What do beliefs in God and Religion mean to people?
Reflections of a humanist psychotherapist

  By  - Dr. Khalid Sohail

After forty years of passionate discussions about God and Religion with my relatives, friends and colleagues as well as helping my struggling atheist and humanist patients in my clinical practice, I have come to the conclusion that the issue of beliefs in God and Religion is not only philosophical, it is also psychological and cultural. Many atheists feel that if they gave enough convincing rational arguments to believers, they would stop believing in God and Religion. That is why many atheists get into heated dialogues, even bitter debates with their religious friends and relatives. In my opinion such atheists do not realize that there are billions of men and women all over the world who need the security of their beliefs in God and Religion to cope with disease, disability and death as their beliefs act as relief and comfort in their trying times. When people are afraid or insecure, they turn to their faith for support. For atheists to take away that support system without replacing it with a better way to cope with problems of life may be unrealistic.

        Mao Tse Tung once said, “China is like an old man who has a heavy bag of problems on his head and a cane of religion in his hand. If we try to take away the cane, he might fall flat on his face. If we take the heavy bag of problems away from him, he might not need the cane and throw it away.” If we can help people to gain self-confidence, improve their self-esteem and develop critical and scientific thinking, they might not need beliefs in God and Religion to deal with their stresses in life.

        I have also observed that believers consider some authority figures, whether parents or priests, as sacred and feel guilty if they turn their backs on such authority figures. They can only say goodbye to their beliefs after they learn to rely on their own observations and experiences rather than age-old mythological traditions, which have been passed on from one generation to the next.

Beliefs in God and Religion also fulfill one other need in people -- a need to belong. I have met many individuals who felt lonely and isolated when they left their community of church, mosque, synagogue or temple. For them, the journey from being a believer to being a non-believer was lonely and painful. There were times they felt like an outsider in their own families and an immigrant in their own communities. They became part of that minority that their religious relatives and traditional friends did not understand. There were times they challenged their religious relatives and provoked angry reactions, which led to a cycle of violence, a cycle which was difficult to control or stop. I have encouraged such people to join atheist and humanist groups on the inter-net or in their local communities to get emotional support. Such people needed a safe environment where they could share their doubts and question their traditional faiths without fear of punishment and persecution.

        It is also important for atheists to realize that for many religious people their faith in God and Religion not only helps them in the time of crisis, it also provides them with moral values and rules to guide their day-to-day family, professional and social lives. They were brought up with a notion that atheists are immoral and unethical people. They are concerned about what guidelines they would use if they left their religious values and communities. They are particularly worried, sometimes to the point of terror, that in a Godless world their communities would become full of lawless delinquents and psychopaths. I think it is the social responsibility of humanists to highlight that there are secular ethical values and show in action that most atheists and humanists are kind, caring and compassionate people.

        It has been my experience that alongside some uneducated religious people, there are also some well-read religious people who have university degrees in theology and fine arts. They shared with me that they found their faith in God, Prophets and Scriptures a source of inspiration to create works of art and do voluntary work to serve their communities. I think it is important for atheists and humanists to acknowledge that religious and spiritual beliefs can be a positive influence for some people. We can find as many religious people with humanitarian ideals and practices as religious fundamentalists. We need to appreciate those works of art, whether of archeology, poetry, painting or music and humanitarian acts that are inspired by religious and spiritual traditions.

        I think in the journey of human evolution, the change of beliefs in God and Religion is a slow, very slow process. We have been living under the influence of religious and spiritual traditions for thousands of years. It will take a few centuries when modern science, psychology and philosophy will prove to humanity that we can lead meaningful and successful lives based on secular values.

        I am of the opinion that it would be wiser for atheists and humanists to try to understand what beliefs in God and Religion mean to people and what are the emotional and social needs that are met by those beliefs rather than attacking them with rational arguments. Until they engage in a meaningful dialogue, they cannot expect a change, as significant changes take place in the womb of significant relationships.

        As a psychotherapist who helps people discover their truth, I am aware that for people to change their ideology and lifestyle, their emotional readiness is as important as their intellectual openness. Atheists and humanists have to realize that winning hearts is as important as winning arguments. 

                                                                Dec 29th, 2007