What should you not believe about the Caribbean?

"Religion says: 'You should' - spirituality says: 'You may'!"

How do we know whether and which belief best suits our needs? The religious psychologist Sebastian Murken explains how trust in higher powers strengthens us - and when it can harm us

There are numerous church resignations every year. Is the need to believe lost?

Prof. Sebastian Murken: I don't think so. The resignations rather show that the church as an institution no longer convinces many members. That says little about faith itself: Research on religion shows that faith has little correlation with membership in the church. That means: we find the entire spectrum from deeply religious to irreligious people both inside and outside the churches.

Then why the resignations?

Often in order not to have to pay the tax anymore. For many, the content of faith has also lost its relevance to everyday life. Nevertheless, more than half of the population still belong to the two large churches - even if only a few regularly attend church services. Relationships with the Church are often more an expression of tradition than of deep faith. The members appreciate the charitable role of the churches.

Do people have some kind of basic need for religion?

That is probably how theologians see it. As a religious psychologist, on the other hand, I try to understand religion as a phenomenon of the soul and to investigate it with the means of psychology. The psychology of religion thus provides answers to the questions: “What does religion do with people? And what do people do with religion? ”. From this perspective there is no genuine need for spirituality or religion. Undoubtedly, however, central human psychological needs have been answered in religion and spirituality since ancient times.

Which is it?

One of the core human needs is the desire for control: We need the feeling that we are not living in a chaotic, unpredictable world - but that we understand our environment, that things contain a controllable predictability that gives us security.

One of the most dramatic and uncontrollable events in our world is death: we do not know when it will hit us or others or what will come afterwards. It was therefore a central task of human cultural evolution to make our mortality bearable. Religion does this: through myths and stories of an otherworldly world, of resurrection or rebirth, it transforms death into a more controllable event. In a similar way, religion can help us to satisfy other basic psychological needs, such as the need to be perceived and seen by others, or the need for connection and belonging.

Is it because the members of a ward care for one another?

This is the simplest form, but religion answers this need on different levels. In addition to the bond between people in the religious community, belonging to God plays an important role: It creates security when we know that we are in benevolent, strong hands, or when we see ourselves as part of a people chosen by God.

Can religious people satisfy their basic psychological needs better than non-believers?

That cannot be said in general terms. Like almost everything in life, religiosity has both psychological benefits and costs. What prevails for the individual depends on the respective religious community and its beliefs as well as on the specific needs of the individual.

It is similar to a partnership: if you live with someone, you also gain psychological benefits, but you also have to bear costs. Whether a certain person lives better with the partnership than without it can only be judged if we know how living together is actually shaped - and what life would be like for the person without a partner.

In principle, we can also satisfy our basic psychological needs from dimensions other than faith. Friends and family can also provide bond and make life meaningful. Other people perceive the examination of nature as meaningful or their work.

According to some studies, the strength and confidence religious people draw from their beliefs can even help heal illnesses.

People who feel held secure in their faith sometimes actually benefit from it when dealing with severe crises or illnesses. But it does not follow from this that every form of religiosity is helpful for everyone in such a situation. I myself examined the interactions between belief and health with breast cancer patients, among others. It showed that some of the women suffered from seeing their illness as a punishment. They asked themselves: “Why did God send me cancer, for what sin?” Such feelings are rather unhelpful in dealing with an illness. The decisive factor is which factors actually work in individual cases: if a religious community provides us with a social network that offers us support, it is very helpful in a crisis. But that is not the case in every congregation or in every individual.

What is the difference between religion and spirituality? Can the terms be separated?

Spirituality has in common with religion that both relate to a transcendent level. This means that both assume that our sensually tangible, visible world is not all there is - but that there is a dimension beyond it.

This dimension, in turn, is linked to this world: a prayer, a blessing or something similar can work from one sphere into the other. This is of crucial importance, because without a connection the transcendent world would have no relevance for our life in this world. The difference between religion and spirituality now lies in how the connection between the spheres is thought and experienced.

Can you explain that in more detail?

In the established religions, the connection between this world and the hereafter is institutionalized and defined in detail. Through traditional scriptures - the Bible, the Koran or the Vedas - the believers know about the divine world as well as about how they should behave according to God's will in order to find their salvation. The scriptures contain rules and ideas about how society should be organized and how individuals should act. People who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious also refer to a transcendent world and see the opportunity to relate to a reality behind the visible. In contrast to religions, however, spirituality lacks expectations of believers - that is, the moral duty to behave in accordance with a divine set of rules. Where religion says: “You should”, spirituality says: “You may, choose for yourself”.

This is a heavily shortened version. The entire interview with Sebastian Murken read in "GEO Knowledge No. 70 - The Power of Spirituality" - order here in the GEO Shop.