Where does belief in God come from?
Psychological interpretations of God generally fail, turning God into some sort of psychic crutch. Sigmund Freud argued that God is a based on the childish idea of a powerful and protective father (The Future of an Illusion). D. W. Winnicott, a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst working a generation after Freud, approached the question of God from a different direction, asking where he was located. If God were just an external being, he would lack emotional meaning and resonance. This is the God of a petrified religion, composed of a list of do’s and don’ts, a religion in which ritual has become sleepwalking.
But if God were just an internal reality, he would be no more than our fantasy. The God who feels real, the God who excites us (and God should be exciting) is the God whom we discover because we help to make him real.
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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 www.billygraham.org 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.
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