Religion and Psychology: Complementary Disciplines or Competing Ideologies?

Religion and Science have shared a complex relationship which has historically fluctuated between cooperation and conflict. Both disciplines arise from an intellectual desire to explain the natural world, but their paths have diverged over the nature of knowledge. Holmes Rolston III, a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Colorado State University, sees their missions as complimentary, but different: “science operates with the presumption that there are causes to things, religion with the presumption that there are meanings to things.” [1]. Using the Aristotlean model, science generally deals the notion of efficient causation, the explanation of how phenomenon occurs, while religion deals with the notion of final causation, or why it occurs. [2].

Science claims objectivity by incorporating the scientific method. Its goal is to compile empirically observable facts in an effort to understand and predict phenomena in the Natural World. It then tries to establish cause and effect relationships and create explanatory theories of how the universe operates. Its reasoning is deductive; it observes the specific to make inferences about the general. Reality is only experienced through the senses and should remain value neutral. The purpose of Science is to explain what is, not what ought to be.

Religion agrees that the world is intelligible and is capable of being logically understood. However, natural law alone “provides only the beginning of illumination.” [3]. The understanding gained through our senses is useful, but incomplete. Its full value is realized by imparting significance, or “meaning” to the phenomenon. Reality is subject to our conscious awareness; shaped by interpretation, as well as, by experience. Religion’s purpose is to supply the meanings for why things happen; to explain what is in order to evaluate what ought to be. In this feature, Religion is more akin to Philosophy than Science.

According to Rolston, the problem occurs when the two disciplines transcend these boundaries by trying to explain the world in the other’s terms. Each discipline operates logically only within its own paradigm. Science is constrained to explaining causal events through quantitative proofs while Religion is restricted to applying qualitative proofs. This principle is exemplified by the social sciences attempts to measure abstract concepts such as Justice or Happiness. When Science enters into the realm of meanings, its method no longer retains its validity. Likewise, religious logic breaks down when it attempts to attribute causes.

Psychology can be fairly assessed as trying to accomplish both objectives. In its study of the organic biology of the brain, its course remains scientific. Psychology explores biological makeup, chemical reactions, and neural activity through synaptic nerves in an attempt to compile causal explanations for how the organic brain operates. It uses the same methodology as biologists, chemists, and physicists. Where it deviates from its sure scientific footing is through its attempt to assess how the conscious mind operates. Here it seems to enter the realm of the theosophical by trying to derive meaning for why the sentient mind interprets reality in the way that it does.

A valid critique of Psychology is justified when it turns its attention away from testable hypothesis’ to generate its theories. It often takes a philosophical approach in its inquiries and tries to legitimize subjective intellectual contemplation as objective scientific evaluation. The questions it attempts to answer, such as the origin of religious belief, however, are not always scientific in nature. It is at these times that a conflict between Psychology and Religion arises, and they become little more than competing ideologies.

For the purposes of this paper I will take a look at two competing psychological theories about the origin and nature of religious belief. The first contribution will be an analysis of Sigmund Freud’s Future of an Illusion, which offers a negative view of Religion. The second text will be William James’ lectures on The Varieties of Religious Experience which present a more optimistic view of Religion. Hopefully this will shed some light on the difficulties Psychology faces when attempting to inquire into the nature of religious belief.

Freud and Religion

Freud became aware of subconscious mental processes while treating mental patients suffering from neurosis and hysteria. Freud developed a method of analyzing human pathology termed Psychoanalysis which he viewed as an application of the scientific method to the study of human behavior. In an exercise called free association, Freud asked patients to randomly express their thoughts in therapy sessions. Freud believed this provided valuable insights into how the human mind draws conclusions about reality.

Freud theorized that the human psyche was controlled in a large part by the subconscious which sought to project primal instincts such as fear, sexuality and aggression outwardly. According to Freud, emotional symptoms and character traits were complex solutions to the unresolved conflicts of childhood. He believed that the subconscious was a composition of unrealized instincts and desires which manifested themselves in the personality of an individual. This was the basis for his analysis of religious beliefs.

Freud believed religious belief arises as a form of wish fulfillment in man’s psychological attempts to control the uncertainty of nature and fate, “life and the universe must be robbed of its terrors.” [4]. Freud saw the development of consciousness as part of the evolutionary process, with religious belief being an initial stage. In this developmental stage, which he termed “humanization of nature,” Freud suggests:

Impersonal forces and destinies cannot be approached; they remain eternally remote. But if the elements have passions that rage as they do in our own souls, if death itself is not something spontaneous but the violent act of an evil will, If everywhere in nature there are beings around us that we can know in our own society, then we can breathe freely, can feel at home in the uncanny and can deal by psychical means with our senseless psychology. [5].

Freud believed that the “humanization of nature” allowed individuals to project feelings of control over natural forces. The individual cannot comprehend the overwhelming forces of nature as his equal, therefore he makes them divine and gives them the attributes of a father. “It has an infantile prototype … For once before one has found oneself in a similar state of helplessness: as a small child, in relation to one’s parents.” [6]. Parents, like nature, cause fear in individuals by stripping them of their sense of control “thus it was natural to assimilate the two situations.” [7]. The father figure is adopted as the model for the divinity. He is to be feared for his powerful influence on the survival of the child, and yet trusted for his protection against external dangers.

At this point Freud turns toward the failing of the original model. There was a gradual shift in the understanding of the Gods’ role in controlling nature. As individuals realized that the Gods did not protect them from pain and suffering, they made the Gods subordinate to Fate. The Gods who created fate, along with nature, had arranged it so they could leave them to operate on their own. “The more autonomous nature became and the more the god’s withdrew from it … the more did morality become their domain.” [8]. The Gods attention turned towards remedying “the defects and evils of civilization.” [9]. This change in commission resulted in a handing down of divine precepts which “were elevated beyond human society and were extended to nature and the universe.” [10].

According to Freud, this led to the understanding of a higher moral order and purpose, imparting religious significance to individual lives. The divine attributes eventually evolved into a single divine entity projected as a benevolent caretaker whose rules protect us from the “merciless” forces of this world. “In the end all good is rewarded and all evil punished, if not actually in this form of life then in the later existences that begin after death.” [11]. This allows the individual to rationalize the existence of pain and suffering in the world and permits hope of a distant redress of grievances.

Freud’s conclusion is that religious teachings are not the product of experience or the end results of rational logic, but are simply illusions. Religious beliefs, in his assessment, are the product of our subconscious desires to fulfill “the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind.” [12]. Religious belief is wish fulfillment projected into the external world; God is simply a false archetype constructed as a form of psychological defense mechanism.

Freud’s belief is that the provability of Science is superior to that of Religion, and that the illusion will eventually pass into oblivion. On an individual level, Religion is simply cerebral self medication, whereas on a societal level, it is a means of coercing reluctant individuals into suppressing their primal instincts. According to Freud, this is the one saving grace of Religion.

A legitimate criticism of Freud is that he abandons the scientific method for the same type of philosophical inquiry into epistemology which he rejects. Freud collects no empirical data, forms no testable hypothesis, and presents no objective evidence to support his theory of Religion. His assumptions wind up being just as unproven as the dogma of religious belief. Freud acknowledges this lack of evidence, simply asking us to rely on the validity of the psychoanalytic approach.

Another critique of Freud’s “humanization of nature” model is that individuals are driven to pursue both, religious and scientific knowledge for the same reasons; the lack of control over one’s environment leads one to inquire into cause and effect relationships in an effort to control their environment. Scientific inquiry best serves these interests when attempting to control defined physical and chemical interaction, and is quite deficient in explaining social relationships. Conversely, religious practice is limited in scope to the examination of human behavior. With the exception of Occultism, Religion does not concern itself with controlling physical processes.  Therefore, both disciplines serve different, but necessary, psychological needs.

An atheistic reliance on Science in the social realm simply provides a rationalization for dismissing unwanted moral restraints.  “Why can’t the theist put down Freud’s rival belief? Antireligious “scientific” belief is really the same in kind, a governing Weltanschauung, and we can easily postulate it for some unconscious rebellion against one’s parents, some desire to be free from guilt or moral commandments…” [13].

Finally, Freud’s analysis fails to adequately account for the belief systems of Eastern religions. Freud’s explanation of unconscious archetypes does not account for the development of non-deistic belief systems such as Buddhism or Confucianism, which do not provide the psychological comfort of a  personal deity. Neither does it adequately address the belief shared by Hindus and Deists, of an impersonal, mechanistic God whose primary function is to administer the proper functioning of divinely ordained cycles and relationships within the natural world. Not all religious belief systems fit easily into the paradigm of Freud’s psychoanalytic hypothesis.

As a result, Freud’s analysis leaves the door open for the possibility that the concept of the Divine exists as a form of innate knowledge, rather than being the result of socialization.  Assuming, arguendo, the ontological arguments of Socrates and Rene Descartes, the concept of God may simply be the unconscious acknowledgement  that we understand such abstract concepts as infinity, perfection, omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence, despite the fact they form no part of the human experience. In this scenario, it would be natural for an individual to analogize the divine attributes with  comprehensible human archetypes, such as father, mother, king, teacher and healer. Perhaps, this is the most rational way to communicate abstract concepts which are not commonly experienced through sensory perception. Personalizing the divine attributes through human archetypes may simply be the best educational tool we have developed for conveying universally intuited moral understanding.

James and Religion

In 1902, distinguished psychologist and philosopher, William James, gave a series of lectures at the University of Edinburgh, entitled, The Varieties of Religious Experience. James studied the written testimony of numerous individuals attempting to describe their personal spiritual experiences, in an attempt to conduct an empirical study of religious beliefs. Like Freud, most of his observations came from individual case studies and his arguments have more of a philosophical ring to them.  However, in contrast to Freud,  James focuses on the personal nature of religious experience outside the context of socialized community belief structures.

James views Religion as an individual consciousness, rather than a group experience. His position is that the truly religious person is not shaped by society. James acknowledges there is a superficial mode of Religion in which the adherent follows “conventional observances” as proscribed by his culture. James agrees that in this type of simple religious observance, the adherent is not intellectually transformed, but simply conditioned to perform traditional practices and customs. James writes this off as “meaningless” religious observance. To James, the true believer is an eccentric personality and individualistic in his approach, pointing out that many religious believers are inspired to act in ways that are contrary to traditional norms. This is exhibited by the “exceptional and eccentric” demeanor of religious reformers such as George Foxx. [14].

James argues that an individual’s religious beliefs are grounded in the conscious: “All our attitudes moral, practical, or emotional, as well as religious are due to the ‘objects’ of our consciousness, the things which we believe to exist, whether real or ideally along with ourselves.” [15]. Concrete concepts such as God, as well as more abstract concepts such as mercy, justice, and holiness exist as “pure ideas” of which the individual has no prior experience. These ideals may be “present to our senses” or may merely exist as thought, but they bring forth sincere and genuine responses.

The paradox is that words like God, soul, and immortality have no sub-context in the natural world. They are theoretically devoid of any significance yet are understood in the context of religious practice much the same way as Science lends significance to words such as time and space in the material world. According to James, “This absolute determinability of our mind by abstractions is one of the cardinal facts in our human constitution.” [16].

James’ view is that attributing human characteristics  to God is a consequence of the inability to meaningfully express the concepts Religion deals with. These abstract religious concepts are internalized as intuitions that operate on a deeper level than rational thought. In James’ view rationality is preconditioned for by our intuitions and is an inferior method for founding belief: “The truth is that in metaphysical and religious sphere, articulate reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings of reality have already been impressed in favor of the same conclusion.” [17]. Our instinct leads and our intelligence follows. As a result, no belief system, whether scientific or rational, can be changed by rational argument.

James did not see the natural world as perceived through the senses as a providing a full measure of reality. James speculated “…so long as we deal with the cosmic and the general we deal only with the symbols of reality, but as soon as we deal with private and personal phenomena as such, we deal with realities in the completest sense of the term” [18].

In James’ opinion, our inner experience may be subjective and unscientific, but it has the greatest effect on shaping our reality. Inner religious motivations lead to changes in character and manifest themselves in the deeds accomplished by the religious individual. The “stronghold of religion” lies in this individuality, or self-actualization of the believer, and through this “the theologian’s contention that the religious man is moved by an external power is vindicated.” [19].

James acknowledges that proof of whether God exists is not needed for Religion to serve its purpose. James determines the way to save the utility of religious belief is by supplying justification for the illusion. His defense of Religion consigns the Divinity to the role of little more than an inspirational device. For James, the actual power of God is manifested through the individual’s belief in God.

James’ view of Religion is very individualistic in this sense. There is no sense of community, morality, or an ordered universe such as prevails in many religious traditions. James disposes of any notion of a universal purpose by assigning personal beliefs about the divine dictate as overbeliefs. In James’ view, a person is only capable of ascertaining the divine will for their own behavior and interactions.

James dismisses the notion of a personal deity, defining God is a personal experience rather than a sovereign entity. This addresses the critique that Religion is oppressive in the application of its subjective moral standards onto unwilling members of society, but it takes much of the substance away from what a Divine Being is or represents in most cultures.

At a purely subjective level Religion is vindicated. Whether or not religious tenets are correct is of no consequence as long as they prove useful to the individual. The subconscious self creates a personal entity which guides us through our personal reality, making God a “causal agent as well as a medium of communion.” [20]. This subjective perception of reality serves a rational function of empowering the individual religious believer.


Freud and James’ individual case studies leave us with an unsatisfactory scientific resolution as to the original source of religious faith. Ironically, both theories fall victim to the same epistemological shortcomings they originally set out to confront by examining the source of the concept of God. What we are left with is the centuries old question DeCartes left us with — does the intrinsic belief in God originate from an idea implanted by an external force which acts upon us, or is it simply the by-product of an innate desire to assign meaning to an incomprehensible world.

Neither Freud nor James provides us with a scientific solution to the problem. They offer no insights on what empirical data we should collect, form no testable hypothesis to validate their conclusions, do not control for different religious ideologies, and base their findings on a miniscule sample of humanity. Instead, each man relies on the trustworthiness of the psychoanalytic approach to correctly diagnose the subjective, unconscious motivations of their subjects.  Freud and James both come to the determination that religious belief is an internalized rationalization of the outside world, but arrive at different conclusions for the utility this rationalization serves.

For Freud, religious belief is simply a psychological defense mechanism — a kind of personalized rationalization to provide us with a sense of self-control over an unpredictable and hostile environment. Its usefulness is in providing  a societal control mechanism which coerces reluctant individuals into suppressing their primal instincts.

James, on the other hand, views religious belief as an individualized experience. Our inner experience helps shape our reality. The utility of Religion is in the self-actualization of the believer which empowers us to achieve greater accomplishments. Personal faith motivates us to look beyond our individual deficiencies.

Neither intellectual attributes religious belief to a pathological condition or a deficiency in critical reasoning skills. Conversely, each psychologist views Religion as a natural cognitive outgrowth of the mind’s attempt to process imperfect information which cannot be experienced through our natural senses. What motivates us to attach personal significance to mundane human experiences? Why do individuals continue in their religious faith with little or no tangible proof of its utility? Is the belief in a Divine Being helpful or harmful to our daily existence? These are qualitative inquiries which fall outside the realm of testable scientific hypothesis. As such, they are subjective experiences which become matters of personal conscience.

Psychology’s conjecture into how the mind forms abstract religious concepts requires it to resort to the same speculative ontological arguments for which it criticizes  Theology.  Psychology retains its sure scientific footing when it limits its scope to the ream of quantifiable proofs; it overreaches when it attempts to magnify subjective  individual  experiences into broad, generalized assumptions. Likewise, Religion retains its integrity when it limits its examination to the realm of individual human potential; overreaching when it attempts to extrapolate broad, generalized principles and indiscriminately apply them at an organizational level. When reduced to over-simplified, dogmatic doctrine, both fields of study are susceptible to harmful misapplication. It is at these ideological impasses that Psychology and Religion stop functioning as  complimentary disciplines and become little more than competing belief systems.

By Lawrence Christopher Skufca (2007)

Some Rights Reserved


[1]. Holmes Rolston III, Science and Religion: A Critical Survey, pp. 22-23.

[2]. Owen Gingrich, “God’s Universe.” p. 12.

[3]. Holmes Rolston III, Science and Religion: A Critical Survey, p. 23

[4]. Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, p. 20.

[5]. Ibid., p. 20.

[6]. Ibid., p. 21.

[7]. Ibid., p. 21.

[8]. Ibid., p. 22.

[9]. Ibid., p. 22.

[10]. Ibid., p. 23.

[11]. Ibid., p. 23.

[12]. Ibid., p. 38.

[13]. Holmes Rolston III, Science and Religion: A Critical Survey, p. 163.

[14]. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lecture I. p. 4.

[15]. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lecture III. p. 1.

[16]. Ibid., p. 3.

[17]. Ibid., p. 13.

[18]. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lecture XX. p. 11.

[19]. Ibid., p. 20.

[20]. Ibid., p. 22.


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