Religion as a Meaning System
Religion as Relation - Studying Religion in Context - Peter Berger
Anja Visser [+]
University of Groningen
The wider field of psychology is primarily interested in cognitive approaches that study how people consciously or subconsciously process and interpret the information that reaches the nervous system through the senses. In her chapter, Visser discusses a strand of the cognitive approach that focuses on largely conscious, individual and cognitive (thought) processes – the study of religion as a meaning system. Approaching religion as a meaning system has gained popularity in the psychological study of religion during the past decade, particularly in studies on the relationship between religion and health or well-being. Visser explains how in this approach, a meaning system is conceived of as a personal collection of what the approach identifies as norms, values, beliefs and attitudes that each person develops through socialization in their sociocultural context and through their personal experiences. This meaning system influences a person’s identity, the meaning they ascribe to life and to life events, and their sense of certainty. The point of departure in this approach is that when confronted with new situations that do not fit within their existing meaning system, a person will experience emotional distress and search for ways to realign the two levels of meaning. Visser argues that approaching religion as a meaning system can help us to understand how religious beliefs, practices and experiences can be both a cause of and a solution to distress. She illustrates this approach by discussing her research project in which she combines quantitative and qualitative data collection and analysis to study the relationship between religion and well-being in the context of cancer. Assessing the merits and limitations of such an approach to the study of religion, she points out that the main challenge in this line of research relates to the enormous variety in the content of religion and the meanings that individuals attach to religion in different domains, phases and situations in their lives. Visser concludes that while quantitative research into religion as a meaning system can produce important, measurable results that sketch overall patterns, there is a need for qualitative research to gain a better understanding of specific embodied experiences and meaning-making that these correlations refer to in the personal lives of the research participants.