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Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2017
 
 
Does Technology Decrease
Our Religious Beliefs?
With Michael Nielsen, PhD
Ashley Garcia, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

Religion and technology have more in common than you might think. According to Dr. Michael Nielsen, they both are used to provide an explanation for what is happening and why the world is the way it is. Thinking about religion often involves big questions such as “Why do bad things happen?” But people also use technology to make sense of why bad things happen, such as when a family member becomes sick and dies. People seek out explanations for things around them. They use technology, as well as God, in doing that, Dr. Nielsen explains.
He further states that technology and religion can allow people to see a meaning to their lives, which can be linked to overall happiness. He explains that some studies show that people who have a stronger belief in God are happier than those who do not. Similarly, it is common to see the excitement and happiness that many people experience when a new line of cell phones is released.
The Beginning
Before Dr. Nielsen started studying religion and technology from a psychological standpoint, he was a music major hoping to become a teacher one day. However, that was before he took his last general education course at Southern Utah State College: Introduction to Psychology. He says, “That course just blew me away, and I thought, ‘I want to do this for a living.’ ”
After taking this class, he included psychology as his second major and went on to earn a PhD from Northern Illinois University in 1992. He decided to study social psychology after taking a course as an undergrad that was taught by a sociologist. He says that the course made him see that he enjoyed thinking about the symbolism of how he could make sense and meaning of the social world.
Dr. Nielsen explains that, by studying religion and technology, he has been able to delve into how much value he places on physical objects rather than people. According to him, religion is about relationships. His research has made him think about how relationships are impacted by technology such as how it is sometimes easier to tell a friend something very personal in an online setting rather than face-to-face. He says, “I realized along the way that, by studying the psychology of religion, I’m able to take that into psych class and look at religious life from multiple perspectives that are represented in the discipline. I can’t imagine a better job.”
Does Technology Decrease Our Religious Beliefs?
As societies gain a greater understanding of technology, there is a decline in the belief in religion. He says, “That’s very true in Europe. It’s more mixed in the United States. In terms of levels of belief, the United States is kind of an anomaly and doesn’t quite fit the pattern.” He says that sociologists are discussing and debating this quite intently in terms of what it means, as well as in terms of what the relationship is between technology and the belief in God. “Some are very convinced that, as we get more technology, the need for God will go away,” Nielsen says. “Others are pretty convinced that won’t happen because questions about existence will remain even if we have more sophisticated technology.”
Using Technology to Study Religion
Researchers can use technology and bind it with religion to study those two seemingly different areas of our society. Dr. Nielsen states that scholars can use the Internet to get to a specific group of people that they normally might not have access to because of travel and population restrains in the cities they live in and conduct research they might not have the opportunity to analyze. Researchers can also use MRI scans to study how people’s brains react during prayer or meditation. They are able to see the various reactions in the brain and compare how the reactions differ or are similar.
A journal or event sampling on the Internet is also a technology that Dr. Nielsen states would be beneficial for psychologists and other researchers to use. He says, “You just give a research question and every day or periodically have people respond to your question dealing with your topic. By doing that, you can get a sense of how people deal with that issue throughout the day rather than only having them reflect back in a questionnaire.”
“When it comes to technology, there are areas within psychology, like human factors, where researchers really focus on the way that people interact with technology and how it can be more efficient and effective. That is an important aspect for researchers to understand technology,” Dr. Nielsen stresses. When it comes to religion, he thinks that psychology offers a way to make sense of why some people are religious and others are not and why religion does not seem important to certain people. “Sometimes technology has an important role in that,” he says. “Sometimes it helps do the research, but other times technology is part of the reason why one person may be more religious than another person.”
Humans Are Attached
Using the attachment theory, Dr. Nielsen is able to evaluate how committed humans are to technology and religion. When people are young, they develop a strong emotional attachment to their caregiver, which in turn helps them in personal development. Without this attachment, people could have problems developing connections as adults. He says, “We can examine how that early parental attachment might influence how we view God. If I have a strong connection with my mother, is my understanding of God similar to my connection and relationship with my mother? What happens if we develop a strong connection with technology? Does that follow the same outcome or is it different? Is it possible that our connection to our cell phone hinders our relationships with other people, or our sense of connection with a deity?” These are the questions he uses to fuel his research and discover how technology influences religion.
Dr. Nielsen recalls a time when a woman told him about using religion as way to deal with the problems in life. She was a stay-at-home mom and when dealing with the challenges of raising her family, she would pray and reach out to God. She would have a conversation with God, which was an experience that she considered to be divine. It gave her a lot of peace and comfort when dealing with the children. Dr. Nielsen uses this example to show how religion can help people during times or moments of stress.
Religion helps people have a sense of meaning and purpose by having an entity that is thought to always be listening. Dr. Nielsen questions if technology can serve the same purpose. He says, “when life dumps on you and things are going terribly wrong, even when others around you might be rejecting you, there is a deity potentially there to help you cope with the stressors you are experiencing.”
“How well does technology replace religion during times of stress? What do we do if we are stuck and the technology around us is failing? What happens if, instead of going to religion, we go to our friends’ Facebook pages, or we make other technological connections and do not reach out to the deity? Does the quality of our experience change? Is it better to have a real live person instead of a deity that we take on faith?”
Dr. Nielsen goes on to say that there are implications for technology with relationships, whether that’s with people or relationships with a deity. “One of the things about the belief in God that seems to help people,” he says, “is that it gives them a sense of meaning and purpose.”

SIDEBAR: Advice for Students
One of the main points that Dr. Nielsen stresses is the importance of research. He says, “Most schools don’t have a psychology of religion class and most departments don’t have someone that really focuses on religion in psychology as their research. What I always tell students is that you first want to get a really good foundation in research methods and statistics. Those are the tools of the trade, so to speak.”

He also says for students to find a topic that interests them and learn all they can about it. “Psychology is really useful,” he stresses. “At the same time, don’t limit yourself to psychology. Learn what you can from sociology, biology, or any other field that might have something to say about the subject you are interested in. It will make you more well-rounded people and actually improve your psychology as well. If you study various areas, and not only limit yourself to psychology, you can make bigger connections throughout your research, which will make it stronger.”

“You can become involved in psychology of religion by picking an area of psychology such as developmental or counseling and then look at questions dealing with religion through the lens and perspective of that particular field,” says Dr. Nielsen. “This will give you a strong foundation.”

This foundation, he explains, will help you get a job as a professor. “If you’re on the job market, chances are you’re going to get hired as a developmental psychologist, not as a psych of religion professor. It’s also important because it keeps you grounded within the field. It keeps you connected with the core of the knowledge base.”

“Psychology is extremely important,” Dr. Nielsen says. “It helps us understand why people are acting the way they are. Whether it’s a question dealing with religion or something else, psychology is an extremely valuable way to understand that.”

Michael Nielsen, PhD, studied psychology and music at Southern Utah University, and received his doctorate in social psychology from Northern Illinois University. He has taught at Georgia Southern University since 1993, where he now chairs the Psychology Department. His research focuses on social psychological aspects of religion, and has been published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, and other journals. He also has coedited Archive for the Psychology of Religion, and serves on the editorial boards of several journals. Currently he is past-president of The Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, also known as Division 36 of the American Psychological Association.

 

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Copyright 2017 (Vol. 21, Iss. 4) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


 
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