Science and Religion: Its Role on the Human Psyche

CONTENT WARNING: Brief Mention of Homophobia


The development of psychology has been able to explain human behaviour and our relations to religion. Psychology of religion was once considered to be invalid because of the separation with science and religion. Scientific historian Stephen Jay Gould took the position that the two realms of science and religion should have civil, but separate, school of thoughts. This was called the principle of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA). NOMA was defined as an area of teaching that had the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution. In other words, NOMA of science explains the workings of the world, while NOMA of religion determines morality, values, and the meaning of life. Separating these realms can have consequences. For instance, condemning the use of condoms and supporting the persecution of homosexuals when there is substantial evidence of how these actions would result in pain and suffering. 


It has been suggested that using science, such as cognitive psychology, best explains the psychological roots of religious and spiritual belief. A cognitive approach to religion argues that people believe in religion as it provides a purpose in life and is used as a guiding force to find the meaning of life. This theme becomes apparent in the Bible where believers are “God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge”. Further, as a psychological root of religious and spiritual belief, it is suggested that people may find meaning in a religious faith because it provides comfort. There have been case studies of prisoners of wars and those who have been in jail to cope better with the presence of religion. Viktor Frankl’s psychotherapy method suggest that those who seek to find comfort and dignity in times of suffering, help a man find meaning in life. Thus, when placed in a difficult situation, people may find comfort in rationalising their experience as a plan from God. 


Religion is also explained as a bond between greater power and humanity. An individual may have a range of commitments such as ritual acts to respect that power. The development of psychology of religion has only been relatively new due to the joint realms of science and religion. This combination allows the understanding of religious and spiritual belief.  

Various psychologists have attempted to explain how religion plays a role in the human psyche. William James, also known as the father of psychology, highlights religious experiences and human emotions as true religion because of its practicability, particularly in his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience. He defines religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine”. James argued that there are two sides of God. One side is active while the other is passive. The first God is described as “healthy-minded” and who challenged the human to exercise moral action and was determined to craft a perfect world. Although, in Varieties, James strongly suggests that the passive God was the creator and author of religious experience which he argues is “the real backbone of the world’s religious life”. This more passive God’s role was to save and perform miraculous needs on the ‘sick soul’. The passive God lives through humans as being anxious, usually unhappy and inferior. James believes that these two Gods have to unite within a being for them to be ‘whole’ through the transaction of conversions. An individual’s anxiety about purpose and meaning drives the desire to make transactions with the divine. James argues that the psychological roots of religion is the unity of the divided self and becoming ‘healthy-minded’. These are key elements in how humans find their purpose and destiny. 


The psychology of religion has developed deeply into understanding why a large proportion of the world identifies themselves as religious or spiritual. Although once separate fields of science and religion, psychological analysis of religion provides explanation of religious existence. The role of religion for the human psyche has been shown to improve human behaviour. It gives humans a sense of purpose or belonging.

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