F Rosa Rubicondior: Whatever Possesses Religious People?

Saturday 6 October 2012

Whatever Possesses Religious People?

Firstly, religion isn't possession. That idea comes from old superstitions which had demons everywhere, taking over people's bodies and even giving them strange magical powers. Thankfully, all but the most primitive religions no longer seem to push that aspect of their faith even though their holy book may be full of it.

The better question is: what motivates religious people? What are the psychological causes of religion and religiosity?

A few days ago I showed in "Why Religious People Are So Atheistic" how, for the most part, religious people behave exactly like perfectly normal Atheists save for a small over-head of additional effort, a little delay for praying here and there before acting, maybe a trip to a special place of collective worship on special days or times according to the particular superstition being subscribed to, and all for no appreciable tangible benefits in terms of normal, everyday living.

So what do they get out of their religion, or rather their religious identity and activities? For that we need to look at human psychology, something which, perhaps ironically, can be fully understood in terms of evolved characteristics of an intelligent social ape. (I expect that's lost the Creationists if the paragraph about demons didn't).

Firstly a brief definition of 'motivation': Motivation is the psychological feature that arouses an organism to action toward a desired goal and elicits, controls, and sustains certain goal directed behaviors. (Wikipedia - Motivation). So basic motivational psychology principles apply to all sentient species, not just humans.

One useful, though far from perfect, model for understanding the psychology of motivation is the Hierarchy of Needs devised by the American psychologist, Abraham Maslow

As originally proposed, there were five 'levels' of need in Maslow's hierarchy and the model assumed that the lower needs had to be 'filled' before the next level would motivate.

  1. Physiological Needs

    These include the most basic needs that are vital to survival, such as the need for water, air, food, and sleep. Maslow believed that these needs are the most basic and instinctive needs in the hierarchy because all needs become secondary until these physiological needs are met.
  2. Security Needs

    These include needs for safety and security. Security needs are important for survival, but they are not as demanding as the physiological needs. Examples of security needs include a desire for steady employment, health insurance, safe neighborhoods, and shelter from the environment.
  3. Social Needs

    These include needs for belonging, love, and affection. Maslow considered these needs to be less basic than physiological and security needs. Relationships such as friendships, romantic attachments, and families help fulfill this need for companionship and acceptance, as does involvement in social, community, or religious groups.
  4. Esteem Needs

    After the first three needs have been satisfied, esteem needs becomes increasingly important. These include the need for things that reflect on self-esteem, personal worth, social recognition, and accomplishment.
  5. Self-actualizing Needs

    This is the highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Self-actualizing people are self-aware, concerned with personal growth, less concerned with the opinions of others, and interested fulfilling their potential.

These original five levels have been added to by some authorities and have also been criticised for being culturally biased, especially in the details. Some researchers have also found that, for example, social or affiliative needs can also be important motivators whilst the lower needs remain un-filled so the structure of the pyramid itself may be faulty. However, Maslow's hierarchy provides a useful list of motivating factors which is probably good enough for our purposes.

For our purposes, the upper levels above the physiological and security levels are where we need to look for what motivates people to be religious. Of course, it is possible that some especially fanatical, bordering on the deranged, may expect religion to provide them with food, water, shelter and, especially safety from predators but even these are likely to actually go and look for food, shelter, etc., and to avoid being eaten or (the modern equivalent in developed societies) being run over by road traffic.

We will find, for example, that very many people profess to be religious because of what their friends would say or do if they weren't, and especially if they changed religion or gave it up altogether. In very many cases, the need for group membership will be the strongest motivator, and may well be the reason the person goes to the place of worship for fear of being ostracised. Talk to almost any recently out-of-the-closet Atheist and they will say what they worried about most, and what is still upsetting them, was the likely reaction of their friends, family and work-colleagues.

Religions go to great lengths to promulgate a feeling of in-group membership and to distance this from the out-group. Members of the out-group are everyone who is not in, and members of the in-group get a sense of satisfaction at being in the 'right' group.

This can easily lead to cult formation where a small in-group can become highly cohesive (and so easy to manipulate) by believing that they are members of a small elite who alone know 'the truth'. Of course, nothing pushes a group together like an external threat and a tight, cohesive group under threat will be much easier to control and direct. Who in their right mind would go against the 'right' group and take the side of the enemies without? Traitors are especially despicable, and probably in league with the devil, who is directing the enemies outside. Seen from inside, this behaviour appears perfectly normal - it's all the others who just don't get it; from outside it can appear deranged, paranoid and deluded.

So the in-group pities, dislikes, distrusts or actively hates everyone else. Those who are not with us are against us. Groups build mental walls around themselves and others build mental walls around the group, just like Robert Frost's Mending Walls "Good fences make good neighbors." In this way, religions encourage fragmentation, cult formation, division and distrust in society whilst members of the sects derive satisfaction from having their social affiliative needs filled. Note that this is nothing to do with whether the particular god exists, what the central dogmas are, or the morals of the group. It's all about membership and affiliation.

Now we move on up Maslow's hierarchy to the 'esteem' needs.

Some models based on Maslow's hierarchy divide this level vertically into two: self-esteem and esteem of others, though we can see immediately how the distinction between the latter and the social needs level below it can be blurred, as Maslow himself says. We will also see how this self-esteem level becomes blurred with the highest level in a moment.


All humans have a need to be respected and to have self-esteem and self-respect. Esteem presents the normal human desire to be accepted and valued by others. People need to engage themselves to gain recognition and have an activity or activities that give the person a sense of contribution, to feel self-valued, be it in a profession or hobby. Imbalances at this level can result in low self-esteem or an inferiority complex. People with low self-esteem need respect from others. They may seek fame or glory, which again depends on others. Note, however, that many people with low self-esteem will not be able to improve their view of themselves simply by receiving fame, respect, and glory externally, but must first accept themselves internally. Psychological imbalances such as depression can also prevent one from obtaining self-esteem on both levels.

Most people have a need for a stable self-respect and self-esteem. Maslow noted two versions of esteem needs, a lower one and a higher one. The lower one is the need for the respect of others, the need for status, recognition, fame, prestige, and attention. The higher one is the need for self-respect, the need for strength, competence, mastery, self-confidence, independence and freedom. The latter one ranks higher because it rests more on inner competence won through experience. Deprivation of these needs can lead to an inferiority complex, weakness and helplessness.

Maslow also states that even though these are examples of how the quest for knowledge is separate from basic needs he warns that these “two hierarchies are interrelated rather than sharply separated” (Maslow 97). This means that this level of need, as well as the next and highest level, are not strict, separate levels but closely related to others, and this is possibly the reason that these two levels of need are left out of most textbooks.

So what does this have to do with religion?

One way to earn respect, especially amongst members of the in-group, is by being the most dedicated, the 'best', the most enthusiastic; by winning more converts or having the deepest understanding of the 'faith'. Being respected also feeds into the self-esteem need so recognition and achievement within the group become goals in their own right. Success is confirmation and self-affirmative.

Seeking the esteem of others from the out-group can also feed into this model as well as reinforcing the 'lower' affiliative needs. Wearing conspicuous badges like crosses and crucifixes, veils, the hijab, facial hair in a special pattern, a skull-cap or a wimple all proclaim membership of the in-group and at the same time project 'holier-than-thou' which may be intended to earn respect but which also plays to self-esteem by making the religious person feel above the 'lesser' people in the out-group of those who don't know 'the truth'.

Again, none of this addresses issues like the existence of gods, the validity of the group philosophy or it's holy book. It's all about ego and affiliation; of belonging and personal needs; even a sense of purpose. How many times have you heard religious people say their 'faith' gives them a sense of purpose?

It now become easier to understand why 'faith' has such a strong appeal. There is no need to examine the underlying claims; to test their validity or even question the morality of group action. Just accept 'on faith' and you can join the group. But, of course, expose that lack of a rational foundation by asking awkward questions and you threaten to take away all those social rewards by making group membership more difficult. Abusing you for asking those questions will earn kudos within the in-group too! Win, win! The more of these 'satanic' questions the better. They just 'prove' the enemies are out to destroy us, and persecution merely proves we're right.

Esteem needs is also where we can find the motive for this peculiar and, to the out-group, ludicrously arrogant claim, that the religious person has a personal relationship with an assumed 'creator of the universe' which also takes a special interest in them and 'loves' them in a special form of love which transcends anything we can imagine. A creator which created the entire universe just for them. Wow! How special is that and how special I must be! Freud explained this as the need for a father figure; Maslow explains it as the need for self-esteem and esteem of others.

The threat which questioning the existence of this imaginary super-friend poses to the religious person can be understood in terms of threatening their self-esteem, hence the simultaneous hostility to questions accompanied by a refusal to examine the arguments or address the actual questions. Instead we almost always see diversionary tactic and attempts to change or re-state the question in an easier form; anything but answer it. Abandoning intellectual integrity is far preferable to confronting doubts on this score, and besides, the imaginary super-friend will appreciate a little self-sacrifice for its sake and the in-group will admire the skill with which the out-group enemy was 'exposed' for his/her hostility in trying to trap the righteous one with clever questions.

Now the last of Maslow's hierarchy, the so-called 'self-actualization' needs. The main feature of this group of factors is the difficulty in defining them. In every psychology course I have taken this group of motivators has been skirted around and left poorly defined. It seems to me to be there because humans need to have a group of motivators not shared with the 'lower' animals. Almost as though psychologists want to add a 'spiritual' dimension to human psychology. I'm not arguing that they don't exist, only that they are poorly defined and so poorly understood.

The term [self-actualization] was later used by Abraham Maslow in his article, A Theory of Human Motivation, Maslow explicitly defines self-actualization to be "the desire for self-fulfillment(sic), namely the tendency for him [the individual] to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming." Maslow used the term self-actualization to describe a desire, not a driving force, that could lead to realizing one's capabilities. Maslow did not feel that self-actualization determined one's life; rather, he felt that it gave the individual a desire, or motivation to achieve budding ambitions. Maslow's usage of the term is now popular in modern psychology when discussing personality from the humanistic approach.

A basic definition from a typical college textbook defines self-actualization according to Maslow simply as "the full realization of one's potential".

A more explicit definition of self-actualization according to Maslow is "intrinsic growth of what is already in the organism, or more accurately of what is the organism itself...self-actualization is growth-motivated rather than deficiency-motivated." This explanation emphasizes the fact that self-actualization cannot normally be reached until other lower order necessities of Maslow's hierarchy of needs are satisfied. While Goldstein defined self-actualization as a driving force, Maslow uses the term to describe personal growth that takes place once lower order needs have been met, one corollary being that, in his opinion, "self-actualisation...rarely happens...certainly in less than 1% of the adult population." The fact that "most of us function most of the time on a level lower than that of self-actualization" he called the psychopathology of normality.

Maslow considered self-actualizing people to possess "an unusual ability to detect the spurious, the fake, and the dishonest in personality, and in general to judge the people correctly and efficiently."

Maslow based his theory partially on his own assumptions about human potential and partially on his case studies of historical figures whom he believed to be self-actualized, including Albert Einstein and Henry David Thoreau. Maslow examined the lives of each of these people in order to assess the common qualities that led each to be to become self-actualized. In general he found that these individuals were very accepting of themselves and of their life circumstances; were focused on finding solutions to cultural problems rather than to personal problems; were open to others' opinions and ideas; had strong senses of privacy, autonomy, human values and appreciation of life; and a few intimate friendships rather than many superficial ones.

Interestingly, Maslow estimated that less than 1% of the adult population become self-actualisers. We can probably see why this should be especially so with religious people, given Maslow's definition or self-actualizers as people who possess "an unusual ability to detect the spurious, the fake, and the dishonest in personality, and in general to judge the people correctly and efficiently." Hence the need to fill the lower levels of motivation with in-group affiliation and even to actively seek 'persecution' by the out-group as some sort of self-affirmation when the higher motivators must seem beyond the reach of those gullible and credulous enough to have fallen for the attractions of religion or who lack the self-confidence to question the social norms of the group whose identity they were labelled with as babies.

It's not surprising that many people who finally manage to leave religion report finding an inner reward, an exhilarating feeling of freedom to 'be myself at last'. The feeling, and the new insights into the world and their relationship to it are 'spiritual' in ways not found in a servile relationship with an unproven and unprovable magic invisible friend. They have achieved Maslow's self-actualization and no longer need the substitute affiliative motivators and one thing they are now free to do is to look for the truth by following the evidence, not by accepting the dogma. The self-affirming, self-actualising activity of trying to be right rather than trying to conform and a willingness and self-confidence to be subservient not to dogma but to reality.

I appreciate that this looks like a break-down of the basic model, which predicates that the lower level motivators need to be filled for those above to become motivators, but, as I said at the beginning, this list is probably best regarded as just that.

While some research showed some support for Maslow's theories, most research has not been able to substantiate the idea of a needs hierarchy. Wahba and Bridwell reported that there was little evidence for Maslow's ranking of these needs and even less evidence that these needs are in a hierarchical order.

Experimental evidence seems to show that 'higher' motivators can still be operating even when lower ones have not been filled. My appreciation of the natural world is in no way lessened when I am hungry or cold or by what my friends think of my atheism (and I have been an Atheist since I was nine, from a time when no one else I knew or had heard of was an Atheist and before I knew it was called atheism, when my parents still went to church on Sundays, but it was to be another six years until I 'came out' as officially atheist - and discovered that two of my school-friends were too).

So there we are: a brief look at the psychology of motivation tells us what motivates religious people to be religious and why an appeal to common sense, rational thought and scientifically established facts hold little sway since their religion is not based on them. It also explains why the vast majority of religious people stick with the group whose identity was pinned on them at birth and why they can become so aggressive and irrational if you threaten their group affiliation with awkward questions. It also explains why almost none of their arguments are about the evidence for their particular god, though they will never admit they don't have any, and more about what their 'faith' gives them.

It also explain the sad reluctance of so many people to come out of the closet when they break free from the mental straight-jacket of received 'wisdom' and begin to think for themselves. For these individuals, and there must be very many of them in overtly religious cultures, the group are their jailers. How can you be yourself when you are not free to be?

Religion is not based on a rational view of the world but on the need to belong to a group, and the fear of leaving it. Ironically for Creationist fundamentalists, that's the same herd instinct we almost certainly evolved on the plains of East Africa, as a puny little ape surrounded by threats and needing the group to protect us, in an environment in which any tendency to go against the group would have been quickly removed from the gene pool by a passing leopard, lion or pack of hyenas.

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  1. very educational post

  2. Am I a bad person for believing in God?

    1. Only if you think credulous gullibility and intellectual dishonesty is bad.

  3. "Now the last of Maslow's hierarchy, the so-called 'self-actualization' needs. The main feature of this group of factors is the difficulty in defining them. In every psychology course I have taken this group of motivators has been skirted around and left poorly defined. It seems to me to be there because humans need to have a group of motivators not shared with the 'lower' animals. Almost as though psychologists want to add a 'spiritual' dimension to human psychology. I'm not arguing that they don't exist, only that they are poorly defined and so poorly understood."

    To remove the emotive and value-laden language from the "self-actualization" needs, I think these are the needs/drives which we might call "internally driven", and which are eclectic and individual, and ideosyncratic. I think these could include some drives which we consider quite antisocial or perhaps even deeply wrong -- arguably Josef Stalin was highly self-actualized -- as well as many drives which we generally consider laudatory, such as the scientist's desire for knowledge.

    I think of self-actualization as being vaguely related to Nietsche's concept of the "superman", which as far as I can tell is not a concept of good or of evil, but simply a concept of a person who actually changes ideas and/or society, rather than being washed along by the trends of what's around.

    "Maslow examined the lives of each of these people in order to assess the common qualities that led each to be to become self-actualized. In general he found that these individuals were very accepting of themselves and of their life circumstances; were focused on finding solutions to cultural problems rather than to personal problems; were open to others' opinions and ideas; had strong senses of privacy, autonomy, human values and appreciation of life; and a few intimate friendships rather than many superficial ones." Seems to fit with my interpretation.

  4. How I liked this blog article about what needs/demands are met by religion! Very interesting, indeed, Rosa! Nevertheless I want to recommend also this article: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/scienceonreligion/2012/02/religion-and-personality/ . It's about a study that links the Big Five Personality test variables to religion, religiosity and typically religious behavior.

    Two quotes from the article:

    1) The Big Five Personality test categorizes someone’s personality into five dimensions: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Openness describes someone’s sense of imagination and adventure. Those who score high on Openness possess a curious intellect that enjoys abstractions, while those with low scores prefer the clear, conventional ideas. Conscientiousness measures someone’s self-discipline and ability to plan ahead of time. Extraversion indicates that someone actively engages the outside world, both (and especially) in terms of social interactions and seeking social stimulation. Agreeableness means that someone defaults to a sympathetic or empathetic mode of relating to others, and those with low Agreeableness scores tend towards suspicious, and even hostile, ways of relating. Finally, people with high Neuroticism scores are easily emotionally agitated, while those with low scores are not.

    2) As for the religiosity dimension, no factors influenced it other than Agreeableness and Conscientiousness. Neither gender nor age played any role in these or the above findings.
    Sarogloul appreciates religion’s cultural contributions in the forms of personal stability and social morality, but warns that, due to its lack of correlation with Extraversion and Openness, it neglects other societal needs such as humor, play, and social change. Those who respond to these neglected needs tend towards non-belief, Sarogloul hypothesizes.


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