On The Psychology of Religion and Religious Belief (Part 1)

Religion matters to many Americans. When asked, 42% of the population believes in creationism and 57% believes that religion can answer all or most of our problems. This high level of religiosity in roughly half of the population entices a number of questions regarding religiosity and the human experience of religion.
We begin with a definition of religion. In his 1950 text, Psychoanalysis & Religion, Erich Fromm offers us a definition that is broad enough to accommodate most kinds of religious experience. He writes, “Religion [is] any system of thought and action shared by a group which gives the individual a frame of orientation and an object of devotion.” Contrasted with William James’s proposal that religion is a personal and solitary devotion to the divine, we find that although Fromm emphasizes a shared social system over James’s personal experience, both agree on an object of devotion; the divine.
Whereas James’s use of the word divine seems to point towards the spiritual or metaphysical (James was a believer), Fromm’s definition makes room for everyday dedication to a political, economic, or cultural system. Regarding them as secular religions, these include groups of people who make their object of devotion capital (capitalism), nation (patriotism), and sports (fanatics or “fans”). The thing that all religions, rather sacred or secular, share is an object of devotion and a system of orientation.
We find in this definition the four basic questions, proposed by existential psychologists: How should I act? Why am I here? Am I alone? and Am I free?
For the existential psychologists, religious systems provide an answer to all of these needs. Viktor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, concludes that meaning is the single most important psychological need of humans. In Twilight of the Gods Nietzsche tells us that he who has a why can endure any how. Religion provides an answer to this question of purpose; why am I here? The answer is to serve the god by answering the calling. This orientation provides a sense of duty to the object of devotion; be that God, money, nation, or sports team. In this way we find a common thread running through all systems of devotion, one that Sigmund Freud described in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. What all systems of belief share is a social fidelity in which brothers and sisters come together to worship the holy father or mother. Of course the names and characters change from system to system, but the central, familial theme remains the same. The message is clear: we are not alone, and we are here to do the work of the divine.
In answer to the question, how should I act?, these religious systems provide a moral code of conduct. Fromm describes how religious belief systems can be understood as being either an authoritarian religion or a humanistic religion. The authoritarian religion is easy to spot. Demanding adherence to a precise code of conduct and thought, it threatens punishment for not obeying the law of the object of devotion. Humanistic religious systems, on the other hand, are typically nontheistic, emphasizing love, acceptance, and detachment from desires. In reading the texts of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, we find examples of authoritarian religious systems. Humanistic systems are often found in the religious practices native to Eastern cultures, such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism. In some instances, such as can be found in the Greek scriptures of the Gospel, we find a mix of authoritarian and humanistic religion. 
In The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche lays down the fundamental impulse towards religious belief; the answer to isolation, absurdity, purpose, and mortality. This view of the human need for religion was echoed by Theodor Reik who, in Dogma and Compulsion, describes religious belief as a kind of security blanket which serves adults as a surrogate parent. The belief system and object of devotion, like the child’s blanket, offers a sense of orientation, safety, belongingness, and purpose. As we mature and develop a sense of autonomy, we sever our ties with mother and father, and later talismans such as the fetishized blanket or teddy bear (the child’s totem animal?). For Reik, these objects of devotion and systems of thought fulfill the existential needs of the child. Freud pointed out that in adult life the need for the protection of the father & mother becomes projected onto a fictive god that offers protection, purpose, guidance, and empowerment. Erich Fromm and others noted the importance for individuals to cultivate a self that is capable of meeting these needs in ourselves and others. In Man For Himself, Fromm describes social interest in helping others as the way of being fully human.
Whereas Freud viewed religion as a social neurosis, Fromm argued that neurosis is a personal religion. The rituals and beliefs that we see in neurotic behavior closely resemble, and serve the same purpose, as religious rituals and beliefs. Here we see the major distinction that is made between Freud and Carl Jung, who claimed religious belief to be essential to being human. Jung did not emphasize joining a religion, but rather, developing one’s own system of belief and object of devotion, through mythology, dreams, and intuition. Jung saw the absence of spirituality as the problem of modern living, one in which individuals desperately seek to satisfy or quiet their existential needs with “spirits” which underlies alcoholism and drug addiction. For Nietzsche, Jung, and later Fromm, the biggest problem humans face in Enlightenment modernism is the absence of something to fulfill the spiritual need. Nietzsche proposed art as an answer to this problem.
Freud claimed that religion was born from guilt. Taking this view, we can begin to understand the emotional function of a god concept. If we take guilt as indicating wrongdoing; a defiant, self-motivated act which is forbidden, we can begin to understand how a believer can find a sense of security in guilt. For example, when we do something that is forbidden, and the powerful take notice and punish us, our fear of isolation is satisfied. This is not unlike the neglected child who, for want of attention from self-indulged parents, will seek out negative attention (yelling, scolding, beating). The need for acknowledgement is so strong, especially for the child from her parent, that even a beating is better than being ignored. The ultimate form of abuse is ignorance; not acknowledging the existence of another. In these cases, if we do “wrong,” and are beaten, at least we know we matter.
Freud illustrates how religion functions from a seed of guilt. Guilt is defined as the fear of the loss of love. When we feel guilty, it is not merely an indicator of wrongdoing, but rather, the panic of the possibility of losing love, protection, purpose, and meaning. As the father and mother provide this framework for the child, the adult finds this either in themselves (as is taught in humanistic religions) or in an external god (as in authoritarian religions). The result, according to Freud, is a sort of reversal of morality. Self direction, autonomy, and volition become sins, whereas submission to authority becomes virtue. These religious orientations seem to play out in political identification as well. In a recent Gallup Poll, religiosity was a strong indicator of political orientation (conservative and liberal orientation is found to be inversely correlated with high religiosity and low religiosity).
Laboratory psychology offers another lens through which to describe religious belief. An interesting theory by Lee Kirkpatrick, based on experimental psychoanalyst John Bowlby’s attachment theory, shows a strong, positive correlation between adult religiosity and insecure or ambivalent childhood attachment styles. In other words, adults who had insecure attachments with their parents are more likely to become highly religious adults. We can view this attachment theory of religion as a bridge between the psychodynamic theories and evolutionary theories of religion.
Many of the evolutionary theorists have written on the human phenomenon of religion. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Steven Pinker have all offered contributions. We surveyed two texts, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking The Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, and Nicholas Humphrey’s Leaps of Faith: Science, Miracles, and the Search for Supernatural Consolation. Whereas Dennett’s book is useful in understanding the evolutionary position, the author often slips into condescending jabs at believers, which can leave the reader a bit skeptical of the author’s claim that his book is merely an exploration of religion as natural phenomenon. In fact, Dennett speaks directly to the believer as the intended audience of his book, and then lapses into ridicule of their worldview. On the other hand Leaps of Faith, by Nicholas Humphrey is rich with evolutionary insights, presented in a way that remains dignified.
One of the most compelling essays in Humphrey’s book is a proposal of a cognitive way of thinking that religious individuals share. Humphrey describes religious belief as understanding the present through an explanatory principle that serves as evidence for an agreeable future. Simply put, those who hold religious beliefs interpret the world in a way that supports their belief in a future promised to them by God. For example, a difficult circumstance in the present is seen as a test for the person to endure that will make sense when God returns on the day of judgement. Simply put, the present world is framed and understood in the context of what God has promised. Every event in the person’s life takes on meaning relative to future promised by God. Humphrey’s book is eloquently written as offers the reader rich insights into the evolutionary and cognitive functions of belief.
The cognitive neuroscience of religion focuses on the biological systems of the body, and where religious thinking and experience takes place in the body. V. S. Ramachandran presents a fascinating look into the neuroscience of religious experience. In Phantoms of The Brain, Ramachandran presents what is known about what is happening in the brain of individuals who have spiritual experiences. Ramachandran’s research focuses on the temporal lobes and offers valuable insights into the corresponding nervous system activity during religious experiences, as well as the brain structures of those who are highly religious. It is important point to make that religiosity, supernatural belief, and spirituality are related but not interchangeable phenomena.
Steven Pinker, in a lecture on the cognitive psychology of religious belief, presents a theory that is similar to the one presented by Sigmund Freud in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Pinker’s ideas are taken from Scott Atran’s book, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscapes of Religion. In this lecture, Pinker presents three psychological qualities of religion: 1. A belief in disembodied spirits, 2. An appeal to those spirits for control of circumstances in one’s life, and 3. Ritual and ceremony that serve as reassurance of one’s belief through some of the classic theories of social psychology: social proof, ritualistic repetitive motions, public costly commitment,  and kinship psychology.
Now that we have an overview and basic understanding of how different schools of psychological thought understand religious belief, we can turn to specific questions of belief. In Part 2 we will consider some of the basic questions of belief; Does religion make us moral? Does religion offer benefits of health and well being? Does religion promote acceptance of prejudice?

Part 2

References & Reading
Atran, Scott. In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscapes of Religion. UK: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Dennett, Daniel. Breaking The Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York: Penguine, 2006.

Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Beacon Press, 1946.

Freud, Sigmund. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. London: The Hogarth Press, 1921.

Fromm, Erich. Psychoanalysis & Religion. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1950.

Humphrey, Nicholas. Leaps of Faith: Science, Miracles, and the Search for Supernatural Consolation. New York: Copernicus, 1996.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Logmans, Green, & Co, 1917.

Kirkpatrick, Lee, A. Attachment, Evolution, and the Psychology of Religion. New York: Guilford Press, 2004.

Pinker, Stephen. How The Mind Works. London: Norton, 1999.

Ramachandran, V. S. Phantoms of The Brain: Probing The Mysteries of The Human Mind. New York: Quill, 1999.

Reik, Theodor. Dogma and Compulsion: Psychoanalytic Studies of Religion and Myth. New York: International University Press, 1951.

Yalom, Irvin. Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books, 1980.

Please direct questions, comments, & corrections to matthewgiobbi@hotmail.com.