Religion as psycho-social glue


Religion is not merely a cluster of truth propositions or doctrines that believers embrace. Sure, religious professionals may want their members to fervently believe their doctrines, and believers themselves may confess that they believe, but most religiosity (the way people actually hold their religion) is much more complex.

As I said here, beliefs are often used to support social relations in our lives and to strengthen our identity and psychological security more than they are to actually declare something we feel true. For instance, many people simply use the self-identity as “Christian” as a way to tie together these important elements in their life. To such people, if their specific Christian beliefs are severely challenged, they don’t throw out their identity as “Christian” but instead reshuffle, re-organize and re-theologize their beliefs so as to keep the label “Christian” intact.

My illustration above is my attempt to capture these thoughts visually.

Questions for readers: Did I succeed? Any challenges? Are you seeing how theories of religion matter?

Extra-reading: for a list of other explanatory theories of religion see Cris Campbell’s list here.



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

20 responses to “Religion as psycho-social glue

  1. The vast variety of differences in doctrine serves also to create a tribal identity. Us and them. Just one example: in the Seventh Day Adventist Church, which has a doctrine of meeting on Saturday rather than Sunday, they go so far as to interpret the Mark of the Beast in the book of Revelation as a state mandate to worship on Sunday, which essentially consigns all non Adventists to eternal hell fire.

  2. @ Linuxgal,
    Yep, social glue and tribalism capture similar processes.
    But so can secular mechanisms do the same.
    Given your handle you may agree that “Apple Fans” may get lots of data about the Apple’s nefarious nature but since they are invested, they reorganize their beliefs just enough to remain an Apple Fans.

  3. Growing up, the aspect of religion as providing a community was something that I found of value. This is perhaps why, after dropping religion, I do not have any regrets about those years of engagement with religion.

    Today, I am a member of the community of mathematicians, the university community, the community of academics and researchers (encompassing all universities), the open source software community.

    There are communities all around us. That aspect of religion — providing a community — is no longer as important as it once was.

  4. @ Neil,
    Indeed ! Did you see Tom Rees’ review of research hinting that The Internet is Leading People away from Religion?
    If it is true it is because of community (as you say) and easier information.

  5. Sabio, I think your example of the Apple fans as tribal is not an ideal example. I think in this case it’s more practicality, less team loyalty. Apple has total control of their hardware and software, which ensures that it just works with no fiddling required. Apple fans pay a premium for that, but it allows them to just get busy. To them the operating system should be neither seen nor heard. Microsoft has total control of their software, but relies on third parties to provide hardware. This means the manufacturers have to provide drivers to make their printers and scanners and such to work with Windows, which results in endless compatibility problems, but the end user pays less. Linux is the wild, wild west. Linux fans are completely on our own. But this means I can take an old used PC I get for just $40 and turn it into a complete workstation.

  6. @ Linuxgal,
    Well, I am sure my analogy is far less than ideal — I was just reaching to make a point, but hopefully you can see my point and come up with other secular examples.
    My son (14 yo) will be trying to build his own computer this summer and will only use Linux on it — and suggestions — how to get started. He is shooting for power, speed, memory but he is not a gamer.

  7. Puppy Linux, uses a CD to boot, runs entirely in RAM, then you can pull the disk out and use the tray to watch movies and such. Has everything you need, but can run in less than 256 meg of memory, and if you don’t like it you can get a different version of Puppy and run that, nothing is ever installed, except a file to save your preferences and the files you create or save.

  8. F. Aetius

    I think this post fundamentally misses the point of faith. The social glue of faith is, of course, important, but you seem to be dismissing that believers…well…believe. Religion’s power lies in its followers confidence (or faith?) that it has something objectively true to say about reality.

  9. @ F. Aetius,
    For some believers that is indeed true, but this post is emphasizing the way most believers really use their religion. But yes, certain fundamentalists and others hold bizarre beliefs that hugely change the way they interact with their world. Thanx for the comment. But I don’t think my post misses that if you read carefully.

  10. @F.Aetius,
    On your blog you wrote: “However religion is a human construct which reflects humanity, not drives it. It isn’t the problem; it is a symptom.”
    I agree that this is often very true. Often it is not the religion itself driving the critter but deeper principles. When the critter changes, the beliefs follow. My diagram is meant to reflect this religious phenomena too. I think Durkheim pointed out something like this in the 1800s.

  11. F. Aetius


    “But yes, certain fundamentalists and others hold bizarre beliefs that hugely change the way they interact with their world.”

    I think you too readily dismiss the confidence that mainstream believers have in their beliefs. By focussing on fundamentalists in this way you risk insulting the strength with which less strident theists hold their beliefs. Have you asked any? I have, and whilst I acknowledge that faith provides a vital social glue, it’s ability to bind people together as tightly as it does is founded in the certainty of their beliefs.

    You agree with me in my blog that “often it is not the religion itself driving the critter but deeper principles.” But that is but half of the story. Like all aspects of human culture, it feeds on out innate fears and desires, but unlike virtually all others, it lays claim to truth that enables it to remain embedded in human society for far longer than any secular equivalent. Science, of course, shares with religion a desire to comment on the nature of reality, but unlike faith, it doesn’t offer the social glue that you describe. But the tenacity of faith lies in both of these facets: truth and social adhesion.

  12. @ F. Aetius,
    We essentially agree and I have no idea why you think we differ.
    Oh, and yes, I talk to believers a lot and I use to be one.

  13. F. Aetius


    I’m sure we would agree on most things, but I think this is a hair worth splitting. The sociological aspects of faith are entirely secondary, and a product of its claim for veracity. Any secular movement that seeks to have a similar hold on social interaction inevitably mimicks religions in this regard (e.g. Marxism).

  14. @F,
    I think I see part of your objection. You think I am saying that religion IS ONLY psycho-social glue.

    Yet my post says:

    “Religion is not merely a cluster of truth propositions…”

    “ …. most religiosity … is much more complex”

    “beliefs are often? used to support social relations…”

    “ .. many people ….. To such people ….”

    I couldn’t have been more careful to avoid the criticism you make.

    So here is how I see it:

    I said, “Religion does A & B … and today, I will talk about A.”

    You criticize, “Hey, religion does B!”. Then you say louder. “Religion is primarily B!”

    If that is the conversation, we are talking past each other.

  15. F. Aetius


    No, that’s not the conversation. I’m implying (no, actually, I’m being explicit) that the social function of religion is insignificant without its truth claims. This post wouldn’t work if you referred to a given secular social phenomena as they are fleeting in comparison with faith.

  16. @ F,
    OK, well then we may make progress but we have to sort things out a bit because I have to be clear on what you are saying, since you feel hair-splitting may be important. For I think my illustration works very well for many secular parallels. But before I give examples, you have to remember this post is describing one function of religion which is can be clearly seen among many believers. For instance, you may disagree with my post here: “Most Christians Don’t Believe“.

    Now, for the secular parallels. I know Republicans whose political positions have changed drastically over the years — agreeing to rights for Gays, agreeing to some welfare safety, agreeing to some gun checks and even to voting Democrat when the Republican candidate pissed them off. Yet they still persist in identifying themselves proudly as a “Republican”. The same happens with the word “Patriot” and “American” though over the decades I have seen people completely revamp what that means — to the point of severely contradicting opinions of their youth. The list goes on.

    So, are we still disagreeing?

    You sound like the sort of atheists who want to declare loudly that “Religion is Faith!” and anything that hints that it is more complex is threatening to the “faith” component of religion that you feel is so destructive. That is my take — correct me if I am wrong. If so, and if you read this blog, I would think you would have objected earlier to many of my posts.

  17. I think the word “Christian” for instance can also be useful when paired with a modifier, such as “former” or “progressive” or “atheistic.”

    Community is important, even if its part of the process of changing or reflecting upon earlier iterations of that community, or simply to “debrief.”. Also, some people find it easier or more effective to create change from the inside of a community, and therefore use a title in a very loose sense. So it may be errant to assume anything at all about someone who plays within a certain title.

  18. debbiedarline

    I absolutely agree with your illustration!
    I believe that we often crave community so much that we tentatively adopt a set of “beliefs” that become our ticket to be allowed to join a particular community. Once we are “in the boat” we can adopt the correct words, actions, and behaviors that allow us to hold onto that “insider” status with it’s accompanying feelings of love and community. Even as questions about what we actually believe bubble up into our minds and cause us stress, the comfort of the boat feels so important that we can even start deluding ourselves into believing we don’t believe!
    I was in that boat for a season, and it was a very warm and comforting place to be. I think there are a LOT of people who use the label “Christian” to hold onto that elusive feeling of love and community. It is way scary to carefully examine our wonderfully familiar beliefs about almost anything!. It is not an easy task to climb up and ease out onto the edge of the boat, dive down into the “Daily Life” water (per your illustration), swim to the shore and then try to look back. Sweet little boat – I loved you so much – I will miss you!

  19. Yes, Sabio, you are onto something deeper about religion. I think the conversation about “religion” is much more complex than just attacking faith, church, or supernatural beliefs. Yet, this is difficult to unpack.

    I’m currently reading a book “New Age Religion and Western Culture”. I’m realizing how complex “religion” is. It’s not any one thing or even few things. For instance, the New Age “religious” worldview is closely wrapped up with Healing and Health, such as alternative therapies (eg. herbs, acupuncture, and message) and healthy, holistic living (eg. veganism, yoga, and environmental activism – GMOs and Monsanto is evil, etc.).

    New Age religions tie salvation closely to personal growth such as prosperity, abundance, and success in business, life, relationships.

    I think I see some similarity with some liberal Christians who also hold their beliefs in things like the prosperity gospel and holistic, alternative therapies.

    Hardcore atheists who just want to attack religion or faith without addressing believer’s psycho-social attachments or needs seem to have hit a wall in there ability to communicate with believers.

  20. @ CE,
    Yes, I agree, modifiers are a huge help. In my post on The Myth of Definitions, I discuss exactly that. Take a look if you have time.
    I agree, just because someone labels themselves “Christian” or “Republican” doesn’t mean you can think you have yet understood them at all.

    Exactly! Well said. You understood.
    Now, why will you miss me? Are you going somewhere?

    @ Scott,
    Yep, you got it to. I agree with what you wrote.

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