The Appeal of Christianity
Fear of things invisible is the natural
seed of that which every one in himself calleth religion.
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
Religions and other bodies of belief compete with each other
for acceptance. Often it is possible to identify specific aspects
that appeal to people and give one religion an edge over another.
One important characteristic of Christianity, arguably its prime
selling point, is paternalism. God takes care of us. He watches
over us all the time. We turn to him for protection. He is firm,
yet gentle and understanding. He knows all that we know, and
much, much more. He is big and powerful. He is the ultimate
in dads who can beat up your dad.
This characteristic did not escape Sigmund Freud, who made
the observation that "at bottom God is no more than an
Freud contended that religion plays on the infantile aspects
of people by reinforcing the childish residues in their psyches.
This was an unwelcome revelation, for he found it painful to
reflect that the majority of moralists would never rise above
what he saw as so infantile a view of the world. Perhaps as
a result of his insights, the Western Churches have been playing
down paternal aspects of Christianity. Christians are now discouraged
from thinking of God as a big old man, dressed in white and
sitting on a throne in the sky. However, it is clear that many
still conceive of God as a powerful wise old father figure,
and not all of them are young children. Sociological studies
show that nuns, unmarried girls, and older women tend to have
attitudes towards God that are particularly similar to their
attitudes towards their own fathers*.
Other paternalistic elements are not difficult to find in Christianity.
The brotherhood of man depended not only on the Fatherhood of
God but also on the Fatherhood of the Clergy. All priests are
"fathers". The titles patriarch, abbot,
pope and padre all derive from words meaning
exactly the same thing "father". Traditionally when
a boy joined the Church he was adopted by his bishop, exchanging
his own family for that of his bishop. Now he had a big powerful
family for life, with a range of father figures who would always
be bigger and more powerful than himself.
We often believe things not because they are true but because
we should like them to be true. Most drivers of motor vehicles
believe themselves to be above-average drivers. Similarly a
disproportionate people imagine themselves to have better than
average senses of humour, to be more intelligent and fair-minded
than they really are, to be more honest than the norm, and to
have unusually gifted children. As Francis Baconput it “Man
prefers to believe what he prefers to be true” It
is conceivable that people believe in a paternalistic God for
a similar reason that they would like a paternalistic
God to be looking after them. Freud thought there was something
in this idea: "Religion is an illusion and it derives its
strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctive
second most important factor is fear. Most people are at some
stage afraid of something: of the dark, of the unknown, of defeat
in war, of illness, of hunger, most of all of death. Educated
people in ancient times recognised that fear was a useful tool
for keeping order, and some suspected that their ancestors had
used the gods in order to keep the masses under control. Some,
like the Roman historian Polybius, believed that the ancients
had been rather clever in inventing both gods and the concept
of punishment after death, in order to help keep order. Certainly
fear plays an important role in Christian belief. People often
become religious in times of danger. Huge numbers of people
became religious in times of pestilence and in the aftermath
of natural disasters. As Arthur Clough observed:
And almost every one when age
Disease, or sorrow strike him
Inclines to think there is a God
Or something very like him.*
Workers in particularly dangerous jobs are renowned for their
religiosity. In the past miners and deep-sea fishermen were
remarkable both for the strictness of their adherence to Christianity,
as well as to their intricate and extensive superstitions. Now
that mining and fishing is so much safer, the religiosity has
largely evaporated along with the superstition. In times of
peace, soldiers are no more religious than the population at
large, but in time of war they often take an interest in the
possibility of divine protection. During World War II it was
popularly said to be impossible to find an atheist in a foxhole.
Actually the tendency to become superstitious seems to be related
not so much to danger as to nervousness. Actors, singers and
other performers like high-profile athletes also tend to become
highly superstitious. This may help explain the common phenomenon
of the international footballer carrying magical charms, crossing
himself, or dropping to his knees to give a prayer of thanks
when he has just scored a goal. Not so many mathemeticians do
that after solving a difficult problem.
Approaching death also causes worry, which seems to encourage
religious belief. A number of sociological studies have shown
that people become more religious as they get older*.
Among anthropologists it is a commonplace that religions such
as Christianity feed upon the fear of death. Many sects deliberately
generate fear. Threats of damnation, torment and hellfire could
not be better refined for producing terror among believers.
Satan too, looks suspiciously like the personification of an
instinctive fear, especially in his serpentine guise. Clarence
Day, in This Simian World, made the point in a graphic
manner: "The snake, it is known, is the animal monkeys
most dread. Hence when men give their devil a definite form,
they make him a snake. A race of super-chickens would have pictured
their devil as a hawk". Closely related to the fear of
death is the promise of eternal life. Less reflective members
of society are keen on immortality and find attractive the image
of themselves living forever in Paradise. Until recent times
theologians encouraged their flocks to imagine themselves in
eternal Paradise looking down on the souls in Hell and gloating
over their suffering. A few hellfire preachers still portray
the life after death like this, and the idea still has great
In addition to the emphasis on a father figure, and a reliance
on fear, a third major element in Christianity is indoctrination.
The power of this element is clearly apparent when one compares
people's religion with that of their parents. What is consistently
found is that the overwhelming majority of people adopt their
parents" religion, especially if they get on well with
their parents*. Of those
who change allegiance almost all are accounted for by people
changing for non-religious reasons, for example adopting the
religion of their spouses. Thus the religious profile of a country
will change only slowly from generation to generation. In a
homogeneous country like Greece, where the Greek Orthodox Church
accounted for 99 per cent of the population in the last generation,
it still accounts for 98 per cent of the latest generation.
In England the Greek Orthodox Church accounted for rather less
than 1 per cent of the population in the last generation, and
sure enough continues to account for less than 1 per cent of
the new generation. The same phenomenon may be observed in other
countries where national religions have become virtual monopolies.
The stability of these proportions indicates that people are
simply adopting the local norm. If people were making reasoned
informed decisions, then one might expect the one true religion
(and its one true sect) to be equally represented everywhere.
Several other factors seem to play a part as well. We have
already seen that the need for superficially plausible explanations
is one such. Sociologists have also suggested that organised
religion gives a sense of identity and the comfortable impression
of having an appointed place in the order of things*.
As Robin Dunbar puts it:
It is surely no accident that almost every religion promises
its adherents that they and they alone are the
“chosen of god”, guaranteed salvation no mater
what, assured that the almighty (or whatever form the gods
take) will assist them through their current difficulties
if the right rituals and prayers are performed. This undoubtedly
introduces a profound sense of comfort in times of adversity.*
We have already seen how heavily the concept of fatherhood
features in the Church, but this is only part of the story.
Becoming a Christian not only replaced one's own father; it
replaced one's whole family. As one leading churchman put it
"He cannot have God for his father who has not the Church
for his mother"*.
So it is that the Church is not just an impersonal organisation
but "Mother Church". Everyone has a role in the Christian
family. As well as calling their head an abbot (father) monks
call each other "brother". Friars are also called
fratres, i.e. brothers. Similarly, nuns call their chief "mother"
and each other "sister". Fathers and mothers address
their underlings as "my son" or "my daughter"
or "my child", even though these underlings might
be two generations older. Priests address their flocks in the
same way. For some unmarried and childless Christians the Church
appears to serve as a family substitute*.
The idea of marriage features heavily within Christianity. In
many Churches little girls wear wedding dresses for their confirmation.
Nuns are referred to as brides of Christ. Some wear crowns,
following the Orthodox (and ancient Jewish) practice for new
brides, and some wear wedding rings.
The idea of nuns as brides of Christ
has been current for many centuries, but Churches have
become reticent about the concept of "brides of Christ"
and wary about the public seeing new nuns in their wedding
This photograph of novice nuns is entitled
"A Meeting of the Brides of Christ on their Wedding
Day to their Lord at the Nunnery in Godalming, Surrey".
It was taken at the Ladywell Convent and is one of a series
on the lives of nuns taken by Eve Arnold during the mid-1960s.
It was bequeathed to the V&A in 2010.
Just as nuns marry Jesus, Clergymen are said to "marry"
the Church when they take Holy Orders. Bishops impale
their heraldic arms with those of their sees, as though
they were married to them. Monks and nuns were once expected
to bring a dowry with them when they were admitted to
their religious orders.
In most countries priests have always enjoyed normal
family lives, often openly, sometimes concealed, especially
in modern times. Monks and nuns also enjoyed some liberty
at times, but when they took their vows of chastity seriously
the results were what any modern psychiatrists would predict
of anyone deprived of normal family relationships: widespread
homosexuality, pedophilia, a range of psychotic conditions
and erotic hallucinations.
Normal desires for children might be sublimated so that
Jesus became not only a nun's absentee husband, but also
her absentee baby, for which she could substitute a replica
doll, as shown on the right.
can also be used to validate cultural values. National Churches
often reflect local norms, sometimes to the extent that non-believers
are considered to be dangerous, subversive and not really worthy
to be full citizens. Examples from the recent past are Orthodoxy
in Greece, Roman Catholicism in the Republic of Ireland, Presbyterianism
in much of Scotland, Mormonism in Utah, and Methodism in Fiji.
In some countries the links are still strong. In Greece anyone
who does not belong to the Greek Orthodox Church is widely regarded
as not truly Greek. Until the nineteenth century the whole of
Europe had similar ideas. To be European was almost the same
as being Christian.
in the USA maintained a high level of religious belief, approaching
100 per cent up to recent years. The explanation seems to be
that religion has become associated in the popular mind with
being a good American. As one researcher put it "Americans
feel alienated and unidentified unless they belong to one of
the major religious divisions"*.
Atheism is perceived as being tantamount to communism and thus
un-American. Certainly atheists and agnostics are subject to
criticism and hostility*
and are made to feel like outsiders. As one sociologist observed:
Religion in America has become an American religion, which
is mostly secularised, middle-class and supportive of an individual
and national "good image" ...*
Many Americans associate their religion
so closely with their country, that they find nothing
at all incongruous in Jesus assisting his followers in
their national sports.
American Christianity thus bears a remarkable similarity to
the traditional Roman religions around the time of Jesus. It
is not so much concerned with any external divinity but with
the state itself. Believers are good citizens who are loyal
to God and the Emperor / President, whose beliefs encompass
state ideals, and who are bound by an approved moral code. It
seems to be for this reason that atheists and agnostics are
stigmatised in the USA. The same pressures may help to account
for the spectacular success of certain American religions that
view the United States as God's "own land" or "promised
Child Praying by Lawrence Nelson
- Posters of this picture are popular in the USA
The image deliberately conflates American Liberty with
religion, as though they were related.
There are evidently people in the USA
so unworldly that they find images of Jesus holding a
US flag entirely compatible with their theology.
In this image Jesus kneels by an American
flag, and appears to be tending a crack in the Liberty
Bell. Next tobe him is a document starting "We the
people ...". Standing on the bell is an American
eagle. The message seems to be that Jesus is closely attached
to republicanism, democracy and liberty, and especially
to republicanism, democracy and liberty the USA. Since
the mainstream Churches have traditionally been keen supporters
of monarchy and opponents of democracy, it is not obvious
whether this image is propaganda designed to misrepresent
history or a spoof.
Mormonism teaches that Jesus Christ has appeared on American
soil, which might be seen as one step better. The characteristically
American version of Jesus favours political conservatism, patriotism,
and a typically American clean-cut image. This looks suspiciously
like an example of people favouring gods who resemble themselves.
Some interesting American Christian reasoning
is not difficult to find other Christian sects whose God looks
like a bigger and better version of themselves. Thus the Orthodox
God is clearly Greek, or Russian, or whatever, depending on
the Orthodox country in question. Czar Nicholas thought of the
country he ruled as "Our Russia entrusted to us by God",
and also refered to the god in question as "The Russian
God". The Calvinist God is a highly judgmental God, resembling
an exaggerated hellfire and brimstone preacher. The Roman Catholic
God is a ritualistic infallible absolutist God (one small step
up from the Pope). The Puritan God is obsessed by sexual morality
(like leading members of the Festival of Light). The Anglican
God is a tolerant, open-minded, earnest God fond of the Middle
Ground (just like a liberal cleric). In each case God is the
image of his followers seen in a convex mirror.
So far we have seen that belief is related not only to paternalism,
fear, and upbringing, but also to social conformity, and for
some at least, the need for a substitute "family".
And there are other factors that appear to play a part, often
linked to particular personality types. Sociologists have suggested
that sexual deprivation may be one of the roots of religion*.
There is evidence that guilt plays an important role. For example,
young females who suffer from feelings of guilt appear to be
particularly attracted to Protestant groups that emphasise sin
Christians confidently affirm that God
agree with them: even though he fails to mention his views
to other Christians who do not share them.
generally, Christianity seems to attract particular personality
types. For example, religious people have been found to be more
suggestible and dependent than others. Religious students have
reported a greater degree of personal inadequacy and anxiety*.
Neitzsche called Christianity a sickness arising from the envy
of the underprivileged ... H. L. Mencken put it even more brutally:
God is the immemorial refuge of the incompetent, the helpless,
the miserable. They find not only sanctuary in His arms, but
also a kind of superiority, soothing to their macerated egos;
He will set them above their betters*.
studies tend to confirm Mencken's intuition, in more diplomatic
terms*. Studies, mainly
in the USA, suggest that religious conviction is related to
factors such as feelings of guilt*,
neuroticism and other mental disorders*,
lack of education and lack of political awareness*,
lack of family*, lack
of self-esteem and feelings of personal inadequacy*.
Social pressure is a major factor in determining religious attachments.
This is as true for new converts as for others. Over 40 per
cent of converts, when asked some years ago, admitted that they
had been converted as a result of social pressure or intimidation*
(judging by evangelists' modern techniques the figure may now
be much higher). A study carried out on some of Billy Graham's
teenage converts found that the most important factor in the
retention of their new religious convictions was the acquisition
of new friends*. The
second most important factor was parental reaction.
The cartoon below, published in 1922,
is by a popular Roman Catholioc cartoonist, E J Pace.
The appeal for young men who consider themselves inadequate
is not difficult to see
factors are clearly important. The upper classes favour mainstream
churches, while the lower classes favour small sects and are
attracted by fundamentalism*.
This is not a new phenomenon. New and informal sects have always
appealed to the lower orders. King Charles II noted that Presbyterianism
was "not a religion for gentlemen". Some Churches
were open and specific about their target markets. The Salvation
Army for example was firmly targeted on the working class market,
and the Methodists concentrated specifically on the upper end
of the same market niche. Even in allegedly egalitarian societies
it has been observed that traditional Churches meet the needs
of the upper classes while evangelical sects tend to meet lower
class needs. Church membership in America has been found to
be directly related to social class*.
A study in California suggested that evangelical sects appeal
to working class people by offering a fantasy world*.
Certainly more people seem to be drawn to authoritarian denominations
in times of financial stress and insecurity*.
Christian advertising with a clearly
identifiable target audiences
motive for the socially underprivileged who join sects is that
they achieve a sort of social status*.
They are accepted as social equals within the sect and even
see themselves as members of a spiritual élite.
The same idea pervades the social spectrum. As one social researcher
in the USA observed: "The Church is now a reflection of
the economic ladder. Ascent on this ladder is validated by escalation
to congregations of higher social and economic rank. For every
rung on the ladder there is an appropriate congregation, with
ushers of slightly more refined dress, and somewhat more cultivated
One other factor that plays a part is the need for ritual.
Every religion has rituals. Generally the need for Christian
ritual seems to affect only a small number of people. Converts
from Western to Eastern Churches often mention ritual as a key
reason for their conversion. In the past the effects have been
much greater. The whole of Russia adopted Orthodox Christianity
rather than Roman Catholic Christianity or Islam, specifically
because of its mode of worship*.
To sum up: from the non-believer's point of view Christianity
flourishes through a mix of fear and paternalism, supplemented
by social pressure and manipulation of personal inadequacies.
For a few the provision of specialist services such as flagellation
or ritual may play a significant part. It is not necessary that
a conscious choice be made on the part of Church leaders to
make their religion attractive to potential adherents. The mechanisms
may well be unconscious, as we have seen with the Virus
of the Mind theory of religion
§ For attempts at scientific theories into the origins of religion, see Dennett, Breaking The Spell and Wolpert, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast.
§. Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo, Hogarth Press ( London, 1913), p 244.
§. A. Godin and M. Hallez, "Parental Images and Divine Paternity", in From Religious Experience to a Religious Attitude (ed. A. Godin) Lumen Vitae ( Brussels, 1964), cited by Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, p 184.
§. Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Letters on Psychoanalysis, "A Philosophy of Life".
§. Arthur Hugh Clough , Dipsychus, I, ii.
§. A number of sociological studies illustrating the correlation between old age and the strength of religious belief are cited in Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, pp 68-70.
§. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, pp 30-32, citing a number of studies in the UK and USA.
§. Various interesting sociological theories about the origin of religious behaviour are discussed in Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, pp 180-201.
§. Robin Dunbar, The Human Story: A New History of Mankind's Evolution, Faber & Faber ( London, 2004), p 191
§. St Cyprian, De Ecclesiae Catholicae Unitate, 6.
§. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, p 29, citing C. Y. Glock "The Sociology of Religion" in Sociology Today (eds. R. K. Merton et al), Basic Books (New York, 1959).
§. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, p 29, citing W. Herberg Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Doubleday (New York, 1955).
§. C. Y. Glock and R. Stark, Religion and Society in Tension, Rand McNally ( Chicago, 1965) and Christian Beliefs and Anti-Semitism, Harper & Rowe (New York, 1966).
§. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, p 29. The evidence is cited on pp 25-9 and discussed on pp 203-6.
§. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, p 154. See also pp 198-9.
§. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, pp 195-6. See also p 99.
§. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, p 202.
§. Henry Louise Mencken, Notebooks, "Minority Report".
§. "The greater his disappointment in this life, the greater his faith in the next. Thus the existence of goals beyond this world serves to compensate people for frustrations they inevitably experience in striving to reach socially acquired and socially valuable ends." Davis K., Human Society, Macmillan (New York, 1948), p 532.
§. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, p 189, 195-6.
§. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, pp 135-9, 199-201.
§. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, pp 145-8.
§. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, pp 148-9.
§. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, pp 110-1.
§. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, p 194.
§. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, pp 126-30. More recent work is consistent. See for example Vassilis Saroglou, Vannessa Delpierre & Rebecca Dernelle, Values and Religiosity: A Meta Analysis using Swartz's Model, Personality and Individual Differences, 37 (2004) 271 734. http://www.uclouvain.be/cps/ucl/doc/psyreli/documents/2004.ValuesReliMA.pdf. According to this paper (from a Catholic University) “Across all 21 samples, religiosity was associated with high importance attributed to the conservation of values, mainly Tradition and Conformity; similarly, religiosity was related to low Self-Direction”. A negative correlation was noted between religiosity and what the paper calls Universalism (which the authors explain as “understanding, appreciation, tolerance, and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature”
§. E. D. Starbuck, The Psychology of Religion, Walter Scott ( London, 1899).
§. F. L. Whitam, "Peers, Parents and Christ: Interpersonal Influence in Retention of Teenage Decisions Made at a Billy Graham Crusade", Proceedings of the Southwestern Sociological Association, 19 ( USA, 1968), pp 154-8.
§. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, p 163, citing a number of studies in the UK and USA.
§. N. J. Demerath, Social Class in American Protestantism, Rand McNally ( Chicago, 1965).
§. W. R. Goldschmidt, "Class denominations in rural California churches", American Journal of Sociology, 49 (1944), pp 348-55.
§. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, pp 176-177.
§. W. Stark, The Sociology of Religion, vol. 2, RKP ( London, 1967)
§. G. Winter, The Suburban Captivity of the Churches, Macmillan (New York, 1962), p 77.
§. Ware, The Orthodox Church, p 269, citing the Russian Primary Chronicle which explains how Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, identified the one true religion.