Allport, Gordon. The Individual and His Religion. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1950.
Over time, an interesting reversal in the fabric of society has taken place. Whereas once religion was discussed and sexuality was kept in the dark, today we bluntly state the workings of sexuality while refraining from any examination of religion. In his book The Individual and His Religion, Gordon Allport breaks this new cultural taboo by scrutinizing and attempting to explain the many bonds between an individual and the religious experience. Drawing on numerous surveys, the work of other researchers, and his own personal philosophy, Allport creates numerous theories about the emergence of, and the individual's adherence to, religion. He examines a wide range of topics, from religion's relationship with sexual intercourse to its influence on eating habits (i.e., the Jewish laws of kashrut). In a section that I found very interesting, Allport discusses the similarities between religion and therapy, saying that we can use elements of both to improve the effectiveness of counseling sessions (88). In all, Allport writes an amazing book dealing with the enigmatic psychological ties of an individual to his or her religion.
Perhaps the most profound part of Allport's book is his theory on the development of religion within an individual. In his summary of his work, Allport sets out five crucial factors that influence this evolution: 1) His bodily needs, 2) His temperament and mental capacity, 3) His values, be they instilled by his parents or self-taught, 4) His desire and commitment to questioning his religion (what Allport calls, "the pursuit of rational explanation"), and 5) His response to his environment, society, and culture (10). He states that all of this focuses around cognitive appraisals of the world around us and our processing of the information we are given. For example, one cognitive principle that leads to an individual's acceptance of religion is "Undifferentiated Sentiment" (66). This occurs when, as children, we view our parents as respectable, admirable, and even "perfect" human beings. As a result, when we are socialized to their values and interests, we often blindly accept their religion as well. When education and experience leads the individual to question the value of his religion, these inquiries are almost always linked to the individual's feelings for his parents. The only way to reconcile these feelings of doubt and uncertainty is to understand the cognitive principles that led to their development.
Surprisingly, Allport states flatly that religion's primary cause was not any ethereal principle (i.e., the search for meaning in life, or a belief in the afterlife), but rather such palpable emotions as sadness, hope, and desire. In this argument, Allport uses many personal testimonies from soldiers who, though totally unreligious, found themselves using prayer to alleviate the fear they felt before battle. He believes that the mind, when dealing with strong emotions and a lack of a definitive solution, will try to expand it's horizons, to find some path that leads to an answer. Primitive religions offered this answer, and today religion has spread to encompass all aspects of life. I found Allport's views to be realistic yet stimulating, as I had never heard a psychological outlook on religion before.
In another provocative chapter, Allport examines the mental health of our society. He states that the situation does not look promising, as more and more individual's "cross over" into abnormality (109). This "crossing over" is contingent upon the individual's belief system--both his minor beliefs about the domestic world and his major beliefs about the universe and his place in it. In order to help those individuals on the border line, we must directly and uncompromisingly manipulate and re-organize these schemata; we must integrate the individual's perceived self with his actual being. Religion offers a plausible method of achieving this goal, and clergymen, Allport states, should not hesitate to identify and administer this basic "medicine" to those in need (111). In an atmosphere conducive to this subtle manipulationAllport believes that the humanistic setting, where the therapist exhibits the principles of warmth, empathy, etc., works best--the individual will explore his views candidly and will be willing to alter them in the face of new evidence. Thus, in the course of a few hours, religion can help heal and maintain the sanity of individuals who are at risk of "crossing over."
One criticism that Allport can be subjected to is his over-reliance on surveys as evidence. During surveys as emotionally provoking as those on religion, subjects have a tendency to lie--both to themselves and the experimenters. Further, they will often use the most standard answer available in order to avoid introspection and intense levels of thought. For example, in one survey Allport asked a group of students, "Why do you practice your religion?" The overwhelming answer was just one sentence: "Religion adds meaning to life." (150) This shallow and stereotypical answer shows that many subjects are simply unwilling or unable to examine their views closely--they instead rely on religious dogma to answer philosophical questions. Finally, while surveys can be used as support for a simple statement, Allport uses them almost exclusively as evidence for his "Conflict and Conscience" theory (97). Thus, Allport's misplaced trust in the reliability of surveys is a viable criticism of his book.
To conclude, Allport's book is outstanding--he takes an unyielding look at the origins and benefits of religion in life. Throughout his work, he offers suggestions and criticisms of the way modern religion is run, especially in regards to the highly-institutionalized Christian Church. I found the book to be stimulating and thoroughly enjoyed reading it, but most of all I learned an enormous amount about the cognitive aspects of an individual and his religion.