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“Happy is the Man that Feareth Always”: Psychology vs. Religion

“Happy is the Man that Feareth Always”: Psychology vs. Religion (2005)

Daniela Kramer and Michael Moore


Fundamental contradictions between psychological and religious ideation are illustrated by excerpts from Jewish, Christian and Islamic prayers and hymns. Four substantive areas are discussed: locus of control, self-esteem, social values and the status of the family. In each of these it is shown that religious messages propagated by prayers are diametrically opposed to the goals of humanistic psychology and progressive education.

We often wonder how some scientists are able to reconcile their scientific knowledge with their religious beliefs. Aren’t there obvious, blaring contradictions between Bible “truths” and physical anthropology? Doesn’t a fundamental belief in providence clash with the efforts of modern medical science? Yet none of these (or similar) inconsistencies are as pervasive as the chasm between religious vs. psychological ideation. Unlike some fields of more limited application, psychology touches upon everything that a person thinks, feels or does. In what follows, we shall pinpoint some of the more obvious difficulties that result whenever a psychological touchstone is applied to monotheistic religious percepts. Of the scores of relevant topics offering an opportunity to demonstrate the gap between psychology and religion, we have selected four; several others are treated in Moore & Kramer, 2000 (see also Moore, 2000). The branch of psychology we use in this discussion is mostly, though not exclusively, humanistic psychology; for a representation of religious thought we have perused several Jewish prayer books. For the sake of comparison, we shall also present texts from Christian (e.g., Catholic, Anglican and Baptist) and Islamic prayers and hymns. Our method of analysis is drawn from orientational inquiry (see orienting theory in Carspecken & Apple, 1992). This approach acknowledges and makes explicit the theoretical perspective of the researchers that guides the inquiry from its outset.

The following inquiry is necessarily limited; additional facets of the conflict between psychology and religion are beyond the scope of the present thesis. We shall only mention in passing that an endless number of religious practices, whether found in so-called primitive religions[1] or in highly developed ones[2], would be classified as neurotic behaviors aimed at the temporary reduction of anxiety were it not for their illustrious nexus. (Cf. Fromm’s, 1977, p. 327, concept of the ‘pathology of normalcy,’ according to which a widely shared pathology is not experienced as pathology.) Radcliffe-Brown’s analysis goes a step further, associating religious ideation with the creation of that anxiety which such practices are designed to alleviate[3]: “While one anthropological theory is that magic and religion give men confidence, comfort and a sense of security, it could equally well be argued that they give men fears and anxieties from which they would otherwise be free” (quoted by Levi-Strauss, 1963, p. 67). To what extent these “fears and anxieties” turn into a clinically identifiable disorder is another matter. As we have stated elsewhere (Moore & Kramer, 2000), the research on religiosity and psychopathology is contradictory. In several studies higher religiosity is associated with increased psychopathology (e.g., Kaldestad, 1996; Lewis, 1998; Quiles & Bybee, 1997), while in others there is either a lack of relationship (e.g., Pfeifer & Waelty, 1995), or a positive correlation with various desirable outcomes (e.g., Blaine & Crocker, 1995; Jensen, Jensen & Wiederhold, 1993).

In the present analysis we do not intend to argue about the proper interpretation of prayers. Historically and philosophically, it is edifying to differentiate between the authentic faith of the early Christians and “the ritualistic, nonexperiential activity so characteristic of churches today” (Harris, 1973, p. 229; see also Phillips, 1965, for a similar distinction, as well as Erikson 1971, p. 83, for his criticism of “organized religion”). Psychologically, however, this is an artificial distinction: Millions of believers (among them a large number of fundamentalists, sticking to the letter of the text) are unlikely to engage in theological arguments when they recite, probably thousands of times, any of the sentences quoted below (see Moore & Kramer, 2000).

Locus of Control

Both humanistic psychology and progressive educational theory promote an internal locus of control. Individuals are said to have an internal locus if they believe that they control their destiny and attribute their successes and failures to their own ability. Such individuals tend to take more responsibility for their behavior than those who have an external locus of control. The latter believe that they are the victims of circumstances; luck and fate play a large role in their lives. Research has consistently shown that this acquired personality trait is involved in many important aspects of one’s life, and that, in general, successful adjustment is associated with an internal locus of control (e.g., Findley & Cooper, 1983; Lefcourt 1982; Presson & Benassi, 1996). What type of locus of control is advocated and likely to be developed by a person who repeats one of the following sentences hundreds of times?

“May it be thy will, O Lord our God and God of our fathers, that we may keep thy statutes in this world” (Sephath Emeth, p. 80).

“I can of mine own self do nothing…. I seek not my own will, but the will of the Father which has sent me” (John 5:30).

“They should not do their own will, but God’s” (St. Cyprian in Paths of the Spirit, 2000).

“We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts” (Book of Common Prayer, 1968, p. 3).

“And it is not for a believer, man or woman, to have any choice in their affairs, when God and His Apostle have decreed a matter” (Koran 33:36).

In each of the above the believer forcefully rejects the possibility of exercising his or her own will: One’s course of life is directed by an external source. Once acquired and internalized, it is highly questionable whether individuals subscribing to such an orientation can contribute to anything but the development of an external locus of control in their children.


A favorable perception of one’s own self, i.e., positive self-esteem, is probably the most precious of our psychological commodities. To feel good about oneself is a prerequisite of mental health, while a lack of self-esteem is a corollary of psychological maladjustment (Brockner & Hulton, 1978; Brown, 1991). Such valued outcomes as self-actualization and healthy communication skills are regarded as dependent on positive self-esteem, which is directly related to academic ability, scholastic achievement and occupational status (Bachman & O’Malley, 1977). Like locus of control, self-esteem is a product of early experiences, greatly influenced by the feedback one receives from significant others during childhood. (Cf. looking-glass self in Cooley, 1902). Yet look at what religious texts promote:

“O my God, before I was formed I was nothing worth, and now that I have been formed I am but as though I had not been formed. Dust I am in my life: how much more so in my death” (Sephath Emeth, p. 311).

“[A]nd I am just a lump of earth, and a worm; dust from the ground, a cup full of shame, a fleeting shadow, a breeze that goes and does not return” (Assembly, 1977, p. 253).

“All praise is for Allah almighty, before whose grandeur everything is helpless, … before whose honour everything is insignificant” (Azam, 1984, #4).

These prayers seem to prefer believers who feel small and worthless, in contrast with an almighty deity. Analogical power differentials are often observed within pathogenic family systems, where one spouse, parent or sibling aggrandizes him- or herself by disparaging another.

Social Values

Pluralism, equality, and democracy are social values commensurate with those of psychology in general and humanistic psychology in particular. At the positive end of a continuum, ranging from adjustment to pathology, lies the acceptance of the different, a cornerstone of modern, progressive societies. At the other, pathogenic extreme, we find the particular or institutionalized belittling of others at both the individual and the group levels. Compare these social values with the discriminatory messages of the following excerpts:

“It is our duty to praise the Lord … since he hath not made us like the nations of other lands” (Sephath Emeth, p. 81).

“The more flesh, the more worms; the more property, the more anxiety; the more women, the more witchcraft” (from Ethics of the Fathers, in Sephath Emeth, p. 233).

“O Believers! Take not the Jews or Christians as friends” (Koran 5:56).

“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife” (Ephesians 5: 22-23).

“Men are superior to women on account of the qualities with which God hath gifted the one above the other” (Koran 4:37).

“And when the sacred months are passed, kill those who join other gods with God wherever ye shall find them; and seize them, besiege them, and lay wait for them with every kind of ambush: but if they shall convert, and observe prayer, and pay the obligatory alms, then let them go their way, for God is Gracious, Merciful” (Koran 9:5).

An objection to pluralism and to the relativeness of experience is fundamental to many religions. According to Eliade (1966, p. 79; see also Eliade, 1957), for the religious, belief in an absolute reality is juxtaposed with the “unreality” of the irreligious world. Yet the idea of “one true way” is troublesome in several respects. First, it produces anxiety before one deviates or flounders, and guilt-feelings following it. Second, it brings about intolerance. By encouraging dogmatism and narrow-mindedness, religion transmits a regressive message in today’s pluralistic, human-rights-oriented society. Third, it runs counter to normal cognitive development, in which simple dichotomies (good or bad, black or white) gradually give room to complex categorizations.

The Status of the Family

Many more substantive points of discrepancy between psychological concepts of mental health and religious values can be pointed out, such as religions’ rejection of the body, their proneness to guilt production, and their cultivation of various defense mechanisms (mainly repression and compensation). Since we are intensively involved in family therapy, we have chosen to conclude our analysis with a brief description of the relative importance attributed to the family by the two contending approaches: psychological vs. religious.

The crucial role of the family in the shaping of individuals is strongly affirmed by such leading personality theorists as Freud, Adler, and Erikson. The family functions as a primary group where individuals learn interpersonal communication skills; it is the source of one’s emotional, cognitive and social assets. Close and intimate couplehood is a prerequisite for healthy family structure; significant and supportive parenthood is the basis for the next generation’s readiness to face the challenges of the extrafamilial environment. (See, for example, the work of Minuchin, Lee & Simon, 1996, or Satir, Stachowiak & Taschman, 1975.) The following excerpts, however, alienate individuals from their significant others by belittling them, and instill in them a psychologically odious dependence on the deity:

“Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast not made me a woman” (Sephath Emeth, p. 10).

“If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).

“He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me (Matthew 10:37; see also Mark 10:29-30).

“Virginity and widowhood, and the modest restraints in secret on the marriagebed, and the one only adoption of it, are fragrant offerings to God paid out of the good services of the flesh” (Tertullian in Paths, 2000).

“O God the love of Thee and the love of Thine Apostle are dearer to me than myself and my family” (Padwick, 1961, p. 148).

When put side by side with some contradictory statements, such messages create a double-bind. (See, for example Trujillo, 2000, for the Vatican’s position on the family, and especially his attack on de facto unions unions). On the one hand, religions promote the sanctity of the family; on the other, they belittle both couplehood and parenthood, and openly downgrade the value of intimate relationships within the family. The formal, external shell is regarded as more valuable than the deep ties within, for the latter are likely to compete with believers’ love for the deity.


The verse quoted in the title of this article comes from Proverbs 28:14:

“Happy is the man that feareth always.”

While a few translators have corrupted the source so as to make clear who is to be feared (such as the Revised Berkeley Version, which reads “Blessed is the man who is always reverent,” or Luther’s “Wohl dem, der Gott allewege fuerchtet!”), most have been faithful to the Hebrew original, letting this often repeated sentence instill exactly the kind of general timorousness which progressive educators try to eradicate. The contrast between this verse, with its invitation of anxiety, and the psychological recognition of anxiety as debilitating, may serve as a brief reminder of our thesis.

Religions and religious texts are notoriously heterogeneous, enabling their perusers to find in them support for practically any thesis. We are well aware of the messages of peace, love, brotherhood and justice contained in several religious sources, alongside with missives promoting warfare, strife, intolerance and separatism. Though this inconsistency is, in itself, highly problematic (see the danger of double-binds above, as well as Moore, 1999), our current effort is true to our orientational inquiry: We have shown that religious texts contain, inter alia, blatantly pathogenic messages.

In conclusion, the discipline of psychology contradicts religious ideation. As suggested above, examples could be multiplied: Many more basic tenets of psychology are diametrically opposed by a practically endless list of religious statements. Numerous ecumenically driven attempts at a reconciliation of these two approaches notwithstanding, psychology is founded on a view of the human world which is incompatible with the ground rules of religion.


[1] “On one day of the year the Bhotiyas of Juhar, in the Western Himalayas, take a dog, intoxicate him with spirits and … chase and kill him with sticks and stones, and believe that, when they have done so, no disease or misfortune will visit the village during the year” (Frazer, 1890/1959, # 458).

[2] The New Year’s Rite of Caparoth (i.e., Ransoms) consists of saying three times, holding the fowl above one’s head: “I have found a ransom. This is my change, this is my compensation, this is my redemption. This hen (cock for males) is going to be killed, while I shall enter upon a good, happy and peaceful life” (Sephath Emeth, p. 301).

[3] See also the following comment by psychotherapist Karpman (1963, p. 328): “‘Sin’ is a commodity of the Church without which it cannot more exist than a chain grocery store can get along without canned soup.”


Assembly of Rabbis of the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain (Ed.). Forms of Prayer for Jewish Worship (7th ed.). London: Reform Synagogues of Great Britain, 1977.

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Copyright ©2005 Daniela Kramer, Michael Moore, and Internet Infidels, Inc. All rights reserved.

One way to avoid this conclusion is to deny that human onlookers have a positive duty to stop or prevent evil. While this would be a viable option for some forms of supernatural belief (some forms of deism, perhaps), it is certainly not an option for traditional theists. Christians, in particular, would agree with MAE’s contention that all of us do, on occasion, have an obligation to stop or prevent evil. Traditional theists, I think, would be more likely to avoid MAE’s conclusion by denying the Jones principles, which I take to be the most controversial aspect of MAE. However, since those principles are well supported (according, as they do, with our intuitions regarding Jones-like cases), one could not simply dismiss them out of hand. Rather, one would need to refute them by means of a counterexample. It remains to be seen whether this can be done. And until it is done, my tentative conclusion is that the moral argument from evil shows that the god of traditional theism does not exist.[12]


[1] To say that God has morally sufficient reason for allowing some instance of evil is to say that God is responsible but not blameworthy for allowing that evil. Generally, this will occur only if allowing the evil in question (or one of equal magnitude) is logically necessary either for preventing some greater evil, or for attaining some greater good.

[2] Another way of saying that we are morally justified in allowing a certain evil to occur is to say that we have no obligation to stop or prevent that evil.

[3] To explain the notion of an outweighing good: where E is an instance of evil, and G is a good for which E is a causally or logically necessary condition, G outweighs E just in case the state of affairs involving the conjunction of G and E is better, all things considered, than the state of affairs that would have obtained if G had never occurred. There is, of course, a corresponding notion of an outweighing evil.

[4] I refer to a “human” person here, though it would be just as appropriate to refer to a “finite” person – that is, one who is not omnipotent, omniscient, etc. M1 includes a requirement of finitude because God would presumably not be justified in allowing a certain evil that is causally but not logically necessary for the attainment of some greater good. At any rate, I doubt theists would object to my speciesist phraseology.

[5] In this context, “P does not intervene to stop or prevent E” should be understood as meaning “P does not intervene to (attempt to) stop or prevent E”.

[6] This sort of objection is pressed by Daniel Howard-Snyder (1996: 292-3) against Bruce Russell’s proof of OV. The objection is not applicable to my argument, however, since Howard-Snyder is not considering cases where the onlooker knows that there is objective justification for the evil in question (justification that will occur even if the onlooker does not intervene), whereas I am considering such cases.

[7] By “onlooker”, I mean a moral agent with the ability to intervene so as to (attempt to) stop or prevent the evil in question.

[8] Of course, one will find the argument a satisfactory proof only if one agrees that A2b is true. Below I formulate a version of MAE that does not rely on A2b.

[9] It should be noted that the present argument does not require that all members of PW1 and PW2 alike contain objective justification for the evil in question. Rather, all the present argument requires is that the evil is objectively justified in whatever world becomes actual.

[10] One objection to this line of argument might be that if rationality is a matter of degree, then for all we know there could exist one theist who is uniquely the most rational theist, and for all we know this theist might not know A2. In that case (one might continue), A3 is false and MAE fails. First, it is not clear that this objection brings up a live possibility, even from a theistic perspective. After all, theists generally – and in particular those who take belief in God to be properly basic – presumably hold that many theists are completely or perfectly rational in believing in God. Second, even if the objection did bring up a live possibility, this live possibility could easily be eliminated by having atheists embark on a large-scale information-dissemination campaign aimed at educating theists about the truth of A2. If such a campaign took place, A3 would effectively be established.  Now I seriously doubt that theists would be willing to dismiss MAE on the possibility that such a campaign might not succeed in educating the most rational theist about the truth of A2.  For theists to do that without finding any further flaw(s) in MAE would be to leave God’s existence dangling by a thread, subject to disproof the very instant the most rational theist comes to know A2.  To neutralise MAE, then, theists will have to do more than cast doubt on the present truth of A3.

[11] It may be objected that it is unreasonable to have a premise such as A4 in an atheological argument. After all, atheists are presumably committed to the contention that there is not objective justification for every actual instance of evil. However, A4 is under the scope of an assumption in a conditional proof. Thus, what is being asserted is not that A4 is true, but that it follows from certain other assumptions.

[12] I would like to thank anonymous reviewers at the Secular Web for helpful comments on previous drafts of this paper.


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Howard-Snyder, Daniel. 1996. “The Argument from Inscrutable Evil”. In Daniel Howard-Snyder, ed. 1996. The Evidential Argument from Evil. USA: Indiana University Press.

Rowe, Willliam L. 1979. “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism”. Reprinted in Daniel Howard-Snyder, ed. 1996. The Evidential Argument from Evil. USA: Indiana University Press.

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