Religion: A Psyche’s Help or Hindrance

Apart from the emotive or intellectual origin theories of religion, which reference constant features in man, either emotional or intellectual, psychological theories of religion consider aspects or characteristics that place emphasis on laws. These laws could have been socially or psychologically based. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, believed religious origin stemmed from a child making attempts to secure suitable relationships with their parents. This was especially true of a relationship with their father. In seeing their father as a figure of power, the child devotes themselves to the service of their father. With age, however, the balance of power between the child and parent begins to level out.

It is in this absence of that previous support from one’s parents that religion is created. Taking its origins in man’s attempt to create a higher power or God which then shows them the support they once had from their parents, but mainly the father. Freud hypothesized that primitive societies were heavily patriarchal. In these societies the “father” had total control of all the women. Eventually the sons defied the “father”, killed him and took the women for themselves. The guilt from the primal act of defying the “father” is the basis of the psychological belief in a father-god whose wrath must be appeased through devotion and sacrifice.

Emile Durkheim saw religion as one of the ways of achieving socialization, that is, accommodation, integration and adjustment of social and personal needs. Religious symbols seem to be more in the realm of supernatural. With divine laws being the most central laws of a given society, it is easy to see how they are more so about society’s claims upon its people.

Freud’s theory and others like his and Durkheim’s, are highly speculative and there is no true way of verifying them. Freud’s patriarchal society theory is strongly opposed by those who believe that original societies were matriarchal. Giving clear cause to why so many cultures are mother-worship centered in their religious beliefs. Modern scholars have abandoned the search for the origin of religion. They more prefer to be objective in their observation of what an individual does while participating in religious rituals. This descriptive approach towards religion is more in line with the beliefs of modern psychologists of religion who follow sociological theories.

Considered the father of sociology, Auguste Comte, was considered a thinker before his own time. Not only did Comte introduce a precise method for understanding knowledge but he also examined the various stages of human thinking. Comte believed human thinking passed through three evolutionary and succeeding stages, each one more evolved than the previous stage. These stages are the Theological or Fictitious stage, the Metaphysical or Abstract stage, and the Scientific or Positive stage.

Comte’s theory of human thinking began with the primary stage called Theological or Fictitious. This is the type of thinking that would be expected of young children or even primitive man. There is no scientific outlook at this level therefore there is a strong lack of logic and order. Theological or fictitious thinking is often considered to be non-scientific by nature. For primitive man or a young child, the observation of natural events were/are often done with such thinking. For example, a small child may explain and understand rainfall as angel tears or primitive man may believe the lack of rainfall to be the wrath of a displeased God. These causalities are in terms of a theological or fictitious explanation.

Comte further broke theological or fictitious thinking down into three stages. These stages are fetishism, polytheism and monotheism. The first stage fetishism is a belief that a living spirit inhabits a non-living objects or animism. An example of this type of thinking can be seen in the remote Tibetan beliefs that deities reside in the trees, flowers, rivers, and winds. They then worship these objects and respect them as Gods. Fetishism evolves into polytheism. This stage separates natural and human forces, assigns them a deity, and gives each deity a purpose. The final and most developed theological thinking stage is monotheism. It is at this level we see human intellect prevail over irrational thinking. Monotheism is the belief that one God is Supreme. He is accountable for order and control in the universe.

The metaphysical or abstract thinking is Comte’s second stage of human thinking. For Comte, each stage built upon itself and as human thinking improved so did the complexities of human problems. Theological thinking does not allow the mind to go deep enough to understand the intricacies of conflicting concepts, such as God as the ultimate creator of the Universe as well as capable of complete annihilation. Metaphysical thinking allows for the belief in an abstract awe-inspiring entity in place of a more unyielding God. This stage of thinking allows for the belief in an abstract force guiding the events of the world. Metaphysical knowledge is built upon assumptive knowledge and there is no precise way to confirm this knowledge. Metaphysical thinking a matter of belief or temperament layered in guess work.

In most instances, religious beliefs are inherited. An individual will either follow what is practiced within their society or practice the beliefs of the people that raise you. This means there may be an established dominant religion. Most religions have one very prominent drive and that is the constant push towards purity. With over 4,000 different religions in the world today it is obvious every culture, has their own twist on religious beliefs and practices. Each of these cultures know the ultimate truth lies within their religious practices, and it is those beliefs that impact the affects that religion has on the human psyche.

Religions have contributed to the development of ideas about human behavior

and mental problems by offering specific theories of personality, causes of

mental illness, and how people recover from mental illness. Similarly, the scientific paradigms have had different perspectives on the existence of God and the

role that religious belief and practice have in fostering or curing mental


Religion has been observed as both an emotional disturbance as well as being helpful in promoting well-being. In the case of Amina, her ex-husband Hemed, and her daughter Kimwana, in Watters book Crazy Like Us, Amina tells McGruder though she doesn’t share in her ex’s or daughter’s beliefs she holds no judgement or frustrations. Amina would just say “I take it as one of God’s mercies, one of God’s wishes” (Watters, 2010). It was Amina’s emotional temperature, her belief in her God that allowed her the strength she needed to endure being a caregiver to three dependents. Amina’s religious beliefs helped to preserve her well-being and promote the well-being of those around her.

In Zanzibar, religion was more of a way of life, a daily practice, how they interact with others. The same however does not hold true for Christianity which is more about what you believe in, verses what you did during the day or how you conduct yourself (Watters, 2010). When religion is a belief structure one holds in the mind rather than actions taken in daily living, it appears to be more of an emotional disturbance than being helpful in promoting well-being. Many religions believe in spirit possession. These spirit possessions, whether they be by “Jinns”, or other forces, are easier to accept and are given the necessary time and space to recover. These are the same cultures that embrace religion as a way of life, it is through these practices that we can see religion promoting one’s well-being.

The culture’s that practice religions that are a way of life, more so than a belief structure held are, according to Comte, either in the second or third stage of theological thinking and possibly encroaching on metaphysical thinking. These simpler ways of experiencing life, culture and religion seem to allow for religion to be helpful in promoting an overall well-being. It is when metaphysical thinking encroaches and even crosses over into positive thinking that we see religion more so as a belief structure. It is through that belief structure that we witness religion being more of an emotional disturbance. This disturbance can be seen in 67% of urban Anglo-Americans with high emotional expression, and even regarded as positive in the United States where individualism and egocentrism reign supreme (Watters, 2010). There is a correlation between how high emotional expression impacts one’s belief structure and well-being and how that reflects onto the treatment of others, especially those with diseases of the brain (Watters, 2010).

Religion becomes an emotional disturbance in cultures that are egocentric with strong individualism. It is in these cultures that religion is more of a belief structure, where God set-up the rules for living and is keeping score of one’s moral and ethical decisions. God becomes someone that is constantly judging and if one does not do right by him, they will face punishment and damnation. This religious belief structure creates a life time of guilt, personal judgement, and low self-esteem as one may never feel like they ever measure up to the values held in one’s religion, greatly impacting one’s emotional well-being.

Religion becomes helpful in promoting emotional well being in cultures that are sociocentric with strong collectivism. It is in these cultures that religion is part of daily life, seen in how they act, speak, and think, it is not a separate belief structure for who they are, because it is who they are. In these religions God does not judge, God is gracious and gives one what they need in their life when they need it, whether it is strife or joy or they accept it as part of their growth and journey. Amina said in Watters book Crazy Like Us (2010), “I am unable to know”, it is in that not knowing that she understands no judgment comes from God and in turn no judgment shall come from her either. It is in that lack of judgement, in not seeing God as the rule maker and score keeper, that religion becomes supportive and nurturing, promoting emotional well-being.

“Religion is a difficult palliative to employ on an as-needed basis. It either exists in one’s life and surrounding culture, shaping one’s conception of the self, or it does not” (Watter, 2010). The emotional ramifications of religion come in the experience of religion. Is religion something one indulges in once a week or when it is convenient for them or is it the fabric of their life shaping and embracing them from day one? That is where one can see whether religion is and emotional disturbance or promotes well-being.

Recent Posts

See All