THROUGHOUT history, scholars and researchers have tried to identify the one key reason that people are attracted to religion.
Some have said people seek religion to cope with a fear of death, others call it the basis for morality, and various other theories abound.
But in a new book, a psychologist who has studied human motivation for more than 20 years suggests that all these theories are too narrow. Religion, he says, attracts followers because it satisfies all of the 16 basic desires that humans share.
“It’s not just about fear of death. Religion couldn’t achieve mass acceptance if it only fulfilled one or two basic desires,” said Steven Reiss, a professor emeritus of psychology at The Ohio State University and author of The 16 Strivings for God.
“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.”
Reiss’s theory of what attracts people to religion is based on his research in the 1990s on motivation. He and his colleagues surveyed thousands of people and asked them to rate the degree to which they embraced hundreds of different possible goals.
In the end, the researchers identified 16 basic desires that we all share: acceptance, curiosity, eating, family, honor, idealism, independence, order, physical activity, power, romance, saving, social contact, status, tranquility and vengeance.
Reiss then developed a questionnaire, called the Reiss Motivation Profile, that measures how much people value each of these 16 goals. More than 100,000 people have now completed the questionnaire.
“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.”
A key point is that each of the 16 desires motivates personality opposites and those opposites all have to find a home in a successful religion, Reiss said.
For example, there is the desire for social contact. “Religion has to appeal to both introverts and extroverts,” Reiss said. For extroverts, religion offers festivals and teaches that God blesses fellowship. For introverts, religion encourages meditation and private retreats and teaches that God blesses solitude.
Religion even finds ways to deal with the desire for vengeance, Reiss said. While some religions preach of a God of peace and encourage followers to “turn the other cheek,” there is also the other side: the wrath of God and holy wars.
While the theory can tell us a lot about the types of people who are attracted to religion and different religious experiences, it cannot say anything about the truth of religious beliefs, Reiss said.
“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.”