The psychology, sociology and psychopathology of religion

Psychology: the study of the mind (see note below) - how it develops, why we think what we do and why we act as we do.

Sociology: the study of social behaviour.

Psychopathology: the study of the mentally ill - no, we are certainly not saying that religious people are mentally ill - please read on!

Please also see our article: "Religious beliefs and religious needs."

Note about "mind"

Words divide us when we cannot agree on their meaning - and "mind" is one of those words. One definition is "the set of cognitive faculties that enables consciousness, perception, thinking, judgement, and memory."

  Psychology uses the German word "gestalt" to describe a "wholeness" - a sum of many parts where the whole can be recognised even if some of the parts seem obscure. The mind is a gestalt. It is a result of nature and nurture - the genes you acquired when you were conceived and everything that has happened to you since.

You are your mind, you are your personality which is a function of everything that is happening, chemically and electrically, in your brain.

Religious people step out of the material world of the brain and invent the concept of "spirit" or "soul", some indefinable metaphysical entity whose primary function seems to be to survive death.

Atheists don't do that: you are the you that results from nature and nurture - end of story.

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What this page is about

Religious belief is a spectrum ranging from a personal sense of "something out there" to the fanaticism that puts god and religion above humanity. Between the two extremes is organised religion which ranges from a quiet rural CofE Sunday service (where religion is never discussed) to the rants of fundamentalist preachers.

At its extreme end, fanaticism, religion does becomes a form of mental illness - after all, killing people without remorse, in the name of your god, can only be seen as psychopathy.

Actually most religious fanatics are not psychopaths, they have been so indoctrinated by extreme views of their religious texts, the words of their prophets and the preaching of their holy men, that they have lost the sense of empathy and they cannot react in a human way.

Those who put god and their religion above their fellow human beings have no place in a civilised society, they are ill and they need to be treated for that illness.

For most religious people religion provides emotional and social support that they need to get through life. Problems occur when those with religious beliefs start to take them too seriously - to the point when their religion becomes more important than the people around them.

This page is not concerned with the specific beliefs of religious people - after all, there are over 1,000 gods and 4,200 religions/sects to choose from and the one thing they all agree on is that they cannot agree with one another.

  This page attempts to understand religious identity and why some people "need" a religion and others don't. For our purposes "religion" is defined as "belief in a supernatural entity and/or life after death."

"Need" v "truth"

Religion meets a need felt by some people - but the problem comes when religious people claim that what they believe is a "truth".

If it was indeed a truth, we would all believe it! Religious belief is, by definition, non-rational and not open to proof - it is therefore not a truth - it is a matter of faith.

We will therefore consider this "blind" form of religion, based on an assertion of truth, as well as the more open, "moderate" sort.


It is very easy for the strong-minded, highly-rational, god-free to dismiss religion as self-delusion or mass-hysteria. It may well be both but that is not really the issue.

Religion may be irrational but that does not mean that it is not useful to individuals - many of whom are not strong-minded or secure in their lives. (We know that sounds patronising - but that does not make it incorrect.) However, religion meets a perceived need - and that is what this page is about.


There are two types of identity: self identity is the set of labels the individual is happy applying to herself, external identity is a set of labels that outsiders impose on an individual. This explains why many people who believe in "something out there" do not wish to identify themselves as "religious" because they are aware of the many levels of meaning this label has when imposed on them.

Labels usually involve community - a group of people who feel they have something in common. It could be many things: membership of a golf club, a group of football fans, a street gang, a school, a religion, a sect within a religion, people from a particular village, town, city, region or country.

"Community" provides a sense of belonging which is assumed to be a good thing - but that is a false assumption.

Sometimes it is a good thing because it provides a social life and a support structure that some people need.

Sometimes it has a darker side and switches to "them" and "us": "my gang is better than your gang", "my team is better than your team", "we are right, they are wrong", "our holy book, is right, your holy book is wrong", "our god is the true god, your god is a false god", "our interpretation of our holy books is right, yours is wrong", "death to all infidels", "death to all those who insult our prophet", "we demand the right to discriminate in the name of our religion".

"Community" can lead to self-imposed segregation - at its extreme it can lead to people living in closed communities rarely coming into contact with those who see the world in different ways. It can result in communities enforcing "marriage within the community" - even if that involves selecting a spouse from thousands of miles away in "the home community" and even if continous marriages between cousins leads to high levels of genetic abnormalities.

How can we have understanding when communities are isolated from one another or when children of one community are educated separately from others? Denying children choice is abuse.

Fanaticism results when identity with a religious community becomes so strong that "them" and "us" takes precedence over basic humanity. Obviously there would be no religious fanatics if there were no religions.

Religious people are quick to say: "It's not religion that causes violence, religion is used to justify violence based on nationalism etc."

  To them, the conflict in Northern Ireland is between those in favour of the Union and those in favour of a united Ireland - it is not a conflict between Christian sects: Catholic v Protestant. The conflict in Ukraine is between Russian and Ukrainian nationalism, not between different shades of Orthodox Christianity. When Russians volunteered to fight alongside Serbs during the break up of Yugoslavia it was about the unity of "the Slav people", not Christian Orthodox Serbs fighting Christian Catholic Croats fighting Bosnian Muslims. When Buddhist monks lead attacks on Muslim families in Sri Lanka it is not about religion, it is about economic deprivation.

Religion is an integral part of many people's identity and it cannot be conveniently separated out when looking at the causes of conflict. Hindus attack Muslims because they are Muslims, Buddhists attack Muslims because they are Muslims, Sunni attacks Shia because they are Shia, Saudi Arabia brands atheists as "terrorists" because they are atheists and refuse to toe the religious line. Denying that religion is a root cause of violence flies in the face of reality.

Moderate religion is a necessary precursor to extremism because
all religions contain the seeds of fanaticism.

Of course, most religious people don't become fanatics - primarily because they are decent human beings and they don't really know much about religion. They go through the rituals because they have always done so but they have not made a deep study of religious beliefs and holy books.

Holy books of all religions contain sufficient material to justify extremism. A reading of the Torah, Old Testament or Qur'an provides sufficient justification for almost any form of intolerant and humanity denying behaviour.

"Moderate" religious people will shout "this is not true, our religion teaches peace and love". The problem is interpretation - who is to say which interpretation is correct - that of the moderate or that of the fanatic? What yardstick is used to determine what is acceptable and what is not? Should we follow the role model of the genocidal god described in 1st Samuel 15 of the Abrahamic holy book shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam?

Since religious people disagree amongst themselves it is necessary to impose an external yardstick - atheist humanism - putting people first, above gods and religions, in the one life we share together.

The view of the impartial observer

This is always an excellent place to start when looking at any form of social phenomenon - such as religion.

We will take the view of a highly intelligent alien visiting earth and we will comment on what she sees:

  • People of every possible shape and colour divided into two sexes
  • People divided into different nation states - often with different languages.
  • People attempting to understand the universe, just as she does, through impartial observation, theory and experimentation. The observer notes that these people do not tend to be violent toward one another - though their debates are often heated.
  • People who propose the existence of a supernatural entity they call "god" to explain things they don't understand. The observer does not understand what this is.
  • That the people who believe in this god are divided into many religions, each of which is divided into many sects, each of which is divided into people who believe certain things but reject others.
  • That differences between these groups of people seem to be minor but they have generated thousands of years of continuous wars, violence and intolerance.
  • That no tangible advantages seemed to be gained by the belief in a "god".
  • That people who believe, and those who do not, are divided into those who do good (many), those who are indifferent (most) and those who do bad (few).

Our observer cannot see into the minds of people - she merely observes their actions and she is puzzled by the amount of intolerance, violence and killing that derives from a belief in a "god".

She concludes that since religious belief seems to result in wars, violence and killing, then perhaps it is some form of natural control mechanism to ensure that the number of people on Earth does not become too large for the resources available. The fact that religious violence seems to be increasing as the population increases seems to bear out her theory. Perhaps the violence is building up to a peak where a major nuclear war will reduce the population to a more sustainable number.

She is puzzled as to why such a seemingly intelligent species has adopted such a negative attitude towards its own well-being and happiness.

She leaves, confused.

External need v internal need

External need for religion

There is no doubt that organised religion has been used in the past, and, in many places, is still used today, as a method of social control. In other words, it meets the external needs of the social hierarchy - the church and the controlling class.

Most religions seem to promise a reward for those who do good and a punishment for those who do bad - a heaven and a hell.

Organised religion has used this as a weapon. Those who conform, do as they are told, don't rock the boat, don't ask too many questions, will be rewarded. Question the church or the major temporal powers and you are destined for hell.

Religious institutions always side with the strong against the weak. They support the status quo, they oppose dissent and popular revolution, they support free-market capitalism over socialism, they oppose any attempt to disassociate religion from the state. The Catholic Church has a long history of supporting the strong over the weak - after all, why rebel, why struggle against poverty and oppression, when you are promised a better life after death? "Be poor, be happy - that's how god made you."

We must not underestimate how the fear of hell causes people to toe the party line. Any lapsed Catholic, particularly those taught by Jesuits, will tell you how that fear never really goes away

However, fear can only go so far as a controlling weapon. There has to be a positive side to religion to explain why people feel that it meets their inner needs.

Internal need for religion

Let us examine the needs that religion may meet for an individual.

  • The quest for "meaning"

    Why are we here? What's the point?

    Some people simply cannot accept that the point of life is to be happy, to lead a decent life, to give and receive love, to enjoy friendship, and to do some good along the way. Bad things happen to people and they are not happy. It all seems "unfair" so there must be something that makes it worth putting up with.

    In this case religion becomes a plea for some form of universal justice in an unfair world.

    Unfortunately there is no universal justice and life is sometimes not fair. Life can be tough - the best way to tackle it is with the company and help of others.

    Those with a belief in a universal justice, who say "praise god" when a child is saved from a sinking ship, are the same people who fail to condemn god for the hundreds of others who perished.

  • Fear of your own death and the death of those you love

    What happens when you die?

    Many people do not like the answer "you lose consciousness, you die, that's the end. Your atoms are recycled in the Universe."

    The good news is that at least your atoms never "die" - they are recycled an infinite number of times. Unfortunately they have no consciousness of their own existence.

    If death is the end, many ask "what's the point of life then?" (see above) - as if the two things were related in some way.

    The death of a loved one can be a shattering experience and everyone suffers from grief - the religious and the non-religious. Some people find solace in believing that the loved one has "not really died" but "gone to a better place." They may even hope to rejoin the loved one when they die.

  • Desire for a parental figure

    Throughout childhood a parental figure is usually there to guide and to intervene when things go wrong. Asking adults to "stand on their own two feet" may sound great, (and it is great if you have the confidence to do it) but many people either don't feel they can, or they are unwilling to shoulder the responsibilities it carries.

    The change from childhood to adulthood can be very stressful for many people - especially when they no longer have parental figures to turn to in times of crisis.

    If adults retain this sense of wanting an external parent it is not surprising that they adopt a religion and pass that religion on to their own children.

  • Desire for an external source of authority

    What are the rules of life? Who lays them down? What is right and what is wrong? What is good and what is bad?

    Most people start life with a very black and white view of things: for example, killing is wrong. Later they begin to see that there may be times when even something as horrific as killing is indeed wrong but it can be excused - it never becomes "right" but sometimes, under specific circumstances, it becomes excusable.

    It is frustrating when things change from black and white to infinite shades of grey - but that is what maturity, understanding and wisdom are all about.

    Some people like external "rules" - preferable dictated by a strong man (or woman) at the top. They feel comfortable when someone else is laying down the guidelines - rewarding and punishing as necessary. Most people do not blindly obey the rules - "simply because they are there" (though some do - "blind faith" requires the following of rules without question) so the rules must have some "face validity" - they must at least "appear" to be sensible and fair.

    Other people want the rules to be justified, to know where they come from, why they are necessary and who benefits from people sticking to them. They question continuously and they demand that the minimum number of rules is the right number of rules.

    Very young children have no sense of empathy, they cannot see the world through someone else's eyes, so they are selfish. This stage does not last long and as soon as they can empathise they can see what impact their own actions have on others. Children quickly create their own set of rules: don't hit other people, don't take things that belong to other people, don't do things just to upset other people. These "childish" rules are far from childish - without external intervention, children can generate a set of rules that is as comprehensive and as valid as any created by adults.

    Of course there is a small minority of people who are incapable of empathy, they don't care what impact their behaviour has on others. These people are psychopaths and some go on to commit crimes. Others go on to lead large corporations or to seek and hold power in their own selfish interests and in the interests of their friends. Some even use the cloak of religion to shield their real intent.

    Lack of confidence in rules created by themselves, and by others they don't totally trust, causes many people to look for an external source of rules - a god. God-given rules have the advantage that one can forget about the shades of grey and return to the simple black and white world of childhood: "this is right, that is wrong."

    Religious dependence on what is seen as an external set of rules provides a return to child-like simplicity and another way to avoid the responsibilities that go with adulthood and a personal moral code..

    Unfortunately, the "god-given" rules are just as "man given" as any other set of rules. Holy books, and holy rules are all created by man.

  • Loneliness

    Life is at its worst when you lie awake worrying in the dark. At such times, even the strongest and most confident of us can be overwhelmed by feelings of loneliness - even if someone we love is lying by our side.

    Being alone, with no-one to turn to for advice, comfort or love, is a terrifying prospect. Human beings are social animals - we need other people to make us happy, to enjoy our lives with and to keep us sane.

    If, for whatever reason, that feeling of loneliness does become overwhelming, then religion can provide an easy answer. No matter how alone you may feel, there is one figure who loves you - god.

    The similarities between this and the desire for a parental figure are obvious but one can get over the loss of a parent - it is much more difficult to get over the fear of being alone in the universe.

    There is also the obvious advantage that religion usually means "church" (or temple, or mosque or whatever) and that means people and people mean a social life - a chance not to be alone. Far better tea and buns at a church meetings than living alone. The god part of religion does not really matter here - a social need has been met.

    There are, of course, many ways to overcome loneliness without turning to religion. Any form of enjoyable social interaction will make life worth living again.

Studies by religious academics

It is interesting that most of the books and papers on the psychology and psychopathology of religion have been written by the religious - enquiring into why they believe as they do. They simply cannot leave it alone - "I believe because I believe" - they have to find some reason for why they believe (other than impartial logical proof which, as we have seen elsewhere, is denied to them.)

Many of the works relating to our topic are simply boring. They go on and on about abstract notions; they are often written in impenetrable or archaic language and they are all subjects of their times so must be seen in their historical context.

We have pulled out some interesting points.

"Ordinary believers"

Academics study religion - "ordinary" people just believe it.

In less educated, often peasant, societies, most people cannot give a precise answer to the question "what do you believe". However, when asked "how do you go about your religion" they can provide a long list of everything in their lives which is related to religion: church services, saints' days, ceremonies, processions, acts of prayer at home etc.

In this case, the ritual and practice of religion is far more important than the theory of religion. Religion is a key part of the social environment - so it does not matter too much if one is a little vague on the theoretical niceties.

It is self-evident that churches can wield great social and political power in such circumstances - and it explains why the Catholic church remains so powerful in third world countries.

Why do they never question?

Non-believers are often staggered by how little most religious people know about their religion.

  A rational non-believer would never embark on a discussion or a debate without investigating the background and understanding the topic under discussion. It therefore comes as a tremendous surprise when religious people say:
  • "I don't want to talk about it."
  • "I don't feel comfortable talking about it."
  • "I don't really understand that stuff."
  • "I accept what I am told."
  • "I don't know what you are talking about."
  • "I have never looked at other beliefs."
  • "I only believe in the good bits."
  • "You obviously know far more about it than me."
  • "We don't talk about this in church/synagogue/mosque."
  • "I have never read the Bible/Torah/Qur'an that closely."
  • "My priest/rabbi/imam is the one to talk to about that."

One gets the feeling that the attitude is:

"how dare you challenge my beliefs by asking me to explain them!"

This lack of continuous questioning and assessment of religious ideas is the most frightening thing about religion - but it is easily explained.

Religion provides a comfort zone for many people, a set of ideas and rituals they share with others, and the last thing they want is to risk losing that comfortable feeling. They have become institutionalised like the prisoner who returns to society only to commit a crime to return to the security and relative comfort of prison.

Non-believers must understand the great risk they run when taking away the comfort blanket of religion.

Studies by non-religious academics

Freud was working at the very beginning of the modern study of psychology and much of his work was with a very limited set of people - primarily middle class women in Vienna "suffering" from what the 19th century called "hysteria".

His work needs to be set in a historic context but that does not mean he did not have some useful insights into human behaviour.

He was very keen to find out why people became religious and what it did to/for them. These are some of the areas he examined:

  • Religion is a 'universal obsessional ritual' designed to avert imaginary misfortunes and control the unconscious impulses which lead us to feel we are causing them. The rituals attempt to control the outside world and our egoistic and aggressive wishes as well.
  • Religion is an attempt to master the Oedipus complex. According to this theory, everyone has to deal with the problems caused by the fact that we have complex childhood relationships to a mother and father. Love and hate, rivalry and dependence mark our relationships and can cause intense emotional turmoil.

    Religion is a way of working though these problems in a socially acceptable manner so they become easier for each individual to bear. Religion protects people from individual neurosis by being a kind of social neurosis, and so sharing the problem. For instance, in the unconscious we might want our mothers to be virgins and our fathers to be all-powerful. These ideas might be 'mad' if expressed by an individual, but are allowed expression in religion.

  • Religion is a reaction to infantile helplessness. In this theory we try to recreate in religion a feeling of being protected by unbounded "love" which we yearned for in our state of infantile helplessness. Religious belief protects us from 'the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' (ultimately from the acknowledgment of death) and therefore protects our narcissism. Religion keeps us in the illusion of being at the centre of the universe once more with the "love" of a father figure for support
  • Religion is a mass delusion or paranoid wish-fulfillment. Freud studied the extreme religious delusions of some of his patients and concluded that such delusions are typical of schizophrenia in general.

    In turning away from reality and putting a wishful reality in its place the person makes use of magical thinking as described in "The Psychopathology of Everyday Life". In some ways this brings religion closer to science. Freud had often said that paranoid delusions are like philosophical systems or scientific theories - they are all trying to make sense of the world, and our place in it.

  • Religion is a way to hold groups together. This is implied in the first view above, dealing with egoistic or "anti-social" impulses. In his "Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego" Freud tries to describe the actual structure of groups as he sees it from the point of view of the emotional ties that bind them together. He returns to the theme in "Civilisation and its Discontents".

A summary

Some people need a religion because:
  • they inherit it from their parents or community and don't want to be the odd one out;
  • they want to feel that life has a "meaning" other than simply living happily and tolerantly in the company of others;
  • they want to feel that there is some form of "life after death" - they cannot bear the idea of death simply being an end;
  • they want an easy and all-embracing explanation for everything, they cannot bear the unknown;
  • they want some external structure to organises their lives - these are the ones who support churches as well as religion;
  • they want an externally dictated moral code;
  • they have a psychological need for a father figure - the old man with the grey beard sitting in heaven;
  • they feel lost and alone without their religion - and the company of other religious people;
  • they want a social life. In small-town USA it is almost impossible for a non-believer to have a social life - everyone is at Church events!

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