Why people believe in god-7: God the moody

For the last post in this series, I want to look at the way god has been characterized through history.

It is a popular belief, especially among Christians, that humans have been created in god’s image. Actually, it is the other way around. Humans create god to meet their needs, and as their needs change, then so does their image of god.

Robert Wright has published a new book called The Evolution of God (2009) that I look forward to reading that traces the origins of monotheistic religions. In an interview, he discusses the main ideas. Basically, he sees the Bible and other religious books originating as political documents meant to serve immediate political needs, which explains why god seems so moody, casually committing genocide one day and calling for love and forgiveness the next.
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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?
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Why people believe in god-5: The evolutionary origins of belief

Today I want to look at why people believe in god, starting with its origins.

As to why religious beliefs arise in the first place, this is a fascinating and yet open question and any theories are at best speculative. The vast number of gods that have been independently invented in human history (see Machines Like Us for an exhaustive list) suggest that it is quite plausible that there is some propensity to create god beliefs that has nothing to do with the popular perception that religion arose to provide us with a moral code. As Robert Wright argues in his new book The Evolution of God (2009):

People in the modern world, certainly in America, think of religion as being largely about prescribing moral behavior. But religion wasn’t originally about that at all. To judge by hunter-gatherer religions, religion was not fundamentally about morality before the invention of agriculture. It was trying to figure out why bad things happen and increasing the frequency with which good things happen. Why do you sometimes get earthquakes, storms, disease and get slaughtered? But then sometimes you get nice weather, abundant game and you get to do the slaughtering. Those were the religious questions in the beginning.

It is possible that a small naturally occurring tendency to assign a causal agent to certain natural events provided a survival advantage that grew over time according to the Darwinian natural selection algorithm. For example, early humans who ascribed thunder and lightning to the anger of some unseen agent and hid in fear in their caves were more likely to survive than those who did not assign agency and wandered about freely in the storm. The natural selection algorithm worked on this advantage so that over the long period of evolutionary time, people have evolved a tendency to believe in causal agents for natural phenomena that make them more easily susceptible to religious-type explanations than to scientific ones, and this tendency would become ingrained and dominant.

It is similar to how we all seem to have a fear of snakes. It seems fairly well established that we have evolved to have an instinctive fear of snakes. Even baby chimpanzees have such a fear, suggesting that this fear developed fairly early in primate development, during the time when the common ancestors of chimpanzees and humans lived.

Once you are susceptible to assigning a mysterious invisible agency to natural phenomena, certain culture-based beliefs can take root. For example, it makes sense to postulate things like a life after death to overcome the fear of death and this, coupled with beliefs about an unseen agency, would lead quite naturally towards a belief in a god-like entity that rules the afterlife.

It is easier to understand why these beliefs, once originated, continue to be perpetuated. While childhood indoctrination by parents and priests and society at large is undoubtedly a major factor in perpetuating religious beliefs, the more interesting question is why children are so susceptible to this particular kind of brainwashing.

There seems to be a clear survival advantage for young children to believe unquestioningly what their parents and other adults tell them. Those children who unquestioningly heeded warnings not to touch fire or to eat poisonous plants or try and play with lions or wade into crocodile infested rivers were more likely to survive than those who rebelled and ignored the warnings of adults. So the propensity of children to believe authoritative adults could easily have evolved to become hardwired in the brain.

The combination of assigning agency to natural phenomena and believing adults makes it easy to understand how religion originated and is perpetuated and why children are so easily indoctrinated into religious beliefs, because they do not distinguish between those adult edicts that are truly beneficial (“Don’t pick up snakes”) with those that are nonsensical (“If you pray silently to god he can hear your thoughts and will answer your requests” or “If you get together with others and pray for rain, it will rain.”)

But what is really interesting is why people still cling on to these beliefs long after they reach adulthood. After all, as we age we develop reasoning capacities that enable us to subject ideas to close scrutiny. As a consequence, there are a lot of childish beliefs we give up as we grow up, like Santa Claus. Children soon figure out for themselves that it is highly implausible for one man to fly around the entire world in one night to deliver toys, going up and down chimneys.

Why isn’t belief in god one of the beliefs we discard, since it has as much evidence in support as Santa Claus?

Next: Why religious beliefs persist.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart on Mark Sanford

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Political Humor Jason Jones in Iran

Why people believe in god-4: Darwin’s problem

In a previous post, I tried to pin down what people actually believe when they say they believe in god. Today I want to look at what goes into religious belief, using Charles Darwin’s own journey as an example.

Charles Darwin was encouraged by his father, a successful doctor, to study medicine and was duly sent off in 1825 to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, a leading place for such studies at that time. But Darwin found that he hated the study of medicine, especially the horrors of surgery in those pre-anesthesia days. When his father realized that this was not the field for him, he suggested in 1828 that he matriculate at Cambridge University, get a degree, and then become a clergyman. To get into Oxford or Cambridge University at that time one had to be a member of the Church of England (i.e., an Anglican), the rule being abolished by an act of parliament only later in 1871. Although Darwin had been baptized in the Church of England, his family tradition was nonconformist Unitarians and his father and grandfather were freethinkers.

Darwin felt that he should make a good faith attempt to see if he could honestly accept the doctrines of the Anglican church. In his autobiography Darwin says that he “had scruples about declaring my belief in all the dogmas of the Church of England; though otherwise I liked the thought of being a country clergyman. Accordingly I read with care Pearson on the Creed and a few other books on divinity; and as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our Creed must be fully accepted. It never struck me how illogical it was to say that I believed in what I could not understand and what is in fact unintelligible.” (The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Nora Barlow (ed), p. 49, my italics.)

I think that the key phrase here is “persuaded myself”. I think most religious people deep down suspect that their belief in a god makes no sense, or at least know that they really don’t understand the things they are being asked to believe, but they are willing to persuade themselves, as Darwin did, to go along with the charade. The key question is “Why?” Why go to all that trouble to overrule an instinctive skepticism that arises from their natural logic and reasoning powers? Why does it never strike them, as it never struck Darwin until he was much older, how illogical it is to say that they believe in what they cannot understand and what is in fact unintelligible?

But there were limits to even Darwin’s youthful credulity. Even when he was a believer in the literal truth of the Bible, Darwin could not bring himself to actually rejoice in the contradictions, to make the ridiculous claim that some apologists do, that because the doctrines of religion seem nonsensical, that accepting them is somehow a sign of intellectual superiority, that it indicates that one somehow understands and appreciates deep mysteries. As he said, “I might have said with entire truth that I had no wish to dispute any dogma; but I never was such a fool as to feel and say “credo quia incredibile.” [“I believe because it is incredible.”] (Barlow, p. 49)

As we all know, Darwin ended up being an unbeliever. He shied away from the label of atheist and called himself an agnostic, the former term being a little too strong for someone who hated confrontations, though it is hard to tell the difference in his case since he said quite clearly in his autobiography that although his disbelief crept over him at a very slow rate, it “was at last complete” and that he “never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct.” (Barlow, p. 72)

It seems pretty clear that most adults have no actual reasons to believe in god. They have not in their lives seen god or heard god or witnessed any acts that can be unequivocally ascribed to god. Those who claim to have witnessed miracles tend to ignore plausible alternative explanations. But they lack Darwin’s instinct to follow his thinking to its logical conclusion that there is no god.

Those who actually claim to have seen god or had god speak to them are presumed to be delusional and in need of psychiatric help or frauds of the sort who try to sell pieces of toast with Jesus’s image on it on eBay. The latest story that I heard of was someone who claimed that a rock fall suddenly revealed a ‘hand of god’ in a rock formation behind his home and he (naturally) has put it up for sale on eBay.

So why do people believe in god? This really consists of two related questions: Why did such beliefs arise in the first place? And why do those beliefs persist in the absence of any evidence in support of them?

I’ll examine these questions in the next post in this series.

POST SCRIPT: David Attenborough talks about god

The noted nature documentary filmmaker has made many people aware of the wonder of nature. He talks about why he does not believe in god. (Thanks to Machines Like Us.)

Why people believe in god-3: What do religious people actually believe?

Apologists for ‘moderate’ religion always start by saying that they accept science, and begin with arguments for god that seem to be superficially compatible with science, but ultimately end up saying they believe in absurdities that violate almost every major scientific principle, such as virgin births or that people can actually come back from the dead. However sophisticated religious apologists may argue intellectually, they seem to need the same emotional crutch of magical thinking as much as any religious fundamentalist, and desperately want to believe that there is this invisible entity who is looking out for them personally. Religious scientists like Francis Collins, Kenneth Miller, John Lennox, and John Polkinghorne all start out arguing on a high intellectual plane, but they end up making almost the very same assertions of belief of the average churchgoer in the pew on any given Sunday.

So what do religious people actually believe? There are no simple answers. In his book God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (2007, p. 12), Victor J. Stenger tries to pin down the philosophical foundations of people’s belief in god. But I am interested in more practical questions.

The vague “Do you believe in god” type questions that are usually asked of believers are useless because it is not clear what people believe even if they say yes. Is it the deist god Deigod or Gosh or the full-blooded, omnipotent, omniscient, miracle working Supergod or (as is most likely) some personally concocted hybrid?

So here are some questions that would help make the discussions more fruitful. I wish that the polling agencies would ask questions like these as this gives a much better picture of what people actually believe.

  1. Is god a (a) material or (b) non-material entity? (i.e., is god made up of the same kind of stuff like protons, electrons, etc. with properties like mass, charge, spin, etc. that every other thing in the universe is made up of, or is he made of something that is non-material?)
  2. Does god exist everywhere in space?
  3. Is god a sentient being like us, with thoughts and feelings?
  4. Can god change the past?
  5. Does god know the future?
  6. Does god know absolutely everything that happens every moment, including every thought of every being?
  7. Can god intervene in events whenever and wherever, to violate natural laws and change their course (i.e. perform miracles)?
  8. Do you believe that you have a soul or spirit that will continue to exist in some form (perhaps reincarnated) even after you are dead?

My experience suggests that most religious people would answer the above questions as follows: 1: (b), 2: yes, 3: yes, 4: no, 5: yes, 6: yes, 7: yes, 8: yes

I also have bonus questions for those who call themselves Christians:

  1. Do you believe Jesus was totally human when he lived on the Earth, with a fully human body, with no powers or abilities not possessed by any other human?
  2. Do you believe that Jesus really died on the cross, with his body experiencing the same changes after death that any human body does?
  3. Do you believe that the same physical body then came back to life?
  4. If the answer to question #3 is ‘yes’, where is that physical body now?

I suspect that most Christians will answer: 1: yes, 2: yes, 3: yes, 4: heaven.

Of course, all these answers lead to all manner of severe contradictions, either because they are internally inconsistent or they violate basic scientific principles. For example, the idea that god took a fully human form in the shape of Jesus is central to Christian dogma. Otherwise what was the point of the whole exercise? But if Jesus is totally human, how could he perform his miracles? It is to evade this type of contradiction that religious language and concepts like ‘kenosis’ or the doctrine that Jesus is fully god and fully human are introduced, which make no consistent logical sense but can be interpreted in any way that the situation requires.

As for the second question, we know that our bodies undergo irreversible decay rapidly after death, which is why organ removal for donations must be done immediately. So if Jesus was totally human and his body decayed for three days, how did he recover the use of his organs when his body was resurrected?

There really is no way to escape these contradictions without resorting to saying that Jesus is at least on occasion Supergod.

More sophisticated religious believers know this is a problem and will try to avoid answering the questions I posed, likely retreating to an extreme form of religion-speak suggesting that we do not, and perhaps cannot, know the answers to such questions because god is so deeply mysterious that any attempt to understand his nature in any concrete way is doomed to failure. This non-answer enables them to avoid having to publicly acknowledge any contradictions while privately assigning any properties they want to god that gives them emotional satisfaction. Or they will give the answers I provided and wave away any contradictions by invoking the ‘mysterious ways clause’ that allows god to circumvent any contradictions in ways that we cannot know.

I know that some readers of this blog are religious. I hope they will take a stab at answering those questions so that we can get a grip on what exactly we are talking about.

POST SCRIPT: Hey, I never promised you a rose garden

God makes Jesus an offer that he thinks of refusing.

Why people believe in god-2: When good physicists get theology

All believers in an even minimally activist god face the challenge of explaining why there seems to be no evidence for his actions, and why the world seems to be understandable and explicable without postulating his existence. They cannot face up to the fact that the logical conclusion is that there is no god, and this is where the vague and cloudy language of theology comes in, trying to mask this fundamental problem.

Physicist John Polkinghorne in his book Faith, Science, and Understanding (2000) pulls the same trick as chemist Francis Collins, biologist Kenneth Miller, and mathematician John Lennox, arguing first for the possibility of a deist god (whom I have called Deigod), and then asserting without argument that this makes it rational to believe in Supergod. But Polkinghorne has a weapon that the other two don’t have. He has studied theology formally and so can dress up the same weak arguments in obscurantist language.

Polkinghorne is a highly able and respected particle physicist. He was a former professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge University and is a Fellow of the Royal Society who, at the age of around fifty, gave up physics and became an ordained priest in the British Anglican Church. So he has studied both physics and theology in considerable depth. In his book he invokes the usual staple of the anthropic principle as an argument for god, which essentially suggests that the universe seems to be exquisitely fine tuned in order to allow for human life to emerge and that this suggests that it must have been designed. It is a popular argument amongst religious scientists. As Polkinghorne puts it:

The wonderful order of the world is perceived…as being a reflection of the Mind of the Creator, and the universe’s finely tuned aptness to the evolution of life is perceived as an expression of the Creator’s fruitful intent. (p. 22)

Another physicist Victor Stenger in his book God: The Failed Hypothesis has effectively demolished that anthropic argument. But that has not stopped it from being regularly advanced because it has proved very lucrative, especially recently for physicists, with the annual Templeton prize essentially rewarding those who concoct new ways to try and make science and religion compatible, and being repeatedly given to physicists who invoke variations of the anthropic principle.

Some new atheists argue that the Templeton Foundation exists essentially for this sole purpose, to use its wealth to co-opt scientists and journalists to keep on forever discussing the issue of how to find ways of reconciling science with god, thus perpetuating the idea that such a reconciliation is even conceivable. They suggest that we should fight back against the pernicious influence of the Templeton organization by not going along with this strategy and by boycotting these ‘dialogues’.

Polkinghorne also goes in to some depth about how the uncertainty principle and chaos and complexity theory, all of which introduce elements of unpredictability into the world, and thus can be postulated as the vehicles of god’s action that escape detection. He also invokes consciousness as a deep mystery that is inexplicable without reference to god. All this is to establish the possibility of existence of Gosh (the God Of the Scientific Holes).

But then he too makes the great unexplained leap to assert the existence of Supergod, and says that he actually believes that Jesus rose from the dead and performed the miracles claimed in the Bible, without making any attempt at all to explain what, if anything, the uncertainty principle or chaos or complexity theory has to do with such miraculous, macro-level science-defying events. All of these people think that allowing for the logical possibility of any god at all allows for the existence the particular god they want to believe in.

While I have criticized the books by religious scientists like chemist Francis Collins book and biologist Kenneth Miller for the faults in their reasoning, at least they both write clearly about their religious beliefs, without using the usual impenetrable theological jargon. Physicist John Polkinghorne, on the other hand, while he writes well when explaining physics, because he is also a theologian has the unfortunate ability to revert to the usual theological linguistic obscurity when discussing how god works. Here is a passage from his book:

God’s act of creation would not only have involved a divine kenosis of omnipotence, resulting from allowing a creaturely other truly to be itself, but also a divine kenosis of omniscience, arising from allowing the future to be truly open. (p. 150)

The meaning of the above passage was initially incomprehensible to me but I thought that it may be due to the fact that I was unfamiliar with the work ‘kenosis’, which is the kind of neologism that sprouts all over the place in theology. So I looked up the word in the dictionary and it means “the relinquishment of divine attributes by Jesus Christ in becoming human.” So I think that what he is saying is that when God chose to appear in the human form of Jesus, he gave up the powers of omnipotence and omniscience. But why not simply say so? What is the need for things like the “creaturely other truly to be itself”?

If he did speak more straightforwardly and people understood what he was saying, then some obvious questions would arise in their minds. People might ask how Jesus, if he was not omnipotent, could bring Lazarus back from the dead or walk on water or transform water into wine, and all the other tricks claimed for him. Or how, if he was not omniscient, he could know in advance that Peter would deny knowing him. Polkinghorne cannot help speaking obliquely because, to paraphrase taking a cue from George Orwell, religious speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible, designed to make lies sound truthful, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Reading this kind of passage in Polkinghorne’s book brought back memories from the time when I used to indulge in this kind of metaphysical talk as part of my religious training. It is possible to convince oneself that this kind of thing makes sense, as long as one keeps it on a high abstract plane and do not demand concrete examples of what is being said. And of course, one has to want to believe that there is some sense to believing in god.

POST SCRIPT: Jesus the Supergod

Maybe Jesus didn’t fully invoke the ‘divine kenosis of omnipotence’ and become a ‘creaturely other truly being itself’.

Why people believe in god-1: The fog of theological language

As regular readers of this blog know, I am an atheist. I hope it is clear what I believe: I believe that the material world governed by natural laws is all that exists, and I reject all things supernatural, which includes the soul, ghosts and spirits, the afterlife, reincarnation, any form of spiritualism, and so on. In the process, I have argued strongly that there is absolutely no reason to believe that god exists and that to do so is irrational, driven either by childhood indoctrination, psychological need, or both.
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