Religion as a Psycho-Social Defence Mechanism. Why Evangelicals Buy Into Hate.
This morning I was reading Gregory Paul’s essay titled The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions. Sue Blackmore summarized his findings in The Guardian in 2009. Here’s a summary of her summary:
Paul measures “popular religiosity” and compares it against the “successful societies scale” (SSS measures include homicides, the proportion of people incarcerated, infant mortality, STDs, teenage pregnancy, abortions, corruption, income inequality etc). On almost every measure the US comes out worse than any other 1st world developed nation, and it is also the most religious. The 1st world nations with the highest levels of belief in God, and the greatest religious observance are also the ones with all the signs of societal dysfunction.
“Because highly secular democracies are significantly and regularly outperforming the more theistic ones, the moral-creator socio-economic hypothesis is rejected in favour of the secular-democratic socio-economic hypothesis”; “religious prosociality and charity are less effective at improving societal conditions than are secular government programmes”.
This makes for an interesting explanation of the success of the American Evangelical Christian movement. We often get bogged down in debating the intellectual or academic validity of religious propositions and in doing so we fail to examine the psychological factors which lead to people adopting and staying within a religion. Here’s a poverty map of America.
You’ll note the bible-belt coincides with the highest poverty rates. It also coincides with food stamp usage & highest number of hate groups per capita. It’s also the home of the Tea-Party, that loud group of people constantly complaining about moochers. Interestingly the NYT recently released a map that shows the bible belt is the home of America’s biggest moochers. This pattern isn’t unique to first world countries. Religiosity also co-relates to poverty and strife in the developing and third world.
Religion as a Defence Mechanism:
It can be argued that early Christianity was at its inception an ideology of social rebellion. As a grass-roots movement it attempted to re-frame social perception and allocate value to the lower & struggling classes.
“Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
(Side note: The aristocracy soon recognized this same ideology could be used to protect its own interests. When people believe that their suffering brings them closer to their god, that their poverty is a virtue, that there is pride in their strife- it also keeps them from rebelling.)
Freud states that the ego copes with anxiety by using defence mechanisms. Individuals unconsciously deny and/or distort reality to reduce stress. The occasional use of defence mechanisms is normal; However, the consistent use of defence mechanisms becomes a problem as some individuals use them to avoid reality altogether. American Evangelicals fall squarely into this category and their magical thinking patterns now permeate their perception of reality as we know it. In practice this takes the form of: You feel your life is rubbish? You can’t handle the anxiety? You cannot base hope of a better future in logic? Don’t despair! Religion can give you a thought pattern that allows you to fool yourself into thinking you’re not at the bottom of the pyramid after all.
American Evangelical leaders have gone to great lengths to sophisticate their belief-system and exploit these human defence mechanisms. Xenophobia is one if their most popular tools (remember Jerry Falwell defending Apartheid in South Africa?). If one cannot measure up intellectually, financially or even morally to society at large (as is the case of the bible belt)- a system that substitutes those measures and calculates worth by nothing other than religiosity and facile adherence to a set of religious basics is a defence mechanism jackpot. In this interesting equation reductionism is of paramount importance. Morality, according to the Oxford dictionary: concerned with the principles of right and wrong, is reduced to not being gay and not having an abortion. Keeping the focus on those two minority behaviours/actions as absolute evils allows the Evangelical majority the freedom to ignore questions of true morality that could have bearing on their own lives and behaviours- They don’t even have to ask themselves the question: What is true morality? They don’t stop at morality, their systemic defence mechanisms now touch every area of life which is why when a black man gets elected president, all hell breaks lose. It directly negates their system of hierarchy. He must have cheated, he must be from Kenya, he must, he must. Blacks, Latinos, Gays, Atheists- the systematic marginalization of these groups is of primordial importance to them, it’s the cornerstone of the Evangelical’s ego.