Welcome to Psych of Religion #1: WTH is Religion?

***First off, I’d like to thank the 11 people who missed my posts.***

One argument I frequently come across when talking to atheists and “literal” believers alike is that religion is either true or false, reality or falsehood, the purpose of life itself or one giant hoax. 1

Notable evolutionary biologist and atheist writer Richard Dawkins starts out his justification of using the word “delusion” to describe religion in the same way many of us Mormon folk begin our sacrament meeting talks: DICTIONARY DEFINITIONS! Meanwhile, Freud needs no silly dictionary. He says religious beliefs are actually “illusions” and NOT necessarily delusions… that is of course, depending on one’s perspective. William James doesn’t need a dictionary either, but considers religious belief to be more akin to non-rational intuition. From a Jungian perspective, religious belief may be mythical, but we’re all psychologically in need of SOMETHING numinous. 2

Dawkins: You’re all Delusional

“The Penguin English Dictionary defines a delusion as ‘a false belief or impression’… The dictionary supplied with Microsoft Word defines a delusion as ‘a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence, especially as a symptom of psychiatric disorder’. The first part captures religious faith perfectly. As to whether it is a symptom of a psychiatric disorder, I am inclined to follow Robert M. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: ‘When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion.’”

Freud: What You Wish For

“What is characteristic of illusions is that they are derived from human wishes… in the case of delusions, we emphasize as essential their being in contradiction with reality. Illusions need not necessarily be false—that is to say, unrealizable or in contradiction to reality… whether one classifies this belief as an illusion or as something analogous to a delusion will depend on one’s personal attitude… To assess the truth-value of religious doctrines does not lie within the scope of the present enquiry. It is enough for us that we have recognized them as being, in their psychological nature, illusions.”

James: What’s Deep Down Beneath all that “Logic”

“[Religious feelings] are as convincing to those who have them as any direct sensible experiences can be, and they are, as a rule, much more convincing than results established by mere logic ever are… if you do have them, and have them at all strongly, the probability is that you cannot help regarding them as genuine perceptions of truth… if we look on man’s whole mental life as it exists, on the life of men that lies in them apart from their learning and science… we have to confess that the part of it of which rationalism can give an account is relatively superficial. It is the part that has the prestige undoubtedly, for it has the loquacity, it can challenge you for proofs, and chop logic, and put you down with words. But it will fail to convince or convert you all the same… If you have intuitions at all, they come from a deeper level of your nature than the loquacious level which rationalism inhabits. Your whole subconscious life, your impulses, your faiths, your needs, your divinations, have prepared the premises, of which your consciousness now feels the weight of the result; and something in you absolutely knows that that result must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalistic talk, however clever, that may contradict it.” 3

Jung: Mythic Inner Narcissistic Demon Container

“Many intellectuals unfortunately seem to think that… the idea that there might be such a thing as “human spirituality,” is sort of dreamy and out of contact with reality… The psyche must make connection with a non-ego world through which it can be centered and nourished and made whole in the face of all the brokenness invariably suffered… Humans cannot do away with sacraments, or sacrifice, or ritual. You just become unconscious and act it out… if you are not in touch with the king in the other world, your life in this world is going to be a terrible mess… you better have some connection with [these ideas] in the mythical sense. Myth needs to live for you, because if you do not have an “other world” where the gods and goddesses live, or a king and queen, then you are going to be eaten up with grandiose energies. You will either identify with the royal archetypes or project them onto other humans. Both paths lead to chaos… From a Jungian point of view, I would argue, I should not try to tell you which myth to use to contain your archetypal projections, but only that you need conscious mythic and ritual containers… We must get the numinous energy contained outside the realm of everyday life… that is the meaning of the first commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” You may not believe it theologically, but it is still true psychologically.” 4

In sum, if you’re a religious and/or spiritual person, here’s what you might hear from these white men: 5

  • Dawkins: “Psychiatrists tell this term isn’t to be bandied about, but you’re delusional.”
  • Freud: “You’re may not be delusional, but just a wishful thinker.”
  • James: “You sense something deep down, something outside of reason.”
  • Jung: “I won’t tell you what to believe, but you’d better connect with SOME sort of mythic ritual, lest your head explode in narcissism and grandiosity… unless you’re too literalistic in your rituals, in which case your head will explode anyway.”

The pat discussion here is probably “which thinker do you relate to?” Or perhaps even less useful, “which of these is right?”

What I’d like to discuss is this: What do you think is the psychological function of holding one of these views? In other words, what does it serve you psychologically to hold the perspective you do on religion? If you are a “literal” believer, what does that serve you? A “non-literal” believer? a “non” believer?


1.This type of thinking also comes up in the “if a prophet can be wrong on anything important then he’s useless” argument, but that’s for another day.

2. I’m teaching a psychology of religion course this semester. This will be the first post in a series on some of the concepts we’re exploring in class, mingled with Mormonism.

3. William James refrained from saying whether or not the non-rational should be held as superior to the rational when it comes to religion: “Please observe, however, that I do not yet say that it is better that the subconscious and non-rational should thus hold primacy in the religious realm. I confine myself to simply pointing out that they do so hold it as a matter of fact.”

4. Okay, so this isn’t Jung, but Jungian psychoanalyst Robert Moore. I could write it here as IF it were Jung and call it pseudepigrapha, right?

5. Yes, I’m aware that this post is incredibly white and male. *sad sigh*