Psychology of Religion in Italy

A series edited by Mario Aletti, Germano Rossi, Daniella Fagnani, and Fabio De Nardi

You may not be aware that there is a very active group of scholars studying the psychology of religion in Italy. Some of their work has been documented in a series edited by Mario Aletti and his colleagues, and published by the Centro Scientifico Editore. The books grew from conferences of the Italian Society for the Psychology of Religion. Nearly all of the chapters (papers) begin with an abstract written in English. Many of them have several chapters written entirely in English, as well, so that they can reach a broader audience. During the coming few days I will offer some highlights from each of the books.

L'illusione religiosa: rive e derive

a cura di Mario Aletti & Germano Rossi, 2001

One of the highlights of this book is "Vicissitudes of Self, Object, and God Representations During Psychoanalysis," by Ana-Maria Rizzuto. I found her descriptions of Mr. T, "the man who wanted to be God", and Ms. O, "the atheist in the hands of 'the powers'" to be fascinating. I am not a psychoanalyst, but I understand the psychoanalytic framework better through this chapter.

Another chapter I found interesting was that by Marta Ferrero, "The Idea of God among Psychology Faculty Students." Ferrero reports on a survey about belief in God among psychology students. Whereas most of the students (70%) did not deny the existence of a Superior Being, Ferrero found that only 5% shared a Christian concept of God. The vast majority of students also reported that psychology and faith are not in conflict with each other, but only if the two are separated. The abstract paints a picture of psychology students who are less inclined toward religion than are other students in Italy, a finding that mirrors data I have seen concerning psychology in the US.

Antoine Vergote's chapter "A Key Conflict Questioning Religion and its Psychology" is another worth your attention. He addresses issues related to religious identity and pluralism. What happens to identity when a religion encounters pluralistic trends? Vergote suggests that conflicts are inevitable, perhaps even desirable, and that "... we wish the dead person, not ourselves, to rest in peace." With sources ranging from Plato to Rokeach, he concludes that psychological factors are present when we encounter dogmatism in religion. Vergote favors an "inner sectarian retirement", in which conflict is dealt with by affiliating with other dogmatic religious people who can act as a form of support network, but who do not promote interlant, exclusivistic commitments. Dogmatism goes askew when it features an "intolerant commitment to promote one's belief or to even repress the expressiosn of other beliefs and ideas" (p. 288).

Although many of the papers in this book are psychoanalytic in their orientation toward religion, Germano Rossi's paper, "Religious Knowledge on 15-18 Year Old Italian Catholic Students: A comparison after 10 years," presents a statistical comparison of teenagers' knowledge of religion. The comparisons are too extensive to fully cover here, but among the findings is a reduction in the difference between male and female students in terms of their knowledge of religion. This occurs in the context of an overall decline in religious knowledge among the teens he sampled. The decline appears to be mitigated by religious involvement; those who prayed or attended Sunday mass knew more about religion than those who did not. Males whose parents were more educated also had greater knowledge of religion.

Finally, Mario Aletti's paper on "Teaching Psychology of Religion in Italy" offered great insight to psychologists interested in religion. Aletti began by trying to survey Spain, Greece and Italy, but encountered difficulty extending the investigation to Spain and Greece. (As a result, he concludes that the psychology of religion does not have much of a presence in those countries.) In Italy there are more courses taught, and the problems he cites may resonate with faculty in other countries. In state universities, the psychology of religion is considered a very new course -- if it is offered at all. When it appears, it is more likely to be in seminar form, often in the context of other courses such as social or developmental psychology. In Pontifical Universities and Faculties, there is a somewhat better situation, with the psychology of religion or pastoral psychology more likely to be offered. Still, it is a discipline on the margins of academia. He characterizes the courses as leaning toward psychodynamic, developmental, or social-cognitive, depending on the faculty teaching them. He also notes the importance of the Italian Society of Psychology of Religion in facilitating scholarship, including student research. Aletti concludes with words that many psychologists in other countries could voice: "The real difficulty, however, lies in convincing the institutions -- both academic and ecclesiastical -- that the Psychology of religion is essentially a psychological discipline, and that its object is psychological in nature, not primarily religious" (p. 317).

These books are worth adding to your library if you are a serious researcher in the area. You can find them directly on the Centro Scientifico Editore website (search "religiosa"), or you might be able to find them through Fetchbook, which aggregates new and used books in North America. (Supplies at Fetchbook vary, of course, as inventories at book sellers change.)

In the coming days I will summarize more books from this series. Thanks to Prof. Aletti for offering them to me so that I can relay the highlights to you.

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