Behavior analysis and religion: Are you asking the right question? July 11, 2016

On the way to becoming behavior analysts, we might at first have been surprised to realize we were dragging along our personal histories. There may be little in these histories as personal as religion. Yes, we know it’s all learned, but so early and so often and so long. For many of us, it was prayers before bedtime, grace before meals, and Sundays defined by church. Religion pervaded our lives – and seemingly those of everyone we knew – in countless ways and like little else. And our religious convictions were almost sacrosanct. You could argue with someone about most anything but their religion; that was off limits in polite company and even among family and friends.

But then in graduate school, instead of looking at behavior the way our everyday culture had taught us, we learned to understand the science underlying how behavior really works and how to turn that into services that make meaningful differences in people’s lives. In between our courses in basic principles and methods and ABA procedures and such, we also learned that part of what it means to be a behavior analyst (Johnston, March 22, 2016) involves viewing not only the behavior of our clients but also our own behavior – gasp! – through a unique lens called radical behaviorism. And we were told that nothing was off limits and that there were no exceptions. There was nothing about behavior that could not and should not be analyzed in the terms of our science and the dialect of its philosophy.

A learning history

In my classes over the years, it was easy to see that the topic of religion was more uncomfortable for students than any other. Though some relished the challenge, most weren’t very enthusiastic about going there for fear of what they might discover upon breaching the wall around their religious repertoire. Perhaps they had the feeling that they wouldn’t be able to go back – or wouldn’t want to.

We know our religious repertoire is all learned, of that there’s no doubt. Just as we learn to talk about everything else, we learn to talk about religious matters. We learn about believing in God and saying our prayers. We learn from our family, from going to church, from our friends. The details are endless but straightforward. For behavior analysts, at least the basics of this assessment aren’t complicated.

The analysis doesn’t have to go very deep before the implications get a bit scary, however. If it were all learned, had we been born in a different family and culture our religious behavior would be different. We view our religious convictions as highly personal, but they no more belong to us than to those who taught them to us. Any what are religious beliefs anyway? As Box 8.2 points out, they are not really different from any of our other convictions, as discussed in Chapter 2. From a behavioral perspective, they’re not special – often just tacts of our own behavior. It may be difficult to equate a belief in a supreme being to more mundane convictions in our daily lives, but surely behavior analysts would not be tempted to invent a special behavioral category for religious beliefs.

So what’s left? Acknowledging the pervasive contribution of our learning history shouldn’t be taken as dismissive of a topic so dear to many of us. Much remains for discussion, such as the details of how these learning histories accumulate. And what about religious feelings, for example, such as the sensation of peacefulness when lost in prayer or a euphoric joy accompanying a religious ceremony? These possible physical correlates of our religious history must not be left out of the discussion.

What’s the harm?

It can be hard to let go of parts of our preprofessional history. Many still want to engage in the same religious behavior we found so comforting growing up and to build religious traditions in our family life. Does this conflict with our intellectual obligations as behavior analysts? Can we be both religious and good behavior analysts?

In a recent post (Johnston, May 13, 2016), I considered the matter of how we distinguish between our personal and professional selves. Most people who are highly trained in a field maintain a professional repertoire as needed and a personal repertoire the rest of the time. Behavior analysts have little choice but to do this, given that our professional repertoire is both obtuse and off-putting to normal mortals. So we talk to our dog in ways that would be inexcusable in a professional context and think nothing of it.

Is falling back on our religious repertoire any different? Isn’t going to church or saying grace before meals or engaging in prayer the same kind of bilingual license? Maybe, as long as we know what we’re doing. That is, if our professional dialect – the one bounded by radical behaviorism – is ever at the ready, it would seem that no harm is done. It’s when we don’t see the difference that there’s a problem. If you don’t understand how to look at religious behavior from a professional perspective, your training has some gaping holes. As I argue in the book, as well as some blog posts (Johnston, June 1, 2014; Johnston, August 18, 2015), these gaps come with consequences that can extend into the ability to delivery quality services.

The real question

The questions others might have about religious behavior are not necessarily troublesome to behavior analysts. After all, we understand where religious behavior comes from and how it evolves. For instance, we can discuss prayer as verbal behavior and analyze its origins and maintenance. We know how to look at religious verbal behavior without falling into a mentalistic morass. We understand what beliefs are and aren’t, and we can discuss religious issues such as the existence of God without all the heat that others may find difficult to avoid because we know we’re talking about verbal behavior.

Without threatening our credentials, we can also put our behavior analytic repertoire aside under many everyday circumstances – up to a point. This indulgence includes continuing a full array of well-established religious practices. Yes, real behavior analysts can “be” religious, at least as far as others are concerned. We can engage in a religious repertoire that is not apparently different from any one else’s, and as long as we’re careful to avoid slipping into our professional selves we should be safe.

What we must not do as behavior analysts is view our religious behavior as fundamentally different from our client’s behavior in any way. We must not consider it special or distinctive from any other aspect of our repertoire. We must appreciate that there are no questions about religion that are not about human behavior. In fact, the central question about religion for behavior analysts isn’t even about religion. It’s about how we understand behavior in general and verbal behavior in particular – ours specifically included. It’s important that we allow ourselves no quarter in understanding our religious convictions and practices in the context of operant science and from a radical behavioristic framework, and this perspective must in all respects trump colloquial explanations. To quote from my most recent post, “We may distinguish between professional and personal in our daily activities, and we can hope that others see a difference, but we know we’re faking it. We’re always behavior analysts” (Johnston, May 13, 2016).


Johnston, June 1, 2014. What I hear you saying.

Johnston, August 18, 2015. The meaning of meaning.

Johnston, March 22, 2016. What it means to be a behavior analyst.

Johnston, May 13, 2016. Do you distinguish between professional and personal?


Behavior analysis and religion: Are you asking the right question?

1 Comment

  1. Mike

    Thank you for this nicely done article. I see quite a bit of work that can be done with behavior analysis with regards to religion. As someone who studied religion and psychology as and undergraduate and went on to ABA in graduate school I felt fairly comfortable tackling goals and skills my clients requested I develop a plan for as it related to their personal religion. However, “Behavior analysis and religion” would be a great ethics sub-topic or “special interest” class in my opinion in ABA graduate coursework, to my knowledge is not apart of many curriculums or even lectures. I feel is important because for some families/clients certain ‘religious skills’ are just as important to be developed and mastered as are ADLs (Daily Living Skills) in which we typically tend to focus.


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Jim Johnston

Dr. Johnston received his doctorate from the University of Florida in 1970 and held faculty positions at Georgia State University, the University of Florida, and Auburn University. He has published both laboratory and field research with both human and non-human species on a variety of topics. He has longstanding interests in the area of developmental disabilities and founded the Master’s Program in Applied Behavior Analysis in Developmental Disabilities at Auburn University. He has served as editor of The Behavior Analyst and on the editorial boards of the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior and the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, among others. He has served as president of the Association for Behavior Analysis International, as well as for the Florida, Alabama, and Southeastern behavior analysis organizations, and was the first president of the Behavior Analysis Certification Board and the Association of Professional Behavior Analysts.

Behavior analysis and religion: Are you asking the right question? July 11, 2016