Psychology of Religion

Course description:

This course is an introduction to central themes and methodological approaches in the psychology of religion. These will be studied through a focus on myth. Religion is multi-faceted and greatly variable across its many cultural manifestations, demonstrating differing emphases on what scripture, doctrine, social organization, ritual, piety, devotional practices, art, mysticism, ‘spiritual experience(s)’, transcendence, and so on, can mean. Religion is not therefore reducible to these manifestations. Myths embody, in highly condensed symbolic form, a religious worldview. As such they afford a powerful lens through which to explore many of the facets of religiosity, and this course examines the psychology embodied by myths by unpacking their ‘highly condensed symbolism’. 

We will begin by exploring in detail The epic of Gilgamesh, which is rightly an epic, and also one – perhaps the first? – that marks the transition from oral to written myth. It is perhaps the most elaborate, sophisticated mythical narrative prior to the myths and metaphysical belief systems of the “great world religions” that come after and which still, science notwithstanding, define most of our thinking today. To help us understand Gilgamesh, we may do some forays into some other well-known myths, using excerpts from Colum’s text or exploring some visual images, as well as contrast with other types of mythologies, using Gimbutas “Goddess’ thesis” (which applies insightfully to Gilgamesh) and/or Stanner’s classic on The Dreaming by way of contrast. 

The second section of the course will look at the most (in)famous psychological attempt to explain religion: Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic explanation of religion in terms of the Oedipal complex in Totem and Taboo. It is worthwhile to read Freud first-hand, and to address his theoretical effort on his own terms, rather than, as is far too often done, second-hand by way of rumour and hearsay. Although Freud’s theory is not accepted and is frequently derided, it has also attained the status of a “classic” and is worth engaging not only for the complexity of his thinking and reasoning in its own right, but also for exposure to an earlier phase of reductive scholarship on religion that still continues to be hugely influential into the present.

Thirdly we will look at the Axial Age, a thesis on world history in terms of religion that is becoming increasingly widespread amongst scholars. Since I’ve just finished publishing a book on it as of summer 2019, it is “hot off the press” and we will look at it in some detail. One, for its summary of the Axial Age thesis as developed by Karl Jaspers and others. Two, for how it presents, in much more updated terms than Freud’s text, an evolutionary view on religion and world history. Three, for how it presents an argument for the spiritual relevance of world religions for our “world in crisis” of today, and provokes speculation on our near future.

Required Texts:

The epic of Gilgamesh. (1999). Trans. by A. George. London: Penguin.

Freud, S. (1946). Totem and taboo. Trans. by A. Brill. New York: Vintage. (Original published in 1918.) 

Peet, C. (2019). Practicing transcendence: Axial Age spiritualities for a world in crisis. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Possible additional Reading:

Bellah, R. (1970). Religious evolution, pp. 20-50 in Beyond Belief. New York: Harper & Row. 

Excerpts from: Campbell, J. (2004). The hero with a thousand faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (Original published in 1949.). The excerpts are: Prologue, The Monomyth (pp. 1-42), and Epilogue: Myth and Society (pp. 352-362). 

Excerpts from: Colum, P. (2005). Great myths of the world. Mineola, NY: Dover.

Excerpt from: Gimbutas, M. (1989). The language of the goddess. San Francisco: HarperCollins. (pp. xv-xx)

Stanner, W. E. H. (1979). The Dreaming, pp. 23-40, in White Man Got No Dreaming, Essays 1938-1973. Canberra: Australian National University Press. 

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