September 25, 2012

Richard Beck on the Nature of Religious Belief: A Summary


Experimental psychologist Richard Beck has spent much of his career showing that Sigmund Freud’s take on religion was partially, but just partially, correct. To be more specific, Beck has shown that not everyone who embraces religion does so in a subconscious attempt to stave off existential terror. Although most believers might fall under this category, he writes that many believe for non-defensive reasons; that is, many believers “fully recognize [their] existential situation” and “actively refuse to believe as a means to repress existential terror.”[1] 

Beck’s thesis is important, and I think believers and skeptics alike would do well to understand it. Many believers avoid some of the most important findings of psychology and consequently fail to understand themselves as they should. The end result is often faith that is unreflective and even harmful. Many skeptics, on the other hand, err too far in the other direction, condemning all religious belief as regressive and destructive and in so doing failing to understand the beneficial, perhaps indispensible, role that religion plays for many.

Defensive Believers

Beck points out that religious belief is uniquely suited to mitigate existential fear. That is to say, religious belief is especially effective at staving off the terror that results from realizing that there might not be a transcendent meaning to life and that we might not have incorporeal souls which survive death. Religion assures us that, “[d]espite appearances, life is inherently meaningful. Meaning and significance is granted by God and [our] particular existence is part of a Providential plan and design.” And religion assures us that death is not really the end, that “[t]here will be a blissful and eternal afterlife.”[2] 

Defensive believers—that is, those who believe primarily to mitigate such fear—“tend to be strongly convicted that they are ‘right’ and that those who disagree with them are ‘wrong.’”[3] This follows because, in order to mitigate existential fear, one needs a belief that is airtight, that is capable of providing assurance. A belief that leaves room for doubt, that acknowledges, for example, that there might not be an afterlife, isn’t going to very effectively repress such concerns. Defensive believers also tend to “assume a personal sense of cosmic ‘specialness,’”[4] seeing themselves as “protected, unusually blessed, and as having access to special insight or knowledge.” Again, this follows because defensive believers believe primarily to mitigate existential fear, and believing that your god is looking out for you, answering your prayers, etc., offers further assurance that God is control and that your life has meaning.[5] 

As proof that many embrace faith for primarily defensive reasons, Beck appeals to a number of psychological studies which confirm what terror management theorists refer to as the mortality salience hypothesis. Terror management theorists hold that people primarily adopt worldviews, both religious and secular, to mitigate their fear of death, perhaps the greatest existential fear. So the mortality salience hypothesis contends that, if terror management theory is true, “then asking people to think about their own mortality…should increase the need for the protection provided” by their worldviews.[6] Study after study has borne out this hypothesis. One study found that “[p]eople who believe in an afterlife become more confident in its existence after being reminded of death.” Another study found that people who believe in God become more confident in the existence of supernatural beings after being reminded of death. Still other studies found that religious people increase their “sense of disconnection from the natural world” and their belief in human souls after death reminders.[7] 

Especially relevant to Beck’s purposes is a 1990 study by Jeff Greenberg et al. In order to understand the findings of this study, it’s important to understand that, because worldviews are “humanly created concepts for which there is no concrete proof, faith in them depends heavily on consensual validation. When others share one’s worldview, it implies that it is correct and valid; when others reject one’s worldview or hold alternative beliefs, it implies that one’s worldview might be wrong. Consensual validation of religious beliefs from others may be especially important because religious beliefs tend to run counter to direct experience. Gods and spirits are, by their nature, generally invisible and always ineffable. Religious faith involves accepting and attaching great value to things that can neither be seen nor verified directly.”[8] 

Greenberg et al. reasoned as follows: if it’s true that (1) we hold worldviews to mitigate our fear of death and (2) faith in our respective worldviews is bolstered when we're around those who share our worldviews and diminished when we're around those who don't, then it should follow that (3) being around those who share our worldviews will mitigate our fear of death and being around those who don’t share our worldviews will exacerbate our fear. They reasoned that it should also follow that (4) we will be more likely to respond positively to those who share our worldviews and negatively to those who don’t and (5) reminding us of our mortality will inflame our fear of death and consequently cause us to respond even more positively to those who share our worldviews and even more negatively to those who don’t.[9] 

Greenberg et al. confirmed (5) by taking a group of Christian students and reminding half of them of death. They then asked all of the students to evaluate two questionnaires, one purportedly filled out by a Christian and the other by a Jew. It turned out that the students who hadn’t been reminded of death evaluated the Christian and Jewish writers equally, while those who had been reminded of death not only evaluated the Christian writer more highly but also denigrated the Jewish writer.[10] 

Existential Believers

Existential believers believe in God but, unlike defensive believers, they are “willing to sit with or even embrace the confusions, doubts, and anxieties of belief. That is, existential believers possess faith but fully face the fact that faith is, well, faith. Faith is not knowledge or certainty. Kierkegaard characterized this type of faith as a ‘leap’ undertaken with ‘fear and trembling.’ This ‘trembling’ is simply the consequence of not allowing faith to drift into a form of knowledge. As such, doubt remains a constant companion along the faith journey. Given this faith configuration, where no guarantees are attached to faith, the existential predicament of death remains present and unrepressed.” Also unlike defensive believers, “existential believers claim no protective buffer (i.e., they expect the proverbial rain—or lightening—to fall equally on the just and unjust), special insight (i.e., they find the future opaque), or cosmic destiny (i.e., they accept that they must make choices without clear information, guidance, or guarantee of success/blessing). All this contributes to their religious angst.”[11] 

In order to prove that existential believers in fact exist, Beck essentially recreated the Greenberg study, taking a group of Christian students and reminding half of them of death. But unlike Greenberg et al., Beck subjected the students to a series of surveys in an attempt to further divide them into existential and defensive believers.[12] Positing that those identified as existential believers did not believe in order to mitigate existential fear, Beck hypothesized that reminding them of death would not cause them to respond more positively to those who shared their beliefs and more negatively to those who didn’t.[13] 

Like Greenberg et al., Beck had his students read and evaluate two essays, one advocating Buddhism, the other advocating Christianity. In the end, he found that the existential believers rated the authors of both essays as equally attractive, even when they had been reminded of death. Meanwhile, he found that defensive believers rated the Christian author as being more attractive, even when they had not been reminded of death.[14] 

Existential Believers, cont’d
So, contrary to Freud, it seems clear that not everyone who believes in God does so in order to obtain existential comfort. Some individuals, Beck writes, “resist the retreat into religious illusions as well as the pull toward unbelief. They exist in the murky middle between belief and disbelief, between faith and unfaith.” Such individuals “resolutely sit with the wreckage and rubble of life, much like the biblical character of Job in the Old Testament, and call out to a God who doesn’t seem to care or answer.”[15] 

“Why,” Beck asks, “live with and endure these dissonances and ambiguities? Why suffer in this way? Why not simply let go of faith?” Because, he answers, “this is the only way they can remain truthful to their lived experience. The pieces of life and the life of faith are not so easily fit together. There are gaps, there are missing pieces, and someone has taken away the puzzle box showing us the grand scheme of things…Life resists our attempts at putting the pieces together, intellectually and emotionally.” But for existential believers, Beck continues, “some piece of the puzzle is their experience of God, the Divine, and the transcendent. The movement toward disbelief is untenable for [such individuals] because it would involve ignoring these pieces within their life experience,” just as their life experiences prevent them from becoming dogmatists, “the too easy belief that life makes sense, that the pieces of the puzzle are easily fit together.” Consequently, the existential believer “lingers, perhaps for a lifetime, in this ambiguous location, holding onto pieces, God among them, that don’t quite fit together.”[16] 

Beck also argues that existential faith can serve as an antidote to hatred and violence. As we’ve seen, defensive believers tend to react negatively to those who don’t share their beliefs. Outside the laboratory, these negative reactions can take several forms—derogating those who are different, trying to convert them, or “obliterating them entirely” and in so doing “demonstrate[ing] that one’s own cultural worldview is indeed superior after all. From this perspective, humankind’s long and sordid history of violent inhumanity to other humans is thus understood as (at least in part) the result of a fundamental inability to tolerate those who do not share our death-denying cultural constructions.”[17] Given all this, it seems to follow that existential believers are “better positioned to approach Others with warmth, curiosity, and a spirit of hospitality.” Moreover, by “exposing oneself to the suffering, pain, and ambiguities of life is that the exposure allows one both to see and stand in solidarity with those who are suffering.”[18], [19] 

* * * * * 


[1] Richard Beck, “The Function of Religious Belief: Defensive Versus Existential Religion,” Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 2004, Volume 23, Number 3.

[2] Beck, The Authenticity of Faith: The Varieties and Illusions of Religious Experience (Abilene Christian UniversityPress: Abilene, Texas, 2012), 64.

[3] Richard Beck, “Defensive versus Existential Religion: Is Religious Defensiveness Predictive of Worldview Defense?” Journal of Psychology and Theology, 2006, Volume 34, Number 2.

[4] Beck, “The Function of Religious Belief: Defensive Versus Existential Religion.”

[5] Beck, “Defensive versus Existential Religion: Is Religious Defensiveness Predictive of Worldview Defense?”

[6] Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, Handbook of Experimental Existential Psychology, ed. Jeff Greenberg, Sander L. Koole, and Tom Pyszczynski (New York: The Guilford Press, 2004), 20.

[7] Kenneth E. Vail, Zachary K. Rothschild, Dave R. Weise, Sheldon Solomon, Tom Pyszczynski, and Jeff Greenberg, “A Terror Management Analysis of the Psychological Function of Religion,” Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2010, Volume 14:84.

[8] Ibid. 

[9] Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski, Handbook of Experimental Existential Psychology, 18

[10] Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon, Abram Rosenblatt, Mitchell Veeder, Shari Kirkland, and Deborah Lyon, “Evidence for terror management II: The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who threaten or bolster the cultural worldview,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, February 1990, Volume 58:2.

[11] Beck, “The Function of Religious Belief: Defensive Versus Existential Religion.”

[12] Beck, first, had his subjects take the Quest Scale, which seeks to measure (1) one’s “readiness to face existential questions without reducing their complexity,” (2) one’s “self-criticism and perception of religious doubts as positive,” and (3) one’s “openness to change” (i.e., one’s openness to changing his or her religious beliefs) [C. Daniel Batson and Patricia A. Schoenrade, “Measuring Religion as Quest: 2) Reliability Concerns,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1991, 30: 4.]. As the designers of the Quest Scale write, one who scores high on the survey is “honestly facing existential questions in their complexity, while at the same time resisting clear-cut, pat answers. An individual who approaches religion in this way recognizes that he or she does not know, and probably never will know, the final truth about such matters. Still, the questions are deemed important, and, however tentative and subject to change, answers are sought” [C. Daniel Batson and Patricia A. Schoenrade, “Measuring Religion as Quest: 1) Validity Concerns,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1991, 30: 4).] So, in other words, those with high Quest scores are existential believers and those with low scores are defensive believers.

Beck also had participants take a survey that he himself designed, the DTS (Defense Theology Scale), meant to determine how cosmically special one feels. Those who score high on the DTS feel that they’re the beneficiaries of “Special protection(e.g., ‘I believe God protects me from illness and misfortune,’ ‘I believe that fewer bad things will happen to me in this life because God is protecting me from harm’); Special Insight (e.g., ‘God gives me clear and obvious signs to communicate His will to me,’ ‘When making a choice or tough decision, God gives me clear answers and direction’); Divine Solicitousness (‘Nothing is too small, like finding my lost keys, to pray to God about,’ ‘If you have deep faith and pure motives God will grant even your smallest requests’); Special Destiny(‘God has a very specific plan for my life that I must search for and find,’ ‘God has a destiny for me to find and fulfill’), and Denial of Randomness (‘Every event around us is a sign of God’s larger plans and purposes,’ ‘God controls every event around us, down to the smallest details’). In short, an individual with a high score on the DTS would feel ‘special’ in the sense of: being protected from harm or illness; being in direct communication with God; believing that God is especially solicitous of the individual’s requests or that God has a destiny planned for him or her; and that the small events of life are filled with clear purpose and meaning” [“Defensive versus Existential Religion: Is Religious Defensiveness Predictive of Worldview Defense?”]. So, in other words, those with high DTS scores are defensive believers and those with low scores are existential believers.

[13] Put differently, if it was true that these believers did not use their worldviews to mitigate existential fear, then, Beck reasoned, inflaming their fear of death would not cause them to attempt to bolster faith in their worldviews and thus cause them to respond more positively to those who shared their worldviews and more negatively to those who did not.

[14] Beck, “The Function of Religious Belief: Defensive Versus Existential Religion.”

[15] Beck, The Authenticity of Faith: The Varieties and Illusions of Religious Experience, 264.

[16] Ibid. 264-65.

[17] Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski, Handbook of Experimental Existential Psychology, 18

[18] Beck, The Authenticity of Faith: The Varieties and Illusions of Religious Experience, 265.

[19] Which isn’t to say that defensive faith doesn’t engender anything positive. Beck lists some positive outcomes of defensive faith in “Defensive versus Existential Religion: Is Religious Defensiveness Predictive of Worldview Defense?”


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Don - thank you for posting this essay. While I haven’t read Beck, I recognize much familiar ground in your synopsis of his characterization of the ‘existential believer’. This closely tracks my own trajectory, and when confronted with my own, personal existential crisis some years ago, I discovered that a belief in God was “the only way [I could] remain truthful to [my] lived experience.” Without rummaging over too much ground, I found myself at a precipice where the old faith seemed untenable, and per Bertrand Russell, ‘hung a question mark on the things I had long taken for granted.’ Thus began a long and difficult period of introspection, of delving deeply into history, and of reading much for and against the precepts of faith, from both skeptical and apologetic authors.

The end of that journey, as through a dark and silent tunnel, was not an intellectual conviction affirming legitimacy in Christian doctrine. It was more a surrender to an undeniable God, and a grudging acquiescent of truth and beauty in a world scarred by falsehood, ugliness and pain. I could not, with any integrity, conclude that God does not exist, or that He is so silent as to be absent.

In the redemption of my faith, however, I have not re-embraced much of the dogma which formerly seemed so necessary for its support. And indeed, I suppose much of my crisis was precipitated by various facets of that dogma crumbling under scrutiny and experience. I’d like to say that I am free of dogma, but I’m not willing to assert that I am wholly free of self-deception. However, I hope that the faith which I now hold is humble and honest with doubt. If pressed, I’d hope to be able to echo Camus: “I know of only one duty, and that is to love.”

In that, I resonate with your comment (from Beck) that “existential faith can serve as an antidote to hatred and violence.” This isn’t to suggest that I see no qualitative differences between cultural worldviews, or that I don’t hope for conversion of others. Certainly, I hope to distinguish between worldviews, between ethical constructs, between religious mores; but I hope that I can humbly accept criticism as well as I can make critical evaluations, and that my duty to love is well reflected in my desire to communicate such truth as I believe I might understand. I certainly hope, that as an ‘existential believer’, that I might be “better positioned to approach Others with warmth, curiosity, and a spirit of hospitality,” and that, by “exposing [my]self to the suffering, pain, and ambiguities of life … allows [me] both to see and stand in solidarity with those who are suffering.”

All that said, I take issue somewhat with the apparent dichotomy suggested by your essay. Maybe I’m imposing a binary distinction where none was intended. However, I strongly suspect that if one could somehow strip away exterior projections and internal deceptions, and read the real, fundamental motivations on which faith is bases, one would discover far more, and probably far more complex, reasons than those summarized as “defensive” and “existential.” Certainly, we might include a variety of fear-based motivations, not all of which are fear of death, as ‘defensive’: fear of breaking with tradition, fear of societal rejection, fear of admitting to being wrong, fear of failure. (Most of these could as easily be applied to why one would refuse to embrace faith as to why one might cling to an uncertain faith.) But I think we would also discover some with faith rooted in love, responding to love, and perhaps not existing in tension with doubt, but living in simple hope and trust. Such faith may be an immature faith, as yet untested by circumstances which lead through wilderness and give rise to doubt. Or, such faith may be the sort of faith that has walked through the wilderness, and which has embraced its doubt, and is now forged as a hardened alloy, not dismissing the doubt but incorporating it.

I’ve rambled enough. Peace, Don – may your walk lead you to truth and beauty.

Don Emmerich said...

I appreciate your comments. And I agree (and imagine Beck agrees) that our reasons for believing tend to far more nuanced than my summary of Beck suggests.

Here’s a question for you: Did your view of the Bible change as a result of your earlier faith crisis? To be more specific: Did you come out of your crisis still believing the Bible to be inerrant? I ask because I don’t really understand how someone with your level of self-awareness and someone who so highly prioritizes love could be an inerrantist. For that view requires one to defend everything in the Bible, including its condemnation of homosexuality (which I just can’t buy into), the passages in which Yawheh commands genocide, the passages in which Paul expresses a very low (and I think horrible) view of women, etc. I understand how you could believe the Bible to be “inspired,” meaning, I don’t know, that it’s “true for the most part” but, as a product of fallen creatures, not without its historical and doctrinal errors. Just wondering how you deal with all the problem passages.

Don Emmerich said...

Or put differently, why aren't you an Episcopalian?