C. Daniel Batson, Patricia Schoenrade, and W. Larry Ventis

Religion and the Individual: A Social-Psychological Perspective

Review by Todd Willison, 2008

C. Daniel Batson, Patricia Schoenrade, and W. Larry Ventis. Religion and the Individual: A Social-Psychological Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Though it is not explicitly stated at the outset, it is obvious in the conclusion of Religion and the Individual that its authors, C. Daniel Batson, Patricia Schoenrade, and W. Larry Ventis, are primarily concerned with an axiological question: what is the value of religion, not just to the individual but to the society in which the individual exists in a reciprocal relationship? In their own words, the authors want to ascertain whether or not “religion is on our side,” (368) whether it reaps, as William James would say, positive psychological and social “fruits.” (390) The authors frame their inquiry by asking in the first six chapters where religion comes from (determining that it comes from both outside social influences and from individual choices that arise from unique social/psychological developments within the individual), and asking in the succeeding four chapters what religion does (exhibiting how the answer to this question will always depend on what dimension of religion one is referring to). It is in how the authors approach these two framing questions, recognizing that A) religion’s “value” can only be properly assessed with attention to both individual and social aspects and B) that “religion” needs to be understood multi-dimensionally when its effects are examined, that a central thesis begins to emerge. This thesis, in short, is that the question of religion’s positive or negative worth will never be anything less than a multifaceted question, depending on whether one is referring to individual or social worth, or to the extrinsic, intrinsic, or “quest” dimensions of religious experience.

Of the three dimensions of religious experience explicitly mentioned in the authors’ thesis, two (the extrinsic and intrinsic dimensions) are borrowed concepts from the work of Gordon Allport and the third (the quest dimension) is a unique contribution by the authors. It is indeed the addition of this quest dimension of religious experience that elevates their work above being a mere summary of issues to being a work of original insight. The quest dimension is introduced in order to account for the “characteristics of complexity, doubt, and tentativeness” (166) that can be found in religious experience, characteristics that are lacking from two-dimensional accounts of religion such as in Allport’s intrinsic/extrinsic model and in Bernard Spilka’s correlative committed/consensual model. These two-dimensional models fail, according to the authors, in that they tend to reduce religion to either an intrinsic, committed orientation to religious experience as a certain end, or to an extrinsic, consensual orientation to religious experience as a certain means, thus leaving no room in the middle for an orientation of open-ended questioning in which neither the end nor the means of religious experience is approached with certitude. Of course, the authors are burdened to show whether or not an orientation to open-ended questioning should be considered to be “religious” at all, since it could be said that doubt itself represents an anti-religious tendency. The authors meet this burden, and show that the quest dimension is indeed a religious dimension of experience by providing case examples of Princeton seminarians and of non-traditional, charismatic Bible students who score higher on a scale designed to indicate the quest dimension than do less religiously inclined individuals. (179-180)

The introduction of the quest dimension turns out to be an effective move by the authors toward enriching a categorization of religion’s positive benefits and negative costs. Through a series of studies, they determine that the extrinsic dimension of religion is almost practically worthless. When religion is treated purely as a means, it ends up being a means for very little of value, leading individuals toward increased anxiety, increased prejudice, and decreased compassion for those in need. The intrinsic dimension of religion is shown to have some positive effects, in that it decreases personal anxiety and leads to the building up of stable social institutions and values. But the accompanying loss of freedom to question one’s own intrinsic commitments can be seen as a negative form of bondage, one that renders the positive effects of the intrinsic dimension to be somewhat chimerical. Thus, the quest dimension, though it suffers from a lack of stability and increased existential anxiety, is actually shown to account for some positive results of religious experience that the other two dimensions come up short on, such as improved mental health, “reduced prejudice,” and “increased responsiveness to the needs of the oppressed.” (376) The authors depend largely on arguments they develop in Chapters 3-4, in which they show how individuals cognitively advance and improve through the use of creativity and imagination, to show why this might be so.

The authors admit that the empirical data is still being gathered for many of these studies, and it is too soon to make overreaching claims about the value or lack thereof of any of the religious dimensions they present. And so many of their arguments, though compelling, need to be critically engaged. It would seem that perhaps the greatest failing of their work is an over-reliance on cognitive theories of development that tend to steal attention away from other modes in which religion might positively or negatively affect the individual in society. There seems to be a bias in their work toward how religion affects the individual’s ability to think about himself and society, and so considerably less discussion is devoted toward how religion influences the individual in society to act. Nevertheless, the introduction of a three-pronged categorization of religion that accounts for the presence of questioning and doubt in religious experience is a welcome improvement on older models and is enough to warrant an enthusiastic recommendation for this study.