Psychology of Religious Beliefs: Exclusion & Examples

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

If you have ever been curious about why people believe the things they do on a spiritual level, then you are curious about the psychology of religious beliefs. This lesson discusses how that branch of psychology can work.

Understanding the Psychology of Religious Beliefs

As a psychologist with a deep interest in social justice issues, Karen has been thinking more and more about religion or organized forms of spirituality. She knows that religious beliefs can play an important role in individual and group behavior, and many of her patients are very invested in their religious identities and communities.

Karen knows that psychology and religion have a complex interrelationship, and not everyone would define this relationship in the same way. She is interested particularly in how religious beliefs influence people's identities and behaviors, as well as how they learn, think, and feel.

Religious Beliefs and Exclusion

Karen knows from experience and from learning history that religious beliefs can lead to exclusion, behavior that leaves other people out and sometimes makes them feel bad about themselves. She thinks of this as a crucial aspect of the connection between psychology and religion.


First of all, many people have prejudices based on religion. Karen understands that a prejudice is a preconceived notion, often very general, about how someone will behave or who they are, based on one of their attributes. For example, she has one patient who identifies as a Christian and believes that Muslims are rude and violent. This is a privately held belief that does not explicitly impact Karen's patient's behavior, but it is a prejudice that could in time lead to detrimental actions.


Discrimination, Karen knows, is behavior that grows out of prejudice. Discrimination can consist of small or large actions, and some laws and policies are even discriminatory. Many of Karen's patients have experienced microaggressions, or subtle forms of discrimination because of their religious beliefs. For instance, she has a Jewish patient who needs to take time off of work throughout September to celebrate the high holidays that are key to her religion. Her boss has been unfairly strict with her and threatened her with job loss. Karen helps her patient see that these threats are an example of discrimination.

Human Rights Violations

On the large scale, Karen has seen how discrimination can lead to human rights violations or incursions against people's most basic and fundamental rights. For example, in many parts of the world, Karen knows that people are subject to violence because of their religious beliefs, rituals, and identities. In some Buddhist countries, it is considered a crime to be a Muslim, for instance. Karen understands that religion causes very strong and passionate beliefs and identifications, and these are sometimes used to justify or rationalize egregious violations of human rights.

Religious Beliefs and Psychology

As a psychologist, Karen thinks that it is her responsibility to honor and learn about her patients' religious beliefs and how these impact their identity, attitudes, and behaviors. Karen also thinks that it is crucial to help her patients identify and work through biases against people from different religious backgrounds or with belief systems very different from their own.

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