The Psychology of Belief

beliefIn many of the discussions throughout this website, the issue of human emotions versus human needs is touched upon. In particular, there is a discussion of the attributes of human intelligence and something called emotional intelligence. However, it is felt that some initial outline of the implications that arise from these two different facets of our thinking is important to consider, before we actually try to discuss the emotive issue of God in any logical context. While there was an earlier introduction of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, on reflection, there was no clear idea as to where religious belief fitted into this hierarchy, which seems to be a major oversight given the near universal need for some sort of spiritual belief across all cultures. However, it is possible that an argument can be made that the human need for spiritual belief means different things to different people, which effectively runs vertically across all of the definitions of needs within Maslow’s hierarchy, i.e.

  • Physiological:
    There can be a physiological need, that emanates from emotional grief, to believe that the lost of a loved one is not permanent.

  • Safety:
    There is an implicit sense of security in the belief that God will look after you.

  • Social:
    Even before the formality of organised religions, spiritual belief manifested itself in ceremonies that socially bonded groups of people in a common belief.

  • Esteem:
    As the formalism of religious organisation grew, esteem was bestowed on those who rose within the hierarchy of the organisation.

  • Self-Actualisation:
    Might be described as a sense of power or the ability to influence, which has clearly manifested itself in the history of many religious and political organisations.

If this is the case, then we might better understand why belief is still such an important issue today, albeit for different reasons to different people. However, there is also the psychology of ‘ wants versus needs’ that we might initially characterise in terms of an indirect example, e.g. the dilemma of what a child wants versus what a child needs. At an emotional level we want our children to be happy, but at a logical level, we recognise that simply giving in to all our children’s ‘wants’ is not usually in the best interests of the child’s long-term development. We might also recognise the issue of the child’s need for make-believe, which although not initially considered as a problem, would become a matter of concern if it persisted into adulthood. However, it is clear that all our ‘wants and beliefs’ do not simply disappear with the transitions to adulthood, although they are undoubtedly transformed in scope and sophistication by this process. For our beliefs are no longer simply childish wishes, but rather the more fundamental need to address the apparent uncertainty of a life that some claim has no other purpose than what you make of it. While many of us can rationalise the logic of our opinion from the comfort and security of our position in society, we often have little experience of the despair and fear that life can inflict on others. In such cases, the need for a belief that transcends the limitations and injustices of this world is not illogical; it is simply a psychological necessity, which cannot be dismissed by any atheist philosophy. However, there is a dichotomy in this position, for either we all have to accept the ‘reality’ of this emotional belief or turn our eyes away from the reality we perceive before us. Possibly, some might argue that, in this context, the debate about the existence or non-existence of God may simply be one of intellectual interest and not of human necessity. Of course, if this is the case, we may also have to accept the implications on the future of a humanity that cannot accept the universe for what it is.