Why people believe in god-6: The persistence of belief

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.


  1. says

    I think Christianity (and several other religions) were built upon a model of revenge. Designed to placate poor, unfortunate masses dominated by tyrannical governments, Christians were (and still are) taught that their reward will come in heaven. It is a way of teaching the disadvantaged to tolerate their suffering now, because their present misfortune will get them into paradise—while their enemies will be sent to hell.

  2. Tim Hagen says

    Dear Mano Singham,

    Shalom to you!

    I came across your blog while searching the Case Western wiki page, and see that you are in search of Truth. That is a wonderful goal; may you indeed find Truth!

    As a Christian, I would like to briefly explain why I, even at my old age of twenty-nine, believe in Jesus Christ—the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

    My lived experience gives me strong reason to believe in Jesus. From growing up in Nepal, the child of missionary parents, to living in the US and Europe, I have seen God transform my life, answer prayer, fulfill prophetic dreams, heal loved ones, give beautiful gifts, and speak to my heart.

    I have seen God working amazingly in the lives of others as well. From books such as God’s Smuggler, Lords of the Earth, Peace Child, The Heavenly Man, Surprised by Joy, J. Hudson Taylor, Run Baby Run, Don’t Let the Goats Eat the Loquat Trees, Then Nepal’s Door Opened, Patterson of Tibet, The Spirit of the Rainforest, The Hiding Place, and biographies of George Müller, William Wilberforce, Sundar Sigh, Ravi Zacharias, Amy Carmichael, and Nate Saint, and all the unwritten stories I have heard first-person from friends and family, I have ample evidence of the power of God in human lives today and throughout history.

    My experience and the stories above are consistent with the God of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures.

    I encourage you, Mano, if you are truly interested in Truth, to consider reading some of the above books. Most importantly, I encourage you to read the Bible and talk to Jesus himself. Why don’t you ask Jesus to reveal himself to you? He has shown himself true to me and countless others; he can show himself to you too.

    Ask God to show you Himself. He will.

    You see, Jesus is unique in all history. I know you have listed many objections to Christianity and the Bible in your blog. I could try to answer some of them. But I think the best argument for Christianity is Jesus himself. Yes, there are difficult things in Scripture. What do we do about the slaughter of the Canaanites? What of Elisha cursing the young people? What of Job? Let’s table those for now and look at Jesus.

    Jesus fulfilled prophecy given hundreds of years prior in amazing detail (see Psalm 22 and Isaiah 52-53 for starters). No other religious leader in the history of the world has done that. That is supernatural.

    Jesus raised the dead. That is supernatural.

    Jesus told his followers to love their enemies. That is supernatural.

    Jesus quieted the storm, healed the crippled, made the blind to see, and fed the five thousand. That is supernatural.

    Jesus predicted his own death and resurrection. He then submitted to extreme torture and death by a foreign, occupying, imperial army of expert torturers and executioners. Then he rose from the dead. That is supernatural.

    Jesus promised to give the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost and is given to each Christian today. That is supernatural.

    Jesus predicted the fall of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was reduced to rubble forty years after his death. That prophecy is supernatural.

    Now, some say that the story of Jesus was fabricated by the disciples or by Constantine. If that were true, the disciples were idiots and so was Constantine.

    If the disciples fabricated the story, they certainly came up with a good way to get themselves killed. Rather than claiming that Jesus did miracles in public that could be verified or disproved by other eyewitnesses, they should have claimed that he did them in unseen places. Rather than claim that he died and rose again, claims that could have been refuted by contemporaries, they should have told less audaciously public acts on which to found their religion. Rather than designing a pacifist religion that would be offensive to Rome and the Jews and inspired many later followers to be celibate, they should have made a religion that would gain them might, wealth, and power. Unlike the followers of some other religious leaders, who took their leader’s statements on faith, without having to base their faith on their own experience of seeing miracles, most of the disciples who wrote the New Testament base their accounts on their own experience and were willing to die for their claims. If those experiences were fabricated, then it seems crazy to die for what they know is a lie. (Luke, we presume, was not an original disciple who had been with Jesus, but he did see the power of the Holy Spirit acting as he traveled with Paul and had opportunities to interview eyewitnesses, thus giving credibility to his account. He saw the Holy Spirit working in a way consistent with what eyewitnesses reported about Jesus, and saw those eyewitnesses willing to die for their claims. Luke is thus, along with Matthew, Mark, John, Paul, James, and Peter, a reliable source of information about Jesus.)

    Likewise, if Constantine were to create a state religion, it would be stupid to make Christianity the state religion. Christianity, as described in the New Testament, while it encourages followers to obey government, shows that each person is a valuable creature in the eyes of God, is personally accountable to God, and can have a personal relationship with God. If you want to make people loyal vassals, you don’t give them the opportunity to have personal, accountable relationships to God. You force them to access God through the government or priests only. If Constantine wanted to make a state religion for selfish purposes, he would have been stupid to have people worship someone other than himself, give their wealth to the poor, and give people a text to which they could hold him accountable, a text that teaches love for one’s enemies and fearless speaking of truth to power. While many Christians and the Church were often lured away from biblical practice by the corrupting power found in the union of church and state after Constantine, they obviously would not have had reason to fabricate a biblical text that shows a persecuted, pacifist first-century church of boldness in the face of government evil.

    Essentially, I find the story of Jesus so amazingly absurd by human standards that I believe it’s true. That is, the disciples were willing to be tortured and die for what they knew was true. The way Jesus fulfilled ancient prophecy in intricate detail and then gave prophecies, many of which have already been fulfilled, also shows him to be of God. The fact that Jesus gave such audacious claims—“Before Abraham was born, I am (John 8:58)”; “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life (John 14:6)”; “I am the bread of life (John 6:35)”; “Lazarus, come out! (John 11:43)”; “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away (Mark 13:31)”; “I tell you, get up, take your mat, and go home! (Mark 2:11)”; “Be still! (Mark 4:39)”—but then backed up these claims with the most amazing miracles, teaching, and practice make him, as so many Christian apologists say, either a liar, a lunatic, or who he claims to be—the Truth.

    May God plant his seed of faith in you, Mano. May it grow to a tree of life in your heart!

    Read the words of Jesus. Ask him to reveal himself to you. He will.

    May you find Truth!


    -Tim Hagen

    PS: See Peter Kreeft’s page for some interesting insights: http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics-more/20_arguments-gods-existence.htm#17

  3. says


    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I am familiar with all these arguments for god (I used to be an ordained lay preacher in the Methodist Church) but I find the case for atheism far more compelling. I explain some of the reasons for my transition is the post The Journey to Atheism.

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