Psychologising about God and Religion

(1) A Topical Issue

The headline in part one of The Times on August 1st this year read, "Therapy is re-placing religion says Carey". (By therapy Archbishop Carey was referring to psychotherapy). The same day an even bigger headline in part two reporting an interview with the radio and television psychiatrist Anthony Clare was headed "Why I have lost faith in God". And to cap it all the widely read author Maeve Bichy was reported by Clare's interviewer as having said of her loss of belief in God, "I woke one morning and suddenly he wasn't there, It was like not believing any more in Santa Claus". Which all shows that popular and media interest in psychologising about God and religion is alive and well.

These reports recall and illustrate how psychologist’s interests in the origins and functions of religious beliefs and practices re-occur in modern dress from time to time. Anthony Clare also said , "Part of the appeal is that religion helps with a sense of loneliness. It's as though you are part of a wider community, and it gives people the kind of ecstatic feeling they might find at a football match or a rock concert".

You will notice how this reference to the comforting aspect of belief in God echoes what Freud said ninety years ago when he described it as a comforting illusion. Professor Clare's likening of religion to "the kind of ecstatic feeling you get at a football match or a rock concert", and Bichy's account of the suddeness of her loss of faith, recall the debates fifty years ago ,led by the psychiatrist William Sargant, drawing attention to the emotionalism and sudden conversions at some large evangelistic meetings.

(2) The historical background

These reports also nicely illustrate how some of the long established specialist fields in psychology such as psychopathology, social psychology and physiological psychology, continue to enter into discussions of the origins and functions of religious beliefs and practices. Some have claimed that the accounts given have challenged the status of religious beliefs and/or questioned traditional views of some religious practices. In this way they have reminded us of the "warfare" metaphor used in the past to describe the interactions between science and religion. Although largely discredited by historians of science it surfaces again from time to time and in the present context this is illustrated by the views of Freud at the beginning of the 20th-century, of Skinner in the middle of that are century, and of Crick at the end.

At the end of the nineteenth century there were four significant influences which provided the basis for later studies of the relationship between religion and psychology. These were (1) Francis Galton's studies of the manifestations of religion, (e.g. prayer); (2) studies of comparative religion and the origins of religion by anthropologists such as James Frazer; (3) the writings of theologians such as W.R.Inge on mysticism and religious experiences; and (4) the beginnings of a systematic psychology of religion(e.g. E.G.Starbuck, The Psychology of Religion, 1899), culminating in William James's classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience, ( 1902). None of these studies implied a warfare between psychology and religion. Certainly for William James the relationship between the two was a strongly positive one and he sought to explore how psychology could deepen understanding of the roots and fruits of religion.

As we move into 20th-century the picture changes. Despite Freud's own disclaimers, he is widely seen as explaining away religious beliefs and exposing religious practice as nothing but the persistence of an interim social neurosis. The fact that his views on the origins of religion had been repeatedly and severely criticised by professional anthropologists, on the ground that many of the `facts' upon which he based his theories were incorrect, has done little in the popular mind to bring his views into disrepute (e.g. Malinowski 1927;1936). Freud produced a good story and it persists long after his views were widely discredited by scholars in related disciplines.

Another major figure of the early part of the 20th-century was Carl Jung who was both a psychologist and a psychoanalyst. For a time Jung was a close collaborator of Freud, but they came to differ radically in their views of both psychology and religion. For Freud, psychology pointed to religion as a neurosis which could be dispelled and the patient (the human race?) cured, while for Jung religion was an essential human activity, and the task of psychology was to try and understand how human nature reacts to situations normally described as religious. As G.S. Spink's wrote, "For Freud religion was an obsessional neurosis and at no time did he modify that judgement." For Jung it was the absence of religion that was the chief cause of adult psychological disorders, (1963).

While Freud and Jung captured the headlines in talking about the psychology and religion interface in the first half 20th-century, there were others who wrote on the topic. R.H.Thouless was one of these. His approach was highly constructive and a complete contrast with the warfare metaphor. He represents a tradition, which has continued since the second world war, with several noteworthy attempts to offer new insights into religion through the eyes of psychology. Notable among these have been G. W. Allport's The Individual and His Religion (1951), Michael Argyle's several books including Religious Behaviour and, with Beit Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion. There are thus many excellent books on the psychology of religion which are not infused with any notion of conflict, but while they are read by psychologists and others interested in deepening our understanding of the part played by religion in our thoughts and feelings, there are not newsworthy because there are not confrontational. Such, however, was not the case with B.F. Skinner's views on religion.

In the mid-20th-century, Skinner's views were the most widely publicised of the `warfare' genre. This is understandable because of his well-deserved reputation as the leading behavioural psychologist at that time. Having achieved considerable success with techniques for shaping and modifying behaviour, Skinner went on to speculate about how such techniques might be harnessed to influence the future of society. He believed that similar principles, based on the effects of rewards and punishments, could explain how religious practice functions psychologically. "The religious agency", he said, "is a special form of government under which `good' and `bad' becomes `pious' and `sinful'". He argued that good things, personified as a god, are reinforcing, whereas the threat of hell is an aversive stimulus; and that both these shape behaviour. Underlying Skinner's approach is a reductionist assumption. He speaks of concepts of god being `reduced to' what we find positively reinforcing. Skinner's views were challenged by an equally distinguished psychologist and neuroscientist Roger Sperry, who became a Nobel laureate. He criticised the bankruptcy of some forms of behaviourism and accepted the benefits of a positive relationship between psychology and religion as allies engaged in a common task. Having spent his career studying brain mechanisms, Sperry wrote that he detected amongst neuroscientists "a move away from the mechanistic, deterministic and reductionistic doctrines of pre-1965 science to the more humanistic interpretations of the 1970’s. He argued that it was simplistic try to reduce humans to `nothing but' physico- chemical machines. As we shall see in a moment this is an entirely different view from that of Francis Crick, a fellow Nobel laureate. Crick argued that the idea of the soul is now redundant and discredited by his interpretation of neuroscience, and that religious belief in the soul was meaningless.

This very brief backwards glance is sufficient to alert to two enduring and recurring issues. The first highlights the need to scrutinise carefully the nature of the explanations offered by psychologists of religious beliefs, experiences and behaviour. Some like James, Thouless, Allport and Argyle, saw themselves as providing fresh glimpses into the mechanisms involved in the origins and maintenance of religious beliefs and behaviour. Others, like Freud and Skinner, believed that the explanations they offered were competitors with, and alternatives to, the accounts traditionally given in religious language. The approach was, at times, unashamedly reductionistic and materialistic, for example, when Freud wrote at the end of his psychological study of Leonardo da Vinci he said “Psychoanalysis … has taught us that the personal God is psychologically nothing other than a magnified father; … “Elsewhere he wrote that religion is “nothing other than psychological processes projected into the outer world.“

However, as a little thought indicates, regardless of whether the explanations are couched in psycho analysic terms, or of reinforcement theory, or Pavlovian conditioning, such explanations cannot, by their nature, explain away the meaningfulness or otherwise of the ‘God talk’ any more than the computer engineers description, in electronic terms, of how the computer solves mathematical equations makes redundant the mathematician’s reference to the mathematical equations. The psychological account can no more be presented as the refutation of the reality of the God whom the religious person claims to know, than can the electronic account be presented as demonstrating that mathematical concepts are now redundant and superseded.

The second recurring issue that this brief review underlines is the importance of being aware, as far as possible of the pre-suppositions which any investigator brings to his task. If, as in the case of Freud and Skinner, you bring reductionist and materialist pre-suppositions you will understandably couch your accounts and explanations to be consistent with these pre-suppositions.