Psychospiritual Causes of War and Poverty



War and poverty are ultimately a result of a profound and universal human motivation to experience union. This union may be conceptualized as union with The Divine[2], with all of creation, or simply with all of humankind. It is reflected in the popularity of extreme sports, psychedelic drugs, sex (Ogden, 2006), and spiritual practices like meditation, prayer and various types of retreat experiences including vision quests.[3]  The desire to experience union can be subdivided into the desire for three types of subjective experience: (1) God's love flowing to me, (2) God's love flowing through me, and (3) a sense of purpose or meaning.[4] 


There are two mechanisms through which the motivation to experience union leads to war and poverty.  The first mechanism is the sublimation of this basic motivation. The motivation remains unconscious and through sublimation drives behaviors that lead to war and poverty.  The second mechanism through which this motivation leads to war and poverty is through a certain kind of confusion about causation between the objective and subjective aspects of reality. When I attempt to generate subjective experiences of the flow of God’s love to and through me and of purpose/meaning by trying to control the objective world in such a way that I expect it will lead to the desired subjective experiences, I am not only doomed to failure but I will ultimately contribute to the creation of war and poverty within humankind.  I call this mechanism the ObjectiveàSubjective Causation Assumption.  I assume that I can control my subjective experience by controlling the objective world.  This assumption seems to be incorrect so often that I am tempted to refer to the ObjectiveàSubjective Causation FALLACY, but for the time being I will stick with the word “assumption.”  At the very least trying to control objective reality is an extremely inefficient way to achieving desired subjective experiences.


Wars, whether enacted between countries, religions, ethnic groups, or motorcycle gangs, have in common a number of features that pertain to the sublimation and the assumption noted above.


One of these features is compulsive gambling (Rhead, 1986). When one is involved in compulsive gambling one is unconsciously seeking the experience of being loved by God and is doing so by assuming the causation of the subjective by the objective.[5]  Whenever I engage in an activity that puts me in danger of negative consequences that are not fully under my own control, I am gambling. Whether I am playing poker or going onto the battlefield, there is a chance that the outcome will be something negative for me. If the outcome turns out to be positive I have evidence that God loves me. I may view this evidence as something having to do with “chance” factors, like favorable weather conditions on the battlefield or drawing a good card, in which case I certainly have a way to try to convince myself that this is evidence of God's love flowing to me since the “chance” factors seem to be in my favor. I may also view my “winning” as a result of my superior intelligence, skill or strength. However at some unconscious level even this perceived superiority is taken as evidence that God loves me, since God is presumed to be the source of this superiority. Either way, gambling on victory presents the possibility of an objective outcome that I can interpret as evidence of God's love flowing to me. I then confuse this objective reality with the subjective experience I seek and try to convince myself that I am indeed having this positive subjective experience.[6]


Another feature in warfare that is presumed to provide an opportunity to feel God's love flowing to me is the idea that I can earn God's love. If I engage in a noble or righteous war, particularly one that is conceptualized as a religious war, I have reason to hope that God will love me because of my noble or righteous activities, and in particular my sacrifices. Sometimes this idea is even extended to particular ways that God might reward those who die in war, such as a bevy of beautiful virgins.


Some specific behaviors during warfare also tend to induce the feeling of being loved by God. Obviously one of these is killing enemy soldiers. The fact that I survive and my enemy dies seems to be prima facie evidence of God's love for me, as noted above in compulsive gambling. Similarly, when I torture a designated enemy and witness directly his or her suffering at my hand, I can take this experience as evidence of God's love (in terms of favoritism) flowing to me since I am not suffering and the other is.


War also allows me to feel something akin to God’s love flowing through me. I may be able to convince myself that I feel God’s love flowing through me to my comrades in arms, my countrymen, the members of my religious faith, or any others that are on “my side” and for whom I may be making “the ultimate sacrifice.”[7] These same dynamics play out on a regular basis on soccer and football fields around he world, usually with less lethal side effects. They can also be seen in the interactions between police and the criminals who try to “get away with” anything from speeding to bank robbery, and in the interactions between slave owners and slaves.


Finally, war offers the opportunity to feel that one's life has purpose or meaning. This is most obvious when one perceives oneself to be protecting innocents in the “homeland” or “fatherland” from the evil enemy.


Poverty flows from the motivation to experience union as well.  When I refer to poverty I do not mean only the lack of certain amenities, but the more extreme version in which one lacks the means to survive.  Stephen Schwartz (2011) points out that there is a direct correlation between increases in poverty and the number of children who starve to death each day, and that there is an alarming increase at the present time in the number of children worldwide who starve to death each day. At the behavioral level poverty is the result of the concentration of wealth in the hands of a small minority, leaving all others in varying degrees of poverty.  However, this behavior is driven by the motivation in the wealthy that is the subject of this essay.  That this is part of our perception, perhaps not totally consciously, is reflected in the term “the less fortunate” when referring to those living in poverty. Clearly the implication is that those who are not in poverty are experiencing good fortune, and this good fortune ultimately is presumed to be evidence of God's love flowing to the fortunate person(s).[8] Those who are extremely wealthy can take their wealth as even greater evidence of God's love for them. The good fortune may be seen as a “chance” factor such as an unexpected inheritance or discovery of gold on land one owns, or it may be seen as being a result of having been given (by God) the superior intelligence, skill, or strength that allows one to manipulate things in such a way that one acquires great wealth at the expense of those who thereby become impoverished. Obviously these dynamics are essentially the same as the compulsive gambling dynamics noted above with regard to war.


Once a person or group has been able to acquire and hoard significant wealth, they are in a position to do things that may give them a feeling of God's love flowing through them as well as a sense of purpose or meaning. To be able to purchase life-saving medical care for one’s children, to put them through college, or to contribute to worthwhile humanitarian projects, gives one the sense that one is allowing God’s love to flow toward the objects of one's generosity. Also there is often a sense of meaning in being able to be helpful to others (the “less fortunate”) in such ways.


What is most interesting about all this arises from the idea that what we most powerfully and universally desire is the experience of union. Thinking of this particularly in terms of union with all other beings (or even just all other human beings) there is a bit of a paradox involved in the ways we pursue feeling God’s love flowing to us and feeling God’s love flowing through us as long as we hold onto the ObjectiveàSubjective Causation Assumption.[9]  By trying to convince myself God loves me by objectively torturing, killing, or impoverishing others I am not only counting on this questionable assumption to lead to my desired subjective outcome of feeling loved by God.  I am also putting myself in direct conflict with the second aspect of union, the feeling of God’s love flowing through me.  Only by the most drastic distortion of reality can I convince myself that torturing, killing and impoverishing others will help me feel God’s love flowing through me to them.


An interesting question about the direction of causality between objective and subjective reality comes up in the domain of sexual attraction. I have heard many complaints, more frequently from women than men, that a person feels they are being “objectified” by their lover or prospective lover. The complaint boils down to the belief that the person is only being seen as an attractive body, with no attention or value being assigned to the person’s soul, personality, or any other non-physical attribute. While this belief is relatively easy to support in an initial encounter with a stranger, things are not so clear as a relationship develops. Stated from the point of view of a heterosexual female: “He just wants to have sex with my attractive body and has no interest in anything deeper about who I really am.” What is missing from this point of view is the possibility that the man in question may see the woman as more physically attractive because he has in fact fallen deeply in love with her many non-physical attributes. In other words, his subjective reality of being in love may be causing a change in what could be taken as objective reality in terms of her physical attractiveness. While it may or may not be true that “the girls all look prettier at closing time,” a particular girl may look prettier in the eyes of one who has come to love her. Technically the perception of physical attractiveness is subjective, as in any individual’s perception (perceptions become objective reality when they are shared by a group of people who view each other as being one or more of the following: sane, rational, evolved, enlightened, clear-headed, scientific, deep, intelligent, hip, devout, aware, right-thinking, conscious, decent and the like), but the woman who is hurt or insulted when she feels she has been objectified is certainly treating this perception as objective reality. If one believes in the possibility of love at first sight then the presumably objective perception of beauty in that first moment may actually be a result of the subjective experience of falling in love.  The fact that sexual attraction may lead to sexual union, which in turn may lead to the experience of union with The Divine (Ogden, 2006), make this aspect of sexuality quite relevant to the central thesis of this essay.  It has in fact been suggested that opening to The Divine in sexual union may reduce all manner of conflict, including war (Robinson, 2009).



The question naturally arises of how we might reduce or eliminate war and poverty. The answer in general appears to me to be in the making conscious of the sublimated motive to feel union, and in realizing the folly of pursuing desired subjective experiences by attempting to control the objective world. Depth psychotherapy (included psychotherapy assisted by entheogens/psychedelics), a variety of spiritual practices, and almost any kind of deep reflection on one's self and on life can be helpful.  Psychologists looking for meaningful avenues of research have a gold mine of possibilities in these domains.  In the meantime we can cultivate compassion for ourselves and others who are caught to varying degrees in the confusion and pain of trying to achieve inner peace through the sometimes violent manipulation of the outer world.





Duerr, Hans-Peter, Matter is not made out of matter, accessed 10-17-11 at


May, Gerald G. The Awakened Heart: Opening Yourself to the Love You Need, Harper Collins, New York, 1993,


Keen, Sam  To Love and to Be Loved, Bantam Books, 1997.


Ogden, Gina, The Heart and Soul of Sex: Making the ISIS Connection, Trumpeter Books, 2006.


Rhead, J. C. Compulsive Garmbling and the Meaning of Life.  Voices:  The Art and Science of Psychotherapy, 22 (2), 68-71, 1986.


Robinson, Marnia  Cupid’s Poisoned Arrow:  From Habit to Harmony in Sexual Relationships, North Atlantic Books, 2009,


Schwartz, Stephan A. The Coming Food Crisis—The Social Tsunami Headed Our Way. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, September/October 2011, Vol. 7, No. 5, pp 282-285.


Volkan, Vamik  Large-group Identity, International Relations and Psychoanalysis, paper given at “Deutsche Psychoanalytische Gesellschaft e.V. (DGP) Meeting” Gasteig Cultural Center, Rosenheimer Platz, May 23, 2008.  Accessed on 11-12-11 at,-International-Relations-and-Psychoanalysis.php


[1] A slightly edited version of this article was published in the summer 2012 issue of “Psychospiritual Dialogue,” the newsletter of the Association for Spirituality & Psychotherapy, located physically at 250 West 57th St, Suite 501, NY, NY 10019 and virtually at

[2] I use terms like The Divine and God to refer to concepts that are used by those of the theological persuasion as a way to understand the kind of subjective experiences I am addressing in this paper.  His Holiness The Dalai Lama (2009) makes clear that one need not think in theological terms in order to pursue, and indeed to attain, such experiences.

[3] Psychedelic drugs have of late been renamed “entheogenic” drugs, referred to their capacity to generate in the user an experience of the Divine when that is the user’s intention and the circumstances are appropriate.  All of these activities could be considered entheogenic in that sense.

[4] Theologians and philosophers (e.g. Keen, 1997), psychiatrists (e.g. May, 1993) and even physicists (e.g. Duerr, 2011) seem to agree upon the central importance of love as the most important and meaningful force in the universe.

[5] Much of what I have come to believe about the power of compulsive gambling as come from observing myself play solitaire on the computer.  When I am dealt a good card I feel loved by God, and when I play cleverly I feel loved by God because of the gift of being able to play cleverly.

[6] An alternative to engaging in war can be found in the cultivation of gratitude by counting (or at least taking notice of) my blessings.  The fact that I am alive is proof that I am blessed with an immune system that has won many a great battle with a multitude of infectious and carcinogenic agents.  Similarly the fact that I have driven many miles on divided highways and my life has not yet been ended by having an oncoming car suddenly veer head-on into mine can be seen as extremely good fortune.

[7] Vamik Volkan  (2008) has provided an elaborate conceptual framework for understanding conflicts between large groups based on the application of psychoanalytic theory to large-group identity and defense mechanisms.  His concept of “entitlement ideology” is somewhat akin to the theories presented in this paper, although it does not make reference to the desire to feel entitled to God’s love.  One need not invoke a deity in order to perceive oneself as a member of the “chosen people.”

[8] George Bush is rumored to have told those attending a lavish fundraiser for his campaign that he sees the world not in terms of the “haves” and the “have nots” but instead in terms of the “haves” and the “have mores,” and that he saw himself as representing the latter group.

[9] According to Jack Kornfield in The Wise Heart: A Guide to Understanding the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology, we suffer from the delusion that we are separate from one another when the fundamental reality, from which we have somehow become estranged, is actually union.  Those who argue for a non-local concept of consciousness are making a similar point.

 John Rhead

Columbia, MD