Psychology, religion, and public policy

Hello! I hope your Saturday is going well. Here is a talk I gave in November, at the Psychological Society of Ireland’s annual conference. The transcript appears below.

Enjoy!

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Transcript: Psychology, religion, and public policy

Now, this particular topic is very wide-ranging. I wouldn’t put myself down as somebody who has PhD-level knowledge on religion and spiritual belief, so this is very much, I suppose, an observer’s view — a psychologist’s view — on a very wide-ranging theme relating to public life, especially in Ireland, and the way in which psychological dimensions might actually emerge and be relevant to these public policy decisions.

It might not always be apparent what we mean by “public policy” in relation to spiritual belief and non-belief (I might actually just say religion for the purposes of brevity). But psychological aspects of public policy and religion can often emerge in different ways that you might not fully expect.

For example, some people argue that there should be a religious exemption to vaccination, so that a person should not be obliged or mandated to take a vaccine, because of a religious concern. In relation to COVID, for example, all the major religions have announced and have made it clear that they feel that vaccination is perfectly fine. And in fact, a good thing. The Pope, for example, said that it was “an act of love” to get vaccinated and that it would be “suicidal” to not get vaccinated. So there are very clear directions from organised religions on this subject. And yet individuals will often take a different view, and say it’s because of their religious conviction. So, many religious views are actually personal views, they’re psychologically formed individual views, they’re part of the existential dimension of that person’s life. They’re not necessarily religious doctrine.

And therefore, what is interesting to us as psychologists is how these views actually emerge, and where they’re coming from. I do think that psychology has a lot to say about how people perceive their obligations to society, and how they might rationalise those within a religious frame.

So let me just walk you through what I will just touch on. This is a discussion talk, really, it’s not a thesis. I just want to raise a number of issues that we can discuss, and that we can ponder, and not just today, but also going forward.

I’m going to briefly orient us to the relevance to psychology of this particular topic. And of course, we need to think about the relevance to the public of this particular topic. And then maybe try to pull the two together and talk about the policy context that arises.

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So the relevance to psychology might be, in some ways, oblique or subtle, but it can also in other ways be quite apparent. There’s the whole concept of a ‘belief system’ — an understanding of the universe, or of the nature of life or the nature of existence, or what happens after you die. All of these are belief systems. They’re attitudinal systems.

They’re subject, therefore, to things that psychologists know a lot about. People form beliefs under social influence. They form beliefs and they form understandings driven by cognitive factors. Their beliefs change over time in developmental trajectories.

And there’s also this question that psychologists look at quite a lot, which is the nature of reality and how we comprehend reality. If we believe something that is not factual, that is often of concern to psychologists. Or if we believe something in the absence of evidence — we might have a strong conviction about it, and yet it is not a fact-based belief — that’s something psychologists can talk about too: whether or not it is good or bad. Psychologists can talk about whether it is adaptive to comprehend these things in particular ways.

Both religious worldviews and psychological science have a concern with human welfare. Regardless of how you define it, both would would say they have a concern with human welfare. And, I suppose, with an eye on the public policy piece, we need to remember that very few people, relatively speaking, are psychologists — but quite a large fraction of human society would consider themselves to belong to a religious worldview. So the fact that both enterprises seek to describe and define human welfare is important to us. And a range of things come up there: moral development, resilience, hope, and a little bit about conformity that I will talk about in a moment.

The relevance to the public can come up in all sorts of ways as I’ve alluded to, but let me not make a shopping list, just yet, of different hot button topics. Let’s just look at maybe some kind of overarching principles.

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One relevance to the public of people holding religious views is that there are external consequences. There are externalities. People’s doctrinal choices will have consequences for other people. Therefore that brings it into the public square.

I’ve given you the example of vaccine refusal. It’s not a the most important example perhaps, but it’s a topical example and helps make the point. Another external consequence is how we as legislators, or as policymakers, treat religious views in general: do we prioritise religious views over other opinions that people might have? This can affect, for example, the contents of educational curricula. If a large number of people object to something, not on factual grounds or scientific grounds but on religious grounds, should it be removed from the curriculum?

And then of course, in Ireland in particular, we have a lot of familiarity with the problem (or the challenge) of the standing of religious organisations within the state. What standing should a religious organisation have within the state? That can be in terms of organised religion, or an infrastructure or movement within organised religion, such as a religious order. And of course, we have the schools and the hospitals, and all of those issues there. What role should religious organisations play? This is obviously of relevance to the public. Even if you have no interest in religion, or if you do not belong to a religious group, you’re affected by the existence of these organisations, and therefore the consequences are relevant to the public.

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Another set of factors here are contextual knock-on effects or ripples. I’m going to walk you through a quite a subtle one here, but I think it’s very important, because psychology can talk a lot about the influence of norms.

Human beings are very responsive to norms — to social norms and to presumed norms. We jump to conclusions that the world is a particular way because of the cues we get from language, and from statements that people make. Religion is something that is so present, that it contributes a lot of norms into our daily discourse. We have heteronormativity, for example, in which we ‘believe’ that there’s a default sexuality — a lot of that is reinforced by religious teachings, religious doctrine, religious messaging.

But an even broader norm is the very fact that religion itself is something you must have. So for example, in the Irish census, up until the most recent census, the question asked in relation to religion is ‘What is your religion?‘ rather than ‘Do you have a religion?‘ So there is a norm being set in a question like that that’s very common in daily life in Ireland, that presumes that people must have a religion. The question does allow for a ‘No religion‘ response right at the bottom [of the response list], which is neatly separated from all the other responses by all those blank boxes. The presumption though, very clearly, is that people will have a religion and therefore when you ask them ‘What is your religion?‘, it doesn’t really include the prospects that people might not have one at all.

Now, that’s a norm. And that norm setting is very powerful in Ireland. For example, as I’ll go on to mention in a moment, it affects how people consider not just what is normal for a person, but what is normal, for example, for a school, or what is normal for a hospital. The idea that “people have religion, this is just normal” — that is very strongly set in Ireland.

And it’s something that is entirely psychological in its effect, in its frame of reference. Therefore, psychologists really do know a lot about this, and can talk about this and help develop policies around this. For example, the next census, next year, the one that was delayed due to COVID, will ask a slightly different question, partly informed by this type of public policy advice. The question will be ‘What is your religion, if any?’, which I suppose allows for the fact that a person might not have a religion.

So I think that is an example of advice being given that shapes public policy, informed by an understanding of why it is important to get your norms right. And that’s a psychological issue. It’s to do with social psychology and cognitive psychology. It has a knock-on effect on people’s behaviour as well.

Of course, that question is still quite simplistic. A better question would ask not only ‘Might you have a religion?’ but ‘If you have a religion, how seriously do you take that religion?’ It is possible within the census form to ask that type of question: we ask a similar question about the Irish language. We don’t just ask people can they speak Irish, we ask them how often do they speak it. And do they speak it well? You can ask a similar question in terms of religion that would get further into that norm-setting problem: it is important for us to know not just whether people have religions, but whether they take them seriously and whether they wish them to be prioritised within the public square.

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Other ripples that I would refer to in this context relate to the good and bad: the advantages and disadvantages of actually being religious. There is a lot of research on that. There are some people who will argue there are advantages to being religious, and some people who argue there are disadvantages in terms of maybe autonomous thought, or the ability to identify with other people and so on: if you consider yourself part of a religious tribe, you might consider yourself distant to other people in the world. So there are different discussions on this. All of these are empirical propositions that can be explored through research.

And of course, there are questions about the advantages and disadvantages of not having a religion at all, of being atheistic or having so-called ‘religious nonbelief’. But even using the words ‘religious nonbelief‘ is almost embedding a norm there, the concept that I suggest we avoid, of course!

That shopping list of topics [above], all of these topics that come up in church-and-state discussion — many of them have psychological dimensions, if not all of them — they’re all worth discussing in their own right, regardless of religion.

For example, whether divorce is good or bad public policy can be discussed without reference to religion. But the very fact that so many people will say that they subscribe to a religion complicates these discussions. And it’s important for psychology to advise on why they complicate these discussions. People don’t always consider the pros and cons of divorce because of economic factors or social factors or cohesion, or families, or what have you. They think it’s good or bad because their religion teaches them it’s good or bad. And that is a complicating factor that psychologists can advise on, because psychologists can advise on how people reason through propositions.

There are all these issues that psychologists of course, have been involved in, and can continue to be involved in, in terms of advising how people perceive problems and solve them, and how this religious dimension can complicate that. Sex education is a good example as well. There are many considerations to be made regarding how you design and implement sex education. The fact that “God thinks it’s good or bad” shouldn’t come into it. And yet, it does come into it in lots of different ways in Irish society.

Even this week, we just had a news story where a Department of Education resource put forward as supports for teachers different exercises that were based on quite an alarming level of homophobia. None of this would have arisen by itself. These [materials] were all rooted in a sort of religious discourse. Whether or not they were what organised religion intends, they do get rooted there.

And so we do have a very deep, embedded, religious dimension in all of these debates.

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The final point, of course, just to close, is the policy context. First of all, if you were advising on public policy in this space, and psychology can do so, we do have to be mindful of challenges. We can’t just jump in there with both feet and say, you know, this is how things should be.

There is an obvious distinction to be made between personal religiosity and public policy. In a democracy, if you don’t get your own way, that doesn’t mean that democracy isn’t working. That is perfectly understandable. Individual rights matter, but they shouldn’t change what everybody else’s rights should be or how they are affected. So there is a constant tension, or a delineation, that you need to be mindful of.

There is the intermingling of religion with institutions, such as schools and hospitals, as I’ve said, but also civil service departments, some of which have reputations for being socially conservative, and probably religiously so.

There is a resurgence of religious conservatism in the modern world that some social scientists have linked to the secularisation of society.

There’s a risk that if you try to unpick religion from the public square, you might be perceived as trying to ostracise particular groups within society or trying to exclude particular identities.

And then psychology has its own issues to deal with, in terms of its own norms and its own normativity and its own constructs of mental health that can be challenged on cultural grounds. Psychology is largely a Western pursuit, a kind of secular pursuit, but also influenced by Christian tradition. There’s a lot that can be said there. So we do need to approach this with care.

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Can psychology inform public policy on this issue? I would say yes. But it’s important (a) that we don’t try to tell people whether they should or shouldn’t be religious, (b) that we focus on social externalities, the consequences of religion and religiosity, and (c) that we focus on evidence-based knowledge, because that’s how we can make our contributions on all these issues of public policy.

Thank you very much.