The Psychology of Religious Belief

USA TODAY, March 2016 | Go to article overview

The Psychology of Religious Belief


Throughout history, scholars and researchers have tried to identify the one key reason why people are attracted to religion. Some have said individuals seek religion to cope with a fear of death; others call it the basis for morality. Various other theories abound. A psychologist who has studied human motivation for more than 20 years suggests that all of these theories are too narrow. Religion, he maintains, attracts followers because it satisfies all of the 16 basic desires that humans share.

"It's not just about fear of death. Religion couldn't achieve mass acceptance if it only fulfilled one or two basic desires," says Steven Reiss, professor emeritus of psychology at Ohio State University, Columbus, and author of The 16 Strivings for God: The New Psychology of Religious Experiences. "People are attracted to religion because it provides believers the opportunity to satisfy all of their basic desires over and over again. You can't boil religion down to one essence."

Reiss' theory of what attracts people to religion is based on his research in the 1990s on motivation. He and his colleagues surveyed thousands of people and asked them to rate the degree to which they embraced hundreds of different possible goals. In the end, the researchers identified 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.

He then developed a questionnaire, called the Reiss Motivation Profile, which measures how much people value each of these 16 goals. More than 100,000 people have completed the questionnaire. The research is described in Who Am I? The 16 Basic Desires that Motivate Our Action and Define Our Personalities.

"We all share the same 16 goals, but what makes us different is how much we value each one. How much an individual values each of those 16 desires corresponds closely to what he or she likes and dislikes about religion."

A key point is that each of the 16 desires motivates personality opposites and those opposites all have to find a home in a successful religion. …

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