A Look at Religion: Internal Psychodynamics

The internal motives for religious belief—a quest for internal cohesion.

Posted Nov 30, 2018

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Internal Psychodynamics and Religion

Studying the internal motives for religion can aid our understanding of psychological efforts to manage trauma and internal disorganization. These psychological efforts often result in the individual constructing some sort of internal deity through which to manage the tension. This work has led to a large literature in psychology, and several themes emerge.

One involves self-organization and the needs of Homo sapiens in such areas as attachment, validation of feelings, recognition, and the like (e.g. Kohut. 1971; Kernberg, 2010; Winnicott, 1965; Tomkins, 1981; Stern, 1985). Over the past half-century, the work of several clinicians and theoreticians has helped us understand better the human needs to feel special, recognized, attached, idealized, and so on.

Much of this dynamic may be related to the affect of interest—the interest of the parents and caregivers in the child per se, and the validation of the child’s interests.

The issue involves how stable or unstable the internal world of the individual is along these lines—i.e. how much the individual needs “psychological oxygen” from the outside world in order to maintain stability. With a lack of—or disruption in—internal self-cohesion, many individuals construct a benevolent, soothing, reassuring deity, father-figure, mother-figure, whatever.

In this way, the internal instability and tension-regulatory functions can be restored. This process may be hampered in those with severe abuse/trauma in their early background, because the construction of such a figure may be more likely to have malevolent than benevolent features. It is to deal with these complicated issues that much of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy grapples.


Kernberg O (2010). Some observations on the process of mourning. Int J Psychoanal 91: 601-619.

Kohut H (1971). The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Approach to the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorders. New York: International Universities Press.

Stern DN (1985). The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology. New York: Basic Books.

Tomkins SS (1981). The Quest for Primary Lotive: Biography and Autobiography of an Idea. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 41: 306-329.

Winnicott DW (1965). The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment. New York: International Universities Press.