The psychology of religion, part one

Faith is belief without evidence to back it up

Continuing the theme of being raised by evangelicals and how that has shaped this particular writer, I will begin a long-term exploration of the psychology of religion. In particular, I will explore Christianity since it is the religion I was indoctrinated into. Let's start with a definition of religion: belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal god or gods. Importantly, this belief is not data-driven and evidence-based. Religion happens in the absence of proof. Religion requires faith. Faith has no burden of proof - it is wholly based on feelings and emotions. Faith is also cultural, which is to say that it gets passed from one mind to another.  

A reason to believe speculates that religion was created to help us find meaning in a scary universe and at the same time meet humans' need for social organizing. In fact, the linked article states that researchers believe religion is a byproduct of cognition and that our brains evolved to make order out of chaos. Reading further leads us down a road that indicates human brains want to believe in the supernatural. Praying activates the same brain areas that are engaged when thinking about or interacting with authority figures. This, to me, helps to explain the link between evangelicals, the most fervent type of prayer warriors in the United States, and the failed strongman Donald J. Trump.

Is religion a pathology? That is: is it a form of illness or disease? This is a question I contemplate all the time. Human history and my own experiences make it quite clear that the lines between faith and mental illness often get blurred or wiped out completely. While it is possible to believe in gods and operate within the spectrum of normal human mental health, I think there is a correlation between religiosity and mental illness.

Freud thought religious beliefs were all delusional, but he was wrong about a lot of things. The other side of the coin is that mass delusions happen all the time. Millions or billions of people can share unhealthy fantasies. Look how many people believe Donald J. Trump is a successful businessman, is a billionaire, or knows how to fix anything broken in government for three examples of mass delusions. Social media has weaponized these group delusions, but that's a whole other series of essays.

Psychiatrists are authorized to prescribe medications that help delusional patients cope with reality. They are also the least likely of all doctors to be religious. This may be because of the association between hyper-religiosity and severe mental illness. Psychiatrists are most often the primary mechanism of treatment for such individuals.

With a population of around 37 million, Afghanistan is one of the most fundamentalist religious cultures globally. At the time of this writing, it has zero practicing psychiatrists. These facts are related. Cultural and national outcomes are tied to levels of religiosity (among other factors). Having spent time in Afghanistan, I will touch more on this topic in the future.

The psychology of religion is complex. Religion serves many purposes.

  • Offering meaning and order where none previously existed;

  • Providing rituals that give adherents a sense of purpose and lessen anxiety;

  • Helping to maintain calm in the face of adversity;

  • Reducing the likelihood of depression;

  • Providing a moral framework that requires little to no heavy mental lifting to follow;

  • Pro-social tribal needs are met.

The other side of this is that religion can cause adverse outcomes.

  • Increased non-reality based thinking;

  • Susceptibility to con artists and grifters;

  • More judgmental and willing to punish those who are not adherents;

  • Unwillingness to incorporate new information into personal or group worldview.

I personally have a strong negative bias towards religion and the Christian religion in particular. This is due to being raised in an evangelical household as the child of Protestant missionaries. I became convinced relatively early in life that my parents were experiencing shared delusions. Praying didn't produce the results it should have, and I found myself unable to accept that my purpose for existing was to serve as a pawn in a board game for the bipolar, petty being described in the Christian Bible. 

If you self-identify as a Christian and haven't read your holy book with a critical eye, stop reading this essay and get cracking. I highly recommend The Skeptic's Annotated Bible by Steve Wells (affiliate link). If you are short on funds, visit the book's website.

This is part one of a multi-part essay on the psychology of religion and is dedicated to Harley, my adoptive father. He devoted his life to his faith and to his fellow humans, in that order. The order of things is important.