Religion Satisfies 16 Basic Desires

This is a bit off-topic for us, but we think it’s interesting. We found it at PhysOrg: The psychology behind religious belief.

Your Curmudgeon knows nothing about psychology, but religion is interesting — especially when it degenerates into creationism, so there’s probably a lot to talk about here. The whole article is worth reading, so we’ll just give you a few excerpts to get you going. As usual, we’ve added some bold font for emphasis:

Throughout history, scholars and researchers have tried to identify the one key reason that people are attracted to religion. Some have said people seek religion to cope with a fear of death, others call it the basis for morality, and various other theories abound.

But in a new book, a psychologist who has studied human motivation for more than 20 years suggests that all these theories are too narrow. Religion, he says, attracts followers because it satisfies all of the 16 basic desires that humans share.

We all share 16 basic desires? What are they? We’re told:

“It’s not just about fear of death. Religion couldn’t achieve mass acceptance if it only fulfilled one or two basic desires,” said Steven Reiss, a professor emeritus of psychology at The Ohio State University and author of The 16 Strivings for God (Mercer University Press, 2016).

Here’s the book at Amazon: The 16 Strivings for God: The New Psychology of Religious Experiences. Let’s read on:

Reiss’s theory of what attracts people to religion is based on his research in the 1990s on motivation. He and his colleagues surveyed thousands of people and asked them to rate the degree to which they embraced hundreds of different possible goals.

In the end, the researchers identified 16 basic desires that we all share: acceptance, curiosity, eating, family, honor, idealism, independence, order, physical activity, power, romance, saving, social contact, status, tranquility and vengeance.

We’ll skip some discussion about how religion satisfies those 16 desires. Then we come to this:

What about atheism? While all people need to fulfill the same basic desires, not everyone will turn to religion to satisfy them, Reiss said. Secular society offers alternatives to fulfill all of the basic desires. “Religion competes with secular society to meet those 16 needs and can gain or lose popularity based on how well people believe it does compared to secular society,” Reiss said.

One more excerpt, and then you can click over there to read it all for yourself:

One of the basic desires – independence – may separate religious and non-religious people. In a study published in 2000, Reiss found that religious people (the study included mostly Christians) expressed a strong desire for interdependence with others. Those who were not religious, however, showed a stronger need to be self-reliant and independent.

Well, we thought it was interesting — at least as a conversation starter. Hey — what basic desires does science satisfy? It seems to be some of the same ones as religion — but not all of them, and certainly not vengeance. Your Curmudgeon’s psychology is — unsurprisingly — unlike anything this study suggests. But you probably already knew that.

Copyright © 2015. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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28 responses to “Religion Satisfies 16 Basic Desires

  1. “It’s not just about fear of death. Religion couldn’t achieve mass acceptance if it only fulfilled one or two basic desires,”…

    And yet fear of death is not among the top 16 reasons. I contend it is the primary reason behind belief in a deity, with the promised eternal after-life that accompanies such beliefs.

  2. 17, if you’re a Roman Catholic priest.

  3. @DavidK

    I contend it [fear of death] is the primary reason behind belief in a deity, with the promised eternal after-life

    Yet not all religions offer the prospect of an afterlife.

  4. Derek Freyberg

    @realthog

    “Yet not all religions offer the prospect of an afterlife.”
    True, but Reiss is working in the US, where the predominant religion is Christianity, which emphasizes the afterlife.
    I wonder if he would have seen the “16 strivings for god” in a different way if he had examined Buddhism or Shintoism, or indeed Native American religion.

    I think the reason “fear of death” is not on his list is that it wasn’t on the original list when he was examining personality types in the 1990s – see “Who Am I? The 16 Basic Desires That Motivate Our Actions and Define Our Personalities”, a Reiss book from 2002.

  5. At first blush, it seems that Reiss favors using the social benefits to explain religion. If this be the case, I think it is going down a blind alley in trying to explain religion. To me that seems trying to explain religion by its effects rather than by its mechanism for cognitive tenacity and persistence.

    I’ll have to give the book a read to see what the arguments and evidences are but I have surveyed the field of psychology of religion far and wide and the only theory or class of theory that to my mind seems to have weight is the one that social cognition is the root of god beliefs.

    In a nutshell: humans evolved in a social environment to have preference to social data (empirical data demonstrates this conclusively). I.e. when faced with trying to explain things, explanations with agency are heavily favored. Contrariwise, explanations appealing to intentionless, asocial natural forces are actively disfavored. Natural disasters provide a great example. To some, an earthquake is a punishment from God that we are sinful and should repent. To the more moderate, it may be a sign from God to make changes in their life, etc. The common denominator is that there was intention and agency behind the disaster. Human intuition favors agency; gods are the invented agent to complete this heuristic; religions are the narrative backstories to flesh out the gods; religions persist because they fit extremely well with the contours of human intuition.

    I will have to wait until after this semester to read Reiss’s book but it will be interesting how he deals with this theoretical framework. I have high hopes for him if this is just one portion of his wider theory. If otherwise, not so much.

  6. realthog, don’t all deity based religions offer the after-life? If it’s not a deity based religion, then probably not because there’s no place for adherents to rapture to.

  7. DavidK,

    Not all deity based religions offer an afterlife. Judaism comes to mind. If I recall correctly, certain schools of Taoism as well. Then there are the myriad tribal varieties.

    In my estimation, Jesse Bering has persuasively argued why humans have afterlife beliefs. Simply put, it is because of the “simulation constraint.” One cannot imagine what it is like to be dead. To imagine what it is like to be dead is to inject consciousness into unconsciousness and hence the idea arises. In one experiment, atheists who had just been asked if they believed in an afterlife and denied doing so, answered that a dead guy knows he is dead.

    https://edge.org/response-detail/10168

    I would make the argument that god beliefs and afterlife beliefs arise because of independent psychological tendencies and are later fleshed out and intertwined by codified religion. Gods become the gatekeepers to heavens and hells within an imagined system of social reciprocation with said gods.

  8. On the afterlife–it is promised in a lot, or most, of religions.

    An example, from Pope’s Essay on Man

    Lo, the poor Indian! whose untutor’d mind
    Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind;
    His soul proud Science never taught to stray
    Far as the solar walk or milky way;
    Yet simple Nature to his hope has giv’n,
    Behind the cloud-topp’d hill, a humbler heav’n;
    Some safer world in depth of woods embrac’d,
    Some happier island in the wat’ry waste,
    Where slaves once more their native land behold,
    No fiends torment, no Christians thirst for gold!
    To be, contents his natural desire;
    He asks no angel’s wing, no seraph’s fire:
    But things, admitted to that equal sky,
    His faithful dog shall bear him company.

  9. Dave Luckett

    If that list were exhaustive – maybe, if the terms be interpreted widely enough – then the answer is a no-brainer: “curiosity”.

    Ill-equipped as my mind is for understanding how things really work – I quit when calculus raised its hideous head – I still would like to know. What I manage to absorb from science answers questions with “This is why and how it works…” Not with “Goddiddit”, or “God’s thought is far above our knowledge” or “It’s a miracle!” or “Man was not meant to know”.

    Any course which does the former and avoids the latter gets my vote. Science does, religion doesn’t. It’s as simple as that.

  10. @Reflectory

    I would make the argument that god beliefs and afterlife beliefs arise because of independent psychological tendencies and are later fleshed out and intertwined by codified religion.

    I can see that argument. At the same time it seems to me that the concept of the afterlife was invented by the shamans who over time evolved religion as a way of making sure the gullible toed the line: you do what I say and not only will you not die but, for eternity, you can scarf as many raisins as you want; disobey me and it’s off to the eternal pit of fire for you, buster. It’s a wonderful con trick, and for thousands of years the rubes have fallen for it.

  11. > “researchers identified 16 basic desires that we all share: acceptance,
    > curiosity, eating, family, honor, idealism, independence, order, physical
    > activity, power, romance, saving, social contact, status, tranquility and
    > vengeance.”
    ———————
    That’s a derogatory way of viewing modern humans, and demonstrably untrue. We do not all share many of these things. Not all humans have strongly social personalities, so “acceptance” and “social contact” aren’t necessary or desirous for many (including me). Eating is a biologic need, so it doesn’t really belong in this list. If it does, then so does breathing and sleeping. “Honor” strikes me as a traditional Oriental trait. I’m not sure I really understood what is meant by it. “Saving” is the least understandable item on the list – what does that mean? Shouldn’t researchers unambiguously define their terms? Saving money? Saving time? Saving souvenirs? Thankfully, relatively few hominids have power or vengeance on their list of basic desires. Just imagine how much more evil and wicked global society would be if everyone had these. These are clearly not in everyone – not even close. I don’t know anyone, personally, who values “status” – I dispute the significance of that as a basic human desire. The one I personally value the most is tranquility. Peace and quiet are lovely, but increasingly difficult to get in this modern, overpopulated world. Also curiosity – it’s why I’m a scientist. Everyone starts out that way – everyone is naturally curious about the Universe around them as a child. Sadly, not many grown-ups value that trait.

    This study confirms my long-held suspicion that psychology is largely non-scientific or quasi-scientific. Biopsychology is the only speciality I consider to be valid science.

    On the other hand, I too am fascinated by the psychology of religion. I think that there’s sufficient evidence to indicate that fear of death is a major driving force behind the invention of religions. Andy Thompson’s “Why We Believe in Gods” is an excellent summary of the modern understanding of the psychology of religion.

  12. People hold religious beliefs because they are taught at an early age it is what they are to believe. “We are a Christian family. This is what Christians believe: (insert here whatever beliefs you want your child to hold.)”

    Ideas put into our heads repeatedly from an early age by authority figures are very persistent, even when close study of reality contradicts those early-taught ideas. Another thing — it seems that the degree of acceptance of religion is inversely proportional to IQ.

  13. retiredsciguy,

    I agree in part to what you say: “People hold religious beliefs because they are taught at an early age it is what they are to believe.”

    However, religious beliefs only “stick” because they conform (at least in part) to how humans think already.

    If your mother repeatedly told you that you were a furry squirrel would you have believed her? I doubt it.

    Humans are gullible. But only along certain cognitive pathways. Religions are a particularly persistent pathway because they conform to the contours of intuition. The best lie is the one that feels true.

  14. Our Curmudgeon contemplates:

    what basic desires does science satisfy? It seems to be some of the same ones as religion — but not all of them, and certainly not vengeance.

    I dunno. What about the Manhattan Project?

  15. “In the end, the researchers identified 16 basic desires that we all share: acceptance, curiosity, eating, family, honor, idealism, independence, order, physical activity, power, romance, saving, social contact, status, tranquility and vengeance.”
    They’ve totally ignored the most basic of needs; the desire to emulate in some small fashion, the God like intellectual capabilities, lightning fast reactions, dashing good looks and sheer sex appeal of “wormus luskinensis” Mortals quake at the thought of matching wits with him.
    Women dream about him. Rocket scientists fear him and hedge fund managers search for him. Verily, the design paradigm wizardry of Casey satisfies all of the sixteen basic desires in one swell foop.

  16. It’s much simpler than that. Basically, religion falls into my basic observation about there being three types of people: leaders, i.e. alpha males, followers and the third group that wants no part of the other two types of people.

  17. Megalonyx, it’s a bit simpler than that – while not an actual part of scientific progress, more than a bit of early paleontology, for example, was made possible because of two rivals, each trying to get the better of the other.

  18. E. O. Wilson may be correct: Religion resulted from tribalism, where the advantages were significant for human survival and social evolujtion?

  19. @vhutchinson: Indeed. We emulate ants in our social structure. In effect, religion teaches us to sacrifice for the good of the hive — or social unit, be it tribe, country, or society as a whole.

  20. @retired sciguy

    In effect, religion teaches us to sacrifice for the good of the hive

    That’s what it pretends to do. In fact what it’s doing is telling us to make sacrifices for the good of the shaman of the day, whether that be the preacher or the imam or Charles Manson. The current rightwing US mutant incarnation of a particular religion, Xtianity, is telling us that we should make sacrifices for the good of the likes of David Koch.

  21. Reflectory:
    “If your mother repeatedly told you that you were a furry squirrel would you have believed her? I doubt it.”

    Of course not. That’s why religion doesn’t ask us to believe something that can so readily be falsified by direct observation.

    I am in no way a religious scholar, so I can only speak of my own religious experience, Christianity. In essence, Christian teachings can be put into two categories — those that promote behaviors that benefit the tribe, and the “enforcement” beliefs.

    Benefit the tribe — Ten Commandments, Golden Rule, turn the other cheek, etc.

    Enforcement — Heaven and eternal life if you follow the rules; Lake o’ Fire if you don’t.

    The genius of this scheme is that no one can disprove it while they are still alive.

  22. That list of 16 items is hokum, as James St. John suggested. Back when Chomsky’s generative-transformational theory was gaining acceptance, it became fashionable among young turk linguists to sneer at previous grammars as “merely taxonomic.” Unfair. They failed to acknowledge (or maybe even to realize) that taxonomy, by organizing things in a hierarchy, is a first step toward a comprehensive theory. Linnaeus set up the scaffold on which Darwin hung his insights.

    But this this list of 16 items is not even taxonomic. It’s just a jumble. Not being a psychologist, I lack the background to organize and extend it. Besides, doing so would violate my post-retirement vow to devote my time to bird hunting and bed rest. Surely, though, there must be psychologists who could do a better job of identifying and organizing human drives than this. They owe it to the field–to provide future young turks a framework for theory.

  23. Retired Prof declares: “That list of 16 items is hokum”

    Ya think? It mentions “eating” and “romance” — but not sex. I don’t understand how religion satisfies any of those.

  24. My own uninformed opinion is that more than one of those is modern-urban-western cultural.
    And, yes, “eating” struck me. I’d like to see the justification for that being “religious”.

  25. Tom S: Wafers. It’s wafers all the way down.

  26. These comments are not valid criticisms of the theory that religion expresses 16 basic desires (in strong form and 16 basic desires in weak form.) Here are quick responses to some comments. Science is motivated by the need to think (called curiosity in the list of 16). Prediction: If you assess the motivation of scientists, they will score disproportionately high on intellectual curiosity. The fear of death falls under the need for tranquility. If religion were an effort to decrease the fear of death, how come the people who fear death the most aren’t disproportionately religious.? Belief in afterlife reduces the fear of death, but the fires of hell increase it. So if religion were primarily aimed to reduce the fear of death it would not include the fires of hell. The fact that people vary in how sociable they want to be is evidence for the theory of 16 desires, which shows how religion handles the variation. Sex is included under romance. because the correlation is very high. What is the justification for saying that some religious beliefs and practices are motivated by the desires to eat? Dietary rules, religious feasts. The desire to be accepted not the same as desire to socialize. Reiss’s theory says that religion is about the regulation of experience with 16 universal motivators, and that calls into question Wilson’s theory of the underlying evolutionary processes. The motivation of about 100,000 people from four continents has been assessed over a period of about 15 years. Nobody has thought of a significant desire not included in the list of 16, and religion — every religion — must address these desires or it would be impossible for people to value the religion.

  27. Good of you to visit with us, Dr. Reiss. As I’m sure you know, much of the difficulty in appreciating what you wrote (without being a psychologist and reading your book) is due to the brevity of the various reviews and the lack of detail about the 16 desires.