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Experiencing God in a foreign land

Victor Counted defends his PhD thesis on how religious experience contributes to the resilience of migrants
18 June 2019
Victor Counted

Victor Counted examines the psychological aspects of experiences of religion and place in the context of migration, youth and health. For his PhD thesis, he conducted research on the way that religious experiences contribute to the resilience of people living in foreign countries. On Thursday 27 June, he will defend his dissertation entitled ‘Experiencing God in a Foreign Land’, to obtain his PhD degree in Religious Studies (Psychology of Religion) at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies.

Social belonging and identity

Victor, can you tell us a bit about how your interest for this particular research subject arose? ‘ The quest to understand my own pilgrim experience as an African in the diaspora, and the need to articulate how my spiritual journey shapes my sense of social belonging and identity in host countries, has stirred my interest in the study of religion and place. One of the things that kept me going as I travelled around the world in search of freedom and opportunities is my personal relationship with God. Studying the nature of this religious experience, I believe, is helpful to understanding how people build resilience in foreign lands far away from their countries of birth.’

God as a protective attachment figure and father

‘I chose people of African background in the Netherlands for my empirical study, and the biblical Israelites as a historical case study since their experiences mirror that of my own – as dispersed people in foreign lands. We were able to observe several patterns in our study, but the most striking for me was the realization that resilience is built at the intersection of religion and place. This is not just a contemporary practice but an ancient phenomenon among dispersed people and migrants of all generations: from the time of the biblical Israelites in Babylon to modern-day Africans in the West. It is a story of how migration stirs a deeper hunger for an enduring relationship with God as a protective attachment figure and father,’ Victor comments. ‘ Another important observation from our empirical findings is that a secure attachment to God strengthens the sense of belonging of Africans in the diaspora, despite their exposure to negative experiences in the Netherlands (e.g. racial discrimination, feelings of insecurity, etc.).’

Migration and social integration policies in the Netherlands

Victor continues: ‘I think the most remarkable conclusion from my research is that migrants and dispersed people in a host country are likely to turn to God for an attachment relationship, depending on a wide range of experiences. Exposure to negative migration experiences can threaten the sense of security of migrants and dispersed people, thus making them seek an attachment affiliation with God, who is then perceived as their safe haven. Such a relationship experience, when maintained over an extended period, can become a secure base from which such individuals are able to explore their broader environment and grow in a host country as they build resilience and cope with the realities of migration. I think that one of the strengths of my research is that it has accounted for this phenomenon as a psychological experience, thus using the framework of adult attachment theory to understand the complexities involved in experiencing God in foreign lands. The research results may have huge implications for migration and social integration policies in the Netherlands. More so, there is a need for continued research that clarifies the efficacy of therapies on attachment difficulties among migrants and dispersed people in general, in order to build a safer society and healthy migrant communities.’

Lagos, Stellenbosch, Groningen, Sydney

Victor Counted studied Theological Studies at West Africa Theological Seminary in Lagos, Nigeria. He completed his Master’s degree in Philosophy, specializing in youth identity crisis, at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, before moving to Groningen for his PhD. ‘I was lucky to work with one of the most persistent, sound and flexible scholars in the field of the psychology of religion, in the person of Prof. Hetty Zock. We were able to do some amazing work together; something, I believe, we are both proud of. From the first time that I came to Groningen, I fell in love with the city. It is a beautiful town that I keep visiting almost every year.’ Recently, Victor moved to Australia where he now works as a researcher and teaches at the School of Social Sciences and Psychology, Western Sydney University.

Promotion ceremony

On 27 June, Victor will defend his dissertation ‘Experiencing God in a Foreign Land’, to receive his doctoral degree during a promotion ceremony in the presence of his promoters: Prof. Hetty Zock , professor by special appointment of Religion and Mental Health, in particular in the area of Spiritual Care; Dr Kim Knibbe , associate professor in Sociology and Anthropology of Religion; and co-promoter Dr Anja Visser-Nieraeth , assistant professor in Spiritual Care , all of whom work at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen.

  • When:           Thursday 27 June 2019
  • Starts:           4.15 p.m.
  • Where:          Academy Building
Last modified:25 June 2019 09.16 a.m.
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