The four (psychological) functions of (belief in) God.

As a lifelong atheist, I’ve often had occasion to wonder why people believe in God. That is, most people have had no direct, personal experience that indicates God’s reality, no theophany or epiphany like Moses and the burning bush. So why do they believe? Obviously, a lot of people believe in God because they were raised on it and it never occurs to them to doubt, but that just begs the question: Why did their ancestors find such beliefs appealing, and convert to them?

The obvious answer is that belief in God (using the term broadly enough to encompass polytheistic, pagan deities) meets certain psychological needs of human beings. And when I think about it, I can identify four, and only four, such needs, which might be expressed in terms of four separate and distinct conceptions of the God who satisfies those needs: God the Maker, God the Provider, God the Judge, and God the King of Heaven. When I say that these are separate and distinct conceptions, I mean there is no necessary logical connection between them. These four Gods could all exist as different beings, or four groups of beings, not even on speaking terms with each other; or, any one of them could really exist and the others could be myths.

God the Maker provides an answer to the question: Where did the world come from. How did everything we see get here and become as it is? This is a widespread but by no means a universal concern. In fact, God the Maker is really important only to intellectuals.

God the Provider is the one you pray to when you want something, or when you want to express thanks for something you’ve received. This is far and away the most important human conception of God. Human beings live in human societies, in which, from infancy ownard, one can get a lot of necessary things simply by asking other human beings for them, provided one asks nicely. Asking nicely thus becomes an essential survival skill. All human cultures tend to personify the universe and its blind, mindless, cold, impersonal forces. I suggest that the main reason for personifying the universe is that you can beg favors of a person. A person might care one way or another about you. A person is approachable. You can understand, to a limited extent, the way a person’s mind works. If we conceive of the powers of nature as having personalities, like our own human personalities, it becomes plausible we can talk to them and hope for favorable intercession.

God the Judge gives moral order to the human universe. Once again, this is a conception of God that is of real importance only to a minority. If finding a real, authoritative code of morality and ethics is important to you (remember, it is not important to everybody), then believing in a God that promulgated that code makes it authoritative.

God the King of Heaven provides human beings with a personal life after death. The appeal of this is obvious. Christianity’s emphasis on a personal afterlife, more than anything else, explains the success of Christianity in its early competition with older pagan religions. But note some important reservations: First, no God is logically necessary to provide us with an afterlife. It is possible God exists and the afterlife does not; it is possible the afterlife exists and God does not. Second, if you put God the Judge together with God the King of Heaven you have a morally relevant afterlife, a place where all earthly wrongs can be righted, all evil punished, all good rewarded. Once again, Christianity has proven this is a winning combination. But, again, there is no logically necessary connection between God the Judge and God the King of Heaven. What is more, there is no necessary connection between either of them and a morally relevant afterlife. In Hindu theology, as I understand it, when you die, no god sits in judgment to assign you to the reincarnation you deserve; rather, your karma acts automatically and impersonally to place you at the right level, and you cannot hope to pray for a god’s intercession and get assigned to a better rebirth.

What do you all think? Is there a fifth psychological function, a fifth God Who might be added to this list?

N.B.: I am not trying to start yet another debate on whether God exists or not. The psychological reasons why people believe in God have nothing whatsoever to do with the question of whether He really does exist.

God the Smiter:
This maybe goes along with God the Judge a little bit, but I think people want a sense of justice. Life, as it is, often seems unfair or unjust. People want to see the assholes get what’s coming to them. It’s comforting to think that Hitler is turning on a spit for all eternity even though he was never really brought to justice in life.

Possible Fifth function:
God the Fall Guy it seems to me that God is often used as an excuse for failure. Such as “I tried my hardest, but God had other plans”. It is much easier to ask “God why have you failed me?” than to ask “Why have I failed?”. God is someone who can be blaimed for many things, as he is a broad shouldered concept.

Possible Sixth
God the Supporter Though people often feel they are not capable of doing something, believing that God is on your side gives a very strong psychological boost to your self confidence.

God the Cruel Father. Really just a variation on Judge, but there is a tendancy among abused children to equate Cruel Dad with God, especially if said child is raised in a strict religious home. Said children often grow up beating the Glory of the Lord into their own kids, and such beatings are considered Divine Punishment. There’s a whole emerging branch of psychology around this phenomenon.

I’m reminded of the story of Pat Buchanon, whose father stuck little Pat’s hand in a flame and said that’s what Hell felt like. (I think it was Buchanon – may have been John Silber.)

No, no, no! God the Fall Guy and God the Supporter are obviously just more specialized aspects of God the Provider. God the Smiter and God the Cruel Father are, as their posters acknowledged, variations on God the Judge. Let’s try to think of something fundamentally different, if we can, from the four I have listed!

All the psychological reasons why people believe in God and for that purpose why man has religion are met and answered in my definition of religion:

People with intellectual candor and depth and humility cannot escape from this definition. What they can do is to deny that they are self-interested in their religion or practice or that theirs is not a religion that is after favors. But they are not possessed of or are not habituated to call a spade a spade. And I fear they are catering to their own vanity in insisting that they have no self-interest in any sense in their practice of religion or theirs is not such a religion – that is essentially self-interested.

See my thread on “Religion in fact is . . .” and also my posts to that thread on “What is religion”, and my posts generally in other threads touching on religion or religious matters.

Susma Rio Sep

Susma, could you explain (or direct me to where you have explained) how your definition fits the major Eastern religions?

I think there is a fundamentally different function of God, that of the…well, for lack of a better term, the guy who always loves you. It’s reassuring to think that no matter how bad things are, someone out there still cares about you.

God the Enemy? Or is that a variant on Judge?

Not sure if this is God the Maker or a new category, but how about God the Sensemaker? I seems to me that many religions, both primitive and advanced, serve a function to make sense of a world that seems pretty random and chaotic otherwise. In fact, this would seem to be the primary and most common reason for most beliefs.

You’ll have to excuse me, but I guess I’m the only one here to whom the appeal is not obvious. Could you explain?

It isn’t obvious?

People liketo think there is something after death. It is comforting for most to think that death is not all there is to one’s existance.

This is a great thread BTW! Found it very interesting. I will continue to think about a possible 5th facet, but I think you have the 4 there are…

Posted by Fuji Kitakyusho:

We humans, Fuji, are probably the only living things who are capable of really understanding that each of us will one day die. Some people fear the prospect of death-as-eternal-sleep-or-oblivion, and would much rather have some form of conscious existence for eternity.

I’m tempted to say “most” people fear death in this way, but, I admit, this might be considered a Western attitude. In India and countries that have been culturally influenced by it (you are Japanese, I suppose?), personal immortality, in the form of reincarnation, is something people since ancient times have simply assumed is part of the way things are – and many Eastern religions have regarded that as a problem to be solved. Who wants to grow and age suffer and die and be reborn and grow and age and suffer and die and be reborn, over and over, forever? The goal of Buddhists is nirvana, which, if I understand it correctly, is the same thing as personal spiritual oblivion.

Nevertheless, the Christian promise of a desirable personal afterlife – free from all the ills that plague living flesh – is something that has had a very real appeal to millions of converts over the centuries. Am I wrong? And before Christianity, there were several popular “mystery” religions in the Classical world, whose appeal also rested, at least in part, in the promise of an afterlife.

A rare and interesting case is Pythagoreanism. Like the Hindus, the Pythagoreans assumed the reality of personal reincarnation, but they did not regard this as a bad thing at all. The problem is that we cannot remember our previous incarnations, thus every time we are reborn we have to start learning all our lessons over again. One of the goals of Pythagorean practice was to develop the spiritual wisdom to be able to remember one’s past lives. The founder of the sect, Pythagoras, claimed he had a rare ability to remember all his past lives and all their events.

I once read Gore Vidal’s historical novel, Creation, set in the time (more or less) of Buddha and Confucius. The protagonist, Cyrus Spitama, grandson of the Persian prophet Zoroaster, travels east to India on a diplomatic mission from King Darius. Being, by birth as it were, an evangelist for the Zoroastrian religion (which does include a morally relevant personal afterlife – Heaven and Hell), Cyrus engages a lot of Hindu holy men in religious discussions. To one of them he mentions Pythagoras’ claim that he can remember all his past lives. The Hindu replies, “Remember all your past lives? How horrible! Who could bear it!” Or words to that effect. I guess it’s just a cultural difference.

God the Jokester: Witness – the platypus.

God the threadspawner

I think Jack Batty is onto something with the Jokester.

Trickster gods are common and serve to balance out the order of things imposed by the big bad creator/judger sky gods. I think Satan probably is the closest to that in the Christian Mythology.

God the Teacher- provider of mystic insight and revelation.

God the Doer- After the creation there’s still work to be done. Someones’ got to drive the sun chariot across the sky after all.

God the Provider of Meaning. Some people are distressed by the idea of a clockwork universe because such a universe, they feel, would be meaningless. What’s the point of anything if everything just blindly follows some arbitrary rules of physics? Who cares if I live or die, or if humanity goes extinct? Nothing matters, because in the end no trace of anything will be survive the eventual heat-death of the universe.

But if God exists, then someone will remember everything that happens. Someone cares. It matters to someone, to the most important person of all, in fact, how things turn out. What seems meaningless or mundane may actually be very important in the Grand Scheme of Things. Indeed, it may all be according to God’s master Plan.

This God is distinct from God the Maker because it does not explain where things came from. It is not God the Provider because there is no guarantee that the Grand Scheme of Things includes any goodies for me. It is not God the King of Heaven because personal immortality need not be part of the Plan.

It may sound like God the Judge, but I think that there is a difference. God the Judge tells us that some objective and powerful authority agrees with our opinions on how people should act. God the Provider of Meaning tells us that, among other things, how we act matters, not just because of the punishments or rewards we might receive, but because our actions play an integral part of some vast and important operation.

Someone may derive comfort from thinking of themself as a foot soldier in a war between God and Satan because they like thinking that they play a role in a cosmic battle, the resolution of which shall determine that fate of the universe. It might not matter so much which side is right or wrong.

This is the only post that remotely describes God.

God is Love, unconditional love. If you would know God, then you must practice this unconditional love. Whence all the other things will be added unto you for your effort.

The way I see it, in the major Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, also Confucianism and Taoism, on their being similarly major Eastern religions because they do have tens of millions of practitioners or believers or adherents, the thing is that as with any system to which the name religion is attributed, and also in any human behavior at all, the fact is that there is a benefit expected from its espousal and practice. Can there be any possible denial that in religion as in any human activity there is unavoidably an advantage to be derived.

In the major Eastern religions like Buddhism, there is the great majority of simple believers who behave no differently from Christians, trusting in their deities or saints for assistance in all guises. Then there are the elites, the more doctrinaire believers, who just the same cannot otherwise than expect some advantage from the system, like peace of mind, knowledge of the purpose of existence, etc.

And in my estimation, it all comes down to beliefs resulting in affection and action intended to influence the unknown power, be it an entity or a system, to react or to recochet favorably toward the believer.

Susma Rio Sep

God who loves you. Humans are social by nature and they want the world to revolve around them. The belief that above all, God loves you is the most profound and most endearing.

First, it adds to your self worth, that there is someone out there who loves you more than yourself.

Secondly, this has important repercussions apropos the state of the human mind. THe belief that there is someone outside yourself that takes an interest in you is often has a rationalising and stabalising effect on the mind.