Psychology of God

Psychology of God

I’m going to look at some psychological reasons for belief in God.  Whatever I uncover will say nothing whatsoever about the existence of God.  Referring to the human need for God helps us understand our need for transcendence.  But the need does not prove or disprove God, which is impossible in any case.  Good psychology is not the same as good theology. Theology is concerned with how we should talk about God, and to God, especially in times of trial and pain.  Psychology is about the need for transcendence.

The inspiration for this post is the fear of death experienced by many Christians.  The website is filled with emails like the following.  “I’m a good Christian, but as I get older I’m terrified of death.”  That’s OK, I want to say to the woman who sent the email; everyone is afraid of death.  Christianity doesn’t take away that fear; it just makes death meaningful.  For what people fear most is not death, but meaningless death, in which one lived and died for nothing.  Seen from this perspective, it’s not just religion that gives meaning to death, and hence to a life lived toward death, as all lives do.  Participation in great art or music (enjoying as well as making it) gives life meaning, a meaning that will continue after my death in the ennobling activities I give myself to.  So too does love of natural beauty.

Unfortunately, people can give themselves to wicked activities, for example terrorism or neo-Nazism.  Once we understand that it is not about the goal, but the way the goal gives meaning to life, it becomes easier to understand the attraction of such fraudulent activities.  They are fraudulent because they serve the call of death, the destruction and devaluation of other humans, and so bring not more natality and vitality into the world, but less.

Robert Jay Lifton: death is more important than sex

The psychiatrist I turn to is Robert Jay Lifton.  The most important thing to say about him is that he is not a Freudian.  He thinks death is a lot more important in human life than sex.  Indeed, most of our symbolic life is about coming to terms with death.  The book I focus on is The Broken Connection: On Death and the Continuity of Life. 

Some, like Freud (1971, p. 289), argue that religion is a childish defense against the reality of annihilation.  Culture, particularly religion, is a defense against that reality.  Lifton argues that culture doesn’t deny death.  Culture, especially religion, gives us a sense of continuity between life and death.  A part of me lives on, in heaven some believe, or in the great works of art and literature that I have cherished.  Living up to high values, and knowing and appreciating great art, such as that of Shakespeare, or (one of my favorites) Evelyn Waugh, are two ways almost any person can participate in values and beauty greater than themselves.  One doesn’t even have to be literate to participate in high values. 

Lifton is concerned foremost with the psychic process of symbolization, in particular the way we negotiate the finality of death by creating, symbolically, a counter‐sense of continuity. (Des Pres) 

Symbolic death equivalents

Freud (1971, p. 289) argued that people can’t imagine their own deaths; unconsciously they believe they will live forever.  Freud is mistaken.  It may in some logical sense be impossible to imagine being dead, that is not existing.  But it is quite possible to imagine the world going on without me, and I have imagined my own death many times, even wondering where I will take my last breath.  I may not be quite normal, but I don’t think I’m that strange either.  People have better imaginations than Freud credits.  And even if they don’t imagine their own deaths, almost everyone is afraid of symbolic death equivalents, as Lifton (p 53) calls them. 

Almost everyone is afraid of loneliness, isolation, enforced stasis (immobility), and separation from those we love.  In one way or another, all death equivalents are images of separation: from others, from familiar worlds and objects, to separation from this world itself.  We fear death in terms of images of death.  As Charles Ryder puts it in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited,

Next to death, perhaps because they are like death, he feared darkness and loneliness.  (p 331) 

For Lord Marchmain, and perhaps for us all, darkness and loneliness represent the unthinkable, but not the unimaginable.

The symbols are breaking down

The quality, richness, and depth of our symbols connecting life and death are breaking down.  From a religious connection to a medicalized one is probably the biggest and most disruptive change.  Doctors have become the new priests, medicine a religion all its own, to which some are admitted to its inner sanctum, such as a clinical trial of a new drug.  Trouble is, the replacement of religion by medicine only heightens the terror of death, for it renders death hidden and meaningless.  (I suppose that participating in a drug trial could give one a sense of contributing to the march of medical progress; but this would only show how desperately we all need to connect to something larger and longer lasting than ourselves.)   

Death, says Kurt Eissler, is “the process of terminal, maximum individualization.”   We may live for others and their expectations, but we die our own deaths.  Individualization is good, the goal of psychic development in the Western industrial nations.  But when individualization becomes isolated individualism that’s bad, as psychic investment in a world that continues in my absence becomes impossible.  The psychic investment need not be in heaven or the eschaton.  A simple example of psychic investment in the future is love for one’s children and grandchildren, and hope for their futures.    


Religion is probably the best symbolic connection between life and death.  Around the world it remains the most common image linking the worlds of the living and the dead, even as religion is on the wane in Europe and North America.  It need not be a religion of the personal afterlife, such as Christianity.  Observant Jews, who frequently do not believe in a personal afterlife, understand that they are participating in a millennia-long tradition based on a historical covenant with God.  That’s more than enough.

“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him,” Voltaire famously stated.  I don’t think that’s quite true.  What is true is that man invents religion, and cannot help himself, for that is how we give meaning to life: by symbolically connecting ourselves to another world that lives on.  But religion requires a deep well of symbolism to draw on, and the well is drying up, replaced by a desert of a zillion images, each no deeper than a pixel.  


Terrence Des Pres, Review of Lifton, The Broken Connection.  New York Times, 11/4/1979, p 3.

Kurt Eissler, The Psychiatrist and the Dying Patient.  International Universities Press, 1955, p 55.

Sigmund Freud, Thoughts for the times on war and death, The Standard Edition, Hogarth Press, vol. 14, 1971.

Robert Jay Lifton, The Broken Connection: On Death and the Continuity of Life.  Simon and Schuster, 1979.

4 thoughts on “Psychology of God”

  1. “The quality, richness, and depth of our symbols connecting life and death are breaking down. ”
    That is what makes me anxious.On another note, all the people we have liked or loved, held conversations with or even smiled at in the street are changed by knowing us and so even when we have gone our influence or our being lives on in them, I feel.
    I feel relationships with the ideas of authors we like also give us a richness even though they may never know.I felt that with some of your writing.Kathryn

  2. Thank you,Fred.I like Karen Armstrong’s books.She is scholarly enough for most but is understandable too.And she is not arguing.

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