Psychological Aspects In Which Religion Fails To Support Believers


Like it or not, most of us are being exposed to at least one main religious belief system from a very early age. Like everything else that occurs in our early childhood, religious beliefs will shape our development, meaning they will impact our personality, self-image, motivation and desires, behaviors, and emotional life.

Although I do believe everyone is entitled to their own belief system and that there are objective pathological situations in which these beliefs are not to be challenged, I also consider it useful to acknowledge the kind of influence religious beliefs can have on the individual’s inner dynamic and interpersonal relationships.

Thus, I decided to post this personal and selective approach to the psychological implications certain religious beliefs may have upon a person’s development and well-being.

Considering the fact that until now, research provided results that both support the positive and negative effects of religious beliefs, I decided not to include any reference to scientific studies (although discussions regarding some of those studies might be quite interesting).

Well-integrated religion, a term used by Kenneth I. Pargament to describe a healthy and mature way to include religion in one’s life, is not the focus of my approach, since it does not hold the potential to affect the person’s well-being in significant ways, although I do believe that even this type of integration alters psychological development in a rather unnecessary manner.

I will approach religious statements in a general way for the purposes of this article, since the general public does not usually focus on the academic take on religion – philosophy or psychology of religion, cultural studies, etc. I want to point out basic beliefs in the way they reach us in our social and cultural contexts, and then expand toward a hypothetical psychological outcome that can stem from that specific belief.

Although I am a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, and even if the perspectives included in this article refer to psychological aspects, I would rather recommend you to consider this blog post as a personal opinion guided by knowledge and practice in the field of psychology and not as a psychologist’s view upon religion, for that matter is rather complex, ethically regulated and not the subject of the present material.

So, let’s take a look at several religious premises, concepts, and contexts and consider the psychological implications they may have on both believers and those on their way to becoming non-believers.

*Some of these beliefs are general, while others are religion-specific.
* This is a very, very, very short and simplistic presentation of the subject.

Humans are Born in Sin

Found in Christianity, this belief mainly implies that humans are mortals and prone to sin as a result of Adam’s disobedience in Eden regarding the forbidden fruit. He fell into temptation and that caused his descendants to inherit the sinful and mortal nature. Now I believe this is a pretty bad start in life. Considering the fact that from the beginning you are not worthy of your ‘father’s’ love, you carry guilt that is not yours and have to redeem yourself for something you can’t quite put your finger on, that cannot be the happiest way to start your journey into this world. It makes the individual start with a rather bad image of himself and before him lays the task of gaining value in the eyes of the ‘father’, others, and himself.

Why would a loving God let His subjects deal with this kind of issue? Why start in a maze? Why start with a challenge? Why doesn’t anyone stand a chance to be innocent in the eyes of God unless they sacrifice their entire lives to the task of cleaning themselves spiritually? And then, maybe, just maybe, they stand a chance to be accepted (and saved from mortality) by the father.

Why would one even want to gain the love of such a father, I don’t quite understand. Mortal parents seem to be better at implementing the ‘unconditional love’ concept. From this perspective, they also seem to have happier children.

Obedience Through Fear

I do understand the somewhat social value of religion, that of providing guidelines for pro-social behavior, but I also believe this is only one way to achieve the goal of a balanced society and that it only works for a selected few, in special contexts. The goal is great – a well-rounded society -, but I find that the way to achieve it through religion is rather gruesome. Religions use a manipulative way to make grown-ups obey: the ‘or else’ technique. The believer is not encouraged to be good for the sake of goodness, but for two other things: gain a personal reward (being welcomed to heaven after death and the salvation of the soul at the end of the world) and most of all, avoid punishment (going to hell). And just like any other manipulation technique that has a chance to work, the punishment presented is a rather dramatic one. ‘Lake of fire and sulfur/brimstone’, ‘Eternal fire’, ‘and the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever’, ‘No rest day and night’, ‘bottomless pit’, just to name a few of the things that may be part of a sinner’s eternity in hell. So, who’s in? I take it not many would agree with Benjamin Franklin Wade’s perspective “[…] Heaven has the better climate, but hell has the better company” and choose the latter, so I think it is safe to consider that most people would not want to live an eternity of torture. Therefore, they are more susceptible to obeying whatever rules claim to help them avoid the punishment. So it’s basically fear that makes a believer good. On the verge of sin, he’s reminded ‘nuh-uh-uh, remember that fiery lake?’… and little Johnny will put the cookie back in the jar. But I am sure little Johnny could learn about being nice and asking for permission to take a cookie without having to bear in mind the representation of thousands of horned and tailed demons that would torture him forever and ever for that darn chocolate chip cookie alone. I strongly believe (cannot emphasize this enough) that both little Johnny and John Sr. can be good people without these rather disturbing guidelines set by religion.

Fear can also paralyze cognition, so, for some people, critical analysis of the eternal damnation premise might be numbed when overwhelmed by the threat of such punishment.

Religious Labels Divide People

Studies on the origins of morality have shown that we have an innate tendency toward punishing people that differ from us, even when it comes to minor differences. Therefore, starting by labeling children by religious affiliation sets the context for further “versus” positions.

Of course, this is valid for any other type of labels, regardless of the field they come from, but religious affiliation comes with a wide and often intense range of emotional charge, therefore one would need to be more cautious with this category than with those that we can consider emotionally neutral.

Belief In Supernatural Is Irrational

Supernatural is a great cultural segment. But, although it might be nice to read a scary Guy de Maupassant or Algernon Blackwood short story, when we step back into the real world, we need to keep in mind that these experiences have never been supported by evidence and therefore, cannot be considered genuine segments of reality. As a result, the belief in a supernatural world is considered irrational.

Obviously, the mature, rational mind will challenge and dismiss these beliefs, but a mind already inclined towards irrationality may feed upon this socially promoted and even acclaimed belief system and that may lead to a wide range of manifestations, especially if pathology is already present.

Irrational thoughts and fears can also be passed on from parents/adults to children, so you can basically teach a mind to be irrational. Introducing a child to any sort of supernatural descriptions, especially if adults seem to treat them as being true, will cause the child to create an unrealistic model of the world.

Blurred Lines Between Literal Meaning and Metaphor

In addition to portraying the supernatural as a genuine segment of the real world, religious texts will often make it hard for a believer to distinguish between the literal and metaphorical meaning of certain passages.

Not knowing exactly what is considered true or just a metaphor, blurs the line between reality and supernatural once more and creates a space where manipulation through ambiguity and purpose-driven selective interpretation become possible.

External Locus of Control

Psychologically, we know that one of the best ways to generate authentic and lasting change in someone’s life is to help that person understand the role they themselves have in their own lives. We are responsible for our well-being and once we acknowledge that, we can start making the changes we need and live an independent, mature and healthy life.

Most religions, however, promote an external locus of control (concept developed by J. B. Rotter), meaning that they promote the idea that a person’s life is controlled by something external, like faith, chance, or God. Although I believe there are limitations to the concept of free will, there is definitely a significant part we play in the way our lives unfold and there are things we can do in order to feel independent from random – and rather nonexistent or insignificant – factors.

Sure, positive thinking results – like hope or motivation provided by prayers – can have an impact on someone’s life, but it’s not external. The positive outlook prayer conveys is what makes the individual find the resources to solve a problem, change the perspective we have regarding a context, and move forward. Just because positive results can follow a series of rituals, it does not provide proof regarding (direct) causality. Specific affirmations, like “I’m a winner, I’ll win this match” can have the same result as prayer or mantras. It’s the motivational aspect, not the supernatural at work.

Believers Are Better Than Non-Believers

Feeding one’s ego based on a group they are part of or falsely making someone believe they have a higher purpose in this world, based on claims involving the supernatural, can be highly dangerous, especially if an individual’s personality is highly sensitive to this type of approach. I won’t step into the realm of prophets (pathology, irrationality or pure charlatanism), martyrs, or apparently key-role holders in the unfolding of certain religious scenarios, but I will instead mention the most basic belief a believer seems to hold: that they are better than sinners.

There is no equality promoted by religions. There are people that follow “The word of God”, “The words of the Prophet”, “The Holy Book” – continue the list – and there are those who don’t. The ones who don’t are usually referred to as sinners and by definition, that’s something negative. Believers struggle their whole lives not to be sinners or to scrape that label off of them just in time for salvation. There are even levels of sins and sinners, and punishments that are assigned according to this criterion.

There are religious systems that claim that everyone is a sinner and all you can actually do is reduce the level of the sins you commit. Repent for some, be careful not to commit the really “serious” ones and you stand a chance to be forgiven.

Now, a fair conclusion of the perspectives above is that some believers will consider themselves either “clean of sin” or as being less of a sinner than others. That’s hierarchy right there. Some are placed higher (closer to eternal salvation or closer to God) than others. And often, they’ll make sure the (bigger) sinner gets that. If you hold a “higher position” in this sinners/’sin free persons’ hierarchy, it might be great for your ego, but it can also be terrible for your interpersonal relationships. You see people as being less than what you are. There can be an internal grin generated by the “I’m safe, but you’ll be burning in hell” perspective. Psychologically, it can be translated into the “I’m better than you.” affirmation. Furthermore, we can take this into the context of Life Positions as encountered in Transactional Analysis (TA) – The “I’m OK, you’re not OK” position, also known as the Paranoid or Narcissistic Position. People who display this attitude towards life and others can be described as arrogant and antisocial. “At worst, they can be killers who justify eradication of the minority; at best, they may be meddlers who go out of their way in a “holier-than-thou” attitude to convince others to change.” (Fredrick A. Boholst, A life Position Scale, Transactional Analysis Journal, Jan, 2002 Vol. 32, 28-32).

Life Positions in TA are general perspectives upon life, but especially about yourself and others. If the believer sees both himself/herself and others as sinners, the “I’m not OK, you’re not OK” position is active, meaning that the person has a rather negative outlook on life and that may cause apathy, depression, diminished productivity, etc. If you are the sinner, but others have made it or are on their way to holiness in your perspective, that’s an “I’m not OK, you’re OK” life position, also known as the Depressive Position.

Atheists, agnostics, and people who display well-integrated religion manifest the “I am OK, you are OK” attitude, a healthy, mature, and independent perspective about life, yourself, and others.

Sex Is Sin

Need I actually expand this one? Things that are natural, part of life and evolution of humankind are presented as “bad”, “embarrassing”, “demeaning”, “vulnerability”, and of course, “sin”. Sex, in most religions, if it’s not taboo, it’s sin. Also, its only role is reproduction, so, pleasure assigned to sexual activity is one of the worst sins that can happen, a vulnerability, a characteristic of the weak. Well, for all we know, humans do associate sex with pleasure with no great effort to do so, so it’s quite natural and expected to engage in pleasurable activities even if that means the cancellation or postponing of its main goal. Choosing to engage in an activity that produces pleasure (neurochemically, meaning regulations in the levels of Dopamine, Serotonin, and Oxytocin) doesn’t quite discriminate between sex, shopping, and eating chocolate. We seek rewards. So sexual drive and behaviors are innate, biologically wired… as natural as something can get. Why would then sex be “sin”?

Being A Man is Better Than Being A Woman

Values promoted by most religions seem to also be an ancient legacy that’s being carried into the modern world. And while the believer-sinner hierarchy has been approached earlier, there’s also another residual hierarchy that made its way into the 21st century: men are better (holier) than women.  Starting with the creation of women – as by-product of man, everything seemed to fall apart. The woman is  temptation, she corrupts the morals of men, she is seen as dirty and has interdiction to enter certain parts of churches or other places seen as holy. In certain religions, a woman is prohibited to even enter the church during her period (which again, is a natural process). Well, just another segregation and “I am OK, you are not OK” life position.

And yet another hierarchy among “brothers”

The people holding religious roles (priests, prophets, etc) are considered to be better than the average believer.

The End Of The World Is The Result Of Human Sin

That’s quite a lot to place on the shoulders of humanity. Although humans do play a significant role in the way the world changes (see climate change or deforestation), the actual end of the world is something we cannot predict, but I rather believe it’s going to have something to do with the very natural ways in which the physical universe deals with matter and the laws of physics than with a supernatural being that would be so capricious as to get fed up with its own creations and decide to punish them through extermination. If that would be the case, dinosaurs definitely p’d off their god.

You Start By Taking Freedom Away From The Child

And while we adults get the luxury of debating ideas regarding religion and choose to be believers, agnostics or atheists, most seem to forget that modern society rips children away from their right to choose their religious affiliation or the decision of not being religiously affiliated. Most children are baptized at an early age, something I see as a first sacrifice of the parents in the name of religion. They give their child to the religion, letting their beliefs and will override those of the child. Quite abusive. If the child would want to renounce his or her belief and/or change it, they would have to undergo serious thinking, deal with blame, guilt and responsibility, and perhaps shame and exclusion (or even worse, if we consider apostasy laws) and only after these useless processes, the child can make the choice they should have been entitled to since birth. Children are not means to please the egoistic needs of their parents, they are not pawns, nor are they new players in “the team” or supplementary soldiers in an ideology’s “army”, they are independent beings, with their own needs, resources and goals. Why take this away from them? Sure, many children feel the positive results of activities such as those that are religious in nature, but it’s a matter of freedom and choice. I think a better approach to the matter would be to give them information and let them decide for themselves. And even after they choose something, I would also be aware that a person has the right to change his or her mind. And I would accept and respect that change too.

Religions Teach People Not To Be Curious, Not To Question, But To Blindly Believe

I think this is one of the worst outcomes of poorly integrated religion. To discourage freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of choice, evidence-seeking behaviors, scientific research, means, in my opinion, to gradually strip the human being from significant results of evolution and culture. We are mammals that display complex cognitive processes, we are capable of great discoveries and innovations, why not use them to explore the world around us, our inner functioning, why not use everything we know in order to improve and further evolve? Why choose to stagnate? Why should anyone find it enough to believe without being presented proof? And when it comes to religion, it’s not even a supernatural being that some choose to blindly follow and believe, but other fellow men. Now that’s either submissivity or stupidity, or both.

Many other aspects could be added to my list and provide further understanding of the way religious beliefs may influence psychological development and well-being, but I thought the ones presented above are enough in the context of this blog post.

In conclusion, my intention is not that of placing the blame on religion or religious people when it comes to poor psychological or social outcomes, but I do want to encourage my readers to embrace Critical Thinking and evidence-analysis when it comes to building their model of reality. I would like to see people live healthier and happier lives, free of the burdens generated by artificial systems. Anything that makes people afraid to think, speak or question is, in my perspective, dangerous to evolution. If we would only learn to select and exclusively integrate those aspects of life that offer us support and nurture, I think that would be a great step forward. And I don’t believe there are reasons for humanity to choose to step twice in the same place or go backward, but we have all the reasons to move forward, and for that, we need to cut the strings from anything and everything that holds us back.

P.S. Just in case anyone cares: I am not a sheep.

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