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. /

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.

4.2 ·
What's Next
Trending Today
Noam Chomsky Has 'Never Seen Anything Like This'
Chris Hedges · 11,205 views today · Noam Chomsky is America’s greatest intellectual. His massive body of work, which includes nearly 100 books, has for decades deflated and exposed the lies of the power elite...
Donald Trump Is the Mirror and Hillary Clinton Is the Mask
Chris Agnos · 10,075 views today · Disclaimer: I do not support Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton for president. I think the scope of the political debate is far too narrow for the kinds of actions that need to...
Gil Scott-Heron Deconstructs Colonialism and Black History in His Own Unique Style
3 min · 5,245 views today · His-Story: I was wondering about our yesterdays, and starting searching through the rubble and to say the very least, somebody went to a hell of a lot of trouble to make sure...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 4,329 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 2,270 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...
Donald and Hobbes Is Genius
Various · 1,952 views today · Some clever folk have been replacing precocious 6-year-old Calvin, from the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, with Donald Trump and the results are, well, take a look...
For Those Who Don't Want to Vote for the Lesser of Two Evils
Peter White · 1,790 views today · Ranked-choice voting is catching on, and Maine might become the first state to help citizens vote for candidates they actually want.
HyperNormalisation (2016)
161 min · 1,669 views today · We live in a time of great uncertainty and confusion. Events keep happening that seem inexplicable and out of control. Donald Trump, Brexit, the War in Syria, the endless...
Anarchists - What We Stand For
unknown · 1,393 views today · Anarchism : The word “anarchy” comes from Greek and means “no rulers”. As a political philosophy, anarchism is based on the idea that organization does not require rulers—that...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 1,350 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...
Mark Corske's Engines of Domination (2014)
60 min · 1,307 views today · Political power -- armed central authority, with states and war -- is it part of human nature? Is it necessary for human communities? Or is it a tool that ruling elites use to...
10 Quotes From an Oglala Lakota Chief That Will Make You Question Everything About Our Society
Wisdom Pills · 1,178 views today · Luther Standing Bear was an Oglala Lakota Sioux Chief who, among a few rare others such as Charles Eastman, Black Elk and Gertrude Bonnin occupied the rift between the way of...
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 936 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 752 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Planet Earth II Could Be Best Nature Doc Ever Made
3 min · 750 views today · 10 years ago Planet Earth changed our view of the world. Now we take you closer than ever before. This is life in all its wonder. This is Planet Earth II. A decade ago, the...
Lessons in the Calais Jungle: Teaching Life Stories and Learning About Humanity
Aura Lounasmaa · 671 views today · I am part of a team of academics teaching a course to residents in the Calais Jungle, a camp for migrants and refugees outside the French city. Life Stories in the Jungle has...
Schooling the World (2010)
66 min · 391 views today · If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. Government knew this in the 19th...
Eckhart Tolle: Your Facebook Ego, That's Not Who You Are
2 min · 374 views today · “Identification with thoughts and the emotions that go with those thoughts creates a false mind-made sense of self, conditioned by the past: the "little me" and its story. This...
The Top 100 Documentaries We Can Use to Change the World
Films For Action · 346 views today · A more beautiful, just and sustainable world is possible. Take this library and use it to inspire global change!
The Untold History of Palestine & Israel
22 min · 345 views today · Previewing Abby Martin’s on-the-ground investigation in Palestine, The Empire Files looks at the long history of Zionist colonization, expansion and expulsion of Palestine’s...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
The Psychology of Religion: A Force For Good or Evil?