What the Heck is Religion, if not Reality?

By: shenpa warrior
January 30, 2013

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*

Tags: , , , , ,

17 Responses to What the Heck is Religion, if not Reality?

  1. Howard on January 30, 2013 at 6:30 AM

    If you push and squeeze all emotions can be fit into four: mad, sad, glad and scared. This over simplification is very useful as an analysis tool. So you end up with two axis fear/anger and sad/happy.

    Our fear/anger axis is greatly exaggerated for modern life with it’s mostly chronic stress, it was much more appropriate for life in the wild with it’s acute potentially life or death threats. So today the intensity of our response to fear/anger is grossly and inappropriately high and unhealthy. It largely functions as a dramatic diversion and time waster in our lives. Is some level of fear and anger healthy? Of course, but that level is quite low unless or until we are actually facing an acute life or death situation. Many want a god to sooth their fears and some pray for help with anger control.

    If you remove much of the material world creating a materialistic minimalist existence you will see that happiness and sadness is actually related to our connection with others. This realization is often overshadowed by the diversion created by the entertainment value of all of our stuff and by the addictive nature of our preoccupation with and craving for and working to acquire additional stuff! When stuff is no longer central to your life you begin to see that connection with others is. So we reach outside ourselves for connection. We reach down to children, we across to peers and we reach up for something beyond what we see and touch (symbolically reaching for our parent?).

    So we are drawn to religion because subconsciously or maybe even consciously we are we are afraid and we seek connection.

    Children love bright high contrast colors. Consumers love high contrast snapshots. Photographic connoisseurs love low contrast highly nuanced images. Literalists have a simple high contrast world view that they protect with high contrast belief. Nuance is an acquired taste of the connoisseur. The learned appreciation of nuance is a part of growing up and leaving black and white thinking behind perhaps ironically the appreciation of nuance holds the mental door open for the possibility of god and an afterlife.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  2. mark gibson on January 30, 2013 at 6:36 AM

    I did not appreciate the implied (or obvious) racism/sexism. Not really sure what bearing it has on the subject.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  3. shenpa warrior on January 30, 2013 at 7:18 AM

    “happiness and sadness is actually related to our connection with others. This realization is often overshadowed by the diversion created by the entertainment value of all of our stuff and by the addictive nature of our preoccupation with and craving for and working to acquire additional stuff! When stuff is no longer central to your life you begin to see that connection with others is. So we reach outside ourselves for connection.”

    Nicely said Howard. Thanks for the comment. I agree that we use “stuff” to divert/distract us from greater and more pressing needs. It’s fascinating to just sit still for a few minutes without doing anything, and noticed how much the mind races with all sorts of concerns, thoughts, worries, etc.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  4. shenpa warrior on January 30, 2013 at 7:19 AM

    @mark gibson – I didn’t appreciate it either, although I disagree that a white man like myself can actually be racist toward another white man (I AM somewhat sexist but I don’t blame men per se for being emotionally stunted–we’re conditioned by society to be that way)… but I’m digressing again. :)

    Anyway, you bring up a great question for discussion – maybe for another post, but a good one, and one that need not be racist or sexist per se, but still about gender and race… e.g. I am a man, and 3 of the main figures of the psychology of religion were men – how do issues of gender (for example) play into how these views on religion are formed and discussed? Keep in mind, by “gender” I’m not talking “biological sex” per se, but rather as a construct to understand power dynamics in society.

    Either way, we should stay on the main subject for now, but thanks for your concern.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  5. Hedgehog on January 30, 2013 at 9:24 AM

    Which thinker do I relate to?
    More James or Jung rather than Dawkins or Freud.

    I try not to be too literal on account of the danger to my head, but I fear I am more naturally literal, so explosion could be a risk. :-)

    These days I try to dig out context in the hopes of getting a better understanding of what is actually meant.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  6. Jettboy on January 30, 2013 at 9:30 AM

    “If you are a ‘literal’ believer, what does that serve you?”

    Since that was the one left out, I’ll try to answer that question with the acknowledgement that there are various levels and definitions of literal. It serves me to know that I am not living a lie, a delusion, some psychological manipulation of my own making. It is either true or false, because if its not the first then there is no reason to continue caring about anything. Sure, there will still be a conscience, but with far less concern breaking it. Religion creates a strong civilized person. Literalism makes sure the personal convictions really have value.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  7. Howard on January 30, 2013 at 9:30 AM

    Intimacy is happiness. Happiness is intimacy. The ultimate intimacy is at-oneness with the godhead, this is the Celestial Kingdom. Our sadness increases with our distance from intimacy. We are sad when someone dies because of the separation death creates. Ego (including our ego defenses) or our natural man in Mormon-speak is the enemy of intimacy, it prevents us from being one with others including God. Stuff is a sublimation of intimacy. Covenants, contracts, commitments, promises, rituals, laws and rules are all substitutes for intimacy or connection leading to intimacy. For example; love thy neighbor as thy self becomes an obsolete concept if we were to actually became intimate with our neighbor. If we were ego-lessly and intimately connected with our spouse and they with us a promise of fidelity becomes not only unnecessary but ceases to have any meaning in a ego-less, selfless, possessive-less, jealousy-less relationship. As an aside I believe this was one of the main intended lesson of plural marriage. The truth is we are not yet very good at achieving and maintaining intimacy or the connection leading to intimacy so we attempt to approach connection with our spouses and quell our immature relationship fears through promises to always love, never be unfaithful and by the marriage contract.

    Religion appeals in part because we crave intimacy but also fear it because we’re insecure and because we know we don’t know how to achieve it but Religion pretends to know how and proceeds to sell it to us in bite size pieces.

    The truth is the path to having an intimate relationship with God or our spouse or others begins with introspection, adversity and vulnerability that results in ego death or at least significant ego reduction

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  8. shenpa warrior on January 30, 2013 at 9:51 AM

    “It is either true or false, because if its not the first then there is no reason to continue caring about anything.”

    @jettboy – thanks for adding your perspective. I was hoping someone would comment from your view – it is of course very common among members and ex-mormons alike. Frankly, it seems dangerous to me (“true” or else “nothing matters”). I get the logic of that, but I feel more connected to God, and more meaning in my life, when I hold back on taking things that far. The restraint results in some mystery and ambiguity, but there’s enough of the “literal” in my belief to still hold the tent up. For me, I wonder if too much literalism actually is a negative influence on my own convictions… at least for me, the desire for more literalism comes from a place of anxiety and difficulty tolerating ambiguity. It sort of prevents me from being able to have faith.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  9. shenpa warrior on January 30, 2013 at 9:52 AM

    Howard, again, awesome. Thank you.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  10. Stephen M (Ethesis) on January 30, 2013 at 11:33 AM

    Interesting, glad to see the comments.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  11. Jeff Spector on January 30, 2013 at 1:14 PM

    Everyone believes in something. Those guys just embrace something different from religious people. NO righter or wronger, just different.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  12. Brian on January 30, 2013 at 7:01 PM

    Wow. Great questions. Unfortunately, I am not a deep thinker, so I am not sure what I can add to the discussion. I am a literal thinker/now non-believer. I see the certainty with which so many believers go through their lives and on a personal level it serves them well. What does it hurt if you “know” that their is an afterlife and it is something to look forward to? Even if it isn’t true. I only say that because there are so many conflicting certainties.

    After my unearthing so many things that led my liternalness to the exit of Mormonism, I found myself needing to deal with the alternative of being only worm feed after death. Not comforting at all. I simply could not live with what I saw as so many untruths.

    In my mind religion has stood the test of time because man needs religion. It’s comforting. There is great anxiety to be dealt with without religion. I recently read Denial of Death by Ernest Becker which covered the idea of living with this anxiety.

    I find myself (59) thinking more about death than ever before and feel there is no safety net. I would love to believe in something, just can’t make my heart or mind do it.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  13. hawkgrrrl on January 30, 2013 at 8:29 PM

    I definitely relate most to James’ description, although I have always considered myself a Jungist: “You sense something deep down, something outside of reason.” I can’t quite come to grips with the idea that it is essential (Jung) so much as ineffable (James). As to the wishful thinking (Freud) and the outright self-deception (Dawkins), I do think there are believers and unbelievers that fit those molds. It’s very easy to rationalize when we don’t fully understand. Even if we want to say spirituality doesn’t exist outside of us (e.g. collective unconscious or God), there is something within us that seeks for meaning. So even if we delude ourselves through fear or desire, the fact that we do so seems to be pretty hardwired into the human psyche. But as a hardwired human, I tend to see it as spiritual, not delusional. I am unwilling to throw it out.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  14. hawkgrrrl on January 30, 2013 at 8:32 PM

    Actually, let me share a personal experience to better express what I am saying. I can convince myself on a given day that atheism is correct, but when my FIL died, I had a conviction deep in my bones that he lived on. Freud (and Ricky Gervais) would call that fear of the unknown and desire for comfort. Maybe so.

    But later I have had dreams of talking with him (or others who have passed on), and these dreams resonate somewhere inside of me about the eternal nature of our intelligence. I can’t shake the belief that we don’t cease to exist at death, even when it’s not tied to the imminent prospect and discomfort of death.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  15. Mike S on January 30, 2013 at 11:23 PM

    I can’t answer these questions – I honestly don’t know. It used to bother me a lot, but as I’ve aged, I’ve become more comfortable with ambiguity.

    Regarding religion, I see two general facets: things over which I have control and things over which I have no control. Perfect example: I can choose to read the Book of Mormon each day. I can choose to put Moroni’s promise to the test and sincerely pray about it. I CANNOT choose if I will get an answer, however.

    I suppose my ambiguity has come as a result of the things I CANNOT choose. In my 4-1/2 decades as a Mormon, I have always followed the things I can specifically choose to do. I have always been active. I have always had a temple-recommend. I have always done all of the things that traditionally make someone “Mormon”. But I still don’t know that Mormonism is any more or less correct than any other faith. I can’t force God to give me an answer. I can’t force a testimony. Those are things I cannot choose.

    So, am I delusional? Am I a wishful thinker? I don’t know. Rather than any of the people quoted above, I actually relate mostly to Buddha. He wasn’t necessarily “anti-God” as many people present – he merely stated that the existence of God was an unanswerable question – and that we should therefore focus our efforts on things we CAN choose to do.

    For the present stage of my journey – I am merely focusing on being a good person. I follow all of the “Mormon rules”, not necessarily because they are much better or worse than any other framework, but because I am a Mormon. Perhaps someday I will have some answer – perhaps not. But I’ll still be good.

    And I don’t think I’m delusional. But maybe that means I’m delusional. A catch-22?

    Like this comment? Thumb up 2

  16. Bin on January 31, 2013 at 10:50 AM

    And then there’s this:

    Why have I, who have lived forty, fifty, sixty – or whatever number of years it is that one has lived – why have I gathered this store-houseful of what I think, what I feel, what I am, what I should be, this accumulation of experience, knowledge? And if I had not done that, what would happen? Do you understand? If I had no concept about myself, what would happen to me? I would be lost, wouldn’t I? I would be uncertain, terribly frightened of life. So I build an image, a myth, a concept, a conclusion about myself, because without this framework life would become for me utterly meaningless, uncertain, fearful: there would be no security. I may be secure outwardly; I may have a job, a house, and all the rest of it, but inwardly also I want to be completely secure. And it is the desire to be secure that compels me to build this image of myself, which is verbal. Do you understand? It has no reality at all; it is merely a concept, a memory, an idea, a conclusion.

    -J. Krishnamurti

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  17. Hedgehog on January 31, 2013 at 12:16 PM

    #16 Bin,
    My grandfather read a lot of Krishnamurti. We had some pretty esoteric discussions visiting my grandparents growing up, including that idea.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0


%d bloggers like this: