05/22/2011 11:21 am ET Updated Jul 22, 2011

Explaining Our Relationship with God

Can psychology explain God?

The need to know a higher being that some of us call God has been a long lasting one. It does not seem to go away but only gets more profound. What we call this higher being -- God, Allah, the all-powerful, the first being, the wholeness or the lord -- is not the concern but, instead, how we define and relate to it.

Going back to the concept of God and how psychology might explain it -- It does not seem that psychologists can claim to have or will be able to explain God entirely. They need other areas of science and research to come together with wisdom to be able to give us a concept that we can grasp and practice. A concept that diminishes the sense of uncertainty about the truth. All scientists, whether physicists, astronomers, statisticians or biologists, can each act as a piece of the puzzle to bring more understanding by providing information. Psychologists can add to this information and encourage people to apply it by encouraging them to self reflect, become self-aware and self-develop. This being needs a totalistic explanation that only comes with collaboration.

The process of knowing and connecting with a God or spirituality seems to be a type of schooling which has distinct stages. As we move forward with these stages, our definition of what it means to be spiritual or religious redefines itself and expands. These spiritual stages are similar to Maslow's stages of self-growth but are also a more transparent form of Maslow's hierarchy.

One stage is not better than the other -- we all can get to the top by going through the bottom, and it is just the matter of being aware that there is a top and then by moving forward by making a conscious choice. Here are the stages of spirituality or religiousness:

1) A God that helps with physiological needs: At this basic stage we need a God to help us with our basic needs mostly physiological ones for survival. We pray to gain rewards of having enough food and water. There is usually a basic concept of heaven and hell attached which is a reflection of our motivating force in life (to have enough to survive). Heaven being a good place with plenty of food and drink and hell being a place of deprivation. So, we need God to make sure our basic needs are met through the eternity. At this stage, there is likely to be an anxious attachment to God which may be based on a sense of fear rather than love.

2) A God that makes us feel safe: At this stage people have a need for a God to feel safe and secure. If they have enough food and drink and those basic needs are taken care of, then safety becomes important. People want to feel like they are safe and something is protecting them personally, financially and health wise. They want to feel safe against accidents in life, here and eternally.

3) A God that gives us a sense of love and belonging: At this stage, after basic survival and safety needs are met, comes a need to have a God that gives us love and a feeling of belonging to something beyond this limited humanness. Humans have a need to feel like they belong to something bigger, that they are internally accepted, and to feel like they are loved. They do not want to feel lonely and they want reassurance that even after they die, there is something to which they can be attached.

4) A God that helps with self esteem needs: At this stage, humans feel content with their basic survival, safety, and belonging needs and now find a need to be unconditionally valued. They feel like they need to make some changes to get some higher being's recognition by contributing something good to the society. The reward for them is a feeling that something higher than them is recognizing them as being valuable.

5) A desire for God because of self-actualization: At this stage, the process of getting to know God becomes more personal and is based on a sense of individuality. At this stage, people do not want to be followers but to learn from their environment, gather information and knowledge based on facts and apply those to their uniqueness to get to a place of contentment. The person at this stage may become creative, a sense of creativity that brings something positive to this world and is meaningful. Also, people have peak experiences of connecting to something bigger, have a composed present, have a more efficient perception of reality and are comfortable with how it is unfolding rather than resisting it. They can accept good and bad, high and low, and are aware of the difference; they are accepting of self, others and connect to nature; they take responsibility for their actions; are moderately spontaneous and like simple things; have an evolved rational side and a fully functioning intuitive side. These individuals pause and then respond to their emotions, try not to hurt others intentionally; are honest; productive; and work to alleviate problems. It seems that in this era, about 1-2 percent of the population are getting to this stage, even though we all have the potential to do so but somehow get stuck at the lower ones.

6) A natural God inside and out because of self-transcendence: This is the final stage of a true spirituality. This is when the person feels like he is connected with a whole being and is living his life from a deeper place of being. A place including all but not limited to one aspect of life. This is more of a global soul and beyond. Many of who we consider prophets were highly evolved beings who reached this stage. It seems that in this era of life, less than 1 percent of the population gets here. Some of the characteristics of this stage are: continues peak experiences which create a sense of peace with life with all its ups and downs, speaking more easily and the language of poetry and mysticism becomes more easily comprehensible. People who reach this stage can find the positive in everything, are meta-motivated internally, are into wholeness, truth, beauty, goodness and unity as their source of motivation; they seem to recognize each other and connect flawlessly; they are more responsive to inner and outer beauty and see it in all; they function more globally; they are innovators; are composed, and are post conventional (having gone through all of Kohlberg's moral development stages), have a healthy and balanced life style, and are connectors.

At the end, it is important to remember that the higher stages include all the lower ones and going back and forth is natural.

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Author: Roya Rohani Rad, MA, PsyD
Self Knowledge Base & Foundation
A non profit dedicated to public education