Religion, Part 2

This month we continue our study of religion.

We want to explore these issues in a somewhat different fashion from the usual.

We want to investigate what underlies religion. We will examine the development of religion and the affects associated with it: first, from an external perspective, and, second, from internal concepts. These external and internal sources are certainly interrelated, but we will separate them out a bit in order to try to achieve somewhat greater clarity.

External Considerations

There are at least three somewhat-overlapping ways religion can be imposed from external sources on to the infant/child. By external sources, we are referring to, e.g. parents, caregivers, the community, government, and so on. This is contrasted with internal sources, i.e. motivation for religious feelings and ideas which stem primarily from the internal world of the individual.

First, for a variety of reasons, the parents/caregivers may have a worldview which includes a concept of god, or an idealized religious organization, and so on. And this they may impart to their child as an important, essential reality. They may be enlisting the help of a god to protect their child and/or ensure a life after death. Fear may be one of the major affects used to support their beliefs. Thus, the environment (parent, caregivers) imposes a world-view, a religious system, a system of beliefs, onto the child. Because the parent is the earliest interpreter of reality for the child, the child usually will readily—at least initially—take in the parent’s view. This tends to be the case if the parent-child relationship is a good one, or even if the relationship is marked by abuse, because the child may not have other frames of reference. In addition, as you’ll recall from our basic keys of affect, the child very much wants to be like the parent’s so she will tend to gravitate to, identify with, the parent’s beliefs.

However, there are even more subtle and powerful forces driving this process. As we have seen earlier, the parent’s use of fear, or anger, or shame can greatly influence a young child. Thus, the parent can readily set up a system of compliance through the use of these affects. Furthermore, the child will tend to internalize the parent’s affect regulatory system. Various research has shown children are very susceptible to the kinds of feelings their parents manifest, i.e. they will show fear when their parents show fear. Say a parent has an internal regulatory system which involves an external god as a tension-regulator. This might show up as “I’m so nervous about this job interview, but God will help me—things will work out…” “God has a purpose for us…things will happen as he deems it.” The child will learn that in times of distress and fear, “God” is the one to “turn to”—and the anxiety may be more or less regulated.

You might ask: why is there a need for this kind of taking in of the parent’s world view? As we will discuss in more detail later, the answer has to do with the function of the brain—the brain works to create order out of disorder, to regulate the incoming stimuli. The brain is an information processing center. What the brain especially has to do is regulate the feelings, because it is feelings which are simply (or not so simply) the responses to stimulation. And in the model discussed here, we are talking about regulating about 8-10 built-in responses, or feelings, or affects. Thus, the brain has to organize these responses, these feelings.

Second, the parents/caregivers may have a need to use a religion or religious precepts and doctrines to instill a moral system in their child and to aid socialization. Many parents feel a need to use religion in the upbringing of their child, fearing that, otherwise, their child will grow up out-of-control, or delinquent, or unaccomplished, and the like. Usually, these parents/caregivers tend not to understand feelings and how they work, so they turn to an external structure to provide a set of rights and wrongs. Fear and shame may be used to enforce these precepts.

Third, it is not uncommon for an authoritarian government to enforce certain religions and related laws, or to set itself up as the religion to be obeyed for various political and power gains. This has been seen throughout various historical periods. Distress, fear, and shame are usually the affects used to maintain this structure.

Next Month

We will explore some of the internal, psychodynamic aspects of religion



  1. Joseph A. Izzo, M.A., L.I.C.S.W. July 5, 2018 at 7:11 pm - Reply

    A healthier use of religion or spirituality would be to help the child see and learn the interconnection of all beings rather than instilling specific beliefs, morality or after life rewards (heaven) or punishments (hell). This would require that the parents shift their own understanding of God or religion from worship of a superior / transcendent being (Theism) to the creative and transformative power of the evolving universe (Non-theism) or God as “the All in One”. Children have fertile imaginations and are eager to learn new things so helping them to understand how their breathing and oxygen is related to the plants / trees that produce the oxygen they breathe and how the plants and trees are related to the Sun (photosynthesis) and the rain that all living beings need to sustain life can be a very religious and mystical experience. From that we can teach respect and reverence for all living things since we are all inherently interconnected.

  2. Leon Hoffman, MD July 31, 2018 at 2:54 am - Reply

    I would add that the importance of religion is as a way to remain involved in a community. The adults transmit that to their children who then may or may nor remain as part of the community when they grow up. Since during anxiety promoting states, closeness to people who are like us is a buffer against overwhelming anxiety, including death anxiety, the curative function of religion may be a result of the group ties in addition to those you mention above.

    • drpaulholinger August 3, 2018 at 12:49 pm - Reply

      Great point, Leon. Communities and peoples whose character structures and belief systems congregate together and thereby enhance their own psychological convictions and probably consolidate their own sense of self.

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