Christian Onofrei, “Religious Genius from a contemporary psychological perspective”

Comments on Concept Paper by Christian Onofrei

From a contemporary psychological perspective one of the basic issues that can be raised is that of empirical support and/or empirical validation for the definition or the multidimensional model of religious genius presented in the paper. What follows are some points that stem from this issue and that will be presented as follows: (1) issues related to the understanding of personalities of individuals that are included in the category of religious genius from a psychometric perspective, (2) psychological approaches and reductionism, and (3) “list of attributes”.

(1) With respect to the question of “How to view and understand such personalities?

Can we apply categories that exist in other fields of knowledge to better understand them?” psychometric approaches are alluded to in the paper as they provide tools (psychological tests – measuring traits like ego boundaries, reality testing; neuropsychological tests – measuring IQ) for exploring personalities and psychological functioning. When considering the use of some of these measures one issue has to do with the psychometric properties of tests that would qualify their use for the purposes of assessing features in the population of interest for this project or answering the question whether any psychometric instruments are adequate or valid to be used for the purposes of this study. One issue in the validity of some psychological tests with respect to their use with candidates to the category of religious genius has to do with the fact that most psychological tests have been validated only for use with psychiatric populations (e.g., MMPI). The use of psychological tests for evaluating these candidates would have to be based on the assumption that there are no differences between them and the (psychiatric) populations used to norm the tests. This difficulty also raises an issue related to reductionism in psychological studies that I will discuss further down.

In addition, there are a number of concerns that stem from the cross-cultural nature of the model of religious genius that is proposed and the use of psychological tests with populations other than Euro-Americans living in the United States. There are a number of issues that are relevant to cross-cultural or multicultural research, from a psychological perspective: (1) linguistic equivalence of tests; (2) setting and instructional set equivalence; (3) inter-rater coding reliability; (4) cross-cultural/multicultural norms; (5) acculturation status norms; (6) predictor bias; (7) cross-cultural/multicultural construct equivalence; and (8) construct validation research. With respect to the application of psychological tests in multicultural contexts very little has been elucidated as different tests and measures tap emic constructs, while other tap etic constructs, while yet others tap a mixture of emic and etic constructs.

(2) Psychological approaches and reductionism

When employing any kind of psychological methodology to the study of religious phenomena or categories that have to do with religious matters, one overarching theoretical issue that has to be addressed has to do with reductionism. There are two types of reductionism that are particularly relevant in the context of the literature on religious matters: methodological and ontological reductionism. In very broad terms methodological reductionism has to do with the limitations of the tools one employs to study a phenomena. In this instance there is a recognition that conclusions are drawn about the features of the phenomena that the tools and procedures of the scientist were designed to capture. In the case of methodological reductionisms, however, there is a recognition that, for example, what is revealed by the use of a specific methodology is not the essence or does not represent the totality of the phenomena studied. In the case of ontological reductionism this distinction is lost. Methodological reductionism is required by any scientific approach as it represents the basis on which analytic boundaries are established for the purposes of testing or validating theories (Tite, 2001). Methodological reductionism is predicated on the well-established ideas within scientific community that (1) there is a hierarchy of levels to reality; and (2) in order to develop a more thorough understanding of higher levels it is necessary to develop an understanding of the corresponding lower levels (Budenholzer, 2003). This manner of proceeding requires reductive explanations that aim to develop a better understanding of any given phenomenon and its origins (Cho & Squier, 2008a). These reductive explanations are models whose sole purpose is to “help to simplify the behavior of the reality under study; they do not claim to represent the wholeness of that reality in the abstract form” (Csíkszentmihályi, 2000, p. 9). Thus, one important characteristic of methodological reductionism is that given the recognition of different levels of reality, there is no one privileged level of reality that somehow is ontologically ‘more real’ than the others. In contrast ontological reductionism privileges particular levels of explanation (Tite, 2001). The distinction between methodological and ontological reductionism is illustrated by Cho & Squier (2008b) when they talk about how:

neuroscience uses a collection of tools, such as anatomical details of the brain and fMRI to measure blood flow in small locales. Stretching these tools to look at subjective experience might serve only to dismember the emerging model of brain function, without providing any effective understanding of how the brain works. So if some neuroscientists find it helpful to banish internal states such as desires, intentions, and beliefs for the purpose of creating an organic model of the brain, this should not be misconstrued as scientific proof that internal states do not exist, or that they cannot be studied by other scientific programs. This is to confuse an “as if” model for a “nothing but” theory (p. 437).

In religious studies, one way to distinguish between methodological reductionism and ontological reductionism is predicated on how distinctions between theory and first-order descriptions are drawn:

Whereas first-order description reproduces, or makes accessible, selected insider language or truth claims, second order theorizing sets up explanatory frameworks for the critical analysis of first order claims. Thus, theory is an outsider dimension or stage of analysis…to collapse this distinction between description and theorizing is to metaphysically reduce the irreducible to an essentialized core (Tite, 2001, p. 271).

When authors approach religious matters from the perspective of psychological theories, methodological reductionism can lead to ontological reductionism. In psychology, one example of an approach predicated on methodological reductionism that culminates in ontological reductionism is Freud’s interpretation of religious phenomena. Freud’s approach and his ontological commitments are important because he established a legacy or set the pace for how not only psychoanalysts but also the majority of psychologists in general regarded the ontological status of religious traditions, beliefs, practices, and experiences. One of Freud’s (1986b) most fundamental tenets was the analogy between ritual practices and obsessional behaviors which can be construed as a form of methodological reductionism and its corollary, that all religious beliefs, practices, and experiences are a form of obsessive-compulsive neurosis (Meissner, 1984).

Therefore the use of psychometric methodology may prove of fairly limited use due to inherent problems with these methodologies when applied to specific populations and across cultural contexts.

(3) “List of attributes” approach

The project discussed at the end of the document you forwarded that involves a list of attributes that could be rated by various respondents and then could be (factor) analyzed to derive an empirical model of religious genius seems like the most valuable and also efficient contribution from a psychological perspective to the discussion of religious genius. Issues related to using psychological tools in the context of cross-cultural differences could be better controlled within the scope of this type of methodology. Results would also allow for comparisons across cultural boundaries and developing an understanding of how different cultures may shape different models for defining religious genius. These empirically derived models or definitions could then be discussed in light of the theoretical model proposed in the paper. With respect to this project, I am also envisioning opening it up beyond the input from scholars. In the initial phases input from scholars would be used to derive a number of items or attributes (some of which could also be directly derived from the theoretical model as outlined in the paper). Once the list of items is finalized, an internet survey could be used to have participants rate the items with respect to their relevance/importance to defining religious genius. The results could be factor analyzed to generate dimensions or factors that can be used toward a definition(s) of this concept. A previous project (about constructing a definition of religiosity) I have been involved with and that has used a similar methodology to what I am describing has generated an impressive number of responses/feedback/input from participants from all over the world in a very short amount of time and required a minimal investment of resources.