The Psychology of Spirituality and Religion
If there’s something psychology, spirituality and religion all have in common is that they all try to explain the unexplainable. And by this, I mean they try to explain the soul, the mind, and the spirit.
The main difference between the three is the hypothesis from which they approach the matter. However, if we are to distinguish between the three, we can say that psychology is the scientific approach that studies how the mind works and why we behave in specific ways.
On the other side, spirituality, and religion, as a form of spiritual practice, are preoccupied with the matter of the soul, the spirit and have little to no scientific backgrounds.
But there’s something about these two that appeal to the human consciousness. It appeals to that insatiable quest of the soul to understand itself, how it came into being in order to make sense of life.
What is psychology?
The word psyche is of Greek origin and it means spirit, while logos stands for reason, discourse or logic. In other words, psychology is the science that studies the logic of the spirit.
Ancient Greek philosophers first tackled psychology, but it was more food for thought than a science per se. Its purpose was to understand the workings of the mind from a logical, physical perspective.
Of course, back in the day, anything that had no reasonable, palpable explanation was considered that of the supernatural. The funny thing is that although psychology started as the “study of the spirit,” the science of psychology as we know it today has less to do with the spirit and more to do with cognition and behavior.
Although over centuries it made an excellent subject for philosophical debates, psychology has left a lot of things unanswered. Having come from the mind, it has remained there, within its limitations: with no other way to dissect it. And people needed more than a simple logical explanation for the illogical that doesn’t come from the brain, but the heart. Here’s where spirituality comes in.
Spirituality and the Psychology Behind It
From the early beginnings of civilization, people worshipped the elements. The sun offered light and warmth, water hydrated their crops and cleansed their body, the earth provided food and shelter, and the moon for lit up the darkest nights.
They needed something bigger than themselves to understand the things they couldn’t understand. Hence, they turned their attention outwards, to various gods that they believed to have supernatural powers. They started to worship and give sacrifices to these gods to receive blessings, favors and good fortune.
The psychological need for spirituality is the need for comfort in a higher power. A higher power to help us through life; help us understand life, death, misfortune, love and the things that are beyond us. There's acceptance in life and in death if you believe there is something bigger. Something that is out of our hands and uncontrollable.
Over time, the multitude of spiritual beliefs has molten together into only a few big religions around the world. This spiritual “globalization” happened slowly in time, through wars, crusades and cultural assimilations. It brought people together by tearing them apart so to say.
Religion, the Institutionalization of Spirituality
Although it started as a spiritual practice, religion was soon turned into an institution with strict rules and regulations, rather than a method to uplift the spirit and soothe the soul.
Religion became a weapon of control that those in power used to manipulate the poor, gullible and in most cases uneducated, to work for them and obey their rule. Guilt, shame, lack of worthiness and insignificance were the primary tools that religious rulers used to control the masses.
If we are to look at the psychology of religion, we see a lot of fear-based beliefs that make the core of most religions around the world. But the most crucial false idea that it spreads is that you are not enough as you are, that you need to do certain things and have a specific conduct for the higher power that created you “out of unconditional love” to save your soul. These beliefs were inoculated by the religious leaders as a form of power, control, and manipulation. And those beliefs trickled down into the individual person and showed up as fear, bigotry, hate, suppression, abuse, close-mindedness and ignorance.
Over the past decade or so, religion has slowly lost its power and mass appeal, especially in western societies. Many millennials will tell you that they are spiritual but not religious. People have slowly come to believe that religion is not the end all be all. That not all things are a religious matter nor should be governed by it. And if we look at the atrocities that occurred over time in the name of religion, it’s easy to see why people have come to this conclusion and are looking elsewhere for answers.
A radical shift away from religion to a more spiritual based practice began in 60’s and 70’s. During this time more people turned to the oriental practices and beliefs from the far east. Practices like meditation and yoga provided a different approach to spirituality: a nonjudgmental, gloom and doom approach to the spirit and one’s well being.
Although eastern spirituality seemed rudimental and old at first, their core beliefs spoke of walking the path of enlightenment as the primary purpose of life. Life finally had a fundamental purpose rather than an extrinsic one.
Spirituality, as we know it today, is about taking responsibility for your actions, following the universal principle according to which what you put out is what you get back. Once again things started to make more sense, and it seemed that people have found something to believe in, a path of their own.
The Soul vs. The Mind
Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. The question is this. How can we see the truth from the soul’s perspective if we filter everything through the physical mind? It’s clear to see that if we want to understand the spirit solely from a pure psychological perspective, we will eventually hit a dead end.
Whether we’re talking about the psychology of religion or that of spirituality, we can safely say that they both come from this urge for significance. This need to be of worth as an individual is the foundation of most spiritual practices and beliefs around the world. But when this spiritual need comes from a place of unworthiness, obsession, control, fear, and punishment- then it has more to do with the ego, the need for survival, the complexities of the mind, and not the soul.
When people follow a particular spiritual path to comfort their minds’ constant rumble and not to connect with their true selves, they will only create more separation, more discomfort and more fear in their lives. Religious leaders and spiritual fanatics too use forms of spirituality to distinguish themselves and separate themselves even more from those who believed otherwise. And this is a doing of the mind, and not of the soul. It can be many other things as well but it’s just not coming from a pure source.
In the end, whatever you choose to believe in, from a spiritual perspective, is perfectly fine, as long as it’s right for you and doesn’t harm others.
But there is one thing I believe is essential to pay attention to. And that is to make sure that the spiritual practice that you follow comes from a divine place of the heart and it’s unconditionally loving and caring. Otherwise, if it comes from the need to be of worth because you fear you are not, you may find yourself in another ego trap of the mind. And if being spiritual means judging others and separating yourself from them, then you are not doing it right. There’s is no one absolute spiritual practice. One doesn’t make you better or worthier than another.
The secret is that you are worthy enough and don’t need a spiritual or religious permission slip to add to that intrinsic value which makes you-you. Remember that fear comes from the limited mind and love comes from the heart. Choose love!