The Year of Reason-1: Understanding the reasons for irrational beliefs

(I was planning to start the new year with this post, but it got pre-empted by the posts on the horror that is being perpetrated on the people of Gaza.)

I think we should declare 2009 the Year of Reason.

This should be the year when we make a concerted effort to wipe out superstitious and irrational beliefs of all kinds. This category includes not only religious beliefs but also absurd and divisive and harmful ideas such as that the people who share one’s own nationality and ethnicity are somehow better than those who don’t, and thus deserve greater allegiance and consideration.

Familiarity breeds false rationality. For many people, irrational beliefs are what other people hold, not their own. Their own irrational beliefs seem reasonable because they acquired them at a very young age when they tended to believe what the adults in their lives told them and they have rarely been asked why they believe. The power of myths is that it never even occurs to people to question the validity of ideas that they have always had and which everyone around them seems to share..

As I wrote earlier, in his book The God Delusion (p. 178), Richard Dawkins quotes the anthropologist Pascal Boyer who once over dinner at a Cambridge University college recounted the beliefs of the Fang people of Cameroon who believed that “witches have an extra internal animal-like organ that flies away at night and ruins other people’s crops or poisons their blood. It is also said that these witches sometimes assemble for huge banquets, where they will devour their victims and plan future attacks. Many will tell you that a friend of a friend actually saw witches flying over the village at night, sitting on a banana leaf and throwing magical darts at various unsuspecting victims.”

Bayer says he was dumbfounded when a Cambridge theologian turned to him and said “This is what makes anthropology so fascinating and so difficult too. You have to explain how people can believe such nonsense.” (italics on original)

Dawkins points out that the theologian, as a mainstream Christian, did not see any irony at all in referring to the Fang people’s beliefs as nonsense even while he himself believed many or all of the following beliefs:

  • In the time of the ancestors, a man was born to a virgin mother with no biological father being involved.
  • The same fatherless man called out to a friend called Lazarus, who had been dead long enough to stink, and Lazarus came back to life.
  • The fatherless man himself came alive after being dead and buried three days.
  • Forty days later, the fatherless man went to the top of a hill and then disappeared bodily in to the sky.
  • If you murmur thoughts privately in your head, the fatherless man, and his ‘father’ (who is also himself) will hear your thoughts and may act upon them. He is simultaneously able to hear the thoughts of everybody else in the world.
  • If you do something bad, or something good, the same fatherless man sees all, even if nobody else does. You may be rewarded or punished accordingly, including after your death.
  • The fatherless man’s virgin mother never died but ‘ascended’ bodily into heaven.
  • Bread and wine, if blessed by a priest (who must have testicles), ‘become’ the body and blood of the fatherless man.

Similar nonsense is believed by Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Mormons, Scientologists, all of whom think that the beliefs held by people of other religions are not only wrong but even absurd, despite the fact that there is no difference at all in the evidentiary basis for all of them. All of them have exactly zero credible evidence in support and whose only basis for belief is that they are found in ancient texts of dubious authenticity.

It is telling that some Protestants, who believe almost all of the things in the above list, snigger at the absurdity of some Catholic beliefs such as that Mary remained a virgin all her life and did not die but ascended directly into heaven, or at the doctrine of transubstantiation. Does one need any more convincing evidence that this that religion breeds irrational thinking? (See my earlier post on why religions expect you to believe preposterous things.)

This reminds me of how during the 2008 presidential campaign people in the mainstream media snickered at Congressman Dennis Kucinich because of his statement that he once saw something that he called a UFO. I have written before about my own deep skepticism that there could be alien beings flying around near the Earth but I cannot understand how religious people can make fun of Kucinich. After all, while alien beings flitting around Earth is highly unlikely, at least it is compatible with all the laws of science, while religious people believe in an undetected and undetectable god and all manner of weird ideas for which there is not a shred of credible evidence and which violate all known physical laws. Kucinich at least claims that he actually saw something physical and did not think it was supernatural. Religious people believe in things they have neither seen nor heard but believe because have been simply told by others that they exist.

Bertrand Russell, who came from a wealthy aristocratic family, was not sent to school and had private tutors instead, which gave him plenty of time to reflect on things. As a result, from the age of fourteen to eighteen he successively rejected the ideas of free will, immortality, and belief in god. But he did not share this realization with anyone mainly for fear of ridicule. (My Religious Reminiscences, in The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, Robert E. Egner and Lester E. Denonn (eds.), Touchstone (1961), p. 31)

Russell was fortunate that he was not exposed to the coercive pressure that accompanies religious beliefs. Our entire social structure has been set up to brainwash children, through a mixture of bribes and fear, into believing in god at an early age, just like they are made to believe in Santa Claus, except that with god the fiction is continued into adulthood by parents and priests and their community, and deviation from such orthodoxy is frowned upon. Most children dislike being different. The peer pressure of other children will cause even those children who question their religious beliefs to keep quiet.

It is easier to believe something, however absurd, if everyone around you also believes it, or at least say they believe in it even if they harbor doubts. And since the question of why they believe is never posed, religious people can avoid the realization that their beliefs make no sense.

So let’s make a dent in this protective coat by posing to religious people the question “Why do you believe in god?”

POST SCRIPT: How Muslims/Arabs are stereotyped

Palestinian-American comic Dean Obeidallah from the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour (Thanks to Crooks and Liars). His last bit is particularly poignant given the recent removal of a Muslim family from an AirTran plane after passengers said they heard the family say things they thought were threatening.

Joy Behar had a nice interview with Obeidallah on The View.


  1. Chris says


    I like your idea to eliminate superstitious and irrational beliefs. Did you see that the US now requires citizens from countries that are not required to have a visa to fill out an online form 3 days before they enter the country? In my opinion this is one step away from requiring a written invitation to visit the US. Xenophobic policies like this distress me.

    I think there is a problem with the outright elimination of religion, however. For the Western or industrialized world I don’t think it is a major issue, because there are facilities and institutions that serve the same functions as religious ones, but are secular. They could easily fill any void left by the religious institutions. However, for the developing world, religion often accounts for an enormous part of daily life.

    In Bhutan, for example, spirits and deities seem such a strong part of daily life that it was almost as if they were corporeal beings. The elderly spent their days at monasteries, praying over prayer wheels and circumambulating the grounds. Smoke offerings to local deities are a daily routine, and all construction projects must first build a small pyre for them before ground is broken. I think eliminating religion in such a society would be devastating because it would essentially destroy the foundations of that society. I would advocate a slow transition to rationality.

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