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Psychology of Religion


Admission requirements


This seminar aims to provide its students insight in several psychological approaches to religion, spirituality and meaning making.
We use broad definitions of religion and spirituality (see Paloutzian & Park, 2005, in Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality). Examples are:

‘Whatever we as individuals do to come to grips personally with the questions that confronts us because we are aware that we and others like us are alive and that we will die’ (religion defined by Batson, Schoenrade and Ventis, 1993)
‘A way of being and experiencing that comes about through awareness of a transcendent dimension and that is characterized by certain identifiable values in regard to self, life, and whatever one considers to be the Ultimate’ (spirituality defined by Elkins et al., 1988).
Some questions that will be adressed are:

  • Why and how do people give meaning to life? What makes people feel that they are alive and human beings (and not, for instance, a machine or an animal) ? Are there specific characteristics of the social (work-)environment or social interactions with other people that reduce the feeling that one is a human being?

  • Which individual characteristics determine whether people succeed in having a certain attitude of joy or courage towards life, and whether they experience their life as meaningful? And which individual characteristics determine whether people (unconsciously) resist or avoid life? How is this related to one’s mental health (e.g., depression, addiction), and how do caregivers (psychotherapists as well as religious caregivers) adress these issues?

  • Recent empirical studies have shown that people differ in their interest in religion and spirituality, as well as in experiencing feelings of oneness and connectedness. Is it possible to measure these characteristics? If so, how are certain characteristics related to social psychological processes and mental health (i.e., perspective-taking, empathy, ingroup/outgroup thinking, self-loss, self-infiltration)?

  • Religions all over the world emphasize the importance of relational values such as compassion, empathy, love, and respect. How does religion influence (1) the acquirement of relational outcomes (belongingness, social identity) and (2) social interactions between people (e.g., empathy, moral behavior, ingroup-outgroup thinking).

Course objectives

Students are familiar with existential themes and know the main theoretical approaches to meaning making and spiritual and religious development in relation to mental health, and are able to reflect on these approaches. The focus is on Western psychological theories as well as on some psychological issues that are important in contemplative traditions, and in non-Western psychology. In addition we will study recent empirical research on existential questions and spiritual development. Students learn to reflect on this material critically, to formulate new research questions, and to make a personal contribution to ongoing research within the department of social sciences.


See time table Religious Studies

Mode of instruction

  • Weekly meetings

  • Weekly reading assignments

  • Presentation

  • Midterm paper

  • Endterm paper

Assessment method


Reading list

To be announced


Please contact dr. E.M. de Boer before signing up for this course.

Contact information

dr. E.M. de Boer


This course will be taught in English except when all participants have a working knowledge of Dutch