The concept of God as a surrogate parent

October 2, 2012 at 12:39 pm 10 comments

This explanation of the concept of God is something that really took hold in my mind once I heard it. The idea simply encompasses so much and explains it so well.

Up front admission: I am borrowing wording heavily from others in putting this together.

This quote popped out at me powerfully from one of the videos in the series I linked in my last post.  “The primary psychological function of the concept of a personal god is to give the believer a surrogate parent. Some minds are able to become independent of parental figures; others cannot or fall into self-destructive behaviors without them. Minds in this category rely on religion. The God concept is useful for motivating and pacifying them.”

As soon as I heard this I knew that I’d come upon something profoundly true and began looking into it further. I did find some scholarly papers on the topic and a presentation or two. (I much enjoy the work presented by Professor J. Anderson Thomson who hits on several excellent points besides this one.) But I must credit someone who goes by the handle Copernicus on ‘The Secular Cafe’ for his brilliant summary of this whole God(s)-as-parent concept. Following are his words:

–One thing that is common to all humans is the fact that we start out with absolute trust in the judgment of adults–usually our parents. We learn morality–the difference between good and bad behavior–from them. Adults are mysterious beings that are omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. They provided all nourishment and protection.

Most people seem wedded to the intuition that morality is “objective”. That is, it comes from a single authoritative source that cannot be questioned. (I prefer the term “authoritative morality” over “objective morality”.) Why is that? It is a consequence of how we learned morality in the first place. It wasn’t based on the consequences of actions, but on what we were told to do by authority figures.

As we matured, we gradually broke down our dependence on parental authority. This break with authority becomes especially pronounced in the teen years. However, gods (or God, for monotheists) fill in the gap that we leave when we abandon our reliance on the experience, wisdom, and authority of adults. Gods stand in loco parentis for maturing humans.

One thing that we can say about all human beings is that we are all raised by adults, and we first learn moral behavior by fiat from adults. Given that we need to be weaned away from dependence on those adults in order to survive in adulthood, belief in a god can fill in the gap left by the loss of parental authority. Hence, people are very comfortable with the idea that morality is grounded in the authority of a judgmental being–a parent–rather than some abstract utilitarian principle. —
Brilliant Mssr. Copernicus. From all this we can now readily understand why theistic believers become so upset when challenged about their beliefs. Just think of how a child reacts if you impugn the character of his/her parents. In like manner, a biologically adult human who believes in a god or gods is attached to a parent still and will, like a child, bristle because you challeng their source of security, nourishment, and all things good.

Remember how anguished most of us were when we first deconverted? We experienced “leaving home” and for the first time in our lives  and we stood alone as true adults without a parent. That is apparently not something most humans want.

Entry filed under: LeoPardus. Tags: , .

Deconversion Videos Makes perfect sense

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. ubi dubium  |  October 2, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    I once saw someone else comment that we do indeed have a “hole in our hearts”, but that hole is not “god-shaped”. Rather the god we create for ourselves is “hole-shaped”.

    I agree most heartily with your post. Over the past years, I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about human nature that results in people everywhere being so religious. One of the factors that I think is involved is “a credulous childhood”, as you described above. As children, not only do we trust in the authority of parents, but we must trust in their authority if we are to survive. When they say “don’t go in the woods, there’s a tiger”, or “don’t chase a ball into the street”, there’s a very strong selective pressure for believing those warnings. So we are saddled with this inclination to trust parental authority, even when it is no longer appropriate.

  • 2. empy  |  October 2, 2012 at 2:21 pm

    First of all, I swear this site disappeared for a LONG time, and then I see posts in my feed today. Yipee!!! It’s a miracle!

    Second, it’s funny when atheists come up with a great theory about religion that is actually a PART of religion. Umm, you know that a lot of religious people use the words “mother” or “father” or some variation when referring to their god? It doesn’t take critical thinking to come up with this theory.:) But I do definitely agree. I think that most people are much more comfortable when the rules to the game are supplied for them by an authority. Most people cringe at the idea of anarchy and envision people running in the streets murdering each other. I think they feel much the same way about a world with no god. How could we possibly get on? How could there be any meaning? It’s too much work to have to come up with values and morals on our own and much easier to trust someone more powerful to sort everything out.

    Now that I have toddler, I find myself thinking a lot about how I’m going to teach her – not only critical thinking but also the kind of habits and social behaviors that will most likely set her up for a happy life. It is a challenge to figure out how to teach a child ANYthing without teaching them to obey authority at the same time. Obeying authority is not necessarily the lesson I aim to teach her, but there are some things she would much better learn through my experiences than her own. It is quite a challenge to ponder, and the outcome probably just as much depends on her personality as it does my efforts. I do think that most parents give in and use their authority a LOT, and most kids are afraid to question it until the teen years (they get yelled at for “talking back” when they do!). So begins the religious personality. And I think it’s critical to teach my daughter something other than the religious personality, so I guess I’ll be talking to myself in the shower for years to come in preparation for all those discussions that are in our future!

  • 3. empy  |  October 2, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    Ack would you please delete my previous post. It is somehow connected with my real name on gravatar, and gravatar is not letting me sign into my account. Ugh.

  • 4. evangelically incorrect  |  October 2, 2012 at 10:23 pm

    My personal relationship with God had very strong Parental tones to it. It is scary to lose that relationship and be left “alone,” if you will, unprotected, uncared for, unnurtured. It’s a rude awakening for those of us who have been steeped in religion.

  • 5. cag  |  October 3, 2012 at 12:57 am

    The problem as I see it is that there are about 3000 “fathers/parents” to choose from. If you don’t mind, I’ll remain an orphan.

  • 6. BigHouse  |  October 3, 2012 at 8:29 pm

    Excellent post, Leo, and good to see this blog and the gang back at it…

  • 7. Demetrius May  |  February 10, 2013 at 12:39 am

    Can anyone point me to any Orthodox resources, patristic or otherwise, that discuss issues relating to children obeying and honoring their parents and the nature of parental authority? I am specifically interested in the issue of adult, unmarried children relating to their parents. I came from a Protestant sect that heavily emphasized the belief that sons and daughters remain under the authority of their parents until such time as they get married and form their own households. For example, they use Numbers 30 to demonstrate the authority that fathers have over their daughters, which is given over to the husbands upon the time of marriage. The way this sometimes (and it is widespread in certain conservative Protestant circles) works itself out is that young women who are unmarried are required by their parents to remain living at home and are not allowed to attend college, get a job outside the home, own and/or drive a car, etc. This degree of control is usually, but not always, lessened with sons, however. My priest has told me that this amount of parental control is not supported by the Church, and he gave me examples of female saints disobeying their fathers, but I am interested in more detailed explanations of the nature and role of parental authority, particularly in the lives of daughters. Any help in these matters is most appreciated!

  • 8. cag  |  February 10, 2013 at 1:50 am

    Demetrius May, you would probably find more information on a site geared to religion. This site is for people who reject religion as being totally and absolutely ridiculous and of no value.

    A word of advise – priests are paid to lie, and the biggest lie of all is the concept of god. When you are ready for truth rather than superstitious lies, come back here.

  • 9. slowe11  |  May 29, 2015 at 2:11 pm

    THis concept of a parental replacement figure has much potential to explain religion – or parts of it. It is associated with Attachment Theory. The BEST book I have ever read on it is by M. D. Faber.

    I would love to discuss this more here if anyone is still following this thread.

  • 10. slowe11  |  May 29, 2015 at 2:13 pm

    That is: The Psychological Roots of Religious Belief: Searching for Angels and the Parent-God. by M. D. Faber. He wrote two related books: “Becoming God’s Children” where he describes again that God becomes a replacement or substitute parent. Also: The Magic of Prayer: An Introduction to the Psychology of Faith.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed

Today’s Featured Link

Attention Christian Readers

Just in case you were wondering who we are and why we de-converted.

de-conversion wager

Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.



Blog Stats

  • 2,163,212 hits since March 2007