Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Can Religion Speak to Adults?

Does Religion Treat Us Like Children?

Take a look at The New York Times bestseller list, and you'll find plenty of books that deal with religion - and in a less than positive way.

Recent best sellers that make the argument for athesim include Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great, and Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation, each critiquing religion as either infantile, absurd, self-serving - or even dangerous.

Can religion learn something from atheism?

I think it can - and must.

The Growth of Atheism:

The atheist critique is often scientific or sociological, yet the real reason we buy these books is really quite simple: many of us see religion as failing us.

As we look at our national landscape (and many countries fit this profile), we see politicians claiming that God is on their side. We continue to see cover-ups in major faiths of terrible crimes against children – all in the name of keeping dirty laundry within the fold.

Moreover, the world's less safe today because of fanatical religious beliefs like ISIS and others.

The public has interest in atheism because something is moving us to ask tough questions about the authenticity of a religious life. We know something of value lies within the structure of faith, yet we sense that it’s gone off course.

Spirituality without Religion:

It’s of interest that one of America’s most vocal atheists, Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, recently published a book attempting to thread this needle. In Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without a Religion (2014),

Harris acknowledges the wisdom of the ancient spiritual masters (like Jesus and Buddha), but holds up to scrutiny the organized religions that claim to stem from those very masters. He’s onto something here; organized religion can be self serving and repressive, while meaningful spirituality can bring good to the soul and to the world.

Here I’d like to bring Harris and others back to the possibility that a robust organized faith can be salvaged, with all its ritual and structure.

What’s required is to invite the adults into the room.

Fundamentalism and Childhood:

I often wonder if the loudest voices in established religion have yet to grow up.

Fundamentalists speak and act with strong conviction, but only to the child in us and in their followers. Does the exclusive language of childhood – God as Father/Parent (with His messengers: the priests, rabbis and imams) really work for us in the Twenty First Century?

Is religious life just too judgmental, too desperately controlling and too self important to be true?

Or, is it more likely that God is bigger and more subtle than our childhood wishes?

The Value of Idealization:

In early child development we idealize our parents in order to be cared for properly. Mom and Dad are giants, really. They love and protect us. They change us when we are wet, pick us up when we are irritable and soothe us when we are scared. To us as babies, parents are giants who have all the power.

That idealization is a deep part of our collective nature as human beings. It also is an important part of religious experience. We bring idealization to religious life and therefore, religious life is ennobled and enlivened by our early infantile experiences with our parents. God and faith simply have power to tend to us like Mom and Dad had - when we were young.

A Brief Review of Child Development:

After the oppositional storm of the terrible twos (when “no” is the word of choice) through the “oedipal” period (age 3-6) most kids shift into what Freud called the “latency” period of child development. This is a period between the ages of about six to pre-teen (ages 12-13). In the latency period the average child settles down, enjoys structure, understands that authority is in charge and gets pleasure in performing the good tasks that teachers require. Think of a compliant grade school child.

During latency pleasure is derived by compliance. “I am a good girl and therefore I feel good.” The oppositional qualities of earlier life disappear and in latency - rules become of primary importance. Boys live baseball cards and memorizing the various rules of the games. Girls have their games and social rites as well. Everything is etiquette and everything has a rule.

School Age Thinking & Religious Life:

Latency thinking dominates religious life in America today. I practice Judaism in an Orthodox framework and – as much as I enjoy it - I can tell you that I experience latency thinking almost daily. A good Jew complies with the rules of Jewish Law. God makes the world in a way that is perfectly sensible to Him - but not necessarily, to us.

Like the rule of a strong parent – “you will understand when you get older,” Orthodox Jewish life requires compliance softened by understanding (the Jewish faith prides itself on knowledge, but doing the mitzvah – “the religious deed” - is what really counts). Anything that happens is something that is good for us - even if it hurts. Our job is to be good students of Torah (“The Old Testament”) and good students of behavior so that God will, in turn, smile on us - either here or in the next world. I imagine that the same model applies to Christianity and Islam.

Now, while I am well aware that there’s more to Jewish observance (and Christian and Islamic practice) than that described by a latency mindset, it can – at times – be tough to find. Latency religion has a role to play in all religious denominations, but this method of spirituality can become unsatisfying when it becomes the dominant or sole means of one’s religious expression.

  • It is good to show up on time for services, but it is also good to feel something while there.
  • It is good to enjoy similar traits and values as your fellow congregants, but it is also good to find the edge of one’s own individuality.
  • It is good to have a strong community, but it is also good to find abiding value in those who are outside the group’s culture.
  • It is good to respect authority, but it is also good for the authority to enable the religious soul to find her own way – her unique path.
  • It is good to honor clerical leadership, and it's good to critique it when required.
  • It is good to have a strong set of values and commitments; it is also good to occasionally change one’s mind.
  • And, it is good to do what you are supposed to do and sometimes its better to discover your own moral compass.

Latency religion yields the same thing that the latency period does in Grade School and later - in Middle School - cliques. The sociology of the average clique in Middle School is structured so that some people are in and some people are out. Cliques operate according to rigid social rules, supported by the certainty that there’s a powerful authority which legislates what is right and what is wrong – for instance, what is fashionable and what is cliché. Regarding authority in religious practice, we need look no further than the God (and His clergy) of a latency minded faith. If you want certainty and rules, they are out there for the taking.

While Latency religion can support a structured and sensible society, it falls short for most of us because it fails to speak to the contemporary western mind – and probably only partially speaks to what religion is all about.

In fact, if you look at the Book of Job, or the Pentateuch, God doesn’t appear to have designed a world that is latency in any way. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (a close confident of Martin Luther King) so correctly noted, God is the most interesting character in the Bible. A careful reading of these texts show a God who can be confusing, loving, sometimes violent, very interesting and occasionally problematic.

Early Childhood & Religion:

Organized religious life can extend psychologically back even earlier than the Latency period – and it should. Religious life derives much of its power to move us because it touches very early memories in our psyche – being held, comforted and always cared for. Yet this can become problematic when it's fetishized into what I like to call, Infantile Religion, seen most clearly in radical fundamentalism.

Infantile religion reduces spiritual life into a projection of ultimate authority on a figure like God or worse – on religious leaders – who in turn tell their followers what to do in order to be acceptable.

Followers become empowered only through identification with the leadership, and by extention with God himself. Taken to the extreme, you have the suicide bomber who becomes great through the complete loss of his life and the lives of others. A less dramatic example is the parishioner who reveres his pastor, rabbi or imam as the final word on all things personal. This is an effective way to create a meaningful moment for the religious fanatic follower – but it is deeply unappealing to the modern mind. For most of us, Infantile religion is frightening, if not appalling. It’s so much of what we see as wrong with the world in which we live.

So atheists like Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris have best sellers because they speak to a population that’s tired - and sometimes frightened - of religion that appears broken. Both Infantile religion and Latency religion have power – indeed great power – but they do not convince us of their merit anymore. We feel suspicious and frankly – burnt – by all the failed promises, cover-ups and harsh rhetoric. We are repulsed by the combination of religion and violence; and we wonder how different the world would look with out all this religious drama.

Religion for Adults:

Let me offer an alternative. In my experience, good relationships require flexibility and so must our relationship with God. Sometimes we don’t believe. Sometimes we fervently believe like a young child. Sometimes we feel held and soothed by our spirituality. Sometimes we are lock-stepped with God like a latency age child and sometimes we need to experience our moment with God through the developmental eyes of a disappointed and angry adolescent.

However, at the end of the day - we are adults operating in God’s world with all the ambiguities that He/She intended for us to have to deal with. With that kind of insight we have less need to read about arguments that God doesn’t exist – maybe yes and maybe no. But – according to the great religious traditions – God, Himself, has put it into our hands to forge an existence that is truly meaningful.

A Spiritual Call to Arms:

Religious life counts and we may need to touch base with Spirit in order to get inspiration or strength - and so we should. You see - God may have created the world - but justice, mercy, love and peace must come from us - and from our tough measured adult efforts taken in an often confusing world.

Childlike religion just won’t do. America – and the rest of the world - may be wondering if a more balanced and hearty adult centered religion can really deliver.


For more from Dr. Banschick:

The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Your Children (Kindle)

The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Your Children (Amazon)

The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Yourself (Kindle)

The Intelligent Divorce- Taking Care of Yourself (Amazon)

Course - Raising Healthy Kids Despite Divorce: Sign Up


Sign up for our newsletter here!