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Ask HN: Best books on the psychology of religion?
42 points by technobabble on Sept 3, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 37 comments

I'm interested in learning more on the psychology of religion. Can anybody recommend any books on the subject, and why you recommend them?


edit: Upon second thought, I'm more interested in the psychology of virtue/morals.

"The Righteous Mind" by Johnathan Haidt. Technically it's not just about religion, it's about the psychology of righteousness, but it's clearly related. My review of it: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/829796352

Thanks! And now that I think about it, I'm looking less at the psychology of religion, but more so the psychology of virtue/morals.

C.S. Lewis' 'The problem of pain', and 'A grief Observed' I think is relevant, even if you are trying to avoid reading apologetics.

I would definitely consider reading Julian Jaynes' 'The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind' in this context as well.

Another vote for Julian Jaynes. I'm aware his theories are contested, but they're very interesting and thought-provoking nonetheless.

Not sure if it counts as psychology of religion, but "Orthodoxy" by Gilbert Keith Chesterton is something not to be missed if you are looking for one of the finest works of christian philosophy in XX century.

some quotations here https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Orthodoxy_(book). Quotations from the chapter I, "Introduction in Defense of Everything Else", might be exactly what you are looking for.

I’m sure more experienced scholars will have more up-to-date recommendations, but William James ‘Varieties of Religious Experience’ is a classic.

I say this was great humility, but unfortunately the majority of books recommended here are naive perspectives of religion—with the one exception being the recommendation of C.S. Lewis.

If you want to understand the psychology behind religion I recommend Wittgenstein's "Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough"; Eliade's "Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries" and "The Sacred & Profane"; Feuerbach's "The Essence of Religion"; Gertz's "The Religion of Java" and "The Interpretation of Cultures"; and no anthology of introduction to religion would be complete without Ricouer's "Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences".

An amazing excerpt from Eliade details the Tjilpa people orientating their small tribe around this sacred gum tree, until one day the tree breaks, the Tjilpa people then "wandered around aimlessly for a time, and finally [laid] down on the ground together and waited for death to overtake them".

I read CS Lewis' Mere Christianity, expecting something impressive, given its huge reputation. Nuh-uh. The crux of his argument, astoundingly, was nothing more than "Either Jesus was who he said he was, or he was mad. Therefore he was who he said he was." It was embarrassing.

Out of curiosity which one is the C.S. Lewis recommendation? Had a hard time Googling that.

Someone here recommended The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, and I would add Mere Christianity and The Four Loves.

William James - The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Possibly the classic about this subject ("'Varieties of Religious Experience' now stands as such a masterly investigation of the psychology of individual theologies, that his other works tend to be rather pushed to one side. ").

This is a study of the psychology of original religious experiences, not religious institutions. Religious geniuses have often shown nervous instability, such as George Fox or St Theresa. Medical materialism, sexual origins refuted. Perhaps the neurotic temperament is best to receive religious inspiration.

There is an abridged version in the Squashed Philosophers: http://sqapo.com/james.htm

I particularly like this sentence:

our morality appears as a plaster hiding a sore it can never cure, and all our well-doing as the hollowest substitute for that well-being that our lives ought to be grounded in, but, alas! are not.

The Science of Religion on EdX [1]

I have been interested in why humans believe in religion ever since watching this discussion[2]. This course is absolutely amazing and it even features content from individuals outside of religious studies, including Jordan Peterson and Jonathan Haidt. Each video contains lectures or interviews from experts on each respective subject in the course. Talking about the building block theory of religion? The course features the lady who invented it. Talking about data science in religion? The course features the researcher in charge of the largest religious database in the world. I think this course is a model for how online courses ought to be. And yes, it absolutely gets into the psychology involved.

[1] https://www.edx.org/course/science-religion-ubcx-religionx-0 (youtube lectures: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCNBQqqt7UnTQ8CuCbfwV4gA )

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aqCRwkak-TU

P.S. this is an excerpt from my blog which is why it is written in a slightly different tone than I typically would use on HN.

Maybe a bit less orthodox (no pun intended) than the rest of the recommendations, but Peter Hintjens in "Social Architecture" describes very well the differences between cults and groups of virtuous people. And more importantly, the mechanics of how you are more likely to join a cult in moments of weakness.


Thanks. I never heard about Lawrence Kohlberg.

Hero of a Thousand Faces, https://smile.amazon.com/Thousand-Faces-Collected-Joseph-Cam..., is a great overview of mythology/morality across many times and cultures.

There is also a great interview with the author on Netflix now. It’s from the 1980s, but it’s several hours of great content as well.

Freud's Civilisation & It's Discontent. It's not purely about religion/morals but he does touch on it from an interesting angle:


I would suggest Food of the Gods by Terrence McKenna as it brings an interesting angle over religion related to our consciousness: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/51660.Food_of_the_Gods

Daniel Dennett's "Breaking the Spell" is worth your time: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breaking_the_Spell:_Religion...

The Evolution of God by Robert Wright is a good read. I think it’s important to understand morals/religion in historical context, and Wright does a great job of adding this context and how religion has developed over the centuries.

Also I want to read Rene Girard someday - I believe he talks about this as well.

Kierkegaard's "Fear and Trembling" and "Either/Or"are hard slogs, but worth it, if you like thinking about essential paradoxes, psychological responses to existentialism, and the like.

I’ve never found Kierkegaard to be a hard slog. I’ve long enjoyed his writings.

More than most, he suffers from the penalty of "it's old so it has to be Super Serious And Stuffy", which is kind of a shame.

Plus one for The Righteous Mind, mentioned below.

Also in the vein of 'not quite psychology of religion, but related', The Hero's Journey, by Joseph Campbell.

Freud "Moses And Monotheism" https://archive.org/stream/mosesandmonothei032233mbp/mosesan... It's about the evolutionary roots and the modern desire for a uber-father

"Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion" by Sam Harris: http://a.co/d/bpQ6OlS

"The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins: http://a.co/d/2aP5Tvo

"Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment" by Robert Wright: http://a.co/d/8IawuEo

Sam Harris discusses these topics (amongst others you may find interesting) in conversations on his podcast: https://samharris.org/podcast/

Patrick McNamara - The neuroscience of religious experience

try work done by maskeen. his work is on Sikhism in Punjabi language. philosophy on religion is opinionated.

Aristotle's ethical treatises.

Also, his Rhetoric.

Jordan Peterson is a psychology professor from Canada who has become a somewhat divisive/controversial political figure during the last 2 years, but he has been uploading video lectures about exactly these topics for a long time.

Jordan Peterson, The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL22J3VaeABQD_IZs7y60I...

Jordan Peterson, 2017 Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (University of Toronto): https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL22J3VaeABQAT-0aSPq-O...

stefan zweig - mental healers

"Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief" by Jordan Peterson

Not a book but here are some recently published debates between Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris that are moderated by Bret Weinstein:



I haven't gotten around to watching them yet (4.5 hours total) but they're supposed to be pretty interesting. The topic of the debate, as I understand it, is roughly whether religion or religious beliefs have any utility from an evolutionary/fitness perspective and/or to what degree could/should we try to objectively evaluate religious/ethical beliefs. Peterson is a clinical psychologist so he's coming to the debate from that angle.

One thing to be aware of is that there’s a lot of polarization around Peterson’s material. I’d recommend sticking to his long-form material (presentations/podcasts) on YouTube rather than the many clickbait videos that’ll be recommended.

Yeah, I came across his earlier work, and was disappointed on his latest lectures/videos.

Actually Jordan Peterson's early work (2010) was what prompted me to post. I agree with the other commenter, though, he seems to have become a sellout and purposely makes his more recent speeches more polarizing.

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