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Psychological Theories of Religion Paperback – Jun 19 2002

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Product details

  • Paperback: 258 pages
  • Publisher: Pearson; 1 edition (June 19 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0130480681
  • ISBN-13: 978-0130480682
  • Product Dimensions: 15 x 1.8 x 22.6 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 340 g
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  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #3,758,639 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product description


"[Forsyth's is] an excellent book for a course in the application of traditional psychological theories to religion." — Ronald G. Ribble, University of Texas, San Antonio

"An authoritative and well-written work that integrates exposition with critical assessment and reinterpretation." — David M. Wulff, Wheaton College

From the Inside Flap

The title of this book suggests that religion is a phenomenon that can be studied psychologically. It is also true that religion cannot be reduced to a merely psychological phenomenon nor its meaning exhausted through psychological understanding. Since religion deals with transcendence, that is, with what transcends or lies beyond our ordinary life experience, it lies—at least in this respect—beyond the scope of psychological analysis. What then does the psychologist of religion study? The traditional answer is "religious experience." As this term suggests, the subject matter of the psychology of religion is the human side of religion, that is, religion as it is experienced by the human subject. Thus, while psychologists cannot study God as an ontological reality (since this lies beyond the scope of psychology), they can study the image of God existing in the mind of the believer; while they cannot judge the validity of the believer's faith, they can study the psychological roots and consequences of that faith; while they cannot study the transcendent object of religion, they can study the religious personality whose faith makes God, to use Jung's phrase, "psychologically real."

Even as a human reality, however, religion is a many-faceted phenomenon. To speak of religion as a psychological phenomenon is to speak of only one aspect of this human side of religion. Accordingly, the psychology of religion is only one discipline within the field of religious studies. When we speak of the human side of religion, we are speaking of the human relationship and response to the transcendent realities of religion (God, revelation, afterlife, etc.). Such a response suggests that human personality has a "religious" dimension to which religious realities correspond or certain needs to which religion provides an answer and which, therefore, make religion meaningful. One of the preoccupations of the psychological theorists surveyed in this book is to locate and describe this religious dimension of personality and thereby account psychologically for the phenomenon of religion. In a preliminary way, however, it should be pointed out that, in its human aspect, religion is rooted in the desire for self-transcendence. This fundamental human desire has sometimes been described as the quality of "more" or the human desire to go beyond the limitations of one's everyday life and consciousness. What it amounts to is a desire for a new level of existence which transcends the limitations of one's present existence.

It is easy to see how such a desire can translate into a desire for an afterlife, for life after death which is not merely an extension of one's present life but a qualitatively different life. The great religions, however, also speak of the possibility of a transformation of one's present existence. The desire for self-transcendence is frequently expressed in images which transform the hoped for transcendent level of existence into a place, whether an afterlife in heaven or an earthly utopia. The fact that this is a fundamental human desire is illustrated by the fact that it finds expression in both religious and secular forms. A church congregation singing a hymn about the joys of heaven where all the troubles of this life are left behind, is expressing the same fundamental desire as is found in a secular song such as "Over the Rainbow" with its dreams of a place where "the clouds are far behind me" and "troubles melt like lemon drops."

When religion speaks of salvation or enlightenment, these words become meaningful only in the context of the limited and incomplete nature of our human existence. These limitations are experienced at three levels: as the limitations of human consciousness; as the limitations imposed by the individuality and uniqueness of the human person; as the limited and fragmented state of our knowledge—our failure to grasp the ultimate meaning and destiny of our human existence. Accordingly, the human desire for self-transcendence, whether expressed in a religious or a secular way, takes the form of the pursuit of three basic values.

  1. Integrity or wholeness. This is the pursuit of an altered or expanded state of consciousness, a deeper and wider experience of the self. Jung's concept of the "self" and William James' discussion of the "wider self" point to the fact that one's total self cannot be identified with the narrow limits of ego-consciousness. The religious injunction "know thyself" refers to the wider or deeper self beyond the limits of our everyday consciousness.
  2. Community. The self also transcends itself by overcoming its individuality through bonds of love and solidarity with others. As Erich Fromm emphasizes, the price of our individuality and uniqueness is a sense of isolation and alienation from others. While religion has frequently appealed to those who are socially alienated or marginalized, it also speaks to the kind of "existential" alienation which is the inevitable consequence of human existence.
  3. Ultimacy. This refers to the attempt to put life into some kind of ultimate context, to discover its ultimate meaning and destiny. Gordon Allport speaks of religion as a search for "complete knowledge" and "unfissioned truth," while Viktor Frankl defines it as a search for "ultimate meaning."

These three aspects of the human desire for self-transcendence are reflected in the traditional concerns of religion: personal transformation, the creation of community, and ultimate meaning and destiny.

The psychology of religion—as one might expect—focuses mainly on the experience of personal transformation or the quest for wholeness. At the same time, it is interested in the psychological source, meaning, and value of all three forms of self-transcendence in their religious expression. It is, however, only one way of studying the phenomenon of religion. Since religion is a multifaceted phenomenon, it may be studied from a number of different perspectives. Consequently, religious study uses the methods of a number of disciplines—history, anthropology, philosophy, sociology, and psychology—to come to a fuller understanding of the phenomenon of religion. A complete understanding of religion cannot be rendered by any one of these disciplines. Religion is both a psychological and a sociological phenomenon; both a philosophical and a historical phenomenon. The psychology of religion studies the psychological dynamics underlying religious beliefs, attitudes, and behavior. The result is a variety of psychological understandings of religious phenomena. Thus, in the theories of religion discussed in this book, the psychological interpretations of religion run the gamut from Freud's pathological "obsessional neurosis" to Frankl's humanly fulfilling "search for ultimate meaning." Since, however, psychology deals with human experience, all these theories have this in common: They attempt to uncover the psychological meaning of religion, that is, the human experience behind religious language. The optimal result of this is to restore some kind of experiential meaning to terms such as "God," "sin," "grace," "salvation," and so on, words which have become meaningless to many religious believers.

The purpose of this book is to provide the student of religion with an introduction to the psychology of religion by reviewing seven psychological theories of religion: those of Sigmund Freud, C.G. Jung, William James, Erich Fromm, Gordon Allport, Abraham Maslow, and Viktor Frankl. These theorists have been chosen for the following reasons:

  1. They represent the seminal thinkers or classical theories in the field of psychology of religion. Later developments in the field (e.g. those deriving from object-relations theory, archetypal psychology, or transpersonal psychology) represent developments of their original formulations.
  2. Given the seminal nature of the work of these theorists, it is reasonable to suggest that the study of the psychology of religion should begin with an examination of their thought.
  3. Though many others have made valuable contributions to the psychological study of religion, our survey restricts itself to those who have offered a more or less comprehensive theory of personality and, therefore, of the religious personality.
  4. The views of these seven theorists on religion are deduced from varying schools of personality theory—psychoanalytic, archetypal, humanistic and existential—and, therefore, offer us ways of understanding religion in the context of differing modes of human self-understanding.

In examining each of these psychological theories of religion, the following format has been followed. A brief introduction and biographical sketch of the theorist is followed by an outline of his theory of personality and his theory of religion. Finally, an evaluation of the theorist's contributions to the psychological study of religion is attempted. The purpose of this evaluation is not to present an exhaustive critical review or pronounce any kind of final judgment, but to discuss the theorist's influence on the field, to point out some developments from and reactions to the theory, and to raise certain questions with a view to stimulating the reader's own critical response. It is also hoped that this format will help the reader to appreciate the extent to which each theory is not only derived from the theorist's personality theory but also influenced by his personal life experience.

I am grateful to the following Prentice Hall reviewers who's comments were helpful in preparing the manuscript: Ronald G. Ribble, University of Texas, San Antonio and David Wulff, Wheaton College.

James Forsyth

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