Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Wulff explores the psychology of religion

Psychology of Religion: Classic and Contemporary (2nd edition; Wiley, 1997), which has been translated into Swedish, Polish, Farsi and Chinese. His current projects include the editing of a handbook on the psychology of religion for Oxford University Press and the development of what he calls the “Faith Q-Sort,” a device for assessing a wide variety of positions on faith, ranging from indifference or even hostility toward religion or spirituality to strongly favorable attitudes, both conservative and liberal. In addition to being an accomplished professor and author, he has been a sought-after speaker at conferences. Last year alone he traveled abroad three times to address conferences in China, Italy and Denmark. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Lund University in Sweden in 1993, and has been honored in various ways by the American Psychological Association. In May he plans to retire from Wheaton to devote more time to his projects, including consulting with two universities in China to help set up psychology and religion programs there. We talked to him about his most recent research.

Tell me about your current Faith Q-Sort research.

I’ve developed an assessment instrument that I call the Faith Q-Sort. It consists of 101 statements that are sorted along a nine-point continuum according to how well each describes the person carrying out the sort. There’s something there for everyone, whatever his or her religious tradition, disposition, or outlook, including secular humanists and the so-called new atheists. Statistical analysis of group data yields “prototypes,” detailed portraits of particular faith positions. In the U.S., three main ones have emerged: Traditionally Theistic, Secular-Humanistic, and Spiritually Attuned. Various minor prototypes have also appeared, including Reluctantly Skeptical, Institutionally Anchored, Extrinsically Religious, Situationally Religious, and Religiously Indifferent. Among the Q-Sort’s unique virtues is its usability both for research and individual assessment.

Why is this assessment important for researchers as well as for individuals? 

Researchers are interested in determining both the causes and the implications, for individuals and society, of the various forms of religiosity. There is much dispute over what these forms are and how to label and assess them. Researchers typically decide in advance, based on popular discourse and their own personal views, what the significant forms are. The Faith Q-Sort, in contrast, invites the respondents to identify them through their sortings of the diverse statements. It also acknowledges that, beyond certain common trends, there are qualitative differences from person to person and group to group; these it preserves. So, for researchers, the FQS promises a more adequate way of assessing the varieties of faith; for individuals, it offers a more sensitive portrait of their views and a new vocabulary for talking about them.

What drew you to the subject matter?

As I started graduate school at the University of Michigan at the age of 20, I was religiously in transition. I started reading in the field as a way of trying to figure out what my options might be. In my second year I responded to a call for volunteers—unpaid—to teach “Psychology and Religion.” The next year I was given full responsibility for the course, and the explosion of interest in it—enrollments went from 60 to 500 over several years—was naturally highly reinforcing. It slowed down progress in my graduate studies, but then it also laid essential foundations for what proved to be my scholarly career.

Why is it so interesting to you?

To me, the realm of religion is endlessly fascinating, given the extraordinary range of experiences, images, doctrines, objects, and practices that compose it and its centrality in the lives of people the world over. Bounded only by the limits of human imagination, religion offers an unrivaled expressive medium for embodying the best and the worst of our dispositions and capacities. It can both stretch and diminish us. I see it as a major touchstone for psychology, a perennial challenge to its theories and methods.

What is your goal regarding the research?

All of my work in the psychology of religion has had one major goal: to reinvigorate the field and to make it a truly unbiased, nonsectarian and productive enterprise. The field has Protestant-Christian roots—liberal ones—going back to the Social Gospel movement, which was part of the Progressive Era early in the twentieth century. Early proponents were mainly interested in reinterpreting religion to make it more acceptable and serviceable in the modern age. In recent time, conservative Christian psychologists in the U.S. have been increasingly entering the field, establishing agendas and designing research projects that are subtly if not blatantly sectarian—proposing, for example, to develop an explicitly theistic psychology. I have a lot of work yet to do!

Why are you retiring now?

Retirement mainly represents for me an opportunity to catch up on scholarly work, including three more books I’m committed to editing or writing and a fourth that is incubating. It will also give me a more flexible schedule to spend time with colleagues at universities abroad and to host them here in the U.S.

What will you remember most about your years at Wheaton?

I expect it will be those students who genuinely appreciated what I had to offer and who said it made a difference in their lives. Especially memorable will be students with whom I worked closely—students who took several of my courses, completed a senior thesis under my supervision, and then entered graduate programs that allowed them to continue in a similar direction. But I will surely remember many colleagues, in and outside of my department, as well as administrative and staff persons who were encouraging or helpful in one way or another.

About Sandy Coleman

Sandy Coleman is the editor of the Wheaton Quarterly and Senior Associate Director in the Communications Office.