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James Meredith Day
Cognitive Complexity, Human Development, and Religious Influence in Moral Problem-Solving: Empirical Evidence and some Implications for Human Evolution


What ought to be the goals of human development, and what role does cognitive development play in helping us move toward them? Is it possible to map human development, and to chart the “best-case” endpoints, and purposes of human growth in ways that are empirically verifiable? Can we speak in any generic way about religious or spiritual development, or must we limit our observations to what occurs and is described in particular religious traditions and spiritual practices? How does religion influence thinking about moral issues and affect moral conduct? Is it true, as ardent critics of religionists assert, that people who otherwise demonstrate a capacity to think critically retreat from doing so when religion becomes a factor in decision-making, and especially where moral problem-solving is concerned? Does the presence of religious authority “dampen” or “dumb down” the ability of people to reason their ways through complex moral problems?

These questions are amongst those theologians, philosophers, and, more recently, social scientists, especially psychologists, have sought to understand and address. They are of consequence to how individuals, small groups, nations, and humankind manage different resources available in the long history of human religious experience, and the ways we will, or will not, live creatively together in a religiously diverse and intensely religious and highly secularized world. It behooves us to know what science may contribute to such a predicament. It may not be an exaggeration to suggest that the future of human evolution will in large measure develop in relation to our relative wisdom or ignorance in this domain.

If we would do well to consider contributions from science that would help us better appreciate how religion interacts with moral problem-solving, and how it provides sustenance to, or detracts, from our ability to manage complex features of life in a richly diverse, and multi-religious, multi-perspective world, what current domains of enquiry offer the most rigorous working out of relationships amongst philosophical and epistemological presuppositions, development of research questions, articulation of pertinent research methods, accurate appraisal of data generated in research activity, ample discussion of related implications, and careful drawing of conclusions? In this paper, we hold that at least two bodies of current work, with roots in respected paradigms of scientific endeavor, might contribute to our understanding.

The first of these comes in the psychology of human development, and more particularly, from the Piagetian and neo-Piagetian traditions, especially Kohlbergian models, in the psychology of faith development and religious judgment development, and their relationships to the psychology of moral development shaped by the work of scholars such as Piaget, Goldman, Kohlberg, Fowler, Oser, Reich, Streib, and Day. This paper offers a careful look at the strengths and weaknesses of the theoretical models involved, twenty-five years of quantitative and qualitative research testing related questions, and recenttesting of supposed relationships between the psychology of religious development, and the psychology of moral development, including links between religious and moral reasoning, and studies of how religious elements operate in the making of moral decisions (for a concise review, see Day, 2007, 2008)

The second set of scientific contributions comes from very recent work using the Model of Hierarchical Complexity, a model of human development rooted at once in the insights of developmental psychology, cognitive and information science, evolutionary biology, and mathematics, (especially in its use of Rasch Analytic methods). The MHC improves on Piagetian models of cognitive development in its description of the nature, limits, mechanisms and processes which characterize development, offers greater rigor in the measurement of cognitive complexity in relationship to the resolution of increasingly complex series of tasks, provides clearer appraisals of what constitute meaningful increments in human growth in cognitive competence, and offers greater precision in the development of interventions for the promotion of development. Current research has shown that the interplay of cognitive complexity, religious commitment, and type of authority privileged in religious context scan, but need not result in people retreating from cognitive capacity when religious elements are introduced to problem-solving situations, especially moral ones, except in higher-level structures of reasoning, where researchers have urged a high continuity across religious and non-religiously characterized dilemmas and the way research participants attempt to solve them. This research helps understand and explain how some people capable of sophisticated cognitive strategies in problem-solving in “religiously neutral” domains move downwards in hierarchical complexity when confronted with situations in which religious authority is invoked and problems, especially moral problems, are thought to be of religious consequence. This recent research has proven to be of interest to scholars in a number of disciplines, including those working in the theory of evolution, theology, moral education, biblical studies, clinical and developmental psychology (see Day, in press).

The paper concludes with a careful assessment of implications for human communication, moral and religious development, human problem-solving, and the future of human evolution in an interdependent, pluralistic, world.

James Meredith Day is a Professor in the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, at the Universite catholique de Louvain, Belgium, in the Psychology of Religion Research Center, and the Research Center for Well-being, Mental Health, and Developmental Psychology.  He was recently elected Co-Editor of the Archiv fur Religionspsycologie: The Journal of the International Association for the Psychology of Religion.  He is also a Priest, ordained in the Church of England, serving the Pro-Cathedral of The Holy Trinity, Brussels; and a Consulting Psychologist at the Center for Neuropsychiatry and Psychotherapy, Brussels.

Educated at Oberlin, Harvard, Pennsylvania, and Cambridge, he has been a Visiting Scholar and Visiting Lecturer at Amsterdam, Cambridge, Columbia, Cornell, Frankfurt, Glasgow, Harvard, London, Paris, Porto, Princeton, and Utrecht.  His work has appeared in numerous journals, including American Psychologist, Adult Developments: The Bulletin of the Society for Research in Adult Development; Human Development, the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, the Journal of Moral Education, World Futures: The Journal of General Evolution, and many others.  He is author and co-author of six books and monographs, including R. Mosher, D. Youngman, & J. Day (Eds.)  2006 (2nd Edition).  Human Development Across the Lifespan: Educational and Psychological Implications (Praeger/Greenwood).


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