The Psychology of Religion: A Force For Good or Evil?
The Psychology of Religion: A Force For Good or Evil?
By Steve Taylor Ph.D. / psychologytoday.com
May 15, 2015

Is religion the source of conflict, or are deeper problems to blame? Militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins compare religion to a virus which infects human minds and turns potentially rational people into dogmatic automatons, willing to kill and die for their beliefs. But this is a dangerous over-simplification. Although I’m not religious myself – I don’t believe in God or follow any religious tradition – I believe that religion is being used as a scapegoat for deeper psychological problems.

The dogmatically religious impulse stems from the psychological need for group identity and belonging, together with a need for certainty and meaning. There is a strong impulse in human beings to define ourselves, whether it’s as a Christian, a Muslim, a socialist, an American, a Republican, or as a fan of a sports club. This urge is closely connected to the impulse to be part of a group, to feel that you belong, and share the same beliefs and principles as others. And these impulses work together with the need for certainty – the feeling that you ‘know’, that you possess the truth, that you are right and others are wrong.

At the root of these impulses is a fundamental anxiety and sense of lack, caused by what I call ‘ego-separateness’ – our sense of being distinct individuals, existing in separation to other people, and a world ‘out there.’ This generates a sense of being ‘cut off’, like fragments which were once part of a whole. There is also a sense of vulnerability and insecurity, caused by our insignificance in the face of the world. As a result, we need to ‘bolster’ our sense of self, to strengthen our identity. And religion – and other belief systems – helps us to do this.

Militant atheists claim that religion itself is the source of conflict, but it’s really the need for group identity. If religion wasn’t available as a way of providing group identity, human beings would – and do, of course – find other sources of identity: ethnic or regional differences, political beliefs, or football clubs. And when two or more groups are thrown together, with their different beliefs and beliefs clashing – different beliefs which are an affront because they suggest that their own beliefs may be wrong – conflict and warfare are always close at hand.

Spiritual and Dogmatic Religion
However, it’s important to make a distinction between ‘dogmatic’ and ‘spiritual’ religion. Dogmatic religion is the type I have just described, which props up the fragile ego. Dogmatically religious people think that they’re right and everyone else is wrong. For them, religion isn’t about self-development or experiencing the transcendent, but about adhering to a set of rigid beliefs and following the rules laid down by religious authorities. It’s about defending their beliefs against anyone who questions them, asserting their ‘truth’ over other people’s, and spreading those beliefs to others. For them, the fact that other people have different beliefs is an affront, since it implies the possibility that their own beliefs may not be true. They need to convince other people that they’re wrong to prove to themselves that they’re right.

‘Spiritual’ religion is very different. It promotes the higher attributes of human nature, like altruism and compassion, and fosters a sense of the sacred and sublime. ‘Spiritually religious’ people don’t feel any animosity to other religious groups – in fact, they’re happy to investigate other beliefs, and may even go to other groups’ temples and services. They usually aren’t evangelical – their attitude is that different religions are suited to different people, and that all religions are different manifestations or expressions of the same essential truths.

In other words, whereas the purpose of dogmatic religion is to strengthen the ego, through beliefs, labels and group identity, the purpose of spiritual religion is the complete opposite of this – to transcend the ego, through compassion, altruism and spiritual practice.

Transcending Religion?
Some ‘new atheists’ see religions as archaic superstitions which will eventually be superseded by science and reason, but it’s unlikely that religion will ever disappear. As long as human beings experience ‘ego-separation’, dogmatic religion will always persist. And as long as we experience an impulse to transcend our ‘ego-separation’, so will spiritual religion.

The irony is that militant atheism is actually very similar to dogmatic religion. Militant atheists are obeying the same impulse for identity and certainty – the same desire to possess ‘the truth’ as fundamentalist Christians. They display the same antagonism to those with different belief system, and have the same drive to ‘convert’ the ignorant to their way of thinking.

Don’t blame religion for our problems – blame the human need for belonging and certainty.

Steve Taylor is senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University.His latest book in the US is Back to Sanity: Healing the Madness of the Human Mind. He is also the author of The Fall, Waking From Sleep, and Out of the Darkness. His books have been published in 16 languages. His research has appeared in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, The Journal of Consciousness Studies, The Transpersonal Psychology Review, The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, as well as the popular media in the UK, including on BBC World TV, The Guardian, and The Independent. www.stevenmtaylor.com

4.2 ·
2
Trending Today
"The Myth of Time" - Martin Luther King Jr.
3 min · 6,913 views today · Excerpt from MLK Jr.'s last sermon, "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution". Delivered at The National Cathedral on March 31, 1968 (4 days prior to his...
How a Lack of Touch Is Destroying Men
Mark Green · 5,053 views today · Why Men Need More Platonic Touch in their Lives
Real Underground Kingdom That Has Existed for Millions of Years Went Unnoticed, Until Recently...
Kid Krunk · 4,728 views today · 28 Stunning Photos Of The World’s Largest Cave
Surviving Capitalist Depression
Michael Emero · 3,569 views today · We live in a toxic society filled with toxic people. Even the ones with the best hearts- including ourselves- have been raised in ignorance, with disinformation. Our examples...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 2,714 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
How Wolves Change Rivers
4 min · 2,187 views today · When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the United States after being absent nearly 70 years, the most remarkable "trophic cascade" occurred. What is a...
Thich Nhat Hanh: How We Can Learn to Love Our Enemies
5 min · 2,044 views today · This is a short excerpt from Peacemaking. I often think about this story when I think about the kind of activism I would like to bring into this world. I want to help build a...
A Hauntingly Beautiful Short Film About Life and Death
5 min · 1,935 views today · The Life of Death is a touching handdrawn animation about the day Death fell in love with Life.
I Am Not Your Negro (2017)
3 min · 1,705 views today · In his new film, director Raoul Peck envisions the book James Baldwin never finished - a radical narration about race in America, using the writer's original words. He draws...
Hans Rosling Brilliantly Explains Complexity of Population and Resource Issues Using Simple Tools
3 min · 1,524 views today · Let me show you the world, says Swedish academic Han Rosling as he demonstrates the dynamics of population growth, child mortality and carbon dioxide emissions. The challenge...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,498 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
The Charter For Compassion
2 min · 1,485 views today · The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated...
True Justice Should Have Compassion in It
Thich Nhat Hanh · 1,259 views today · I believe that true justice should have compassion in it. When someone does something harmful, destructive, the destruction is done not only to the person who is the victim...
What It Really Means to Hold Space for Someone
Heather Plett · 740 views today · How to be there for the people who need you most
The Price of Certainty
7 min · 665 views today · It’s alarming to see how polarized politics have become in the United States. The wider the gulf grows, the more people seem to be certain that the other side is wrong...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 583 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
Touch Isolation: How Homophobia Has Robbed All Men Of Touch
Mark Greene · 371 views today · Homophobic prohibitions against male touch are hurting straight men as well.
Meet the Earthship
7 min · 367 views today · Outside of Taos, New Mexico, you'll find a community of people living in off-grid homes made of garbage. The homes are called Earthships and were invented by Michael Reynolds...
The Importance of Empathy
3 min · 355 views today · With an increasingly polarized and divided world, we need empathy more than ever before. Too often we are talking at each other, unable to listen and jumping to entirely wrong...
The Demoralized Mind
John Schumaker · 353 views today · Western consumer culture is creating a psycho-spiritual crisis that leaves us disoriented and bereft of purpose. How can we treat our sick culture and make ourselves well? asks...
Load More
What's Next
Like us on Facebook?
The Psychology of Religion: A Force For Good or Evil?