Religious teachings give their followers lessons about the world, life, the mind, emotions, and behaviors. Among other important things in human life, religions teach believers the proper ways to experience and express emotions (for a review, see Karandashev, 2021a). In another article, I talked about emotional experiences. Here I’ll talk about expressions of emotions in accordance with religious cultural lessons.
As I commented elsewhere, many religious cultures teach people moderation in emotional experiences and expressions. The question remains how believers do this. Do they suppress their emotions?
Religious Cultures of Emotional Moderation
Many religious cultures believe that very strong positive and negative emotions are distracting to people and their behaviors. They especially discourage the expression of socially disruptive emotions. This is why many religions teach emotional moderation.
Religions offer spiritual justifications and techniques for coping with the disruptive nature of emotions such as guilt, despair, and anger. For example, Christian and Jewish teachings have been around for a long time telling people how to control bad feelings like anger, pride, and envy (Schimmel, 1997).
Suppression of Emotions and Sublimation in Religion
According to classical Freudian psychoanalysis, religions teach them to suppress their emotions. Religious sublimation is a defense mechanism when a person re-channels his or her unacceptable emotional urges, transforming them into productive aspirations and divine religious beliefs. Researchers looked at how people’s suppression of anger may affect the sublimation of their emotions in experimental situations (Kim, Zeppenfeld, & Cohen, 2013; Tsai & Clobert, 2019). I just want to remind readers that sublimation is a psychological defense mechanism when a person unconsciously suppresses their socially unacceptable desires, transforming their energy into socially acceptable actions or creative behaviors.
Studies of Sublimation among Christian People
For example, Kim and co-authors conducted an original experimental study, inducing in participants certain kinds of suppressed emotional experiences and measuring their creativity in the following tasks they needed to perform.
To induce the emotional experiences, they asked Protestants, Catholics, and Jewish people to relive their past emotional experiences by thinking about certain emotional events in their lives. Specifically, researchers asked participants of these three kinds of religious beliefs to experience (1) an anger-provoking incident by suppressing their thinking about it; (2) an anger-provoking incident by suppressing thinking about a neutral topic; or (3) recall a neutral event and suppress thinking about a neutral topic (Kim, Zeppenfeld, & Cohen, 2013).
Then, researchers gave those Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant participants creative assignments, such as making a sculpture, creating captions for cartoons, or making a collage. They were interested in knowing how different types of emotional suppression affect the participants’ sublimation expressed in their creativity. Expert judges of the creative assignments assessed the productivity of completed products such as sculptures, collages, or captions for cartoons.
The results of this experimental study demonstrated that emotional suppression affected the creativity of participants in certain conditions, thus demonstrating a sublimation effect. However, the specific effects and creativity of the products that people completed under suppressed emotions varied across religious denominations. The suppression of anger had little effect on creativity among Jewish and Catholic participants. Yet, the suppression of an anger-provoking emotional experience among Protestants motivated more creative and angry products of art. Thus, the effects of sublimation by emotional suppression were partially established but to a different extent by religious denomination.
The Role of Religious Values in the Suppression of Emotions among Religious People
It is widely known that Christian and Islamic beliefs affect experiences and expressions of emotions differently. Muslims tend to be more reserved and suppressed in their emotions compared to Christians. For instance, it was a cultural premise that “countries with more Protestants show lower levels of positive emotions” (van Hemert et al., 2007, p.918). Another cultural assumption was that “countries with a higher percentage of Muslims show lower levels of general emotional expression” (van Hemert et al., 2007, p.918).
However, empirical studies found no support for these cultural beliefs associated with different religious groups. They showed different cultural tendencies (e.g., van Hemert et al., 2007; Veenhoven, 1994). Contrary to theoretical expectations, a meta-analysis of many cross-cultural studies discovered that people in countries with a higher proportion of Protestants report more positive emotions (van Hemert et al., 2007, p.918). Also, contrary to the researchers’ expectations, meta-analysis found that people in countries with a higher or lower percentage of Muslims do not significantly differ in emotional expressivity (van Hemert et al., 2007, p.918).
Higher orthodoxy in religion also makes many people reserved and suppressed in their expressions of emotions. Several studies have shown the importance of religious values in emotional experience and expression (Karandashev, 2021a). However, the meta-analysis of many cross-cultural studies did not support the hypothetical expectation that “countries with higher levels of religiosity may be more restrictive in their expression of emotions” (van Hemert et al., 2007, p.918). Contrary to some previous opinions, the findings of meta-analysis demonstrated that “expression of emotions and particularly positive emotions, was higher in more religious countries” (van Hemert et al., 2007, p.933). Based on these controversial results, more studies are needed to investigate the effect of religions on emotional expressivity of people.