There is an old expression, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” which rings true in many situations. When I tell people I am a social psychologist, they usually have no idea what I mean, but upon hearing the word, “psychologist,” they often jump to conclusions regarding my personality, political orientation, religious affiliation, and much more. Social psychologists have some commonalities, including a scientific orientation; data oriented decision making; conducting research on people who are interacting in groups; and much more. However, although social psychologists, by definition, have a Ph.D. in social psychology, we are, as a group, varied in many of the same ways people in other occupations differ amongst themselves. One of the most interesting forms of diversity among social psychologists, in my opinion, relates to the extent to which we are religiously and/or spiritually oriented. I have met numerous social psychologists who profess to be atheists, many others who are agnostic, and many more who do not participate in any form of structured religious services, including church, temple, etc. Some of my best friends are social psychologists who perceive themselves as equally or more spiritual than people who, although they do not attend church, attend church services on a regular basis. My best friend and office mate during graduate school, Bob, is what many people would describe as a “hippie.” During our graduate school years and in the present time, his long blonde hair, tanned complexion from spending his free time surfing, and laissez faire attitude conveys to the casual observer that he is a person who lacks spirituality. However, first impressions are not always accurate and there are some books (and people) far more complex than their outward appearance initially indicates. Bob may have long hair, a surfer’s tan, and hippie attitudes, but he is more spiritual (not to mention knowledgeable about many forms of religions and religious practices) than almost anyone I have ever met, including people who rarely miss attending church services on Sunday morning. Suffice it to say that, although I have attended church services on numerous occasions, I never met anyone as amazing as Bob at church! Bob is living proof that hippies (and social psychologists) love God when they are surfing the big waves in the “church” that is the ocean.
I was raised in a very religious family; Mother was the pastor’s secretary, Dad was a deacon, and I attended a church affiliated high school, I, too, have seen many people who were active in organized religion in various ways. My observations were, however, that the degree of authenticity of people’s beliefs varied and were not in direct proportion to church attendance or activities. Thus, it has been interesting to venture from that narrow view of religious spirituality and learn more about a broader sense of religious and spiritual practices. Contrary to the dogmatic and exclusive perspective of my high school, observing people practicing similar beliefs in different religions, or different beliefs and different religions, demonstrates that there are many spiritual paths. It has left me with the belief that one should not assume there is only one path to being spiritual. But, further, it has made me realize how personal spirituality is to the point that I do not find it something I choose to bring up with other people. While religion is one of those things that all mothers are said to teach their children not to talk about – it seems many do not share my observance of that warning. That is, some people are very open about their beliefs, and sometimes they trigger a reactance in others when in sharing their beliefs they “turn off” others. So, back to the topic at hand, hippies may, or may not love God – but who am I to assume one way or another. Better, in my opinion, to let them be and let them experience their world, spiritual or not, on their own. This tendency on my part would be said to be contrary to the Christian practice of proselytizing, but that is my comfort zone.