Understanding the World's Faiths From the Inside

An interview with Dr. Joshua Knabb and Dr. Timothy Sisemore.

Posted May 18, 2020

Joshua Knabb, used with permission
Source: Joshua Knabb, used with permission
Timothy Sisemore, used with permission
Source: Timothy Sisemore, used with permission

Hearing the perspective of people from the inside of a group is crucial in providing appropriate and relevant services to them. Millions of people around the world follow various religions that all have something to say about the human experience. Psychologists and therapists can better serve clients by grasping the key elements of their worldview, often informed by these many religions.

Joshua Knabb, Psy.D., ABPP, is a board-certified clinical psychologist and the director of the Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) in Clinical Psychology Program in the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences (CBSS) at California Baptist University (CBU). He is the incoming editor for the Journal of Psychology and Christianity, author of over two-dozen journal articles, and author of several books with Routledge, including Faith-Based ACT for Christian Clients: An Integrative Treatment Approach and The Compassion-Based Workbook for Christian Clients: Finding Freedom from Shame and Negative Self-Judgments. Knabb’s forthcoming books include a client workbook on Christian meditation for InterVarsity Press and a co-edited book (with Dr. Tim Sisemore) on the psychology of world religions and spiritualities for Templeton Press.

Dr. Tim Sisemore is a professor of Psychology at California Baptist University and director of psychological services of Riverside. He is past-president of Division 36 (Psychology of Religion and Spirituality) of the American Psychological Association, and author of numerous publications, including The Psychology of Religion and Spirituality: From the Inside Out (John Wiley & Sons).

JA: Why did you set out to write your book?

TS: Science, and particularly psychology, has a long and complicated relationship with religion that has led to its tendency to look down at those who believe in some form of the transcendent. Concurrently, psychology has been guilty of a similar attitude when trying to study non-Western cultures, failing to understand them due to enforcing its own methodology onto groups that do not share it. The indigenous psychology movement began with a realization that Western psychology’s constructs and ways of understanding are inadequate to understand groups with different worldviews.

Indigenous psychology attempts to bridge the gap by inviting psychology to understand things from an emic, rather than etic, perspective and develop measures and methods derived from the culture/group being studied. Religion and spirituality are integral to many world cultures; for persons of faith in the West, religion and/or spirituality define who they are more than the basically naturalistic assumptions of empirical psychology. So, a book seemed in order to help Western psychologists and other researchers and clinicians to have an opportunity to see these faiths from the inside-out, with the intent of improving understanding, developing more careful research methodologies, and enhancing the clinical care persons from these groups receive.

JA: What is the primary takeaway you hope readers will learn from reading your book?

JK: The primary takeaway is twofold. First, we argue that the psychological study of religion and spirituality should be balanced, with both etic and emic perspectives. In other words, a global understanding of the beliefs and practices of religious communities is certainly an important aim in psychological science; however, merely combining religions can take away from the unique experiences that different faith groups have in daily life. As a result, in the 21st century, emic approaches to studying religion and spirituality are just as important as etic strategies.

Second, Western psychology, with its often-unacknowledged assumptions that are built upon a range of “isms” (e.g., determinism, individualism, hedonism, materialism) (Slife & Whoolery, 2006), is one of many psychologies and by no means has the monopoly on the scientific method. Therefore, we argue that local religious communities, like Western psychology, have been attempting to understand the human condition for quite some time, viewing human functioning through the lens of a “comprehensive view of life,” or worldview. With this edited book, we have brought together psychologists from around the world to offer a local, insider perspective on psychological functioning, presented from within the proverbial walls of well-developed religious and spiritual communities that have existed for millennia.

JA: What are some lessons from your book that can help people live more resiliently?

JK: Each chapter, written from the perspective of a local religious group, provides an emic understanding of the most salient concepts within the corresponding faith system, such as a perspective on knowledge and philosophy of science, a view of the self and meaning-making, a view of health/well-being, disorder/suffering, and healing/change, and clinical applications. Because of this, the chapter authors “lean into” the human predicament, offering a rich psychological perspective on pain and suffering from within well-developed worldview systems that have been striving to understand what it means to be human for thousands of years. Across the chapters, authors offer differing perspectives on how local communities make sense of, and respond to, the challenges of daily life. Although there are certainly similarities threaded throughout the chapters, there are a variety of differences that can deepen our understanding of how different faith communities have addressed suffering since the beginning of recorded history with keen psychological insights.

JA: What are some insights from your book that help readers support a friend or loved one?

TS: A key quality for understanding and supporting others is empathy, feeling with the other person. Unfortunately, all too often we see others through our own experience and schema and fail to truly connect with the other. We have seen great work done in the areas of ethnic and gender diversity toward this end as we give voices to others and try to see things the way they do, even though our ability is limited by our own experience. Still, an admission that we do not understand fully and an openness to moving toward seeing life as others see it yields a more empathetic interaction and support. This is also true in areas of religion and spirituality, where many people are quick to argue and defend themselves before even trying to understand. In our book, the reader is introduced to a wide variety of beliefs presented from an emic perspective. We believe that not only does this enhance the reader’s sense of empathy for those of other religions, but provides a model for listening to and supporting others who have different views of the transcendent.

JA: What are you currently working on these days?

TS: My most major current project is co-leading a task force with the Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality charged with building on the current literature on clinical competencies to produce guidelines for working with the diversity of people of faith with enhanced sensitivity to their perspectives. I am also beginning to work on a chapter on the teaching of the psychology of religion for an international handbook on learning and teaching psychology.

JK: I am currently working on a client workbook for Christians in psychotherapy, with Christian meditation as the primary intervention. I am also finishing up a randomized trial examining a four-week program for Christian adults struggling with trauma-based rumination.

JA: Anything else you would like to share?

TS & JK: We want to pay a brief tribute to the amazing variety of scholars from around the world who have contributed to this volume. Just our being able to work together so amicably models the intent of the book to promote dialog and understanding, despite our differences.

References

Sisemore, T.A. & Knabb, J.J. (2020). The Psychology of World Religions and Spiritualities: An Indigenous Perspective. Templeton Press.

Slife, B., & Whoolery, M. (2006). Biased against the worldview of many religious people? Journal of Psychology and Theology, 34, 217-231.