Thinking about religion

Class ponders psychology of ritual beliefs

By Nicole M. Campbell, Staff Writer

October 05, 2001

GLENDORA — The way James Skalicky sees it, Buddha was really the first psychologist. 

“He thought about how we think,” Skalicky said. 

The Citrus College professor’s class, “The Psychology of Religion,” canvasses the world’s major religions to explore the cerebral component of the spiritual realm. 

“There are so many levels that religion can be looked at,” Skalicky said, “and psychology certainly is one of them.” 

Offered for the first time in January 2000, the class has grown in size and interest. In the aftermath of last month’s terrorist attacks, it’s also timely. 

“It’s even more appropriate and kind of intense,” Skalicky said. “There’s a real deep interest now.” 

To help make sense of a seemingly senseless act, class discussion as of late has touched on how the hijackers, in the name of Allah and religious fervor, justified the attack. 

“You can’t kill 5,000 people in the name of God,” said student Najila Duncan, 64, of Montclair. 

The class touches on broad, relevant and sometimes controversial issues: whether 12-step programs are a religion; are near-death experiences a spiritual reality or biological phenomenon; is evil real, a mental illness or ignorance. The class also dissects a religion’s healthy and unhealthy aspects, such as cults. 

“What intrigued me was trying to understand why we do things, why we function the way we do and what portion of that comes from our faith stance,” said Pam MacCallum Ruud, who took the class last semester and is now Skalicky’s teaching assistant. 

The 54-year-old Skalicky, who has been teaching at Citrus since 1982, says his is not a comparative religion class but a safe forum for students to learn where psychology and spirituality intersect. 

Punctuating his personal teaching style with humor and compassion, Skalicky aims to make students comfortable. He uses visuals such as small statues of Buddha and plays calming music to help quiet the mind before sparking it with a brainstorming session. In Thursday’s class, students began with a few calming yoga and tai chi moves. 

“I try to create a relaxed atmosphere so they can really explore their spirituality without being judgmental,” Skalicky said. 

It seems to work. 

“This is a really good class,” said Nesrin Duqmaq, 39, of Duarte. 

A Muslim, born and raised in Jordan to Palestinian parents, Duqmaq is representative of the class’ religious diversity. She didn’t go to class Sept. 11. 

“I felt unsafe,” Duqmaq said, adding she went as far as replacing her head cover worn by many Muslim women with a hat. 

“But (my classmates) objected,” Duqmaq said. “When I came back, they asked why I did not come. They welcomed me back.” 

Skalicky said that is exactly the kind of atmosphere he wants to foster. 

“I want the individual to leave with an experience, their own experience,” he said. ” ‘I feel good about my religion; I feel good about other people’s religion’ — that’s what I want people to achieve.” 

— Nicole M. Campbell can be reached at (626) 962-8811, Ext. 2472, or by e-mail at