The Religious Pyramid

Essays > Psychology

Marc looks at religion with reference to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

What makes someone religious (re-ligare from Latin: re-connect, with inner or outer entity)? Why do some people remain in their religion from birth onwards while others (increasingly) choose a new religion, and still others reject religion altogether? Why are there so many religions, and what turns some into rich, powerful, successful ‘world’ religions, while others remain tiny ‘cults’ and eventually disintegrate?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has an immediate strong impact as a clear and almost self-evident truth. Needs shape and are shaped by values; the two are closely interrelated, particularly in the realm of religion.

Buddhism s   Christianity s   Hinduism s   Islam s   Judaism s

Applied to religious needs and values, Elizabeth Puttick (aka Bhadra) argues in A New Typology of Religion Based on Needs and Values (1997) that Maslow’s five levels may be combined into two main groupings: Traditionalism and Personal Development.

Levels 1-2 share a focus on conservative or traditional values, whereas levels 3-5 may be understood as a spectrum of personal development from simple self-improvement to spirituality.

maslow pyramid

Traditional religion

Level 1: Survival needs
A person who is lacking food, safety, love, and esteem would most probably hunger for food more desperately than for anything else. In societies and human groups where survival is continually under threat by famine and other hazards, religions such as fertility cults will cater predominantly for such needs. Those religions are usually animistic or polytheistic, and the aim is to appease the gods or spirits. Cargo cults are a modern example.

Level 2: Safety needs
Maslow summarized this level as a person’s preference for ‘a safe, orderly, predictable, lawful, organized world, which he can count on and in which unexpected, unmanageable, chaotic, or other dangerous things do not happen’. Therefore a further need arises for powerful parent figures or protectors and under extreme threat encourages the acceptance of dictatorship. Applied to religions, what is at stake is not so much the literal threat of attack as a perceived threat, usually in a non-physical or supernatural form. Religions at level 2 will be conservative, patriarchal, even misogynistic; and the suppression of female sexuality as a threat to family stability. Fundamentalism is a more aggressive expression of these needs, probably in an attempt to increase safety by eliminating the threat of competing creeds or converting the ‘other’ to ‘our’ side.

Personal development religion

Level 3: Esteem needs
Self-respect and self-esteem are needs of the ego that arise when the previous two levels of need are satisfied. Maslow subdivided these into two groups, which could be termed inner and outer needs (although he did not use this label). Inner needs include achievement, mastery, confidence, independence; outer needs include reputation, prestige, status, fame, dominance. Man and woman will be drawn to groups and techniques that promise wealth, happiness and success such as Scientology, positive thinking and Transcendental Meditation.

Level 4: Belongingness and love needs
Once the basic individuation needs for mastery of the external world and achievement success are met, the needs for love, acceptance, and relationship arise. It could be described as a higher development of love: from eros to agape.

Maslow argues that ‘the tremendous and rapid increase in personal growth groups and intentional communities may in part be motivated by this unsatisfied hunger for contact, for intimacy, for belongingness and by the need to overcome the widespread feelings of alienation, aloneness, strangeness, and loneliness. Since women are generally perceived as being better at these skills – more loving, caring, emotional and intuitive – they will tend to be drawn to this type of religion in larger numbers and attain high status, even leadership positions. In these religions personal development or growth is the predominant goal.

Examples are the Human Potential Movement, Gurdjieffian groups, the Osho movement, New Age and Pagan groups.

Level 5: Self-actualization needs
The concept of self-actualization is regarded as Maslow’s primary contribution to psychology. He equated it with the ‘desire for self-fulfilment … to become everything that one is capable of becoming’. At this point the definition comes close to the Self-realization concept of Eastern mysticism. It is the point at which dualism begins to be transcended into union or unity with a greater whole, including the duality of gender. However, women attracted to such movements will be more concerned with spiritual growth than gender issues. Religions at this stage are part of the mystical traditions of the world religions, such as Zen Buddhism, Dzogchen, Sufism, Kabbala and Ridhwan.

The limitation of the model as a simplification of reality is that it cannot be applied wholesale to every individual of all world religions.”
(E. Puttick)

Antar Marc

Elizabeth Puttick (aka Bhadra) also wrote Women in New Religions: In Search of Community, Sexuality and Spiritual Power 

Related article Stop Censorship of Esoterica and Spirituality

Comments are closed.