Quest for unity: Religious Specifics of a Universal Psychological Function

Among the vast number of psychological functions of religion, is it possible to delineate one or two that can claim to: a) apply universally in all the varied contexts in which religion is expressed; and b) give a specific psychological explanation of the function of religion, as compared with other needs and psychological functions?

Our reflection will focus on the need and the quest for unity. In general, the ideal of unity seems an important, fundamental preoccupation in all religions. Some examples from Christianity are illustrative. The idea of a Trinitarian God led to a theological argumentation which championed the principle of unity beyond the diversity the three persons. The devil, however, was perceived as the prototypical figure of division. This concern with unity characterizes the ecclesiastical community in its entirety – and in a more exemplified manner perhaps in Catholicism or in the Orthodox world: one Church, one central authority (person or synod), one bishop (per territory), one apostolic succession, one faith, one baptism, one sacrament of marriage, one Eucharist, one exclusive denominational adherence.

The essential parts of the function that religion accomplishes, as far as the quest for unity is concerned, is not to simply proclaim unity in opposition to accidental and random divisions among humans (conflicts, wars, and violence in general), in the face of which religions proclaim themselves to be bearers of tolerance and of love. On the contrary, the argument that will be developed here is that, in a more fundamental (if not radical) way, religion seems to be animated by a fundamental need for unity. This need is born of the negative experience humans have by being torn apart by a series of internal divisions. Such an experience seems to be constitutive of human beings.

We will thus examine in this essay a large number of psychological domains in which religion serves as a force that offers ways in which one can overcome this experience of personal fracture and division. Let us nevertheless clarify that this reflection does not necessarily by default fall into the realm of psychoanalytic theory on the oceanic feeling or the fantasy of returning to the mother’s breast. Though these realities do play a certain role in religious experience (cf., for example, Parsons, 1999). Two reasons justify this choice. Firstly, to accept out of hand the concept of the oceanic feeling requires one to use a larger psychoanalytic framework, the reality of which has not been substantiated. Secondly, the explanatory power of the oceanic feeling is focused on the mystic religious experience, while our objective here is to describe a psychological function of religion that is applicable in a large variety of aspects and expressions of religion and which concerns religions of all kinds and all religious individuals. We will however return to this issue, in another part of this essay, in order to reevaluate the position that the oceanic feeling occupies in the entirety of the concept we are calling “need and quest for unity.”

A unity which concerns the entirety of humans’ internal divisions

The fundamental difference between the sexes
Several elements suggest that religion is particularly concerned with the ideal of unity that overcomes the fundamental difference between the sexes. This difference can be experienced as relating to feelings of incompleteness, of separation, and of acute strangeness.

First of all, the principles of the masculine and the feminine are joined at the heart of the divinity. In some religions, they are unified within the same person. In a similar manner, empirical research on contemporary Christians’ representation of God has shown that God is not perceived as an exclusively paternal or maternal figure, but that God encompasses both stereotypically paternal and stereotypically maternal qualities (Vergote & Tamayo, 1980). Let us recall that theological literature (especially medieval literature) dealt with a “maternal spirituality” practiced by such masculine figures as Christ or Saint Paul (Bynum, 1982; Gaventa, 1993). In a similar manner, the image of a God without a physical body and without any sexuality, conveyed in the three monotheistic religions, could be interpreted as signaling that this “division” of the human race into man and woman does not comprise the ideal state of things.

Next, theological anthropology seems to suggest, directly or indirectly, the limited character of man’s division into two sexes and supports an ideal that overcomes this difference. For example, according to the book of Genesis, woman is a pure continuity of the masculine body. The origins of the heavenly state, in the most radical version of the Greek patristics, implies the absence of any sexual relations between Adam and Eve, as if behind the sexual characteristics of man and woman, the definitive difference between the two sexes, there was the echo of failure. In a parallel manner, the New Testament strongly suggests that the eschatological state of man will disregard this fundamental difference between man and woman; men and women will both be like angels (Mt 22.30, Mc 12.25). Fundamentally, religion seems to compensate for this diffuse and bitter experience of sexuality, which is somewhat of a divisive factor.

Along the same lines of reasoning, it is probably not an accident that, from the beginning of monastic and ascetic spirituality, we find ourselves faced with an ideal that eschews sex-related differences. The ascetic rules of St. Pachomius or St. Basil the Great are identical for monks and nuns; the latter, in patristic literature, are often admired for the vigor of their asceticism and their spirituality. In these qualities, nuns are seen as equal to the virility and heroics of men (Delierneux, 1997; Hausherr, 1955/1990; Ruether, 1979). The opposite tendency is observed when one examines contemporary research on the psychology of the religious personality. If, in the patristic literature, ascetic women are praised because they are similar to men as far as virtue is concerned, modern studies show a unification of the two psychologies specific to sex which goes in the opposite direction. The intensity of religiosity in men (and in women) is associated with a higher level of stereotypically feminine traits (without necessarily implying a weaker level of masculinity) (Francis & Wilcox, 1996, 1998; Mercer & Durham, 1999; Thompson, 1991). Finally, it is possible that religious aesthetics lead to a certain predilection for the androgynous ideal. The Byzantine iconography in which the femininity and masculinity of faces and bodies are erased in front of austerity, hieratic style and the eschatological light, as well as the liturgical clothing of the clergy in the majority of the Christian denominations are some examples that are well worth considering.

Differences between generations
The difference between generations is also experienced as a source of separation, incomprehension, and internal division. Depending on societal, cultural, and historical variation, certain ages are given special value (the old wise man, the young hedonist, the dominant adult or the pure child). This leads to scorn for, discredit of, and sometimes even the exclusion of people of other ages. In an even more extreme fashion, specific values associated with each age are a source of envy, inequality, and misunderstanding.

At the core of the religious domain, the biological difference of age is relegated to the background and can even be, in some ways, overcome. The message of faith is addressed to everyone and the community of believers is a community in which everyone is equal, no matter their age or other characteristics related to this biological difference. Whether believers are represented as children of God or as brothers in Christ, there exists a unitary body that disregards the differences between generations. In certain contexts, for example in the monastic community, biological age has no importance: a younger monk can become a spiritual father of someone much older. In a similar manner, the order of precedence follows the chronological order of entry into the community and does not follow any kind of generational logic. Finally, in civil society, even if citizenship is a quality everyone can enjoy, the age of the majority makes a distinction among people as far as the application of rights and adult responsibilities is concerned. Certain people, in particular, are more likely to be the beneficiaries of services (most often children, adolescents, and even elderly individuals if need be). In contrast, in the community of believers, ethical responsibility and the possibility to become a saint do not have any fixed limits regarding age.

Reason and feelings
Tension between reason and emotions constitutes another source of internal division in humans. The history of philosophy is also a history of varied conceptualizations that attempt to articulate these two elements which are characterized by a certain irreducibility. Even if contemporary psychological research and theory in the domain of “Cognition and Emotion” have contributed in identifying the cognitive dimension of emotions (and vice versa, Dalgleish & Power, 1999), it is still the case that rationality and emotionality are each a source of information and criteria of judgment that can converge or diverge, and perhaps even become in conflict with one another. The superiority of each one of these elements over the other leads to diverse consequences; to become convinced of this, one need only examine the psychology of individual differences or psychopathology.

Religion also seems to be concerned with this tension between cognitive and affective dimensions in man. First of all, as recent work in the evolutionary psychology of religion has pointed out (cf. notably Boyer, 2001), gods in many religions are characterized by a great similarity to humans: beyond some extraordinary qualities (counter intuitive, according to Boyer), they have a human intellect and a human psychology that implies knowledge, desires, and emotions. For humans, these gods have proven to be more interesting than extraordinary omniscient beings who are stripped of emotions (such as extraterrestrials), or extraordinary beings who display force and emotions but do not have human rationality (such as monsters).

All theologies and spiritualities try to find the correct balance between the cognitive and emotional elements. There are many variations in the way one element can be stronger than other, in the way these elements are complementary, and in the synergy between the two. However, beyond these variations, the constant goal is to promote unity which overcomes the irreducibility of these two logics. Thus, dogma is not just a rational construction: it promotes affective attachment to that which was revealed or transmitted by tradition and expresses the desires and expectations of a community. Similarly, religious emotions are not only simple individual or shared sensations; they are experienced as reflecting symbolism and as having a rationality that contributes to the construction or the maintenance of meaning. It is in this goal that the desire for unity between the two elements (rational and affective) meet their most meaningful expression in religious ritual. Religious gestures, words, and symbols that do not provoke any emotions among the faithful are indicators of a moribund religion or faith. Emotive experiences that do not transmit a meaningful logic to the believer’s sense of meaning in his life are ephemeral and they do not become functioning rituals of religious transmission. Finally, as a central referent of any religious attitude, God combines these two dynamics: he is both the object of belief and the object of a relational attachment.

The divergence between affectivity and rationality is illustrated as well in the psychoanalytic conceptions that distinguish the maternal order and the paternal function. The former is associated with feelings, with love and unconditional availability and the latter is associated with the irreducibility of reason and Law. It is interesting for our reflection to remind ourselves that Vergote deplored the fact that the paternal figure was seen as being concerned with the Law as opposed to motherly love. In Vergote’s view, this was an error in psychoanalytic conceptualization (Vergote, 1993). However, this is exactly our point: this criticism, difficulty, or simple non-acceptance of the fact that these two realities, love and Law, belong to two different orders, constitutes a deeply religious attitude. It translates the experience of this internal division as a fracture and recalls the ideal or utopia that views unity between love and law as possible. In fact, from a strictly psychological point of view, one can consider that it is quite healthy that these two elements are clearly distinct and that is not in the name of motherly love that one must obey the father’s Law.

Body and spirit
The internal fissure that splits every human being into his so-called spiritual dimension and his bodily dimension, or between the “νούς” and the flesh, is also a fissure that seems to find a response and a force with which to overcome it in religion. From a religious perspective, health, for example, is almost always considered as an integration of both physical and spiritual health. The inadequacy of only physical health for well being is reinforced to such an extent that, in certain extreme cases (in certain cults or fundamentalist groups), physical health is considered as secondary, and thus can be neglected. The holistic and integrative character of the conception of sickness, health, and therapy in several psychotherapeutic movements, especially today, makes them seem like religious movements. The belief in resurrection or in immortality is another example. These beliefs do not only accentuate the desire for immortality and the frustration with being mortal; they also reveal the necessity for the believer to believe in the existence of an eternal entity that can overcome the separation between body and spirit.

By extension, this need for unity applies also to the general ties between spirit and flesh. Recent work on magical thought (which is less reductionist than past work on this topic has been) has allowed us to get to the heart of the underlying logic of this thought, in both child and adult populations. Woolley (1997) has studied the genesis and development of magical thought and cognitive development related to fantasy and imagination. He has developed the following argument: in contrast with causal relations of the type “physical process resulting in physical change” (I push someone and he falls) or “physical process resulting in mental change” (I touch someone on the shoulder and he feels happy), in magical thought, we are witnessing belief in a reality that is normally impossible. For example, “mental process results in physical changes in someone else” (with my thoughts, I make someone do something) or “mental process results in mental changes in someone else” (with my thoughts, I make someone change their mind about something). However, it is not magical thought if the changes happen within the individual himself (my thoughts can have physical or mental effects on me) (Woolley, 2000). Thus, we can see that, behind a certain magical religious thinking lies a need to find and establish links between mental and physical realities.

Ethics and action
Research on the psychology of morality has shown that there is often a gap between, on the one hand, values, ideals, and moral judgments, and, on the other hand, actual behavior, beyond some intercorrelation between moral reasoning and moral behavior (Blasi, 1980). This gap seems to be tolerated by the average person. However, in the case of pronounced religious attitudes, this gap is experienced as a frustration, as a failure, and provokes feelings of shame. Moral hypocrisy is particularly condemned in a religious perspective, and not only among Protestants. It is as though man must be unified with his image, and his acts and his thoughts should be one. It is perhaps not by chance that moral hypocrisy is very stigmatized as a principal shortcoming for clerics and pastors – when it occurs. This same kind of behavior seems to be less disturbing when it is observed in people of other professions.

Life stages
Another source of man’s internal division is found in the passage from one age to another, from one existential status to another. In these moments, the perception of self-unity is interrupted and man finds himself faced with two distinct identities. Once again, religion has always shown itself particularly useful in this situation, thanks to its rites of passage for the entirety of major life events, such as: birth, steps towards adult maturity, marriage, birth of ones own children, and the end of life. Among many other functions, religious rites of passage permit individuals to save or reconstruct a unified identity that is experienced in continuity between the “before” and the “after.”

Distinct temporalities
The gap between the three temporalities (past, present, and future) is also experienced by man as in internal division. To perceive unity between these three temporalities is not very easy to do, though the need for such a perception seems to be universal. Thus, several studies have delineated the role that religion plays in reconstructing a personal identity, especially in pivotal life periods (adolescence, assuming family and parental responsibilities, leaving the working world at retirement) where one must work towards continuity and unity between several aspects and facets of the self (Spilka, Hood, Hunsberger, & Gorsuch, 2003). In the same manner, religion seems to play an important role among immigrants in the process of acculturation (Ebaugh, 2003). Immigrants are confronted with the need to take on a new cultural identity (that of the host country), at the risk of losing the cultural identity of their home country.

Another example of the ways in which religion seems to respond to the need for unity of the three distinct temporalities is the inscription of the believer in the liturgical cycle. The Christian liturgy sums up the salvation story and condenses three significant time periods: the fall of man and the saving actions of Jesus, the present in which today’s Christians live, and the eschatological hopes and expectations of the community of believers. Furthermore, the organization of frescos in Byzantine iconography symbolizes and embodies this fundamental unity among living Christians. In such iconography, the bottoms of the church walls are left empty, and this space represents the present members of the Church, while saints and dead believers of the triumphant Church are depicted on the upper parts of the church walls.

The unity of the three temporalities in a classic religious perspective is achieved in an effort to balance the past, present, and future. However, it is in the shape of dogmatism, fundamentalism or sectarian ideology that one finds an amplification of one or the other temporality, to the detriment of the others (as denoted by Rokeach, 1954, for dogmatism). Thus, in religious conservatism, it is the past that occupies a disproportionate importance, while in apocalyptic religious ideologies, the future is magnified to such a point that the other two temporalities are effectively neglected.

Finally, if the notion of forgiveness has a particularly religious connotation, even though strictly speaking the link between forgiveness and religion is not exclusive, it is perhaps because, within the notion of forgiveness one can find a willingness to reconstruct a profound unity between the past which one does not simply want to erase (this would be the case of forgetting), nor to let it dominate (this would be the case of morbid guilt), and a present that one wishes were different from the past, while keeping continuity with past events. It is through forgiveness that world religions have found a response to Heraclites’ warning that “one cannot enter twice in the same river.” In other words, to refer to Hannah Arendt (1958), it is through forgiveness that man can thwart the irreversibility of the consequences of some of their actions, while at the same time not denying these same acts.

Public and private life
One must remark that, despite the effects of modernity relative to the separation of the private and public domains, and a certain confinement of religion in the former, the believers’ faith, especially when intense, tends to color, to permeate, even guide the entirety of their existence. Christian churches, like the other monotheistic religions, refuse directly or indirectly to restrict themselves only in the sphere of private religion or in a sphere which expands only to humanitarian or social domains. Once again, to accept the existence of an irreducible break between the different facets of existence is experienced as a frustration, and religion seems to remind this question or to offer responses to it.

In a more general manner, let us note affinities that exist between religious quest and the ideal that emphasizes self-integration as a developmental goal (cf. Erikson’s theory and theories about the development of the self). The multiplicity of the roles that one carries out, the domains in which one invests oneself, the facets that form one’s psyche, is such that the need for a unifying function of the self is evident. Religion thus offers a particularly interesting framework in this regard: if all that the believer does, including when he is eating or drinking, he does in the name of God, then clearly the entirety of his life is unified.

The self and others
The notion of the self, experienced as an entity separate from others, is a source of deep frustration. The other escapes from me and will always do so. All theologies attempt to confront this problem by proposing specific theological solutions (for example, representations of divinity) that aim to safeguard the ideal of unity across the plurality of persons, and to face the eventuality of a confrontation of wills, desires, and distinct (or divergent) thoughts. Whether this is via a pantheon where unity is preserved thanks to the logic of the subordination of diverse deities to a superior God, or whether through a Trinity God as in Christianity, theologies try to overcome the experience of radical otherness in the interpersonal domain by affirming the principal of unity.

In a parallel fashion, religious experience and spirituality in general include a feeling of “connectedness” among all human beings (Piedmont, 1999). It is this psychological necessity of unity that likely explains the fact that the personality trait which is consistently found to be accentuated among believers of all religions is that of prosociality, kindness, and the positive quality of interpersonal relationships in general (Saroglou, 2002b), and that as far as values are concerned (here, we are referring to Schwartz’ [1992] model), spirituality is found to be accompanied by a particular importance given to self-transcendence values (benevolence) and putting aside somewhat values related to the expansion of the self (power, achievement, and hedonism) (Saroglou, 2003; Saroglou, Delpierre, & Dernelle, 2004).

More insidiously, the extremity of the distinction between the self and others is manifested, for the believer, when others in his surroundings believe in a different God or do not believe in God at all. Thus, one does not need a great deal of psychological insight to suspect that, behind every attempt to convert others, one does not only find the joyous will to spread the good news, but also perhaps an even greater need to feel that the world is potentially a universal Church, a large unified community. The frustrating experience that the other does not share my belief(s) banishes me to this unbridgeable separation between myself and others.

Nature and culture
Beyond historical, evolutionary, and ontological continuity between the natural world and the cultural world, there is a certain amount of arbitrariness that characterizes the passage from nature to culture. Culture introduces elements (laws, norms, borders, identities, cultural products, etc.) that are not necessarily dependent on the natural state of things. One must notice that religion seems to put in place this need to overcome the separation between the natural and the cultural, by positing a deep unity between these two elements. The development of a natural theology is a first example. The importance that natural law took in Christian morality is an other. The reference to an animal morality or amorality when arguing about ethical positions related to sexuality, marriage, parenthood, violence or preservation of life, is a third example. As a fourth example, sacralizing the earth, the culture of the imagination of a constitutive link between the person and his roots, his land, his home community, has always resonated with the religious worldview. Finally, religious history and religious anthropology have shown the characteristic force of religions to promote nostalgia and the imaginary return to the natural, original order of things, the supposed ideal and authentic state.

The community of man and the cosmos
The need for unity that seems to find reinforcement in religion also extends to a larger and more vast domain than any we have examined so far. It extends to a need for unity which serves to respond to an unpleasant feeling of division, not at a personal or inter-personal level, but at a cosmic level. The whole of humanity cannot exhaust the universe. Man sees himself as separate from that which is different from himself and thus dreads the possibility of other lives, other worlds, other galaxies. Fantasies about extraterrestrials, as picturesque and extravagant as they might seem, bear witness to this anguish that man is not alone in the universe. How can one confront this feeling, this hypothesis that the history of humanity in its entirety is perhaps only a chapter in a more vast ensemble which might escape us? Thus, religions have always represented the world as a divine creation and that the cosmos is explained as originating in a design and appearing as planned in the hands of providence. This allows humans to face their need for unity which overcomes the division between the community of humans and the rest of creation. All religions thus offer their own version of the origin and development of the universe.

Religious specificity of the unifying function

If the human need for unity is a distinct psychological need and thus universal in nature, in the same manner as, for example, the “need to belong” (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), it nevertheless is not just religion that meets this need and offers a response. It is not only through religion that people seem to satisfy this need. Other psychosocial realities also seem to play this role. Nevertheless, our argument is that, until the present, religion seems to have been the psychosocial reality that was concerned with the need to overcome internal divisions in man in all domains. This could be in domains concerned with personal divisions, domains concerned with interpersonal divisions or in the domain of cosmic reality.

Fashion, for example, can constitute one manner – among others – to respond to the frustration of finding oneself separated from the opposite sex. A sporting event or a large concert can unite and thrill every generation. Holistic psychotherapy can claim to encompass the entirety of preoccupations linked to the well being (both bodily and psychological) of mankind. In addition, reading and writing, and contemplation of works of art also comprise powerful ways to integrate the emotional and cognitive dimensions. Models of identification to which we are emotionally attached can serve both as a source of moral thought and as a motive for action. One’s nation is a psychosocial device that also seems to offer moments of connection between the emotional and the symbolic, notably with rites, and thus the nation creates an imaginary temporal unity among the past, present, and future. But only religion seems to be able to take into account (psychologically speaking) all domains at once. The nation, for example, does not seemed concerned with or indeed even able to help one to face the felt internal divisions between nature and culture or between humanity and the rest of the cosmos. The same is true for all-encompassing ideologies (notably political ideologies). Only religion seems to have been, at least until present times, the encompassing belief system that offers ways to psychologically compensate this frustration caused by the internal division on the entirety of problems typical to human life. Furthermore, one observes that for any given ideology, the more all-encompassing and integrative psychosocial devices it has to reduce the sense of internal division, the more likely one is to qualify that ideology as religious. Marxist ideology, the ecological movement, and psychotherapeutic cults are some illustrative examples.

In the same manner, what the psychology of religion calls “spirituality,” not necessarily dependent on religious institutions or traditions (Saroglou, 2003; Zinnbauer & Pargament, 2005), seems to take over this unifying function of religion. Specifically, this means: overcoming the difference between the sexes, the difference between generations, harmony between the rational and the emotional, between body and spirit, between reflection and action, integration of numerous facets and moments of the self, creation of new rites of passage, feelings of “connectedness” among all beings, feelings of transcendence, unity between nature and culture, and cosmic experiences. From the point of view of the psychology of religion, the modern tendency towards spirituality thus seems to take on the classic psychological function of religion, in the face of the deep sense of lack of unity in each domain of existence.

That the need for unity is at the heart of the psychology of religious attitudes is confirmed by the fact that it is located at the heart of three realities that are religious par excellence (even if they are in continuity with secular psychic realities, as William James [1902] suggested). In these three types of religious experience, the quest for unity seems to be experienced in a radical fashion. First of all, the experience of conversion is the experience of a radical change that effects the entire person, or at least the “self” at the center of the individual. Let us notice that this radical change is experienced as a unification of the self or as a re-unification of a self which was previously divided. In the same manner, the mystic experience is inscribed in parallel with the love experience – not only by the intensity of the affective desire to meet the loved one, but also by its aspect of the fusion of the self with the other(s) who create a whole, inextricable entity. Finally, the third reality, the ascetic struggle is also a struggle for the unification of the self. Not only the etymology of the words “μοναχός” and “monastic” refers to the unifying design that characterize this lifestyle, but the psychological reality of asceticism is defined by a struggle to disregard of everything that is a source of personal psychic division. This concerns the passions, and more generally anything that can be a source of deception or self-division (see, for instance, the mortification of selfishness and personal will).

Finally, this need for the largest and most wide-ranging unity in relation to the many domains in which man experiences internal division is linked somewhat to the idea of the search for totality. One can be tempted, in effect, to approach (in the religious context) the need for unity and the search for totality (cf. see, for religious totality, Godin, 1998). However, we prefer to contemplate the search for and the feeling of totality as being one possible configuration of desire for unity in the religious context. One finds this totality, for example, in the case of religious systems which are too encompassing or in forms of religiosity which are all-enveloping (cults or fundamentalist groups). At the opposite end of the spectrum, we can also conceive of a religious attitude in which the quest for unity is characterized by forms of expression and by a religious reality which permits religion to play the role of a main theme, of the simple underlying structure which implies a unification. This unification occurs through harmony and by preventing disintegration rather than through the capacity to encompass absolutely everything. Religions have indeed developed mechanisms that allow the realization of the quest for unity and at the same time avoid the temptation of totality. Empirical literature on religion and mental health suggests a similar pattern (Gartner, 1996): order, structure, unity, and control can be realized thanks to religion (in this way, religion compensates “under-control”) and do not necessarily lead to dogmatic-like psychological realities (“over-control”)

A function with a “meta” position

Is this unifying function of religion unique? Or, even if it is not, can it encompass other psychological functions of religion? It would be hazardous to risk such an argument, given the large variety of functions of religion (even at the level of the individual) and given the large span of contexts in which religious events take place. Nevertheless, it seems that this unifying function has an impact on the way in which other psychological functions (often considered as being related to the religious sphere) are given concrete expression and are specified within the religious domain. In other words, the need for unity can find itself in a “meta” position in comparison with other psychological functions not specific to religion, but which under certain conditions (especially in interaction with the need for unity) can be motivational forces of faith and religious experience.

Thus, if one refers to the three psychological needs that Spilka et al. (2003) considered important for understanding religious attributions (the need for meaning, the need for control, and the need for self-esteem), one must remark that, considered by themselves, each of these three needs does not have a specific or exclusively religious character. Whether or not one is a believer, these are universal needs, the satisfaction of which does not constitute a religious specificity. As a result, these three needs do not offer powerful explanations of religiosity. As we will see below, it is their integration in the unifying dynamic that influences (in a religious sense) the response that is given to them.

Unity and a need for meaning
It is not the quest for meaning as such that characterizes religious processes, but rather the concern about unity, order, and coherence in the quest to make meaning. Several empirical studies that we have conducted in Belgium over the past years confirm this hypothesis. These studies have shown the importance, for the psychology of the religious believer, of the motivation to find “cognitive closure” (cf. Kruglanski, 2004, for this concept). This concept is defined as a motivation to have firm answers rather than leave questions unresolved, to avoid ambiguity and to focus on integration and order when in the process of making meaning. Note that the manner of thought characterized by the need for cognitive closure is not necessarily simple – it can also be quite complex. This cognitive motivation marks several attitudes: the intensity of religiosity (Saroglou, 2002a; cf. as well, Duriez, 2003), interest in books about spirituality and esoterism (Saroglou, Kempeneers, & Seynhaeve, 2003), belonging to controversial new religious movements (in a stronger manner than among “classical” believers; Buxant, Saroglou, Casalfiore, & Christians, in press), and interest in astrology and paranormal beliefs (Abrassart, 2004).

This concern with order (and by extension, with unity) can help us to understand why making meaning in the psychology of the religious person is not like a creative cognitive undertaking, but rather fixed around a kind of consistency or closed-mindedness. Thus, let us remember that a large body of research has systematically found positive associations between religiosity and the “belief in a just world.” This concept is centered around the idea that there is a relationship between the way we behave and what happens to us, and between what we deserve and what life gives us (for example, Crozier & Joseph, 1997; Dalbert, Lipkus, Sallay, & Goch, 2001; Lerner, 1980). Several theoretical and empirical works point out that, if some level of this type of belief is necessary for one to feel anchored and to function in the world (by allowing one to disregard the belief that the world is dangerous and disordered), it could also serve as a factor that could slow moral development towards post-conventional stages and could legitimize negative and discriminatory attitudes towards marginal individuals and groups, or outgroup members in general (cf. Bègue & Bastounis, 2003; Furnham, 2003; Oppenheimer, 2005).

Unity and need for control
A similar connection between need for unity and need for control characterizes the psychology of religious believers’ personalities. The need for control, central to religious processes, presents several special features. First, the belief in self-control and the belief in the need to change the world are intimately linked. Thus, in terms of ascetic logic, the struggle for self-transformation is understood in the perspective of the ability to change the world. Conversely, as is the case in new religious movements or fundamentalist groups active in public life, transformation of social structures is supposed to lead to the transformation of individuals. In addition, as we have seen above, the ascetic struggle for self-control leads to an intensification of the need for unity: monks must unite everything inside themselves, by disregarding everything that can be a source of internal division (improper thoughts, passions, memories, many desires, etc.)

Secondly, self-control in a religious ethical sense leads to a deep unity of moral attitudes, covering all relevant domains. Thus, patristic theology has always envisaged a strong relationship between the different virtues as well as a similarly strong relationship between the different vices (seven or eight, depending on the definitions). One sign of this deep unity behind the variety of domains in which morality is applied is the fact that this literature has always considered one of these vices (or its corresponding virtue) as being the mother of all others. This is, for example, often the case with “vanity” (or humility, as the corresponding virtue) (cf. for more details, see Casagrande & Vecchio, 2000/2003). Let us also remind ourselves that the “heroicity of virtues” established as a requirement for sainthood in the Catholic Church, signifies excellence not for one specific virtue, but for many if not all of them (de Bonhomme, 1969). Contemporary social psychologists have suggested the idea of a “moral muscle” as a unifying force for self-control, a psychological reality that is at the heart of the problem of the seven or eight deadly sins and their corresponding virtues (cf. Baumeister & Exline, 1999). Empirical research indicates that the loss of self-control is often manifested not by specific offenses, but by a delinquent attitude on many levels.

Unity and self-esteem
Once again, the need for self-esteem is universal and not specifically religious. In the religious perspective, it is heavily defined by a unitary dimension: the need for self-esteem in many if not all domains. It is the person in his entirety that is seen as deserving to be loved by God and not only one aspect of his existence, considered apart from the others. In this logic, religious education has always aimed to promote acquisition of Christian ethics, and not only in interpersonal domains. Indeed, religious education has expanded its reach towards moral standards which are accompanied by obligations about oneself, in terms of abilities, progress, and of personal development.

A unity which is not necessarily egalitarian

A major objection could be made about our argument concerning the unifying function of religion, at least for some of the domains we have examined. Rather than offering mechanisms to overcome division and separation, could not religion be rather a source of accentuation, if not the creation, of borders, distinctions, and fissures?

The case of the differences between the sexes is perhaps the most acute. By using a series of moral issues and established norms, most religions insist on the specificity of each sex, on the importance of not blurring the lines between them, on the prohibition of any practice that could diminish the boundaries between men and women. The same skepticism can be applied to differences between age groups. Even when abolishing the concern with biological age, doesn’t religion introduce other kinds of separations, for example between the clergy and non-believers? And doesn’t religion exacerbate the difference by introducing a real hierarchy of ranks within each of these two groups?

One way of addressing these objections is to admit that different possible configurations are or have been proposed according to context, in order to establish this unity or to make it credible. We can thus imagine a unity founded on equality, which is the most frequent case and which certainly best reflects modernity. We can also envisage that this unity is preserved thanks to the establishment of well-entrenched hierarchies.

In fact, work in evolutionary psychology, applied to the religious domain, has shown that religion is particularly adept at establishing and solidifying hierarchies (Kirkpatrick, 2005). Religious systems support and justify a mindset of submission to hierarchy, which is translated at the same level by gestures and symbols. However, our argument is that these hierarchies are not necessarily created to introduce divisions or to expand already existing divisions. These hierarchies can be understood, especially in the premodern context of older historical periods, as attempts to solidify a specific vision of unity, and to make it both visible and credible.

Unity between the divine world and the world of humans can be seen from an interactive and collaborative perspective, as modern theologies often do. However, one must keep in mind that this relationship between humans and divinity was seen for a long time as a hierarchy between the celestial and the terrestrial world, even leading to the creation of a scale with several stages of living beings. Trinitarian theology tried to preserve the idea of unity within the divinity itself, based on the principal of equality among people. However, this theology was not always exempt from the temptation to preserve unity by the principal of subordination. Likewise, one can also make an interpretation (among others, obviously) of the strict distinction between the sexes, which reflects an implicit hierarchy between men and women, as resulting from the concern to preserve unity. Empirical studies have shown that the wish, in the religious domain, of maintaining a strict distinction between men and women is associated with a conception of masculine superiority over women (Cohen & Katzenstein, 1988; Neff & Terry-Schmitt, 2002; Silverstein, Auerbach, Grieco, & Dunkel, 1999). Finally, several empirical studies have found that one’s religious beliefs predict discriminatory attitudes towards outgroups (this is the case for extrinsic religiosity, religious orthodoxy and fundamentalism, and occasionally for intrinsic religiosity), and sometimes open-minded attitudes of tolerance and universalism (this is the case of modern spirituality, symbolic intrinsic religiosity or questing religious orientation) (Hunsberger & Jackson, 2005; cf. also Duriez & Hutsebaut, in press; Saroglou & Muñoz, 2006). Thus, what is common in these two patterns is the concern with unity. This unity is achieved in a widespread manner in the second pattern (egalitarian unity) and is achieved in a restrictive and hierarchical manner in the first configuration (where the ingroup is seen as superior to the outgroup). We observe, in a related fashion, the analogy with the distinction made between an inclusive monotheism and an exclusive monotheism (Assmann, 2002).

Roots of the need for unity

When talking about the need for unity in the psychology of religion, one usually makes reference to notions such as the oceanic feeling or the fantasy of returning to the maternal breast. As a reminder, Freud (1927) did not exclude these psychological realities as explicative factors of religion, but he made them secondary to the paternal omnipotence which contains, in his opinion, a more powerful explanatory force. It is possible that the need for unity, as we have described it here, namely as making reference to the all domains of existence, originates somewhat in the first experience of completeness without differentiation that the newborn or fetus experiences in symbiosis with his mother or the maternal universe in general. Research, however, has yet to empirically confirm these theoretical hypotheses.

More important yet: it appears simplistic to us to limit the need for unity, which expresses itself in the religious domain, simply as nostalgia for the symbiotic original state, which would imply a dimension that is inevitably regressive. Other psychological realities come out in favor of a conceptualization of the need for unity that is more extensive and also motivated by a prospective and proactive dynamic. First of all, contemporary research on magical thought has shown its developmental and participatory nature in the development of the individual (Nemeroff & Rozin, 2000). According to these researchers, the child’s access to magical thought facilitates the search for invisible links that unite all which appears to be fragmented, isolated, and unusual in the world, and facilitates the search for connections between the invisible and the visible. This search for unity between different parts of reality comprises in and of itself an important developmental advancement, because of its heuristic goals and its protective and reassuring power. Secondly, if we employ the logic of positive psychology, which states that human psychological experience cannot simply be explained by a defensive reactivity in the face of past negative life events (cf. Snyder & Lopez, 2002), we must thus accept that the need for unity is a part of a proactive developmental logic and is prospective and oriented, for instance, towards the construction of identities, towards integration, and towards maturity.


In summary, the need for unity, sought after by overcoming all that constitutes a source of internal division in man, seems to form an important motivation of religious processes. We assert that the social psychological mechanisms (notably beliefs and practices) religion provides fulfill an important, likely primordial, function of religion in trying to confront this need, and eventually to satisfy it. This need for unity could, in theory, be nourished by a nostalgia similar to the “oceanic feeling,” but not necessarily in a regressive sense. This need can also be seen as a prospective motivation that has a developmental and maturational goal. Most often, in the religious framework, this unifying aim is realized in an egalitarian logic, but occasionally it takes on hierarchical strategies. Finally, all quests for religious unity are not necessarily realized through a quest for totality.

Even though religion does not have exclusivity to assume this psychological function, it seems to have the psychosocial means that can take into account the entirety of personal life domains, interpersonal domains, and cosmic domains in which the frustrating experience of division arises. The specificity of religion is found in the vast area (almost the entirety) of psychological realities covered by this unifying function. No other psychosocial reality – until these days – seems to be able to so broadly cover the domains that are sources of man’s internal divisions. This specificity can also make this a dominating function in comparison with other psychological explanations of religion (relative to the need for meaning, control, and self-esteem). It can appoint a specifically religious tone and direction in the way in which these other functions are expressed in the religious context. Moreover, all indications are that this need for unity also underlies new expressions of contemporary, not traditionally religious, spirituality.

Finally, the quest for unity may be a psychological function of religion the study of which would not only allow religious scholars to widen their understanding of religion through the use of psychological categories, but also, as requested by scholars as Hill (1999), allow (in the opposite direction) mainstream psychologists to widen their understanding of human beings by learning from the psychology of religious experience. Such a goal seems very important in an interdisciplinary approach to psychology, theology, and religious studies. Indeed, the question arises why psychology has not extensively studied this quest for unity until now. From a developmental psychology perspective, there are of course some theories regarding integration and integrity as important developmental tasks, especially in adulthood. This is also the case in contemporary positive psychology, which emphasizes wisdom and optimal development as including integration. However, integration is only one way of looking for, and realizing unity. More importantly, there is still need for further investigation into what seems to be a universal human quest whose manifestations are explicit – but not exclusive – when one analyses religious forms and expressions, i.e. the universal quest for unity.



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