My research examines the role of relational spirituality in youth, migration, and health contexts. It broadly coalesces around three central themes: religion, place, and health. Over the past few years, I have explored these themes from perspectives of psychology, geography, and theology. My interest has been to examine how place experiences can help us to better understand religion and spirituality in the contemporary context of multicultural and multi-faith societies. I am also interested in the health implications of the interplay of religion and place. My argument has been that we cannot understand religion and spirituality without considering how place events and the lived experience of individuals in a place may play a vital role in their religious devotion and involvement. I am currently drawing up plans and writing grant proposals to advance research initiatives on “place spirituality” and “religious psychopathology” across cultures and traditions due to the dearth of empirical research in these fields. Ultimately, my research interests have focused on certain key areas in the psychology of religion. These include: “relational spirituality,” “place spirituality,” “measurement of spirituality/religiosity,” “religious psychopathology,” “religious-related health outcomes,” “youth identity crisis and faith formation,” and “integration of psychology and theology.” These research interests are explained in detail below.
All my research publications have contributed to the study of relational spirituality in the psychology of religion, in that they extend the conceptualization of spirituality into the domain of intimate relationships that involve attachment to God, subjective religiosity, relational psychoanalysis, an interplay between God and self, and the intersection of people-place and believer-God relationships. Since most of the empirical studies conducted in the area of relational spirituality have focused on North American Christian population, my work has expanded the relational spirituality approach to religion to include the experiences of other cross-cultural contexts. For example, I have conducted research on relational spirituality in relation to Christian millennials in South Africa, African diaspora population in the Netherlands, and African Christian residents in Australia. Currently, I am working on a book that introduces diaspora religion as a relational spirituality, titled: “ African Diaspora Religion in Psychodynamic Perspective: Theory, Research, and Health Implications. ” In the coming years, I hope to develop helpful cross-cultural measurements and methodologies for effectively assessing this form of spirituality.
My research on relational spirituality has led me to consider place as an essential locus of human experience influencing spirituality and the byproduct of emotional attachment to God. Place experiences can take different forms (e.g. place attachment, place identity, place dependence) and each of these experiences play different roles in spiritual development. In some of my recent papers (e.g. see publications), I have argued that socio-cultural inequities, and significant place events, experienced by individuals in a particular geographic setting could lead to developing a sense of spirituality or attachment to a divine entity as a source of hope, security, and comfort. I have also demonstrated in a recent publication that place spirituality is not only a contemporary phenomenon but an ancient reality, even in biblical times (Counted & Watts, 2017). In the next couple of years, I hope to expand this area of study and develop measurement tools and more robust theoretical frameworks and ethnographic studies that would establish place spirituality as an important area in the study of religion. I am currently finalizing a book on place spirituality titled, “Religion, Place, and Psychology: An introduction to the circle of place spirituality.”
As an essential component in a field of social scientific study of religion, the ability to reliably measure indicators of spirituality/religiosity show the advancement in the study of religion and possibly, what the future of research in religion and theology may look like. To this end, I have demonstrated how indicators of spirituality/religiosity can be assessed in most of my recent papers (see publications), and how this may help enrich the study of religion. I am currently working on developing new measures for assessing various forms of relational spirituality, place spirituality, and religious psychopathology.
The study of religious psychopathology is probably one of the understudied topics in the psychology of religion. I am hoping to advance research in this area in the coming years by drawing on other psychological perspectives to supplement research in religious psychopathology. I recently published an introductory theoretical paper (see publications) on the topic titled “Attachment Theory and Religious Violence”, thus arguing that religious attachment disruptions might increase the risk of adult religious psychopathology. I am definitely passionate about this topic and hope to continue research in this area by collaborating with a variety of scholars who may help in developing the area further; with study outcomes having significant benefits in terms of addressing issues of terrorism and religious conflicts. Deserving special mention is examining how pathological personality traits (e.g., the Dark Triad Traits) may further explain religious psychopathology.
As a researcher specializing in religion and place, I am also particularly interested in how both religious and place experiences are related to subjective well-being and health outcomes. This was the particular direction I took in my research at Western Sydney University as I investigated the net effects of “Place Attachment and Attachment to God (Spirituality) on Quality of Life Outcomes.” I hope to further continue to explore how my research themes (e.g. relational spirituality, place spirituality, religious psychopathology) may be associated with improvements and declines in health outcomes in different cross-cultural and clinical contexts.
I am very passionate about young people. Youth identity crisis was the topic I investigated for my Master of Philosophy (M.Phil) degree at the University of Stellenbosch and I have published about seven papers on this topic (see publications). In my previous research, I have conceptualised youth identity crisis as the search for a reliable attachment surrogate and the battle for authenticity (staying true to self). However, I am hoping to develop this framework further and incorporate other ways young people may be experiencing identity crisis in their day-to-day lives in relation to their faith formation process. I believe that studying the experiences of black youths would be germane to this topic, as this would provide additional insights into the dynamics of identity crisis and faith formation among youths in the inner cities.
I have had an ongoing interest in the dialogue between psychology and theology, and some of my work demonstrate this integration. Part of the reason why I am interested in this area is partly because of my background in theology. I hope to continue in the same light of integrating psychology and theology while at the same time demonstrating scientific integrity through my research and bridging the two “long lost friends.” I have demonstrated how this integration is possible in my recent paper with Fraser Watts on “Place Attachment in the Bible” , which is an attempt to integrate an environmental psychological theory and biblical theology. I am also very much interested in practical theology and how to develop theologies for/of spiritual care, especially for people experiencing spiritual struggles and those questioning the very foundations of their life in relation to meaning, purpose, or value. This has led me to articulate some theologically-based answers on how to respond to psychological issues in spiritual care. For example, I have weighed in on such issues in my “missional hermeneutic of care” and “pastoral theology of juxtaposition” (see publications). Essentially, my aim is to find ways that both psychology and theology could supplement each other: how theology can help researchers to better understand psychology and how psychological theories can offer additional insights to theological concepts.