An article published in Psychology Today by Nathan A. Heflick offers a non-exhaustive list of the main reasons people develop theistic beliefs (and/or believe in some supernatural divine force in general).
I encourage any theists out there to weigh in. What I’m about to share isn’t clear-cut, but is just something to consider and discuss. I know many of your reasons for being religious may be different, and I’d like your own feedback on that.
Obviously, like any belief system, a conviction in God is too complex to neatly boil down to a few core factors (something Heflick rightly concedes). But given that some sort of psychological basis or rationale underpins every human belief, sacred or otherwise, it’s important to be open-minded and explore what motivates the faithful to be faithful.
1) A Need for Control
Research by Aaron Kay (now at Duke University) and colleagues suggests that when someone is feeling personal uncertainty, or a lack of personal control, they are more likely to believe that God is in control. The basic idea is that people have a need for control, and when they receive this via secular routes (like cops or the government) they do not have the same need to believe that God possesses control. Evolutionary psychologists have made similar arguments, citing data showing that when economic and health security are high, people tend to be less religious.
2) A Need to Cope with Death
Reminders of death increase people’s belief in spirits and the power of prayer. Moreover, having people read that there is life after death (even atheists) reduces people’s psychological distress in response to thinking about death.
Kurt Gray (University of Maryland) has conducted several studies showing that people believe in God more strongly after being exposed to unexplained suffering. For instance, if people read of suffering that can be explained (i.e., a man loses his job) this would not increase belief in God. However, if people read that am unexpected flood had caused a family to die, this would increase belief. Ironically, suffering increases theism.
4) A Need for Justice
When people think that a God that can punish is watching them, they behave more morally. Moreover, they also feel less of a need to punish others. It follows from this research (though the study has not been done) that people should have less belief in God (at least his punishing characteristics) when they are feeling like secular sources of authority are providing ample justice. Somewhat supporting this, religious people have less distrust of atheists after watching a video of police effectiveness. The need to punish others (who have not been punished) is associated with belief in God.
5) Experiential Thinking
There are (at least) two primary modes of thinking and decision making. One is called experiential thinking, in which a person relies primarily on their “gut” or their feelings when making a decision. The other is logical thinking, in which a person makes a decision in a more cold, calculated manner.
Research suggests that belief in God is higher among people who more often think experientially. Moreover, forcing people to think experientially in an experiment heightens their belief in God, compared to people who are forced to think logically.
In other words, people’s natural thinking style could, or could not, lend itself to belief in the supernatural.
As I’ve stressed multiple times before, we shouldn’t pounce on these studies as if they were irrefutable. We would clearly need more replication and peer review before we accept their conclusions at face value. But that doesn’t mean we can’t consider their implications and at least make hypothetical arguments based on their claims.
For starters, the article notes a very important caveat: all these studies were conducted along a spectrum of belief, either on a 1-5 or 1-7 scale. Each result thus represents an average from a sample of people with varying levels of conviction: from casual believers to fundamentalist ones, and from agnostics to hard atheists, with everything in-between.
Therefore, giving someone personal control of their lives won’t automatically turn them into atheists – it may, at most, merely moderate their level of piety, as was observed in some of these studies. On the flip side, an atheist who endures a lot suffering won’t necessarily find God and become a Born-Again Evangelical, but they may be more open to the idea than they once were.
There are always exceptions, as I’ve read plenty of testimonials claiming unilateral conversion (or de-conversion) in response to a single catalyst. Even then, one would wonder if they weren’t already leaning to their ultimately chosen decision to begin with.
Furthermore, it seems that if any of these factors persist and/or intensify in the long-run, they may lead to a gradual dilution of one’s preexisting faith (or conversely, a reconstruction of a theistic belief system). Few people simply switch between faith and atheism instantaneously; it is almost always a gradual and nonlinear process.
Altogether, these studies confirm a long-standing observation: that our beliefs (or lack thereof) seem influenced more by personal experiences and environmental conditions than anything else. There are certain individuals whose personalities seem especially conducive to either piety or skepticism. Unless their personal dynamics change markedly, such as if they reach an epiphany or encounter a life-changing event, we simply can’t imagine them being any other way ideologically.
This reminds me of a study mentioned Point of Inquiry (I sadly can’t locate it) that claimed that most people become religious in response to emotional needs – again, a desire for control or a way to cope with tragedy – while those who abandon their faith do so primarily for intellectual reasons, such as finding that their beliefs are illogical or invalid. This isn’t to suggest that all atheists are smart and all religious people are dumb, but that each sides impetus for their particular worldview is fundamentally different (at least in most cases).
We should keep in mind that most people will remain loosely aligned with the belief system they were raised in; I’ve observed that even Christians who seem functionally nonreligious nonetheless identify themselves as such, just as people of a secular upbringing will claim to be nonreligious even if they retain spiritual or deistic beliefs (though that may be a matter of semantics). Here’s something else to note:
What this work does suggest is that moderate shifts in belief can occur when people are feeling things, such as a fear of death, a lack of control or a need for justice, and when they are exposed to suffering or are thinking experientially.
Let’s apply this on a macro level. The most secular societies in the world – such as those of Scandinavia, East Asia, Australia, Canada, and others – just happen to be those that top the indexes measuring standard of living, economic development, low-crime, and robust social safety nets (whether state-based or communitarian). Conversely, all the world’s poorest nations are also overwhelmingly religious.
We see this same trend within the United States: the more secular states are also the more developed ones, while the very devout Deep South suffers high rates of poverty, abortion, crime, and low-educational attainment.
(Note that in both instances, “secular” doesn’t necessarily mean atheistic, but instead describes communities where religion doesn’t figure prominently in either the average individual’s personal life or in the public sphere as a whole).
In conjunction with the study data, this correlation suggests that the factors influencing religious belief apply on an aggregate level too: if people as a whole aren’t worrying about financial insecurity, political instability, crime, or systemic injustice, the overall influence of religion wanes. If you live in a relatively thriving environment, you have less impetus for turning to God – or to religious institutions – to help you through.
That may be why the United States, which is uniquely religious for a developed country, also stands out as far as having high rates of socioeconomic dysfunction. Broadly-speaking, religion seems to be of an emotional and psychological crux. Sure, there are exceptions – many wealthy Americans are still devout – but this seems to be the overall case.