The psychology behind religious belief


COLUMBUS, Ohio – Throughout history, scholars and researchers have tried to identify the main reason people are drawn to religion.

Some have said that people seek religion to cope with fear of death, others call it the basis of morality, and various other theories abound.

But in a new book, a psychologist who has studied human motivation for over 20 years suggests that all of these theories are too narrow. Religion, he says, attracts followers because it satisfies the 16 basic desires that humans share.

“It’s not just the fear of death. Religion could not be accepted by the masses if it only fulfilled one or two basic desires, ”said Steven Reiss, professor emeritus of psychology at Ohio State University and author of The 16 efforts for God (Mercer University Press, 2016).

Steven reiss

“People are drawn to religion because it offers believers the opportunity to satisfy all of their basic desires over and over again. You cannot reduce religion to one essence.

Mercer University Press

Reiss’s theory of what attracts people to religion is based on his research in the 1990s on motivation. He and his colleagues interviewed thousands of people and asked them to rate how well they had embraced hundreds of different possible goals.

In the end, the researchers identified 16 basic desires that we all share: acceptance, curiosity, eating, family, honor, idealism, independence, order, physical activity, power, romance, savings, social contact, status, tranquility and revenge.

Reiss then developed a questionnaire, called the Reiss Motivation Profile, which measures how well people value each of these 16 goals. Over 100,000 people have now completed the questionnaire. The research is described in Reiss’s book Who am I? The 16 fundamental desires that motivate our action and define our personalities.

“We all share the same 16 goals, but what makes us different is how much we value each of them,” Reiss said.

“The value an individual places on each of these 16 desires is closely related to what he likes and dislikes about religion.”

A key point is that each of the 16 desires motivates opposing personalities and that these opposites must all find a place in a successful religion, Reiss said.

For example, there is the desire for social contact. “Religion has to appeal to introverts and extroverts,” Reiss said. For extroverts, religion offers festivals and teaches that God blesses fellowship. For introverts, religion encourages meditation and private retreats and teaches that God blesses loneliness.

Religion even finds ways to deal with the desire for revenge, Reiss said. While some religions preach a God of peace and encourage the faithful to “turn the other cheek,” there is also the other side: the wrath of God and holy wars.

“Religion attracts all kinds, including peacemakers and those who want a vengeful God. “

All religious beliefs and practices are designed to meet one or more of these 16 desires, explained Reiss.

For example, religious rituals satisfy the desire for order. Religious teachings on salvation and forgiveness tap into the basic human need for acceptance. The promises of an afterlife are designed to help people achieve tranquility.

What about atheism? While everyone should satisfy the same basic desires, not everyone will turn to religion to satisfy them, Reiss said. Secular society offers alternatives to satisfy all basic desires.

“Religion competes with secular society to meet these 16 needs and can gain or lose popularity depending on how people believe in secular society,” Reiss said.

One of the basic desires – independence – can separate religious from non-religious. In a study published in 2000, Reiss found that religious people (the study mainly included Christians) expressed a strong desire for interdependence with others. Those who were not religious, however, showed a greater need to be self-reliant and independent.

Reiss said that one of the advantages of his theory is that, unlike many other theories in religion, it can be tested scientifically.

“In 16 efforts for God, I’m discussing a mystical personality type – the kind of person who would likely find value and meaning in mystical experiences and be drawn to religion for that reason, ”he said.

“We can test that and find out if there really is a mystical personality type.”

While theory can tell us a lot about the types of people who are drawn to religion and different religious experiences, it can’t tell anything about the truth of religious beliefs, Reiss said.

“I’m not trying to answer theological questions about the existence or nature of God,” Reiss said. “What I’m trying to answer is the nature of why people embrace religion and God.”


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