09/19/2013 08:46 am ET Updated Nov 19, 2013

Religious and Nonreligious Dreamers


In the recent issue of the journal Pastoral Psychology I published the results of a new study comparing the dream recall patterns of religious and nonreligious people in present-day America. I did a similar study in 2008 0f 705 demographically diverse American adults, with these results:

People who never attended worship services recalled more of every type of dream than people who attended worship services more than once a week. In other words, the most religious people remembered considerably fewer dreams than the least religious people. Dream recall frequency was highest among people at the nonobservant end of the religiosity spectrum.

This finding struck me as puzzling, in light of the many important roles that dreams have played in the world's religious traditions. I was expecting that more religiosity would correlate with more awareness of dreaming, but the opposite seemed to be the case.

To further explore this apparently inverse relationship between religious activity and dream recall, I did a second study using data from a 2010 survey of 2,992 demographically diverse American adults who answered a question about the frequency of their religious worship service attendance, in addition to several questions about their recall of various types of dreams.

As I describe in more detail in the article, the new study confirmed the results of the earlier one:

The least religiously observant people remember more dreams than the most religiously observant people. The similarity of the results from these two studies, one using a sample of 705 people and the other with 2,992 people, adds empirical weight to the basic idea that interest in and awareness of dreams is highest among people at the nonreligious end of the spectrum, at least in a contemporary American context.

In the new study I added another layer of analysis, using word search technology to analyze several hundred dream reports provided by participants at both ends of the religiosity scale. The results showed that in terms of dream content, there was little difference between religious and nonreligious people, other than a higher frequency of Christianity-related words in the dreams of the most religious people (which is exactly what we would expect in light of the "continuity hypothesis" that dream content accurately reflects people's concerns in waking life).

Thus, despite a lower level of dream recall, the dreams that religious people do remember are not dramatically different from the dreams of nonreligious people, except for highlighting the importance of Christianity in their lives.

I wonder if this finding might reflect the influence of what Justin Barrett and Jason Slone have called "theological correctness," meaning a disconnect between people's acceptance of official religious doctrines and their actual religious beliefs and behaviors. In this case, the most religiously active people in America -- largely Protestant and Catholic Christians, many of them very conservative in their beliefs -- may have been warned against dreams by church authorities, which has had the effect of diminishing their dream recall. But at the level of their actual dreaming experiences, they are basically the same as nonreligious people.