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The Psychology Behind Religious Belief

Ohio State University


Jeff Grabmeier

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Throughouthistory, scholars and researchers have tried to identify the one key reasonthat people are attracted to religion.

Some have said people seekreligion to cope with a fear of death, others call it the basis for morality,and various other theories abound.

But in a new book, apsychologist who has studied human motivation for more than 20 years suggeststhat all these theories are too narrow. Religion, he says, attracts followersbecause it satisfies all of the 16 basic desires that humans share.

“It’s not just about fear ofdeath. Religion couldn’t achieve mass acceptance if it only fulfilled one ortwo basic desires,” said Steven Reiss, a professor emeritus of psychology atThe Ohio State University and author of The 16 Strivings for God (MercerUniversity Press, 2016).

“People are attracted toreligion because it provides believers the opportunity to satisfy all theirbasic desires over and over again. You can’t boil religion down to oneessence.”

Reiss’s theory of whatattracts people to religion is based on his research in the 1990s onmotivation. He and his colleagues surveyed thousands of people and asked themto rate the degree to which they embraced hundreds of different possible goals.

In the end, the researchersidentified 16 basic desires that we all share: acceptance, curiosity, eating,family, honor, idealism, independence, order, physical activity, power,romance, saving, social contact, status, tranquility and vengeance.

Reiss then developed aquestionnaire, called the Reiss Motivation Profile, that measures how muchpeople value each of these 16 goals. More than 100,000 people have nowcompleted the questionnaire. The research is described in Reiss’s book Who AmI? The 16 Basic Desires that Motivate our Action and Define Our Personalities.

“We all share the same 16goals, but what makes us different is how much we value each one,” Reiss said.

“How much an individualvalues each of those 16 desires corresponds closely to what he or she likes anddislikes about religion.”

A key point is that each ofthe 16 desires motivates personality opposites and those opposites all have tofind a home in a successful religion, Reiss said.

For example, there is thedesire for social contact. “Religion has to appeal to both introverts andextroverts,” Reiss said. For extroverts, religion offers festivals and teachesthat God blesses fellowship. For introverts, religion encourages meditation andprivate retreats and teaches that God blesses solitude.

Religion even finds ways todeal with the desire for vengeance, Reiss said. While some religions preach ofa God of peace and encourage followers to “turn the other cheek,” there is alsothe other side: the wrath of God and holy wars.

“Religion attracts all kinds,including peacemakers and those who want a vengeful God.”

All religious beliefs andpractices are designed to meet one or more of these 16 desires, Reissexplained.

For example, religiousrituals fulfill the desire for order. Religious teachings about salvation andforgiveness tap into the basic human need for acceptance. Promises of anafterlife are designed to help people achieve tranquility.

What about atheism? While allpeople need to fulfill the same basic desires, not everyone will turn toreligion to satisfy them, Reiss said. Secular society offers alternatives tofulfill all of the basic desires.

“Religion competes withsecular society to meet those 16 needs and can gain or lose popularity based onhow well people believe it does compared to secular society,” Reiss said.

One of the basic desires –independence – may separate religious and non-religious people. In a studypublished in 2000, Reiss found that religious people (the study included mostlyChristians) expressed a strong desire for interdependence with others. Thosewho were not religious, however, showed a stronger need to be self-reliant andindependent.

Reiss said one advantage ofhis theory is that, unlike many other theories of religion, it can bescientifically tested.

“In 16 Strivings for God, Idiscuss a mystical personality type – the kind of person who would likely findvalue and meaning in mystical experiences and would be attracted to religionfor that reason,” he said.

“We can test that and findout if there really is a mystical personality type.”

While the theory can tell usa lot about the types of people who are attracted to religion and differentreligious experiences, it cannot say anything about the truth of religiousbeliefs, Reiss said.

“I’m not trying to answertheological questions about the existence or nature of God,” Reiss said. “WhatI’m trying to answer is the nature of why people embrace religion and God.”


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