Some aspects of the psychology of religion

Tamas Pataki

Talk presented to the Atheist Society, Melbourne, 13 May 2008


The psychology of religion is a vast subject. Religion, it is well to remember, is an extraordinarily complex phenomenon: it includes not just a huge array of religious ideology, typically involving metaphysical beliefs about gods and theologically grounded moral beliefs, but also various kinds of institutions, rituals, practices, art forms, and so on. Each of these aspects of religion can be subjected to psychological study. So, one could study, for example, the psychological significance of various kinds of ritual, or 'religious experience', or the developmental stages in the child's acquisition of religious beliefs and attitudes; and so on.

I have to narrow the focus here and I hope you won't mind if I do that by briefly referring to the development of my own interest in the subject. I think that development will probably mirror many aspects of other people's experience. Moreover, there is another legitimate study - the psychology of unbelief - to which, I imagine, most atheists (such as me) would have to be prepared to submit as subjects.

As a child I received a moderate Jewish religious education but as best I can remember I found the biblical stories and the theological beliefs I was supposed to imbibe simply implausible. I am not sure why that was. I was probably a born skeptic - a doubting Tamas - or at least a born empiricist. I seem to have believed John Locke's dictum intuitively: the mark of a rational person was the 'not entertaining any proposition with greater assurance than the proofs it is built upon will warrant.' In any case, I used to read encyclopedias in those days and I was more disposed to believe these books then my religious teachers and the Bible, on the frequent occasions when there seemed to be conflict between them.

When I was about ten years old, my father told me that I was the only person in the world who didn't believe in God, and this worried me a great deal and made me suffer. But eventually it also gave rise to the thought: how could so many people believe such improbable, unfounded, outlandish things as are maintained in religion?

In university, philosophy acquainted me with the various arguments for the existence of deity, with theodicy, and so on. The arguments seemed poor, and generally have been reckoned to be so since the time of Hume and Kant; and yet many intelligent philosophers and others have embraced them, and many still continue to defend refashioned versions of them, or try to invent new ones. This was puzzling, and I agreed with Chekhov when he wrote to Diaghilev shortly before his death: 'I can only regard with bewilderment an educated man who is also religious.' How could people - people who were not ignorant and who could reason clearly so much of the time - believe such things as religions contend?

Given the poverty of argument and evidence for religious conceptions, as it seemed to me, and the lack of any serious emotional inclinations towards it, I more or less lost interest in religion -until three developments occurred in fairly quick succession.

In 1996 John Howard was elected Prime Minister and the political atmosphere became coloured by racism and xenophobia. Islamist violence exploded onto the world stage. And it gradually emerged, after 2000, that the fundamentalist Christian right, and even its loonier elements, were influencing a range of important policy in Bush's America. Their impact has extended over foreign policy, the relations between church and state, environmental, science and education policy. The resurgence of emboldened fundamentalist religion - mostly in the Abrahamic spectrum, but also in Hinduism and Buddhism - has been rightly perceived by many people as a new threat to Reason, to what constitutes rational thought, and to the understanding of the place of science and philosophical reflection in culture.

So, once again the question arose: how could so many people assent to religious beliefs, beliefs which appear so outlandish and seem intimately associated with the despicable acts we were now all confronting?

For me, this question appeared predominantly as one about the psychodynamics of religious mentality, in particular about the motivations to religion, or, more broadly, its psychological causation. That psychological dimension is not, of course, the whole of religion, but it is an important part of it. And, interestingly for me, the issues that emerged were closely related to those I had already been thinking about concerning such prejudices as racism and classism.

On the motives to religious belief

It is especially important here not to generalize. There are many different types of religious belief and many different motives to it. Some people just fall into religious belief as a result of intellectual laziness or indifference or gullibility. Many people entertain religious beliefs because they provide a pleasant perspective on this life and the next, and they have no inclination to scratch where it doesn't itch. Some people know so little about the world that nothing they know challenges the crudest episodes of Genesis. In some societies there are irresistible social forces - and severe sanctions - towards religious conformity and compliance. And, obviously, there are also people who have reasoned, and reasoned conscientiously, but erred - or so I believe.

But the most interesting of the causes emerge where religious beliefs and practices fall into the service of a range of largely unconscious mental states (needs, wishes, phantasies, dispositions.) One could make a rough heuristic distinction between the religious and the seriously religiose: between those for whom religion can be conceived, approximately, as a matter of opinion or belief, vulnerable to argument, and those for whom it is a powerful, irrational expression of the kinds of unconscious states I've just mentioned. Here there is a failure to think rationally because at certain points thought is abducted into the service of unconscious wishful processes. Most of the people at the fundamentalist end of the religious spectrum probably fall into this latter class.

I do not deny that there may be rational grounds for religion, though I have not encountered any; but I do contend, in any case, that they are not the reasons why most people turn to religion. My interest is in the reasons for which the vast majority of seriously religious people do in fact embrace religion, and those reasons, I believe, are usually irrational and markedly different from the avowed ones. And I do not mean only that they have failed to justify their religious beliefs in a rational manner, or that they have swallowed these beliefs uncritically, or on the basis of unreliable testimony, faith in revelation or authority - though they mostly have done those things. My suggestion is that their beliefs are, as a rule, non-rationally motivated by, or are expressions of, unconscious needs and phantasies. For the majority of seriously religious people the overt motives derived from natural theology, religious reflection or faith are really idle wheels - though, of course, it does not seem like that to them.

Now, if that is right, then psychological explanations of religious phenomena becomes a crucial element in the project of understanding religion. Moreover, the supposition of deity, upon which religions are typically predicated, is extraordinarily extravagant. So if we can uncover persuasive socio-psychological explanations for religious beliefs and practices that are much less metaphysically extravagant and outlandish, and more compatible with the scientific-naturalistic picture of the world, then the case for religion is weakened, though not of course refuted. And further, the same kinds of explanation may account for the fact that some philosophers and theologians have been compromised by such feeble arguments and astonishing conclusions as have been advanced in religion's favour.

Sketch of a theory

I cannot of course present here an entirely persuasive account of my views but I will try to outline a few main features, and then illustrate them by showing the way they can illuminate the nature of religious violence.

There are two main parts to this account. The first is that religious beliefs, practices, institutions etc. can symbolically satisfy (or pacify) powerful unconscious needs and other dispositions. The second is that religious beliefs, attitudes etc. may enter early into the constitution of mind and therefore create some of the very needs religion satisfies.

First, the unconscious dispositions that religion satisfies are fairly universally and liberally distributed, but are more exigent in some people than others. Here are some brief examples framed in terms of a rough psychoanalytic character typology. Various obsessional dispositions, which arise from the need to control internal impulses, can be satisfied in the 'magical', placating gestures of daily ritual and rigid practice (regular prayer, beads, donning phylacteries, making the cross, touching venerable objects etc.). Hysterical dispositions to separate or split off the lower (sexual, profane) aspects of the personality from the higher (moral, spiritual, sacred) ones are accommodated in the Manichean architecture of most religions. Narcissistic dispositions which involve more or less unconscious needs to feel special, powerful, superior may be satisfied by the belief that one is a member of the Elect, the Chosen, or the belief that one has a special relationship to an omnipotent being; and so on.

How is this indirect satisfaction achieved? The short answer is that the unconscious needs are satisfied substitutively or symbolically. The surface facts are well known. Instead of punching the boss, you kick the dog in a symbolic displacement of your anger. Most people do not have thrilling lives, but we can daydream, read, or watch movies that provide vicarious satisfactions. Though we may have experienced little parental love, we may believe with gratitude that there is a father in heaven who loves us. In short, we are creatures many of whose needs can be indirectly satisfied in symbol or allegory. Most remarkable is the fact that in the ineluctable striving to achieve emotionally significant interpersonal relationships - the central feature of our lives - we are turned Janus-like to the past and the future, and seek in most of what we do to symbolically re-constitute the past - the world of our childhood - to undo it or to satisfy its ancient desires. It would be astonishing if the religious enterprise evaded this universal compulsion. Indeed, the extraordinary feature of religion precisely is the determined, systematic extension of this drive for relationship into a supernatural or spiritual dimension.

Second, religious beliefs and attitudes enter into the constitution of mind and fundamentally shape it. They do this partly through direct instruction and through the internalization of the personality of parents and teachers; but the transformation occurs principally because many religious conceptions provide the materials which can satisfy a child's wishes. In these ways the underlying psychological configurations of religion become embedded in psychic structure, and take on the force, as Schopenhauer said, of unquestionable, innate ideas. This difficult notion demands some explanation.

Consider briefly the development of the narcissistic economy of mind, those elements concerned with more or less unconscious wishful attempts at sustaining self-esteem and identity, suppressing shame, defending against envy, and fulfilling wishes for specialness, superiority and belonging.

From the beginning of mental life the infant wants to feel good, to be free of hunger, pain and anxiety, and he wants his objects (his parents or caretakers, at first mother) to be all-good and provident. He wants to live in the circle of an all-good or omnibenevolent world. Unfortunately, the world is not omnibenevolent and the fit between the infant's needs and mother's solicitude is never perfect. However, the infant has available to him various means of regulating his internal states and the environment. The following are of particular significance.

By splitting off (withdrawing attention from) bad aspects of his experience and projecting it into his objects, or by taking in (introjecting) good aspects of his objects, the infant can alter, as it were, the dispensation of pleasure and pain, of good and bad, in his experiential world. Later, he can also identify with objects, either introjectively (the object is in me, and I am like the object) or projectively (I am in the object, and it is like me). This regulation of experience is probably largely achieved through wishfulfilling (omnipotent) phantasy: when the infant phantasises something, it seems at the time to be true or real. (Think of the dream and the erotic daydream.)

Although at first good states of the self, or primitive self-esteem (narcissistic well-being), depend largely on feeling loved by others, once a reflective self is formed self-esteem increasingly comes to depend on the capacity to value and to love oneself. The regulation of self-esteem soon becomes a primary aim and the mechanisms just noted are deployed to achieve it.

Another important mode of regulating self-esteem is idealisation, either of objects or the self. Children invariably try to sustain or create the illusion that parents are omnipotent and omniscient. They may then bask in their parents' radiance or, by identifying with them, appear omnipotent and omniscient themselves, and therefore invulnerable to hurt. Figures who are needed for our protection and security are often idealised by having their 'bad' aspects split off ('ignored') so as not vitiate their goodness and the desired relation to them. Sometimes in this process, the child will take the split-off badness upon himself in order to keep the object pure. This leads to self-hatred and self-abasement before the idealised object. One finds this constellation in love, but also in the religious worshipper's tedious refrain about the greatness of God and the feebleness of Man.

These are more or less normal transitional processes. But in some circumstances the use of such mechanisms can lead to the creation of unconscious grandiose god-like conceptions of the self that dominate the entire personality, usually with baleful consequences.

And it is remarkable, is it not, that the conditions - omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence - so instrumental in the regulation of infantile narcissism and wellbeing, are precisely the key perfections attributed to God. This suggests that the conception of God, as an ideal object sought for relationship and identification, may be used for regulating the narcissistic economy.

Indeed, if ideas about God and other powerful supernatural figures are introduced early to the child, they are likely to be incorporated into the economy of narcissism. Religious instruction usually commences early in a child's life when he is still under the sway of omnipotent phantasy and he is disposed to believe his parents unquestioningly. Religious teaching about God's omnipotence, omniscience, and goodness are particularly fitted to re-invigorating narcissistic desires and gratifying them, for these are the very properties the child is striving to retain or retrieve. So, once again, he may attempt to establish a relationship in phantasy with the idealised figures, much as with a pop-star or sporting hero, though this time supernatural ones, and bask in their radiance. To have a close relationship with an omnipotent being who loves and forgives certainly heightens self-regard.

Or the child may surrender part of his self-love and then restore it in some measure by unconsciously identifying with these idealised figures. In that way he can achieve humility on the surface, while unconsciously extending his narcissism in loving God and in God's love for him. This strategy may be especially necessary when parents are remote or inadequate, or where narcissism is forcefully extinguished with threats or punishment. Children raised in a cold or crushing atmosphere - and it is often part of religious upbringing to crush the child's natural narcissism (egoism or 'willfulness') - are more likely to depend on supernatural or other substitute imaginary figures to contain their narcissism. Their self-esteem will be precarious, and sustainable only through unremitting effort - prayer, sacrifice, self-abasement - to stay in emotional proximity to a cruelly silent God. Their images of God, and of their selves, are likely to be of wrathful, vengeful beings.

Yet another, later, strategy for maintaining narcissistic well-being is to idealise the religious group to which one belongs and then to identify with it, so that the benefits of the grandiosity conferred on the group can be claimed for oneself. Identifying with a supposedly superior racial or religious group - even a football club or rock-band - whose merits are exaggerated and mythologised - is a very common way of elevating self-esteem. The logic is simple: if the group you belong to is special, you are special. This strategy also has the advantage of appropriating the group's achievements and thus to diminish envy. It also enhances one's power, and the scope for exercising it, in the groups' ability to 'throw its weight around', an expression of narcissistic assertion. The strange joy in baracking for a winning sporting team is almost entirely derived from this strategy.


Now let me try to illustrate how some of these developments play out in the arena of religious violence. I think that the outlines should be emerging. Our hypothesis is that these early psychological strategies and object relationships remain active unconsciously in the adult, or may easily be re-activated. The intense needs to achieve a sense of belonging, of specialness or superiority, by maintaining a worshipful relationship, or by identifying, with an omnipotent and potentially destructive being can, in some circumstances, be quite irresistible. Even amongst people not strongly disposed to employ narcissistic defenses, the lure of the omnipotent self and the religious megalomania with which it may be joined become especially potent in conditions of real threat. When people are frightened they idealise and cling. They regress to defensive grandiosity, idealise their leaders and gods by projecting their internal idealised objects, identify with them, and demonise their enemies by projecting their own split-off hated characteristics.

Consider these examples, where grandiose identifications seem to be in evidence.

In 2003 President G. W. Bush told Mahmoud Abbas that God told him to invade Iraq. According to a person present at the meeting, Bush said:

'I'm driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, "George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan." And I did, and then God would tell me: "George go and end the tyranny in Iraq, and I did."

'And 'now again', Bush said, 'I feel God's words coming to me: "Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East." And by God, I'm gonna do it.'

Of course, it's hard to know exactly what to make of this, but it does look rather as if Bush is a pathologically narcissistic personality, whose faith, obduracy, and remorselessness are a reflection of his grandiosity and identification with a wrathful God. If that is so, then he may, confusedly, be mistaking his own thoughts for messages from God: they are God's thoughts.

As another illustration, consider the extraordinary speech made by Adolf Hitler in 1922, cited in Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion.

My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Saviour as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognised these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God's truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple ... This may be nothing more than expedient bombast, but it is certainly suggestive of identification with a violent, vengeful God. It is probable that Hitler's imagination of himself as an Aryan Jesus - come with sword to cleanse the world of the money-changers - was a determinate state of the man's mind. An identification with a destructive, omnipotent being, its its incorporation into his grandiose self, may well have played a part in the boundless rage and destructiveness that Hitler unleashed on the world.

Religious group identity is especially suited to be an instrument of the narcissistic assertion that had to be suppressed in childhood. Membership in such an idealised group - in the community of Islam, say, or the true Church - is a very common and effective way of emphasising one's importance and sustaining self-esteem. One notable adverse consequence of this is the group's touchiness about what is perceived as insulting to the group or its idealised objects: because of the identifications what is at issue is the members' own self-esteem, which, as the recent violence stirred by cartoons of Mohamed demonstrated, paradoxically offers a new opportunity to assert themselves.

Group aggression is expressed in several ways. Becoming a member of the Elect, the Chosen or 'Exclusive Brethren' is in itself a gratifying exclusionary process: being one of the Few, not the Many means being special. Consigning non-believers to hell, or converting them, is also gratifying. Proselytising is a doubly rewarding act. Consciously, there is the pleasing knowledge of bestowing a grace upon another; unconsciously, there is the pleasure of stripping converts of their former identity, aggressively incorporating them into the group, and obliterating their offensive differences by assimilation. Compelling or persuading others to think and act as you do not only confirms your faith and eliminates challenges to it, but also nourishes grandiose self-conceptions by testifying to your power. It affirms the special relationship, or partial identification, with God or other divine figures.

Bertrand Russell frequently noted that before monotheism religious intolerance and the persecuting attitude were hardly known. The bullying associated with Abrahamic religions is a result partly of the aggression inherent in group narcissism, and partly defensive. It is often a reaction to the instability of the identifications underlying religious faith and the inevitable ingress of reality. Religious people who can make sensible decisions about life insurance suspect, privately, that religion, or much of it, is a house of cards. Faith, as Mark Twain's schoolboy said, is believing what you know ain't so. Many salient episodes in the social history of religion comprise more or less violent attempts by the faithful to shore up their faith against other faiths, heretics and self-doubt. Religious communities are often support groups for self-deception. Those who do not share the faith threaten it, and must be segregated, converted, exiled, or eliminated.

The idea that people should be killed for holding religious beliefs that are deemed errant and a threat to the faithful seems to be an entirely Abrahamic innovation. The 12th century Jewish thinker Moses Maimonides wrote of those who hold 'false doctrines' that 'under certain circumstances it may be necessary to slay them, and to extirpate their doctrines, in order that others should not be misled'. This is very remarkable. But even small differences become major threats to those who require the world to narcissistically mirror them. Christians have been far more persecuted by other sects of Christians than by pagans. And deviations other than heretical ones are also felt to be intolerable. In a Christian dispensation of almost 2000 years, it is only in the last 200 hundred years that atheism, blasphemy, homosexuality, and witchery - infractions that were deemed religious crimes and whose prosecution was always religiously sanctioned - have not been cruelly punished. There are still places under religious influence where some of these transgressions are punished; and it is evident that there are many religious folk elsewhere who believe that they should be.

I want now to consider an objection to this story, to bring it into sharper relief. It may be objected that this psychoanalytically based account is simply too extravagant; perhaps a more parsimonious account can suffice? Some of Richard Dawkins' views on religious violence seem on the surface both more appealing and economical. Let's see how far his account can carry us. He says of suicide bombers, for example, that they

are motivated, like the Christian murderers of abortion doctors, by what they perceive to be righteousness, faithfully pursuing what their religion tells them. They are not psychotic; they are religious idealists who, by their own lights, are rational. They perceive their acts to be good, not because of some warped personal idiosyncrasy, and not because they have been possessed by Satan, but because they have been brought up, from the cradle, to have total and unquestioning  faith. Similarly, he says of Paul Hill, who murdered an abortionist, that he was not 'a psychopath. Just very religious ... his mind had unfortunately been captured by poisonous religious nonsense'.

So far as it goes this seems right, but its limitations become evident soon as its key concepts are probed. The suicide bombers are not psychotic, Dawkins says, but have been indoctrinated into 'unquestioning faith'. Paul Hill is not a psychopath but his mind had been 'captured by poisonous religious nonsense'. Now, what kind of conditions are they? What is it to be a person of unquestioning faith or to have one's mind captured, or to be religiously indoctrinated? Can one be indoctrinated in the truths of physics or history and hold them with unquestioning faith? Why not? Why are the religious views of the indoctrinated immune to rational considerations and held so fervently and tenaciously? Why do some people choose the violent aspects of religion and not the pacific elements which are also present in most religions?

The weakness in Dawkins' account is its psychological poverty. Firstly, he doesn't have a conception of indoctrination or of being inducted into unquestioning faith that goes beyond learning doctrine - maybe a lot of doctrine, maybe by rote everyday. But no matter how learning at this level is intensified, it won't yield the quality that resists rational considerations and change of view. Secondly, there is no explanation why some of the religious choose violence and others do not. Dawkins has nothing specific to say about this. Are the violent ones those who did the most cramming, the ones who grasped religious teaching best? No explanation is provided of why violence is chosen in any circumstance, let alone in all of the wide range of circumstances in which religious violence arises.

My argument has been, in effect, that religious doctrines and teaching 'capture the mind' and are held with 'unquestioning faith' when reinforced and held in place by the type of unconscious needs and phantasies noticed above. The impulse to religious violence is not to be found solely in the content of religious doctrine, or in its schooling; what matters critically is the way in which religious doctrine, practices, and group identities are able to satisfy symbolically or substitutively the unconscious wishes formed under the impress of religion and imbricated with early object-relationships. Religion becomes especially dangerous and violent because of its deep roots in narcissism and omnipotence, in the frustrations and rage of relinquishing narcissism, and in the distorted and uncompromising internalised object-relationships in which narcissism and the regulation of self-esteem are consolidated.

I do not mean to suggest, as I noted at the outset, that narcissism is the only causally active factor in religious violence, or that there are no other psychological factors working 'to capture the mind' and lead it to violence. Other propensities, such as those to social compliance or obedience uncovered in the experiments of social psychologists last century, are surely also important factors.

One final comment. When religious apologists are confronted with the fact of religious violence, it is commonly conceded, but with the proviso that secular or atheistic dispensations have been just as much, if not more, violent. I think that that proviso is false. But in any case, if the argument I have sketched above is sound then it establishes that the connection between religion and violence is not merely contingent but necessary: violence is, as it were, built into the psychological constitution of certain kinds of religious believers (the religiose). If that is true, then for that, if for no other, reason the world may very well be better off without religion.

Tamas Pataki May 2008