Digging deeper: the psychology of faith

Belief in a god or gods is central to the lives of billions of people, and with the recent sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, people are interrogating yet again organized religion.

Pope Francis is the third pope to deal with the scandal of sex abuse in the church; this is abuse that is covered up to the highest levels over years. So what purpose does religion hold in modern times when the trend is a decline in church membership retention around the world?


When I first heard of Azim Shariff, it was on the Hidden Brain podcast discussing his study that looks at the psychology behind people’s belief in God. Research over the past years has achieved a new level of understanding regarding the belief in God.


As human groups began to expand ages ago, it became more difficult to identify and punish the cheaters and free riders. So different societies needed an epic force that could see what everyone was doing, and enforce the rules. That force, according to social psychologist Azim Shariff, was the popular idea of a “supernatural punisher” – also known as God.


For different religions there is always a connecting thread, and more recently also the disillusionment of many people over religious leaders who can’t uphold the “rules” that they are supposed to teach.

There is a great generational gulf between the older population that ascribes to religion and the younger generation that ascribes to spirituality, but not necessarily religiosity. Although younger people are generally far less religious than their parents, many still identify with a faith tradition culturally but not theologically.

Personally, the most striking revelation from Azim Shariff’s study is that religion has staying power in communities where rule of law is not enforced. With the internet providing unprecedented access to information about our institutions, many times exposing their darker sides, we learn more about our society and its institutions. Where these institutions cannot be held accountable then religion provides stability, and a guiding force. 

This partly explains why there is an increase in atheism for many countries in Europe and West where there is a higher confidence in many of their institutions, from business to schools to government, compared to the rest of the world.

Religion has provided points of moral, social, and political interconnectedness; an example is the Muslim faith in North Africa that allowed different people to trade and interact on the basis of shared religion, but religion also provided powerful motivation to be tribal. And we have seen religion often being used to buttress and provide justification for ethnic conflict. The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi was witness to massacres that were justified by priests.

We know that socialization is the number one engine that drives religiosity: children are raised to become religious by their religious parents. Therefore as more and more people stop being religious, it is quite likely that they won’t raise their children to be religious, and thus the inter-generational spread of religion will weaken in years to come. 

Nevertheless, for better or for worse faith factors into our everyday functioning: we’ve evolved to believe. Organized religion may be less adept at meeting people’s basic desires, but that doesn’t mean this will always be so. Religion may change and adapt – as it has before – to better meet human needs.

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