The Foundations of Faith – Why We Believe in God

I want to take some time to look at the existential condition of the person who believes in God. I want to talk about how we humans construct our moral belief system, and why this makes us particularly disposed to religion. What is at stake for the believer? What needs does a belief in God serve? I also have to say before I start that this says nothing about the truth of any particular religion. I myself believe that God exists, and I have my own understanding of how He and the world operate. I recognize, however, that these beliefs give me a great deal of emotional security and comfort. They serve a lot of needs for me and help me organize my world. I want to examine how this happens, and how it may happen similarly for other people.

The Human Belief Construct

People generally have intuitive responses to emotional dilemmas and institute logical frameworks as post hoc justifications for these responses. I argue that there is a particular anxiety or need for an organized and secure world which directs particular individuals’ emotional moral reasoning toward the acceptance of God or religion. Before discussing that, though, I should describe why it may be that people construct their beliefs in this particular way.

Freud’s notion of primary and secondary process thinking is useful in explaining this construction. It also provides a good framework for examining religious belief. To put it simply, secondary process thinking is characterized by logic and definition, while primary process thinking is characterized by emotion and vagueness. Secondary process thinking is what we are familiar with, what we can detect through self-examination. We know we engage in reasoning and deliberation, and we can follow these processes within ourselves. Primary process thinking, on the other hand, is largely conducted unconsciously. It does not abide by rules of logic, nor does it follow a clearly identifiable pattern. Stuart Younger explains:

“Primary-process thinking is carried out more through pictorial, concrete images; representation by allusion or analogy is frequent; and a part of an object may be used to stand for the whole. Similarities are not distinguished from identities, and mutually contradictory ideas can coexist peacefully. Primary-process thinking is a magical type of thinking. Not only may wish be equated with deed and fantasy with action, but the perpetrator of a crime or misdeed will be punished with the same injury he or she inflicted.”[1]

There is neurological evidence to support this model as well. Neurologically speaking, human reasoning is divided into levels. Moral issues are sorted through these levels depending upon whether they elicit an emotional or reasoned response from the brain. When faced with emotional problems, individuals respond instinctively. They do not respond based upon reasoning. Different centers of the brain are responsible for different types of reasoning, and therefore, result in different answers to the same normative questions. Joshua Greene argues that impersonal moral dilemmas elicit a response from the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for logic and cognitive reasoning, hence yielding to utilitarian ethics. The more personal or emotionally targeted dilemmas elicit a response from an emotional center of the brain, especially when these dilemmas present conflicts of deontological principles, or conflicts of duties. Using fMRIs to analyze this brain response, Greene and the members of his cognition lab currently maintain the validity of their hypothesis.[2]

Based upon their observations, Greene and his team argue that, “Moral dilemmas vary systematically in the extent to which they engage emotional processing and that these variations in emotional engagement influence moral judgment.”[3] Moral dilemmas, despite being based upon the same moral principles, engage the brain in different ways. Different questions result in varying amounts of emotional response from the brain. As a result, a human being’s moral judgment is affected.

I argue that religions have a unique ability to target primary process thinking in human beings. God focuses upon particular issues which are primarily relevant to people in an emotional rather than logical sense. Most examples of religious thought and discourse show examples of primary-process thinking, particularly those examples mentioned by Youngner. The important thing to note is that the primary process is the motivation behind the reasoning which is conducted under the auspices of the secondary process, and it is the motivation behind the actions which occur as a result. Robert Cooper explains:

“Consciousness thus appears as a moving force that advances on the unconscious, from which it gets its motive power. The secondary thinking of consciousness detects the vagueness and infinity of the unconscious primary process as ‘something missing’ and seeks to fill the gap by translating it into some kind of meaningful form, but since the gap always recedes, it denies consciousness its full presence in space and time while simultaneously creating consciousness and keeping it continually alive.”[4]

This moral construction makes people particularly susceptible to belief in God and religion. Religious ideology is ripe with material which targets primary-process thinking faculties. A belief in God serves to emotionally develop and construct a perspective on the world for the believer. Now, it is important to identify precisely what issues are being addressed by faith.

What’s at Stake with Faith?

In order to properly understand the believer, it is important to ask precisely what is at stake for a human being when he/she believes in God. Well, it may be that the condition of existing as beings in the world drives us to devise methods of organizing it so that we do not lose ourselves in it. We all have a primary desire for ontological security.[5] A belief in God helps to serve this organizational function. In this way, it does not have an epistemic foundation, but rather, it is an epistemic foundation which fastens itself to a person to order help organize their world.

Religious Symbols

It is important to identify the tools which religious beliefs use to target this organizational need. A belief in God, after all, is not a reasoned enterprise. Faith is not brought forward by a logical process or a concentration of will. Rather, it is elicited through the construction of a world. Frankl explains, equating laughter to faith, “If you want anyone to laugh you have to provide him with a reason, e.g. you have to tell him a joke.”[6] Similarly, if one is to belive in God, he/she must be provided with a reason, conscious or unconscious. Religious belief systems have an ability to target deeply relevant emotional issues for any human being through the use of pervasive cultural elements. This is to say that a belief in God serves to help organize the chaos of the primary-process in a number of ways, using common elements of a person’s existence as a functional being.

The first of these is the use of language and symbols. Religions use symbols to define the acting forces in the world, and they develop organizational systems for the universe based on their beliefs.[7] A brief examination of scriptural language shows its incredibly emotional nature. Religious language appeals to human emotions by framing often counterintuitive ideas in the forms of duties and obligations. The important thing to note is that this language serves an organizational function. It answer questions about what one should do and how one should act toward others. It helps one understand, emotionally at least, how to organize the different moral questions which arise throughout one’s life. The language helps to organize the world which is shaped by the belief.[8]

The example of ritual perhaps better illustrates precisely how belief in God targets the primary process. Nearly all religious systems contain a set of rituals or practices. The reasons for particular rituals, blood sacrifices being a good example, are often inexplicable or troubling. The answer given for why these rituals are conducted is often that it is what God, or whomever, would want. The belief which motivates such action is not reasoned. Rather, it is an emotional enterprise. Patton explains, “The Divine influences the human realm and expresses itself by generating human religious practices.”[9] It is evident that there is a primary-process function which is motivating secondary-process reasoning and consequent action in religious constructs. Yet again, however, the important thing to note is that these rituals serve an organizational function. They codify and reify the beliefs upon which they are based. Rituals make the beliefs tangible, and in so doing, legitimize them.

Up until this point, I have said that religious systems provide material for the primary-process faculties to feed on, but now I need to be more incisive and ask another question. What are the factors which allow religion to permeate so deeply into a person?

The Potential Motivations for a Belief in God

There is variety of reasons which may explain why people believe in God. Before beginning to talk about them, though, it is important to note that religious belief is not homogenous. One person’s motivations may be radically different from another’s. Although, I argue that they all share one common element; they all serve an emotional organizational function.

The first reason I will examine is the desire for parental affection. Weston LaBarre argues that a child’s emotional condition as a result of his/her experience with his/her parents is at the heart of the beginning of religion.[10] As evidence for this, La Barre utilizes the fact that we attribute maternal and paternal characteristics to God. He explains, “At times God has traits of the mother; but her psychic presence is more often discernible […] in the para-system magic. […] God most often is the psychic ghost of the father – eternal as his imago is in the unconscious mind.”[11] La Barre contends that people’s experiences with their parents and family inform their development of and adherence to particular systems. He argues, “At the base of every religion is the familial experience, and all religions consequently contain some basic oedipal story in their myths.”[12] It is no secret that religions are typified by parental themes. However, it is important to realize that these themes exist in the context of an organized relationship. Because God does not operate in a fashion similar to one’s parents, one can constantly receive desired love from Him and not have to reconcile contradictory actions, at least not actions which are immediately perceivable. A belief in God allows for the existence of a closed system in which one can constantly have the illusion of received affection. The relationship becomes simple, framed in, “if I do this I will be loved” terms. This desire seems to make sense because of the great weight of love. It may be, “the ultimate and highest goal to which [one] can aspire.”[13]

The next potential motivation for religion may be a desire for purpose and aversion of suffering. People often turn to God, in one fashion or another, in order to cling to the hope for a better future because they are currently suffering. This sort of answer for one’s suffering relies on the acceptance that one’s purpose may be beyond comprehension,[14] and that there is a higher power which has decided it. Frankl uses the examples of concentration camp victims to describe this dynamic, “In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen. […] They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom.”[15] Again, though, this search for alleviation and purpose exists in the form of an organized relationship. When it comes to a belief in God, it becomes divorced from the chaotic and uncertain context in which it previously existed. Rather, it gives one the image of something toward which to aspire, and instructions on how to aspire toward it. Frankl explains that religiousness should “be understood as a latent relation to transcendence inherent in man. If one prefers, he might conceive of this relation in terms of a relationship between the immanent self and a transcendent thou.”[16] Through a relationship with God, one can formulate an ideal existence, separate from the suffering of the current, and strive toward it.

A final motivation I choose to examine is the fear of death. People may attach themselves to a belief in God in order to avert a fear or anxiety about their own mortality. Death anxiety, or more aptly a fear of any sort of annihilation, may be a fundamental part of our condition,[17] and this may lead us to turn toward religion and God. Religion often serves the function of averting the awareness of death, and all religions contain some examination of it. This is particularly evident when religious societies are under attack, as interpretations have usually changed to accommodate the need to defend against the attack.[18] This becomes more strikingly clear in the case of the religious terrorist who conducts a suicide bombing. The fear of death needs to be overcome in this situation, or replaced with something of greater worth.[19] This aversion of a fear of death too, however, operates in the context of an organized relationship with God. People’s obligations and duties are outlined distinctly. “If I do this, I will be rewarded when I die.”

Before continuing, I most note an important point; these motivations are not mutually exclusive. They are definitely linked with one another, depend upon one another, and feed upon one another. A person who feels love may be using that love to feel immortal, or a person who seeks to transcend suffering may be doing it through the formulation of an ideal afterlife which addresses the fear of death. These motivations, and several others, exist dynamically in the primary process of the human being.

The Existential Condition of the Believer

We now arrive at the whole question; what is the existential condition of the person who believes in God? I outline this condition in three components, the three components which I have elaborated upon throughout my discussion. The first of these is the primary-process response mechanism to moral problems. People respond to moral questions emotionally and institute post-hoc rationalizations to justify these responses. This is the process by which beliefs are constructed. The next component is the need for organization to this primary process. The primary process thinking faculties of a person exist in a chaotic riddled mess which seeks answers and organization. We use a variety of mechanisms like language and rituals to serve this need to organize and develop an ontologically secure world devoid of ambiguity and uncertainty. The third and final component is the belief itself which uses these mechanisms to serve the need. A belief in God, or religion, is the epistemic foundation which develops the world of the believer. Things are seen and interpreted through the lens of a belief in God. It is a strictly emotional enterprise, motivated by intuitive moral responses, but it addresses the most relevant fundamental emotional anxieties of a human being and seeks to avert them through organizing an otherwise chaotic universe. The self is safe and immortal in the ontologically secure world constructed through a belief in God.

I hope that this discussion has gotten you thinking more deeply about religious beliefs and what people put on the line when they construct their beliefs. People of all beliefs and faiths, even atheists, are subject to their emotional drives. When we don’t understand these drives, communication becomes difficult, and we tend to judge quickly and harshly. A better understanding is the first step to opening the door for harmonious coexistence.


[1] Youngner, Stuart. “Some Must Die.” Zygon 38, no. 3 (2003). Younger’s summary is drawn from Brenner, Charles. Elementary Textbook of Psychoanalysis. New York. International Universities Press. 1973. I chose Youngner’s summary analysis because it does a particularly good job of highlighting many factors in primary-process thinking which are characteristics of religious thought and discourse. The idea of an “eye for an eye” is explicitly mentioned, along with the use of representation through analogy and the coexistence of contradictory ideas.

[2] Greene, Joshua. “An fMRI Investigation of Emotional Engagement in Moral Judgment .” Science 293(2001): 2105-2108. Print.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Cooper, Robert. “Primary and Secondary Thinking in Social Theory.” Journal of Classic Sociology 3, no. 2 (2033): 153

[5] Laing, R.D. The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness. Pelican. 1965. P. 41-43

[6] Frankl,Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992. p. 162

[7] Paden,William E.. Religious Worlds. 1 ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1988. pp. 53-54

[8] Ibid. p. 56

[9] Patton,Kimberley C. Religion of the Gods Ritual, Paradox, and Reflexivity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. pp. 239

[10] La Barre,Weston. The Ghost Dance. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, 1970. p. 12

[11] Ibid.

[12]. Ibid.

[13]  Ibid. 7 p. 58

[14]   Ibid. p. 52 – 59

[15]  Ibid. p. 56

[16] Frankl, Viktor. The Unconscious God: Psychotherapy and Theology. New York. 1975. p. 61

[17] Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: The Free Press, 1975.

[18] McTernan, Oliver. Violence in God’s Name. New York. Orbis Publishing. 2003. Ch. 3

[19] Khosrokhavar, Farhad.  Suicide Bombers Allah’s New Martyrs. London: Pluto Press. 2005. chapter 1

12 Replies to “The Foundations of Faith – Why We Believe in God”

  1. So you say you believe in God. Throughout this essay you frequently refer to God as an emotional construct, meant to satisfy emotional needs and one’s inherent need to organize the world around them. From that end, do you believe in the actual existence of a God, or just the emotional security provided by the belief in a God? Furthermore, do you think that same emotional security could be obtained by someone who only believes in that emotional security; in other words, someone who believes in God on a secondary process thinking level but not on a primary process thinking level?

    1. Thank you for reading and responding 🙂 I do actually believe in the existence of God as a being. However, I recognize that this belief is precipitated through emotional needs rather than a reasoned enterprise. I can come up with reasoned arguments for why it is more likely that God exists than doesn’t exist, but in the end, those are just post hoc rationalizations for what I already believe. Let me continue by clarifying that the term “emotional security” may be improper. People do not necessarily need to feel secure, although that is a possibility. There are a variety of emotional needs which can be satisfied through a belief in God, as I mention in the post. To answer your question though, genuine belief originates from the primary process. I am hard pressed to say that any person can believe in God on a secondary process thinking level alone. The emotional needs precipitate the belief in God, and then people develop rationalizations they can articulate to others. The problem is that people are not aware of their emotional needs and problems, so they become more vulnerable to violent and radical ideologies which prey upon their primary process faculties.

  2. GOD: DEFINED AS: the creator and ruler of the universe and source of all moral authority; the supreme being. I prefer the Arabic word for God: Allah because it reinforces the idea of strict monotheism. Allah has no gender and cannot be plural. God can. Goddess, gods, etc.

    Allah (or God) allows us to have a greater objective in life. The root reason to believe in a God isn’t for any pragmatic gain. It’s fundamentally for us to understand the purpose of our existence. To know what lies beyond our earth and universe. To know where we came from and where we are going. BUT to understand is to recognize the ultimate truth: One God. Without this quintessential truth, our world and existence becomes disconnected like a cellphone with no service, a computer with no human, a farm with no farmer, a home with no housekeeper, a world with no God.

    1. Maybe that is what God means to you, but you have to understand that not everyone emotionally constructs their faith the same way you do. For many, God is not necessary for a greater purpose. It is important to understand the needs that a faith in God, or any faith, serves. Your claim is a normative one which does not apply to everybody.

      1. Valid point. I still feel troubled with saying that God is only for emotional comfort or in that breath for any pragmatic purpose. It sounds like you’re using God as a means to an end, and not surrendering to God’s will. It’s not that I don’t acknowledge other people’s beliefs. It’s just I don’t agree with them. Surah Al-Kafirun expresses this distinction better than I ever could.

        1. Sure, and you are welcome to disagree 🙂 I appreciate what your faith means to you, and it’s important that you’re aware of that. That being said, I wonder what you mean by using God as a means to an end. Would you have the same beliefs if you didn’t believe the punishment of Gehenna was waiting for you? Do you submit to God’s will because of the love and absolute adherence to God, or because you fear the punishment and the Day of Resurrection? It’s a fine line between one’s faith being a means to an end and being a genuine adoption, and a line I don’t know is always clear.

      2. It’s not binary. I can’t begin to believe in heaven or hell without believing in the existence of a God. So sure. I do good so I can prepare for the hereafter, but every action I take is because I submitted my will to the will of Allah. Everyone is different. I may feel stronger sense of fear of hell than a hope for heaven. Maybe I am more spiritual or not so spiritual than most. The core idea which binds all this diversity is the strict monotheism (a.k.a Tawheed) which Islam supports.

        Examples of using God as a means to an end: I pray because it releases tension in my lower back. I fast Ramadan so that I can lose weight. I treat my parents well because they buy me more Eid gifts if I do. I read and educate myself because it leads to a successful future.

        At that point I am using Allah’s commandments to advance my own personal agenda which is fine, but I have diluted my faith as only (emphasis on the only) as a means to an end. It’s imperative that Muslims always draw their strength and give credit to Allah. Muslims can easily lose the core of what Islam is if all we focus on is worldly gains. Islam is a guide for all of humanity, so there should be some benefits in this world. Nonetheless, we act in accordance to God’s will because God said it. A scientist can tell people to fast in a journal just as Allah commands us to fast in the Quran. Whose word should we take? Allah or the scientist? The truth is we listen to both. Bottom line, once we acknowledge the power of source of everything in the universe, we must pay close attention to when the creator of the universe speaks to his creation.

        1. It’s an interesting perspective, and one I think many people share. Though I wonder if it’s the same perspective people should have as you say. There are many verses of the Quran which advocate faith and submission for fear of the hereafter, or for the hope of salvation, which could arguably be considered a personal end.

  3. That said, the ultimate truth leads to other truths such as language, mathematics, physics, astronomy, engineering, business, psychology, and philosophy etc.

      1. Valid point. The word “lead” is inappropriate. The simple point I meant to get across is that everything in the universe is connected to God.

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