The Atheist Bible
Chapter on Following Religion
IntroductionThis chapter discusses factors that may make people adhere to a religion. The chapter consists of the following sections:
- Education: Discusses educational factors that make people more open to religion.
- Pressure from Society: Argues that some people are pressured into their religion.
- The Desire to influence: Hypothesizes that some people adhere to a religion because they want to influence their fate.
- Wishful Thinking: Lists cases where people adhere to a religion because they wish it to be true.
- Pragmatism : Discusses pragmatic arguments for adhering to a religion.
No education in physicsWe are now discussing why people believe in religious stories. One reason why the early people believed reports of miracles, visions, and divine apparitions may have been that they had much less of an idea of the laws of nature.
Before the Middle Ages, people did not necessarily know why certain things float on water and others don’t, which herbs cure which illnesses and which have no effect, which rituals actually deliver results (such as washing your hands) and which don’t (such as praying), which nutricient deficits cause which problem, how an earthquake comes about, or that a halo is a completely natural phenomenon. To them, life must have been a sequence of events that were more or less random. Funny things could happen and scary things could happen, with little chance to predict either. In such a continuum of events, a miracle is just one more strange event. If a halo can light up the sky, why should a man not walk on water? Today we know that one is in accordance with the laws of nature, while the other one is not. At the time, however, people did not know. For them, both were equally bizarre. This might have increased their readiness to believe in religious stories.
Today, too, some people argue with unexplained physical events in order to prove the supernatural. We discuss these arguments in the Chapter on the God of Gaps.
Ignorance is the mother of Devotion.
No strict concept of truthOne reason why people believed religious stories might have been that they had a less strict concept of truth.
Today, scientists accept a statement only if it has been predicted by a theory that has been validated extensively in the past. In particular, a theory cannot be true if it cannot be falsified. Earlier in human history, however, people did not know that truth has necessarily to be grounded in reality. They had no idea of the concept of experimental validation. Truth was something vague that was determined mainly by the people whom you trusted, or by seeing whether something made sense to you. People would come up with the concept of a soul without ever worrying how it could be falsified. The Greek philosophers developed theories such as the “heaven of ideal objects” without any basis in reality. If people could claim the existence of the heaven of ideal objects, they could equally well claim the existence of gods.
The idea that theories should be experimentally verified was developed only much later, after the Middle Ages. The idea that a theory should be falsifiable dates to the 20th century only. Until then, “truth” was a very flexible concept that could make room for many things, if they only appeared plausible.
How does God work? God is a grand illusion powered by faulty thinking patterns, superstition, and suggestion. This illusion is easy to foist upon people who are unable to think critically, because they don’t have the mental tools or the desire to understand the illusion.
No strict concept of truth todayIn the previous article, we have hypothesized that people were more open to religious theories because they were more ready to accept something as true than we are today. However, even today, people have a less clear concept of truth than we might wish — even if we leave religion aside.
- We all fall prey to all kinds of common fallacies, such as wishful thinking, the “no-true-Scotsman” fallacy, abductive reasoning, the JFK fallacy, or counting the hits.
- Some people believe in homeopathy, magic, energy bracelets, or superstitions. They will knock wood to avoid that something bad happens, pay money for alternative medicine, or consult a fortune teller.
- Few people know of falsifiability. Therefore, abstract universal theories enjoy quite some popularity. Philosophers spend much of their time debating unfalsifiable concepts (see, e.g., the theories in Wikipedia / Philosophy of mind).
- You can hear people seriously claim that there are several truths.
In these cases, modern human thinking does not draw the line between scientific truth and the rest either.
IlliteracyIn the past, literacy was much less common than it is today. At the end of the Middle Ages, the ability to write was restricted to less than 10% of men and hardly any women possessed it Robert A. Houston: Literacy, 2011-11-28. As late as 1841, 33% of all Englishmen and 44% of Englishwomen signed marriage certificates with their mark as they were unable to write Literacy. Around that time, 90% of Russians were unable to read. In the US, 80% of blacks were illiterate at that time. In Haiti, 90% of people could not read. Our World in Data / Max Roser: Literacy
An illiterate person has to rely on the literate people to learn something new. Thus, the illiterate people were used to accepting view points from others — mostly from the more educated people. If the more educated person tells you what punishment the law prescribes for murder, you had to believe it. If the educated person tells you how many gods there are, then you would believe it in the very same way. We have already seen that the elite had an interest in establishing a religion. This goal is easier to achieve with uneducated people.
Once the religion is established, it is very hard to challenge it if you are illiterate. If you cannot read, you basically have access only to the information of the people around you. You cannot criticize the ideas of your society by comparing it with other societies, because you have no means to learn what other societies do. This makes you more obedient and less skeptical. Many radical ideas (such as Communism, the ideas of the enlightenment, or indeed religions themselves) spread through the written word. If people cannot read, they are more immune to such ideas. Once a religion was established, the common man was in no position to challenge it. Unfortunately, this is still the case today in many countries.
Wer nichts weiß muss alles glauben
(If you don’t know anything, you have to believe everything)
Illiteracy todayWe have hypothesized that low literacy rates induce gullibility, and that gullibility makes the acceptance of a religion more likely. Unfortunately, this argument applies not only to the past. Still today, only half of the people can read in many countries in the world. In 10 African countries, you are more likely to meet someone who cannot read than someone who is literate. In Afghanistan, one of the obstacles to the election in 2004 was that people could not read the names of the candidates on the voting sheet. Therefore, the names were accompanied by pictures. However, people still had difficulties filling out the voting sheets, because they did not know how to turn pages. Even in some more developed countries such as Morocco, Egypt, or Pakistan, the literacy rate is below 75%. In Pakistan, it is 55%. The country has an atomic bomb, but half of its people cannot read.
This means that people in these countries are less in a position to challenge the ideas of the educated. Indeed, we find that these countries are also among the most religious countries in the world. People are less well-positioned to question what they are told, or to challenge ideas that are prevalent in their society. This may be one reason why religion goes largely unchallenged in these countries.
The flesh is willing if the spirit is weak.
No alternativesOne of the things that make people religious may be the invisibility of alternative belief systems. If you hear only about religion X, and neither about the problems of X, nor about any other religion, then you are more susceptible to accept X. This is because X is the only thing you hear about. Choosing X is known as the availability bias Availability bias. This is the way many societies work nowadays: a person just never has a chance to learn about any religion other than the majority religion.
In some cases, this bias is strengthened by adverse circumstances. The first is illiteracy. If people are illiterate, they cannot read books about other religions or about atheism. In other cases, alternative belief systems are systematically eradicated from society. Once all people who think differently have disappeared, those who are left are way more likely to pick up the dominant religion.
Oh my heart is beating wildly
and it’s all because you’re here.
When I’m not near the girl I love,
I love the girl I’m near.
GullibilitySeveral factors can contribute to the prevalence of a religion. One more factor is gullibility: the readiness to believe anything that sounds plausible. Gullibility may be due to illiteracy: the uneducated had to believe pretty much what the educated told them. Gullibility may also come from a lack of education.
And yet, even in educated places, people frequently believe what they are told. One example are urban legends. They hold the ring easily in modern societies. In other cases, too, people often just believe what they read. In particular, people readily believe what they read on the internet or in a magazine. Here are examples:
- People readily adhere to all types of diets in order to lose weight (fruit-and-water diet, no-meat diet, only-meat diet, etc.). Only very few of these diets are supported by long-term studies that prove their effectiveness.
- People are quick to believe all types of advice. They will say things such as “I heard that you should not use dish soap to clean the bath”, or “I have read that one should throw the rice into boiling water to clean it, then throw away the water, and boil it again” — no matter whether there is evidence for this advice or not.
- A large minority of people in the US believe that vaccination is harmful. This leads to several avoidable deaths per year Vaccine controversies.
- Hoax mails tell people to warn others of viruses, to help search for a missing child, or to redeem a voucher — but they are fake. And yet, people believe and distribute them in the millions Hoax. By forwarding these mails, people cause real damage Symantec: Virus hoaxes and the real dangers they pose.
In all of these cases, people readily believe arbitrary things — even in developed societies. Hence, people are also ready to believe in religious theories.
ConformismMany people do something mainly because other people do it. A social or historical standard is considered sufficient to justify a behavior or a belief. Common reasoning goes: “Well, everybody else does it as well” or “This is how it has always been done”. As Rolf Dobelli points out in his book “The Art of Thinking Clearly”, there might be an evolutionary reason to that: When, in prehistoric times, a hunter went with his group, and all of a sudden his fellow hunters screamed in fear and ran away, then his best bet was to run with them. Most likely they saw a dangerous animal that he did not see. The hunter who tried to figure out the reason for his fellow hunters’ behavior, and decided to study the evidence before following the masses, “exited the gene pool”, as Dobelli puts it. We are the descendants of those humans who followed Herd Mentality.
In the context of a religion, the effect is that people follow a religion if everybody else does it. This is sometimes brought forward explicitly as a reason to adhere to a religion. The popularity of a belief is seen as a proof for its correctness — a phenomenon called social proof Social proof.
Social proofs work for long-term members of a society, but also for newbies. As Marshall Brain explains: Imagine that you are in a new group of people, and you are not sure what to say or how to act. You may look around you, see what other people are doing, and then do the same kinds of things in order to fit in. The idea is that they, being members of the group already, must know what is going on. [This is] the human desire to fit in [Marshall Brain: “How God works” / p. 80]. Such behavior encourages people to follow whatever religion is prevalent in their society.
Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and to reflect.
Childhood educationThere are several ways to make people religious. Maybe the most important way is education: As children, we believe more easily.
To exemplify this, we list here some things that people were told as children and that they believed Quora / What are some of the funniest lies that parents have told their children:
I have told my 4 year old boy that the Internet (wifi network) is given by a “Fairy” and we cannot get it daily as per our wish. (It was too necessary to keep him away from internet games and videos all the time.) So everyday when he is back from school, he will sweetly ask if the fairy has given us internet today or not and what should he do to please her so that she can give us more Internet ;) [Deepthi Shivaramu]
I had a friend whose mom told her that when the ice cream truck was out of ice cream it would play music! Can you imagine thinking that someone drive around your neighborhood regularily announcing they were out of ice cream? [Marcia Peterson Buckie]
My dad was almost completely bald and had been for as long as I was able to remember. When I was about 6 or 7 I asked him what happened to all his hair. He told me that one day he went for a ride in a convertible and was driving so fast that all his hair blew off. I believed him for way too many years after. [Jo Anne Lillis]
The lesson here is that children will believe anything if we tell them so. In most cases, the children will later find out that the stories are not true. However, if the stories are not falsifiable, then they will never find out. As it so happens, religious stories are usually not falsifiable. Thus, the children can never find out whether the religious stories are false. Hence, they will continue to believe them when they are adults — and then teach the stories to their own children. This is one more way in which a religion can be made to stick.
Men were to told to believe, whether they believed or not.
ProofsPeople may also believe in the supernatural because they were convinced by the proofs for the supernatural. Such proofs include, e.g.,
- explanations for the universe through the supernatural
- Pascal’s Wager
- abstract universal hypotheses such as Dualism
- miracles, including the effects of prayer
- dozens of other proofs, which we treat in the Chapter on Proofs and the Chapter on the God of Gaps
Fear of HellThere are several factors that can make people religious. One of them is fear. Some people are afraid of the hell that preachers threaten them with. So they follow what the preacher tells them to avoid that hell.
This may seem irrational, because hell is fictional place. The threat of hell can work only if you believe in it in the first place. If you do not believe in it, then the threat of hell is void. However, when you are confronted with the tales of the brutalities of hell, you can easily forget that you do not believe in them. Some preachers can talk so convincingly, that they can trick people into the fear. They will tell you about the bad things you did in your life to push you into the guilt trap. Then they tell you about all the tortures that await you in the afterlife — with no way of escape. Even I hesitated for a second when a Muslim preacher in the street explained the damnation to me. Once you swallow the theory of hell, all the other dogmas can be force-fed easily.
This is true in particular if the receiver of these threats does not have the tools at hand to rebut them. The threat of hell is a very popular technique — most prominently in the Abrahamic Religions.
GuiltOne more factor that can make people religious is guilt. Guilt can be instilled in several ways. In the vanilla case, you are told that you owe something to a supernatural being — for example your existence, your health, or the joys of life. All Abrahamic Religions go that way. Guilt can also be instilled by telling you that you are a sinful being. Christianity has perfected that argument. Islam, in contrast, has developed the idea that criticising (or even just doubting the divine revelation of) the Prophet Mohammed is a sin. You are told that if you doubt his excellence, you bring shame on yourself.
All of these arguments aim at making you feel guilty towards God (or his messenger). This can only work, of course, if you believe in God in the first place. If you don’t, then you cannot feel shame towards him. And yet, shame is a very powerful concept. People become very vulnerable when we point them to a crime or sin they committed. This works even if the sin is imaginary. The inflicted guilt disrupts rational thinking for a moment. In many cases, this short disruption of rational thinking is enough to make people susceptible to the argument. Once the guilt is established, all the other religious dogmata can follow.
God’s voiceSome people say that they are religious because they heard God talking to them. I met a person who said that, after talking with a group of Christians, he sat down to contemplate his life. Suddenly, he heard God telling him to go and become a Christian. The voice was loud and clear in his head. Awakened by this call, he rushed back to the group of Christians, and became a believer. Such events are one more factor that can make people religious. We discuss them in the Chapter on Proofs.
CoercionOne of the most effective factors that make people religious is coercion. We simply tell a person that, if he or she does not believe, we will eject them from society, make their family hate them, deny them basic rights, persecute them, or even kill them. Under such a threat, the person is much more likely to become and remain a believer — and be it only pro forma.
This is indeed the way that many religions work. Christianity has long persecuted apostates as heretics. Still today, atheists are routinely discriminated in society and in the law in the US. In Islam, several interpretations call for the death penalty for apostates. This punishment enjoys widespread support in the society of many Muslim countries, and it is the law in some of them. In Hinduism, any deviation from religion (such as, e.g., marrying a non-Hindu) is traditionally frowned upon. If you deviate, you bring shame onto yourself and onto your family. In all of these cases, the principle is the same: pressure makes people follow a religion. This is a common strategy of survival for many religions.
Peer pressureWe have seen that coercion is one of the most effective means for making a person believe. In cases where coercion is no longer an option due to secular legal systems, peer pressure can take its role. Peer pressure makes anybody who deviates from the religion look like an outsider. This person has to constantly justify their world view, is trusted less, is excluded from meetings, is regarded as less attractive for marriage, and becomes the subject of gossip. This threat (implicit or explicit) pushes people to align themselves with the majority religion. This phenomenon is particularly prevalent in Islam. Some people believe that they will go to hell if any of their family members deviates from the faith. These people will put pressure on all family members not to deviate. If someone leaves the faith, then the village community may put pressure on the entire family of the apostate — even if the apostate lives in another country. This possibility makes people think twice before leaving Islam.
The Emperor’s new cloths“The Emperor’s new cloths” is a story that goes as follows:
By that time, the two tailors were nowhere to be found.
Desire to influence
The desire to influence natureThe world is often cruel to us. An accident can change our life forever, an unfortunate coincidence can cost us our job, and an illness can carry away a loved one. We are thus, to some degree, victims of the randomness around us.
When we are exposed to these forces, we have the desire to control them. For this, we resort to all types of strategies. These are first rational strategies such as wearing a seatbelt, getting vaccins, or buying insurances. However, the range of these strategies is limited. We still cannot control the elements of nature, illnesses, and bad luck.
Therefore, we look for strategies that go further. Any procedure that could potentially protect us from evil is welcome. People avoid putting important meetings on Fridays; they remember to look into the mirror if they had to come back to the house because they forgot something; and they avoid hotel rooms that end in “13”. Atheists are generally no exception to this rule. People believe that voodoo works, that they can cure cancer by magnets, or that the position of the stars determines our fate Superstitions. Since cancer is one of the main reasons of death in developed countries, and since there is no known cure, it attracts a particularly large number of appeals to the supernatural or the unproven. People try herbs, biblical diets, electro-homeopathy, or electromagnetic waves List of ineffective cancer treatments. Out of the very same motivation (the protection against the forces of nature), people ask priests to bless their marriages or houses, they consult the constellation of the stars to find the best day for a wedding, they resort to faith healing, and they pray to the gods or saints to prevent evil. There is no difference between the religious strategies and the superstitious ones: They are all attempts to influence nature in areas where scientific help is not available or judged to be too weak.
We know today that none of these strategies works. And still, anything that can give people hope, or anything that can just give them the illusion of control, is welcome. This contributes to the popularity of religions.
The desire to influence in contextPeople have a desire to protect themselves against the caprices of nature. For this purpose, they often resort to the supernatural.
This desire for supernatural protection should be stronger in cases where the person lacks the factual control over their environment. That is: a person who can be fired from one day to the next from their job has a greater need to apply for supernatural help than someone who has a permanent job. A person who lives in a country where one rainy summer can destroy their crop and livelihood has a greater desire to control the forces of nature than someone with an office job. A person for whom an illness is a random strike of nature has more incentive to converse with the gods than a person who has access to modern health care, vaccination, and insurance. A person whose family can be killed from one day to the other in a civil war needs more supernatural protection that a person who knows war only from TV. A person who has a chance of 2% of getting murdered in the street, or a chance of 20% of being raped in their life time, has a greater urge to appeal to the gods than a person whose risks of victimization are practically zero. Therefore, people in less privileged countries tend to be more religious.
The same goes for times of crises. Studies suggest that, in Muslim countries, Islamic school attendance increases in times of economic crisis Aldashev & Platteau: Religion, Culture, and Development / p. 595. Insecurity makes people more open to religion.
What counts is not just the objective lack of control over one’s life, it is also the subjective impression of being helpless. People in poor countries are more likely to believe that their life is determined by fate instead of their own actions. In poor countries, 43% of people think that fate plays a larger role in their life than their decisions — as opposed to 26% in rich countries and 37% in transition countries (World Values Survey/5th Wave; Why are poor countries poor? / Activism). When people believe that fate plays a large role in their lives, they feel more need to appeal to the supernatural. Thus, they are more religious.
This theory does not predict the religiosity of every single person. However, it correctly predicts the average religiosity in a society. More precisely, the theory goes: The safer an environment is (in terms of social security, health care, job security, insurances, and rule of law), the less religious the environment is. This theory is generally true: poor countries are generally more religious. Rich countries are typically less religious Religiosity. Countries with a stable social system, universal healthcare, mandatory insurance, and job security are typically atheist (see my essay on Why are poor countries poor? / Religion). This leads to an interesting interplay between poverty and religiousness, which we discuss in various places in this book.
In the turmoil of Napoleon’s invasion of Europe, the sciences and the spread of knowledge was neglected — and the church rose her head and faith experienced a revival. In the 30 years of peace that followed, science florished and prosperity spread — which has led to a decay of religion.
Religiosity in the United StatesThis book hypothesizes that safe environments generally make people less religious. The US seem to be an exception to this rule, because the country is very developed, but very religious at the same time. However, despite its wealth, it does not provide the “safe environment” that our theory requires:
- Health insurance
- The US do not have universal health insurance. As of 2010, more than 49 million people in the US (more than 16% of the population) were without health insurance Health insurance in the US. If such a person suffers from an illness, and if that illness requires expensive treatment, the person may have to pay thousands of dollars from one day to the other from their own pocket. This can lead to bankruptcy and life in the streets. This possibility looms over every uninsured citizen. The uninsured are mainly the poor. More than half of the uninsured live below the 200% poverty line Kaiser Family Foundation. Due to the lack of health insurance, individuals often cannot pay for their treatment and go untreated. Almost a third of uninsured adults in 2013 (30%) went without needed medical care due to cost [ibid]. Nearly 40% of uninsured adults said they had outstanding medical bills, and a fifth said they had medical bills that caused serious financial strain [ibid]. Thus, people enjoy less health security in the US than in other developed countries.
- Household debt is a problem in the US. The country ranks 15th among the most indebted nations OECD: Household debt. This by itself does not sound particularly alarming. However, the indebtedness still has an impact on the average household. The average American household is indebted with 130,000 USD NerdWallet: 2015 American household credit card debt study. The average household with debt pays 6658 USD in interest per year [ibid] — of which 2600 USD go to credit card companies (ibid). I myself know people who pay thousands of dollars in interest each year — not to pay back the loan, but just to avoid credit default. In a poll, 70% of respondents said that there is a social stigma associated to credit card debt (ibid). Possibly because of these reasons, consumers underestimate their debt by around 155% (ibid). The majority of students borrow money each year Student loans in the US. The total amount of student loans exceedes the amount of credit card debt held by Americans (ibid). This indebtedness has led to the rise of the debt buyer industry, which sometimes pursues controversial strategies such as threatening the debtor, pursuing debts that are not actually due, impersonating law enforcement, or calling the debtors at their work place Debt buyer. This poses a considerable level of stress on the debtor (see John Oliver: Last Week Tonight / Debt for an illustration). Thus, a large proportion of Americans live with a considerable psychological and material burden.
- Rule of Law
- The rule of law is less developed in the US than in other rich countries. Black people are routinely discriminated, as the Ferguson debate shows The Guardian: Discrimination in Ferguson — full extent of police bias laid bare in damning report, 2015-03-04. The National Security Agency (NSA) surveils millions of citizens without warrant and without their approval Global Surveillance Disclosures. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) tortures, extradites, and assassinates outside the law CIA. Police brutality is a prevalent problem. An extensive report prepared for the United Nations Human Rights Committee, tabled in 2006, states that in the U.S., the “War on Terror” has “created a generalized climate of impunity for law enforcement officers, and contributed to the erosion of what few accountability mechanisms exist for civilian control over law enforcement agencies. As a result, police brutality and abuse persist unabated and undeterred across the country.” Police brutality in the US. Police officers are rarely prosecuted for overstepping their powers. The US also has the highest incarnation rate in the world, with 716 per 100,000 of its people in prison US incarceration rate. While the US has only 5% of the world’s population, it has 25% of the world’s prison inmates The Economist: Jailhouse nation, 2015-06-20. For the individual, this means that he or she has a higher chance of being subjected to law enforcement or cruel police treatment in the US than in other developed countries. The United States is also the only developed country (along with Japan) that still uses the death penalty. The US comes 5th world wide in the number of people executed.
- Crime is more prevalent in the US than in other developed countries. With a rate of 4.7 per 100,000 people per year, the US has the highest murder rate among the developed countries Homicide rate. The next developed country in the list (Israel) comes 50 countries later, and has a rate of just 1.8. Part of the reason may be the fact that the US has less strict gun laws than other countries. People can own guns that are so strong that they can pierce the body armor used by police. 20 children were murdered with a gun in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. The murderer stole the gun from his mother, who was a legal owner. In the following two years, 95 more shootings occurred at schools and colleges. 45 people were killed The Economist: Why the gun lobby is winning, 2015-04-01. Rape, likewise, is 3 times more frequent in the US than in Germany, for example. Robbery is twice as frequent, and aggravated assault 3 times as frequent Crime in the US. Thus, personal security is less guaranteed in the US than in other developed countries.
- Job security
- It is easier in the US than in other developed countries to fire an employee. In some cases, employees are fired from one day to the other. The Microsoft research lab where I was employed, for example, was closed within a week, putting around 50 people on the street ZDnet.com: Microsoft to close MSR Silicon Valley, 2014-09-18. The possibility (however distant) that you may lose your income from one day to the other can be a significant factor of insecurity in your daily life Job Security.
- Undesired Pregnancies
- With 42 teenage births per 1000 births, the US has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the developed world. Germany, for example, is at a rate of 12 per 1000 births Prevalence of Teenage pregnancy. With this, teenage pregnancy is four times as prevalent in the United States as in the European Union Adolescent sexuality in the US. Most of these children are unplanned. An unplanned baby can destroy career plans, shatter families, prevent higher education, and push people into poverty. This is particularly tough on people who are poor anyway, as a poor woman is 4 times as likely as a rich woman to have unplanned pregnancies The Economist: Taking the bother out of birth control, 2015-04-18. Thus, a teenage pregnancy is an example where people in the US have less control over their lives than in other developed countries. The impression that life has more control over you than vice versa is further underlined by the fact that 44% of young American women agreed in a survey that “It doesn’t matter whether you use birth control or not; when it is your time to get pregnant it will happen.” [ibid]. Teen pregnancies are generally more prevalent in the more believing parts of the US Folsom: Mississippi Abortion Clinic.
Spurious correlationOne of the reasons for religiosity may be the desire to appease the elements of nature. The elements are appeased through prayers, rituals, dances, songs, or superstitious behavior. We know that none of these has any effect on the elements of nature. Praying that a child gets healed from cancer does not increase the chances of healing by the slightest bit. On the contrary, it actually decreases the chances. Still, people do it. Why is that?
A first reason may be that we tend to accept a technique (such as prayer or a lucky charm) already if it works in very few cases. More precisely, we often require only 1 case where the technique works in order to accept it as effective. Take the following example:
Technically speaking, a superstition is a rule of the form “If I do this, then this event will have a positive outcome”. To validate such a rule, we would need an ample corpus of positive instances. However, we are ready to accept the rule already with a single instance. This may have an evolutionary reason, as Michael Shermer has argued: Imagine an early human hearing a rustle in the grass. Is it a hungry predator or is it the wind? If the person assumes it’s a hungry predator but it’s actually the wind, he or she will come to no harm. But if the person believes it’s the wind when it’s actually a hungry predator, it could mean death. So, the tendency to be overly cautious and falsely believe leads to being able to pass on those cautious, believing genes. Or, as Shermer puts it, “we are the descendants of those who were most successful at finding patterns”. He calls the tendency to find patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise “patternicity”. Salon: Why doesn’t everyone believe in God?, 2015-07-05
This phenomenon is not restricted to humans. In a sociological experiment, scientists gave food to pigeons in a cage at random intervals. After some time, the scientists noted that the pigeons showed some very strange behavior: They would shake their heads in rhythm, or walk around in circles. The scientists discovered that the pigeons repeated the behavior that they were following the last time that they got food. If a pigeon was shaking its head just before the feeding time, then the pigeon would continue shaking the head when it got hungry again. Thus, the pigeon “assumes” that the head shaking leads to food. Superstition
Confirmation biasWe have seen that humans (and animals) readily generalize rules and superstitions from a very few examples. However, superstitions do not work. Then why do we not abandon them?
One answer is that we have a tendency to remember positive cases, and to forget or excuse the negative cases. For example, if we pray for sunny weather, and the weather is indeed sunny, then we tend to see this as a confirmation for the theory that prayer works. If, in contrast, the weather is rainy, then we tend to see it as an exception from the rule, rather than as a counter-example. This way, the theory accumulates positive examples, but it is never associated with failure. This way of thinking is fallacious, of course: As soon as a theory produces as many counter-examples as it produces positive examples, the theory is to be rejected. The failure to realize this is known as the confirmation bias Confirmation bias. It is, as Rolf Dobelli argues, the mother of all misconceptions. It is also one of the foundations of magical thinking Magical thinking. This type of thinking makes people more open to religious procedures such as prayers.
The confirmation bias is closely coupled to the fallacy of the illusion of control: We readily assume that we have control over a situation, even if we do not. This illusion was first studied by Jenkins and Ward in 1965. Their experiment was simple, consisting of just two switches and a light. The men were able to adjust when the switches connected to the light and when not. Even when the light flashed on and off at random, subjects were still convinced that they could influence it by flicking the switches. [Rolf Dobelli: “The Art of Thinking Clearly”, chapter 17, translated by Nicky Griffin] Such switches also exist in our everyday life: elevator buttons that do not actually do anything but just satisfy children and adults who press them; dummy office thermostats that just let people believe that they can control the temperature while they actually have no effect; and crosswalk signals that do nothing, but just give the pedestrian a feeling of control New York Times: Pushing That Crosswalk Button May Make You Feel Better, but..., 2016-10-27
In a similar vein, people who pray are convinced that they can actually influence something. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But it is false. This illusion contributes to the prevalence of religious thinking.
Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.
PowerlessnessMany things in life happen that we cannot control: we can lose our job, we can have an accident, or we can become ill. The desire to control these events may make people more open to religion. However, the events do not necessarily have to be negative: We may also unexpectedly win a scholarship for a top university, get healed from a disease that was thought to be fatal, or receive unexpected help from a friend or stranger.
Such events (positive or negative) show people that many things are outside their control. This convinces some of them that there must be “something more” than what we think there is. They conclude that this “something more” is the supernatural. Then, religion helps them to get in touch with these powers: to ask for help, but also to express gratitude, to ask for the continuation of the protection from evil, or simply to acknowledge to these powers that we cannot control everything.
This perceived connection to the supernatural should be stronger in people who have a more turbulent life history, where events outside their control had a large impact on their life — be it positive or negative. This is one more factor that can make people religious.
If people were rewarded strictly according to their abilities, things would be unfair — we do not choose our abilities. The randomness in life has the beneficial effect of reshuffling society’s cards. In that sense, luck is far more egalitarian than intelligence.
Justification of sufferingThere is a lot of suffering and injustice in this world: Children die of hunger every day, people succumb to illnesses, bad things happen to good people, and earthquakes and tsunamis devastate villages and livelihoods. This is highly disturbing. In theory, we would have to rush from disaster to disaster to help people, rescue the trapped, and feed the hungry. How can we justify that we keep reading a book about atheism when, in the same minute, dozens of people in this world die of hunger? We live in a cruel world, and our role in it is not clear.
The situation is even worse if we suffer ourselves. If we live in hunger, poverty, or illness, then we want to understand why life is so unjust to us. We long to know what pushed us into misery.
Now what if all this injustice were there for a reason? What if there were someone who had it all under control? Someone who can explain why your life must be so miserable? Or someone who can justify why millions of people in this world suffer while you sit in your armchair reading a book about atheism? What if it all had a sense? That would lift this emotional discomfort from us. It would tell us that, even though life is tough, everything is okay on the long run, because it serves a higher purpose.
This higher purpose is exactly what a religion can deliver. Indeed, many religions can explain to us why all this suffering is happening. Quite possibly, people are open to these theories because the theories eliminate an important emotional discomfort. The theories assure us that everything is OK.
Hope for justiceA thief stole your wallet and then he disappeared in the crowd? Forget your wallet, the guy will never be caught. How relieving it would be to know that he will nevertheless be brought to justice. Vice versa, think about yourself: you are a decent person, you do your work, and you are good to other people — and yet your life is not extremely rewarding. You have an average pay. How wonderful it would be if even an average life would be rewarded.
These two desires, the one for punishment and the one for reward, are something that religions can respond to. The abrahamic religions offer punishment in hell and reward in heaven. The Indian religions propose that villains are reborn in more dire conditions in their next life, and that the good people improve their position. The East Asian religions assure us that Heaven will take care of justice for both villains and good people.
This makes these religions attractive: they cater to a basic human desire for justice. This may be one more reason for the popularity of religions.
HopeWe have only limited control over our lives. Many things happen that we cannot influence. Some of these, such as illness, emotional suffering, hunger, poverty, or abuse, harm us. In such cases, we long for anything that can give us hope. Hope that the illness gets cured, that the suffering stops, that we find a job, or that the abuse finds an end.
Religion can give us such hope. It can tell us that there is someone who cares, and who will make everything work out for the best — either in this life or in the next. Thus, religion caters to the basic human need for hope.
This hope can be very helpful: It can appease people and make them bear their fate with optimism. At the same time, it can also be used to give people who suffer the runaround. Be that as it may, the promise of hope is one more factor that makes religions attractive.
Hope for the afterlifeAlmost all religions promise some continuation of life after death. In the optimal case, this continuation takes the form of paradise.
As humans, we are all hard-wired to fear death. Hence, the promise of an eternal life is a very powerful argument to make people religious. What is more, the eternal life is also available for your loved ones. This thought can help people cope with the death of a family member. This is one more factor that makes a religion attractive to its adherents.
Religion is possible only because we can talk about fictional things. You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.
CareReligions typically give us supernatural entities that care for us. In the abrahamic religions, this is a loving god. In the other religions, these can be the spirits, benevolent deities, or the souls of the deceased. Having such entities around is very comforting: We all long for someone who cares for us and who listens to us. We are all afraid of being alone. “The idea that God is listening to and responding to you individually can be tremendously satisfying [...]. It means that you are special in God’s eyes.” GodIsImaginary.com
Thus, religions cater once more to a very basic human need. People can talk to the god, and imagine that someone really listens. They can talk about their sorrows if no one else would listen. They can talk to order their thoughts. They can talk to not feel alone. In some religions this is known as prayer, in others, it takes the form of meditation. But the concept is always the same: a connection with the supernatural. This connection makes a religion attractive — in particular to people who suffer.
AbsolutionReligions can also offer pragmatic advantages to the believer. Consider the problem of guilt: When we do something bad, we usually have a bad conscience. This bad conscience can be very disturbing, even devastating.
Enter religion. Religions typically offer us a way to remove that guilt. In many flavors of Christianity, this works through confession: We talk to a priest, and under certain conditions, he forgives us our sin in the name of God Absolution. As The Economist explains, the Catholic sacrament of penance and reconciliation, commonly called confession, is a perfect response [to the burden of secrecy]. It offers a procedure to lift that burden in a procedure that, though not cost free to the confessor, is, itself, completely secret [The Economist: Weighing heavy on the soul, 2017-04-22]. Absolution from sins may also work through animal sacrifices (Bible / Leviticus 4:27-35). For graver sins, a pilgrimage might do the job (see picture). In Islam, we can ask for forgiveness directly from God (Quran / 2:160, 39:54, 3:135, 25:71, 6:54; Wikipedia/Confession). Otherwise, the pilgrimage to Mecca is considered a safe way to get rid of bad conscience al-Bukhaari, 1449; Muslim, 1350. Hindus can clean themselves from sin by bathing in the holy Ganges river. Other religions offer other ways to repent for our wrong-doing: by making sacrifices, by fasting, or by following the laws of the religion to the T. All of these techniques give us a means to clear (or at least weaken) our bad conscience. This is a very attractive feature of a religion, and a very popular one, too. In many cases, the religion first instills the guilt, in order to then offer remedies against it.
Personal advantagesPeople can have several reasons to follow religions. One more reason can be that the religion grants permissions for practices that are otherwise not socially accepted.
- Raëlism is a New Religious Movement. It is known for its very liberal attitude towards sex. Any sexual activity is permitted and encouraged, as long as it is legal, safe, and consensual. Sensual massages are part of the religious rites, and homosexuality, bisexuality, pansexuality, and naturism are OK Raëlism. Thus, adherents of Raëlism enjoy permissions that adherents of many other religions do not enjoy. This makes the religion attractive.
- When the Prophet Mohammed founded Islam in the 7th century CE, he set out to conquer the Arabian Peninsula. Tribes who joined him were allowed to share the bounties of the war: money, slaves, and sex slaves. This looting was divinely sanctioned. The Quran explicitly talks of the war bounty (Quran / 8:41, 8:69) and of the sex slaves (Quran / 33:50, 23:5-6, 4:24). This made the religion attractive to the tribes. (Ibn Warraq: Why I am not a Muslim, 1995 / Chapter 9)
- Christianity, in particular Catholicism and European Protestantism, has an extensive system of priests, bishops, and other staff. Thus, the religious system acts as an employer for these people. Hence, these people have a material interest in being faithful. In Germany (and certainly in some other countries), some schools are administered by a Christian denomination. Anybody who wishes to be hired there has to adhere to this denomination. This makes the denomination attractive.
America’s only belief about God that is taxed.
Won battlesIn some cases, leaders won battles in the name of a religion. This convinced the leaders (and their peoples) that their religion must be the right one. Examples are:
- Constantine the Great
- According to legend, Constantine saw a cross and the words “in this sign, you will conquer” in the sky. He then adorned his military shields with Christian crosses and won the battle Constantine the Great. In other words, Constantine asked himself whether the Christian God would help him in battle. When he won the battle, he concluded that Christianity was the right religion. He then contributed to the conversion of the entire Roman Empire to Christianity. Had he lost the battle, Europe might still worship Roman gods today.
- Prophet Mohammed
- The Prophet Mohammed fought numerous wars against his opponents Military career of Muhammad. Since he won the wars, people started believing that he must be sent by God. He gathered more adherents, and won more wars, thus gathering more adherents. Had he lost the wars, he and his religion would have perished, and nobody would talk about it today. When the Muslim world later lost battles, and fell behind the unbelieving world in general, this caused a crisis of identity that is still ongoing.
CommunityOne of the main features of a religion is that it establishes a community. This works through several factors:
- Common values, such as the 10 Commandments, the duty to give charity, or the call to non-violence.
- Common beliefs, such as a world model, a set of mythological stories, and shared beliefs about history.
- Common rituals, such as fasting, joint prayer, church attendance, life event celebrations, annual celebrations, or sacrifices.
- A label, such as “Jew” or “Catholic”.
- Initiation rites, such as circumcision, baptism, or assisted writing Aksharaabhyaasam.
- Shared experiences, such as fares, excursions, or concerts.
- Social services, such as hospitals, kindergardens, schools, or senior citizen homes.
- The prohibition to venture out of the community, e.g., by prohibiting inter-faith marriage, by branding outsiders as errants, or by inviting believers to make friends primarily inside the community.
- A sense of pride in the religion and the community.
- Mutual assistance, such as help for the poor, the ill, and the desperate.
Such a community can have several advantages for the individual: believers can count on friendly neighbors, happy get-togethers, and help in distress from their fellows. The help in distress has a doubly positive effect: someone who receives aid is happy, and someone who gives it is happy, too. Through all of this, the religious community can give peace of mind, the feeling of safety, a sense of belonging, the assurance of having a purpose, and, ultimately, happiness.
NetworkingReligion can provide a community for the believers. This typically works best in the home country of the religion. However, even outside the home country, believers can benefit from that community. If two people find that they both belong to a minority religion, they will feel a bond between them. All other factors being equal, they will be more likely to help each other, to trust each other, and to promote each other. “The convert enjoys the advantage of secure access to an effective contract enforcement mechanism. As a matter of fact, sharing the same faith ensures that people abide by the same codes of behavior, adopt the same rituals, and use the same language, resulting in a common identity grounded in the same symbolic universe.” Gani Aldashev & Jean-Philippe Platteau: Religion, Culture, and Development
The idea of religious networking is most commonly associated with Judaism, because more than half of the world’s Jews live in countries where Judaism is not the majority religion. A search for “Jewish network” returns more Google hits (70m) than “Muslim network” (65m), even though there are 100 times more Muslims than Jews on Earth. (Just to satisfy our curiosity: “Atheist network” has 1m hits.)
But also Islam has worked as a catalyst for networks. “The “trading diasporas” of West Africa, which date back to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, are cases in point. An important feature of these networks was their openness to new entrants on the (obviously restrictive) condition that they shared or accepted the essential cultural requirements for participation in the moral community which distinguished the members from the host society: Islam and the appropriate trading language. The adoption of Islam thus spurred the economic integration of West African regions and their integration into trans-Saharan trade, partly as a result of increasing safety of the caravans and smaller contract enforcement costs.” Gani Aldashev & Jean-Philippe Platteau: Religion, Culture, and Development
Absolute convictionMost things that we know may turn out to be wrong: We thought our wife loved us, but then she cheats on us. We trust a politician, but then he does not do what he promised. We cannot even trust science: We thought that time ticks continuously, but then we find out that it comes to a standstill in fields of large gravity. We are but observers of our environment, and we can be surprised every day by things that turn out differently from what we thought. We are to a large degree victims of what happens around us, and we long for security and trust.
Now suppose that we meet a person who tells us about a world view that can never turn out to be wrong. In fact, it is guaranteed that this world view can never be proven wrong. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Finally something stable to cling to, finally a piece of absolute security. We listen to this person, and indeed we can find no fault with the world view. We start adhering to this world view, and tell other people about it. No matter what these people say, they cannot show we’re wrong. Isn’t that fantastic? And no matter what happens, it never contradicts our beliefs. Nothing that ever happens and nothing that is ever said can prove us wrong. We will become so convinced of this world view that we will never let it go again.
This is the advantage that religions have over any other theory: They can provide absolute conviction. Nobody can ever prove that God does not exist. Thus, religion delivers absolute certainty. Science, in contrast, cannot deliver absolute certainty, because it has to change in face of evidence. Thereby, religion gives believers a refuge from doubting, which atheists can never have. What is more, this absolute conviction is socially accepted. It is fully OK to confess one’s infinite faith in one’s religion (as long as it is the religion of the majority in that society). Statements that would be perceived as arrogant on any other topic are fully OK if they are on religion. We can hear people say “I will never lose my trust in God” (while “I will never lose my trust in Barack Obama” sounds weird), or “My life belongs to God” (while “my life belongs to my husband” is weird).
If a statement can never be proven false, it is (by definition) is unfalsifiable. This means that it is meaningless — in the sense that it never makes a concrete prediction. It also means that we can come up with plenty of other theories, which all contradict the first theory, but can also never be proven wrong. This is basically what theology does.
A Moral FrameWe have seen before that humans are completely free to design any moral framework that they wish. This gives us a lot of liberty on one hand, but also a lot of responsibility on the other. Is abortion murder? Should we allow stem cell research? Are nuclear power plants ethical? Shall cousins be allowed to marry? Is gay marriage a good thing? These are tricky questions. Even if we find answers, we will likely run into arguments with people who have found different answers. Worse, if they convince us, we might be forced to change our point of view, which is always an unpleasant thing to do.
Religions can provide a way out of these problems. They usually come with a given moral framework that a believer can follow. This framework can be a type of written law (such as the 10 Commandments), but it can also be the law administered by a preacher. These frameworks answer most everyday questions. This saves us time and effort. What is more, the framework has divine authority. This means that, in our religious community, we are much less likely to run into disputes. There is simply no discussion needed, because the gods (or their representatives) have decided.
To illustrate this, a friend of mine tells the following story about the Jewish community in New York:
In this particular case, the couple and the grand-parents brought the case before the local Rabbi. The Rabbi listened to both parties, and then said: The couple has the right to decide who sees their children. At the same time, the grand-parents share a blood-link with the grand-children, and thus also have the right to see them. Therefore, the grand-parents shall be allowed to see the grand-children once every fortnight. The couple and the grand-parents had no choice but to accept this ruling.
The same goes for other moral questions, such as the morality of gay marriage or stem cell research: the holy book, the gods, or their representatives decide on the matter, and there is no need (or space) for discussion. This gives a great deal of juridical security. It also avoids the need for disputes. This mechanism is at work not just for the mainstream religions, but also for sects. The legal security is one of the main reasons for the attractiveness of religious terror networks such as the Islamic State. Many of the Islamic State recruits are attracted to the strict system of rules imposed by fundamentalists The Economist: The Yorkshire bomber, 2015-06-20. Thus, in one way or the other, the religion caters for the human desire for safety, and boundaries. It shields us from uncertainty, from the weight of assuming responsibility over our own moral codes, and from the need to reevaluate our convictions. This is an advantage of a religion.
Moral Frames TodayA religion typically offers a moral framework, which defines what is good and what is wrong. Such a framework caters to the human desire for rules and boundaries. Such an argument may seem outdated today: in the Western world, we do not want others to decide for us, let alone an ancient book. We are used to question and to challenge.
And yet, the very same search for absolute ancient values happens also in the West. Here are examples:
- Germany’s military intervention in Afghanistan in 2002
- The German constitution declares that the main purpose of the German army is to protect the security of the country Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland / § 87a. This has long been interpreted to mean that any military missions abroad with no link to Germany are prohibited. Now, in 2002, the NATO asked Germany to participate in the missions in Afghanistan. To do this properly, the German constitution would have been changed to permit such missions. However, since people hesitate to change the constitution, the defense minister Peter Struck just redefined the mission to Afghanistan and declared that the “German security is also being defended in the Hindu Kush” Peter Struck. This is an attempt to justify current actions with previous values. It would have been more honest to ask for a change of the constitution.
- The role of Japan’s armed forces
- The Japanese postwar constitution states that Japan renounces war and shall never have an army Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. In the sequel, this has been re-interpreted so as to allow an army for self-defense. In 2014, the rule was again re-interpreted to allow defending allied countries (ibid). All of this was done without making use of the article that allows an amendment of the constitution. Again, we can see a fear of breaking with previous authority, and an attempt to justify current policies based on a re-interpretation of the previous values
- The gun owner debate in the US in the 2000’s
- In the US, there is an ongoing debate as to whether people have the right to bear fire arms or not. In order to justify the right to bear arms, the US Supreme Court used the English Bill of Rights from 1689 — a document that predates the foundation of the United States by nearly a century. One of the main arguments in favor of the right to bear arms is the second amendment of the US constitution — a document that dates back to 1791. The amendment grants the right to bear arms to “the people”. The current debate is whether the founding fathers intended this to be “the people” as in “the community of citizens” or “the people” as in “every individual”. Proponents of each camp accuse the other camp of misinterpreting the will of the founding fathers. In reality, it does not matter what the founding fathers wanted. What counts is what the people want. However, people hesitate to assume this responsibility. They prefer to justify their viewpoint with ancient documents Gun politics in the US.
In all of these cases, people resort to re-interpreting ancient documents rather than to making a decision by themselves. Thus, they shy away from the responsibility of defining their own moral frameworks. This very same tendency makes religious frameworks so attractive. In this process, religious frameworks are often re-interpreted beyond recognition to justify whatever people want to justify.
For psychological comfort, some people would rather use a map of the Pyrénées while lost in the Alps than use nothing at all.
The clack gameAt a student party, I learned about the clack game. This game uses a little wooden tube with a piston (pictured right). The piston sticks into the tube, and has a little hook at its end. Inside the tube, on the end opposite to where the piston enters, there is a rubber band that forms a loop (pictured in blue). The goal is to manoeuvre the hook into the rubber band loop. Then you can pull out the piston, and let it clack back into the tube. This is a very difficult endeavor, because the tube is completely covered so that one cannot see the rubber band. It requires a lot of dexterity. Some people never get it done, even if they practice for hours.
Some people, however, get it done after a few trials. They can do it even if the tube is held vertical (so that the rubber band lies on the ground of the tube), or when they are drunk. How do they manage?
The trick is that there is no rubber band. Those who can do it simply put a lot of fake effort into turning the hook artfully into the rubber band. Then they pull out the piston slowly, as if there was the opposing force of the rubber band. Then they squeeze the beak of the piston between their thumb and index finger. This pushes the piston back into the tube — clack!
The message is that the desired effect can be achieved without the proposed procedure. In fact, the proposed procedure does not work at all. And it is the same with religion: All social advantages of a religion can be achieved by simply confessing that one believes in its dogmata, and by following all of its rules. Much like the clack game player can skillfully simulate the search for and the effect of the “inner connection” with the rubber band, a believer can skillfully simulate his search for and the effect of his “inner connection” with the gods. It is not necessary to really believe that God is triune, that Mohammed was a perfect human being, or that Brahma emerged from a lotus. One can achieve the same effect by claiming that one seriously believes it. Nobody knows what you believe and what you do not believe. Nobody knows that the “inner connection” may be missing. In the same line, in some recent literature, both economic and sociological, we find the idea that people may rationally choose to display religious symbols pertaining to a given religion regardless of the true nature of their deep beliefs Gani Aldashev & Jean-Philippe Platteau: Religion, Culture, and Development.
This disconnection between the true belief in the dogmata and the social role is maybe best described in this comment by the Episcopal Bishop of Newark, John Shelby Spong, in his book, “Resurrection: Myth or Reality (1994)”:
Sunk costSome people are religious because they have invested so much effort into being religious that they would feel that this effort would be wasted if they abandoned the religion.
Investments that people make into a religion are:
- the initiation rite (such as circumcision)
- a series of life choices (such as choosing a life partner not primarily out of love, but in order to have one with the “correct” religion)
- a life-long adherence to the religion, including following all rules and rites (such as fastening, prayer, ceremonies, etc.)
- a life-long defense of the religion in discussions with friends
- a life-long commitment to the religion vis-a-vis society
This way of reasoning is known as the “sunk cost fallacy” Lifehack / Sunk cost fallacy. It is a fallacy, because sticking to the past behavior will not recover the costs that were already invested. On the contrary, sticking to the behavior that caused irrational costs in the past is likely to produce more irrational costs in the future.
Adhere to a principle not because you decided for it, but because it is good.