In this post, Leeds Metropolitan University psychology expert Dr Steve Taylor, looks at the psychology of religion and asks whether it is a force for good or evil.

Richard Dawkins compares 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 an 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 issues.

In my view, 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 football team. This urge is closely connected to the impulse to be part of a group, to feel that we belong, and share the same beliefs and principles as others. And these impulses work together with the need for certainty – the feeling that we ‘know’, possess the truth, that we are right and others are wrong.

At the root of these impulses is a fundamental anxiety and sense of lack, caused by what – in my book Back to Sanity – 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.

Dawkins and others have claimed 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 of these identity-groups are thrown together, with clashing beliefs and principles, conflict and warfare are always close at hand. Often these have been religious groups, of course, but frequently they have been ethnic or political groups too.

Spiritual and Dogmatic Religion

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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 self-system. Dogmatically religious people think that they’re right and everyone else is wrong. For them, religion is 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. 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 sense of self, through beliefs, labels and group identity, the purpose of spiritual religion is the complete opposite of this – to transcend the self, 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 ‘ego-separation’, so will spiritual religion.

The irony is that militant atheists such as Dawkins are actually very similar to dogmatically religious people. They 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.