Is God a Psychological Phenomenon?

Please don’t take the title as pejoratively as it sounds. I’m working on my always-in-progress-but-never-done systematic theology project. I could do with knowing if there are any ways in which you can think that monotheists (particularly Christians) understand God as other than an internal subjective psychological actor.

I can think of just one. The doctrine of ongoing creation. That the natural cosmos is dependent for its continual existence on a creative act of God. That without a continual and direct intervention of God, the physical laws of the universe would not hold from Planck-time to Planck-time. This, as a doctrine, is obviously non-psychological.

I should add that I’m explicitly allowing myself to deny the existence of miracles, by an argument from the complete lack of any evidence for them (i.e. they are potentially verifiable, and therefore are not part of any sensible modern theology).

It seems to me the theologies I’m reading talk about the agency and actions of God, but all those actions are purely psychological. God may be personally redemptive and transformative, he may free someone from the guilt of sin, or promise them eternal life to come. He may appear in revelation or in visions, he may reveal information or provide mental or emotional resources for his adherents, he may provide spiritual gifts or new abilities.

But I haven’t found modern theologians wanting to claim that God directly and super-naturally impinges on the world independent of people.

Even as understood by believers, God’s stage is in the psyschology of human beings. Is that fair? Or can you think of a theological claim that could be made by mainstream liberal theologians where God currently acts otherwise?



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17 responses to “Is God a Psychological Phenomenon?

  1. in answer to your title question: could be. i can think of another doctrine that goes along with the creation, which would be the doctrine of progressive revelation. as my denomination states “God is still speaking.”

    we were talking about faith the other day, and i had this idea that “what if all that we call god is just what is generated between people?” as Jesus stated, when two or three are gathered… so what if there’s some sort of energy field or feedback loop that is established that is more than the sum of the parts? this is just empty speculation at the current moment.

    as for miracles, i like the ICP song of the same name, a little tongue-in-cheek song that actually reveals a greater truth for me.

  2. Ian

    “doctrine of progressive revelation”

    That would be progressive revelation to people, as inspiration or visions. Which I think is psychological. Again that’s not meant to trivialise and dismiss it, just to try to understand it.

    “what if all that we call god is just what is generated between people?”

    Well that is *exactly* what I’m arguing! I think that is true. That God is a meta-cognitive phenomenon. God is ‘all in the mind’ if you want to put it dismissively, but is actually a rather complex system of psychology running across millions of minds simultaneously, with its own agency. I argue that this means that God as an identity is rather blurry. God is different things and has different scope depending on how you define it. But at some useful levels God is a function of lots of people’s thoughts and other psychological experiences.

    I think this provides a superb model for understanding why it is that the work of God is psychological (how could it otherwise be), and at the same time indispensably communal (the interesting dynamics we could call God require a certain irreducible complexity of inter-relating psychologies).

    So yes. I agree. And I’m thrilled to hear you say that (regardless of whether you end up deciding that is the case).

  3. it has been a thought i’ve been rolling around in my head. after all, my main image of God is not a being, but the ground of being, to quote Tillich. an energy, not a ‘man in the sky.’ i am also happy to see you state ” a rather complex system of psychology running across millions of minds simultaneously, with its own agency.” the agency part esp. the big sticking point with me on psychology and sociology is the explanation (or lack thereof) for archetypes and zeitgeists.

    good stuff amigo.

  4. John Clavin

    I would say yes, most definitely! In fact the form of god is dependent on how the human mind operates. If we were to discover sentient beings that evolved on another planet, in about the same time period as our evolution, they would have a completely different idea of god. That is if they even had a word for “god.”

  5. “Agency”?
    I must be dull, I still don’t get your ambition, Ian. But I am glad Ghost (appropriately) excitedly feels the same as you.

    To me, the notion of “God” (as sound) operates the same as “Country” or “Family” to some people. Some people may use “Nature” or “Science” — a word that triggers a notion of belongingness, community, meaning, methods and emotions tied with all that. A word that is abstract enough to act as glue for a lot of other abstractions. Such a layer hierarchy of abstraction then almost seems alive, like an agent, so that you feel you are relating to it.

    (PS – I still never get notified even though I follow comments — your software does not like me)

  6. Ian

    (The PS – I think you might have accidentally clicked ‘block subscriptions’ on the email, because you were down on the voluntary block-list. I’ve removed you. Subscriptions should get through again now).

    I agree. Country or Family (or particularly, in my experience) Company can act in the same way.

    You’re right in that I think those things are happening. But I suspect that something else is at work also. There is emergent behavior at a certain level of complexity. That behavior has dynamics, and some of those dynamics are directly the cause of some of the properties of God and religion that are appreciated by their believers. That isn’t magical, supernatural, or anything other than a pure function of interacting individuals. As in all emergent systems the whole is only made up of its parts, but the dynamics of the whole can be very different from the the dynamics of the parts.

  7. Ian, He wants you for a sunbeam – does that count?
    Actually I largely agree with your thesis here, and it certainly opens the door to “Christian Humanism”…

  8. I recently did a series of posts examining some more modern or progressive conceptions of ‘God’ (so far it’s been a mostly Christian series, but I’m hoping to expand it).

    With the writers I did look at, God was almost always defined in terms of ‘relationship’ rather than in terms of a ‘being’. So they might get a little squeamish with your ” God’s stage is in the psychology of human beings” and instead try something like “God’s stage is what is between people or between things”. I think there is a kind of pingback to the Christian assimilation of ‘love’ involved, too. In any respect, the game has to do with our psychology and behavior.

    As for other theological claims, there is panentheism, I guess — where God resides and is infused in each atom and acts through each atom. I’m not exactly sure what use that claim may be though, other than maybe making everything sacred and full of agency.

  9. Ian

    Thanks Andrew. That is interesting. For some reason your blog isn’t loading now, so I can’t find the articles, but I will tomorrow. When you say ‘between things’ can you say more about how that would be the case (i.e. distinct from between people / between a person and a thing).

    Panentheism, yes, that’s also a good point. It is very difficult to really pin down Panentheism, at least in my experience. To the extent that, if God is the CosmosPlus, what is the Plus bit? The very few conversations of any depth I’ve had with genuine panentheists, their position seems to fluidly shrink to a kind of pantheism on deeper analysis. I wonder what claims of God’s agency could be made about the Plus? I genuinely haven’t heard anyone make any. Which is more than likely my ignorance around non-Christian religious views.

  10. Oh dear. The site seems fine when I call it up. Maybe I’ve been leaving type-os in my profiles or links…

    I like your use of the phrase ‘CosmosPlus’. I’m afraid my analysis of panentheism may be no deeper than yours. A number of Christians are adopting this view, however. Fluidity definitely seems part and parcel of the claims of that group. One thing that seems to come up with panentheists, from my experience, is that God set everything in motion but also depends on everything to act. God/Everything is still in the process of figuring itself out by seeing what happens when separate bits act independently. Comparisons have been made to jazz music, improv theater and communal dance where planned, controlled, expected things aren’t the point. Instead, everything takes part in the steering, calling, responding, etc. [As to claims, yea I don’t know what is gained by this except as I said, maybe agency and sacredness.]

    The “between things” deal — I’m probably not the best for explaining this out but I’ll give some weak comparisons. In a water molecule, there are the parts (hydrogen, oxygen) and the bonds between them. Without the bonds, we wouldn’t call it water. In a simple model for an atom, there are the parts (electron, proton, neutron) and the relationships between each of them that create the system. Without the relationships between the parts, we wouldn’t call it a hydrogen atom. Between people, there are relationships that create meaning and purpose. I guess this would work the same between a person and an object, though. Without those relationships, or that construction of order, there wouldn’t be a sense of meaning or purpose.

    So, (I’m going to try to tie this back to your God as psychological phenomenon idea) God isn’t so much a physical thing or super-physical being, but rather the bonds or the relationships between things. The order we hope is keeping it all together? And so I guess it's psychological in the sense that we act according to the relationships we have with things. This explains, in part, why a lot of religious talk is about the importance of "community" – strengthening the network of those relationships, inclusivity and exclusivity, etc.

    I'm not really sure why we would have to put God there though. Maybe because the general public can’t buy the idea anymore that a supreme being would look like a mountain…

  11. Andrew, bullseye! “God is” the relationships. Where 2 or 3 are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst. Maybe Christian atheism is closer to Jesus than people think…

  12. Pingback: God…? « Xn Realists

  13. Ian

    Andrew – your site is back now. May have been a connection problem on my end.

    Thanks so much for the more detailed explanation. I appreciate that it can be hard to give the best account of something if you’re not convinced of it yourself. The panentheism model is fascinating, and the links with process theology are quite obvious when you put it that way.

    The question of ‘why put God in there’ is an important one, I think. Why call something God that doesn’t match the everyday definition of God. It think the answer to that is to tap into an existing set of affections for God. Its a practical thing. If Whitehead (the originator of Process theology) had called these relationships “Bod”, then his work would have been basically irrelevant. By linking it into the history of though about God it has a context. I think that’s all there is to it. I don’t think Whitehead’s god or the pantheistic god are the same kind of thing as the prima facia Christian god.

    @Shane, Zero1 made that same observation too – in fact he’s just written a post on it on the Christian Non-Realist blog.

  14. Whew! So there was some sense in my comment.

    Disclosure: I do admit that my own personal agenda with my site is to “tap into an existing set of affections for God.” I am trying to generate a kind of religious anarchy, or maybe religious libertarianism, where all ideas of authority are severed from religious thought. I figure playing with the ideas, getting in the sandbox and messing with the language, changes those allegiances to the everyday definition and authority of words.

    Oh, and by the way… I believe in Bod!

  15. Jakob

    Sorry, I am (a) Catching up so hopelessly out of date and (b) Amateurish in comparison to some of the intelligent comments. However, neither point will stop me.!.

    It seems a barrier to this type of interpretation of God is that we associate psychological phenomena with imaginary entities (“…it was all just in his head…”) but I see it differently. This type of God is just as real as the table I am resting this laptop on because that table is also a psychological phenomena (before my mind gets involved it is just a strange arrangement of dead wood).

  16. Does the same also apply to the laptop? Or to you?
    (Answer: Yes!)

  17. The idea of god is a socio-psychological phenomenon. It’s individual, and it’s collective at same time.

    The individual inner experiences, as voices, visions, ghosts, changes in mood and body, are sort of pre-confirmation (pre-belief) of the sentiment: ”yes, it was there all the time, I wasn’t seeing him yet”. But they aren’t fully convinced yet. They need something more. Let’s see.

    The full confirmation is when individuals share their experiences TOGETHER, and they become shocked when ”he” AFFECTS SOCIALLY this real world. In fact, they themselves make their ”god” move like a marionette, a mind puppet, but they didn’t realize that ”he” is moving alive deep inside in their minds, that they themselves are making those social changes (and individual inner changes also), so…they conclude that effectively ”he” exists, because: ”he can make things in the real world or society”.

    They can’t distinguish reality events from subjective thoughts. This is dangerous.

    So, they fully confirm their pre-belief as it becomes ”collective”, with a cognitive bias: if I can feel it, and others can feel it too, so ”he” is real.

    They can ”see” how it affects the world, even when a random earthquake hits a place, they can ”see him” provoking it, because they wish it that way. Here is the moment when they confirm 100% their belief as something ”real” and alive. They can see ”him” doing things in this our world. An insane confirmation bias.

    It’s a crazy delusional method of interpreting/decoding life. Believers are much into apophenic train of thoughts, connecting events with subjective interpretations that makes’em feel secure about their pre-belief. They’re constantly feeding pre-belief, to then reach the full confirmation, everyday. Faith is not a natural human habbility, it needs daily psychological work as it goes beyond human Nature.

    No human is born knowing of ”spirit” or ”god”. It’s imposed or teached in our early years. So, god is not a natural thing or an inborn value. Is man made social activity.

    I think that believers are mostly, human beings with a low self esteem, so they need the care and protection of a mental archetype (dad) that gives’em security, and makes’em feel more ”important”. A broken or inconcluded ego who fears the death and hell, needs DISCIPLINE, attention, and care. That’s why they get into churchs and sects and surrender to their leaders or guru’s in a volitive self-enslavement.

    In the other hand, atheism is a concept MADE BY BELIEVERS, to identify other people that doesn’t live their OWN lives based on ”beliefs”. It means ”without god inside”. Ironically, believers HAVE NOT a god inside. It’s their imagination of it, but it’s not real. So when they identify others as ”atheists”, they’re projecting THEMSELVES in others, but in a negative way, they feel negated, unreal, rejected, because they do not live in the real world, just in their imaginations and delusions.

    Some people (many, as I do) do not need to believe in a rock, or in the sun, or the universe….they just ARE, independently of any ”belief”. The Sun, our star, it doesn’t disappears if I decide to not believe in it! It’s still there.

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