Psychology of religion

From Academic Kids

The psychology of religion involves the gathering and classification of data (usually wide ranging) and the building of the explanations of the psychological processes underlying the religious experiences and beliefs.


Psychoanalytical studies

Sigmund Freud : Oedipus Complex, Illusion

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) gave explanations of the genesis of religion in various of his writings. In Totem and Taboo he applied the idea of the Oedipus complex (involving unresolved sexual feelings of, forexample, a son toward his mother and hostility toward his father) and postulated its emergence in the primordial stage of human development.

In Moses and Monotheism Freud reconstructed biblical history in accord with his general theory, but biblical scholars and historians would not accept his account since it was in opposition to the point of view of the accepted criteria of historical evidence. His ideas were also developed in The Future of an Illusion. When Freud spoke of religion as an illusion, he maintained that it is a fantasy structure from which a man must be set free if he is to grow to maturity; and in his treatment of the unconscious he moved toward atheism.

Freud's view of the idea of God as being a version of the father image and his thesis that religious belief is at bottom infantile and neurotic do not depend upon the speculative accounts of prehistory and biblical history with which Freud dressed up his version of the origin and nature of religion. Authoritarian religion, according to Freud, is dysfunctional and alienates man from himself.

Carl Jung : Universal Archetypes

The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1875-1961) adopted a very different posture, one that was more sympathetic to religion and more concerned with a positive appreciation of religious symbolism. Jung considered the question of the existence of God to be unanswerable by the psychologist and adopted a kind of agnosticism.

Jung postulated, in addition to the personal unconscious (roughly as in Freud), the collective unconscious, which is the repository of human experience and which contains “archetypes” (i.e., basic images that are universal in that they recur in independent cultures). The irruption of these images from the unconscious into the realm of consciousness he viewed as the basis of religious experience and often of artistic creativity. Some of Jung's writings have been devoted to elucidating some of the archetypal symbols, and include his work in comparative mythology.

Jung had a very broad view of what it means to be empirical. Suppose, for example, that I hear a voice from deity but that you do not, even though we are sitting next to each other. If only one person experiences something, for Jung it is an empirical observation. For most contemporary scientists, however, it would not be considered an empirical observation. Because of this, there has been regrettably little research in the psychology of religion from a Jungian perspective.

Erich Fromm : Desire, Need for Stable Frame

The American scholar Erich Fromm (1900-1980) modified Freudian theory and produced a more complex account of the functions of religion. Part of the modification is viewing the Oedipus complex as based not so much on sexuality as on a “much more profound desire”, namely, the childish desire to remain attached to protecting figures. The right religion, in Fromm's estimation, can, in principle, foster an individual's highest potentialities, but religion in practice tends to relapse into being neurotic.

According to Erich Fromm humans have a need for a stable frame of reference. Religion apparently fills this need. In effect, humans crave answers to questions that no other source of knowledge has an answer to, which only religion may seem to answer. However, a sense of free will must be given in order for religion to appear healthy. An authoritarian notion of religion appears detrimental .

Other studies

William James : Personal religious experience, Pragmatism

A U.S. psychologist and philosopher, William James (1842-1910) served as president of American Psychological Association, and wrote one of the first psychology textbooks. In the psychology of religion, James's influence endures. His Varieties of Religious Experience is considered to be the classic work in the field, and is worth reading by anyone who is interested in psychology and religion. Indeed, references to James's ideas are common at professional conferences.

James distinguished between institutional religion and personal religion. Institutional religion refers to the religious group or organization, and plays an important part in a society's culture. Personal religion, in which the individual has a mystical experience, can be experienced regardless of the culture. James was most interested in understanding personal religious experience.

If personal religious experiences were what James preferred, dogmatism was something that he disliked. Dogmatic thought, whether religious or scientific, was anathema to James. The importance of James to the psychology of religion -and to psychology more generally- is difficult to overstate. He discussed many essential issues that remain of vital concern today.

William James hypothesis of pragmatism stems from the efficacy of religion. If an individual believes in and performs religious activities, and those actions happen to work, then that practice appears the proper choice for the individual. However, if the processes of religion have little efficacy, then there is no rationality for continuing the practice.

Alfred Adler : Feeling of Inferiority, Perfection

An Austrian psychiatrist who parted ways with Freud, Alfred Adler (1870-1937) emphasized the role of goals and motivation in his Individual Psychology. One of Adler's most famous ideas is that we try to compensate for inferiorities that we perceive in ourselves. A lack of power often lies at the root of feelings of inferiority. One way that religion enters into this picture is through our beliefs in God, which are characteristic of our tendency to strive for perfection and superiority. For example, in many religions God is considered to be perfect and omnipotent, and commands people likewise to be perfect. If we too achieve perfection, we become one with God. By identifying with God in this way, we compensate for our imperfections and feelings of inferiority.

Our ideas about God are important indicators of how we view the world. According to Adler these ideas have changed over time, as our vision of the world -and our place in it- has changed. Consider this example that Adler offers: the traditional belief that people were placed deliberately on earth as God's ultimate creation, is being replaced with the idea that people have evolved by natural selection. This coincides with a view of God not as a real being, but as an abstract representation of nature's forces. In this way, our view of God has changed from one that was concrete and specific to one that is more general. From Adler's vantage point, this is a relatively ineffective perception of God because it is so general that it fails to convey a strong sense of direction and purpose.

An important thing for Adler is that God (or the idea of God) motivates people to act, and that those actions do have real consequences for ourselves and for others. Our view of God is important because it embodies our goals and directs our social interactions.

Compared to science, another social movement, religion is more advanced because it motivates people more effectively. According to Adler, only when science begins to capture the same religious fervor, and promotes the welfare of all segments of society, will the two be more equal in people's eyes.

Ludwig Feuerbach : Imagination, Wishes, Fear of Death

Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach (1804-1872), in his work The Essence of Christianity (1841) set up a strong criticism of Christian religion.

The "omnipotence of feeling" in human nature leads to a variety of religious faith : the faith in providence, which is a form of confidence in the infinite value of one's own existence; faith in miracle, the confidence that the gods are unfettered by natural necessity and can realize one's wishes in an instant; and faith in immortality, the certainty that the gods will not permit the individual to perish.

Imagination (Phantasie) is the original organ of religion. The imagination, unlike abstract thought, produces images that have the power to stir the feelings and emotions. Human beings are sensuous creatures who require sensuous images as vehicles for their hopes and dreams. Feuerbach explained the difference between polytheism and monotheism as a result of the imagination being fascinated by the multiplicity of beings, in the former case, and by the coherence and unity of the world, in the latter case. The Christian imagination, however, closes its eyes to nature, separates the personified essence of nature entirely from sense perception and transforms what was originally nature into an abstract unified metaphysical being. Feuerbach attributed the psychological hold of Christianity on humans to lie in its assurance of personal recognition by the Divine and the hope of immortality.

As a conscious being bent on its own fulfillment, the person has purposes, needs, and desires, the shadowside of which is the awareness that these may be frustrated. Hence, all wishes are accompanied by anxiety and fear, a pervading sense of the nothingness that clings to all human activity. With the wish that this nothingness be removed, the conception of the gods arises.

The gods represent the unity of willing (Wollen) and being able to succeed (Können). A god is simply a being in which this distinction has been annulled. "Where there are no wishes there are no gods".

For Feuerbach, the supernatural deities arise from our fears and desires people have of fearsome aspects of nature. For example, lightning, fire, flood, and other catastrophes appear attributed to the effective intranquality between humans and a their higher deity, or perhaps between a conflict between higher deities.

Gordon Alport : Mature Religion and Immature Religion

His classic book, The Individual and His Religion, Gordon Alport (1897-1967) illustrates how people may use religion in different ways. He makes a distinction between Mature religion and Immature religion. Mature religious sentiment is how Allport characterized the person whose approach to religion is dynamic, open-minded, and able to maintain links between inconsistencies. In contrast, Immature religion is self-serving and generally represents the negative stereotypes that people have about religion.

Erik H. Erikson : Influence on Personality developement

Erik Erikson (1902-1994) is best known for his theory of psychological development, which has its roots in the psychoanalytic importance of identity in personality. His biographies of Gandhi and Luther reveal Erikson's positive view of religion. He considered religions to be important influences in successful personality development because they are the primary way that cultures promote the virtues associated with each stage of life. Religious rituals facilitate this development. Erikson's theory has not benefited from systematic empirical study, but it remains an influential and well-regarded theory in the psychological study of religion.

Rudolf Otto : Non-rational Experience

Rudolf Otto (1869-1936) was a german protestant theologian and scholar of comparative religion. Otto's most famous work, The Idea of the Holy (published first in 1917 as Das Heilige) defines the concept of the holy as that which is numinous. Otto explained the numinous as a "non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self". It is a mystery (Latin: mysterium tremendum) that is both fascinating (fascinans) and terrifying at the same time; A mystery that causes trembling and fascination, attempting to explain that inexpressible and perhaps supernatural emotional reaction of wonder drawing us to seemingly ordinary and/or religious experiences of grace. This sense of emotional wonder appears evident at the root of all religious experiences. Through this emotional wonder, we suspend our rational mind for non-rational possibilites.

It also sets a paradigm for the study of religion that focuses on the need to realize the religious as a non-reducible, original category in its own right. This paradigm was under much attack between approximately 1950 and 1990 but has made a strong comeback since then.

Religion and drugs

Karl Marx : Religion as Opium of the people

Karl Marx thinks religion is "The opium of people". He asserts that "Morals, religion, metaphysics and other forms of ideology and the forms of consciousness corresponding to them no longer retain their apparent independence. It is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness".

Marx compared religion to opium (a drug that lessen pain and create fantasies ) because he saw religion playing the same role in the life of the people. Through religion, the life of the pain workers that suffered in a cruel and exploitative world, was eased by the fantasy of a supernatural world void of all sorrow and oppression. In this perspective, he sees religion as escapism. This escapism shifted the gaze upward to an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-enduring God who occupies a perfect Heaven.

J.H. Leuba : Mystical experience and drugs

The american psychologist J.H. Leuba (1868-1946), in A Psychological Study of Religion, accounts for mystical experience psychologically and physiologically, pointing to analogies with certain drug-induced experiences. Leuba argued forcibly for a naturalistic treatment of religion, which he considered to be necessary if religious psychology was to be looked at scientifically. Shamans all over the world and in different cultures have traditionally used drugs, especially psychedelics for their religious experiences. In this communities, the absorption of drugs leads to dreams, visions, through a sensory perception distorted.

William James accounted also for the mystical experience in a drug-induced perspective, leading him to make some experiments with nitrous oxide and even peyote. He concludes that while the revelations of the mystic hold true, they hold true only for the mystic; for others, they are certainly ideas to be considered, but can hold no claim to truth without personal experience of such.

Drug-induced religious experiences

The drugs used by religious communities for their hallucinogenic effects were adopted for explicit and implicit religious functions and purposes. The drugs were and are reported to enhance religious experience, through visions and a distortion of the sensory perception (like in dreams in a state of sleep).

  • Cannabis sativa, which grows all over the world except in very cold climates, is used in religious practices in Indian and African communities
  • Certain Hallucinogenic Mushrooms are used by cultists among the Indians in Latin America, especially in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. The chief species is Psilocybe mexicana , of which the active principle is psilocybin and its derivative psilocin, in their chemical composition and activity not unlike LSD (D-lysergic acid diethylamide); the latter is synthesized from the alkaloids (principally ergotamine and ergonovine) that are constituents of ergot, a growth present in grasses affected by the disease also called ergot. Amanita muscaria (fly agaric) is another mushroom having hallucinogenic properties that has not been thoroughly studied. It may be extremely important, since it may have been the natural source of the ritual soma drink of the ancient Hindus and the comparable haoma used by the Zoroastrians. [[Fly agaric, which is extremely toxic, is said to have, in addition to its hallucinogenic properties, the ability to increase strength and endurance; it is said also to be a soporific.
  • Peyote used by some indian communities of Mexico. The chief active principle of peyote is an alkaloid called mescaline. Like psilocin and psilocybin, mescaline is reputed to produce visions and other evidences of a mystical nature. Despite claims of missionaries and some government agents that peyote—from the Nahuatl word peyotl (“divine messenger”)—is a degenerative and dangerous drug, there appears to be no evidence of this among the members of the Native American Church, a North American Indian cult that uses peyote in its chief religious ceremony. Peyote, like most other hallucinogenic drugs, is not considered to be addictive and, far from being a destructive influence, is reputed by cultists and some observers to promote morality and ethical behaviour among the Indians who use it ritually.
  • Ayahuasca , caapi, or yajé, is produced from the stem bark of the vines Banisteriopsis caapi and B. inebrians. Indians who use it claim that its virtues include healing powers and the power to induce clairvoyance, among others. This drink has been certified by investigators to produce remarkable effects, often involving the sensation of flying. The effects are thought to be attributable to the action of harmine, a very stable indole (structurally related to LSD) that is the active principle in the plant.
  • Kava drink, prepared from the roots of Piper methysticum, a species of pepper, and seemingly more of a hypnotic–narcotic than a hallucinogen, is used both socially and ritually in the South Pacific, especially in Polynesia.
  • Iboga, or ibogaine, a powerful stimulant and hallucinogen derived from the root of the African shrub Tabernanthe iboga (and, like psilocybin and harmine, a chemical relative of LSD), is used by the Bwiti cult in Central Africa.
  • Coca, source of cocaine, has had both ritual and social use chiefly in Peru.
  • Datura , one species of which is the jimsonweed, is used by native peoples in North and South America; the active principle, however, is highly toxic and dangerous. A drink prepared from the shrub Mimosa hostilis that is said to produce glorious visions in warriors before battle, is used ritually in the ajuca ceremony of the Jurema cult in eastern Brazil.

The Effects of Meditation

The large variety of meditation techniques share the common goal of shifting attention away from habitual modes of thinking and perception, in order to permit experiencing in a different way. Many religious and spiritual traditions that employ meditation assert that the world most of us know is an illusion. This illusion is said to be created by our habitual mode of separating, classifying and labeling our perceptual experiences. Meditation is empirical in that it involves direct experience. Though it is also subjective in that the meditative state can be directly known only by the experiencer, and may be difficult or impossible to fully describer in words.

Concentrative meditation can enable to reach an altered state characterized by a loss of sensory awareness of extraneous stimuli, one-pointed attention to the meditation object to the exclusion of all other thoughts, and feelings of bliss.

See also




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