship. But what about the “how” or “why”?


To explain these fi ndings, we must rely on interpretive grids – theoretical perspectives,
in the language of social science. These are respective lenses by which
empirical observations are made sense of in light of existing or proposed scientifi
c mechanisms and clinical observations. Within psychiatry, psychology, and
the mental health fi eld, generally, such lenses are many. We are all familiar with
the famous four forces or schools of modern psychology: behaviorism, psychodynamics,
humanism, and transpersonalism. But these do not exhaust the ways
that the human psyche and patterns of behavior, and their antecedents, are
understood to infl uence health by behavioral and social scientists. For purposes
of this discussion, several broad meta-categories of potential explanations for
religion–mental health associations are examined.

Behavioral Explanations

The religious impulse is expressed through myriad behaviors, emotions, motivations,
beliefs, attitudes, thoughts, values, experiences, and relationships.
Independently of religion, we have long known that our behaviors, emotions,
and social relationships are signifi cant health determinants. Physical and mental
health – self-rated and objectively diagnosed – and rates of psychiatric morbidity
are known to vary by categories of behavioral and psychosocial variables, including
stress, social support, life-style behaviors, and health-related cognitions and

Researchers have proposed many possible mediators of observed religion–
mental health associations, drawing on various functions and domains of the
psyche. Collectively, these help us understand how the practice of faith or a
spiritual path may impact psychological health. Commitment to a religious belief
system may benefi t mental health by promoting healthy behaviors conducive
to wellness (e.g. avoidance of tobacco, alcohol, drugs, antisocial behavior).
Fellowship with likeminded congregants embeds one in formal or informal social
networks that facilitate receipt of tangible and emotional support. Private or
group prayer or worship may produce salutary emotions – gratitude, humility,
grace, forgiveness, love – with preventive or therapeutic benefi t. Religious beliefs
(about God, human existence, the purpose of life, life after death, free will, the
Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 7: 102–115 (2010)
Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd DOI: 10.1002/aps
nature of evil, human obligations) may be consonant with beliefs that foster
preventive health care practices. Faith, or religious certainty, may engender positive
expectations that instill hope and optimism capable of preventing or ameliorating
distress. In sum, psychological mediation of a religion–mental health
link is plausible and consistent with research on correlates and determinants of
health and healing (Levin, 2009).

Biological Explanations

Some theories of psychological mediation of a religion–mental health association
posit “hard-wired” connections among brain, behavior, affect, and immunity.
These connections are not unique here; research on psychoneuroimmunology
dates back 40 years (see Ader, 2007). But consideration of neurocognitive and
neuroendocrine pathways, for example, accounting for positive fi ndings in this
fi eld is a hopeful development for investigators seeking naturalistic explanations
for religious effects. In light of evidence of religious motivations (e.g. intrinsic
religiosity) associated with psychophysiological markers such as absorption
(e.g. Levin, Wickramasekera, & Hirshberg, 1998), and of “spiritual” centers
in the brain (e.g. Beauregard & O’Leary, 2007; Newberg, D’Aquili, & Rause,
2001), neurophysiological mediation of religious effects on mental health is biologically
plausible. A conference on psychoneuroimmunology and religion
(Koenig & Cohen, 2002) suggested that collaboration among neuroscientists,
psychiatrists, and psychiatric epidemiologists should become a cutting edge for
this fi eld.

The complexity of interrelationships between religion and etiologic agents of
or risk factors for psychopathology is exemplifi ed in a model proposed for antecedents
of major depression (Koenig, Blazer, & Hocking, 1995). A maze of
hypothesized and validated pathways connects myriad factors (e.g. health behaviors,
alcohol and drug use, medications, physical illness, chronic pain, disability,
genes, personality, brain disease, comorbid psychiatric illness, stressful events,
aging changes, cognitive appraisal, coping behavior, social support, economic
resources, history of depression) with each other and with diagnosis of an affective
disorder. For most of these factors, research has identifi ed religious correlates
or determinants. This model underscores the complexity of an etiologic role for
characteristics or functions of religiousness – intimately connected with other
accepted etiologic or risk factors for this diagnosis.

Psychodynamic Explanations

In an early review, a dozen explanations for religion–health associations
were proposed (Levin & Vanderpool, 1989). Among these were the psychodynamics
of belief systems and the psychodynamics of religious rites. By the
fi rst of these, the authors referred to the tendency of religious beliefs to “give
rise to psychodynamics engendering greater peacefulness, self-confi dence,
Religion and mental health
Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 7: 102–115 (2010)
Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd DOI: 10.1002/aps
and a sense of purpose, or, alternatively, guilt, depression, and self-doubt”
(p. 73). These outcomes may be symbiotic with certain personality styles (e.g.
Type A) or with theological perspectives such as Calvinism (determinism)
or Arminianism (free will). The second referred to “public and private rituals
[that] serve to ease dread and anxiety, reduce personal and group tension and
aggressiveness, allay fears, and moderate loneliness, depression, anomie, and/or
feelings of entrapment and inferiority” (p. 74). These rites enable people to
“dramatize or act out their beliefs in settings conducive to or charged with
emotion – provide avenues of escape, purifi cation, catharsis, and empowerment.
These positive affects may serve as sorts of psychic beta-blockers or emotional
placebos” (p. 74).

For sure, “psychodynamic” covers a lot of ground. Different schools and philosophies
posit different theories of religion and faith and disagree as to the
polarity of their impact on psychological health. Freud’s (1927/1961b) antipathy
to the “peculiar value of religious ideas” (p. 18) is well known, but his take no
longer predominates in the fi eld. Jung’s (1938) perspective on the reciprocal
infl uence of religious dogma and the symbolism of the unconscious is also infl uential,
but his references to mystical, gnostic, and occult sources are less pertinent
to normative religion. In Psychoanalysis and Religion, Fromm (1950, p. 9)
appealed for a middle ground:

If I undertake to discuss the problem of religion and psychoanalysis afresh ... it is because
I want to show that to set up alternatives of either irreconcilable opposition or identity
of interest is fallacious; a thorough and dispassionate discussion can demonstrate that
the relation between religion and psychoanalysis is too complex to be forced into either
one of these simple and convenient attitudes.

Transpersonal Explanations

The advent of psychology’s third and fourth schools introduced many concepts
into the lingua franca of psychotherapists. Foremost are the transcendent experience
and the idea of the transpersonal. The latter refers to states “beyond”
the personal and egoic, oriented toward development of human potential,
including attributes and functions of higher consciousness (see Vaughan, 1984).
Transpersonal therapy emphasizes “self-determination, self-actualization, selfrealization,
and self-transcendence” (Vaughan, 1984, p. 25). Therapists acknowledge
higher states of consciousness, neither normal waking nor dreaming states,
whose experience may be a rich source of growth. These may be infused with
spiritual symbolism and serve as gateways to “divine” experiences, such as transcendence.
Accounts of mystics point to subtypes: a “green” type of transcendent
experience “characterized as transitory and involving a profound experience of
pleasure, oftentimes described as ecstatic” and a “mature” type “characterized as
long lasting. . . . a more enduring serenity and equanimity” (Levin & Steele, 2005,
pp. 89–90). An example of the former might be Maslow’s peak experiences; the
latter, the yogic attainment of sama¯dhi.
Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 7: 102–115 (2010)
Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd DOI: 10.1002/aps
The signifi cance here is found in psychophysiological correlates of transcendence
and markers of other transpersonal experiences. Health- and mood-related
sequelae of spiritually motivated pursuits engendering such experiences – e.g.
meditation, prayer – point to a potentially therapeutic instrumentality. While
better mental health may not be an objective of the quest for transcendence,
the large research literature on psychophysiology, consciousness, and spirituality
(see Murphy & Donovan, 1999) suggests a valuable interpretive framework with
interesting tie-ins to the behavioral, biological, and psychodynamic explanation
broached earlier.


To summarize, empirical evidence supports a generally protective effect of religious
involvement for mental illness and psychological distress. Like all epidemiologic
fi ndings, there are exceptions: e.g. individuals whose religious ideations
and practices contribute to, or refl ect, pathology. But, on average, this fi nding is
statistically signifi cant, replicated, and modest in magnitude. It is not solely a
function of the assessments used for religion or mental health or of characteristics
of the populations studied. Existing theoretical perspectives provide a reasonable
basis for making sense of this association, which is coherent with
behavioral, biological, psychodynamic, and transpersonal understandings of
determinants of mental and emotional well-being. While much remains to be
learned, scholarship has come a long way in the past 30 years.
One marker of the growing acceptance of this fi eld is the annual Oskar Pfi ster
Award, given by the APA since 1983 in recognition of outstanding career contributions
to religion and psychiatry through research, publications, and clinical
practice. Named for a pioneering psychoanalyst and protégé of Freud, Pfi ster
Award laureates include some of the most infl uential and highly regarded fi gures
in psychiatry, including Jerome Frank, Viktor Frankl, Robert Jay Lifton, Oliver
Sacks, Robert Coles, Don Browning, and Paul Ricoeur.

For researchers, the mainstreaming of this subject presents an opportunity
for substantive, programmatic contributions – in contrast to the one-off
approach of so many papers to date. A fi eld that is suffi ciently established for
the APA to sanction a major career award no longer needs atheoretical “exploratory”
research. The envelope can begin to be pushed. Perhaps someday we will
look back and wonder how we ever presumed that well-being is unrelated to the
workings of the spirit. Just as the relation of mind and body was rejected by
biomedicine until the weight of evidence made such a connection tacit, so, too,
may the role of spirit become acknowledged fact. If so, not just our research
stands to benefi t. Our clients and patients will benefi t from more directed attention
to dimensions of the self that may be sources of both distress and adjustment
but that which, until recently, have been overlooked in our professional

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Jeff Levin, PhD, MPH
University Professor of Epidemiology and Population Health,
Director of the Program on Religion and Population Health
Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University,
One Bear Place #97236, Waco, TX 76798, USA


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