Where does belief in God come from?

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. 

For reality to be real to us, it must partake of illusion . . . meaning that we must contribute to its construction or it will possess no sense of the real for us. (Ulanov, p 11)  

Winnicott calls the place where illusion and reality meet “transitional space,” in which God is and is not our creation.  Most importantly, we don’t struggle to say God is one or the other, for he is both.  Our first transitional objects are a teddy bear, blankie, or special toy.  Our need for transitional objects never disappears; they just become more abstract.  Culture is the transitional object par excellence.  Art, music, philosophy, and religion are all instances of culture, the adult version of play.    

I have friends who are simply transported when they hear beautiful music.  This experience is transitional experience.  The music is real, but it becomes meaningful only when those who listen help create the experience by finding their minds’ desire in the actual music.  Religious faith works in the same way.  We have faith only when we have a hand in creating what we experience as sacred. 

From church to grace

Compare this experience with going to church.  Most of the time it is a ritual in which I am not involved (I speak for myself).  The ritual is not dead, but the relationship between worshiper and religion is.  Sometimes, however, the service is just what I needed, and didn’t even know I needed.  I help create and make real what is already there.  Having a similar experience with God is called belief.  It is the only way God gets inside—when we discover to our surprise that he was already there.   To do this we cannot be desperate about our faith, and whether we have it or not.  Instead, we must give ourselves over to the experience. 

Consider a traditional account of grace, in which God implants in us the faith to know and believe in him. John Wesley writes in his sermon Salvation by Faith, “Grace is the source, faith the condition, of salvation.” (see too Ephesians 2:8)  Or as Winnicott puts it,

For me paradox is inherent . . .. Although the object was there to be found it was created . . . and in theology the same thing appears . . .. around the question: is there a God?  If God is a projection [of our needs and desires], even so is there a God who created me in such a way that I have the material in me for such a projection?  The important thing for me must be, have I got in in me to have the idea of God—if not, then the idea of God is of no value to me (except superstitiously).  (Psychoanalytic Explorations, p 205)

Whether or not we require God’s gift of grace to have faith in God, we do not make ourselves.  The ability to accept the gift of grace may be implanted by God.  What can we do to receive this gift?  The most important thing is to relax and not force it.  Let it happen in its own time and in its own way.  It’s like music.  You can’t make yourself enjoy music, but you can relax and let the music in.   

A culture without God is a culture that has lost its imagination and is afraid to let the God-experience happen.  One consequence of this insight is that the God-experience need not be conventional.  It need not be Christian.  It can stand outside the Abrahamic tradition (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).  It is sometimes argued that Buddhism is not a religion because it lacks a supreme being.  But any belief system that renounces the craving for things, while encouraging self-emptying meditation, all the while fostering kindness and compassion fits the God-experience.  The real issue, as Winnicott recognizes, is whether people have enough confidence in themselves to let go of their material certainty and imagine that the world is not all that it seems. 

The dead hand of tradition

Without tradition, religion would have to be remade every generation, which is both impossible and undesirable.  At the same time, tradition is the great enemy of faith, as routine substitutes for lived experience, by which I mean an experience we participate in by making it in our minds even as it is happening.  The balance between tradition and creativity is delicate.  Too rigid a tradition is deadening.  Too little tradition and religion lacks gravitas, the Bible just a collection of myths.

A living religion

Winnicott’s view of a living religion is captured by his account of attending a play.

The exciting thing about the curtain in a theater.  When it goes up, each one of us will create the play that is going to be enacted, and afterwards we may even find that the overlap of what we have created . . . provides material for a discussion about the play that was enacted. (Home, p 133)

Each parishioner makes the experience of worship anew, even as each experiences the “same” service.  We experience what we help to create and create what we experience.      


Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, translated by James Strachey.  W. W. Norton, 1989.

Ann Belford Ulanov, Finding Space: Winnicott, God, and Psychic Reality.  Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

D. W. Winnicott, Home Is Where We Start From. W. W. Norton, 1986.

D. W. Winnicott, Psychoanalytic Explorations, edited by Claire Winnicott, Ray Shepherd, and Madeleine Davis. London: Karnac, 1989.

4 thoughts on “Where does belief in God come from?”

  1. I have found this very interesting today.Will we recognise God without participating in our imagination.I like the kind of fluidity here where the usual approach is God is there and we are here and that is that.

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