Skip to main content

God's Emotions 4: What Are Emotions Anyways?

By Valerie Tarico ~

Note: This is Part Four in a series, “God’s Emotions: Why the Biblical God is so Very Human.” Parts 1-3 are available at this website or at

Emotion is an energetic horse that, wild and rampant, brings us all to grief
And Reason must constrain to keep on course, establishing command and being its chief.
Yet Reason by itself is hard and cold, lacking Emotion’s fires to inflame
That passion and affection which draw gold from cruder ore, which is our human aim.
--Alan Nordstrom (from “Reconciliation”)

The Bible writers spoke as if God has emotions, and most Christians through history have spoken and behaved as if this were true. But to understand what that means you have to understand what emotions are. And that requires a small excursion into the history of psychology and the budding field of brain science.

We humans have feelings about feelings. By this I don’t mean just that we like or dislike specific emotions; – I like falling in love, or I hate being depressed--I mean that we have feelings about the whole idea of emotions. Our feelings about feelings have a long history. After a dark age of authority and dogma and religious fervor, the Enlightenment made rationality supreme. Reason, coupled with empiricism, demonstrably led to advances in knowledge and technology that had been impossible when critical inquiry was suppressed. In this context, scholars convinced themselves that emotions were a liability.

By the Twentieth Century, schools of cognitive and behavioral psychology argued that we could understand (and heal) human beings without paying any attention whatsoever to the affective dimensions of life. Ironically, this hyper -rationality probably was driven in part by a gut-level distaste for the untamed “female” quality of emotions. In other words, it was driven by an unacknowledged emotion, a sublimated, sexist version of “big boys don’t cry.” We now know it to be based on falsehood.

Cognition without emotion doesn’t get us very far. Damage to emotion centers in the brain can mean that even intelligent people can’t learn from their mistakes and they make harmful social and fiscal decisions (Naqui, Shiv, Bechara, 2006). In his book, Descarte’s Error, neurologist Antionio Damasio describes one patient who can gather and analyze information almost endlessly without it leading to a preference. For a decision to be made, all of that reason and information needs to create a valence, a positive feeling that privileges one option over others that then directs action. As psychologist Marlene Winell has put it: “Imagine going into a Baskin Robins and having to choose one of the thirty one ice cream flavors by rational analysis.” In fact, this is one of the primary functions of emotion—when we are presented with choices, it guides us toward one among many options.

The basic point I am making is that, in humans, emotions are neither a liability nor some superfluous fluff like the wings on an angel. They are practical mental processes that serve a purpose. And since the God of the Bible is described as having emotions, this fact alone raises some interesting questions. What exactly are emotions? What are they for? How do they work? And how do these details relate to our notions about God?

Emotions Defined

Let’s start with a definition. Emotions are evolved, functional feedback processes that serve the well-being of sentient, mobile animals, and social animals in particular. Consider the parts of this definition.
  • Evolved – Emotions have been subject to selective pressures on our ancestors and therefore can be assumed to increase reproductive success.
  • Functional – Emotions have a practical purpose (or several) in the service of surviving and thriving.
  • Feedback processes –Emotions are a means of representing information about a changing internal and external context.
  • Sentient and Mobile – Emotions have practical value only for creatures that are aware and able to alter/move in response to external conditions.
  • Social – Emotions are particularly useful for communal species.

Furthermore, emotions have a physical component, a psychological component, and a behavioral component. Anger, for example, triggers the release of catecholamines like adrenaline. Heart rate accelerates, and blood is directed away from digestion and toward the limbs in preparation for action. Muscles get tense. The object of anger becomes a consuming focus and may well end up on the receiving end of aggressive action. Different physical, psychological and behavioral components together make up each emotion, and researchers use them to measure and categorize emotional reactions.

Since Charles Darwin’s seminal work, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872/1998) many scholars have proposed that there is a set of “primary” or most basic motions. The most basic list of primary emotions includes disgust, happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and surprise. These are considered primary because:
  • They are found across human cultures, so appear to be universals
  • They have distinct and universal facial expressions, gestures or postures
  • They develop early in life
  • They can be found in other animal species
  • They have unique patterns of brain activity

Some scholars include acceptance and anticipation in this list (e.g. Plutchik, 1962). Others argue that jealousy and guilt are just as primary: they lack easily identified facial expressions because it is not helpful to have other people know you are feeling jealous or guilty (Tooby & Cosmides, 2008). It is thought that other emotions, called secondary and tertiary emotions are made up of combinations of these. Secondary and tertiary emotions typically require more thinking and appraisal of a situation before they get triggered. They may be shaped by culture and religion. But the building blocks are hard wired, and with good reason.

What are emotions for?

Emotions function as a motivational system. In a very real sense, all human emotions can be thought of as forms of pleasure and pain: they are all either appealing or aversive. We are motivated to seek them or avoid them. As Jeremy Bentham said in 1789, “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we out to do, as well as to determine what we shall do . . . They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think.” In this we are like other sentient beings. All creatures that experience pleasure and pain are motivated to seek the former and avoid the later. [1]

One of life’s little ironies is that religious people often accuse nonreligious people of being hedonistic. Then they talk about benefits of faith such as love, joy, and peace (when they are not talking about the material benefits of answered prayer or cities of gold or dark eyed virgins.) Believers and nonbelievers alike will point out the hypocrisy of prosperity gospel or martyrdom for virgins, but what they often don’t realize is that the more “spiritual” benefits of religion are equally hedonistic. We all, from the basest pedophile to the most self negating monk, are about seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. The only real arguments are over what gets us there, what kinds of pleasure are preferable, and whose feelings matter.

Affective scientists say that emotion is key in three kinds of processes that help animals, including humans, to survive and thrive.

1. Adaptation. Adaptation means being able to respond appropriately to changes in the environment around you. If a saber toothed tiger shows up at the entrance to your cave, the emotion of fear directs all of your focus and energy toward the threat. It prepares your body for a fight. If a husband starts flirting with his neighbor, jealousy may motivate his wife to monitor or block their contact. If a Norwegian farmer feels the first flakes of snow his face, he may feel a surge of anxiety that makes him hurry to chop more wood or get the animals securely sheltered.

We all, from the basest pedophile to the most self negating monk, are about seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. 2. Social Signaling. Ethologists, meaning specialists in animal behavior, and social psychologists say that in communal species like humans a second core function of emotions is social coordination. We know this because emotions correlate with very overt, consistent, and (to members of our own species) readable body postures and facial expressions that don’t appear to serve any purpose other than communication. In a wolf, bared fangs may communicate irritation or may establish dominance. Bowing or tail wagging may signal submission. An animal that can’t read these social/emotional signals is likely to do poorly from a reproductive standpoint.

Among humans, our very elaborate control over food production, shelter, health and so forth requires an equally elaborate social dance. Without emotional signaling it would be impossible for us to have achieved our current level of technological and economic complexity and population density. A child’s distress engages us to provide food or tend an injury or seek a distant parent. A friend’s hope motivates us to frequent her new business. As Darwin said, “Those communities which included the greatest numbers of the most sympathetic members would flourish best and rear the greatest numbers of offspring.” (The Descent of Man)

3. Self Regulation. Self regulation is the maintenance of your own homeostasis and health. Some scholars use the term “homeostatic emotions” to describe states like fatigue and hunger that provide feedback on the internal condition of our bodies, but the need to maintain equilibrium is broader than that. Feeling wretched outside in the Seattle rain motivates my chickens to huddle in a window well to preserve body heat. Dissatisfaction with his job got a friend to make changes and start planning an exit strategy. A sense of emotional suffocation moved another friend to leave her relationship.

Our basic emotional system evolved long before the higher order reasoning processes, and the two function in very different ways. Emotional processing is faster and more diffuse than rational processing. It activates many body systems—muscles, breathing, blood flow, thoughts, digestion and more-- simultaneously. It creates an orchestrated, whole-body response, and conscious feelings are just one part of the mix. To put it in the language of evolutionary psychology, “The richly textured representations we experience as feeling constitute our conscious access to a high-bandwidth system of computational devices and program interfaces that amalgamate valuation information with other representations to guide decision making and to recalibrate decisions in an ongoing way.” (Tooby & Cosmides, 2008). Got that?

Cognitive scientists debate (and research) the extent to which we analyze situations first and then react as opposed to reacting and then interpreting our own bodily signals. Some emotions appear to require fairly complex, cognitive appraisals—respect, for example, or distain. But primary emotions like anger or fear can occur almost instantaneously and may be more akin to physical reactions than rational appraisals. Imagine beginning to cross the street and then spotting a car accelerating toward you. You jump back before you even have time to think, “I almost got killed!” In situations like this where rational mind can’t react fast enough, emotion kicks us into action, which is precisely what it is made to do. In situations where the rational mind hits information overload, our emotions keep us from being paralyzed. They give us a direction, and sometimes they kick us into action.

Reasoning is more systematic. It allows us to incorporate information that emotions would simply miss – numeric data for example. Also, reasoning is more flexible than affect. It allows us to adjust to new experiences and situations. Remember, our instincts and emotions were shaped by our ancestral environment and early history. When the present situation doesn’t match these, intuition and emotion can lead us astray, so reasoning becomes particularly important.

But even though our emotions may pit themselves against our own interests at times, that doesn’t mean emotions should be taken out of the equation. Emotions and reason complement each other. Too little emotion leads to paralysis. Too much floods us and the emotion itself drives behavior. Moderate levels of emotion play an advisory role, and help us to distill information down into a decision.

How do emotions operate?

The reason that an emotional reaction can happen faster than rational processing is that it literally bypasses the cerebral cortex, the part of our brain that manages conscious thought. That is why we use terms like, “trusting your gut” or “gut instinct.” As the human brain took on its present form, there was no point at which the whole thing got designed from the ground up. Rather, new parts got layered on top of old, and the old parts sometimes got repurposed. Imagine it as an old operating system with upgrades on top of upgrades. Or imagine a house that has had the back porch enclosed, another one added, a family room tacked onto the side, cables poked in though the framing around the basement door, dormers popped out to convert the attic into a bedroom, and so forth.

Because the brain is a kluge, things don’t always happen in the most efficient or rational way. And sometimes things are weirdly connected. Have you ever wondered why smells can evoke such intense feelings? It is thought by some that our emotional apparatus may be in part a repurposing of the sophisticated olfactory centers that early mammals developed to avoid reptiles. A keen sense of smell let them navigate at night when most cold blooded animals are sleeping. Or consider the peculiar way that our moral sense gets triggered by disgust. Rotten food, feces, or decaying bodies are a health threat and disgust helps us to avoid them. But somehow disgust was co-opted by our budding moral aka social regulatory systems and religions: homosexuality is wrong because it is yucky; women are spiritually unclean when they are menstruating—also yucky. Icky deformed people are barred from the Hebrew Holy of Holies; Hindu gurus, Christian angels and Muslim Imams wear white. When people find something disgusting, they often seek reasons to say it is morally wrong even if it causes no obvious harm. All of which is to say that even though emotions are functional—they have quirks that seem to have little to do with anything other than our evolutionary history.

One popular but now outdated theory is that the brain has three parts: the reptilian brain, which includes the structures and functions we share with reptiles such as territoriality, the paleomammalian brain, a group of related structures that manages social emotions and behaviors like nurturing or reciprocity in all mammals, and the neocortex, which manages evaluation and reasoning in the most complex mammals, especially humans. Structurally, this clean division hasn’t held up to scrutiny. Parts of the brain once thought to regulate emotion turn out to play important roles in memory and cognition, for example, and parts of the cortex are crucial to emotional regulation. The neocortex appears to have been present in the earliest mammals and the “reptilian complex” appeared in vertebrates that predate reptiles. What is valuable about the triune brain idea is that it reminds us that there are some aspects of our emotional functioning that we share with reptiles, some broadly with mammals, especially primates, and some with only humans. It also reminds us that our brains are composed of specialized structures, each with its own crucial role to play in creating the fantastically intelligent and adaptable human mind.

In recent years fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) has become a popular tool of neuroscientists. Experimental subjects can be put in an MRI machine and then given cognitive tasks, and researchers can actually see which parts of their brains light up. Imaging of this sort confirms research that has been done with head injured patients. It shows that the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala play a crucial in the experience and expression of emotion and, consequently in decision making.

The field of affective neuroscience has grown and changed so rapidly that for an outsider to the field it can be difficult to keep track of scholars’ best understanding of which parts of the brain regulate what. What is clear in all of this is that emotions are situational appraisals that guide the reactions of physical creatures to the world around them. Just like our limbs and internal organs, emotions are integrated into our bodies. Given external cues, emotion sets off changes (mostly unconscious) in whatever body systems are relevant. Digestion, hearing, muscle tone, cognitive frames, sexual arousal—any of these and more can be called into action. Descarte’s great error was that he thought mind and body were two separate entities.

What does all of this have to do with the God of the Bible, the God who becomes angry at evildoers and is pleased by the sweet smell of burnt offerings; the Jesus who loves the little children—all the children of the world? That is precisely what I hope you are asking yourself. If I asked you whether God has a nose or a penis, what would you say? Most Christians would say probably not. A nose is for breathing and smelling. A penis is for sex and for peeing. God has no need of either. In the same way, I would argue that God has no need for emotions—intricate chemical reactions designed to activate and direct responses to the external environment. As wonderful as emotions are, they are made of and for the fabric of this natural world.

Dig Deeper:

Robert Burton argues that our sensation of knowing, of feeling certain, it itself an emotion that can be triggered by evidence but also by a host of other factors. (Robert Burton, On Being Certain: Believing You are Right Even When You are Not, St. Martin’s Press, 2008)

Antonio Damasio, Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, Macmillan, 1996.

Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872/1998).

Nasir Naqvi, Baba Shiv, and Antoine Bechara (2007). “The Role of Emotion in Decision Making A Cognitive Neuroscience Perspective” Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 15, No. 5, 260-264.

John Tooby and Leda Cosmides. “The Evolutionary Psychology of the Emotions and Their Relationship to Internal Regulatory Variables” In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland-Jones and L. F. Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of Emotions, 3rd Ed. (pp. 11-137). NY: Guilford, 2008.

Marlene Winell, Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion. Berkeley, USA: Apocryphile Press, 2006.

[1] Note that seeking implies both awareness and potential action. A barnacle attached to a gray whale, has no reason to like warm water and dislike cold water, or even to experience temperature. There’s simply no point. The barnacle has no control over its ambient temperature. One of the ways that we can get a read on what animals feel is to look at what they are capable of. (Another way is to look at biochemical and behavioral parallels between other species and human.)