Religious Contradictions: The Deeper Message

The faithful pray to a god of peace for assistance in winning wars. They fear the god who protects them. They seek personal fortune but pray to a god who blesses the poor.

Critics have long cited the contradictions of religion as indications of insincerity or possible hypocrisy. Based on my research on the psychology behind religious faith, however, I suggest otherwise. In my new book The 16 Strivings for God: The New Psychology of Religious Experiences (Mercer University Press, 2016), I suggest that the contradictions in religion are not theological errors but efforts to recognize what William James called the "varieties of religious experiences."

My colleagues and I have studied the psychology of motivation for 35 years. We have assessed the motives and values of about 100,000 people from the diverse cultures of Europe, North America and Asia. We asked people to agree or disagree with statements such as, "My honor is everything to me," "Romance is essential to my happiness," and "I love parties." We submitted our data to mathematical techniques designed to identify underlying themes. The results of all this research suggested new ideas on what it is that makes us tick and how our motives and values play out in spirituality and religion.

We discovered that the fundamental forces driving the human psyche come down to these 16 basic desires (also called psychological needs):

· Acceptance, the need for approval.
· Curiosity, the need for understanding.
· Eating, the need for food.
· Family, the parenting instincts.
· Honor, the need for character and morality.
· Idealism, the need for social justice.
· Independence, the need for freedom.
· Order, the need for structure.
· Physical activity, need for exercise.
· Power, the need for influence.
· Romance, the need for sex.
· Saving, the need to collect.
· Social contact, the need for friends and play
· Status, the need for social standing.
· Tranquility, the need for safety.
· Vengeance, the desire to confront those who offend or threaten.

My colleagues and I now believe that everything that moves us - all human motives, purposes, and goals- express one or more of the 16 basic desires. In the 15 years since we published our results nobody has found any psychologically significant motive that is left out of the list of 16 basic desires. The basic desire for power, for example, motivates achievement and work, whereas the basic desire for family motivates parenting. The pursuit of wealth is driven by a desire for status.

We all want the same things. Everybody prefers acceptance over rejection, understanding over confusion, order over chaos, belonging over isolation, significance over insignificance, safety over danger, and so on. But we have learned that human motives have two components: what we want and how much we want. Yes, everybody shares the same 16 basic desires, but we differ in how we
prioritize them.

The 16 basic desires make us individuals. Although everybody seeks understanding, honor, competence, respect, and so on, individuals differ in how much they value these goals. The mystic seeks a highly unusual degree of unity. Although many experiences convey a sense of unity, the mystical trace conveys the extreme degree of interdependence the mystic seeks. We have many options to experience humility but they do not humble us to the degree associated with the ascetic lifestyle. Many experiences convey a sense of honor but religious righteousness conveys an uncommonly intense sense of honor.

My colleagues and I examined how the 16 basic desires play out in spirituality and religion. We learned that the Judeo-Christian presentation of God is the greatest imaginable expression of 13 basic desires (all except the three pertaining to the body such as eating, physical activity, and romance.) Salvation, for example, is the greatest imaginable acceptance; omniscient is the greatest imaginable expression of intellectual desires; and Creation is the greatest imaginable achievement (which falls under the basic desire for power.)

We think of God as the greatest imaginable expression of our deepest values. This is, of course, as it must be. If it were otherwise we would be psychologically capable of imaging or inferring something greater than God, but we are not.

So what does our analysis suggest regarding the contradictions of religion? Human beings hold opposite values, contradictory motives, and opposite personality traits. Extroverts value fellowship and belonging but introverts value quietude and meditation. If religion were to teach that God blesses fellowship but frowns on solitude, extroverts would find meaning in its teachings but introverts would stay away in significant numbers. If religion were to teach that God blesses quite meditation but frowns on superficial socializing, introverts would find meaning in its teachings but extroverts would stay away in droves. Rather than serve the needs of one personality type at the expense of its opposite, religion contradicts itself to create a spiritual home for all who seek one. The message is inclusion: God created everyone, contradictory values and all.

We pray to a God of peace to win wars because some people value vengeance but others devalue it. Religion teaches the flock to fear the God who protects them because some people seek out the excitement of danger but others seek out uncommonly high degrees of safety. Religion offers theology for Thinkers but teaches divine revelation for Doers.

By embracing contradictory values, religion is teaching that God is for everyone. Inclusion is the greater value. Religion is saying that our common humanity and God trump all that divides us.