Lecture: faith and psychologists

Professor Blass

Professor Blass

Professor Rachel Blass, Convenor of Psychology of Religion at Heythrop College gave the third Faith Matters lecture on Tuesday 13 November in Westminster Cathedral Hall. The lecture examined how atheist psychology can serve faith. A copy of the lecture test follows:

Faith and the Psychologists: On how atheist psychology serves faith

In this lecture I will speak about the psychological approach to the understanding of faith. This approach offers accounts of faith in terms of underlying psychological determinants (needs, wishes, tendencies, etc.). Many different psychological accounts have been put forth over the years, emphasizing different determinants, and taking different stances on whether faith is a good thing or not. However, all applications of a psychological approach to the understanding of faith (however positive the tone of the account it produces may be) regard faith as a natural phenomenon (a function of our psychological nature) and thus, in effect, are critical of the Christian view of it as a supernatural encounter. (Psychology makes faith something to be understood psychologically.) In my view, it is particularly important to reflect upon the psychological approach since it has become integral to the way contemporary culture thinks of faith—it is regularly applied outside of the field of psychology. For example, contemporary atheist critiques heavily rely on it: in coming to explain why believers believe, the common secular view is not that believers are people philosophically- or scientifically- challenged, but rather that their personality (under certain social conditions) or their psychological limitations, make them inclined or compelled to accept and act upon groundless claims regarding God’s existence and our relationship to him.

It is also important to reflect on the psychological approach because—as I will argue this evening—while mistaken in fundamental respects, it has significant things to say to believers and those seeking faith. If properly attended to, psychological accounts of faith can open us to doubt and to questioning of our faith that has the potential to deepen and enrich it. Interestingly, this is especially the case regarding the account of faith offered by Freudian psychoanalysis—the approach most commonly thought (and with good reason) to be anti-religious.

So while we can quickly dismiss the critical psychological approach to faith with philosophical arguments regarding the limited role and validity of psychology or with theological statements on the true essence of faith, there is, I think, what to gain if instead we take to heart, in a personal way, what is valuable in the psychological critiques.

In what follows I will first describe the psychological approach to faith, focusing on the account offered by Freud. I will briefly comment on how apparently alternative, faith-friendly psychological approaches, in effect, actually continue his critique. I will then turn to outline four ways in which Freud’s critique can be helpful to those seeking faith. The central psychological account of faith – Freud Of all the psychological accounts of faith put forth over the years, that of Sigmund Freud, the Austrian psychoanalyst (father of psychoanalysis) who wrote primarily during the first four decades of the 20th century is the most influential. Freud had developed ideas on the underlying motives that shape human behavior and states of mind, and he applied these to his study of faith. Like in his studies of all other phenomena, he wanted to know what wishes, needs, and conflicts were coming into play in what believers call faith. He was always concerned with the motives of individuals and these would differ from person to person (and one would have to listen carefully to each individual to discern these), but he could see common lines of thinking across individuals and these find expression in his overall account.

Freud’s best-known ideas regarding faith centre on the individual’s wish to have a protective father figure with whom he can feel identified. One of his texts describes what religion undertakes to do for people as follows:

It gives them information about the origin and coming into existence of the universe, it assures them of its protection and of ultimate happiness in the ups and downs of life and it directs their thoughts and actions by precepts which it lays down with its whole authority. Thus it fulfils three functions. … [I]t satisfies the human thirst for knowledge; it soothes the fear that men feel of the dangers and vicissitudes of life, when it assures them of a happy ending and offers them comfort in unhappiness…[and] it issues precepts and lays down prohibitions and restrictions. (Freud, 1933, p. 161)

Freud goes on to explain that what unites these three seemingly disparate aspects of religion (instruction, consolation, and ethical demands) is the fact that they are all tied to the child’s view of his father.

The God-creator whom believers call father, Freud writes, “really is the father, with all the magnificence in which he once appeared to the small child” (ibid, p.163). He created us, he protected us, and he taught us to restrict our desires. Freud explains that when one grows up one still remains helpless in many ways in face of the dangers of the world, but one recognizes that father cannot really be a source of protection from them. Thus, Freud explains, the believer harks back to the mnemic image of the father whom in his childhood he so greatly overvalued. He exalts the image into a deity and makes it into something contemporary and real. The effective strength of this mnemic image and the persistence of his need for protection jointly sustain his belief in God. (ibid)

These needs and wishes for the protective father explain not only the idea of there being a personal god who created us and loves us, but also our sense of guilt in relation to him. Our feelings of guilt are expressions of our conscience, which we form with the critical inner voices of our parents in an effort to be assured of their love. These voices are now perceived as coming from God. Freud concludes:

The amount of protection and happy satisfaction assigned to an individual depends on his fulfilment of the ethical demands; his love of God and his consciousness of being loved by God are the foundations of the security with which he is armed against the dangers of the external world and of his human environment. Finally, in prayer he has assured himself a direct influence on the divine will and with it a share in the divine omnipotence. (ibid, p.164)

The notion of sharing in divine omnipotence points to our desire not only for security, but for control; indeed God is great, but He is in a close relationship with us, He is in us, He is like us. This may be a great boost to our ego. In this context belief in Jesus (the Son) is often regarded as an expression of our desire to be both exonerated of our “sins” in relation to the father (in sharing the experience on the cross) and a desire to become God ourselves.

In other words, in the depths of our mind God becomes an idea, a construct, associated with different parts of our selves and our internal parental figures. He serves us in our desire for protection, for love, for punishment, for restriction of our desires, for exoneration, for perfection and power (while in each person these specific factors may play out somewhat differently).

In addition our need to submit to authority, to follow clear rules, to not think on our own, may come into play, both in our relationship to God and in our relationship to those who transmit faith to us. We may be inclined to blindly accept traditional claims. Freud is clear on the fact that having wishes and needs for the world to be in a certain way does not mean that the world is not that way. The law of gravity may be a great source of security (for which one craves), but that does not tell us anything about the truth of the law. Yet, in most of his writings Freud does express the view that our ideas of God have no source but the psychological one. They are delusions. Here he relies on what Pope Benedict refers to in his Apostolic Letter for the Year of Faith, “Porta Fidei” as the contemporary mentality which limits “rational certainties to that of scientific and technological discoveries” (2011, p.18).

Freud writes: “scientific work is the only road which can lead us to a knowledge of reality outside ourselves” (1927, p.31), and religious ideas are not only closed to scientific investigation but also are “so improbable, so incompatible with everything we have laboriously discovered about the reality of the world” (ibid.). This idea that faith is nothing but expressions of psychological constructs is central to psychological approach to faith.

The negative attitude of Freud, Freudian psychoanalysis and a good part of psychology at large to faith has to do with this idea of its delusional nature, the fact that it is a distortion of reality, of truth, due to our self-serving needs. Faith is perceived not only as mistake, but as a kind of moral failure, childishness at best and our inclinations towards it should be overcome (a sentiment shared by many in contemporary secular society).

Later psychoanalysts further elaborated Freud’s ideas on faith, for example, some putting greater emphasis on the role of the mother rather than the father; others providing empirical evidence in support (e.g.showing that people with certain kinds of needs were more likely to convert than others). But his basic model was widely accepted.

“Faith-friendly” psychological views?

Other psychological views of faith have been put forth that present faith in a positive light. However, it may be seen that they, like Freud, in effect, continue to regard faith as nothing but an expression of psychological constructs. They differ with Freud primarily in the fact that they also maintain that it’s a good thing to be expressing these psychological constructs. Faith, they argue, is psychologically normal or helpful and the question of truth can be bracketed. (For Freud nothing untrue could be normal or helpful).

For some brief examples: Jung indeed speaks very positively of faith, but God according to him is a psychological construct, reflecting an image of our Self. The sense of the numinous, of awe that we may experience as being in relation to God is, accordingly, actually what one feels when one encounters the depths of one’s own mind, which is powerful and felt to be beyond our control. Humanist psychologists, too (e.g., Fromm, Allport), tend to regard faith positively, but what they see as positive is not faith in the reality of a transcendent and personal God, who actually is and is in relationship with us, but a certain psychological stance) associated with openness and compassion) in relation to the idea of such a God. The psychological approach, popular in recent years, which considers faith as an expression of the person’s “spiritual, but not religious” inclinations regards faith in a similar way (Pargament). Others will accept that our view of God is determined by our relationship to our parental figures, but emphasize that this means that if we work out our parental relationships our relationship with God will improve as well. They don’t see how this, in effect, leaves little room for God’s actual presence and his own appeal to us (even if we don’t work out our relationship with our parents).

It may be seen that not only do these accounts mainly continue Freud’s critique of faith as being a distortion of truth, but (unlike Freud) they also dismiss the traditional believer’s concern with truth. For this reason I find it hard to regard these accounts as faith-friendly.

The value of the psychological approach to faith for the believer

Despite its inherently critical nature I maintain that the psychological approach to faith that I’ve been describing can be helpful to those seeking faith. I outline four ways in which it can help:

1. Recognizing the limitations of our faith: belief vs. the believer

For a Christian believer the idea of the psychological approach that faith is a function of our psychology is fundamentally wrong. Faith is from God. It is, as the German priest Fr Romano Guardini states (in Living the Drama of Faith) “the living answer to the call of Him who appears in revelation and draws men to Him in grace” (1998, p.19). And the object of faith is Jesus, not God “understood in an indefinite sense or as somehow experienced” (ibid). It is “to be in communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (ibid, p.43), to be in a supernatural encounter between God and the inner being of man. As such faith, while coloured by psychological as well as cultural factors and manifesting itself in human reality, “is not of this world” and for this reason “lies beyond whatever is within the purview of psychology” (ibid, p.93). It is shrouded in the mystery of grace, where “no psychological analysis, no logical reasoning, can penetrate” (ibid, p.30).

But the psychological approach speaks not only of the essence of faith, but also of the psychology of the believer. Faith in its true essence may be from God and in practice our own faith may be determined by self-serving psychological motives—the reality-distorting wishes and needs that Freud elaborates. And if we look at our own faith with greater psychological sensitivity to underlying motives we may recognize its limitations and in this way come to a truer stance of faith. This is the first benefit of the psychological approach to faith.

In this respect, psychology advances the psychological awareness to our hidden motives in relation to God that has been with us since Biblical times. Jesus speaks of how we profess faith, cry “Lord, Lord” but without actually knowing Him (Mt. 7, 21); how we may make demonstrative acts of faith, or prayer, with the underlying aim of impressing those around us. Those who have written about the mystical experience have always warned that what seem like intimate and immediate experiences of God may be products of distorted psychological wishes, based in part on arrogance and pride (e.g., St John of the Cross).

Recently and close to home, the British cloistered Carmelite nun, Ruth Burrows, offers in her books on faith and prayer extensive and vivid descriptions of how “many christians and not mere nominal christians but those who pride themselves on their upholding of the faith” (2010, p.10) create caricatures of god out of self-serving motives. In a way
reminiscent of Freud, she writes:

The god we mould for ourselves usually has two faces; one that beams upon us and flatters our ego, intercourse with whom ‘glorifies’ us; one that sternly appraises us, demanding a standard we cannot possibly reach. (ibid, 16)

Elsewhere she notes that:

Over and over again we must realise how, in what we think of as our love and service of God, lurks a ravenous self-seeking which would use God to inflate self. (ibid, p.3)
Emphasizing the security we hope to obtain through faith she adds: Many of us see the church and the faith, as we call it, like an insulated, armoured, electrified carriage in which we can sit secure behind curtained windows as we hurtle through the dark forests (ibid, pp. 12-13).

And she explicitly notes the role of modern-day psychology in our becoming more aware of such distortions of faith. It has made us recognize that we cannot at all rely on our experiences of closeness to God (no matter how intense) as signs of the truth of our faith, as proof of God’s presence—however, much we may like to. “Our knowledge of psychology,” she writes, “has made us healthily sceptical of much of what was formerly thought to be supernatural” (1976, p. 11).

Indeed such scepticism may lead one to doubt one’s faith, but if what we call faith is not truly from God it should be doubted. Often it is the case that it is easier to doubt the faith of others; when we think of fellow parishioners we may be able to see how faith is determined by a need for authority, for the pride in seemingly spiritual achievements, by a desire to deny the pain of death, by obsessive tendencies, by a wish to preserve a sense of identity, or take on a new perfect one. We see this in the small things that others do.

The psychological approach, especially that of Freud, directs us to recognize these concealed motives in ourselves, in the details of our thoughts and actions, to feel them in an immediate and personal way. While this may deprive us of a sense of security in our faith, it may more truly leave us in God’s hands.

So while reading philosophical and theological defenses of faith can highlight for us what could be true in our faith, psychology compels us to see how we fail to attain to that truth.
But here one may ask whether such psychological reflection on our
distorting tendencies, our self-serving motives in faith, is necessary. Should we not simply try to give ourselves fully to God, put ourselves in God’s hands in prayer, knowing in general of the limitations of our faith? I leave this as an open question for discussion.

2. Facing doubt head on: the challenge of the supernatural

The psychological approach leads us to doubt or question our faith in another way. Not only does it show us how our faith may be influenced by self-serving motives, but it also confronts us with difficulties we may have in fully acknowledging the transcendent, supernatural nature of faith.
Pope Benedict explains why the transcendent nature of faith poses a stumbling block. Faith, he says, “represents the risky enterprise of accepting what plainly cannot be seen as the truly real and fundamental” (2004, p. 52). It involves a “leap… out of the tangible world” (ibid., p. 51), a world which is familiar, intellectually comfortable, and a source of security —especially in our culture in which reality is understood in very material and concrete ways. (In our culture belief in a supernatural God is equated with belief in Father Christmas or the existence of fairies).

I would suggest that the fact that psychological approach directs our mind to the very tangible dimensions that may be shaping faith highlights this risk. It is with heightened awareness to all the natural, worldly influences on faith that we are challenged to stand firm and profess the supernatural nature of God’s presence with us. The challenge is made more difficult by the fact that there is a strong tendency in contemporary culture to understand our states of mind and our choices in terms of psychological needs, desires, and inborn inclinations and the environmental conditions that affect them. For example, whereas St. Augustine understood his restless predicament prior to conversion as an expression of his distance from God, cured by his heart finding its rest in God (“our hearts are restless until they rest in you”), today we may be more inclined to think of someone in his condition as suffering from an impulse disorder and depression, tied to conflicting desires and dysfunctional family conditions—therapy and perhaps medication would be prescribed.

Two ways of resolving the inner tension that one may feel between the compelling nature of psychological explanation and the acknowledgement of the supernatural nature of faith are (a) to quickly dismiss psychological explanation and dogmatically assert the role of the supernatural, well beyond one’s actual personal ability to do so; and (b) to limit the scope of faith. The more ahistorical, general and vague our notion of God, the less room there would be for psychological explanation.

In contrast, by taking the psychological approach seriously (without limiting faith) we face the tension head on and have the opportunity to struggle with it, to encounter the real risk that faith involves; how much it leaves us dependent on God alone. And here too, while this may heighten doubt, it may also be a path to more whole-heartedly affirm the
supernatural nature of the encounter of faith.

3. Opening us to the transcendent (surprisingly)

While psychologists describe faith in natural terms it is interesting that at points they find these inadequate to capture reality as they have encountered it in its complexity; they feel that something is amiss, some truth beyond the immediate material reality must be introduced to make sense of what we know of human nature. Although this largely goes
unrecognized, this need to go beyond the natural is most notable in the work of Freud, faith’s great critic.

While Freud’s explanation of faith emphasizes motives and needs, at certain critical points he put forth a different (and much less well known) theory, which rest on a historical narrative of sorts, a kind of myth. Like his explanation of motives and needs the narrative centers on the father, but there is a fundamental difference. It goes as follows: In man’s pre-history (at the start of human history) there was a great father figure, who kept all the women to himself. His sons, out of envy and desire, rose up against him and killed him. But because the father was much loved the consequence of this destructive act was remorse and ultimately through the internalization of the image of this father, a sense of guilt first emerged. This constellation of love, envy, destruction and guilt in these early events, was according to Freud registered in the depths of our minds, and somehow transmitted to all future generations in some unarticulated form. This explains for Freud aspects of human nature that would otherwise be opaque—our inherent love of the father (independent of the nature of our actual father), what seems to be the fundamental ethical dimension of human nature as expressed in the sense of guilt, in the desire to curb one’s egoistic wishes. It also explains faith. How so?

According to Freud, when a person hears of God, of a great loving, protective, and limiting father, against whom we have sinned and who is part of our very selves a vestige of the prehistorical reality within us in a sense compels us to affirm that this is true. Such belief according to Freud is indeed “justified” (Freud, 1939, p. 628). To the extent that our ideas of God are shaped by the limitations of our mind to have accurately perceived and registered early reality, and to the extent that they are further shaped by our wishes, these ideas are false. But to the extent that they convey the great truths of “the earliest experiences of the whole of humanity” (in the events surrounding the first father) that return and find revived expression in our minds and in our lives, they are also true—true to a past external reality (ibid, p. 130). The idea of God is an echo of what we know in our hearts to be true.

In positing this prehistorical reality to explain religious faith it is clear that Freud recognized on some level that one must look beyond imminent, material reality in order to explain the depths of the mind. One must also look beyond what is objectively demonstrable. He found this kind of transcendence by positing a time beyond time in which we all take part. Rather than turn to the supernatural, he created a bizarre natural story and remained an atheist. Nevertheless Freud’s work points to how the understanding of the truth of human nature leads us outside of “this world.” It leads to a story that in many ways corresponds to the biblical one (at the foundation of man’s psyche there is a knowledge of a loving father towards whom, in the beginning of time, we destructively sinned out of desire and envy and from whom we seek forgiveness…). But more importantly, the effort to explain human nature leads (even Freud) to an acknowledgment of the necessary involvement of some transcendent dimension.

Thus the psychological approach testifies to the forceful presence of the supernatural. (Much more can be said about this, but I will move on to the next point).

4. Promoting love

Faith is a grace, a mystery, an act coming from God. But at the same time we are invited to be attentive to God’s presence, to open ourselves to it, through prayer, through living the sacraments, through reflection and especially through love, through seeking love. As stated in the first letter of John: “God is love and anyone who lives in love lives in God and God lives in him” (1 Jn 4, 16). And Pope Benedict explains: “Only if I serve my neighbour can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me” (2005, §18).

Does the loving atheist live in God while denying his existence? This touches upon difficult issues. For our purposes what’s important is the close tie that is posited between love and faith. This is because psychology, especially in the form of Freudian psychoanalysis, is geared towards promoting love. It does not apply a technique or a drug that somehow eradicates unloving states, but rather engages the person in a struggle with his inner obstacles to love. How so?

Earlier we spoke of all the self-serving needs and wishes that, according to psychoanalysis, determine how we see the world. But as we saw in Freud’s pre historical myth, this is only one side of the story. We are also fundamentally loving and feel bad for the damage our self-serving and greedy wishes incur. It is because of the conflict between our loving and our destructive, self-serving, and controlling sides that we need to conceal reality from ourselves. For example, we may not want to see that we are envious or dependent because in the depths of our minds we know that our envy and our dependence make us want to lash out and destroy those we love. Knowing this we feel both guilty and unlovable, feelings which too we may want to conceal. There are numerous potential consequences to our efforts to conceal. What we reject in ourselves we may find in others. Others then seem to us undeserving of our love. Or we may want to see others as worthless so that we could convince ourselves that there is no reason for our envy. Alternately, we may convince ourselves that we are loved by all and need no one—as may be seen in prideful, self-centered people. We may then conceal our consequent inability to love with exaggerated expressions of love and charity, perhaps as part of a religious stance.

Psychoanalysis allows us to encounter both the good and the bad in our minds and in ourselves; it invites us to struggle with the conflict between them despite the threat that this entails, in a way that transforms us, allows us to live without distortion. We can then, for example, bear to see that others are lovable, even if not in our control. Confronting our self-serving destructive sides is a painful and difficult process and is supported, in part, by finding within ourselves how much we do love and have been loved (e.g., in being sustained by our mother’s milk). It is striking that in this process psychoanalytic theory is not as morally neutral as it is usually presented and considers itself to be.

Psychoanalysis invites us to see both the good and the bad in human nature, but the hope and belief is that the goodness of love will win the day. We will see the bad and live the good.

Thus, while explicitly rejecting faith, psychoanalysis values love and promotes it and in this way may be thought to serve the development or deepening of faith.

In this context a letter written to Freud by his friend and colleague Oskar Pfister in 1918 is interesting. Pfister, a psychoanalyst but also a Swiss Lutheran minister, was responding to a letter by Freud in which Freud (famously) referred to himself as a Godless Jew. This is what Pfister wrote back on the matter:

in the first place you are no Jew, which to me, in view of my unbounded admiration for Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the author of Job and Ecclesiastes, is a matter of profound regret, and in the second place you are not godless, for he who lives the truth lives in God, and he who strives for the freeing of love ‘dwelleth in God’ (First Epistle of John, iv, 16). If you raised to your consciousness and fully felt your place in the great design, which to me is as necessary as the synthesis of the notes is to a Beethoven symphony,

I should say of you: A better Christian there never was… (Meng & Freud, 1963, p. 63)
And yet one may wonder…Does the psychological process that Freud offers prepare the way for being in God’s love or can it suggest that one need not or cannot look beyond the love of neighbor attained through this process? Does recognizing love in ourselves point us to the source of love in God?


In sum, while the psychological approach is opposed to the Christian approach to faith—the one explaining faith in terms of a-theistic psychological constructs and the other in terms of a supernatural communion with God—we have seen how, nevertheless, the psychological approach may serve faith: In questioning our motives this approach purifies faith, in emphasizing natural explanations it challenges it, by pointing to the transcendent it directs us to it, and in opening us to love it may help prepare our hearts to receive it.


Benedict XVI (2004) Introduction to Christianity. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.
Bendict XVI (2005). Encyclical Letter. Deus in Caritas Est. 25 Dec. 2005. Benedict XVI (2011) Porta Fidei. London: CTS.
Burrows, R. (1976). Guidelines for Mystical Prayer. London: Burns &Oates. Burrows, R. (2010). To Believe in Jesus. London: Continuum.
Freud, S. (1927). The Future of an Illusion. Standard Edition, 21:5-56. Freud, S. (1933). The question of a Weltanschauung. In New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Standard Edition, 22:158-82.
Freud, S. (1939). Moses and Monotheism: Three Essays. Standard Edition, 23:7-137.
Guardini, R. (1998). Living the Drama of Faith. Manchester, NH: Sophia Press.
Meng, H. & Freud, E. L., (eds.) (1963). Psychoanalysis and Faith: The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Oskar Pfister. New York: Basic Books.

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