Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.   9-06

ABSTRACT:  The various elements of religions and religious belief are described, along with the benefits, resultant emotions, and costs.

KEY WORDS:  religion, religious conflict, religious wars, spirituality, religious beliefs, religious practices

The potential for religious belief is inherent in human beings, and many have found it to be a useful and fulfilling organizing center for their lives.  Sets of these religious beliefs have been formalized as “religions.”  These religions have a number of commonalities (some sort of deity or deities, group worship and rituals, defined beliefs), but they also differ in significant ways, and the customs of various religious groups vary greatly as well (including some ways of doing things that are prescribed by the deity or by the holy writings of the religion, some that are not, and some that are basically cultural and not religious).  Religions and religious beliefs provide many benefits to believers, though there are also some psychological costs.  Due to a greater amount of interaction of peoples across the globe in recent years, the negative effects of certain religious beliefs in these interactions between believers in different religions is becoming more apparent, and a broader understanding of religion may uncover paths to minimizing these conflicts.

“Religious beliefs” are those beliefs through which the individual relates his/her sense of awe and extended relatedness (beyond the self) to constructed aspects of supposed reality that are very much (even infinitely) larger, grander, and/or more powerful than the individual and may include a deity or deities.  These aspects of supposed reality vary in nature.  The gods of the Greeks, the single God of Judeo/Christian/Islamic traditions, the God in Protestant traditions who relates personally to the individual, the spirit figures of Native-Americans, and the all-is-one universe of Buddhism are primary examples.  “Religious practices” are actions defined by a religion that symbolize its beliefs and purposes and are either required of believers or recommended to them.  Examples of religious symbols would be the various objects used in worship and ritual, such as the cross in Christianity.  The sign of the cross made by believers in Christianity, dietary rules, and required times or words of prayer are examples of religious practices.  We can also identify as “religious actions” behaviors that are not ritualized or required and are not outward symbols of the religion but that express the underlying beliefs in daily life (e.g., the concept of loving one’s neighbor, in Christianity).  (Currently people who claim to have religious feelings and ideas but who do not subscribe to any set of religious customs often describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”  There are also very small groups of believers in supernatural qualities of nature and the Earth, such as Wicca.)

“Organized religions” are the human organizations that arise to articulate religious beliefs and put them into practice for groups of people.  They preserve and/or create symbols and statements that express and define the beliefs and worldview of the group.  Most individuals probably have “natural” religious ideas and feelings (e.g., feeling awe regarding the universe or “knowing” that love and compassion are “good” without having to be told) that are often similar to those of other individuals (though probably never identical), but religions go beyond this to define the common ground among believers in that religion and then teach these to individuals as being what they “should” believe or feel.  Religions tend to strongly promote or require uniformity of belief from members.  (There are a few exceptions, such as the Unitarian congregations.)  They also create rituals through which members affirm and express their beliefs and express their feelings about their beliefs.  Religions usually also serve as purveyors of moral and ethical rules and principles, even when those rules and principles are not directly revealed by the deity or prescribed in the holy writings of the religion.

The primary behavioral elements of religion are (1) believing in a deitistic or cosmological system and (2) conforming one’s thought, emotions, and behavior to some degree to the dictates or principles of that system.  Belief can be established formally through verbal affirmation of a statement of beliefs or creed or less formally through simply behaving like others in the religious group or having a type of mental experience or vision while engaged in an ordeal or vision quest.  Note that the issue is belief (or faith), which means that the things believed in are not available to sensory or scientific confirmation, with the single exception of religions that view the extant and visible universe as the ground of being of which we are all a part, instead of having a deity.

Buddhism is unusual in being primarily a psychological system, the purpose of which is for the individual to gain greater insight into himself and to conform his thoughts, emotions, and behavior to a set of principles that were first stated by Buddha and have since been elaborated significantly by others.  This raises the question of whether Buddhism is actually a religion like other religions, but many Buddhists act as if Buddhism is a religion like others, by worshiping Buddha, praying, and asking for help through prayer and sacrifices, even though these things were peripheral to Buddha’s teachings and might be disavowed by some priests and monks, so by vote of its adherents, we can include Buddhism in the general category of religions!

The primary concrete activities in religions are (1) worship, (2) symbolic confirmations of membership and belief (e.g., by baptism and/or affirmations of faith), and (3) actions that demonstrate or live out the teachings of the religion (e.g., giving to the poor, reacting compassionately to the world, helping others in need, proselytizing, etc.).  Included in most approaches to group worship are (1) verbal teaching, (2) music that describes the faith or religious practices, (3) rituals that praise the deity or recapitulate aspects of the beliefs (such as communion in Christianity, which re-enacts Jesus’ last supper with his initial twelve disciples), (4) joint prayer, and (5) joint affirmation of beliefs (e.g., group reciting of a creed or the Lord’s Prayer in Christianity).  Some religions have opportunities during worship services for participants to donate money or goods, although technically this is not an aspect of worship but rather either supports the religious institution, is a charitable act, or may be viewed by the giver as a sacrifice made in order to achieve some end.

Religions generally may be classified as polytheistic or monotheistic.  Most earlier religions seem to have had many gods, sometimes even gods of each village, activity, or profession.  The later monotheistic religions, with only one god, are prevalent in most of the world now and include Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.  The only major religion that is polytheistic is Hinduism in India.  There are also a number of smaller, regional religions that are either polytheistic or focused on obtaining outcomes through magic.  Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are more philosophical systems than religions, since they formally have no god or gods, but they, like all the others, still have shrines with adherents praying for desired outcomes and making sacrifices to curry favor with whatever force may be controlling human outcomes, as well as concrete religious symbols (viz., statues of Buddha, Tibetan prayer flags).

Religions naturally have focused on issues relevant to their adherents, and these foci have varied as civilizations have developed and life circumstances have changed.  In ancient Greece, when life was hard, religion reflected the facts of people’s lives: suffering and hardship could not be avoided; death was inevitable; virtue is not always rewarded; justice may not be done in the short run, although eventually wrongs will be righted by the gods and their system, even if many innocent people suffer in that process; there is no hope of universal redemption; and victims of the terrible action in life’s drama will not receive any recompense for their suffering (Mary Lefkowitz, 2003).

In medieval times, the Christian religion focused mostly on life after death, so that people, whose lives were difficult and contained much suffering, could hope eventually to have a nicer existence and so that people living in a largely “might makes right” milieu could hope that justice would be delivered at some time if not in this life.  In modern times and developed societies, as life has gotten easier and people have more energy available to focus on pleasure and “a good life,” love and forgiveness have gained prominence in peoples’ conceptions of religion, and terrible punishments by God for breaking his rules are de-emphasized by all but a few smaller religious groups.  The importance of an afterlife has faded somewhat, too, since life here is now reasonably good for many people.  The added value of having God in one’s life has shrunk, since we can now have a pretty good material life without the help of God.  The justification by religions of “how things are” in society (the divine right of kings, the assignment of one’s lifelong status at birth such as to be a peasant or serf or to be a lower or upper caste person in Hindu society) has faded, too, as democratic ideals of equal rights and upward mobility have become more possible.

Religions vary in degree of organization and authority structure.  Some, such as the Roman Catholic Church, have a pyramidal structure with a single individual as head of the church, with ultimate authority in regard to beliefs and practices.  Others have separate organizations for each country, even though they have the same name and basically the same beliefs.  Some are organizations of separate congregations, with each congregation having compete autonomy in terms of beliefs and practices (such as the Disciples of Christ Church).  In Islam, the highest leaders of each sect are viewed as more spiritual advisors or instructors than as authorities dictating what every local group will believe or preach.  In a few countries, such as Egypt, a nominally secular government authorizes each Imam or preacher to preach.

In this essay, the truth or reality of religious beliefs is not at issue.  Neither proponents of religions nor atheists attacking religions have been able to prove or disprove in logic or thought that God exists or that there are planes of reality other than those that we currently sense and understand.  (Many brilliant believers have advanced arguments to prove the existence of God or of the supernatural, and some of these have proven to be acceptable and helpful to many believers, but they actually do not fully prove their claims.)


The religious “purposes” of religious ideas and beliefs can be understood as (1) allowing concretization and expression of the feelings of awe and wonderment that human being often have regarding existence and the amazing world around them, and (2) allowing a way for the individual to relate to the powers beyond the natural world that may be controlling his welfare and fate, including, for most religions, a God or gods.  The primary modes of relating to a deity are (1) as a dependent supplicant appealing for help; (2) as a child being guided, helped, and provided with reassurance and support; (3) as a person who feels subconsciously inadequate or a “rule violator” and is trying to prove his adequacy and worthiness; and (4) as a “sinner” (one who has violated the directives of the deity and is therefore in a strained relationship with the deity).  Some see themselves in the role of continual miscreants in relation to a disapproving and punishing deity, though almost no one attempts to bully or control the deity with threats and violence.  Beyond this, there are a few persons who relate to the deity in a friendly, confident, equal manner (as a mature adult child might act with a parent).

Froese and Bader (2013) identify four major functions of God in the current views of people in the United States—(1) benevolence (helping individuals and providing for his flock), (2) a ruling authority (punishing the rebellious and rewarding obedience), (3) a judge noting good and bad behavior and then punishing the bad and rewarding the good, to create some sense of fairness, and (4) a distant “watchmaker” who created everything but is not particularly involved now as his creation goes its predictable way.  Belief in God or gods is endemic to human beings, and as has been remarked, if God did not exist, human beings would surely invent him in order to allow opportunities for people to understand their existence and to attempt to control what happens to them.


Another explanatory point of view is available from psychology.  From my background as a psychologist, it is notable that so much of our relations with the deity can be seen as the relations of a child with a parent, either because God is in fact in a parental relationship with us or because so few individuals attain full adult autonomy and maturity and could therefore relate to God in other than a child-like way.  We relate to everything in terms of our prior experience, so it is natural that we would relate to a powerful figure that has some control over our fate in ways similar to the ways that we related to our parents, who seemed to us to be powerful, God-like figures who had almost total control of our lives.  The fact that so many people relate to God as children does not, of course, prove that God wants it that way, that God seeks to relate to us as a parent, or even that God exists!

Some of the many ways in which most of us relate to God as children include (1) viewing God as almighty and omniscient, which is how we viewed our parents; (2) needing and wanting help and asking God for help frequently; (3) being afraid of displeasing God; (4) wanting to be special to God; (5) trying to figure out how to please God; (6) doing things to curry favor with God, through being “good,” giving money or sacrifices, etc.; (7) trying to make bargains with God in order to avoid negative events (“I’ll never do ____ again if you just don’t punish me this time,” “If you let my child live, I’ll build you a shrine”); (8) accepting a certain amount of negative or painful reality that we presume that God could change, on the basis that the balance of what we get from him is quite positive and good; (9) being angry with God for some of the things that “happen to” us (e.g., death of a child) or things that seem unfair in relation to what God has apparently given to others; (10) blaming ourselves for some of the negative events in our lives, when we know that we have broken the rules; (11) wanting to reestablish a positive relationship with God after breaking the rules, through confession, apology, and “making up” through suffering or “good” acts; (12) accepting that the things that we don’t understand about God are simply to be accepted; and (13) sometimes trying to deceive God or hide what we do from him.  In the present day, God is understood by many religious persons as a perfect parent who loves all of his “children” equally and wants the best for them, is always fair in his judgments, and is wise in what he asks or suggests that we do.

The combination of our primary experience of relating to our parents and our inevitable, if episodic, feelings of helplessness and inadequacy as adults seem to come together to make certain elements of religion feel very natural.  The monotheistic religions emphasize the power of the deity to respond to entreaties and to provide help when needed (as a good parent would), and they also emphasize submission to the will of the deity, so that the believer becomes a perfect or appropriate child, which is the kind of child or believer that believers naturally think is the kind whose requests for help are most likely to be responded to by the deity when they view the deity through a parent-image lens.

Note that the above way of understanding the psychology of religious inclinations and beliefs does not disprove that God exists or that there are planes of reality other than our sensory world.  It is possible that those things are true and that this is the reason why human beings are inclined toward religion in the ways that we are.


For understanding religion, it is crucial to distinguish between (1) religious ideas and feelings, such as the awe and fear that we feel with respect to existence and nature, the feelings that we have because we are in a relationship with the deity, and the conceptualizations that we create of the deity, and (2) the religious practices and customs that we create that concretely embody, symbolize, and express our religious ideas and feelings.  Believers of different faiths can fight and have fought over religious concepts (e.g., one god versus many) or over religious practices and customs (e.g., formally allowing believers to “buy” the favor of the deity through giving to the religion).

Having religious ideas and feelings is apparently natural to individual human beings and will continue as long as there are human beings.  Religiously-based customs are arbitrary (even if believers view them as being specified by the deity), in that there are many ways that they could be designed to represent and express the same religious ideas or feelings.  These customs vary considerably from religion to religion and vary even more greatly between religions in different cultures.  People tend to fight about their religious beliefs and customs because they come to superstitiously believe that their beliefs and customs play a crucial role in allowing them to live and prosper (e.g., that they provide wisdom for how to gain the necessities of life and/or that if they are not observed, the deity will punish the community).

There is little reason to fight over our religious impulses (our wonder at the world and our relating to the divine), since those are actually common to all people, and individuals do not seem to fight over these individual ideas or beliefs, but groups of believers do readily struggle or fight about both their beliefs and their practices and customs.  It would be more productive for people to discuss their religious ideas and feelings with each other than to fight about religiously-connected customs, but this might lead people to perceive the vagueness of their ideas and their uncertainties about them, and people would rather believe that these matters are clearly known and understood, as embodied in their religion.

It is worthwhile to note here that any time human beings identify themselves as part of a group that is different from members of another group, conflicts over who is “right” and desires to take others’ land or privileges will almost always occur.  This is a part of “human nature” and happens regardless of whether the differing group is within or outside of one’s own society.  It is this tendency which is at the root of religious conflict.  In a sense, then, many apparently religious conflicts are focused on religious differences but may actually be simply about difference itself or about the welfare of the group as a whole in terms of wanting more land or resources.  If people could learn to disregard and be comfortable with differences, the amount of conflict in the world, religious and otherwise, would be greatly reduced


The benefits of religious belief and of religions are many.  Religions explain why we are here and what we are supposed to do here, and they usually define our place in the universe.  They provide a context within which we can understand ourselves and therefore function more effectively and with less uncertainty and conflict.  They provide explanations for the mysteries of human existence (why we suffer, who made us, why it is so hard to do right, etc.).  Having the explanations that religion provides for our existential situation (why we are here; what we are supposed to do while here; etc.) can give relief and security to the believer, since the problematic elements of our existence are no longer mysterious or unknown, even if religion cannot actually solve our existential problems or change our manner of existing.  This is especially convincing if the explanations are believed to have come directly from the deity.  Most people are grateful to have these explanations.

Religions provide a conduit with which we can contact and relate to God or the divine, whether that is directly or through other figures such as prophets and emissaries (Jesus, Mohammed), priests, or, in the case of Roman Catholics, Jesus’ mother, Mary.  Many who seek to be closer to the divine use religious practices to grow toward and deepen this connection.  The experiences of mystics, ascetics, Sufis, monks, and nuns show us what is possible, and we are all free to cultivate this connection.  Some believers feel expansive joy or ethereal transport in this connection with the divine.  Some may feel loved or cared for and may exert significant efforts to deserve that love and caring by conforming and being “good.”  They appreciate the comfort that this relationship provides, since God is always there when they turn to him, and they appreciate the certainty that they have that if they believe and conform, they will be well treated in this life and in a future life.  This gives them a strong basis for consistently feeling hopeful.

On the other hand, they may resent the requirements that God has for them, and they may feel guilty or ashamed when they do not live up to those expectations and requirements.  The avenues provided by religion to reconciliation with the deity after estrangement are useful and comforting as we deal with guilt issues.

The belief systems and practices of religions help human beings to cope with the uncertainty, anxiety, and fear that beset us daily simply because of the complex problems of real life.  To have answers to our major questions (how to behave, how to get what we want, why the good suffer) and explanations about why things are the way they are is soothing and gives us “something to hold onto.”  Holy Books and revealed truth from on high give believers certainty, and the rituals that are part of most religions give us something to do that gives comfort and allows us to demonstrate our obedience and belief and to therefore, we believe, gain favor with the deity.  Following religious rules and prescriptions gives us a sense of control over our fate and also removes responsibility from us for our actions, as long as

we have conformed to the rules and prescriptions handed down.

The most salient religious motive of most people, though, is not to relate to God but to gain help from God or the divine.  Through prayer and sacrifices we ask for help (survival, surcease from illness, finding prey, a good crop harvest, money, success, a win by our sports team, a certain Christmas present, etc.).  This automatic requesting of help mirrors our automatic seeking of help from our parents as children, and it shows that we have frequent feelings of helplessness or inadequacy in trying to get what we want by ourselves.  It is usually undertaken with no thought of how getting what we want will affect others.  (If we kill more deer for our tribe, how will this affect other tribes?  If our team wins its game, others will, of course, lose.)  Believers feel gratitude and joy when they think that their “prayers have been answered,” and they have received the help requested from the deity.  They may feel puzzled or resentful if their requests are not granted.

Religious ritual gives comfort to most believers, because it is regularized repetition of actions believed to be pleasing to the deity, and the repetition itself is comforting to human beings (doing the same thing repeatedly and getting the same desired outcomes every time).  Praying and engaging in ritual both give believers a greater sense of control over their lives, since they provide avenues for getting what one wants (in material ways and/or in terms of feelings).

Religions have provided predictions of the future in many cultures (soothsayers, oracles, witchdoctors, shamans, brujos).  To the extent that religious beliefs tell us what is going to happen (whether we will win a war, an afterlife, being sent to heaven, purgatory, or hell, seeing our loved ones again in the afterlife, being resurrected) they serve to allay our fears of the unknown and our distaste for having life simply end with death.

Since human life is often difficult, and we sometimes cannot see how we can survive and have an adequate life, religions can provide us reason to hope that things will turn our all right–that we will be able to meet most of the challenges of life adequately and that we will continue to survive and to have our daily bread most days.

Since we see that the good are not always rewarded and the bad sometimes prosper, notions of an afterlife give hope for the future no matter how bad life is here, and the concept of reward or punishment (heaven and hell) for our deeds in this life helps to motivate acting properly and convinces people that wrongdoing will be punished in the next life if not in this one.  The Eastern notion of karma (as understood by many believers, that behavior in this life determining the quality of our next incarnation) accomplishes roughly the same thing.  We all wish for life to be “fair,” and having God as a final judge and rewarder/punisher ensures this for us.  Believing that there is some justice in the world provided by the deity quells anger at unfairness and gives us hope that if we believe and conform, things will turn out well for us eventually.

Since we all do “wrong” things (some more than others!), we all, from time to time, experience guilt and a resulting sense of estrangement from others.  We wish for reconciliation and relief from guilt, and religions provide a framework for this, by identifying sin and offering opportunities for atonement and forgiveness.

Religions legitimize and allow shared expression of the awe and wonder that we have regarding our existence and regarding the universe in which we exist and its wonders and beauties.  Religious structures and their decorations embody some of this sense of beauty (as does the Christian notion of a child being given by God to us who will eventually remove responsibility from believers for their sins).  This sharing helps believers to be even more sure of their beliefs.

Religious principles and practices can help us to know how best to live—the behaviors that will give us the most of what we want in life (which for most people is security, survival, love, and gratifying relationships).  Religions often embed these presumably most productive behaviors in religious concepts taught to members, and religions have a great deal of influence on societal customs and moral principles (which, in societies that use religion also for government, become the laws as well).

Religions provide paths to personal growth and teach how to achieve this growth and maturity.  For example, Christian monasteries often offer retreats for believers to use for personal growth, and the Yoruba religion provides structured opportunities for rediscovering one’s self and one’s destiny.

Having one’s religion provide avenues for personal growth, in both knowledge and self-awareness, is useful, as long as those avenues are aligned with the realities of human psychology rather than being aimed only at a type of life that would best conform to the religion’s beliefs and theology despite its inappropriateness for the demands of this world.

Religions provide opportunity for shared expression of beliefs, which helps people feel more secure, since they know that others believe as they do (strength in numbers), and they gain assurance that messages and principles from the deity are true.  Ritual also helps to give us this feeling of assurance.  Such shared beliefs create strong group loyalty, and members of a group of believers are often motivated to offer their beliefs to non-believers or even to force their beliefs on others.  Since human beings are frightened and upset by differences, the uniformity of behavior that can be created by strong group beliefs also helps us to be comfortable with others, and believers benefit from group acceptance and from the social benefits of being part of a group.

Churches, with their cadre of persons with shared beliefs and loyalties, provide wonderful opportunities for people to “put their hearts where their creeds are,” by showing compassion to all of their fellow human beings and giving concrete help to as many as possible.  The work done by some churchgoers for the poor and the homeless are truly inspiring.

Having one’s religious beliefs be synonymous with the beliefs and actions of government, particularly in a theocracy, strengthens belief and adds to the believers’ feelings of confidence and certainty in the religion, unless significant hypocrisy occurs on the part of government and religious officials.

As the keepers of “right and wrong,” religions can be a force for keeping secular governments on a moral path.  If the religion is the government (as in a theocracy), then it is dependent on the honesty and integrity of its members and leaders to stay on a moral path.  Human beings are very capable of deceiving themselves about their motives in actions that may benefit themselves, and religious believers have shown themselves to have this capacity as well (justifying wars of aggression, justifying slavery, building great wealth for the church itself).  Unfortunately religions have focused attention mostly on those who do things that they are not supposed to do (adultery, theft), and very little on those who do not do the things they are supposed to do (love their neighbors as themselves, honestly confess all of their sins, examine all of their behaviors in the light of the religion’s teachings, etc.).

The many benefits of belief and “right action” are very useful for human beings, and religion seem to be the easiest way that human beings have found to achieve them.  It is possible to cope with existential issues, with our emotions, and with our relationships with others in non-religious ways, but that means taking more individual responsibility for figuring out for ourselves what works best in life and what goals are really important, and this itself is quite a task.  Many people shrink from taking that kind of responsibility for themselves and their lives, finding it much easier to take what authority figures say as the truth and as the answer for their lives.

In order to deal with existential and emotional issues without religion, particularly our needs for security, certainty, and love, we will need to find other ways to be more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, which are unfortunately inherent aspects of our human existence.  Our need for love can be better met in our human relationships if we improve our relationship skills, especially our empathy, our understanding for others, and our tolerance for differences.


The costs of religious belief have to do with (1) the organized religion sometimes placing its own needs as an organization above those of its members or believers and (2) many believers denigrating people who believe differently because those differences raise doubts for them about their own beliefs.

It is difficult to put grand and abstract beliefs into concrete terms and symbols, and since almost all religions do concretize the faith and adopt symbols of sacredness, members are inevitably restricted from experiencing the full power and meaning possible from their own religious motivation and beliefs.  The reason for this is that our thinking is inevitably shaped by and restricted to the concepts and symbols that we are aware of in a given area, so if the religion establishes all of the concepts and symbols, most believers inevitably limit their thinking about religion to only those concepts and symbols.  In addition, most priests and intermediaries restrict their interpretations of symbols and concepts to those that support the religion itself.

These symbols and verbal expressions of belief tend to become sacred themselves in the eyes of members (the cross, the Bible, the Koran, the Nicene Creed), since it is human to superstitiously place power in symbols themselves, but this again restricts most members from the full experience of the religious impulse, since the sacred cannot be questioned, and further progress and religious growth are essentially stopped.  Since believers imbue symbols with value and power in and of themselves, conflicts arise when others do not see any reason to treat these symbols as sacred (viz. recent assertions by some Muslims that others making jokes involving Mohammed is “insulting,” while some Imams denigrate those of other religions, too).  This sanctification of symbols leads believers to worship the symbols (images, icons, the cross in Christianity) rather than being constantly in touch with the supposed reality that the symbols represent, such as the deity and one’s relationship with the deity.

Religions have often incorporated belief symbols and practices from a surrounding culture in order to make it more comfortable for non-believers to join the religion.  For example, setting the celebration of Jesus’ birth in conjunction with pre-existing winter solstice celebrations may have made Christianity seem more like a part of the cultures involved.

Individual interpretation of beliefs is discouraged, even punished, by religions for the sake of community uniformity, so that the individual’s religious activity tends to be limited to participation in repetitive worship and prayer rituals, thus limiting any more real contact with the deity.  Similarly, religions tend to hold back progress in understanding ourselves and the universe, since they create explanations that are basically “made up” (to meet very real psychological needs to “know” why we are here and how we are supposed to act) and not based on verifiable knowledge.  Once explanations of creation, cosmology, and other matters are sanctified, it is very difficult to change them, just as it is difficult to allow more sophisticated analyses of right and wrong once behaviors have been declared to be one or the other.  Because of its tradition-making activity, religion tends to conservatively slow social and political evolution, in favor of keeping things stable.

Religions generally discourage completely honest intellectual inquiry, while allowing intellectual apologies (explanations, rationalizations) for its belief system.  (Arabic Islam may have been a relative exception to this general trend during the long-ago heyday of Muslim astronomers, scientists, and philosophers.)  Members are encouraged to believe the sacred book without question and to find justifications for the religion’s beliefs in the book, but they are forbidden to question whether the book deserves to be viewed as sacred.

Many religions have supported the human tendency to want to believe in life after death (heaven, hell, reincarnation, rebirth), and they have tied this further life to an individual’s merits in life—whether he or she was a “good person” or a “bad person,” thus also gratifying our human desire to be able to believe that life will ultimately be “fair”—that some account of good and bad will be balanced for each person, in the long run.  These religions have added to their religious practices certain rituals that supposedly get rid of the bad consequences for us of our bad actions (honest confession and remorse in Catholicism, doing something extra-good that will overbalance something bad we have done, receiving the last rites just before death, dying for the faith, sacrificing a goat, etc.).  This has even gone so far in some eras as allowing believers to buy their merit (“indulgences”), so that contributions to the church get rid of a person’s sins (or even, hard as it is to believe, paying others to endure pain or be killed in one’s place to get rid of one’s sins and their consequences).  The concept of “being saved” is a part of this effort to find ways to escape from one’s past bad behavior, as most of those who are “saved” then believe that no matter how much bad they do after that, they have a guarantee that they will to go to heaven.

Although religions naturally would want to help people with problems of guilt and alienation and with their terror at life ending with no afterlife, by making these various compromises with morality and ethics, religions have offered their believers opportunities not to be fully responsible and have made it easier for them to do wrong, since they know that there is always a way out for them.  (A strict Buddhist understanding of the world, in which there is no afterlife and not even a soul, tries to help people have the best lives possible here on Earth, and does not have to figure out ways to help people feel that everything is OK or will be OK.)

The definitional statements of religions regarding morals and ethics may be incorrect or overly restrictive, which results in unnecessary emotional pain for members from the guilt that they feel (or think they should feel) for disobeying the deity and the shame that is induced in them by other believers.  Once again, many of these rules are set by the religion for the sake of public order and for the sake of preserving the religion, rather than being based in the realities of human nature or aimed primarily at the relationship of the individual with the deity.  These rules are changed or updated only rarely, even when new understandings of human functioning make better behavioral guidelines possible.  Some religions still use what seem to others to be unnecessarily harsh and even barbaric punishments for moral violations, and some still preach extreme disenfranchisement of women.

While having one’s religion provide rules and principles to live by can bring relief and confidence in decision-making and behavioral choice, it can also lead to resentment and to secretly breaking the rules, if those rules and principles are self-serving for the religion itself rather than being in the best interests of believers (e.g., if one of the rules is giving a certain percentage of income to the religion itself rather than to the poor).

To some extent religions improperly encourage help-seeking by members through prayer and other rituals (buying the favor of the deity), so that prayer becomes something only for the seeking of divine favors, to the exclusion of any deeper communication of the content of one’s soul to one’s god.  The general attitude in most religions that believers are subservient to the deity, together with the help-seeking encouraged, tend to keep believers in a more child-like intellectual and emotional position instead of being able to achieve all of the maturity and using all of the creativity of which they are capable.

Since religion is put in the position of promising members that they will survive challenges and disasters (and getting them to accept that these challenges and disasters “happen for a reason”), they encourage members to passively accept what happens to them, including mistreatment and abuse, as “God’s will.”

Religions tacitly encourage false contracts between members and the deity.  Since children learn with their parents that if they are “good” they will be rewarded or at least not punished, and since believers are encouraged to relate to the deity as children, they naturally try to establish this kind of contract with the deity as well–that as long as they are “good,” bad things will not happen to them or to their loved ones.  This contracting is encouraged by most priests and ministers.  People are thus ill prepared for dealing with disasters and extreme emotional trauma when those things happen in their lives.  One of the most common reasons for falling away from faith is the death of a loved one, which the member interprets as the deity breaking this unstated but to the member very real contract.  Religions very rarely attempt to bring members to a more sophisticated and realistic understanding of their relationship to the deity.

Since people tend to believe that their understandings of reality and their religious activities are necessary for their continued survival, the survival of their group, and the favor of the deity, they are loathe to change those understandings and activities and risk whatever might happen, especially the anger of the deity.  Our needs to reduce existential anxiety and feel secure can result in the killing of those whose behavior or varying beliefs are believed to anger God and therefore to potentially bring God’s wrath on the whole community.  An example of this would be the persecution of heretics, which is not required by the Christian God (even though it may be mentioned in the Bible) but is done because people and/or religious leaders fear God may punish them if they do not enforce what the leaders say is God’s will.  Similarly, witches were killed because people feared harm from them, and religion authorized this by identifying witches as disciples of the Devil, even though many of them were not.  (The strong impulse to force others to believe as we do may also stem from what is called “identification with the aggressor.”  Those who have given in to the wishes of authority (children who have identified with or consciously submitted to parental controls, and adults who think and feel as children) become the army of the authority.)

Another trick of the mind that some believers and religions play on themselves (and others) is separating a person’s “good” parts from his or her “bad” parts, so that the bad or evil parts are blamed for all misbehavior, and the person’s good part can still claim to be good, or at least to be fundamentally good.  The bad parts are viewed as separate from and alien to the “real self” (whereas psychologists or materialists would see all parts of the self as one self with potentialities for both good and bad, depending on the situation).  This sets up a permanent internal conflict for the individual that results in a life of guilt and/or shame and a need to keep secret the existence of the bad part inside.

A variation on this same maneuver is to view evil or badness in the world as having a concrete existence or as being embodied in another person, such as the Devil.  This sets up a battle, not within the person but with the outside world, with the necessity of defending against the Devil’s attempts to induce one to misbehave.  This also gives the option, however, to blame the Devil for one’s bad behavior (“the Devil made me do it”).  In some instances, persons who are thought to embody evil are killed because they are blamed for others’ bad behavior.

People tend to want to change or destroy those in other societies who have different religious beliefs and customs, which they justify as God’s will when it is really due to the human tendency to fear those who are different from them in any way and to seek the favor of the deity through demonstrating their zeal and faith.  (This tendency to fear difference could be addressed by religions, but they rarely do so, since this would call for major psychological or spiritual growth by the members.  Even the generally benign view that religions take of the cultures of less economically developed countries—that they are primitive and ignorant—is possible only by seeing them as weak and to be pitied.)

Religions have a tendency to want more people in their own societies and in other cultures and countries to adopt their beliefs and practices.  If this is done actively, it is known as proselytizing with the goal of conversion (e.g., Jehovah’s Witnesses or young Mormons coming to your door, sending missionaries to darkest Africa).  This is justified by claiming that the lives of those non-believers would be better if they would only accept the beliefs and practices of the claimant’s religion (go to heaven, soul saved, be happier, etc.).  However, believers do not in general seriously evaluate the pros and cons of the lives of individuals they wish to convert or of life in these other cultures before claiming that their beliefs would lead to something better.

The urge to convert is based more on the needs to assert one’s own beliefs (therefore having a firmer basis for believing them in the first place) and to have everyone believe the same things, so that no one challenges those beliefs.  Enforced mass conversions by conquering armies illustrates the disregard for individual non-believers that believers have in trying to convert others not for sake of the “heathens” but for our own.  (This critique is not meant to take away anything from the good-hearted and compassionate, no-strings-attached work done by believers for their fellow human beings.  There probably are some missionaries who only offer their beliefs to others if they see objectively that the lives of those others are truly “messed up” or deficient, but the underlying motive of most proselytizing is to reassure ourselves that our beliefs are in fact true and worthwhile.)

Even religions that preach love and peace tend to support their society’s wars, instead of insisting on more peaceful means of settling disputes.  This is not to say that societies have no right to defend themselves, but even wars of aggression tend to pass without comment by religions, and religions tend to limit themselves to praying for the safety of combatants from their society only.

It should be stressed that most of these ill effects of belief and religion are not intended to be harmful and are the consequence of the human limitations of the believers and of the leaders of religions.  The desire to know what is right behavior is not a bad thing, but overly simplistic definitions of what is wrong behavior or defining as “wrong” that which feels threatening to the community or the religion leads to inappropriate harm to some people.  Similarly, actions taken by a religion that it sees as necessary to maintain its position in society may be harmful to its own members and to their spiritual quests.  Not criticizing a government’s self-serving war may seem necessary to maintain the church, but it is hypocritical and weakens the faith of its members.  Not publicly standing against the immoral practices of some of its members may seem necessary not to divide the church, but it weakens and dilutes the faith.  Most Christian churches have become “nice” groups and do not stand up for their beliefs when that would threaten the “niceness” and might result in some members leaving the fold.


Religion, like religious beliefs, has many benefits as well as some costs.  Everyone has beliefs, whether they are religious beliefs or not.  Perhaps what we can learn from examining human believing in general is that beliefs have consequences, and it would behoove us all to shape or choose our beliefs in order to obtain maximum benefit from them and to minimize the harm that we might receive or that they might impel us to cause to others.  To some extent, we choose our beliefs (though for most people this consists of accepting or rejecting what others teach them, rather than constructing their own beliefs).  Even religions have shaped beliefs, as well as practices, to be compatible with our human needs and foibles.  If beliefs tend to isolate or separate people, then they will result in a certain amount of conflict and even violence.  If beliefs point us in the direction of inclusion and understanding, then they will enhance our humanity and the quality of our lives.

Froese, Paul & Bader, Christopher.  (2003)  America’s Four Gods:  What We Say About God—And What That Says About Us.  (See USA Today, 10-7-13.

Grave, Robert.  (1960).  Greek Gods and Heroes.   New York:  Dell.

Lefkowitz, Mary. (2003).   Greek Gods, Human Lives.  New Haven: Yale U. Press.

Phillips, J.B.  Your God Is Too Small:  A Guide for Believers and Skeptics Alike.  New York:  Touchstone, 1952.