Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1943-) Professor of Psychology at the University of Kansas and a leader in the use of the experimental method within the social psychology of religion.

Batson's studies regarding religiosity, altruism, and religious experience span three decades. Batson built on Gordon Allport's theories regarding extrinsic (means) and intrinsic (ends) dimensions of religiosity. Allport suggested that extrinsically motivated people use their religion as a means to gain security, solace, sociability, distraction, status, and self-justification. Allport hypothesized that, for individuals with intrinsic religiosity, religion is an ultimate end in itself, a motive for living that was more important than other concerns. Intrinsically motivated people internalize their religion, following it more fully—a practice that makes them less prejudiced than those who are externally religious.

Batson explored and extended the explanatory power of this orientation through empirical research. He suggested adding a quest element within explanations of religiosity. Quest components include a readiness to face existential questions without reducing their complexity, a perception of religious doubts as positive, and an openness to future change in one's religious views. Batson devised a scale for measuring "quest" and found that it reflected a parameter that differed from intrinsic and extrinsic dimensions. This allowed him to fill in gaps in Allport's formulations regarding altruism: "The Quest orientation was found to relate to more tentative, situationally responsive helping [while] the End orientation related to more persistent helping that was less attuned to the expressed needs of the person seeking aid" (Batson 1976:29). Those who responded high on the Quest orientation seemed more sensitive and showed greater cognition complexity when dealing with existential concerns (Batson and Raynor-Prince 1983:38). Batson noted that religious belief can act as a form of "double agent," pretending to be one thing but sometimes shaping behavior in dysfunctional directions.

The Religious Experience: A Social-Psychological Perspective (Oxford University Press 1982), with coauthor W. Larry Ventis, focused on cultural impacts on religious experience and ways that meditation, drugs, and language facilitate such episodes. Batson and Ventis hypothesized that creative experiences are psychologically close to religious revelations because both artistic and scientific creativity involve profound inspiration. They argued that the psychodynamics of creative/ religious experiences follow certain principles. People create the "reality" regarding such episodes using hierarchically arranged cognitive structures. The process involves an improvement in one's cognitive organization and has identifiable stages (preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification). Religious experiences involve cognitive restructuring to deal with existential questions. When a religious experience is creative, it allows the individual to deal more effectively with a wider range of experiences and people.

In The Altruism Question: Toward a Social-Psychological Answer (Erlbaum 1991), Batson reviews the history of altruism, tracing beliefs about human nature from the Greek era through modern times. He reveals the influence of these formulations on the early schools of psychology and argues that psychologists often assume that people are social egoists, caring only about themselves. Such thinking about cognition and social psychology uses a computer analogy, overlooking the fact that people care about each other. Batson reviews the empirical support for a empathy-altruism hypothesis that suggests a different orientation. Not only do people care, they also feel empathy for others. They care not just for their own sakes but in an altruistic manner. Although Batson is aware of the limitations of this formulation, he elaborates upon a "Galilean" model and evaluates the published scientific research in this domain using his altruistic definition as a reference point.

Religion and the Individual: A Social-Psychological Perspective (with Patricia Schoenrade and L. Ventis, Oxford University Press 1993) extends this work by discussing the sources, nature, consequences, and implications of individual religion. Not all aspects of religious belief are beneficial; religion has intrinsic, extrinsic, and quest dimensions that interact in a complex manner affecting behavior in both prosocial and antisocial directions.

James McClenon


C. D. Batson, "Religion as Prosocial," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 15(1976):29-45

C. D. Batson and Lynn Raynor-Prince, "Religious Orientation and Complexity of Thought About Existential Concern," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 22(1983):38-50.

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