What do psychologists say about faith?

The most familiar psycohlogical approach to faith is probably that of Sigmund Freud, who was critical of faith, but do other models really offer a more positive interpretation, asks Rachel Blass, in Thinking Faith.

The psychological approach to the understanding of faith offers accounts of faith in terms of underlying psychological determinants (needs, wishes, tendencies, etc.). Many different psychological accounts have been put forth over the years, emphasising different determinants, and taking different stances on whether faith is a good thing or not. However, what all of these accounts have in common is that they regard faith as a natural phenomenon, a function of our psychological nature, and thus, in effect, are critical of the Christian view of faith as a supernatural encounter.

In my view, it is particularly important to reflect upon the psychological approach since it has become integral to the way in which contemporary culture thinks of faith. The common secular view, often employed in atheist critiques of faith, is not that believers are philosophically- or scientifically-challenged, but rather that their personality (under certain social conditions) or their psychological limitations make them inclined or compelled to accept and act upon groundless claims regarding God’s existence and our relationship to him.

In what follows I will describe the psychological approach to faith, focusing on the account offered by Freud. I will briefly comment on how seemingly alternative, faith-friendly psychological approaches, in effect, actually continue his critique. In a subsequent article, I will then turn to outline four ways in which Freud’s critique can in fact be helpful to believers.

The central psychological account of faith – Freud

Of all of the psychological accounts of faith put forth over the years, that of Sigmund Freud, the Austrian psychoanalyst who wrote primarily during the first four decades of the 20th century, is the most influential. Freud had developed ideas on the underlying motives that shape human behaviour and states of mind, and he applied these to his study of faith. As with his studies of all other phenomena, he wanted to know what wishes, needs and conflicts were coming into play in what believers call faith. He was always concerned with the motives of individuals, which would differ from person to person, but he could see common lines of thinking across individuals and these find expression in his overall account.

Freud’s best-known ideas regarding faith centre on the individual’s wish to have a protective father figure with whom he or she can feel identified. One of his texts describes what religion undertakes to do for people as follows:

It gives them information about the origin and coming into existence of the universe, it assures them of its protection and of ultimate happiness in the ups and downs of life and it directs their thoughts and actions by precepts which it lays down with its whole authority. Thus it fulfils three functions. … [I]t satisfies the human thirst for knowledge; it soothes the fear that men feel of the dangers and vicissitudes of life, when it assures them of a happy ending and offers them comfort in unhappiness…[and] it issues precepts and lays down prohibitions and restrictions.[1]

Freud goes on to explain that what unites these three seemingly disparate aspects of religion (instruction, consolation and ethical demands) is the fact that they are all tied to the child’s view of his or her father. The God-creator whom believers call father, Freud writes, ‘really is the father, with all the magnificence in which he once appeared to the small child’.[2] He created us, he protected us and he taught us to restrict our desires. Freud explains that when one grows up one still remains helpless in many ways in the face of the dangers of the world, but one recognises that the father cannot really be a source of protection from them. Thus, Freud explains, the believer,

harks back to the mnemic image of the father whom in his childhood he so greatly overvalued. He exalts the image into a deity and makes it into something contemporary and real. The effective strength of this mnemic image and the persistence of his need for protection jointly sustain his belief in God.[3]

These needs and wishes for the protective father explain not only the idea of there being a personal God who created us and loves us, but also our sense of guilt in relation to him. Our feelings of guilt are expressions of our conscience, which we form with the critical inner voices of our parents in an effort to be assured of their love. These voices are now perceived as coming from God.

FULL STORY What do psychologists say about faith?

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