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The current article considers the role of scientific (experimental) psychology in the study of religion and argues that many of the questions central to the history, sociology and anthropology of religion are often psychological and hence require the use of appropriate psychological methods. Psychological study of religion differs from those other disciplines by virtue of its (a) definition of religion (in terms of individual mental states rather than culturally transmitted teachings and socially acquired behaviours), (b) methods of research (designed to elicit and examine relevant mental states), and (c) explanatory aims (concerned with the origin and development of specific cognitive events). Whilst the distinction between individual and social origin of concepts is central to psychological accounts of religion, non-psychological accounts of religion actually dwell on an interaction between the two. It is further argued that some of the key issues in the study of religion -- origin of religious concepts, core religious beliefs, and universality of religious beliefs -can be most adequately tackled within the framework of cognitive-developmental psychology. Possible explanations are suggested for hitherto insufficient involvement of those psychological approaches in the study of religion.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date





351 - 363