The Body as a Symbol for Religion

By: Patty Van Cappellen  

Research in psychology suggests that our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are influenced by not only our mind but also our body's experiences (e.g., posture). Across religions, worshippers adopt specific postures that may not simply be arbitrary customs but instead be closely intertwined with their religious experience. In this talk, I discuss empirical data on worship and prayer postures adopted by Christians in the U.S. In a first study, 682 Christian church attendees completed a questionnaire after a Sunday service. I present data showing the variety of postures adopted during that Sunday service and the purported meanings attributed to them. I also show that the postures participants reported adopting at service were related to their emotions, prayer orientations, and perceptions of God during that service. Specifically, reports of using more postures that are expansive and directed upwards were related with more positive emotions and praise whereas using more postures that are constrictive and directed downward were related with feeling closer to God and confession. Then, across two experimental studies, we investigated whether assuming two common religious postures would influence people's emotions. Results consistently revealed that participants asked to adopt an up-oriented religious posture (gaze is up, hands are raised) reported more positive emotions than participants asked to adopt a down-oriented religious posture (gaze is down, hands are folded). This research stands to document the understudied links between postures and religious experience, placing the locus of religion beyond the mind or the brain: in the full body.

Psychology Ritual Body
2019 Special Focus—Universal Religious Symbols: Mutual Influences and Specific Relationships
Paper Presentation in a Themed Session

Patty Van Cappellen

Ph.D., Social Science Research Institute, Duke University, United States
United States