Religion, Part 9

This month we will conclude our discussion of religion as it relates to human development. The overall focus of these last several newsletters has been to understand better what is termed “religion” by exploring the origins and functioning of feelings, cognition, and language in human development.

We will briefly summarize our previous discussions by looking at the broad categories:

  • Cause and Effect
  • Internal/External Dilemma

Cause and Effect, Associations, and Predictions

As psychoanalyst Mike Basch noted (1988),

The basic function of the brain…is…to create order out of the myriad stimuli impinging upon it at any given moment. (pg. 48)

In creating order in their world, infants are programmed to make associations between events, to make causal inferences (think cause and effect), assess probability, and make predictions (Stern, 1985; Gopnik, et al, 1999; Gopnik, 2010). This is crucial so that the infant can better understand its world, enhance its chances for survival, predict consequences of its actions, and have an effect on its world.

Why is this process so important?

Because in this fashion, human beings and other animals can predict what actions are necessary to enhance their survival. Alison Gopnik and her colleagues have shown how early and dramatically this process occurs (1999, 2010, October 2017 newsletter).

How do human beings predict?

This often occurs through generalization (deriving or inducing from particulars and experience) or transference (redirecting earlier feelings and assumptions into a current person or situation). It’s as if we say: ‘such and such happened before in this situation, so such and such will most likely happen again now.’

So, how does this relate to our understanding of religion?

Consider what happens if we have trouble predicting. What if we do not have enough information to have plausible cause-and-effect? Remember our friend Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (Snyder, 2015) who made microscopes in the 1600s and was able to see—showed us the existence of—bacteria, protozoa, blood cells, and so on? Before a germ theory of disease, illnesses were often “god’s will.” Humans tend to try to organize, make sense of, find cause-and-effect.

And often this involves externalization processes. Consider efforts to make sense of a tragedy: “god wanted my child with him, and I look forward to seeing her in heaven again.” Or why we did something because we did not understand our own feelings and impulses: “god (or the devil) made me do it.” Or “I accomplished this because god showed me the way.” Both internal psychological processes as well as external events can be attributed to god.

The Internal/External Dilemma

What is Internal? What is External? How do we know?

Epistemology = the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge, especially with reference to its limits and validity.

To try to understand our internal and external worlds, we use our three pillars of development:

  • Emotions
  • Cognition
  • Language

However—emotions, cognition, and language are not fool-proof providers of data about our external or internal reality…they all have assets and liabilities…they are enigmas themselves. Emotions can be out of conscious awareness (unconscious) and defended against…and these efforts to understand ourselves and others can be elusive. Cognition has its inaccuracies also—perception, reason, self-reflection, and memory may all be flawed in one way or another. Language is useful for transmitting a variety of ideas and meanings—but language can also lead to misunderstandings and confusion.

As we discussed in the November 2018 Newsletter, there are many psychological mechanisms related to externalization—i.e., how our internal world affects our view of the external world. We all have our own lenses through which we view the world. Processes such as projection, displacement, generalization, and transference are among the ways the internal and external can be merged. These are not easy dilemmas to resolve, either clinically with patients or in everyday life. But it is useful, perhaps essential, to be aware of these processes.

Wrapping Up

Humans tend to try to organize, make sense of, find cause-and-effect. And often this involves externalization processes. Religion, then, can be seen as one way of organizing the self, an aspect of our individual development, dealing with myriad of stimuli which impinge upon us, enhancing self-cohesion. In this context, freedom of religion takes on especial importance—it involves the freedom to be our self.

Next Month

We will examine, in overview fashion, the origins of human development with respect to emotions (affect), language, and cognition.


Basch, MF (1988). Understanding Psychotherapy: The Science Behind the Art. New York: Basic Books.

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.

Gopnik A (2010). How Babies Think. Scientific American July 2010, pages 76-81.

Hoffman L, Rice T, & Prout T (2016). Manual of Regulation-Focused Psychotherapy for Children (RFP-C) eithExternalizing Behaviors: A Psychodynamic Approach. New York: Routledge

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

Stern DN (1985). The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology. New York: Basic Books.


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