During an email discussion with a hard-core Bible believer, I finally distilled my thoughts on some of the core motives people have for their deep psychological need for a god or higher power.
An obvious one is fear of death. Barring injury or physical or mental deterioration, I think that the vast majority people crave immortality. But it's pretty obvious that immortality is impossible in this world. If one can't have that, then an eternal soul floating in a sea of contentment in the afterlife, probably surrounded by loved ones, is a comforting way to avoid dealing with the finality of death.
For others, a likely candidate is that some religions give them a constant companion. One who loves them unconditionally, no matter what mistakes they make. You'll hear the phrase, "To me, God is love." Without this automatic companion they would have to rely on their family and friends for love and companionship. Since nobody can really know how another feels about them, that might appear very lonely and frightening.
And still others deeply crave a purpose and metaphysical structure to their world. With this type of person you'll hear, "I know God has a plan for me." Or, "I know there's a reason this is happening to me." They need their lives to fit within a greater whole, to give them meaning and purpose. Both their own actions, as well as the events beyond their control that happen to them and around them. The alternative is simply too chaotic and would be impossible to deal with.
Somewhat related to the last one, but with a different emphasis, some people just need a sense of certainty or completeness. They feel, "Mankind can't know everything. Therefore, there must be Something More that does know." That's a non-sequitur. "Mankind can't know everything." is a complete statement. But these people become intensely uncomfortable at the idea that some things are inherently unknowable to any being, anywhere. Surely, the universe can't work properly if nobody knows?
I suppose another common need is to use religion as a source of morals. You'll hear the something along the lines of, "If we're all just inanimate bits then what does it matter what we do to each other?" They refuse to take responsibility for their own decisions and actions. They refuse to acknowledge that they can discern right from wrong on their own. They need to presume mythical carrots and sticks to force themselves to even attempt to stay in line.
And, in ancient times, mankind was trying to explain natural phenomenon. Thunder seems so much bigger than life that they assumed it must be created by the gods. Droughts had to be punishment for not following the proper worshiping procedures. A good hunt was a reward. People relied on the shaman to explain to them how to get on the good side of the gods, so that nature would fall into place for them. While for many, science has largely replaced this need, that replacement is far from universal. Thus, people without sufficient imagination to truly grasp evolution and all the branches of science that support it instead fall back on the far simpler-to-imagine explanation of creationism.
I'm trying to decide if "Experiencing/Witnessing a Miracle" should be a separate category. Like when the person or someone close to them survives a nasty accident. Or sees a medical "miracle." Or "feels" when someone dies. Is it a separate category when a person decides that divine intervention is common enough to touch their daily lives? Or is that simply a piece of "evidence" and/or justification they would use for their Plan or Greater Purpose motivation? For now, it feels to me like it's usually a justification.
I'm sure many people experience some combination of these deep-set cravings. And there are probably others that I haven't thought of.
28/Sep/06: Added discussion of experiencing/witnessing a miracle.
19/May/06: Removed "...proven to my satisfaction..." It didn't belong.
17/Apr/06: Rearranged and added "...proven to my satisfaction..." and "...simpler-to-imagine..."
24/Feb/06: Added morals.
22/Feb/06: Added ancient man and Something More.
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