Religion, regardless of one’s personal religious or spiritual beliefs, matters. The chances of being part of a diverse religious affiliation increase as our global community expands. McFaul (2006) points out that while two out of every three people in the world belong to one of the three major religions of Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, there are hundreds of religions in the world today. McFaul contends that “religion is one of the major driving forces of the future” (p. 31). Christopher Hitchens and others in the atheist world might like to rail about god’s lack of existence and the damage that people who hold beliefs in god do, but the reality is that whether or not god or gods exist, people use religion (or lack thereof) to create systems of meaning. Baumeister (1991) as cited in Parks (2005) contends that meaning is the “central topic” in psychology (p. 295). It seems entirely appropriate and vitally necessary to study scientifically this intersection of meaning between psychology and religion and how people are impacted in their quality of life and their spiritual well-being both when they are part of a homogeneous religious group and when they are part of a heterogeneous religious group.
While religion and spirituality can and are intensely personal experiences, there is an important social component to the concepts that cannot be overlooked. A person’s religious beliefs shape his or her attitude towards life and towards others and are “a large factor in most people’s philosophy of life,” as Allport (1979) notes (p. 456). Despite this internal, personal aspect, Donahue and Nielsen (2005) define religion as “an inherently social phenomenon” (p. 275). Religious and spiritual belief systems act as global meaning systems and are “pervasively present” (Parks, 2005, p. 301). Understanding how various religious belief systems create both areas of conflict and areas of agreement and the impact specifically on life satisfaction when members of the same family unit have different “religious identification” is an important endeavor as the number of interfaith couples increases, with over 28 million such couples in the United States alone as of 2001 (Kosmin and Mayer, 2001, p. 29). In addition, it might be of considerable benefit to look at how literally individuals take their religious identification. The Pew Center (2002) found that only 18% of Americans held their religion to be the “one true faith”, with a full 75% holding that there were many possible path to “eternal life” (p. 2). This openness to other religions being viable and valid leads to the opportunity to test whether there is an impact on life satisfaction and spiritual well-being when one of the couple holds to the concept of one-true faith.
Review of research and theories
Several avenues of psychological research converge in this topic: religion, relationships, subjective spiritual well-being, and life satisfaction. The psychology of religion remains a fairly contentious and fractured field with little overarching theory to guide it (Paloutzian&Park, 2005), difficulty in operationalizing definitions of both religion and spirituality (Miller&Thoreson, 2003), and little “consistency in the measurement” of religious and spiritual constructs (Rippentrop, 2005, p. 282). Despite the obstacles, a growing body of research points to the importance that religious and spiritual beliefs play in multiple domains (Paloutzian & Park, Miller & Thoreson).
Research into the role of spirituality and religion to life satisfaction is beginning to be pursued vigorously, with multiple assessment tools and with mixed results. Dorahy, Lewis, Schumaker, Akuamoah-Boateng, Duze, and Sibiya (1998) used The Theism Scale (Maranell, 1974, as cited in Dorahy et al.) to assess across four distinct cultures whether religiosity and life satisfaction had any association, finding that there was no association among females from any of the four samples, while men in three of the four samples did have “a significant association” (p. 41). Interestingly enough, women had “higher religiosity scores than males” but this did not lead to greater life satisfaction, leading Dorahy et al. to offer the conclusion that “the relationship between religion and life satisfaction may be largely dependent on gender” (p. 41).
Perrone, Webb, Wright, Jackson, and Ksiazak (2006) also examined how spirituality was linked to life satisfaction, but focused on how it related to work and family satisfaction in gifted adults who were being followed longitudinally. Perrone et al. found that existential well-being ( a sub-component within the Spiritual Well-Being) and life satisfaction were “positively related” (p. 265) as was marital satisfaction, but “religious well-being, work satisfaction, and parental satisfaction” did not “contribute significantly to the variance in life satisfaction” (p. 259).
Roemer (2006) took a different route in measuring the religious/spiritual component when considering how life satisfaction and religious belief impacted people in Japan and did not use a measure specific to spiritual well-being or religiosity, instead data was extracted from the “2002 Japan General Social Survey (J-GSS)” (Roemer, p. 9). Roemer did find a positive relationship between religion and life satisfaction among people in Japan.
In order to compare studies measuring life satisfaction and spiritual well-being or religiosity across cultures, genders, and ages, it will be necessary to arrive at a consensus of the concepts being measured and the creation of a measurement tool that most researchers can agree upon. It is in this specific area that the psychology of religion and spirituality has its greatest challenge.
In a study of marital satisfaction in interfaith marriages, Hughes and Dickson (2005) found that whether each individual’s religious beliefs are intrinsically oriented (important to the individual in its own right) or extrinsically motivated (as a way of achieving external benefits such as networking) matters more in how well interfaith partners communicate with each other than it appears to for marital satisfaction.
Building on the above four studies (Dorahy et al., 1998, Hughes and Dickson, 2005, Perrone et al., 2006, and Roemer, 2006), several research questions occur, of which none of the above studies considered: what impact does heterogeneous religious affiliation have on life satisfaction and on spiritual well-being? How are spousal, familial, and communal relationships impacted when the religious beliefs are not identical or similar? When religious identification is at odds with family and friends, does life satisfaction decrease?
Hypothetical Questions Worth Looking At
Do spiritual well-being and identification with a specific religious belief system have an effect on life satisfaction, on work satisfaction, on familial satisfaction, and in relationships with community members? Additionally, where religious identification is heterogeneous, will there be decreased life satisfaction, decreased satisfaction with work and family relationships and a negative impact on social relationships outside the immediate family? To date, it doesn’t appear from an extensive search of the literature that these questions have been examined.
There are some available assessment scales that could provide the information needed to answer these questions:
The Spiritual Well-Being scale (SWB; Paloutzian and Ellison, 1982, as cited in Perrone et al.)
The SWB measures spiritual well-being; it consists of two separate scales: Religious Well-Being and Existential Well-Being and has high test-retest reliability as well as construct validity when compared to a similar measure of spiritual well-being (Perrone, Webb, Wright, Jackson, and Ksiazak, 2006).
The Satisfaction with Life Scale (SLWS; Diener, Emmons, Larson, & Griffen, 1985, as cited in Perrone et al.)
The SLWS is a 5-item 7-point Likert scale created by Diener et al., 1985). According to Pavot and Diener (1993), the SLWS assesses a “person’s global judgment of life satisfaction” (para. 7). A score of 20 is a neutral score, while a 26 to 30 would indicate “satisfied” while a score of 5 to 9 would indicate “extremely dissatisfied” (Pavot and Diener, para. 10). The SLWS has both “strong internal reliability and moderate temporal stability” (Pavot and Diener, para. 13). Perrone, Webb, Wright, Jackson, and Ksiazak (2006) note that the SLWS demonstrated concurrent validity with “moderate correlations between SLWS and 11other measures of subjective well-being” (pp. 256-257).
The Kansas Marital Satisfaction Scale (Schumm, Paff-Bergen, Hatch, Obiorah, Copeland, Meens, et al, 1986).
The Kansas Marital Satisfaction Scale is a 3-item 7-point Likert scale measuring marital satisfaction with (Schumm, Paff-Bergen, Hatch, Obiorah, Copeland, Meens, et al, 1986). Schumm et al. acknowledge the limitations of the scale but note that it does “have quite adequate reliability” as well as “some degree of concurrent validity” (p. 383, p. 385).
The Kansas Parental Satisfaction Scale (KPSS; James, Schumm, Kennedy, Grigsby, and Shectman, 1985)
Perrone, Webb, Wright, Jackson, and Ksiazak (2006) note that the KPSS is a 3-item 7-point Likert scale measuring parental satisfaction which has “adequate internal consistency reliability” (p. 257). James, Schumm, Kennedy, Grigsby, and Shectman contend that this scale has validity for the measurement of “personal satisfaction” with parenting skills, children’s behavior, and relationship with children (1985, p. 1 of summary).
The Multidimensional Job Satisfaction Scale (MJSS; Shouksmith, Pajo, & Jepson, 1990)
According to Perrone, Webb, Wright, Jackson, and Ksiazak (2006), the MJSS used a 5-point Likert scale which contains 4-items for personal growth and 1-item for global job satisfaction; this scale has good internal consistency reliability and the two subscales correlate with each other. Shouksmith, Pajo, and Jenson (1990) describe the assessment as “comprehensive” and “multidimensional” (p. 1 of summary).
Without clear research on the effects of different spiritual and religious belief systems in romantic partners, extended families, friends, and coworkers, the growing global nature of our societies and its likelihood for being peaceful and cooperative or hostile and war-like cannot be reasonably predicted. Such research would help further our understanding of how various religious belief systems create both areas of conflict and areas of agreement and the impact these have on life satisfaction when members of the same family unit have different religious identification. This is an incredibly important endeavor as the number of interfaith couples continues to increase, with over 28 million such couples in the United States alone as of 2001 (Kosmin and Mayer, 2001, p. 29). In addition, determining the literalness with which individuals take their religious and spiritual beliefs would also provide additional information regarding the nature with which various individuals will react towards those of differing faiths. The Pew Center (2002) found that only 18% of Americans held their religion to be the “one true faith”, with a full 75% holding that there were many possible path to “eternal life” (p. 2). This openness to other religions being viable and valid leads to the opportunity to test whether there is increased interaction with those of different faiths and if these relationships have an impact on life satisfaction and spiritual well-being. While the results of previous studies tend to be mixed, the need for additional research and the refinement of assessment tools for spiritual and religious variables remain. Also, as the rates of atheism and agnosticism continues to increase, with over 45 million Americans in 2004 willing to self-identify as either nonreligious/secular, atheist, or agnostic, according to Kosmin and Mayer, so too does the need to develop measures of spiritual belief systems that are sensitive to the multiplicity of traditional and nontraditional religions as well as to those who eschew all relations with religious or spiritual systems.
Directions for Future Research
Despite psychology of religion’s long history dating back to the mid 1880s and its inception as a topic of research by G. Stanley Hall, William James, and their students Leuba and Starbuck (Vande Kemp, 1992), there remains much work to do in the field. In today’s ever-increasing global interdependence, this particular field of psychology is more vital then ever. There is much work to be done. Better measures that have greater clarity and wider applicability than to just the Christian faith must be developed. Somehow we need to find ways to measure and discuss religious and spiritual belief systems without being overly specific towards a particular deity. Interest and awareness in the differences of cultural perspectives in religion are altering the ways in which research is conducted, in addition to creating a richer and more varied array of questions to ask about the topic. This acceptance that culture matters, just as religion matters, is creating vast new areas of interest to research.
Dorahy, Lewis, Schumaker, Akuamoah-Boateng, Duze, and Sibiya (1998) in their examination of cross-cultural groups and the intersection of religious beliefs and life satisfaction found that for men, religion seems to make a greater difference in life satisfaction than for women, although women may express greater religiosity. Additional research needs to be done that looks in greater detail at how gender differences alter the ways in which religion impacts life satisfaction, especially when there are differing faiths within the family structure. Conflict within the family needs to be looked at to determine the role it plays in reducing life satisfaction. Is there more conflict in interfaith marriages? Is the conflict in those marriages a result of the faiths or are other variables implicated? How do social structures differ for interfaith couples compared to one-faith couples? Hughes and Dickson (2005) found that interfaith couples were more likely to have separate social structures and more separate lives because of the difference in religious events attended. Where those couples had “constructive communication” with each other these effects were minimized (p. 25). Hatch, James, and Schumm (1986) found that where religiosity did not have a direct impact on marital satisfaction, it appeared to operate “through intervening variables” (p. 544). These researchers were looking at homogeneous couples, though, and not interfaith couples. It seems likely that couples with faiths that are diametrically opposed would appear more likely to see a direct effect of their religiosity on their marital satisfaction, and the more literally they take their own faith, the greater the likelihood of conflict. Research looking into these areas specifically would be beneficial.
While there are thousands of religions in the world today, “two out of every three persons on Earth belong to only three huge faith traditions” (McFaul,2006, p. 31). To counter Christopher Hitchens’ (2007) argument that God is not great and to emulate his reiterating throughout his work “Religion poisons everything” (p. 13), religion MATTERS, real or not, and a belief structure that focuses on the negative sides of religion avails us nothing as global citizens. Joseph Campbell wrote and often said that “the only in-group that’s proper for today is the planet” although no “universal social image” exists as of yet (1989, p. 114). McFaul (2006) offers three potential futures for us as global citizens: exclusivism leading to increased turmoil and hostility, pluralism which could collapse back to exclusivism, and inclusivism, an acceptance of all of humanity as one family. I personally believe that it is possible to relate to all of humanity when one is willing to look at those underlying questions we all ask about ourselves, this world, and the inherent meaning we all fervently hope there is to this life. In order to do so, though, we have to work to remove those blinders that allow us to obscure the other’s humanity. Religion, unfortunately, often is to blame for those blinders, but it also offers great hope where those of faith have recognized that the historical literalness of their faith closes them to transcendence and to mutual dialogue and respect with those of differing faiths. Research into all the varieties of religious and spiritual beliefs and how these differing systems increase or decrease conflict and impact quality of life is paramount in today’s global society.
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