Among the central tasks of the psychology of religion is to give an explanation of the origins of religious belief based on human psychology. By examining the human mind, it has often been thought, we can discover why it is that people believe in God. The idea is that religious belief is not a result of a recognition of an external reality but rather arises from inward patterns of thought, it emerges from the mind. Religion is not revealed to us; rather, it is invented by us. Proper understanding of psychology provides a naturalistic explanation of religion, an explanation of why we believe in God that does rely on the idea that God exists.

Not all psychologists of religion have been hostile to religion, but many have. The approach to the origins of religion that assumes the psychogenesis, rather than the revelation, of religion, is naturally seen as a threat to religious belief. If an explanation of how human psychology naturally gives rise to religion, irrespective of whether or not God exists, is available, then believers must surely regard their own beliefs with suspicion. Psychology would not only have explained religion; it would also have explained it away.

The two most influential theories of the psychogenesis of religion are those of Ludwig Feuerbach and Sigmund Freud. Both are set out here.

Ludwig Feuerbach: Theology as Anthropology

Ludwig Feuerbach took up the ancient idea that religion is man-made, and sought to give it a psychological foundation. God, according to Feuerbach, is a projection our deep-seated anxieties; to understand it, we must understand ourselves; theology is anthrophology. The reason that mankind invented God, he argued, is to cope with our insecurities. In particular, we fear death; religion offers us consolation in the form of an afterlife. Religion is this a projection of our deep-seated anxieties.

Sigmund Freud: Religion as Wish-Fulfilment

Sigmund Freud offered both historical and psychological explanations of the origins of religion. Freud built on Feuerbach’s idea of God as a projection of human desires, but developed the psychology that underpins it. For Freud, religion is wish-fulfilment. Religious belief is a reversion to childish patterns of thought, with God replacing the biological father as the source of the forgiveness and security for which we all long.