True Religion


The recent visit of Pope Francis to the United States appears to have stirred both interest and debate on about “religion.” I have been both delighted to hear open conversation about church-related issues and dismayed at the level of hostility expressed toward organized religion during the course of them.  The very first comment I received in response to my initial blog post was less vehement in its disagreement with my ideas than it was in condemning my involvement in organized religion.  According to this individual, the solution to gun violence is not getting rid of guns, but getting rid of religion.

That’s quite a broad generalization.  While there is no doubt that a vast number of crimes have been committed in the name of God, a great deal of good has also occurred as a result of religious belief.  Whether the balance tips to the side of good or evil depends a great deal on how you think about “religion.”  Put in the simplest terms, a religion is simply a collection of beliefs.  And people need something to believe in.

Or so says Psychologist Steven Reiss, who has written a book called, “The 16 Strivings for God.”[1] According to Reiss, human beings are motivated by sixteen “basic [human] desires.”[2] Religions satisfy these desires.  Reiss suggests that people are more or less attracted to organized religion based on which of these motivations they value most. For example, people who value acceptance are attracted to religions which espouse community values.

Reiss’s work doesn’t necessarily suggest that belief in God is foundational to religion.  If you define religion only as a series of beliefs, then you can blame pretty much all of the world’s ills on “religion,” since under it political ideologies, cultural practices, and economic systems qualify as religions.  A recent survey indicates, however, that most Americans actually do believe in some kind of creative force in the universe beyond that belonging to human beings.[3]  Although the majority of individuals surveyed also professed to belong to some form of religion, a respectable forty-six percent of them said they did not.  An additional thirty-three percent of such people – frequently referred to as “nones” because they answer “none” in response to religious affiliation questions – also indicated that they believe that there is a creator who “defines morality.”

What this suggests to me -and what is consistent with my experience as a psychologist – is that with very few exceptions human beings seek meaning for and in their lives.  What Dr. Reiss’s research tells us is that people often find it in the context of communal, structured systems of belief – and through worship.  David Foster Wallace proposed that “in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism…There is no such thing as not worshipping.  Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”[4]  In other words, we have to revere something – but valuing the acquisition of money, power, and beauty instead of spiritual and moral growth is neither good for us, nor our neighbors.

The truth is that as far as I can tell, the basic principles of most organized religions are good – and that’s why people are drawn to them. Who objects to loving one another?  Who objects to the idea of taking care of your neighbors?  Who objects to honoring your elders – or to prohibitions against stealing and killing and lying?  I don’t think that even people who believe religious organizations are evil actually object to such religious principles.  They object to what human beings have done to religions – and in the name of them.  The idea of being organized as a group or community to uphold basically positive human values is not wrong.  It is the corruption of such organizations that is.  But the alternative is no better – because an unwillingness to believe in anything outside of the self fosters only isolation, alienation, and chaos.  Religions needn’t be dismantled, but they do need to be reformed and refreshed.  They need people who object to the evil religions have caused in the past to commit to their future – to correct what has become corrupted, to refresh what is good, and to bring renewed energy to the task of loving one another and meeting our basic human needs. That is a conversation worth having.

[1]Mercer University Press, 2016.

[2]Reiss, S. (2004). The 16 strivings for God. Zygon39, 303-320.

[3]Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Religious or not: many Americans see a creator’s hand,” Religious News Service, October 7, 2015,

[4]David Foster Wallace (2009). “This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life, “Little Brown & Co.

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