The psychology of religion is the study of religion from the human psychological point of view. Those who study religion from the psychological perspective are interested in three primary areas that may be broadly characterized as past, present, and future.
Past: What psychological factors gave rise to particular religious beliefs in various societies and cultures, or what psychological factors were responsible for a particular individual’s adoption of certain religious beliefs? For many who study the psychology of religion, all religious belief can be explained by natural human psychology without any reference to divine intervention. For instance, some psychologists see the belief in God as an attempt to feel more secure in a dangerous world. People have “invented” a benevolent higher power as a coping mechanism because it would be too scary to think that no one is in charge or that no one is looking out for them. This would be a psychological explanation of the origins of religion. An individual’s conversion to a particular religion might similarly be explained in psychological terms of crisis and guilt avoidance.
Present: What is the psychological impact of specific attitudes and practices in a religious community or individual? When a person joins a religious group, it often seems to result in improved mental health. What part of this is due to natural psychological consequences of uniting with others in common cause and having a feeling of belonging, and what (if any) is the result of divine intervention? If Christians are found to be more loving and self-sacrificing (compared to other religions or to the behavior of the individuals before they became Christians), most Christians would attribute this to the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives (see Galatians 5:22–23). However, someone studying Christianity from the standpoint of human psychology might explain this phenomenon in terms of common values emphasized within the group or an attempt to avoid the guilty feelings that arise when one fails to measure up to an expected standard of behavior.
Future: What are the likely psychological consequences of religious belief and practice for the individual and for society? The psychology of religion attempts to predict consequences of religious belief. Based on their research, psychologists might anticipate that a particular belief will cause those who believe it to respond in a certain way. For instance, people who believe that the end of the world is imminent might be more likely to withdraw from society. Studies may also show that people who have experienced forgiveness of sin are more likely to live happy, productive lives. In more recent years, psychologists have questioned certain Christian practices such as spanking their children or exposing them to the gruesome details of crucifixion, predicting harm to the children and to their future families. It seems quite possible that one day certain Christian beliefs, such as belief that homosexuality is immoral, will be deemed psychological disorders.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with studying the psychological aspects and effects of Christianity, a bias is introduced if it is assumed a priori that there is no supernatural aspect to Christianity and that everything can be explained by natural psychological concepts.
It is important to realize that there is no sharp dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural worlds. It is indeed true that many people do become religious and may even become genuine Christians because the weight of the world is pushing in upon them and they realize they cannot control things on their own. God is their only hope. It is this truth (and even the feelings that go along with it) that God may use to bring them to Himself. Christians emphasize mutual accountability among believers. Church discipline (Matthew 18:15–20) is meant to bring pressure upon a professing Christian who is involved in sinful activity. No one would deny that this pressure is at least in part psychological and that it may be one of the means that God uses to bring errant Christians to repentance. The identification of a psychological component in religious belief does not rule out the divine. God frequently uses “natural” means to accomplish spiritual results.
Christianity has a great many psychological benefits, and these are some of the things that initially attract people to it. We would expect something that is true to have positive psychological benefits. Furthermore, religious convictions are not the only convictions that have psychological components. It is quite possible that many psychologists of religion arrive at their conclusions because they are members of an academic community that exerts great psychological pressure to conform to scientific naturalism.
In the final analysis, Christianity does not stand or fall based on the psychological benefits that it provides Christians. Christianity is based on the historical life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus.