In both theology and psychology, there is an established idea that each person has an internal image of God. In Judaeo-Christian thought, the concept of the image of God has its roots in Old Testament scripture which describes humans as being created in the image of God. This has played an important role in theology (Altmann 1968).
In the psychology of religion, the concept of God is used in a more specific and focussed way and refers to a representation or internal working model of God (Nelson p.253). The study of this concept, as in many areas of psychology, is phenomenological in nature and takes place within a philosophical framework. Such a framework recognizes and studies subjective experiences independently of their origins (Jones 2001). As is the general approach in the field, God images are studied without investigation the truth of religious claims. In evaluating the contribution of God images to the psychology of religion, it is necessary to consider the ways in which this concept has impacted the field, its significance and whether the contributions are useful, persuasive and likely to be enduring.
While there is relevant literature in the field of theology, this essay, being concerned with the psychology of religion, will analyse the field of psychology. Other valid criticisms will be discussed where applicable. This critical evaluation of the body of literature also identifies gaps in the research, potential developments and suggests approaches which may strengthen the value of God images in the future.
God-image theory is important in several key areas of the psychology of religion and this evaluation focuses on the following contexts:
God images in these areas will be evaluated with particular consideration given to how the body of literature stands up to key criticisms. The first is that the theory considers an individual’s representation of God rather than the relationship that the individual has with God (La Mothe 1999). Some academics argue that God-image theory in the psychology of religion is inadequate because it neglects this relational aspect. This is a particular manifestation of the difficulty arising when approaching religion empirically with a disregard of the objective truths of religious claims (Hood et al. 2009 p.3). Research applies psychological theory and methods to the study of God images. Often the relational aspect of a real God changing and shaping a person’s concept of him is not given due consideration as it lies in the arena of theology and religious psychology. If true this relational aspect of the God image could be a confounding factor that is overlooked. Nevertheless, there is strong research to support the view that God images have characteristics that can be studied and used to inform theory. It is also argued that God-image theory’s contribution to the field has been restricted because it hasn’t been sufficiently developed to reflect the dynamic and transformational aspect of the God image and lacks integration with other aspects of religious belief (Shafranske 1992).
Another key criticism of God-image theory is the reliability of research methods including the limitations of reliance on self-reporting. Additionally, there has been criticism of closed research questions. There are also other more nuanced criticisms of God-image theory in each of the three areas which are now examined in detail.
The development of a psychological God image in psychodynamic thought, object relation theory and transitional objects.
The concept of a psychological God image first emerged when Freud laid the foundation for the view that our early and lasting images of God are formed in infancy during a process he called ‘primary identification,’ with a first father. This, according to Freud, is both parents and the flow of feeling between them, becoming the foundation of the ego-ideal and in turn, the first images of God (Freud  1991 p. 370). The psychological construct of the God image, based on Freud’s views was developed by Ana-Maria Rizzuto (Rizzuto  1981). Freud thought that the God image came from a child’s view of the ‘first father’, whereas Rizzuto argues that God images have their origins in a broader range of sources. She draws on the insights of Erikson, Fairburn and Winnicott as well as of Freud to reach her conclusions. As she states, her book is essentially not about religion but about object relations. Her central thesis is that ‘God is a special type of object representation created by the child in the psychic space where transitional objects… are provided with their powerfully real illusory lives’ (ibid p. 177). She also writes that God is a special transitional object and the psychic process of creating and finding God continues through life. This is consistent with Winicott’s theories (ibid p.179). These ‘depth’ approaches taken by Freud, Erikson and Rizzuto were also the start of a merger of the psychology of religion with general psychology. This remains important although attachment theory has been proposed as an alternative bridge between the two (Granqvist 2006).
To consider the value of this lasting impact on the field, it is helpful to consider the criticisms. The argument that God-image theory is insufficiently relational is more pertinent to this area which takes a psychoanalytic approach. Whereas research which deals with development of God images and their impact on psychological variables can produce arguments which remain persuasive, this area has at its heart theories which consider the individual psyche without the influence of a relational God and is essentially atheistic in its approach. Some scholars differentiate between the God representation or ‘object God’ which has its roots in childhood memories and feelings and the conscious concept of a ‘subject God’ who is the God of theology (St. Clair 1994 p.23). Some object relation theorists claim that the theological God is an externalisation of subjective mental representations; others, however, acknowledge the possibility of God existing but in defence of their approach, place him beyond the ‘object God’ and ‘subject God’. More importantly, these theories are situated in psychology rather than religion, and so this approach remains valid.
More pertinent are criticisms from the field of psychology itself. One criticism is the lack of empirical evidence for the relationship between the use of a transitional object and later religious experience (Brody 1980 pp. 579, 591). This is a general criticism of object relations theory – that it lacks empirical observation of ‘normal’ children. Criticism was thus levelled at Rizzuto’s work for using a clinical sample that was not well integrated (St. Clair 1994 p. 28). Also, it has been argued that Rizzuto’s perspectives on Winnicott’s developmental theory are helpful but inadequate as transitional objects in infancy are idiosyncratic and fundamentally different from sacred objects (which shape God image) many adults share (LaMothe 1998). There has however been further research supporting the essence of Rizzuto’s early work (Banschick 1992; McDargh 1992; Meier and Meier 2004) which has had a lasting impact on the field. Most discussions on the psychological aspects of God images at the present time continue to draw on object relations theory and Winnicott’s theories of transitional objects.
Development of God images through childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
Empirical research supports the view that religious socialisation from parents is a source from which a God image can be constructed and is strongly correlated with the formation of a traditional God image (Bucher 2000 p. 320). Rizzuto neglects culture in her considerations, taking a child’s fantasies as the beginning of religious development – God only has a special position in the child’s world because God also takes that special position in the family and culture. A contrary approach focusing on religious socialisation takes culture as a starting point. The child takes for themself God images derived from family and culture (Shaap-Jonker 2008, p. 120).
This doesn’t, however, invalidate Rizzuto’s theories. She divides God representation into the God image (from emotional experience) and the God concept (derived rationally). Her work mainly analyses the God image rather than the God concept. It is possible that the rational God concept reflects a child’s religious instruction and the culture within which the child is situated while the God image on the other hand, is developed through a relational process. There is empirical evidence supporting both theories. In fact, the God image and the God concept are likely to be interrelated and interactive as current psychological theories about cognition and emotion suggest (Storbeck and Clore 2007).
Another key area of research on the development of God images links this with various aspects of parenting. Parental beliefs are consciously transmitted as part of identity. There is also strong research linking parents’ religious behaviour with their children’s behaviour (Francis & Carter 1980). Parents also influence their children’s religious beliefs indirectly through their parenting methods. One study, for example, found that adolescents who reported their parents as being very controlling were more likely to have a punishing image of God (Potvin 1977). God images are also found to be related to child-parent relationships and attachments. Like object relations theory, attachment theory focuses on the relationship with the primary caretaker and its impact on subsequent relationships. In line with attachment theory, there have been a number of attempts to link God images with attachment to the mother (e.g. Reinert and Edwards 2014). The body of research does not produce clear conclusions with some studies showing the father-child relationship as being more important with the gender of the child and cultural differences also having an influence.
On the whole, these results indicate that the parental image of God varies depending on culture whereas the affective God image is derived relationally (Beit-Hallahmi & Argyle 1997 p. 108), again lending support for a distinct but related God image and God concept.
Effect of individual God image on key psychological variables.
As well as theories about the origin and nature of God images, scholars in the field have sought to study the impact of God images on other important areas. Studies have investigated and found a correlation between positive and negative God images and a range of key variables including empathy (Francis et al. 2012), religious behaviour (Spilka et al. 1964) and self esteem (Benson & Spilka 1973).
One criticism of this type of study is the use of closed research questions which restrict participants to predetermined descriptors such as the 64 adjective Q sort developed by Spilka or the adjective rating scales employed by Gorsuch (1968). This has been addressed by the use of open-ended questions to obtain qualitative research. This guides theory as an adjunct to the large-sample quantitative research which tends to require descriptors. Another response to this is a proposed concept map for representing God images in a way that portrays their salience and scope (Kunkel et al. 1999).
Another criticism is that the studies are restricted to a Judeo-Christian framework. The early study by Spilka, Armatas and Nussbaum (1964) invited church members to supply adjectives they thought would apply to God. This may be less helpful when carrying out research in a non-Christian population. There is also the possibility of the academic God concept being reported by participants rather than a genuine personal God image. It would be valuable to develop scales and questions to gather information about God images in an indirect manner. One such piece of research being developed aims to study visceral reactions when presented with religious content (Gibson 2004). Novel approaches like this may move empirical research beyond cognitive limitations of self-reporting through questionnaires.
Whilst these criticisms indicate the need for improved methodology, this area of research is not vulnerable to the criticisms of God-image theory being insufficiently relational, transformational or dynamic. It is the area where the psychological God-image theory is least likely to attract objections from theologians or people of faith. This is because it is possible to consider the impact of God images and study them empirically without the findings being subjected to disputes over the origin or nature of God images since the truth of religious claims are not critical to the investigations. In a psychological paradigm, this aspect of God-image theory is robust and also has potential for many practical uses. Developments in this area could include a strengthening of methodology as mentioned. In addition, the rise of religious extremism and violence needs to be investigated psychologically. This research is still in its infancy and while there are papers on psychological approaches to religious extremism and violence (Victoroff 2005; McGregor et al. 2010); God-image theory, which may add some important insights, is currently missing from the body of research.
This completes the broad evaluation of the impact of God images in the field of psychology of religion. In all three areas considered, the God-image concept has had a significant influence on the development of scholarly thought and theory. Whilst some theoretical models may sit uneasily with theologians and religious psychologists, there are points of integration and acceptance. More importantly, within a field which essentially studies religion psychologically, the use of God images has been of great significance and remains a valuable conceptual tool for ongoing phenomenological research.
Altmann, A.1968. “Homo Imago Dei” in Jewish and Christian Theology. The Journal of Religion, 48(3), 235–259.
Banschick, M.R., 1992. God-representations in adolescence. Object relations theory and religion: Clinical applications, pp.73-85.
Beit-Hallahmi, B. & Argyle, M. 1997. The Psychology of Religious Behaviour, Belief and Experience. Routledge.
Benson, P. L., & Spilka, B. P., 1973. God-image as a function of self esteem and locus of control. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 12, 297-310.
Brody, S. 1980. Transitional objects: Idealization of a phenomenon. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 49(4), 561-605.
Bucher, A. 2000. Modern Youth – Traditional God? Concepts of God Among School Youth in Liechtenstein. In: Ziebertz, H. and F. Schweitzer eds. The Human Image of God, pp.313-328. Brill.
Francis L. J. and Carter, M. 1980, Church aided secondary schools, religious education as an examination subject and pupil attitude towards religion. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 50: 297–300.
Francis, L.J., Croft, J.S. and Pyke, A., 2012. Religious diversity, empathy, and God images: perspectives from the psychology of religion shaping a study among adolescents in the UK. Journal of Beliefs & Values, 33(3), pp.293-307.
Freud, S. 1991. On Metapsychology – The Theory of Psychoanalysis: “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, “Ego and the Id” and Other Works. A. Dickson (ed.), Penguin Freud library.
Gibson, N. J. S. 2004. Overcoming methodological boundaries in the experimental investigation of religious cognition. Paper presented at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion Annual Meeting, Kansas City, MO.
Gorsuch, R. L. 1968. The conceptualization of God as seen in adjective ratings. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 7, 56-64.
Granqvist, P. 2006. “On the Relation Between Secular and Divine Relationships: An Emerging Attachment Perspective and a Critique of the “Depth” Approaches”. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 16, 1-18.
Hood Jr, R. W., Hill P.C., & Spilka, B. 2009. Psychology of religion: An empirical approach. Guilford Press.
Jones, A. 2001. A condensed history of the phenomenology: the first and second phases from Franz Brentano to Hans-Georg Gadamer. Nurse Researcher, 8 (4), 65- 75.
Kunkel, M. A., Cook, S., Meshel, D. S., Daughtry, D., & Hauenstein, A. (1999). God Images: A Concept Map. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 38(2), 193–202.
LaMothe, R. 1998. Sacred objects as vital objects: Transitional objects reconsidered.
Journal of Psychology and Theology, 26(2),159-167.
LaMothe, R. 1999. Trauma and Development: A Faith Perspective.” Pastoral Psychology 47 (5): 373-87.
McGregor, I., Nash, K. & Prentice, M. 2010. Reactive approach motivation (RAM) for religion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(1), 148-161.
McDargh, J. 1992. The deep structure of religious representations. Object relations theory and religion: Clinical applications, 1-19.
Meier, A. & Meier, M., 2004, ‘Formation of adolescents’ image of God: Predictors and Age and gender differences’, American Journal of Pastoral Counseling 7(2), 91–111.
Nelson, J.M. 2009. Psychology, Religion and Spirituality. Springer.
Potvin, R. H.1977. Adolescent God Images. Review of Religious Research, 19(1), 43–53.
Reinert, D. & Edwards, C. 2014. Attachment Theory and Concepts of God Parent Referencing Versus Self-Referencing. SAGE Open Dec 2014, 4 (4).
Rizzuto, A-M. 1981. The Birth of the Living God: A Psychoanalytic Study. New ed. University of Chicago Press.
Schaap-Jonker, H. 2008. Before the Face of God: An Interdisciplinary Study of the Meaning of the Sermon and the Hearer’s God Image, Personality and Affective State. LIT Verlag.
Shafranske, E. P. 1992. God-representation as the transformational object. Object relations theory and religion: Clinical applications, 57-72.
Spilka,B, Armatas, P and Nussbaum, J. 1964. The Concept of God: A Factor-Analytic Approach. Review of Religious Research. 6, No. 1, 28-36.
Storbeck, J. and Clore, G.L. 2007. Storbeck, J., & Clore, G. L. (2007). On the interdependence of cognition and emotion. Cognition & Emotion, 21(6), 1212–1237.
St. Clair, M. 1994. Human Relationships and the Experience of God: Object Relations and Religion. Paulist Press.
Victoroff, J., 2005. The Mind of the Terrorist- A Review and Critique of Psychological Approaches. Journal of conflict resolution, 49(1), 3-42.