The human frontal-lobe evolution has made it possible to do the right thing, particularly when that right thing is really hard to do. While faith, religion, and spirituality give individuals the essential inner strength, attachment, and security, it is the mature frontal lobes that turn on moral reasoning - a bridge towards an ultimate sense of hope and meaning.
On this episode, licensed clinical psychologist and Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Case Western Reserve University, Julie Exline, Ph.D., shares her research on the interface of clinical, social, and personality psychology, and spirituality, religion, and existential concerns. Her work shows that suffering ignites personal growth and spiritual struggles end up elevating people’s lives.
About Dr. Julie Exline
Julie Exline, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Her research centers on the interface of clinical, social, and personality psychology, with a special focus on topics involving spirituality, religion, and existential concerns. She served as Principal Investigator on two projects funded by the John Templeton Foundation: one on religious/spiritual struggles and another on supernatural attributions. She is a licensed clinical psychologist in Ohio and has been certified as a spiritual director through the Ignatian Spirituality Institute at John Carroll University. She is a Past President of the Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality (SPRS; American Psychological Association’s Division 36) and was chosen to receive the Margaret Gorman Early Career Award, Virginia Sexton Mentoring Award, and William James Award from SPRS. With Dr. Kenneth Pargament, she co-authored the 2021 book Working with Spiritual Struggles in Psychotherapy: From Research to Practice. Her current research focuses on a wide array of themes around spiritual struggles and supernatural attributions, including gratitude and anger toward God, perceptions of after-death communication, beliefs about supernatural evil, and the many ways that people perceive “God’s voice” in their lives.
About Host, Sucheta Kamath
Sucheta Kamath, is an award-winning speech-language pathologist, a TEDx speaker, a celebrated community leader, and the founder and CEO of ExQ®. As an EdTech entrepreneur, Sucheta has designed ExQ's personalized digital learning curriculum/tool that empowers middle and high school students to develop self-awareness and strategic thinking skills through the mastery of Executive Function and social-emotional competence.
Sucheta Kamath: Welcome to Full PreFrontal exposing the mysteries of executive function. As you know, on this podcast, we have many goals. But mainly we are fueled by three important goals to explain what executive function is, what the role of prefrontal cortex is, and how does that all connect to self-actualization where we can translate the research findings from neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, sociology, and many ologies into meaningful bits, so that we can become better versions of ourselves. Second, we definitely want to find out there is a human plight, where the current self and the future self are often disconnected. And every single thing we do now can help or hurt the future self. And hopefully, we can engage more in the process of helping the future self. And lastly, maybe all the wisdom that you get from this, this podcast episodes from various experts, such as today's expert, our playbook becomes thick and strong with ideas that can propel us towards meaningful change. So as I was thinking about today's guest, you know, while pursuit, pursuing goals and personal missions, we encounter roadblocks, sometimes small ones, but sometimes massive interruptions, many of them may not even be our fault. And you know, what we are left to do is manage our emotions, our thoughts and actions by activating our executive function skills, so that we can stay the course. And then it's safe to say that, you know, humans driving contains this desire to search for meaning, or higher purpose. So the goals are not just small and shallow, but they can be deep and profound. But when life goes haywire, and when we encounter an unrelenting hardship, or in justices, particularly unforeseen circumstances, such as COVID, 19, that causes a deep emotional hurt, suffering, even isolation, and many of the US turn inwards or towards higher power, and God and faith. We haven't talked a lot about that on this podcast, but that may be a source of solace and comfort. So the question is, how do we really talk about that, and use that as a tool to help ourselves manage ourselves manage our emotions. It's a great pleasure to introduce you to my guest today. It is Dr. Julie Exline. She is a professor in the Department of psychological sciences at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. By the way, that was one of my three universities, I had gotten acceptance, but I went to o u, which is in your neighborhood. Her research centers on the interface of Clinical Social and personality psychology, with a special focus on topics involving spirituality, religion, and existential concerns. She served as principal investigator on two projects funded by John Templeton Foundation, one on religious and spiritual struggles, and another on Supernatural attributions, which is very interesting, her work in that area. She's a licensed clinical psychologist in Ohio, and has been certified as a spiritual director through Ignatius spiritual Institute at John Carroll University. She's also a past president of society for the psychological psychology of religion and spirituality. So with great pleasure, welcome to the podcast. How are you today?
Dr. Julie Exline: I'm doing great, thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
Sucheta Kamath: So we do talk a lot about connection between executive function and all the inner troubles that we have when we are not able to attain our goals, or we were not able to manage to turn our attention or maybe even get lost in purpose. So before we dive into your expertise, can we take a minute to kind of talk a little bit about the concept of morality and you know, executive function is very critical in development of moral principles or, you know, that self regulation so that we are aligning ourselves for fairness and justice, and doing right by people. So do you have any thoughts about that?
Dr. Julie Exline: I think so much of morality is about. Well, there's first of all, a process of discernment of what do I think is right in a given situation? What are my guiding principles? What Am I trying to order my life around? Or what's the right choice in just this one situation? So deciding what is going to be the best can require a lot of executive skill just to sift through different opinions, different sources of information and kind of figure out where your source of moral guidance is going to be coming from? Is it going to be coming from a sacred text? Is it coming from what someone else is telling you? Is it coming more from your own gut feeling or your past experience. And then there's the matter of just trying to keep track, keep on track with whatever the moral choices that you're trying to face, and whatever you're trying to do, which requires often a lot of self regulation is we all try to do the right thing or pursue our goals in situations where it's very difficult. Morality involves figuring out what our deepest values are, what's right and wrong, and then putting all that energy into pursuing those things. And then coping with our failures and the mistakes that we make, which is also often quite a challenge to be able to work through those things with ourselves and with others, of course,
Sucheta Kamath: I think that's such a wonderful distinction, that you pointed out that one self regulation is doing right by self, but right by others, but not just in the moment, but really being aware of the consequences of the long term consequences, and how it impacts not just self, but many other others that we are involved in. And I like that, one your deepest values, and second, reconciling with the failures or poor judgment or doing wrong by other people that also requires kind of realignment. So as you think about this continuum of morality, religion, and religious beliefs, and spirituality, is there any connection between all three of them or no, or an overlap?
Dr. Julie Exline: Well, a lot of religion is about taking what people believe to be sacred or transcendent. And figuring out how to share those things, those beliefs with other people. And once you get, once you have maybe transcendent experiences that you're trying to explain, you try to put them in with a group. And you start having values wrapped around them. It's like you've got yourself a, you know, a religion. So with religions, you not only have this focus on transcendent experiences, God, maybe the supernatural, but there's also usually a moral code of some type, often, often a very complex one that's wrapped up as part of this shared community of belief within the religion. So you can have your moral values playing out through a more personal form of spirituality as well. But if you're talking about religion, you know, an important distinction between religion and spirituality is just that. Religion is like, spirituality shared between a bunch of people. And, you know, anytime we get a bunch of people trying to agree on something, trying to decide who's in and who's out, and what are the rules going to be. And that's why sometimes people get frustrated about religion with all the rules and regulations and the ideas about who's in this group and who's out of the group and I feel excluded. Well, it's because you've got a lot of people trying to agree on matters of like deep ultimate questions about the meaning of life, and then a bunch of rules about how to live so there's an awful lot of areas to agree on, if that's going to work smoothly. It often doesn't. Yes, yes.
Sucheta Kamath: I think that's such a good description of the tug there that you want to transcend, and yet follow rules, you know? So yeah, um, so what are the some of the emotional benefits of having such belief system or cultivating or belonging to formal or informal groups where practices align you with faith?
Dr. Julie Exline: Well, being part of a faith community of some type, I would say a primary benefit of it is that it brings social support into the picture that you don't always have with more private forms of spirituality. So when you're together with other people, focusing on matters of ultimate importance, you have the support that comes from that community. So whether that's just going to services or having somebody that you might be able to call on if you were having a practical or a spiritual problem, you're integrated into that community at some level. And then there are the benefits that could come from either religion or spirituality of just having this view of the world that helps you to make meaning from things. And also, that might lead you in the direction of healthy choices and behaviors, in some cases, like taking care of your body because of your spiritual or religious beliefs or your values. So I think a lot of benefits can come from private spirituality, just having this way of orienting your life in a way that makes sense to you. And that fits with who you are. And that might give you hope, for the future, maybe even a life beyond this one, or just sources of deep meaning in this life and deep connectedness. And religion can ADD that benefit of you go to services, or, you know, you have groups of people that you're connecting with.
Sucheta Kamath: And, you know, I've been reading a lot, and there's been a lot of conversations about, you know, particularly during the pandemic, and particularly raising children, or supporting education of children, that there's so much fear and so much stress. And I feel, you know, the emotional benefits that you just described, can really impact in reducing fear. And the ultimate fear of it all is death, right. So also bringing hope that we really don't know enough about death, and that can create stress, but also, how do we stay hopeful when we are enduring challenges? Is there any, any, any way we can think about this reduction of fear through faith and that kind of belief in the higher order?
Dr. Julie Exline: Yes, it's not my main specialty area of research. But there is a large body of work on the relationship between religious involvement and health and between spirituality and health, and that includes mental health and well being. So there's certainly a lot of literature suggesting that if people have a guiding vision for their lives, that might include a benevolent God, for example, it can help to meet what we call attachment needs this need for security. So people might go to God like they would feel about a parent. And if you feeling loved in that relationship, that can help provide a real sense of security. Also, there is if you have a belief, a benevolent belief about what happens to us, after we die, believing that there's going to be maybe a reincarnation where there's hope of another life to come, or a belief of going to heaven, or some other spirit realm where you just believe it's going to be better than here, that can be profoundly comforting for people, if they are facing death, thinking about their own mortality, or thinking about the loss of a loved one, for example. So those beliefs that the universe makes sense that there's some order to it, maybe that there's some laws behind it, that that make it orderly can help the benevolent God believes can help and, and those afterlife beliefs, too. And then people can also find just spiritual practices, such as something like mindfulness, meditation, other forms of meditation, yoga, very centering, and those could also bring all kinds of mental and physical health benefits.
Sucheta Kamath: Yeah, and you know, you talk, your work is centered around spiritual struggles. So before we get into that, I'm just curious. This question might surprise you. But, you know, I was reviewing this data from the Pew Research, which published in 2017, they had done a five year follow up, maybe I'm not sure if the new data will be published. But it showed that, you know, there's a big rise in SBN our community which is spiritual, but not religious. And so the research showed that there's almost 27% of Americans identify themselves as as BNR. So in your opinion, is there any implication of such trends? Or what are your thoughts about this switch to identifying more as spiritual than religious?
Dr. Julie Exline: Yes, that's a big, big trend in our culture, people exiting from religion altogether. And then people preferring to identify as spiritual but not religious, even though the majority of people in the US still identify as both religious and spiritual. So it's not as though the nation has completely changed but there's definitely been trends toward disenchantment with organized religion and people either deciding to become secular or deciding that they want to pursue their own personal private forms of spirituality. Rather than being part of an organized religious tradition, so that's an area of research that I'm somewhat involved with things having to do with people choosing to leave organized religion. And there's a lot of other people doing great work in that area as well. So those trends are there, and they definitely go along with spiritual struggles, you know, people will have struggles around religion in some way, and then they have to decide how they're going to respond to that crisis in their lives. Are they going to choose to kind of double down and stay in the tradition that they're in? Might they consider switching religious communities? Or might they consider withdrawing? And deciding that, you know, I'm not going to believe in any of this stuff anymore. Or I'm going to believe part of it, but I'm not going to attend services anymore. There's, there's all kinds of ways that people are pulling away from religion, and people who are spiritual, but not religious, show lots of spiritual struggles, just like, just like everybody else does. Yes. spiritual struggles are very common, even, even among atheists and agnostics. We have some research on that. So that spiritual but not religious people, often struggles around ultimate meaning. And then some interpersonal struggles around religion as well deciding whether to engage with faith communities, or not based on all the issues they've had with faith communities, it's often a real challenge.
Sucheta Kamath: And, you know, I also see, so to your point, you know, the, in the same study, they showed that the religious and spiritual community in America was 59%, in 2012, but it dropped down 11 points to 48%. So it's not small, but it is significantly declined. And so, you know, I've had Carol trap terrorists, on the show as well, who studies cognitive dissonance, and I kind of it just occurred to me that, you know, I'm a good person, but then I fail to do right, by myself or by people. And that can be a very great source of this internal struggle. Right. So is that also part of so maybe can you define for us? What is actual spiritual struggle? And does that apply to every human being or only to people of faith? Or? And is it been studied in outside of the Christianity, which is a dominant religion in us, right?
Dr. Julie Exline: Yeah, those are great questions. So spiritual struggles, or we sometimes call them religious and spiritual struggles, are any type of conflict or tension that a person is having around religion and spirituality, so it's a really, really broad category. So it includes things like troubles around organized religion, so interpersonal struggles around religion, maybe having issues with what with what people are doing in your religious community, or maybe you're not religious, and how religious people are treating you or how they're behaving, angry, organized religion. So a lot of the a lot of the struggles have to do with those interpersonal things. Some of them have to do with more personal internal things like doubts about whether you believe the correct thing, questions about your moral compass, or having trouble dealing with these, you know, having struggles around moral issues. In these questions of ultimate meaning, does my life actually have any meaning and struggling to find this deeper sense of meaning or purpose in life. And then we've got two categories that we call the supernatural struggles, which are the divine struggles, which is where you might be feeling angry at God, or if you don't believe in God, maybe anger around the idea of God, or feeling like maybe God has abandoned you, or doesn't love you or maybe isn't there for you. And then finally, we got demonic struggles, which is where people feel like there's they're being attacked or threatened, or tempted by the devil or evil spirits or some kind of evil, evil force. So these struggles are really common in the US population, you know, depending on the study that we're looking at. Well over half the population are reporting spiritual struggles in in some studies, it's, if we're just looking at any type of spiritual struggle, often get around 70 80% of people reporting some kind of spiritual struggles. And we've looked at groups such as like I said, atheists and agnostics who don't tend to report the supernatural struggles, but certainly report the other ones. We've done studies among Muslims and Jewish people in it Israel, there have been studies done in a variety of different countries, if I start listing them, then I'll miss one. And we and we did a study on anger at god or gods among Hindu college students as well. So there have been quite a few studies done, there was one done on religious coping among Buddhists as well. But we're, we're trying to get more into these cross cultural studies, after just trying to build sort of a foundation in with our convenient samples of people from the US, which is always where we have to start for financial reasons.
Sucheta Kamath: I see. So Wow. So first of all, I thought, and, you know, as I'm listening to you some of the things that you just talked about, you know, I personally have had that I grew up in India, in a very, you know, Hindu dominant country, I guess, the only country with a dominant population of Hindus. But one particular thing strikes with me was hypocrisy. So can you talk a little bit about the role of hypocrisy in having spiritual crisis or having concerns with people who are supposed to model some ideal behaviors may not be showing so but expect you to do the same? So is there some relationship between that, you know, our sense of justice versus noticing hypocrisy, leading to spiritual crisis?
Dr. Julie Exline: Definitely. So I'm looking forward to going more in depth with some of these interpersonal struggles in our own work. But what I can speak to is, there was some really important pioneering work done in a book by Altmaier and Hunsberger. This is like 30 years ago, looking at reasons why people have doubts about religion. And some of these concerns about things like religious hypocrisy, people, religious people, seeming like they're supposed to be really good and holy, but then not, you know, living in the way that they're supposed to, or expecting you to behave in certain ways. And they're not doing it. Hypocrisy was a big one. And then issues of intolerance were also really major issues. And those are, these are huge reasons that today, people are getting turned off from organized religion because they see examples of things that they see to be hypocritical, or certainly intolerance of people. A lot of the things around, you know, LGBTQ issues come to mind. People being afraid of outsiders, you know, this kind of, I'm not going to welcome people from other countries, I'm going to be afraid of strangers, some of these types of things, people will look at religion and say, I thought these people were supposed to be acting in a loving way, what are they? What are they doing? Why are they treating people this way? And that people will definitely get turned off. So yes, hypocrisy really turns people off. We haven't gotten to look at it that much in our work, but it's a big thing that is a major reason that people will become disenchanted with religion.
Sucheta Kamath: So maybe, can you talk us a little talk a little bit about how you study this in a lab? And how do you invoke spiritual or experiences, and maybe share with us some of your work that way?
Dr. Julie Exline: So our research is not primarily lab based. So we don't try to invoke struggles for people. Usually, I'm not, I'm not primarily an experimental researcher. So we do more survey research. So we have a measure called the religious and spiritual struggles scale, that has 26 items that that has questions like about the different domains I was just mentioning. So over the last month, to what extent have you felt angry at God, or had doubts about your religious or spiritual beliefs and we just, we do a lot of questionnaire research and we would connect people's scores on the religious and spiritual struggles scale with their scores on other things. So you know, they could they could be attitudes toward other groups, or they could be questions about your own mental health or how much you're thinking about leaving religion, how you view God, you know, all we just try to connect a lot of different things. So but our research is primarily survey oriented. I, I have done a few projects in the past where we had people like think of a time when they felt like God played some role in suffering. And then had him like try to write a letter to God or something. It's kind of an experimental manipulation. So you can see we're kind of trying to get people to get angry at God or think about what they might want to say to God. But in general, our work isn't using those kinds of experimental methods. I feel like people are having enough spiritual struggles. I don't need to induce more Yeah,
Sucheta Kamath: yeah, it might get you a little bit a feeling bad about, you know, treating your people in a poor ways as they think about their struggles and experience at the same time.
Dr. Julie Exline: Yeah, there's always a place for great experimental work. It's just, that hasn't been my primary area of, of training or special skill. My experiments never work. So.
Sucheta Kamath: So I do have a question about surface, how, I'm sure you have some methods, but sometimes people don't have access to what they think they think. Right? So is there some design in the way you evaluate service where people may think that way, but they may not actually act that way. Or they may not even know what they think until they're asked? How does? How do you as a researcher compensate for that? That's a sidebar, by the way.
Dr. Julie Exline: Those are, those are really challenging issues that every survey researcher has to deal with. Because people aren't always sure what they're thinking or feeling. And of course, people will be in a hurry when they're filling things out. Or they might even be motivated to not talk about certain things. So for example, in our work with anger at God, which is probably the thing that I've studied the most, a lot of people think that anger toward God is morally wrong. So they might be reluctant to report it on a questionnaire. So even though we've seen that about two thirds of people in the US, report that they've been angry at God, it's probably an underestimate. Sometimes you can get at those things more if you were doing something like interviewing somebody. Or if you let people know ahead of time that a lot of people have felt angry at God, You say that like, right in the survey? How often have you felt this way? It kind of normalizes it. They used to do that in sex research, they knew that people would be shy about talking about their sexual behavior. So they would talk about these behaviors as though they were really common, and then just say, well, how often have you done this. So we sometimes have to do things to make people feel safe bringing these things up. And sometimes we can get different information. If we ask people to do something a little more open ended, like, maybe you didn't tell me that you were angry at God. But I'd like you to write a little note to God about how you feel about this situation where you were let down. And then we can go back and kind of look at what words they used and maybe rate how much negative emotion there seemed to be in there. There are ways like that you can get around it. Other researchers might do things like have people think about some incident where God might have been involved with some suffering, and they might look at their blood pressure, or something like that. So there's a I'm not a psychophysiological researcher, so I don't do that work. But there are there ways like that, that you could find out. Or you could maybe look at people's facial expressions when they're talking about it. And see if they they're saying that everything's fine, but they look like they're gonna cry. Very hard to do that in a survey, obviously.
Sucheta Kamath: Yes. So. Wow. So um, you know, as Can we talk a little bit about anger at God itself, then? Sure. So we get angry when the we receive unfair treatment to say, right, or we are misunderstood or mis judged. And so when there's nobody to blame, or know, when, for example, your house gets flooded, you can't really blame a person, but you can blame the flood. So now you start looking at who is the larger entity operating this whole machinery, right? So can you and how did you even get interested in thinking about this?
Dr. Julie Exline: I got interested in studying anger at God, because this is back about 20 years ago, there was there was a growing body of research starting to suggest that religion is good for you, you know, if you are religious, you'll live longer if you're religious, you'll be less depressed. And I felt like as somebody who had been raised in a very religious household, but had struggled around it, I felt like the struggle angle wasn't being captured. And at the time, I was just getting into doing research on forgiveness, which was quite new, in terms of empirical research at the time, this is in the late 90s. But this I thought, Well, what about when people get angry at God as opposed to another person? I wonder how much work has been done on that. So it was just an area that hadn't been studied very much. And that's how I got into doing work in that area. And what we find with that is that you might think that people would only get angry at God in response to things like natural disasters, like you're saying, where you couldn't possibly blame another person. And it is true people will get sometimes angry at God in those situations. A lot of times with natural disasters, people are more likely to feel like God's punishing them. You know, God's punishing our country for not being faithful. All. But people often get angry at God for things even if another person is involved. So people might get angry at God for atrocities that were committed during the Holocaust or the or for their partner leaving them or for a parent abusing them. In a lot of those cases, the logic is, Well, God allowed this to happen rather than God actually caused it. And because people, people might feel like God can affect all kinds of events, it could even be small daily events that make people angry or are frustrated with God, no, anger is a strong word, a lot of people are going around kind of irritated or annoyed with God, you know, rather than raging at God. And it could just be some little things like, you know, rain on your wedding day. I remember one of the we had the study where we had people writing letters to God, and one of the people who was most angry and was just raging and swearing at God in this letter was somebody who had to come to our university for undergrad when he wanted to go to MIT. So it doesn't take a catastrophe for somebody to get angry at God. People can attribute all kinds of things to God.
Sucheta Kamath: But still, is there like a notion that there's unseen, like you mentioned, you know, this, God allowed this to happen? That means there's some something some entity that's supervising fairness and justice in the world. And when I am a recipient of unfair, undeserving unfairness, then I turn to that source and say, What?
Dr. Julie Exline: Right, yes, great, I'm glad you reminded me of that. That theme of unfairness, unfair suffering, unfair things happening to you as an individual or to other people, the presence of evil in the world? Why is God allowing this? Or why did God cause certain things to happen? That sense of unfairness is what, as you said earlier, that's what often makes us angry at other people. And it's what tends to make people feel angry at God too. Sometimes, there's also just, you know, like impatience why, why is this taking so long? Or why? Why? Why is it you know, I'm not sure that I can trust you to come through in this situation. So there's a variety of negative feelings like anger, mistrust, impatience, annoyance, that often kind of get wrapped up together.
Sucheta Kamath: And, you know, as I'm thinking about this undeserving unfairness towards or I've been targeted by God, there's also kind of very, at least from Hindu faith, I can say, there's almost some attitude of deservingness, I deserve things to go well, for me. And at least in my faith practice, what we work every day on is, you know, because we are human beings, nothing is guaranteed. And to think that there's some something you have done special, or in some ways your special is kind of not the right way to think about your life as a gift. Do you have any thoughts about that?
Dr. Julie Exline: Yes, yes, I'm so glad that you raised that. Because so when we looked at personality factors that predict somebody getting angry at God, the same thing that predicts a lot of other inner like anger between people is a huge predictor. It's called psychological entitlement. Yes, for narcissistic entitlement. So this sense that I deserve better and things should go my way. And it can easily translate into an idea that God owes me. So as Josh Grubbs, who used to work with me, and is now at Bowling Green, he did his dissertation on this idea of divine entitlement, this idea that God owes me. And of course, that's a huge predictor of anger at God, in general, people who go around with a sense of entitlement tend to be angry, unhappy people. So I'm really, really glad that you raised that we've got quite a bit of literature on that point.
Sucheta Kamath: You know, it's, it's such an if you allow me to indulge, there's two concepts in Hindu daily practice, at least, as part of my spiritual growth that I'm working on. It's called guru Krupa. And Guru Itsha. So Guru Krupa. Krupa means divine blessings. That's why it's happening, whatever is happening to you, if it's favorable to your own desires, that's because of blessings and Guru he means it is the will of God. So if something is not going per plan, that is the will of God so that something down the road doesn't go further array or our you know, haywire or maybe because something else may be in The in the works that you are unaware of. So anything that comes that's not favorable, you just say I accept anything that goes great. You say thank you.
Dr. Julie Exline: Yeah, that's, that's wonderful. I mean, for people who believe in God, those kinds of strategies can be fantastic, we actually have a whole line of research now on gratitude to God that we're just getting started. So that's something I'm really excited about. And the idea of something being God's will. Sometimes people find that comforting, and sometimes they don't, I think a lot of it has to do more with your view of God. And whether you think that God is ultimately love or benevolent, and has your best interests at heart, or if God is being kind of authoritarian, or maybe punishing, and it's like my way or the highway, you know, so this idea of accepting things as God's will, that can work pretty well, if you if you really feel like you can totally trust God, and like, God loves you, you love God, you're then you're kind of willing to surrender that control, and say, I trust you that this is going to work out for the best. And if people are able to do that, obviously, these, that type of religious coping is going to help them stay close to God, and it's going to help them feel better. But it's if you impose that idea of it's all part of a bigger plan, or it's God's will, on people who are really hurting, say people who are bereaved, for example, it can be very wounding, because when something bad happens, it might not be comforting, comforting to hear. Oh, you know, I'm sorry that your daughter just died. But God needed another flower for his garden or something. You know, people will say things like this to bereaved people and ends up being really unhelpful, because it's like, Well, why would God want? What Why is this part of God's plan? This makes God look cruel. Yes. So God's will is great if if you're really feeling great about God.
Sucheta Kamath: You know, I've studied, you know, as a religious student of a religion, particularly Hindu religion, and also, I'm familiar with Andrew Newberg, work, you know, but Abrahamic faith versus Eastern faith. So God is an I'm not very familiar. So I shouldn't be speaking confidently about that. But Abrahamic religion, God is portrayed as with all power that may have you may might be subjected to God's wrath, as well as God's blessings. But in the Eastern religion, God is compassionate and God is loving. And is that something? How does that fit with your research or your findings,
Dr. Julie Exline: we really want to do more work within Eastern traditions, but the focus on compassion and connectedness is often my in my understanding, a big part of the Eastern traditions. But most faiths, when you get up to what we sometimes I'm thinking of James Fowler, here, who talked about these levels of spiritual development, when you get past this idea of just seeing God is being a punishing parent, or somebody who says your inner you're out, and you're able to get to a level where you're thinking of God, you know, more of a way that involves this loving connection with ultimate reality and with each other, then most religions really start looking a lot the same. So on their more mystical ends, you have Islam, Judaism, Christianity, start looking a lot more similar to what a lot of what we hear from the Eastern traditions where there's more open to, there's more openness to things like mystical experiences, often more belief in a very connected afterlife, the idea that everything and everyone is connected and love is at the center. Obviously, people have had things like near death experiences often really ADD to this literature. So there gets to be more of a focus on consciousness that connects us and love connecting us. But, but for a lot of people who are in the monotheistic faiths, there can be this tendency to what we call anthropomorphize meaning, meaning that we see God as being maybe a little too humans, and tend to see God as just being like a parent, or a judge, or, you know, maybe like a random number generator or something. You know, it could be, even if even seeing God as a friend could be kind of limiting. So when you're seeing God in this human way, it can seem more personal, for better and for worse, because then you can project all your human positive and negative thoughts. To God, if you're seeing this as this relationship, and if you're seeing God in this more cosmic way, that's not as personal, that might, in some cases, not give as many warm, warm fuzzies. But it might also lead to less of a sense that God is going to be angry at your or judge you. So we bring our psychologies, you know our individual personalities into these situations, and then try to integrate this with all that we're taught about God. And hopefully, as we go through life, we'll be able to see things through a more and more connected viewpoint. That's the place that seems to, you know, that seems to do the best things for people. That's a very long answer. Sorry.
Sucheta Kamath: So, no, that's great. That's so great. So my question is, do we really need God to be directed to behave in the most righteous ways and in ways to promote our own selves to higher plane, so to speak, so that we not only or, instead of selfish ways we become enlightened self interest ways? Paul, can those who are atheist, can they accomplish that too?
Dr. Julie Exline: Absolutely. One of the arguments that I just strongly disagree with is this idea that you have to have a belief in God in order to be a moral and loving person. I think that for some people, their moral code comes from trying to follow God and they believe that God is loving. So that is very true for many people. But I believe that what you need to be a loving and moral person is to believe in in love. And to believe in the importance of, of caring for other people, and for animals and for our planet, and really relating in this loving way. And to the extent that we can really value others and ourselves so that we can like keep ourselves alive and not, you know, like take care of ourselves, to the extent that we're able to orient our values in a direction that is benefiting others in a way that fits with our personality and our energy, and the things that we're good at doing. You know, I think that's a thriving human being. And for many people, they might see God as the source of this love that I'm talking about, or God actually being this love that I'm talking about. But some people don't see it that way. And to say that you have to believe in God, especially if people have this image, you know, this anthropomorphic image of God, like, I have to believe in the, you know, this, this certain view of God, I have, I have to believe, for Christians in the, you know, the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, God, I just don't think that it's realistic to impose that on people. And I don't think either that a belief in God is going to guarantee that somebody is going to have good values, you know, people could believe in God, and then just assume that God is on their side, and God loves their group and hates other groups, and it's just gonna send other people to hell. And, you know, God, stuff can really guide beliefs can go very wrong. So if the god beliefs aren't pointing somebody toward love, because I'm a little less excited about them.
Sucheta Kamath: I just love that you captured this essence of this way of being is, is you know, to be most moral and loving person, God is a reflection of that, then you can make use of God, but otherwise that can itself be guiding principle of life. So I don't want to leave without talking about the most important parts of your work, which is, as you can people. First of all, this struggle that you talked about is, can feel very private, but your work shows that we need to not only address it, but we need to acknowledge it as a community. So can you talk a little bit about what are the benefits of revealing these spiritual struggles? Or disclosing them to others or even maybe building a dialogue around it? How can that benefit us?
Dr. Julie Exline: Yeah, thank you for asking that. Well, being able to disclose to tell somebody that you're having a spiritual struggle of any kind, can be so valuable, but you do sometimes have to be careful with whom you share. Because sometimes, so we did a study on again, just going back to anger at God, people who'd had some anger at God, and had told somebody about it. Most people said that they had gotten reasonably supportive responses, the person said, you know, I felt that way sometimes too, or they said that it was, it seemed reasonable to feel that way they were understanding. But about half the people also got at least a little bit of a judging or disapproving response, you know, feeling like maybe you shouldn't feel that way or feeling kind of, like it wasn't acceptable, or that they were going to be criticized for disclosing that they felt anger at God, you know, basically, that's, that's wrong, you shouldn't talk that way. And if people to the extent that people got supportive responses, so if I'm angry at God, and I tell you that I'm angry at God, and you say, you know, I felt that way too, or a lot of people feel that way, people were actually more able to feel close to God after that, and to feel like the struggle they were having had benefited their faith. But if they got that judgment, or that sense of disapproval, they were more likely to try to suppress the anger, which we know, you know, cognitively is it takes a lot of energy, they were more likely to stay angry, they were more likely to disengage from God completely, like walk away from the relationship, and they were more likely to abuse substances. So a big take home point there is you might tell somebody, that you're having a spiritual struggle. And if you get any kind of a shaming response, tried to talk to someone else, because you need to know that these struggles are extraordinarily common, even anger at God, which is one of the least socially acceptable struggles. We had the study, were about two thirds of people said that they had sometimes felt that way. And remember, that's probably an under report. So this is really common, while part of the human experience. So if I think my bigger my bigger advice there, I mean, so finding somebody you can talk to is great. And being honest with yourself that you're having the struggle is important. We do have research, that Carmen Torski first author showing that if you're having a struggle, pushing it away, doing what we call experiential avoidance, and not wanting to go there not wanting to deal with it was associated with all kinds of anxiety, depression, stress. So it's good to at least let yourself know that you're having a struggle, maybe journal about it, talk to yourself about it, try to talk to a safe person. But my bigger tip is, if somebody tells you that they're having a struggle, please say something like, you know, I, I think that a lot of people feel that way. Or I can understand how you might feel that way, please don't make them feel like it's bad to have the struggle, because that really can be tough on people and can really cause them to retreat and feel shame around it, which then is just going to have, it's going to create other problems. So if somebody has the courage to tell you about your struggle, please just try to be there with them, and accept them and show love to them in that moment. And you don't have to fix it. These are ultimate questions about reality. Nobody has the perfect answers for these things here, you don't have to give them some theological solution, just express that you care and that you're listening. And that's gonna be probably the best thing you can do.
Sucheta Kamath: I love that message. You know, and I work with many children, adolescents and adults with executive dysfunction. And I see this very applicable to particularly parents who are trying to find reasons why this is happening to them. And very few times this has come up, but parents have said, you know, I'm so upset with the why is this happening to me? You know, why am I being punished? And so I can see this, really creating a great sense of acceptance, that the struggle is not permanent. And also not You're not the only one who struggles,
Dr. Julie Exline: right? Yes, yes. And, and, and for people who do believe in God, that belief that God is punishing you with negative events is common, but it also tends to be linked with more depression and anxiety. If for people who do believe in God, to be able to think of what might be a broader meaning, or how might God be trying to help me grow through this situation, is at least emotionally going to be more productive than assuming that God is punishing you?
Sucheta Kamath: Hmm. Well, I think this is so fantastic. So as we end this conversation, one of the things I wanted to kind of say, ask you is do people these days, believe in the devil, and particularly, there's so much chaos that we experience every day, we hear news About unsavory behaviors of others. How do you suggest that we, you know, how might strong beliefs about demonic involvement pose problems in people's lives?
Dr. Julie Exline: I'm really excited to talk about this, because that's not talked about enough. So not as many people believe in the devil or evil spirits as in God, but it's still, the majority of the US population are going to hold some belief in the devil and in, in, in hell. And sometimes these beliefs can work in a person's life. So let's say that you want to get angry at God, you don't want to get angry at God for something, you can blame the devil, sometimes believing that the devil is tempting us can help to keep people on track, you know, I don't want to be tempted to drink. So if they think of the devil causing the temptation, it's kind of like they have an enemy to fight against. So I'm not trying to say that the those the demonic beliefs are always problematic. But there's a lot of evidence that if people feel like the devil is tempting them, attacking them, oppressing them, that that tends to be associated with a lot of emotional distress, because it's, you feel like you're a victim, you know, being attacked. But I think the bigger thing is when we start to see the devil operating through other people, and this is a really dangerous problem. So and it's something that we see today, with, for example, the Q anon belief system that is out there, this idea that people are worshipping the devil, having, you know, going through satanic rituals, maybe people, it'd be very easy to say something like, oh, people who disagree with me politically, are actually under the devil's control. And these beliefs are actually very common in the US today. And the real danger here is that if you start to believe that somebody else is following the devil, worshipping the devil, or even if even if they're not worshiping, that they're under the devil's influence, it's very easy to dehumanize those people and to start to see them as mortal enemies, and maybe even go to the level of well, you know, I don't like them, but maybe have prejudice against them. In some cases, I know I'm talking really extreme here. But maybe, if you really think that these people are basically just instruments of the devil, you might feel like they You have every right to destroy them. And that that would be the morally good thing to do. So you want to talk about some dangerous beliefs, this belief that the devil is coming in and speaking through and working through people that you happen to disagree with, I think is extraordinarily dangerous. Whereas just thinking oh, the devils tempting me to, to lie or to harm someone, that type of belief might end up helping some people with their self regulation. I know that was an intense, so interesting.
Sucheta Kamath: No, no, this is so um, honestly, I had not thought about that way of framing things until I read your work, and then also have heard you speak and it's so interesting, it's the highest form of the other thing, you know, it's just how we make people believe that they are so different from us, that and so unacceptably different, that treating them or dehumanizing them is the right way to be because it's activating your righteous anger and nothing potent than righteous anger. Right?
Dr. Julie Exline: Not only righteous anger, let's talk about talk about profound disconnection. How could we alienate ourselves from each other more than to assume that other people are instruments of evil?
Sucheta Kamath: Wow, that is too much. Well, Julie, this has been nothing but fantastic conversation, you have given not only guidelines for us to think about a role of you know, divine presence in our lives, but also it having such an influential role. Or it can steer us to in the direction where we can do right by ourselves and others as we end this discussion. Would you mind sharing with our audience, what are some of the readings that have influenced your thought process? Can you recommend some books for us?
Dr. Julie Exline: Sure. One that I have been looking at a lot recently, is by Whitehead and Perry, Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry called, Taking America Back for God. It gets at the issue of Christian nationalism in the United States, and how these beliefs that God is on our side, and that our country is supposed to be better than other countries and set up to be following God and that we have to make sure we're following God. If people aren't careful, those beliefs can feed into a lot of these interpersonal problems of being afraid of outsiders, sometimes some prejudice, sometimes some judgmental attitudes. That's one. Another one that has really affected me lately is by Bruce Grayson from the University of Virginia called After he's really the world's pioneering researcher of Near Death Experiences. This is a combination of a research review and wonderfully written memoir, all about near death experiences and their implications for how we understand the afterlife consciousness each other. It's it's just fantastic. Wow. And then there's a book, Universal Christ by Richard Rohr. So for people who are coming from the Christian tradition, but struggle with this anthropomorphic view of God and wonder if there's a way to think more about God in terms of universal love within Christianity. That book is one entry point. There's a variety of good books, but that's one entry point into that conversation.
Sucheta Kamath: Well, all right, that's all the time we have today. Thank you again, Julie, for being our guest here today. sharing your wisdom and really, really showing a side of our human experience that is not a commonplace discussion when we think about raising children being effective human beings, and creating communities where we can all belong with peace and joy, but most importantly, love in our hearts, as you can see, everyone, these are important conversations we're having with our knowledgeable and incredibly qualified and passionate experts with unique perspectives on executive function. So please stay in touch if you love what you're listening, share with your friends and colleagues. And definitely if you have a moment, leave us a review. Once again, thank you for joining everybody on this episode of Full PreFrontal and until next stay well be well.