Why is it that so many adults in the modern age, with full reasoning powers and all the knowledge that science and technology has made available to them, still cling to the superstitious religious beliefs of their childhood, so much so that they feel the need to even brainwash their own children? Why is it that for most adults, childish beliefs in god do not disappear in adulthood, along with their beliefs in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny?
The case of Charles Darwin is again illustrative. In his autobiography, he says that:
I was very unwilling to give up my belief…But I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would be sufficient to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.
And that is a damnable doctrine. (The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Nora Barlow (ed), p. 72, my italics)
Note Darwin’s revealing use of the phrase that he became unable to ‘invent evidence’ that would be sufficient to convince him, even if he gave his imagination ‘free scope’ to do so. This is what people do: they decide what they want to believe and then invent evidence to support the belief.
What most people lack is the intellectual rigor that was the hallmark of Darwin’s way of thinking and which made him eventually realize that his belief was based on his own inventions and not reality. If there is one clear image that emerges from the study of Darwin’s life and study of the natural world, it is that he was always looking for higher levels of synthesis, probing his own theories and beliefs for weaknesses, and not ignoring counter-evidence. There can be no doubt that such a critical attitude applied to religion will inevitably lead to disbelief. But most people are not like that, especially when it comes to religious beliefs, and hence they do not reach the stage where they realize that the evidence they invent just cannot do the job required of it. They seize upon any thing that even vaguely provides a justification for whatever they want to believe and leave it at that. Furthermore (as Norm suggested in a comment in response to the previous posting in this series) children do not receive any validation from the adults around them that their skepticism about god is warranted, the way they do when they start to question Santa Claus
Darwin’s increasing skepticism about god seems like a natural progression of beliefs as one matures into adulthood, but it seems to be much rarer than it should be. There could be many reasons for the persistence of beliefs in god into adulthood.
- One is that these beliefs meet certain deep psychological needs. Some people must be receiving some comfort in believing in the existence of even a distant and inert entity like the deist god Deigod. Such people must desperately want an external meaning and purpose to life, and think that only one imposed by god, however otherwise passive, is of any value.
- For others, the persistence of belief may be due to the fear of death. The idea that on dying we simply cease to exist may imply to them that our lives do not matter. They find this intolerable and seek a way out by clinging to the idea of an indestructible and immortal soul. This naturally leads to the idea of god and/or reincarnation. As Sigmund Freud said, “The religious impulse is ineradicable until or unless the human species can conquer its fear of death.”
- For yet others, it may be just missing loved ones that leads to wishful thinking, hoping that after our physical death we meet them again in the afterlife.
- Others may continue to persuade themselves that they believe because they are risk-averse and do not want to offend god (if he should exist) by allowing their disbelieving thoughts to come to the surface. Why take the chance? This is the famous, but silly, Pascal’s wager idea. Of course, the idea that an omniscient god would not know they had doubts seems preposterous but if one is religious, one learns not to ask such questions.
- For others, belief may arise for more prosaic and practical reasons. Religion and religious practices such as going to church may form an important part of their sense of identity and social relationships and sense of belonging. They may not want to disrupt relationships with family and friends and the larger community by dropping out of that world.
- I suspect that most people believe because they were taught to believe as children and simple mental inertia prevents them from changing as they get older. The economist John Maynard Keynes said that, “The difficulty lies not in new ideas but in escaping from old ones.” Research in education suggests that students tenaciously cling on to their existing knowledge using ad-hoc justifications despite the best efforts of their teachers to teach them new things. They only give up their beliefs if they have no choice because the contradictions with evidence are too stark to ignore. For most people, their religious beliefs are vague and flexible enough that they can deal with contradictions using ad-hoc explanations invented to solve the immediate problem, without any concern for overall coherence or problems with internal consistency.
A religious friend of mine recently went through a rapid-fire series of misfortunes, including losing his job and having his mother die. In between, he had a small stroke of good fortune. He immediately attributed the last thing as a sign of god’s benevolence, to god looking out for him in order to give him some comfort during his time of trouble. It did not seem to occur to him that by that reasoning, god was also responsible for all his bad fortune.
If you are a religious, it is almost reflexive behavior to turn around whatever happens to make it seem like god is looking after you. As an example of this kind of thinking, here is a joke that was sent to me:
There was a little old lady, who every morning stepped onto her front porch, raised her arms to the sky, and shouted: ‘Praise the Lord!’
One day an atheist moved into the house next door. He became irritated at the little old lady. Every morning he’d step onto his front porch after her and yell: ‘There is no Lord!’
Time passed with the two of them carrying on this way every day.
One morning, in the middle of winter, the little old lady stepped onto her front porch and shouted: ‘Praise the Lord! Please Lord, I have no food and I am starving, provide for me, oh Lord!
The next morning she stepped out onto her porch and there were two huge bags of groceries sitting there.
‘Praise the Lord!’ she cried out. ‘He has provided groceries for me!’
The atheist neighbor jumped out of the hedges and shouted: ‘There is no Lord; I bought those groceries!!’
The little old lady threw her arms into the air and shouted: ‘Praise the Lord! He has provided me with groceries and made the Devil pay for them!’
We should not be surprised by this kind of delusional thinking because it is typical of religious believers. They have been conditioned to think that when tragedy strikes them, god is testing their faith and will eventually reward them if they remain faithful, and if good fortune comes, god is rewarding them now. It’s a no-lose proposition for religion, guaranteeing job security for the religious establishment that propagates it.
This is why you cannot really hope to persuade the true believer of the folly of religion by using reason to mount a frontal assault. Their beliefs have to collapse from within, slowly disintegrating because seeds of doubt get lodged in the cracks and start spreading, until one day they suddenly realize that everything makes sense if they abandon belief in god, and the whole religious edifice collapses.
POST SCRIPT: The weird story of Job
Nothing illustrates the ability of religious people to delude themselves into seeing even the most appalling behavior of god as something good than the story of Job. God mercilessly tortures an innocent person more or less for the fun of it, even murdering all his children, and yet this story is seen as a glorification of god and Job.