Religion, Part 4

This month we continue our study of religion from the perspective of human development.

In parts 1 and 2, we introduced the topic of religion and then discussed it in terms of thoughts and feelings being imposed from external sources. Last month in part 3, we began to focus on the internal dynamics of religion. This month we extend our exploration of religion further into an internal psychological arena.

Cause and Effect, Information Processing, and the Brain

The next general motive we are proposing for religious character structure and beliefs involves information theory and the function of the brain in creating order out of disorder—i.e. taking in and organizing stimuli. Our brain creates a framework of cause and effect (e.g. Gopnik et al., 1999). The brain must process internal and external stimuli and create organization and priorities for behavior and action.

Very early in a child’s development, one can clearly see the child try to make sense of things, to find cause-and-effect. If a young child trips and hurts herself, she will often get up crying—and mad. And—often mad at you, the caregiver. Now, part of this is because of how feelings work, as described earlier—the pain has led to distress, excessive distress, and anger. But then the child will direct the anger at you—you were the cause of the hurt. The child is doing two interesting things here: first, she is automatically trying to make sense out of what happened, i.e. establish cause and effect; and, second, she is finding the causative agent, the reason for the fall, outside of herself.

So, there are psychological tendencies to search for causes and to externalize these causes. There are also tendencies to personify these causes—i.e. god is anthropomorphized, turned into a somewhat human form. The attributes of the god may be more positive or more punitive, depending on the character structure of the individual or religion. That is, if the positive affects have been more accentuated during development, the god image tends to be more positive; if negative affects have predominated, then a more punishing, angry, fear- and shame-inducing god is more likely.

Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek

Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek developer of powerful microscopes in the late 1600s

Now, what does our tendency for causal explanations and our looking outside of ourselves for these causes have to do with religion? Let’s go back and take a look at medical history and disease—and our friend Leeuwenhoek (developer of powerful microscopes in the late 1600s) (Snyder, 2015). Before a germ theory of disease, much of illness was attributed to an outside force, namely, “God.” The phrases, “God sent a plague” and “God wanted her in heaven with him,” show efforts to find cause and effect relationships when the underlying biological systems are not yet understood.

Laura Snyder

Laura Snyder, author of Eye of the Beholder

Why is this important? It was not all that long ago that many of the causes of illness, disease, and death were not understood. It took until the 1600s that we began to develop a germ theory of disease. The word “bacteria” was not used until the 1800s, and antibiotics were not available until the 1930s. The word “dinosaur” was coined in 1841, and evolution was only beginning to be understood with Darwin’s work in the mid-to-late 1800s. With no known causes of much of disease and loss and death, many people and organizations resorted to an external system of god as causing this or that fortune or misfortune for whatever reason.

Consider life a mere 200 years ago. There was no coherent understanding of evolution. Therefore, in most minds, god was responsible for creating man and the variety of species which exist. There was no germ theory of disease—no understanding of bacteria, viruses, antibiotics, and so on. So, the course of illness was often externalized—”God’s Will,” bad luck, some bad deed which caused the punishment of disease.

Sigmund FreudWith advances in development and other sciences, we now understand much of what causes human beings so much pain and suffering—especially disease and loss. We no longer have to be superstitious in our dealing with much of life—we understand much more about cause and effect in our lives. This includes not only disease, but also war and the psychology of individuals, leaders, and group behavior. While the terrorism of our era is awful, the world wars of the 20th century were so much worse—e.g. over 60 million people dying in World War II. We have begun to understand prejudice, paranoia, projection, and how to contain sadistic, psychotic dictators and their governments. Again, with these understandings we are in less need of turning to god and religious ideologies to make sense, to explain, much of what goes on in our lives. Freud noted: “…in the long run, nothing can withstand reason and experience, and the contradiction which religion offers to both is all too palpable… it is possible for scientific work to gain some knowledge about the reality of the world, by means of which we can increase our power and in accordance with which we can arrange our life.“ (1927, pp. 54-55).

Origin of Species by Charles DarwinEven earlier, the findings of science were creating tension with religious beliefs, as seen in the response to Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. With the brain’s framework of cause/effect and organizing stimuli, previous questions answered by “God’s Will” were now understood in terms of reality and reason—e.g. bodily function, disease, evolution, and so on. Darwin struggled mightily with how overtly to articulate this conflict, as his biographer, Janet Browne, notes: “Where, in the final lines of the first edition of the Origin of Species, he had written of life being breathed into a few primordial forms, he now altered it to read ‘the breath of the Creator,’ a concession that he later regretted.” (2002, p. 96).

Next Month

We will continue our exploration of religion and internal dynamics with a specific focus on trauma and disorganization. We will also introduce the relevance of projection and paranoia into our discussion of religion.


Browne J (2002). Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Darwin C (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London: John Murray.

Freud S (1927). The Future of an Illusion. S. E., 21: 5-56. London: The Hogarth Press.

Gopnik A, Meltzoff AN, Kuhl PK (1999). The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains, and How Children Learn. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

Snyder LJ (2015). Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing. New York: WW Norton.


One Comment

  1. Barry Childress September 5, 2018 at 3:22 pm - Reply

    A dog receives food shelter and love from his owner and he thinks that his owner must be a god. Do the same for a cat and the cat says “I must be a god”.

    Enjoy following your series. Agree that science finds its way into explaining the inexplicable once attributed to God. See projection and paranoia are on the horizon.

    Just wondering if discussion will go beyond the negative aspects to explore religion as an internalized moral compass that offers alternatives to egocentricity and maturation beyond the idea of an anthropomorphic God.

    Seems to me in these social times secularism has exacerbated these self centered positions that are now part of the problem especially in the changes in our family structure.

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