Now, I do not presume to know the specific cognitions of every single believer, nor do I pretend to understand the contents of the billions of individuals infected with the plethora of religions that plague our chaotic planet, but there are some common psychological and neurological phenomena that present us with sufficient grounds to generalize, albeit cautiously.
Religious people arrive at their psychological dead ends via a variety of means. Some, perhaps most, are indoctrinated from childhood, well before the age of reason, by role models who believe they are teaching, rather than warping their children’s fragile and suggestive minds. Others grow up in one faith and through the intervention of a missionary or friend, become re-programmed into a new religion; others still, are persuaded by some form of media, and so on. Notwithstanding the numerous ways in which people adopt a religious belief system, we already we have sturdy grounds upon which we may establish our first generalization. Religion is a social virus, contracted and spread via social interaction between human minds, whether directly or indirectly.
Having demonstrated the ability to make certain generalizations, let us proceed from the point of infection, and examine some of the common psychological strategies employed by believers to reconcile their unnatural beliefs with the natural world, as well as investigate how they shield their minds from evidence that comes into conflict with their socially acceptable delusions.
“Religion is a system of wishful illusions together with a disavowal of reality, such as we find nowhere else but in a state of blissful hallucinatory confusion.” ~Sigmund Freud
The Ego – A Hall of Defensive Mirrors
Despite Freud’s numerous failings, he did leave a legacy in the form of concepts such as the unconscious mind and the ego.  But Freud merely laid the impressive and opulent groundwork for the concept of the ego. His daughter, Anna Freud, was the real craftswoman when it came to shaping our understanding of this psychological hall of mirrors we refer to as, the ego. Most importantly, in her best-known work, ‘The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense,’ Anna continued on from her father’s work to illustrate for us how and why a believer protects their irrational beliefs. However, before venturing too far, I should pause for a moment and explain, albeit simply, what the ego is, at least for the purpose at hand.
Freud divided the mind into three primary, and symbolic, components; the id, the ego and the super-ego. Although these components have undergone significant academic refurbishing since Freud’s time, they are still a common means of theoretically dividing the psyche, or mind. I guess the easiest way to think about the ego is to see it as the mediator between the unconscious ‘id’ and the over/self-conscious ‘super-ego.’ Still confused? Okay, think about it this way – the id desperately wants to hijack a fire truck and spray members of the Westboro Baptist Church whilst they are picketing a gay funeral, and subsequently, so does the ego, but the super-ego won’t let them due to various social pressures, and so the ego will employ “reasons” or rationalizations that defend its decision to submit to the super-ego against its own will. As a result of its fear of being overwhelmed by the unconscious mind, and its desire to avoid suffering, the ego, as mentioned above, has developed defensive strategies and thus, it has become the master of rationalizing the irrational. I think you may see where I am going with this now.
Coupled with its role as a mediator between the id and the superego, the ego acts as the (conscious) storage house for our beliefs about the world around us, our perception of who we are as individuals, our self-esteem, and at the same time, it is fully armed with reality-distorting defense mechanisms.  The most relevant defense mechanism for the purpose of our investigation into the mind of the believer is the ‘rationalization.’
Although Anna Freud first used the term rationalization to describe “a defense mechanism that involves supplying a reasonable-sounding explanation for unacceptable feelings and behavior to conceal (mostly from oneself) one’s underlying motives or feelings,” it also describes the creative construction of reasonable sounding explanations for unsubstantiated, and debunked, beliefs. If you have ever watched Dr. William Lane Craig in a debate, you will know exactly what I am talking about. However, I think the best way to explain what a rationalization is, and how it works, would be to provide you with two comparatively similar case studies.
The Seekers – A Debunked Doomsday Cult
The Seekers were a doomsday cult who believed that the USA would be destroyed in an epic flood brought about by aliens. The group’s leader, Marion Keech, claimed, and possibly even believed, to be telepathically communicating with aliens, who forewarned her that on a specific date, the US would perish, barring Mrs. Keech and her followers, whom the aliens would rescue aboard their intergalactic Noah’s Ark.
Naturally, D-day came and went without a single drop of rain, and whilst some of the group packed up their tents and went home, many others stayed on and continued to follow Mrs. Keech. So, how could these people, whose beliefs had been shown to be false, continue to believe? This is precisely what the social psychologists, including the father of cognitive dissonance theory, Leon Festinger, who studied this group, wanted to know. The members of the group who stayed on employed a form of rationalization known to psychologists as an ‘adaptational strategy,’ meaning, they altered peripheral beliefs in a bid to protect their core belief (that Marion Keech was telepathically communicating with aliens) in order to reconcile their core belief with the new dissonance producing scenario they faced (the failure of the doomsday prophecy). They rationalized that due to the faith of their group, the aliens had spared the USA. This new adaptation allowed them to keep their core belief intact, which protected their egos from what Carl Jung dubbed, ‘legitimate suffering.’
Geology vs. Genesis
When the science of geology first exploded in the West, and I say exploded because it hit the Church nearly as hard as Darwin’s theory of evolution, theologians were presented with new and unpleasant facts that their egos quickly had to begin working to rationalize. How could the earth be 6,000 years old, as James Ussher’s chronology, Bede’s chronology and even Isaac Newton’s chronology revealed with the most accurate exegesis of the bible, and yet be billions of years old as this new dissonance producing science unequivocally demonstrated? Various psychological strategies began to frantically emerge from the ranks of the faithful, as their egos twisted and burned in the hell of that terrifying fear of suffering experienced by highly egocentric beings. Some of these strategies were adaptational in nature, like the gap theory, for example, which proposed a huge gap of time, and two separate creations, between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2; there was the day age theory, which asserted, much like Hinduism, that a day according to “god” was many millennia for humans, thus explaining the discord between the credulous ecclesiastical cosmology of the time and this new devastating science. There was the soft gap theory, which replaced the now debunked gap theory, and posited gaps in time between each succeeding verse, one at a time, until each became debunked by theologians and scientists, and finally, there arose those great denialists, the Christians we all know and love today, the young earth creationists, who deny the validity of the well-established science of geology.
Above are just two examples that illustrate how and why the ego of the believer can distort reality to protect itself from the legitimate suffering brought about by a head on collision with reality. So the next time you go up against a theist, keep this in mind and, before driving yourself insane, remember the wise words of Thomas Paine:
“To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead…”
- Tom Butler-Bowden. 50 Psychology Classics. Nicholas Brealey Publishing. p. 2.
- Donna S. Bender and Andrew E. Skodol. Character Pathology. New York State Psychiatric Institute/Columbia University; cited in – Michael Hersen, William Sledge, Alan M. Gross, Jerald Kay, Bruce Rounsaville & Warren W. Tryon. Encyclopaedia of Psychotherapy. Academic Press. (2002). p. 375.
- Tom Butler-Bowden. 50 Psychology Classics. Nicholas Brealey Publishing. p. 106.
- Daniel L. Schacter, Daniel T. Gilbert & Daniel M. Wegner. Psychology. Worth Publishers. (2009). p. 466.
- Festinger, L., Riecken, H. W., & Schachter, S. When Prophecy fails. University of Minnesota Press. (1956).
- Lorne L. Dawson. When Prophecy Fails and Faith Persists: A theoretical Overview. University of California Press. (1999). p. 65.