BELIEF IN GOD, FROM
POINTS OF VIEW
Introduction - 1
the literature it is usually the case that
articles about psychological and
sociological perspectives on religion
offer Naturalistic explanations of
In other words, these are presented as
critical of the claim that religious belief is
grounded in objective spiritual or
Introduction - 2
For a naturalist, the claims of some
psychologists and sociologists offer
explanations of religious belief. A key
question is whether, once these insights have
been taken on board, whether they offer a
complete explanation or not?
If not, then theists can learn from the
psychology and sociology of religion without
feeling threatened by them.
It is one thing to explain aspects of belief from
a particular viewpoint. It is quite another thing
to say that thereby religion is explained away.
The core of theistic belief
entails the metaphysical belief
in a reality that transcends the empirical
world. This is the eternal, ever-present,
creative source and sustainer of the
In major theistic religions this God of the
philosophers is identified variously as
YHWH (Judaism), the Trinity
(Christianity) and Allah (Islam).
opposes the claims of those
who believe in spiritual realities. Thus
theism is rejected (a form of
supernaturalism), as is even Theravada
Buddhism (no God nor worship, but
Naturalism is therefore atheistic.
If successful in its understanding of
everything being ultimately physical
reality, naturalism must offer an account
A rogues gallery of naturalism
The naturalist critique
is assumed by leading naturalistic
philosophers, such as Kai Nielsen, that
the Enlightenment critiques of religion
by the likes of Hume and Kant have
refuted the classical arguments for the
existence of God.
Add to this the accounts of religion in
such as Freud and Marx and it can be
assumed that traditional realist versions
of theism are redundant.
Typical naturalistic program
the persistence and
psychological appeal of religion we
should look for reasons for this and
causes of religious beliefs and
Here questions of the origin and
function of religious beliefs become
Also need to examine the logical and
conceptual status of religious beliefs.
Naturalistic explanations for
religious belief: main players
Ludwig Feuerbach: God is only a
human projection; religious
orientation is unhealthy and an
illusion, depriving the believer of
true autonomy, love, virtue and
Friedrich Engels: Scientific
socialism; dialectical and
Karl Marx: As with Engels; socioeconomic critique of religion as
oppression of the masses
Max Stirner: The Ego & its Own,
1844: Mankind to be liberated
from religion and ideas & social
arrangements that restrict
autonomy.Role in genesis of
Marxism and precursor to
Friedrich Nietzsche: “God is dead,
we have killed him.”
Emile Durkheim: Positivist methodology in sociology plus
idealistic theory of social solidarity; explained religion in
terms of a basic attachment to totemism; religious bond is
merely an expression of social bond expressed in ritual;
religion works by maintaining a distinction between the
sacred and profane; the former having no basis in gods
Max Weber: Protestant work ethic allowed capitalism to
flourish in the west with religious legitimation; ‘causal
functional’ ideal types used in explaining religious activity.
Axel Hägerström: Developed anti-metaphysical and emotivist
philosophy from 1905-39
Sigmund Freud: It’s all psychological; God is an illusion, a
projection of the idealised father figure.
Bronislaw Malinowski: Polish anthropologist; Trobriand
islanders studied ‘functionistically’; culture, religion etc
fulfils utility role for individuals; no need for supernatural
basis for beliefs.
Antonio Gramsci: Italian Marxist who critiqued crude
dialectical materialism adding space for the influence of
ideas and human efforts; emphasised ‘hegemony’ where
ruling classes persuade others to accept belief systems.
True explanation of religious belief is found in
anthropology not theology.
Religion is a projected image of humanities
‘God’ is the projected idealised essence of
human beings rather than a mysterious
‘God’ really exists only in the imagination of the
believer, who treats ‘God’ as an objectively
Freud - 1
Religion again discussed in psychological
and anthropological terms.
Religion is the mass obsessional delusion of
mankind, not recognised as such by believers
for understandable emotionally compelling
Freud says religious beliefs depress the value
of life and distort “the picture of the real world
in a delusional manner”. Religion may spare
many an individual neurosis “but hardly
Freud - 2
religion is the “universal
obsessional neurosis of humanity”
It emerges from the Oedipus Complex.
“God is the exalted father and the
longing for the father is the root of the
need of religion”
Religious beliefs are “illusions, fulfilment
of the oldest, strongest and most
insistent wishes of mankind.”
Freud - 3
reverting to our infantile
attitudes, we create the gods.
Religion functions to exorcise the terrors
of nature, reconciles us to the “cruelty of
fate, particularly as shown in death” and
“make amends for the sufferings and
privations that the communal life of
culture has imposed on man”.
God is an imagined idealised father with
the characteristics attributed to the God
of Judaic-Christian theism.
Engels and Marx - 1
for Feuerbach and Freud
religion was to be understood in
anthropological or psychological terms,
for Engels and Marx religion is about
Religions function principally to aid the
dominant classes in controlling the
dominated classes, whether either
group is aware of it or not!
Engels and Marx - 2
as ideology,serves to reconcile
the dominated to their condition and
give them an illusory hope of a better
spiritual world to come.
Thus wealth is legitimated and the
potentially rebellious classes are
pacified. Society is ‘unified’ and
Durkheim - 1
saw religion as genuinely
Talk about ‘God’ is really talk about
Religion is social in three broad ways:
 as socially determined;
 as embodying representations of social
 having functional social consequences
Durkheim - 2
is an utterly naturalistic account.
God and gods “are nothing other than
the collective states objectified; they are
society itself seen under one of its
Religion is a mode of comprehending
social realities for Durkheim.
Crudely summarised ….
of these naturalistic accounts are
reductionistic. Religion is “nothing but”…
For Freud religion is psychological
For Feuerbach religion is anthropological
For Marx religion is socio-economic
For Durkheim religion is social
In truth, it is a mixture of all of these
factors in these thinkers, with differing
emphases in each one.
Cleverly summarised ….
Steven Lukes, for example, would say
that all naturalistic theoreticians of
religion refuse to take religious symbols
at what orthodox believers take to be
face-value. They seek to go
‘underneath’ the symbol to the reality it
represents and which gives it its true
meaning. They seek to show that all
religions answer in their different ways
to the given conditions of human
The role of religion in the lives
of human beings
is not the same question as we
have been examining above.
Hitherto, the issue has been one of the
truth or coherence of religious beliefs.
Here these matters are put in
brackets.The question is one of the role
that religion plays in people’s lives,
regardless of whether what they believe
is true or not.
Role - 2
Durkheim himself seemed hesitant to push
the naturalistic critique too far: ”whoever does
not bring to the study of religion a sort of
religious sentiment has no right to speak
It is fair to suggest that if a believer realised
that what he believed was false, there would
be no point in carrying on with it.
Who “would continue to pray if he knew he
was praying to no-one?” – Gustave Belot
Role - 3
BUT, many naturalistic thinkers want to say
that in fact there is something real underlying
religious beliefs, namely facts about human
beings and society. It just that this reality is
not what the religious believer takes it to be!
This may seem empathetic and a sensitive
viewpoint, but it still boils down to “you
religious guys are wrong in what you believe
Final word from Kai Nielsen
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“Naturalistic explanations are of course
incompatible with religious belief…the
account explains the religions’ origins,
explains its claim to truth, explains how that
very claim is in error, the depth of that error,
its persistence in spite of that in various
institutional contexts and in the personal lives
of human beings, its various cultural and
historical forms, how and why it changes and
develops as it does, and its continuing
persistence and appeal in one or other form.”