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God and Mind: A Psychological Perspective

June 17th, 2014 by Robert DePaolo | Posted in Psychology | No Comments » | 57 views | Print this Article

By Robert DePaolo


This article discusses the human tendency to believe in a higher power in an integrative psychodynamic/religious context. The argument is presented that, regardless of the validity of any given religious system, a psychological mandate exists which compels mankind to exert control over his world and to adapt when that imperative is frustrated.


Any attempt to determine just when and why mankind developed spirituality is fraught with complications. In order to draw conclusions on that topic, one would have to take into account a number of neurological, anthropological, social and experiential factors. For example, how large does a brain have to be in order to integrate the cognitive, linguistic and emotional faculties needed to make such beliefs possible? Moreover, even if a brain has that potential, what socio-political phenomena have to be in place before a need for spirituality arises? Would God have summoned Moses to Sinai if the Egyptians had not enslaved his people? Would Jesus of Nazareth have sacrificed himself if not for Roman oppression and his perception that fellow Jews had drifted from the Torah? Even beyond that, did Moses and Jesus have to be of a certain psychological disposition in order to embark on their quest? Such questions are so intertwined as to preclude clear delineations of cause and effect.

One the other hand, whether one is religious, agnostic or atheistic, there would seem to be certain prerequisites in adopting a religious belief.

One requirement, as suggested by Lee (1995) and McArthur (2007) would be a state of duress. This is based on the notion that belief in a higher power derives from a state of helplessness or oppression pervasive enough to prompt the search for a hero or savior among a significant number of people. That dynamic existed during the early development of Judaism and during the early development of Judaism (Clayton, 2006 ) Christianity (Wylen 1995) and Islam (Lapidus 1988).

The question is whether that would be sufficient. For example, religious beliefs were strong during the Davidian era, when Israel wielded considerable power in Judea. In addition, strong religious beliefs existed within Roman society, despite their widespread dominance over vast Eurasian territories.

Despite “duress theory” it is conceivable that the belief in God has little if anything to do with historical forces, and that some fundamental trait inherent in our neuro-psychological wiring lies at the root of a search for transcendence. Some have even suggested that such a belief trait might not be quintessentially human. For instance, anthropological evidence seems to indicate that the Neanderthal peoples believed in an afterlife (Vegas 2011). While evidence for a specific godhead is scant among these archaic humans, it is not unreasonable to assume that if they conceived of a life after death, they must have filled in the blanks about the nature of that spiritual life – including a supervising entity responsible for orchestrating the vicissitudes of life and natural events.

Even more interesting is the possibility that a most basic root of religious belief can be seen in primate social groups, where rank order is essential in maintaining their solidarity. Chimp alpha males and females typically regulate behavior patterns, especially males, by instilling a fear-based sexual taboo through chronic vigilance and assaults on lower ranking males who attempt coitus with females during estrus. The end result is that while lower ranking males find ways to access females in estrus, dominance determines paternity to a large extent (Newton-Fisher, Thompson et. al. 2010). In addition, lower ranking members typically bow in deference before alpha males when the behavior of the former have come into question.

In that context, one could argue that adherence to hierarchical dominance, coupled with evolutionary enhancements in human cognition and language might have made a belief in and need for God inevitable for the human species, not just as a spiritual force but somewhat ironically, as an adaptive cognitive trait for maintaining social order for primates, whose large brains create vast permutations (good and bad) in social behavior patterns.

If that argument has validity, and if the alpha male (or female) comprise primate prototypes for God, one might expect humans to blur the lines between God and man. The historical record lends support to that assumption.

For instance, dominant males were viewed as gods in ancient societies; Ramses of Egypt, Constantine of Rome and Alexander of Macedonia, being among the most prominent. Beyond that, the distinction between earthly leader and God were often blurred even in monotheistic religions.
For example both Jesus and Isaiah were born of human flesh yet were elevated beyond mortal status by virtue of the fact that, unlike most common folk and even lower prophets they ascended into heaven after death to sit beside the Father.

Still, while the hierarchical process might explain some aspects of god worship, it leaves explanatory gaps. The most obvious revolves around the question of why Homo sapiens would need a transcendent god when human gods (alpha males) would be just as functional in sustaining social order and behavioral codes. For that reason, it seems one has to go beyond the primate word to gain a more comprehensive understanding of human spirituality.

Divided Morality…

A complete assessment of the origins and human impact of religion must take into account the various functions of God in a pagan system. The Greek and Roman deities were hierarchical, but also in many ways operated within divisions of labor – an interesting parallel to their systems of republican government.

The obvious flaw in the pagan model is that having various godheads, each with specific function could lead to clash among them – as often occurred in Greek Mythology. Having moral supervisors caught up in endless conflict amongst themselves would hardly be conducive to maintaining socio-moral order. From that perspective, it is not surprising that Monotheism out-lasted paganism as a religious model over time.


Another theory on the origin of religious worship was that of Sigmund Freud. He wrote that God is symbolic of the father figure, whose presence is necessary to restrain man’s violent impulses and maintain social order. (Armstrong, 1993) In some ways this is similar to the primate argument and has similar flaws. For instance it does not explain the existence and historical importance of female deities such as Shiva, Hera, Isis and Duttur – the mother of Tammuz, the Babylonian god of fertility. Nor does it address the fact that males are more prone to aggressive behavior. Having male Gods regulating morals through violent retribution – a trend seen in every religious text, including the Old Testament, (Acts 1:9-12), (Nahum 1:2) wouldn’t necessarily serve as a model of restraint. Clearly the laws and punishments of worshippers would be derived from the behavior patterns of the Supreme Being; as the stoning of adulterers, cutting off the hands of thieves in Mesopotamian cultures point out clearly. In fact, violent retribution was so much the norm in the early agricultural settlements that one has to wonder what modern society would be like today if not for revolutionary thinkers like Jesus, who reached back into doctrinal antiquity to resuscitate the idea of compassion and forgiveness, and Siddhartha Gautama who created a new spiritual template based on a presumed unity among all living things and a life style of simplicity.

Since theories of alpha dominance, father-symbolism, republican-paganism and hero-seeking would seem incomplete in explaining man’s penchant for religious belief, it might be interesting to discuss a more basic, psychological root of spirituality.

A God of Persistence…

As an introductory comment; the following discussion does not preclude the existence of an actual God, especially as a force of nature, not necessarily corporeal or personified but woven into the actual physical universe and certainly into the neuro-functional structure of the human mind.

For purposes of discussion, one can assume that on some level the idea of God is existential. That is, in order for God to exist and impart moral codes to mortals requires communications between himself and his audience (mankind). In other words if God had selected a chimp to climb Mt. Sinai, things might not have worked out so well (please pardon the reductio ad absurdum premise). Therefore one precondition of faith is the potential for a meeting of minds between mortals and God.

The “mortal” side of such reciprocity is a bit easier to explain because it can be found in the makeup of the human mind. Our brains are wired to control our environment. With fronto-parietal circuits in the cerebral cortex devoted to fine motor controls and speech precision, we are not only capable of prompting, categorizing and manipulating our world with language but also of extending such controls from mouth to hands along the motor strip so that we can make tools to actualize those categorical possibilities.

However it isn’t just the doing and talking. It is also a psychic mindset (a kind of internal metric) creating an expectation of control; a notion discussed eloquently by Bronowski (1973) One suspects that in the course of human brain evolution emotional circuits in the limbic brain networked with the control centers in the fronto-parietal catch-area so that feelings of satisfaction or frustration could result from successful or unsuccessful attempts at controlling tasks and circumstances. Lending support to this argument is the work of Mansell (2010) who demonstrated that feelings of pleasure and the onset of psychopathology are very much related to the perception of control or lack thereof.

In that context, there are certain elements of the control dynamic that play out in human psychological functioning. One instance occurs when control is attained and positive feedback signals prompt a pleasurable emotional response. Another occurs when attempts to exert control are frustrated, at which point anger and other negative emotional reactions occur in accord with the classic frustration/aggression mechanism (Berkowitz 1993). A third occurs when continuous attempts at control fail, the actor abandons his behavioral strategy and reverts to repetitious behaviors as a means of overriding goal frustration. The repetition pattern, often referred to in clinical circles as vicious circle behavior, typifies many types of psychopathology (Melvin 1979).

Obviously neither anger nor mere (neurotic) repetition is adaptive since a prolonged state of anger is both emotionally taxing and socially inappropriate. While creating the temporary illusion of control mere repetition seldom leads to response satisfaction.

That is where a fourth and more adaptive response tactic comes into play. It occurs when, after unsuccessful attempts at control, the actor is able to reverse the relationship between actor and object; by in effect resetting an internal gauge. At that point he becomes a function of the original target rather than vice versa. In so doing he relinquishes his status as controller and puts himself at the mercy of external circumstances.

The cognitive transition from the controller to the controlled alleviates tension and is thus negatively reinforced. That is because the feeling of relief resulting from relinquishing control feels good and will be repeated when similar circumstances arise again.

But the process does not end there. Despite relinquishing control the person still needs closure, i.e. some sense that the task will have an endpoint. In order to be deemed a controller, he must be deemed an actor and thus be assigned an identity. For example, the uncontrolled predator who took his son might over time be viewed as a god. The uncontrollable climate pattern would after an extended cold spell, become personified and deified. Perhaps the sun would be deemed a benevolent god, the wind a vengeful god via this conversion process.

In that context, the person would defer to and personify things he could not control, leading to attributions and the search for a hero or entity more powerful than he whose powers could help or harm him.

Still, the idea of faith fueled by psycho-adaptive submissiveness in a creature whose neuro-behavioral features emphasize control does not answer the question of how religious beliefs became so entrenched through the ages despite technological advancements that enables us to increasingly control more aspects of our environment.

One reason might be because science cannot ameliorate the need to exert control in most aspects of life, including relationships, personal feelings and concerns about things that have yet to happen. In other words, science can never keep up with the totality of human experience.

Aquinas’ Conundrum…

Since no single idea on religious origin is likely to be complete, it seems fair to ask what this conversion/submission theory implies about the existence and nature of God? For example, is God real or imaginary? Ethereal or man-made? A human-like figure (with muscles, bones and blood modeled in his image) or an amorphous entity with some sort of mysterious plan mankind might never come to understand?

Such questions are abstract and will probably never be answered definitively. On the other hand, that is what makes speculation so inviting – thus the following.

A Concept…

To begin with, while the word God will be used here for convenience sake, the term God is presumed to be a force, potentially discoverable through physical laws) that regulates the natural world but as an existential entity operates primarily through the operations of the human mind.

Now, with respect to the questions raised above, some answers are ponderable; especially if, as mentioned above, one views God as a driver of human cognition.
In that context, one can assume God was not created by man because man did not create his own mind, or its capacity to reset the neuro-cognitive gauge in reversing the natural tendency to exert control. (One could argue that was the true intended message in Genesis). As for God’s plan, and as a corollary, whether He is inherently benevolent or vindictive, it seems by granting humans a capacity to convert their penchant for control through submission He has revealed both His plan and modus operandi. It is to provide us with the gift of persistence. In accord with that notion, one could presume (for example) that He does not take lives – that’s out of his control. Instead He provides a capacity for mourners to persist in the aftermath of a loss. Nor does He punish transgressors. Instead He provides them with a capacity to adopt a more humble and submissive mind-set in deferring to laws and moral codes. Whether or not they take advantage of that capacity will determine their fate, and is ultimately up to them. (That is where the lines between free will (which most religions accept as a given) and the implied ultra-deterministic governance of a deity intersect.

This speculative account argues that God goads us on, implores humans to maintain their individual and collective momentum. He is more than a mere psychotherapist, yet perhaps his purpose is similar to a process described by Carl Jung, who wrote that life unfolds in alternating patterns of growth and stagnation – laughter and sadness served up like a day to night transition. Those who learn to accept temporary stagnation, indeed use it as a rest period in restoring energy will once again be able to regain control, at which point good deeds and human creativity can once again emerge.

The arguments rendered above are, of course, merely philosophical. They do not address the many questions about the nature of God pondered by theologians over time. For that matter the notion that faith’s origin lies in a coping strategy could be deemed reductionist. On the other hand something within the laws of nature gave us a brain with which to control our world in ways not possible for other organisms.

Such a thrust-forward cognitive style can be both advantageous and detrimental. The same need to create, explore and resolve can also destroy us. For every sky scraper we construct, for every poem we write, awaits a stress reaction in circumstances where control is thwarted. If having the ability to persist and survive by altering our internal dispositions was the only gift from God, it would be not only spiritual but all in all, a pretty good deal.


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Berkowitz, l.. (1993) Aggression; Its Causes, Consequences and Control. New York McGraw Hill

Bronowski, J. (1973) The Ascent of Man. Boston and Toronto, Little Brown & Co.

Clayton, P. (2006) Chronicle of the Pharaohs Thames and Hudson.

Lapidus, I.M. (1988) A History of Islamic Societies. Cambridge University Press

Lee, R. (1995) The Superstress Solution. Random House

Mansell, W. (2010) Control Theory and Psychopathology: An Integrative Approach. Psychology and Psychopathology; Theory, Research and Practice Vol. 78 (2) 141-178

McArthur, H. (2007) Faith Can Help People Cope with Stress. Article retrieved April 8, Tuscaloosa News

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Notes: In Nahum 1:2 In the Old Testament refers to an Unchanging God and in the New Testament Acts 1:9-12 there is reference to… A Jealous and Avenging God who would is filled with wrath.

Treanor, M. Erisman, S. Salters –Pedneault, K. Roemer, L. and Orsillo, S. (2011) An Acceptance-Based Behavioral Therapy for GAD: Effect on Outcomes from Three Treatment Models. Depression & Anxiety 28 (2) 127-136

Vegas, J. Did Neanderthal Believe in an Afterlife? Article in Archeology. April 8, 2011

Wylen, S.M. (1995) Jews in the Time of Jesus: An Introduction. Paulist Press

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