Psychological needs

Religions respond to human psychological needs – this does not invalidate the basic religious claim

Many years ago I visited Jâdigirigutta, a small shrine in the Indian State of Andhra Pradesh. I joined hundreds of pilgrims who climbed to the temple on top of the hill and who waited patiently to be admitted in small groups to the cave where the local god resided.

He was known as Narasimha, the lion god with a human head. A woman, close to me in the queu, held a coconut wrapped in a linen cloth. She told me that she was infertile and had come to ask for a child. When we entered the sanctuary cave, she bowed down before the stone idol and said a prayer. Then she handed the coconut to the attending Brahmin priest, who took it and tied it to the ceiling of the cave. I was told that the woman had thus made a vow. She would come back, once her child was born, to bring gifts for a sacrifice.

In this everyday incident, we can find ingredients common to all religions: the experience of a human need; the turning to God for help; the belief that correct religious practice can enhance prosperity and happiness. But does this not also reveal the Achilles heel of religions? Could religions be just that: a palliative for insecure emotional needs?

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the founder of psychoanalysis, thought as much. He maintained that the origin and basis of religion could be explained away entirely in psychological terms. Since we often meet unpleasant realities in life, he said, we use our human capacity of dreaming to create imaginary solutions. We create an unseen world in which we can ultimately obtain what we want.

The personified representation of our ultimate happiness is located in our loving mother and our heaven is envisaged as our restoration to her sheltering arms and comforting breasts. Likewise, we accept an omnipotent Law, which supports us but also rules us, out of awe for our powerful father. Thus God is born as a surrogate parent.

For Freud, the whole of religion, both in the past and the present, arises from human fear and from the wish-fulfilling potential of our brain. It is all one big illusion!

“The religious person calls back from his memory the image of his father, of such exaggerated importance to him in his childhood days. He raises this image to divinity, and establishes it mentally as something present and real.” S.FREUD, The Complete Psychological Works, ed. J.STRACHEY, London 1974.

“Being confronted with dangerous, uncontrollable and un-intelligible forces within and outside of himself, he remembers, as it were, and regresses to an experience which he had as a child, when he felt protected by a father whom he thought to be of superior wisdom and strength, and whose love and protection he could win by obeying his commands and avoiding transgression of his prohibitions.” E.FROMM, Psychoanalysis and Religion, Yale 1950, p.11.

Is God a virus?

Recent years have seen even more aggressive studies on our conscious and sub-conscious identity. Daniel Dennett contends that our own “self” is an illusion. It is like a software programme in the hardware of our brain. Our “self”, the “I” we believe we are, does not really exist. It is a web of words and memories that guides our body and that makes it somehow a unity. It is the `narrative centre of our body’. And religion is a short segment of the programme, a meme, which infects the programme as any software virus would.

“The Self is an imaginary construction by Homo Sapiens, an element of the internal, virtual machine of consciousness that keeps him going.”

D.C.DENNETT and D.R.HOFSTADTER, The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul, New York 1981; D.C.DENNETT, Consciousness Explained, London 1992, esp. pp. 412-430.

“Religion is no more than corrupted software of the mind. God sits in people’s brains like a virus.” R.DAWKINS, ‘Is God a computer virus?’. New Statesman & Society, 1 January 1993, pp. 42-45.

In assessing these views we should, first of all, observe that they contain a lot of truth. All our religious notions are shaped by the limitations of our human mind. Our religious experiences bear the imprint of human psychology. Even when God reveals himself to us, as I believe he/she/it does, we can only relate to God through human knowledge and human love. All our religious acts are subject to the rules of human psychology.

But does this invalidate religion? Is everything we do not conditioned by our psychological needs?

All our relationships are psychological events and are steeped in human emotions. But this does not mean that we do not have real relationships. Our partners are real people; and we are generally not mistaken about the negative or positive value of our friendship with them. In the same way, our relationship to the divine mystery, to God, however psychological and emotional, is thereby not less real.

When we grow up, we relate to our mother and father. These parent figures are real, and so are the love and security we experience in them, even if some of our early experiences can also be painful and traumatic. Just as our initial bond with our parents enables us to relate to other people – who are real people, it can also enable us to relate to God, if God exists. The traces of our parental bond in such a relationship do not prove that God is not real.


It is true that we can deceive ourselves by hallucinations, illusions, fantasies and fallacies. What saves us from them is critical perception: common sense and the powers of rational inquiry and sound judgment.

Religion is an inescapable dimension

Elsewhere we will consider the evidence, inherent in our world itself, that point to the existence of God. For the moment it may suffice to reflect on the undeniable fact that the majority of human beings, to whatever nation they belonged or belong, have from the earliest times onwards spontaneously perceived a religious dimension.

However varied people’s interpretations have been, they are remarkably united in their verdict: the spiritual dimension of the world is real. A leading modern psychologist acknowledges this fact.

“Philosophers and theologians have spoken of the `nunc stans’, the abiding now, the instant that knows no temporal articulation, where distinctions between now, earlier and later have fallen away or have not arisen. All of us know, I believe, poignant moments that have this timeless quality: unique and matchless, complete in themselves and somehow containing all there is in experience.”

H.LOEWALD, ‘Comments on Religious Experience’, in Psychoanalysis and the History of the Individual, New Haven 1978, p. 65.

Other psychologists and psychotherapists have written in similar vein, expressing their judgement, based on dealing with innumerable case stories, that the religious dimension is real.

Many psychotherapists affirm the importance of the spiritual dimension for human wholeness. Among them: V.E.FRANKL, The Unconscious God, New York (1945) 1975; The Will to Meaning, New York 1970; R.MAY, Man’s Search for Himself, New York 1953; Love and Will, New York 1969; W.W.MEISSNER, Psychoanalysis and Religious Experience, New Haven 1984; A.GRUNBAUM, ‘Psychoanalysis and Theism’, Monist 70 (1987) 152-192; S.LEAVY, In the Image of God. A Psychoanalyst’s View, New Haven 1988.>

Such a universal and lasting assessment by the human race can only point to an overwhelming reality that cannot be dismissed lightly. It is an assessment which, as likely as not, resonates in our own intuitive insight. What is needed is to test the universal perception further.

If God and religion were mere illusions, then morality would have to be reduced to self interest. Freud acknowledged this, calling the Christian law of unselfish love “unreasonable, unpsychological and impossible to fulfil” (see: S.FREUD, Civilization and its Discontents, Standard Edition, vol.21, p.143). But in a letter to the neurologist James Putnam, on July 8th 1915, he confessed:

“When I ask myself why I have always behaved honourably, ready to spare others and to be kind wherever possible, and why I did not give up being so when I observed that in that way one harms oneself and becomes an anvil because other people are brutal and untrustworthy, then, it is true, I have no answer.”

E.JONES, Sigmund Freud. Life and Work, London 1953-57, vol.2, p. 465.

Even Freud, therefore, witnessed in himself the response to a deeply spiritual value.

The truth of the matter is that our experience of religious values is personal, and therefore subjective and psychological. But this does not prove that there is no objective basis to religion. William James argues this point convincingly in his classic treatise on the psychology of religion( see WILLIAM JAMES, The Varieties of Religious Experiences, Fontana edition, New York 1960, pp. 475- 477).

Just open your eyes

F.B.Pratt has countered the objection of psychologists in a parable:

On a planet not far from a brilliant sun lived thousands of intelligent beings. But, although they all moved about in perpetual sunlight, few were aware of this because most were blind. Only a few of these beings could actually see, only very few.

One day one of these chosen few opened his eyes and received light sensations. He reported that he could see the sun. One psychologist among those beings, who was blind himself, came to examine the phenomenon.

“Aha”, he said. “You claim you saw the sun after opening your eyes? Well, the matter is clear. Your seeing light sensations is not due to there being a sun outside, but only to the opening of your eyes. By opening your eyes you have projected your wish to see a sun. The sun you see is imaginary and a product of your mind.”

But the man who could see insisted: “I do see the sun!”

“Is that so?” said the psychologist. “Well, try if you still see it with your eyes shut. No? It doesn’t work? You only see the sun with your eyes open? Well, then show me a single point in your experience not consistent with my psychological explanation. You can’t? Well, then it is clear that it’s the opening of your eyes that makes you see the sun! The sun does not exist.”

F.B.PRATT, Religious Consciousness, New York 1920; also in Readings in the Psychology of Religion, Nashville 1959, p. 77.

The universal perception of God and of religion that we have inherited entails a totality of beliefs and feelings, a coherent perspective on life, an imaginative grasp on our world. May we assert, from psychology alone, that all this rests on an illusion? Is it not more likely that religious belief responds to something real, that it reflects a true aspect of the mysterious reality of which we are part?


The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

View the following film on the meaning of religion