The concept of God as a surrogate parent
This explanation of the concept of God is something that really took hold in my mind once I heard it. The idea simply encompasses so much and explains it so well.
Up front admission: I am borrowing wording heavily from others in putting this together.
This quote popped out at me powerfully from one of the videos in the series I linked in my last post. “The primary psychological function of the concept of a personal god is to give the believer a surrogate parent. Some minds are able to become independent of parental figures; others cannot or fall into self-destructive behaviors without them. Minds in this category rely on religion. The God concept is useful for motivating and pacifying them.”
As soon as I heard this I knew that I’d come upon something profoundly true and began looking into it further. I did find some scholarly papers on the topic and a presentation or two. (I much enjoy the work presented by Professor J. Anderson Thomson who hits on several excellent points besides this one.) But I must credit someone who goes by the handle Copernicus on ‘The Secular Cafe’ for his brilliant summary of this whole God(s)-as-parent concept. Following are his words:
–One thing that is common to all humans is the fact that we start out with absolute trust in the judgment of adults–usually our parents. We learn morality–the difference between good and bad behavior–from them. Adults are mysterious beings that are omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. They provided all nourishment and protection.
Most people seem wedded to the intuition that morality is “objective”. That is, it comes from a single authoritative source that cannot be questioned. (I prefer the term “authoritative morality” over “objective morality”.) Why is that? It is a consequence of how we learned morality in the first place. It wasn’t based on the consequences of actions, but on what we were told to do by authority figures.
As we matured, we gradually broke down our dependence on parental authority. This break with authority becomes especially pronounced in the teen years. However, gods (or God, for monotheists) fill in the gap that we leave when we abandon our reliance on the experience, wisdom, and authority of adults. Gods stand in loco parentis for maturing humans.
One thing that we can say about all human beings is that we are all raised by adults, and we first learn moral behavior by fiat from adults. Given that we need to be weaned away from dependence on those adults in order to survive in adulthood, belief in a god can fill in the gap left by the loss of parental authority. Hence, people are very comfortable with the idea that morality is grounded in the authority of a judgmental being–a parent–rather than some abstract utilitarian principle. –
Brilliant Mssr. Copernicus. From all this we can now readily understand why theistic believers become so upset when challenged about their beliefs. Just think of how a child reacts if you impugn the character of his/her parents. In like manner, a biologically adult human who believes in a god or gods is attached to a parent still and will, like a child, bristle because you challeng their source of security, nourishment, and all things good.
Remember how anguished most of us were when we first deconverted? We experienced “leaving home” and for the first time in our lives and we stood alone as true adults without a parent. That is apparently not something most humans want.