How to talk to religious believers-5: Dealing with irrational beliefs

People can be persuaded to relinquish, at least intellectually, small-scale beliefs like superstitions, although the reflexive habits associated with them may be hard to give up. Deeply held religious beliefs are not like that, though, even though they have the same lack of evidence as superstitions. Believing in god has enormous ramifications and why people strongly hold on to that belief requires some explanation and understanding. Those beliefs are far more closely intertwined with people’s self-identity and are not as easily conceded to be irrational. In fact, people will go to great lengths to make them appear rational. Why this is so is the fundamental question.

In trying to answer why otherwise rational people believe in such a hugely irrational idea like a god, there are certain ideas that are not helpful in reaching an understanding. For example, just as there is no evidence that religious people are more moral or ethical than atheists, there is also no evidence that atheists are smarter than religious people. So we should rule out differences in intelligence in explaining the difference. Belief in god is irrational but that does not mean that people who believe in god are irrational in general.

I speculate that the problem is that more sophisticated religious believers know that they believe things that are not supported by any empirical evidence but have found reasons to come to terms with it. Michael Shermer in his book Why People Believe Weird Things (2002) puts it well when he says that the people who believe weird things are not stupid. He says: “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.” (p. 283).

Almost all our religious beliefs and superstitions are acquired early in life, as young children, for non-smart reasons. Children arrive at their beliefs about god, Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, fairies, ghosts, etc. not on the basis of a reasoned judgment based on empirical evidence, but simply by trusting that the authority figures in their lives (especially parents, teachers, and priests) are telling them the truth. As we get older, some of these beliefs tend to get undermined and disappear while others remain. The difference lies in the level of effort made by the people around us to sustain the beliefs.

Some parents will go to extraordinary lengths to perpetuate the myth of Santa Claus while their children are young but then wean them away from this belief as they get older, because Santa Claus is not a belief sanctioned by adult society and a grown up who believes in him will be considered nuts. The same is true with the Easter bunny. As the child grows up and finds that none of the adults around him really believes in those things, he relinquishes the beliefs with perhaps only a faint nostalgic regret for a loss of childhood innocence

But that is not the case with beliefs about god. Because the adults around him continue to believe, the child continues to be given reasons to believe in the absence of any evidence and even in the face of massive counterevidence. And the reasons for belief become more and more elaborate the older people get and the more sophisticated they are.

Shermer describes a 1981 study by psychologist David Perkins who found “a positive relationship between intelligence and the ability to justify beliefs, and a negative relationship between intelligence and the ability to consider other beliefs as viable. That is to say, smart people are better at rationalizing their beliefs with reasoned arguments, but as a consequence they are less open to considering other positions. So, although intelligence does not affect what you believe, it does influence how beliefs are defended after the beliefs are acquired for non-smart reasons.” (p. 302)

If children are not taught their religious beliefs when they are young, they are very unlikely to adopt them when they are old. The very fact that the religion of children is almost always the same as that of their parents, and that they have no difficulty in dismissing the beliefs of other religions as weird and unbelievable, is a testimony to the power of this childhood indoctrination, because their own religious beliefs are learned when they were impressionable children, unquestioningly accepting the authority of their parents, while they usually encounter the beliefs of other religions later in life. The fact that parents usually teach their young children that other religions are wrong helps to maintain this allegiance.

The people who have defended the existence of god and the afterlife in the comments to my previous postings on why belief in god is irrational or the afterlife are clearly people who have arrived at sophisticated reasons for believing in both. And they are helped by the fact that many very smart people (such as theologians, philosophers, and other scholars) have devoted their entire lives to find reasons to continue to believe in the absence of evidence and in the face of massive counterevidence. As a result, one finds the curious result that people find the supernatural elements and bizarre practices of their own religions quite plausible while the equally supernatural elements and bizarre practices of other religions are seen as unbelievable.

Recently, former Republican congressman Tom DeLay said the following: “God has spoken to me. I listen to God and what I’ve heard is that I’m supposed to devote myself to rebuilding the conservative base of the Republican Party.” When religious people say things like this, there is a surprising lack of curiosity among those who claim to believe in the same religion. You would think they would ask questions like: “Really? How exciting! Was it a male voice? What did his voice sound like? Did he speak in English? Did he have an accent? Where did you hear the voice? Did you take down the exact words? Was anyone else there to hear it?” And so on. But they don’t because, I suspect, asking such questions would expose the silliness of the whole idea of god “speaking” to people. Religious moderates have learned to keep things vague and unspecific and not ask probing questions, so that they can believe what they like and shift their beliefs when convenient.

This illustrates how important it is to religion that children be indoctrinated early and that they be brought up in an environment of like-minded believers. This also explains why ‘mixed’ marriages, where the parents are practicing members of different religions, are frowned upon by religious institutions, because children in such households are unlikely to receive the kind of thorough indoctrination necessary to maintain religious beliefs into adulthood.


  1. Robert Allen says

    It’s easy to see how indoctrination can explain religious beliefs. How would you explain the rare cases where an intelligent, educated atheist converts to Christianity after supposedly investigating the evidence? I think this is a more perplexing question.

  2. Eric says

    Robert --

    I can think of several reasons off the top of my head: Pascal’s Wager, peer pressure, and plain old self-doubt all spring to mind. If everybody around you insists there’s a god, and you insist there’s not, someone’s wrong, and it’s easy to conclude that because there’s more of them, maybe they know something you don’t. And with all of the people misrepresenting science in order to promote religion, there’s always the possibility that someone’s argument strikes a note you haven’t heard before.

    Mano --

    I touched on this before when you brought up the notion of a Santa Claus-based religion, but I think there’s something to be said for using the tangible-reward beliefs of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny as a slippery slope for intangible-reward beliefs in god. If you convince a child that a magic faerie gives them treats on holidays, and then they get treats, it reinforces the simultaneous argument you’re making that a magic faerie gives them treats after they die. Eventually, you have to wean them off of the tangible-rewards faeries, because those beliefs aren’t self-sustaining -- somebody needs to bring the chocolate and presents. But you’ve now successfully taught them that it’s acceptable to believe in something you can’t see.

  3. Jess says

    “why otherwise rational people believe in such a hugely irrational idea like a god” -- you ask an puzzling question here, it’s not like there aren’t enough pieces of evidence in the world around us, in real science based on solid and extensively tested facts. I think you’ll not find a completely rational basis for belief in something so off-the-mark and down the wrong beaten track as Darwin’s shaky *theory* of evolution.
    Jess is on Tunisia holidays

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