posted February 5, 2013

Research to Focus on Tension between Meaning Systems

Daryl Van Tongeren

The role that the desire for meaning plays in the tension between scientific and religious belief is the focus of a new multi-institutional research project led by Hope College psychologist Dr. Daryl Van Tongeren that has received support from the John Templeton Foundation of Pennsylvania.

The two-year project, “Making and Defending Meaning: Understanding and Reducing Tension between Scientific and Religious Meaning Systems,” has received a $79,902 grant from the foundation.  Van Tongeren is the principal investigator for the project, which includes researchers and consultants from Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Texas and Rochester Institute of Technology.

The researchers are considering science and religion as meaning systems that provide answers for pressing life questions and a sense of existential security.  The team intends to explore the degree to which individuals’ desire for such security—which they describe as a hallmark of well-being—negatively affects their response to differing views.

“We propose to study how the human motivation for meaning may impair objective evaluation of information and elicit defensiveness in the face of competing world views,” said Van Tongeren, an assistant professor of psychology at Hope.

The team will also investigate how affirmation in other areas of life might provide enough of a sense of security to affect how individuals respond to different meaning systems and those who hold competing views.

“If affirming meaning reduces biases, we would expect to see improved dialogue and intergroup interaction among individuals holding differing beliefs, as well as greater openness to information that is inconsistent with their views,” Van Tongeren noted.

The survey work will focus on populations in Holland as well as in Richmond, Va., where Virginia Commonwealth University is located.  Van Tongeren, who joined the Hope faculty this past fall, completed his doctorate and post-doctoral work at the university, and the project’s research team includes his former graduate-school mentor.

The research project is already providing a collaborative research experience for Hope psychology students, who will begin to collect and analyze data for two related pilot studies this semester.  Students will continue to be involved as the project moves forward.

“I very much value the faculty-student collaborative research relationship that Hope encourages in our work,” Van Tongeren said.

Van Tongeren hopes that the two-year Templeton-funded project will be the beginning of a long-term area of inquiry.  He sees the potential to explore the same sorts of questions focused on other meaning systems.

“My hope is that this initial project will be used to springboard future work in this area,” he said.  “What about people in different religions—how can they have a dialogue with each other?  Or even people in the same religion but with different denominational beliefs?”