Do you pass the test of public reason? (Ann Morisy)

Tuesday, 18 December, 2012

Ann Morisy asks whether you pass the test of public reason.

I like to keep an eye on what positive psychologists are up to because they are not theologians, pioneer ministers or busy running a fresh expression of church! 

I draw on insights from positive psychology so as to pass what John Rawls calls the 'test of public reason'. We keen Christians, in our efforts to commend our faith, fail in relation to the test of public reason because of the self-interest that enfolds our efforts at commendations.

Basically the test of public reason equates to the old adage that self-praise is no recommendation. In our secular world, where there are so many rival ways of making sense of the world, just asserting that 'I have found faith in Jesus to be a good thing' cuts little ice and most likely will result in a cynical response of 'So what?'

If our claims for the Gospel are to pass the test of public reason, then some kind of external proof or validation is needed. This is where positive psychology comes in. 

Positive Psychology is a new kid on the block. It dates from 2000 when Martin Seligman began a movement within psychology that focused on 'what works' to counter the preoccupation of psychology with mental ill health. Positive psychology seeks to 'discover and promote the factors that allow individuals and communities to thrive' (Positive Psychology Manifesto, Akumal II 2000, University of Penn Positive Psychology Center).

And so often the factors that play a positive part in people flourishing is people doing business with God.

Here are a few examples:

  • American researchers suggest that going to church once a week improves people's wellbeing equivalent to their salary being doubled (Cited in Life Satisfaction: The State of Knowledge and Implications for Government, published By The Prime Minister's Strategy Unit in December 2002).
  • The work of Dan Blazer and Erdman Palmore, Religion and Aging in a Longitudinal Panel, The Gerontologist, Vol 16 (1), 1976. This work has been regularly repeated by other researchers and on each occasion a positive experience of growing old is strongly linked with 'doing business with God'.
  • Religious experience has survival value ie. when people feel they are at rock bottom or in a sudden crisis from which they have no way out, the experience of God's 'alongsideness' enables people to 'dig deeper and hang in'. And particularly significantly, having once had a religious experience the person is invariably more open to the needs and fragility of others; Religious experience lessens the likelihood of 'authoritarianism' (i'e. assuming one is right and everyone else is wrong) and reassures that 'all will be well and all manner of things will be well'. (See David Hay, Something There, DLT, 2006).

Faith is good for young people. Who says?

  • John J Dilulio... regularly! Google 'John J Dilulio' 'Faith Factor' for more. Also take a look at the Religion and Social Policy website and Ronald J Sider, Heidi Rolland Unruh, Saving Souls, Serving Society, OUP, 2005.
  • Gwyther Rees, Leslie J Francis and Mandy Robbins with regards to urban 13 to 15-year-olds in England. Their 2006 report, Spiritual health and the well-being of urban young people, was published by the Commission on Urban Life and Faith, University of Wales (Bangor) and The Children's Society. It was based on analysis of questionnaires returned by 23,418 young people living in urban areas.

Copies of the report can be downloaded from The Children’s Society.This research has also been written up in more detail in Leslie J Francis, Mandy Robbins, Urban Hope and Spiritual Health: The Adolescent Voice, Epworth Press, 2006.

The following findings were noted in Spiritual health and the well-being of urban young people:

  • confirmation of lots of other research that having a sense of purpose is important to the flourishing of young people;
  • young people were more likely to have a sense of purpose if they
    • had a religious affiliation;
    • prayed regularly;
    • believed in eternal life.

Detailed analysis suggested that each of these three factors were independently related to 'sense of purpose' (ie. these three religious factors were not attributable to economic differences etc.).

Young people who were identified as having a religious affiliation and/or were regularly involved in prayer fared better than other young people on a number of different measures of wellbeing:

  • they will more likely to have a 'sense of purpose';
  • they will be more likely to have an active and constructive relationship with the community and the environment;
  • they will be more likely to have positive views towards ethnic diversity.

The independent significance of religious affiliation and prayer in relation to sense of purpose and overall wellbeing suggests that a strong spiritual dimension to young people's lives might act as a protective factor, promoting well-being and mitigating the impact of other factors such as poverty and family breakup.

References matter!

There's no apology for all the references. They might be tedious and not really in keeping with a blog, but these references are important because that is how to pass the test of public reason.

And more than this, they might be helpful to you as you put together funding applications for your new form of church or a project aiming to lead to one. You can make powerful claims for the positive impact of faith on people's wellbeing to potential funders – as long as it's not just you as the pioneer saying so!

About the author: 

Ann Morisy is a lecturer and writer.


A helpful and well-reasoned article. Thank you.

I have 2 of your books, unread, on my shelf, and your article has pushed them higher up my 'to read next' list.

Some good points made here but somewhere we also have to recognise that the Gospel is at times 'foolishness' I Corinthians 1 and it is incomprehensible but true that our God was contracted to a span. Charles Wesley

'Foolishness' relates to a specific context in understanding the relevance of the cross in our faith. It is not related to the importance of social relevance of our faith. Faith itself may be hard to understand (by definition?) but its outworkings surely have to be comprehensible to the outsider or we are constructing our own ghetto...??

Or re-educating the ghetto?

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