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Behavioral Theology

Quantifying the effects of belief

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In the first half of the 20th Century, Psychology struggled as a science. While psychoanalysis seemed to help people, none of its various models could be experimentally verified. But with the rise of Behaviorism, Psychology hit a turning point—suddenly we were speaking in terms of quantifiable measurements.1

Theology2 suffers from even deeper problems. Theology is like philosophy or metaphysics, where any progress is circular rather than linear: ideas continue to be refined, but propositions A and not-A both remain plausible. Despite millennia of study and debate, we’re no closer to proving or disproving the existence of a Creator.

But academics are increasingly taking a behavioral approach to Theology. By quantifying the observable effects of various beliefs (see Studies and Speculation), Behavioral Theology has the potential to give us a stable foothold in an otherwise murky domain.


Belief and Behavior

Belief is a major driver—arguably the only driver—of human behavior. Sometimes the relationship is near-universal: anyone who believes there’s an angry bear in the room will run. Other times the behavior varies from person to person.

That variability comes about because no belief exists in a vacuum—it’s always part of a larger worldview. In fact, we could split beliefs into two categories: local beliefs (i.e. beliefs about the present situation) and global beliefs (i.e. your model of how the world works). In reality, there’s a continuum between the two.

Continuum moving from global beliefs to local beliefs. "Pain and death are bad", "bears cause pain and death", "there's a bear in the room"

Global beliefs always color local beliefs, which is why different people might react differently to the same situation. E.g. your reaction to the bear depends on your knowledge that bears are dangerous; if you think bears are friendly, or that you could totally take a bear in a fight, or that dying a violent death would actually be kinda cool, you’ll be less inclined to run.

Theological beliefs sit at the far-global end of the belief spectrum. What you believe about the origins and nature of the universe, about its creator and intended purpose (or lack thereof), colors your entire worldview. It has a direct impact on more practical beliefs: beliefs about morality, about pleasure and suffering, about the ideal shapes of families and societies. Ultimately Theological beliefs modulate your moment-to-moment behavior.

They might even change your reaction to the bear:

A portion of a cave painting showing a main jumping off a cliff and being eaten by tigers
According to Buddhist legend, Prince Sattva sacrificed himself to feed a family of starving tigers. Image credit: Dunhuang Academy

Imago Dei

The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.

— William James

In When God Talks Back, Tanya Luhrmann describes the relationship between a person’s theological beliefs and their general sense of wellbeing. Even within the single Fundamentalist church she studied, unhappy people tended to see God as punishing and unforgiving, while the happy ones saw God as unconditionally loving.

She even describes the rise of Christian therapists, who help believers reframe their God-image, changing their entire outlook on life.

The church believed that these representations of God…could and should change. They recognized that a person’s God-representation carried the emotional valence of a life, and they believed that as the life changed, the representation would change. They believed that a healthy, happy life generated a deep-seated belief in a loving God—and they believed that if you could bring yourself to believe genuinely in a loving God, your life would reflect the resilience of someone who believes deeply that he or she is loved…As a result, evangelicals support an ever more thriving community of Christian therapists who described their primary task as working with someone’s inner God-concept.

…Christian therapists…believe that God functions like a social relationship—a person—in a congregant’s emotional life and that any psychodynamic work they do with a Christian is essentially therapeutic work with that person’s relationship with and conception of God.

Luhrmann alludes to the chicken-and-egg problem here: belief and attitude affect each other in a feedback loop. Belief in a wrathful God causes depression and anxiety, which then serve as evidence for that wrathfulness; the same goes for belief in a loving God.

…transformations of the God-image…run parallel with changes in human consciousness, though one would be at a loss to say which is the cause of the other…The unconscious God-image can therefore alter the state of consciousness, just as the latter can modify the God-image once it has become conscious.

—Carl Jung, Aion

The assumption in both Christian therapy and in some psychoanalytic schools is that the easiest way to modulate this feedback loop is to alter your God-image.

The question is: modify it in what way?

Studies and Speculation

Fortunately, psychologists and sociologists have started to quantify the effects of different theologies. Most of the studies have small sample sizes, and only measure small variations within a subculture (e.g. Lutherans in Atlanta). There’s also the typical bias towards developed Western (namely American) cultures, which is even more limiting in this context. But these studies start to give us a sense for which beliefs yield which outcomes.

For instance, beliefs about the intentions and motivations of God have a huge impact on the believer. Several studies find that a wrathful God-image is associated with poor mental health, while a loving and forgiving God-image is associated with well-being. The former is also correlated with increased support for capital punishment.

Another dimension of belief is how much power God wields. There’s some evidence that belief in “God control” loosens the relationship between traumatic events and mental health. It also seems to modulate health behaviors, like exercise and drinking, though not always in the same direction.

Not every aspect of a God-image is explicitly theological—a lot has to do with language, metaphor, and depiction. For example, Christians generally agree that God has no skin color or genitalia, but often depict God as a White man.

This has huge downstream effects on the psychology of believers.

Stronger masculine imagery is associated with increased support for criminal punishment and militarism. And feminists have long considered a masculine God-image to be a major pillar of patriarchy.

God’s depicted race has been challenged as a key driver of racism in America; even Black churches continue to worship White Jesus. One study found correlation between God-images and hiring bias for leadership positions. When gods are anthropomorphized they usually resemble the people in power, reinforcing their hegemony.

God depicted as an old Black woman, creating "Adam", a young Black woman
The Creation of God, Harmonia Rosales’ (sadly controversial) reimagining of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. Both pieces allude to the human role in creating a God image

But the most important dimension of theological belief is harder to quantify through a targeted study. So we’ll have to rely on the speculation of historians and anthropologists.

Monotheist and polytheist frameworks are often characterized as totalitarian and pluralist, respectively. A society with many gods can easily accept new additions to their pantheon; but monotheists—as well as Atheists!—insist that their understanding is the correct understanding. Which of course leads to a huge difference in behavior.

What monotheism undoubtedly did was to make many people far more intolerant than before, thereby contributing to the spread of religious persecutions and holy wars. Polytheists found it perfectly acceptable that different people will worship different gods and perform diverse rites and rituals…Monotheists, in contrast, believed that their God was the only god, and that He demanded universal obedience. Consequently, as Christianity and Islam spread around the world, so did the incidence of crusades, jihads, inquisitions and religious discrimination.

—Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

And of course, the effects of Atheism have been thoroughly studied, though not without controversy. Pew finds American Atheists are less likely to be “very happy”, more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors, and less likely to participate in their communities. Scientific American points out reasons to believe the relationship isn’t causal, but an artifact of being in the minority.

And given how big a role community plays in religious experience, all these findings are confounded by levels of conformity—the exact same beliefs can yield very different outcomes in different cultural contexts. The only way to know what works for you, in your particular context, is to self-experiment.

Choosing My Religion

I’ve stated before that I select3 my religious beliefs based partly on reason, and partly on their practical effects.

I grew up Catholic, and inherited a very masculine, king-like God-image. There was often an emphasis on love and forgiveness, but also strength. And then there was wrathful imagery: they literally had a statue of a brutalized man hanging in the center of the altar. (The older I get, the more bizarre Catholicism looks on paper. We drank his blood!)

When I left the Church, I started referring to God by a different name. I was only 16, but I understood that the name “God” carried too much baggage, and I wanted a reset. The name change helped a bit.

Then, in my late 20s, I deliberately separated that God-image into male and female aspects. Theologically, I still think of them as facets of a single God, but give them different names, and associate them with different imagery and metaphors. They cohere nicely with the concepts of yin and yang.

The practical effects of this split have been profound. By praying to or meditating on the feminine aspect of God, I’m able to find deep comfort and refuge. I feel more connected to nature, which has taken on a new level of numinosity. I even feel a stronger connection to my own feminine side.

The masculine aspect still has plenty of value—it’s where I project my ambition and my sense of moral duty. If I take a vow to stop drinking for a month, it’s the masculine aspect that holds me to it.

I see these God-images as caring and supportive, like a cosmic Mother and Father. But I’ve also found that I can’t maintain a God-image that’s 100% love and happiness—it inevitably butts up against the reality of evil and suffering. This is a common theological issue.4

I’ve tried separating out the chaotic/destructive/wrathful aspects of both the feminine and the masculine, forming a quaternity. I found this useful for a short time, but the imagery never really took root in the same way as the original male/female split; maybe four characters is too much for my brain to hold onto. Instead the dark aspects of reality get rolled together into a mostly masculine and stereotypically Christian devil-image. This creates some imbalance in my theology and, by extension, my psyche.

My God-image is still a work in progress, but so far it’s been an incredibly powerful tool for self-improvement.

What a Fool Believes

In all this discussion on the effects of belief, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that I’ve lost the plot. Shouldn’t we care about how well our beliefs match reality?

I have three responses here:

First, metaphysical reality is (by definition) underdetermined by the evidence at hand. No amount of poking or prodding at the world around us will reveal God or no-God.5 To some degree, theological beliefs are a free choice.

Second, there are limits. Your God-image has to be a reflection of the reality you experience. You can’t just adopt a God-image that’s all love and joy—any experience of suffering will force you to adjust your image or create a devil.

Third, there’s a large continuum between logical beliefs and imagery. We can modulate the imagery without sacrificing the logic that undergirds it.

At a technical level, I like to keep my theology apophatic; I don’t attach any particular traits to the ultimate reality or divinity. But I will often split that ineffable Unity into pairs of opposites: Father and Mother, God and Satan, yin and yang; where the split occurs is a free choice.

This gives me the best of both worlds: I can keep my logical assertions (like a belief in panentheism) mostly separate from the imagery. I could even imagine becoming philosophically Atheist or Agnostic while retaining my anthropomorphized representations of of the universe. The logic evolves as I learn, and I can use the imagery to regulate my behavior and mood.

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No matter how my beliefs change, no matter how I choose to articulate them, there’s a direct experience of mysterium tremendum et fascinans that remains constant. It serves as the foundation for those beliefs, and is always the thing I’m pointing to, however indirectly or unskillfully.

Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us—there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.

—Carl Sagan, Cosmos

The fact that we can describe God as male or female, forgiving or wrathful, intentional or passive, even existent or non-existent, doesn’t negate the numinous Truth that sits beneath those descriptions.

…when people discovered that they could make different ideas about the deity, they came to the conclusion that it was nothing but an idea, and they quite forgot the real phenomenon that is behind all the ideas.

—Carl Jung, Lecture on Zarathustra

We live in a universe vast beyond comprehension; it’s important to choose the right metaphors as we approach it.



Of course, we lost a great deal in the trade: we gave up most attempts to quantify or even describe subjective experience. We seem to be catching back up on that front in recent years.


An earlier version of this post poked fun at the “-ology” suffix, given its scientific connotations. See the comments for a fun detour into etymology and why that’s maybe unfair.


There’s some good debate on whether people are capable of choosing their beliefs. I think most of it boils down to whether you think people have free will or not. I left some comments on the linked article.


In Aion, Jung goes on at length about how theological doctrines like privatio boni, which classified God and His creation as perfectly good, led to the creation of compensatory images of evil.

I have gone into the doctrine of the privatio boni at such length because it is in a sense responsible for a too optimistic conception of the evil in human nature and for a too pessimistic view of the human soul. To offset this, early Christianity, with unerring logic, balanced Christ against an Antichrist. For how can you speak of “high” if there is no “low,” or “right” if there is no “left,” of “good” if there is no “bad,” and the one is as real as the other? Only with Christ did a devil enter the world as the real counterpart of God…One must be positively blind not to see the colossal role that evil plays in the world.

—Carl Jung, Aion


Even if a giant face appeared in the clouds, claiming to be God and dictating the weather and the stock market, it’d take us about 10 minutes to ask: but wait, who created you? Most metaphysical questions are prone to this sort of regress.

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