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A Look Into The Psychology Of Religiosity

Updated on April 26, 2020

Some may wonder what an article concerning religion is doing in psychology, but I didn’t ponder where I would post this since it’s my claim that religion is the antecedent, and a rudimentary approach, to psychology.

Principles of psychology can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, but it didn’t gain recognition as a discipline until the late 19th century, when German scientist Wilhelm Wundt began to apply experimental methods to studying internal mental processes. The methodology became known as introspection. And before Sigmund Freud famously introduced psychoanalysis, the unconscious mind, and his theory of personality in the early 20th century, structuralism and functionalism had already been spun off from Wundt’s work. Today, six approaches to the psychological process are preeminent: psychobiological, behavioral, cognitive, cross-cultural, humanistic, and psychodynamic.

At this point, I’m going to leave the historical narrative of psychology to the psych 101 students and focus my examination on a single conversation that I, a Catholic turned agnostic-atheist, had with a Christian friend of mine. But before I do, I wish to make an additional claim.

Many Christians may find my friend’s explanations startling and upsetting, the product of some misguided fundamentalism, as one woman, who identified herself as a United Methodist, told me later. But I disagree. It’s my claim that my friend’s explanations could very well be those of the United Methodist had she had similar experiences and relied on Scripture as her principle means of coping. My parting thought was, It could easily be you.

My friend had been explaining her faith and philosophy to me thusly, “God so loves us, that He made a plan (a sacrifice) for our unbelief and all our sins against Him and each other well before we were created. He is amazing in His long suffering. He is the beginning and the end and knows all of what is happening in between.”

In deference to my Catholic roots, her explanation prompted this inquisition, “So, what's God's plan for the victims of Montcoal, WV? Maybe the victims are merely tools God used to 'out' a greedy corporate profiteer who made $19 million in 2009 while ignoring 1300 safety violations, the most egregious leading to the methane gas explosion that's so far killed 25? Kill 25 people to expose one greedy bastard? Brilliant! God, take a bow!”


But I wasn't near finished. “And,” I continued in this manner, “what was God’s plan for the Austrian woman who was held prisoner in her father’s basement for 24 years and bore six children by him? More often than not, the sexually abused becomes an abuser later in life or exhibits some psychological disorder or dependency. And the incidence of suicide by the sexually abused is much higher than that of the general public at large. Seriously," I challenged, "what's wrong with Christians? All you have to be is intellectually curious. There's centuries of recorded history of God's plan. Why aren't any Christians interested enough in unraveling his plan for the 25 dead coal miners or the Austrian woman? But instead, Christians would rather stick your head in the sand and repeat that old, tired refrain, ‘Everything happens for a reason.’” I didn’t, nor could I have, anticipate her response, but at the same time, I do know how to push the envelope in conversation.

“I guess I could answer myself,” she began, “by saying 'God always has a perfect plan for his children who love him and Satan must be part of the ultimate plan.' I just don't have an answer to that one yet...not that there isn't one. Why doesn't God intervene? Why does He allow the innocent to suffer at the hands of the guilty? Well, that's a mighty big question. I've found in my own experience as a child who was sexually abused...God has allowed these painful events to occur in my life 1) so that I would draw nearer to Him for safety and value of myself and experience Him as my healer/best friend and 2) so that I would be a light for other women who have been abused and shamed.”

After expressing gratitude to her for confiding in me, I picked up, “I'm going to unapologetically, but respectfully, though I know it might not sound like it, challenge you again. Your interpretation of this experience—that God is using you as his vehicle—certainly brings you comfort and that has clearly helped you heal. However, it is an unsatisfactory explanation. Speaking from a mountain of experience, you don't need God in your life to support others who've been dealt the same hand as you. Moreover, the outcome is equally satisfying. Further, it's an insult to tell victims that God's plan for them was to use them as vehicles of good doings. More than that, it's dangerous. I'm not buying what Christianity is selling.”

At this point, grins broke across our faces and we decided that we had sufficiently beaten the proverbial dead horse, then toasted our friendship with another glass of red wine.


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