Motivations for Embracing Religion

In my recent post called “Rewriting our Religious History” I described how religious folks join their faith for fairly simple reasons, but later report their reasons for joining in lofty, complex theological terms.  Like the boy in this picture, after lots of reading or teaching by religious professionals, a person has a hard time remembering their actual past.

Below I offer an extensive list of those more basic needs for joining a religion and divide them into three groups of needs: Physical, Psychological and Social.  Of course these groups and reasons overlap, but I think this is a pretty good list.  Can you think of other motivations?

British science blogger Tom Reese, at Ephiphenom, published a post today called “Recollections of Childhood Religion” where he describes a study which shows how we may change our religious histories in order to build a more consistent view of self.  A basic foundation in correct thinking needs to be informed by this understanding of the foibles of memory and one of the adaptive benefits of inaccurate memory: building a stable image of self.

Religion can offer many benefits — that is why it persists.  We can not minimize these needs nor their solutions. To solve the down side of religion, we must therefore offer other ways to meet these needs or encourage modifications of the religion itself that neutralize the downsides.  Do you agree?

Basic Motivations for Embracing a Religion

1. Physical Needs

  • desire healing, improved health
  • need shelter, clothing, food, education, health care …
    for yourself or your loved ones
  • hope for better finances
  • to feel safe

2. Social Needs

  • preserve family tradition
  • to pursue/ secure/ preserve a lover or friend
  • need for supportive community: desperate times
  • need for sense of belonging
  • to offer children moral training and social belonging
  • to improve or preserve social status
  • to supply moral framework

3. Psychological Needs

  • to follow childhood tradition
  • to model an admired person
  • to follow a leader, a guide: secure guidance
  • to obtain order: a comprehensive worldview or answers
  • to avoid harassment from other children or adults
  • to resolve confusion – to find meaning, purpose, hope
  • to rebel against former alliances – leave old tradition;
  • to secure a sense of identity: personal, national …
  • to ease fear: of death, of hell, of social loss
  • to secure a niché:  given their temperament, skills, and conditions: a place where they can  prosper psychologically, socially and physically.
  • to help leave old undesired behavior or social circles


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

28 responses to “Motivations for Embracing Religion

  1. roni

    WOW! What a fine list!
    What do you mean by ‘secure a survival niché’, Sabio?

  2. TWF

    Excellent list! Like Roni, I am not quite sure what you mean by “secure a survival niché” because that could mean at least two things. One is the pursuit of an eternal afterlife, while the other is much more practical, in that siding with a particular religion would literally aid your chances of survival, as demonstrated in various religious conflicts in history. The former is more psychological, while the latter is more physical and somewhat falls under your “to feel safe.”

  3. Do you ever suspect you might be overly-analytic at times? : )

    I wonder if I can really be honest in looking inward that way. I think maybe I can … somewhat … or maybe I’m fooling myself. I suspect that the loss of my childhood faith left a vacuum. Like a lot of us I tend to view “reality” according to my own way of thinking, a bit personal and with something like intention – perhaps the same way I think of and interact with my guitar as my best friend. With bald literalness that seems a bit insane. Yet I think you know what I mean, being a guitarist yourself.

    Maybe the personal gratification of what I think is more important to me than my motivation(s) for thinking the way I think. I’m just not sure I can determine my true motivations, and if I can’t, I suspect others could only guess with less accuracy.

  4. I think “to follow childhood tradition” may be a stronger motivator for embracing religion than we think. I suspect that some people “imprint” on religion when exposed to it as a child, seeking out a similar religious tradition as an adult because it’s part of their sense of normalcy.

  5. @ roni & TWF
    Thanks. I will try to clarify that in the post. Meanwhile, I meant “niché” in the ecological sense.

    @ Doug B,
    No, I don’t worry about being “overly-analytic” – I love my analytic skills and my balance of uses. Why, do you dislike it? : )

    I totally agree that it is very difficult, if not impossible to introspect our own present motivations and even harder our past motivations — as this post and the epiphenom article state. But when someone puts forth abstract theological or philosophical reasons for why they believe their system, to me that is a pretty sure sign that we have many unnecessary layers hiding true motivations.

    Are these layerings, as you allude, also protective and adaptive much like the illusion of self? I think so. Is getting behind illusion useful even if the illusions are useful? I think so — for some people, at some times.

    I hope that was clear and not distastefully “overly” analytic for you. I could not think of how to put it into a poem, drawing or dance.🙂

  6. I also see many of these as reasons for staying in a religion, not just joining one. And not necessarily consciously. For example, as a Xian I don’t ever remember thinking, “I’m doing this to gain a sense of identity,” but I certainly *have* discovered after leaving that I tried to make Xianity my identity.

    To this day I still struggle to separate what I was pretending to be from who I really am. Even worse, I’m realizing I never fully developed basic skills such as empathy or conflict resolution because I looked to God to just magically” fix” me in areas where I needed to learn and grow. It’s a sobering experience every time I discover some area where I always relied on my faith and now I have to rely on my wits. In other words, many of the so-called “benefits” of religion have turned into liabilities now that I am.outside the faith.

  7. @ MichaelB
    You beat me to the punch. In a coming post I am going to write about augmenting motivations. Many people join for simple reasons, but find many more needs met as they belong and stay. Many of these needs can easily be met in the secular world, of course, but after leaving, they can’t imagine how to do that. And the church kind of gives you an easy, no struggle, pre-wrapped version with dogma attached.

    So yeah, needs are met and new ones can be fulfilled or old one found to be deluded — many believers leave because they don’t find the things they thought they’d find: healing, psychological wholeness, community, forgiveness, prosperity, a god that really talks to you, status improvement or many more unfulfilled desires.

    Thanx for your honest comment.

  8. @ Ahab,
    I agree — that is a huge motivator! I have a post coming up on that. Thanx for reminding me.

  9. Yeah, I agree this is a good list.

    When I think of the beginnings of religion what always comes to mind is a small band of shivering people huddled around a fire in a cave. Outside, lightning flashes, thunder roars, and rain deluges. They wonder, “How did we get into this mess?”

    Because it’s our nature to find a reason for everything, they conclude: angry gods. And the only way out is to appease them.

    Whereas all of your categories for taking refuge in religion are valid, I think the psychological (metaphysical?) ones came first and have the strongest pull.

  10. Sort of in line with this theme: Through the Wormhole: Did We Invent God? (w/ Morgan Freeman, 42 minutes on You Tube)

  11. Yes, god is an invention. In support of that, I offer this article about the author of When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God. (Amazon) In short, it’s all in the mind—then, as now.

    See this one page The Week article discussing the book.

  12. CRL

    Your link to Ephiphenon also goes to your own post on rewriting religious history.

    I would add “to get children an education” to your social reasons. I’ve seen several families convert while their children are at Catholic school, and several children who converted independently of their families to gain acceptance with peers (didn’t want to be the only one not getting First Communion/Confirmation). While social acceptance is their final reason for conversion, they would not have been put in a situation where conversion would be necessary had they not wanted a better education for their kids and sent them to Catholic school (or another religious private school, I guess, though those are rarer for historical reasons).

  13. CRL

    Oh, also because of pressure on the part of a believer for them to convert. My parish had a nun whose sole duty was to badger all unbelieving family members of partitioners (she must have watched people during communion to figure out who to stalk) into signing up for adult pre-Baptism classes. She also happened to be the only nun to still wear a habit, so my father got rather good at spotting her from a distance and mysteriously disappearing. She did, however, successfully annoy quite a few people into converting.

  14. I don’t feel that I’m “embracing a religion” per-say, Sabio. I feel as if I am having a “relationship,” or participating in an adoption as the adobted, as in I am the adopted heir of my Father (God). I’ve been adopted into the body of Christ. This happened before I even understood what this was or what it meant; I am not speaking of a church fellowship, either. It’s a personal, private “relationship thing” between God and I.

    No offense intended, but you can analyze the dickens out of it if you like, but that won’t detract from the profound experience over the span of many years, or the “lifestyle” it has created in simply having this relationship with God the Father.

    I don’t think you can put every Christian into a neat little cubicle and categorize us, minimizing our unique experiences and different motivations for coming to know God and Christ. I see you trying, but I don’t see you succeeding.

  15. roni

    Thanks for clarifying it, Sabio! I would imagine this niché-thing like when someone says: ‘I thought that I was kind of weird, but since I found ____ it makes sense to me.’ Is this an OK interpretation?

    Note: “____” stands for (fill in any faith/religion/world view).

  16. This is a great list. I wouldn’t say you are over analytical, just thorough. 🙂

  17. @ MichaelB
    Thanx, I watched it with my kids. More on that later.

    @ the warrioress,
    (1) Oh, yes, I don’t expect that my explanation of how our minds work will change the way you believe or fill your life with meaning. I would hope you would never make changes that would harm your own life or those of your loved ones — as long as the consequences of your decisions don’t harm others. Do you see the consequences of the beliefs of any Christians you know or have read of as being harmful?

    (2) As my previous post tries to make clear: I think you have a god with whom you have a personal relationship and another who you read about. These two ways of knowing are obviously very different — your efforts have been to try to make them the same. Each religious person I know does that: Hindus, Jews, Shintos, Muslims and Hindus too.

    More later on other points.

    @ roni:
    Yeah, that is part of it. But consider a family that just doesn’t have many friends, is financially hurting and habitually makes bad decisions but joins a small religious sect that accepts them. They then get a sense of meaning, responsibility, community and more and start to prosper more. No matter how weird we may view those folks, they have found a niché that helps them prosper. There are many examples of these folks.

    @ myrthryn,

    @ Crl,
    Thanx. I fixed the link. More later on other points.

  18. PS, @ the warrioress :
    You do realize that every religious person would say, “I am not embracing a religion.” Religious people also like to say, “My faith is not a religion”.

    One of the points of this blog is to emphasize how much religious people have in common with each other. It is interesting how most want to deny the commonality.

    Have you met people in other faiths who would not want their faith to be considered a religion and certainly not want to be considered as “embracing a religion”? Don’t you agree that most religious folks want their inner spiritual life to be uniquely different from those outside their faith?

  19. exrelayman

    This topic is hard for me to get a good handle on. So there might be a dozen or two dozen needs involved in becoming religious. Curious to me that your list did not include wanting to know the truth, but in reality that could only be applicable to a more developed mind than the child mind which gets brainwashed before the reasoning powers are developed (see those cute animals on the ark/Jesus wants me for a sunbeam).

    Along with many possible motivators, there is, according to your own way of thinking, the prospect of many selves (to my way of thinking, more like many aspects of the self). The different selves or aspects can have differing attractions to each of the motivations. Since none of the selves or the motivators is subject of objective measurement, it is all too fuzzy and imprecise for me to get a handle on. Enjoying seeing your post and the responses despite my misgivings that, to me, in the present state of our knowledge, this is mostly conjecture (or possibly you just playing – I can play too, as old as I am).

  20. Sabio – great topic. Are there any scientific studies which show these are the primary (or even secondary) motivations for embracing religion? I’m not familiar with the topic.

    As far as I can tell, my motivation for checking out Wicca was that my coworkers mentioned it to me. Oddly enough (my job tends to become my social life) I get along so well with coworkers, they usually become my best friends. Several of my coworkers said there was a Samhain ceremony that night and that it would probably be the sort of thing I’d be into.

    I had spent years frustrated that people did not share my concern for ecological degredation and pollution. This religion (like Native Americans) was serious about respecting ecological systems, so for me it was a relief to find other smart people who knew how to grow their own food and be responsible.

  21. @ ex-relayman:

    (1) Yes, there can be many needs met. Also, unexpected needs can also be met after joining a faith, a club or an activity. And as you said, different parts of the mind (or different selves) may approach for different motivations.

    (2) Concerning “Wanting to know the Truth” — that would fall under my category of

    to obtain order: a comprehensive worldview or answers

    And actually, the notion of “TRUTH” is usually supplied after joining. Many join to get answers that work for them. It is only later they are told they are exclusive TRUTHS.

    (3) Concerning: Conjecture.
    Actually, studies have been done on these issues but indeed my list is my conjectures. Maybe I can add links as I find studies over the coming months.

  22. @ amelie,
    (1) Concerning studies: See #3 for ex-relayman above. It will be fun to add them as I look for some.

    (2) Concerning Wicca: So your Wicca motivations were social — interesting.

    (3) Ecology Religion
    I’m sure you’ve seen blind, biased religious-like thinking in ecological circles, no? People find their identities is fighting for something larger than themselves, love the community of like-minded folks, common enemy bonding, feelings of moral superiority and myths (like wonderful Native Americans)! You should do a post on that !

  23. @ CRL:
    If I understand you correctly, I hear you adding to more good categories:

    — to avoid harassment from other children or adults

    — to gain education, health care etc. for your children

    Thanx, I will add them.
    Getting religion to secure education for your kids I have seen with Indians becoming Christians, too. See my post here.

  24. Sabio – Those are some interesting points! I don’t know that my motivations were social; my coworkers were not Wiccan, and none planned on attending the ceremony. They simply thought that the spirituality of the religion fit my style of thinking even thought it didn’t fit theirs. Wonder what category that would be.

    Have you noticed that Native Americans act morally superior? Just wondering if you’ve had person experience with that.

    My Apache friend (I’m on her Board of Directors) is quite devoted to the enviromment but from what I’ve seen, Native Americans spend quite a great deal of their time living off the land and unlike most of us, see the actual consequences of being irresponsible stewards.

    Having learned about climate change, I think we all are going to see the consequences as well pretty soon.

  25. @ amelie,

    Ah, sorry, I misread — that is cool that your friends introduced you. I agree that for some it is curiousity that brings them to see the religion, but some other motivation that makes them stay.

    Concerning “Environmentalism as a Religion”,
    I meant that many people who use “I am an environmentalist” as one of their go-to-first labels, may have a disproportionate number of folks with a sense of moral superiority. I wasn’t talking about native americans having that.

    Instead, I was talking about the common myth that Native Americans have been environmentally conscious for millenium and that it is a natural consequence of their religion. — The Chief Seattle myth and all.

    Of course not to say that environmental issues are not drastically important.

  26. No worries and yes – I think it may have been curiosity, or as you said maybe psychology. A spiritual need if you will to be part of a belief that confirmed my values.

    Ah, environmmentalism. Got it. I’m ashamed to say that for the longest time I thought that I would know a Native American if I saw them – feathers in their hair, etc. It wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I met modern-looking folks who looked just like me and I thought, he / she is a Native American? They aren’t even wearing fancy jewelry! How sad, right?

    Having been involved with PETA and all that I can tell you that in activism there is some moral superiority. At the same time, **sometimes** it is earned. It is hard work being a vegan, riding your bike to work, growing your own food.

    Ironically I found many activists who believe in these steps struggle with it, but those who succeed and live that life are often the most quiet and humble. Attitude is one thing; I do think the consequences of what we do every day is not just spiritual, but rather very real. As you said.

  27. I’m with you on the “sense of identity” one.
    My parents met doing semi-professional theatre. My mother was (still is, though retired) a musician and music teacher. My father was (still occasionally is, though he did get a “day job”) an actor.
    We never read great novels when I was growing up. But my childhood was filled with all of the performing arts: concerts, plays, operas, musicals… and church.
    To me, religion is one of the greatest of all of the performing arts. A great hymn, or a great sermon, moves me in the same way as a great play.

    Religion is a central part of my cultural identity and cultural heritage. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

  28. Good story Pseudonym. When arguing religion, people forget how important “identity” is. People’s minds will do whatever it can to protect it.

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