by Dr. Michael Hurd

What psychological purpose, if any, does belief in the supernatural serve?

Clay Routledge Ph.D., researcher on the subject and author of “More Than Mortal” thinks it’s about meaning in life:

My research lab studies how religious beliefs contribute to perceptions of meaning in life. Not surprisingly, we and other researchers reliably find that religious beliefs help people find and maintain meaning. In general, the more religious people are, the more they believe their lives are meaningful. Religious beliefs make people feel like their existence is purposeful (i.e., God has a plan for them), that they are being watched over by benevolent supernatural agents (God, guardian angels), and that they are part of a larger and meaningful cosmic drama (i.e., God intentionally created the world). Not surprisingly then, when people are struggling with difficult life challenges that make them feel uncertain, stressed, or scared, religious beliefs serve an important psychological function. They restore and protect a sense of meaning in life.

Actually, I have noticed two different types of religious people. One, those who believe what they believe and are largely at peace with it. When reason/common sense and religion conflict, the religious person tells him- or herself, in essence, “Have faith,” or finds some idea or principle in religious documents (e.g., the Bible) to support the basis for faith.

The other types are in a continuing state of psychological crisis, either because they’re questioning or they’re using logic and reason to try and make sense of their religious beliefs. On the one hand, they believe, or at least feel they should. On the other hand, they’re questioning and thinking, and that tends to get in the way of the belief.

Consider a conversation like this one:

“I’m angry that my life has turned out this way. I’m angry and hurt that my mother was so unloving. I’m angry that I didn’t get the jobs I should have got, or found the romantic love I wanted.”

“Who are you angry at?”

“I’m angry at God. Why would God allow this kind of suffering? I realize there’s greater suffering than what I endured. But if God is so wise and just, why all the problems?”

“But aren’t you applying reason, logic and standards of human justice to something that’s faith based? Doesn’t your religion tell you to simply believe and accept, uncritically?”

The question answers itself because faith, by definition, does not involve reason, logic, proof or sense. It’s something different, as I think either a faith-based or non-faith-based person will tell you.

In such cases, the psychological conflict arises because of a contradiction, the basis for many psychological conflicts and problems.

Says Routledge:

It makes sense that religious beliefs that involve loving and protective supernatural agents such as God and guardian angels would help people feel like their lives are meaningful and purposeful.

Most people assume that the only way to find meaning and purpose in life is through some kind of a religious perspective.

Yet what about meaning and purpose to be found in other ways? Through the development of one’s mind; through some kind of purposeful or meaningful work involving the use of reason and leading to concrete results like the building of a house, the building of a business, the discovery of a computer microchip, electricity or a cure for cancer? Through the pursuit and achievement of values in the context of a verifiable, time-limited period of existence on earth?

Two things are apparent. The religious person who also resolves to live a meaningful, secular life to the fullest can experience a sense of happiness. But so can the person who is not religious, who resolves to live a meaningful, secular life to the fullest pursuing productive results and/or rationally happy experiences. In fact, one might argue that the nonreligious person could be even happier because — on the premise that this is all there is — one should make the most of it.

In one study, we administered questionnaires assessing religiosity and perceptions of meaning in life. We then presented research participants with a task that involved reading a profile of a young man who murdered his sister and responding to questions concerning the causes of his actions. These questions specifically assessed the extent to which participants attributed his actions to non-supernatural causes (e.g., having an abusive father) or supernatural causes involving evil forces (e.g., having an evil spirit).

Here is what we found. Highly religious participants who reported feeling like their lives lacked meaning were the most likely to believe that evil supernatural forces influenced the murderer’s actions. In other words, it was the people who needed meaning (those lacking it) and who derive meaning from supernatural beliefs (highly religious people) who were most attracted to a supernatural explanation of a horrible crime. These individuals were more likely to believe that the murderer had a dark soul. They were less likely to attribute his actions to non-supernatural causes such as growing up in an abusive household.

What is a “spirit” anyway? Most of us have left it to believers in the supernatural to define this term. Either you believe in spirits, which makes you supernatural or religious in some sense; or you don’t believe in spirits, which makes you a hard-nosed, stone cold material behaviorist.

But if you define a spirit objectively and concretely, you can avoid this false alternative. I define a “spirit” as a consciousness. A consciousness refers to one’s mind, concepts, emotions and all that pertain to a state of conscious awareness. These, in unison with the body and the biological composition of a person, make the individual who he or she is. If the body dies, the spirit is gone too, and the body quickly decays.

Body and mind/consciousness. There is not one without the other. If you believe there is, then you believe that the spirit goes somewhere “else” after the body dies, and that’s the point where religious belief takes over. But you do not have to be a religious believer to observe that there is something called a consciousness, something you might (if you choose) refer to as one’s spirit.

As for the study cited above, notice how both types — the religious believer and nonreligious believer — tend to assume something else made the criminal a criminal. If you’re religious, you might think that supernatural forces contributed to the person becoming a serial killer. If you’re not religious, then you will assume it’s the abusive father, “society,” lack of government funding, the legality of guns or something other than the criminal himself.

This is significant, because nobody on the religious or nonreligious side of the spectrum appears to recognize the power and relevance of individual choice. More than that, what actually creates individual choice?

When I assert the validity and importance of individual choice, I generally find that religious people — who are usually more conservative — agree with me, while more educated people will look to external factors such as biology, society, parents, and so forth.

Yet a person can have a “bad spirit” or a “sick spirit” with “spirit” being rationally and objectively defined. It’s up to the field of psychology (which studies the mind, particularly the subconscious mind) and the fields of neurology and biology/medicine (which study the body) to sort it all out. And this requires reason, not religion, as probably some religious people will acknowledge.

Does life require meaning and purpose? Yes. Can reason and purpose involve rational, objective, concretely identifiable things such as career, family, productive work, personal relationships, satisfying and joyful experiences — all in this life, here and now, on earth? No question.

People who disagree with me (on any subject) will often write me with hostile, deliberately rhetorical questions designed to be intimidating or insulting. I find these amusing, but also rather fascinating.

One question I get from a lot of religious people who dislike what they see as my criticism of religion is, “Well what do you believe in, Dr. Hurd? If not God, then what?”

I find such a question astonishing. On the one hand, I recognize that it’s supposed to intimidate a questioner or thinker into bowing his head and saying, in shame, “Nothing.” It’s a “shaming” question from one who has no rational response to a point so defaults to his only weapon, i.e. shame.

Yet my immediate, emotionally integrated and absolute answer to this question is nothing more than, “Life…and my love of it.” What else is there to believe in, act upon, think about or anything else? By what stretch could this ever be shameful?

Such subjects might seem a little abstract and profound. But realize it or not, you probably hold a position of some kind on these issues. And where your mind stands — even subconsciously — will determine, to a great extent, how happy you really are.