Religion has dominated the social and political landscape of the world for millennia—but why? What separates a believer from a non-believer? Steven Reiss, a professor emeritus of psychology at The Ohio State University, believes he knows what separates different kinds of believers.
After more than 20 years of studying human motivation, he has determined that the motivation to seek religion is not thanks to a fear of death or a desire to be moral, but rather to something much broader—our basic human desires.
“It’s not just about fear of death. Religion couldn’t achieve mass acceptance if it only fulfilled one or two basic desires,” said Reiss in an Ohio State University statement. “People are attracted to religion because it provides believers the opportunity to satisfy all their basic desires over and over again. You can’t boil religion down to one essence.”
As detailed in his new book, The 16 Strivings for God, there are—surprise!—16 basic desires found in humans. These goals are based on research he conducted in the 1990s on motivation, when he asked thousands of people to rate the degree to which they sought hundreds of different possible goals via survey.
After collecting the data, the team was able to draw forth 16 basic desires shared amongst our kind: acceptance, curiosity, eating, family, honor, idealism, independence, order, physical activity, power, romance, saving, social contact, status, tranquility, and vengeance.
Following this, Reiss developed a questionnaire to measure how much different people valued these 16 goals, and over 100,000 people have filled it out since then.
“We all share the same 16 goals, but what makes us different is how much we value each one,” Reiss said. “How much an individual values each of those 16 desires corresponds closely to what he or she likes and dislikes about religion.”
According to Reiss, all religious beliefs and practices meet one or more of these 16 goals. But, as he pointed out, any successful religion must fulfill these desires in ways that satisfy all different kinds of personality types.
Take, for example, the desire for social contact: For extroverts, religions may offer festivals, or teach that gods favor fellowship. For introverts, the same religion may encourage meditation or private retreats, with extra blessings associated with solitude.
Or, in the desire for vengeance, some religions preach of a god who is peaceful and who generally encourages pacifism—but the other side of that coin is a wrathful god and holy wars. “Religion attracts all kinds, including peacemakers and those who want a vengeful God,” added Reiss.
But what about atheists?
Not everyone needs to turn to religion to fulfill their 16 desires, said Reiss. Secular society also offers alternatives that can achieve that end. “Religion competes with secular society to meet those 16 needs and can gain or lose popularity based on how well people believe it does compared to secular society,” he explained.
The biggest desire found fulfilled within secular society is independence, which appears to be the driving force separating religious and non-religious people. In a study from 2000, Reiss discovered that religious people (the majority of whom were Christian) strongly favored dependence on one another within their faith, while non-religious types showed a greater need to be self-reliant and independent.
However, despite all these claims, Reiss emphasized he is not trying to say anything about the truth of religious convictions.
“I’m not trying to answer theological questions about the existence or nature of God,” Reiss said. “What I’m trying to answer is the nature of why people embrace religion and God.”