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THE PSYCHOLOGY OF RELIGIOUS BELIEF
1 January 2005

Experts from diverse fields are forever trying to understand the connection between religious belief and human life. For example, in “Democracy in America” Alexis de Tocqueville says:

“At the time when Christianity appeared on Earth, Providence, which no doubt was preparing the world for its reception, had united a great part of mankind, like an immense flock, under the Caesars. The men composing this multitude were of many different sorts, but they all had this in common, that they obeyed the same laws, and each of them was so small and weak compared to the greatness of the emperor that they all seemed equal in comparison to him. One must recognize that this new and singular condition of humanity disposed men to receive the general truths preached by Christianity, and this serves to explain the quick and easy way in which it then penetrated the human spirit.”

BEING PRECEDES CONSCIOUSNESS

And in “The Fragility of Freedom: Tocqueville on Religion, Democracy and the American Future,” Joshua Mitchell gives this gloss on Tocqueville’s meaning:

“The real-life condition of the Romans ‘disposed’ the people toward a religious idea that recapitulates what their lived experience already avowed. They could easily come to think Christianity because the life they lived already evinced the Christian pattern. Being precedes consciousness; real-life conditions … dispose thought to accept certain religious notions.”

Nowhere is the idea that, “being precedes consciousness” and disposes thought to accept certain religious notions more clear than in “The Psychological Roots of Religious Belief: Searching for Angels and the Parent-God,” by M.D. Faber.

SOMETHING NEW

The idea that gods, goddesses and even great leaders like the Caesars are parent substitutes is nothing new, but Faber bases his argument on the new “intertwining perspectives of neuroscience and developmental psychology,” which traces belief not to our connection to great and powerful leaders, as Tocqueville suggested, but to our relationship — lost to memory but hard-wired into our brains — with our first care-takers, the people who magically showed up when, in our distress, we cried out for them.

I won’t bog you down in Faber’s evidence, which he admits is simply theory at this point. In other words, like someone else we know, Faber is not about to fall into the very mindset he’s trying to illuminate:

“To express the matter from another angle, were someone to ask me how I know that God or some supernatural entity is not behind everything in the world, including angels, I would reply at once, I don’t know. I know only that religious matters, including angels, can be reasonably, competently, satisfactorily explained ... by the psychological approaches and analyses that I will bring to bear in the pages that follow. When it comes down to the ultimate questions, when I am asked to explain the origins of everything, the universe and all that dwells within it no less, I simply shrug my shoulders in ignorance. How am I supposed to know such things, and what rational person would expect me to know them?” He realizes he can’t claim to know such things, “Unless I adopt the religious perspective and thereby defeat the whole purpose of my discussion.”

This is a lovely example of how a person makes a distinction between what he believes and what he knows — or can’t know.

A WONDERFUL SUMMATION

To keep this at a manageable length, let’s fly past the psychological studies and cut to the core of Faber’s thesis. Toward the end of the chapter called, “Brain, Mind and Religion,” Faber gives the following summation — all parentheses and emphasis is his:

“We may perceive here, I believe, the answer to a fascinating, fundamental question: Why do millions upon millions of people require a Parent-God to feel centered in themselves, to feel secure, attached, happy, joyous? Why cannot the self derive these emotional benefits simply by communing with itself, self to self, mind to mind, subjectivity to subjectivity? Why must a Parent-Deity be there at all? The solution goes like this: Our foundational oneness (or selfhood or integration) turns out to be a twoness, the twoness that characterizes our early development as we attune with our creative provider, the one who not only gives us life but who is fated to be internalized into our mind-brains at the synaptic level such that we cannot feel (or experience) ourselves without feeling (or experiencing) the other, who is us. To find the self is to find the other from whom the self originates and grows.

“Because the other is wired into our brains, because self and other are inextricable, synaptically connected at the neurobiological level, we tend psychologically to project the other ‘out’ and to discover it ‘out there’ (where it originally was) when we seek our deep connection with ourselves on the ‘inside’ or ‘in here.’ We discover ‘us’ when we discover ‘it.’ We just happen to be that kind of internalizing, projective creature.

“Our Parent-God is a facet of our brain function, a facet that becomes integrally tied to our longing for security and attachment in ourselves. Thus, our religious narratives and rituals with the Parent-God at the center (prayer and the Eucharist above all) continue the style of communion, or connection, that defines our attuned interaction with the ‘object,’ the internalized caregiver who turns our discomfort into pleasure, our anxiety into security, on a daily, hourly, moment-to-moment basis, for years, during the critical early period of our existence, that ‘life-or-death’ stage when we depend as little ones entirely on the big ones, who are, or are supposed to be, ‘always there.’

“ … And so it goes projectively, unconsciously, addictively, and adaptively in a thousand similar emotional contexts inhabited by millions of individuals looking to enhance what (William) James calls ‘life’ by reactivating that core of early experience toward which everything religious or supernatural gravitates.”

DOES NOT SETTLE THEOLOGICAL QUESTIONS

Faber realizes this neither settles all theological questions nor disproves the existence of some actual deity, Cosmic force or “Unmoved Mover.” And Faber realizes words in a book are not immediately going to override the deep-rooted, synaptic connections developed over years of constant care-giving, lost in the mists of “infantile amnesia.”*

Faber simply believes a strong case can be made that belief is powerfully psychological; but if you decline to accept that this explains your belief, at least admit it goes a long way toward explaining the other guy’s, for if the power of your specific belief comes from the “fact” that it’s actual and true — even historically accurate — where does the power of the other guy’s “erroneous” and mistaken belief come from?

I know some educated professionals who would say unhesitatingly, “Satan!” or “evil!” or generously, “ignorance and confusion.” But I hope from now on you say, “Basic human psychology.”

*Faber says this about infantile amnesia:

“That the decisive, determining source of our most powerful, compelling emotions as people should be inaccessible to our direct apprehension during the entire course of our lives can only be described as one of the most extraordinary and defining aspects of our fundamental humanity. For years as little ones we passionately and unceasingly interact with our caregivers; for years we depend on them for everything, including our very survival. Yet we cannot explicitly recall these events; we cannot ‘find’ them no matter how long and how hard we try. As far as conscious perception of our emotional roots is concerned, the early period has simply vanished from view.”


Related articles: Faber: The Psychology of Religious Belief
Are You A Kitten or A Monkey?The Psychology of Religious Belief IIFaber so FarI don't recall posing for these pictures!Faber: Art and Religion
 

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