Some Psychological Aspects of Religious Belief

The factual world (amidst which we found ourselves sandwiched between earth and sky) is dangerous and treacherous. We still don’t understand its logic. We habitually expect the worst. For this reason we defend ourselves against the world by the gesture of its radical de-evaluation. We transform it from everything into nothing – we start to believe in an alternative world somewhere behind the clouds, somewhere on the way to the sun. Now, even if this world will harm us, even if we’ll die, this is not too big of a deal for us because this world is not the ultimate one – at best it is a preliminary one, at worst completely meaningless.

The belief in the alternative – the supernatural world is a great liberating opportunity. It transforms deadly pessimism into an enthusiastic optimism, fear and fury into smile and twinkle in our eyes. With a single blink it transforms us – the weak, fragile and vulnerable – into not finite, not abandoned and under supernatural (super-reliable) protection. It is not that we believe in the alternative world (under the chairmanship of super-king and super-healer, super-protector and super-consoler) to help ourselves. If we could be so vulgarly straight, and cynically calculating it couldn’t work – God is not an eternity-launderer. The paradox here is that you have to sincerely and disinterestedly believe in order to be rewarded. Thinking of your reward should not be (shall not be) part of your belief. God is not somebody who exchanges eternity for loyalty. He is not trading immortality for the belief.

The problem here is, of course, that our unconscious (in this case the unconscious of our intuitive belief in God) is a grand trickster, a great master of hiding the truth under the appealing – apple-offering, masks. And our consciousness is the twin trickster – it collaborates with our unconscious like a custom agent at the border allowing illegal staff to go through in exchange for bribe. Because unconscious and consciousness belong to the same person and are different parts of our intelligence they help each other to promote our interests. In this case we have a double interest: on the one hand we have to be disinterested and on the other to get God’s protection and eternity. So, we combine the two – our unconscious is completely innocent from any calculation, while our consciousness trusts our unconscious without scrupulous search for the truth. As believers we are crudely naïve and as (conscious) thinkers we are not less crudely credulous.

As believers we are simultaneously sincere believers and the ones who calculate the advantages of our belief. We are sincere on the level of belief itself and calculating on the level of understanding what exactly will this belief in God provide for human beings and why it’s good to be a believer. We are both innocent in our belief and smart with our mind. It is from this simultaneity of innocence and smartness in believers that huge sums of money are dished out to the t.v.evangelist preachers.

The point here is the very difference between belief in God because you cannot rely on this world (belief as a psychological defense against this world), and belief because the alternative is more humane in principle, a higher truth regardless of any benefits we can get as a result of (as a reward for) our belief. More often people believe not because they feel that their belief is moral truth but because they are afraid to be violated in this violent and “evil” world. So, they try to persuade themselves that even to be killed it is not death but resurrection. And how it’s possible to resist such a hope?

The obvious difference between these two beliefs is that one is a matter of belief in a certain pleasant future inside the ontological realm we can verify only through our belief, while in the second the goodness of life that nurtures us became actually present as a potential of this world. The psychological difference between them is that genuine belief cannot appear if two particular psychological functions are underdeveloped in an individual – the ability for moral sublimation (for having interest in truth as such, truth regardless of its repercussion for “me”), and psychological autonomy from the circumstances. Genuine belief is disinterested in relation to what it promises to (and for) me personally, and it is also independent from the circumstances which try to engulf me in its impersonal dynamics and logic, to transform me into its appendix. In other words, I believe genuinely when I believe not because my needs dictate it and not because the circumstances of my life are so desperate but in spite of all that. I believe because of my freedom, not because I want to help or save myself.

Genuine belief is a sublime act of humility. It is simultaneously – de-metaphysization and sublimation, treating facts of life with personal disinterestedness, analytical distance and “abstract” passion.