The Atheist Bible, CC-BY Fabian M. Suchanek

Belief

Knowledge of the laws of nature

Real or divine? Real. A Northern Light CC-BY Jim Trodel
The most obvious reason why a person is religious is that this person believes in the tenets of the religion. We will now discuss different reasons that may make people open to believing these tenets.

We start by looking back in history: One reason why the ancient people believed reports of miracles, visions, and divine apparitions may have been that they had less knowledge of the laws of nature. Before the scientific revolution, (i.e., before 1500 CE) people did not have the tools to measure time precisely, to look more closely at objects in space, to study things that are smaller than what the human eye can see, or to measure temperature accurately1. Thus, the vast majority of people did not know that that the Earth revolves around the Sun, that certain diseases are caused by micro-organisms, that solar eclipses can be predicted, that earthquakes are caused by tectonic shifts, or that a halo is a completely natural phenomenon. Therefore, earthquakes, halos, solar eclipses, and many diseases were unpredictable events to them that could strike at any moment without understandable cause.

We can hypothesize that this unpredictability had two effects: first, people were likely more ready to assume a supernatural agent behind these events, as we have already discussed. Second, people may have been more open to reports of other unpredictable events. If an illness can appear “magically”, why should it not disappear magically as well? If a halo can light up the sky without an understandable reason, why should a man not walk on water without an understandable reason? 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 may have been equally unpredictable (and thus equally plausible) events. This might have increased their readiness to believe religious stories.

Ignorance is the mother of Devotion.
David Hume

The concept of truth

One reason why ancient people believed religious stories might have been that they had a pre-scientific concept of truth. Today, scientists accept a theory as true only if it has been validated extensively . In particular, a theory cannot be true if it cannot be falsified. Before the scientific revolution, however, people did not know the concept of experimental validation. They used mainly non-scientific methods of pursuing knowledge — like magic, alchemy, and astrology1. Truth was not determined by experiment, but by verbal arguments1. In such a setting, people can come up with near-arbitrary theories, if only they argued well. Truth was thus a more flexible concept that could make room for many things, if they only appeared plausible. In this environment, a religion could prosper even if it could not be experimentally validated.

Even today, people have a less clear concept of truth than we might wish — even if we leave religion aside. Consider the following examples:

In these cases, modern human thinking does not draw the line between validated theories and invalid (or outright unfalsifiable) theories either. A religion can then exist in this continuum between validated scientific theories and other equally plausible (but untenable) theories. If people try magic, then there is no reason not to try (the equally ineffective) prayer. If people believe that “all things happen for a reason”, then they can also believe the (equally unfalsifiable) “God loves you”. If people succumb to logical fallacies, they can easily accept one that proves the existence of a god.
You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work?
Medicine.
Tim Minchin

Childhood education

We have argued that people have a general tendency to be open to unvalidated theories. Based on this general observation, we can now discuss what is most likely the most important reason why people believe in the tenets of their religion: It is the fact that have been brought up with this religion. As the evolutionary biologist (and militant atheist) Richard Dawkins has argued, “by far the most important variable determining your religion is the accident of birth. The convictions that [an adherent] so passionately believes would have been a completely different, and largely contradictory, set of convictions, if only [the believer] had happened to be born in a different place.”13. He goes on to argue that “child brains are gullible, open to almost any suggestion”. To exemplify this, we list here some things that people were told as children and that they believed 14:
When I was little, I used to suck my thumb. As I got older, my parents must have wanted this to stop, because this conversation happened while driving with my Dad (I was probably 3): Dad: Still sucking that thumb? Me: Yep! Dad: Aren’t you worried about ending up like those flamingos at the zoo? Me: Huh? Dad: Haven’t you ever noticed how they always stand on one leg? You see, they sucked their toes for so long, that they dissolved! The more they sucked, the more disappeared. Eventually they sucked their whole leg right off! Didn’t suck my thumb ever again. [Julia Heil]

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]

As an example, consider Christianity. Children learn that it is normal to stare at the body of a tortured naked person in the process of dying (Jesus on the cross). Without intensive familiarization from an early age on, such an image would be considered disgusting, sadistic, and offensive. But since Christians have been trained to see this picture from kindergarten on, they find it normal .

The lesson here is that children will believe nearly anything if we tell them so. There is a twist, though: In most cases, the children will later find out that the stories are not true. They will find out that flamingos do have a second leg, and that the Internet works pretty well also when one was naughty. 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.

Chew before you swallow.
The Candid Atheist

Conformism

We may assume that most children believe in their religion because because their parents do. But why do people remain religious as adults? One reason might be a general tendency of humans to conform to what other humans do. Many people consider a social or historical standard 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 the economist and author Rolf Dobelli points out, 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 3. We are the descendants of those humans who followed — a phenomenon called herd mentality . The herd mentality might also have served people to show their adherence to the social group — on which they depended for their survival.

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: people follow the religion because they believe that what is popular must be right — a phenomenon called social proof . As the author Roy Sablosky has pointed out, there is also little cost in affirming belief in God — at least in a Western Christian setting. It is not like affirming a belief in, say, recycling, which might be seen as a commitment to a certain lifestyle. No, a “belief in God” requires no further action, and is thus a perfectly safe way to fit in.

Social proofs work for long-term members of a society, but also for newbies. As the computer scientist and author Marshall Brain hypothesizes: 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 in15. Such behavior encourages people to follow whatever religion is prevalent in their society. The philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett has argued in the same direction: For him, religion is an indefensible mutual presumption, which is kept alive for centuries because each person assumes somebody else has some very good reasons for maintaining it16. This behavior is not even irrational: We mostly rely on what other people tell us, because it would be tedious or impossible to verify all truths in life explicitly. That is all well until that tendency starts propagating a belief that has been verified by nobody.

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and to reflect.
Mark Twain

The Emperor’s new clothes

We have argued that most people believe mainly because everybody else believes. But what happens if an adherent does not really “feel” religious? We can only hypothesize how this looks from the believer’s perspective, but some insight can come from a story called “The Emperor’s new clothes”. This story goes as follows:
In ancient times there was an emperor who ruled over a large country. Two tailors approached the emperor, and said that they wanted to make him a special garment. That garment would be very expensive, because could be seen only by intelligent people. Curious, the emperor gave his permission. During several weeks, the two tailors took measures, cut tissue, and designed the garment. It’s just that, no matter how hard he tried, the emperor could not see the tissue. The tailors seemed to be perfectly comfortable cutting the tissue, but it was invisible to the emperor. Since the tissue was visible only to intelligent people, the emperor concluded that it would be best to keep quiet about the issue. He played the game, and dressed with the invisible new garment. He payed the sum that the tailors asked for. Then came the day to present his garment to his people. The crowd gathered under the balcony where the emperor was to present his new cloths. When the emperor stepped on the balcony, the crowd was stunned. People knew that only the smart ones could see the garment, and so everyone tried hard to see it. Those who did not see it decided that it was best to keep quiet about it, and go along with the majority. So the crowd remained in awe. Finally, a child raised her voice and said: “But the emperor is naked!”.

By that time, the two tailors were nowhere to be found.

We can draw an analogy here between the emperor’s clothes and the spiritual feeling that religion promises. Religion tells us that if we really believe, we will feel the closeness to God, the unity with Heaven, or the deeper meaning of the Universe. In reality, there is no supernatural spiritual feeling. What adherents feel is a mixture of conviction, hope, and admiration — but nothing supernatural. However, since everybody thinks that everybody else has that “special feeling”, it appears safest to go along with the masses and to say that one has that special feeling, too. That, in turn, will encourage others to do the same. This is one more way in which religious thinking gets proliferated .

No alternatives

The tendency of people to follow what other people do can be amplified if no alternatives to the common behavior are readily available. 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. In many countries, the majority religion is discussed (or taught) at school, mentioned (or propagated) on TV, and in some countries even represented in the government. This makes it more likely that people believe in the majority religion rather than in some other available religion (or atheism). In some cases, alternative belief systems are systematically eradicated from society, by discriminating against, persecuting, or even killing their adherents. Once all people who think differently have disappeared, those who are left are way more likely to pick up the dominant religion.

This tendency to trust whatever can be accessed most easily bears resemblance to the availability bias: a person evaluates the probability of an event (or here, by extension, the probability that a propagated theory is true) by the ease with which relevant instances come to mind1718 . If other religions rarely appear in public discourse (or are even systematically eliminated from public life) then people are more likely to believe in the majority 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.
Frank Sinatra in his song “When I’m Not Near The Girl I Love”

Illiteracy

Another factor that reinforces the tendency of people to believe what they have been told (and hence to follow the dominant religion) might be illiteracy. If we scroll back in history, we see that literacy was much less common than it is today. Until the mid-19th century, less than 20% of the world population was able to read. Even in rich countries such as the United Kingdom, roughly half of the population was unable to read in 1850.
Literacy rate over time
CC-BY Our World In Data. Caption, sources, and logo removed.

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. 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.

Literacy rates in the world (2015)
CC-BY Our World In Data. Caption, sources, logo, and blank space removed.

A person who cannot read will be less in a position to challenge her or his religion: This person is unable to read books, newspapers, or Web sources that question the religion. Indeed, 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. The only input these people can receive is from the people around them. If these are religious, so will they be. And indeed, we find that the countries with low literacy rates happen to be among the most religious ones19. More generally, the literacy rate is a lower bound for the proportion of people who received formal education, and a number of studies suggest that a lack of formal education correlates with a higher religiosity202122 — possibly because a formal education is often a prerequisite to challenge the dominant world view. This fact may be one of the reasons why some of today’s world religions have historically not shown any interest in educating their adherents.

The more people know, the less they have to believe.

Proofs

So far, we have argued that people believe religious tenets mainly because they were brought up with them, and are in no position to challenge them. However, people may also consciously decide to believe in the supernatural because they were convinced by proofs for the supernatural. Such proofs include, e.g., We have already discussed these proofs (and others) in the Chapter on Proofs and the Chapter on the God of Gaps.
It’s actually easy to tell if your house is haunted.
It isn’t.
Jimmy Carr

The desire to believe

The desire to influence nature

If a rain torrent can destroy your day from one minute to the other, you are more likely to appeal to the supernatural.

in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

We now discuss cases where individuals believe because they want their religion to be true. This desire often springs from the exposure to forces that they cannot control: 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 can be rational strategies such as wearing a seatbelt, getting vaccinated, or buying insurances. However, the range of these strategies is limited. We still cannot control the elements of nature, illnesses, and adversary coincidences.

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 don’t walk under a ladder; and they avoid hotel rooms that end in “13”. People believe that voodoo works, that the position of the stars determines our fate, or that cancer can be cured by magnets. Cancer in particular it attracts a large number of appeals to the supernatural or the unproven, because it is one of the main reasons of death in developed countries, and there is no known cure. People try herbs, biblical diets, electro-homeopathy, or electromagnetic waves (Wikipedia maintains a list of such treatments23). 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.

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.

Our theory is thus: The less safe an environment is (in terms of social security, health care, job security, insurances, and rule of law), and the less influence the individual has on their own life, the more religious the environment is. This theory is generally true: poorer countries are generally more religious2425. Countries with a stable social system, universal healthcare, mandatory insurance, and job security, in contrast, are typically less religious.

Proportion of people who say that religion is important in their daily life, according to a 2009 Gallup poll 19.
Lightest blue: 10%-19%, darkest blue: 90%-100% CC-BY-SA Kamalthebest, Antarctica removed

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 countries26. 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.

The same goes for times of crises. Studies suggest that, in Muslim countries, Islamic school attendance increases in times of economic crisis 27. Insecurity makes people more open to 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.
Philaletes in Arthur Schopenhauer’s “Dialog about Religion”, written in 1851 (!)

Religiosity in the United States

This 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. 42% of Americans believe in possession by the devil, 32% in ghosts and spirits, 25% in astrology, 21% in witches, 29% in communication with the dead, and 24% in reincarnation 4.

However, despite their wealth, the US do not provide the “safe environment” that our theory requires:

Health insurance
The US do not have universal health insurance . Roughly 10% of the US population have no health insurance28. If an uninsured 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. In the worst case, such expenses can lead to bankruptcy and life in the streets. This possibility looms over every uninsured citizen.
Debt
The average American household is indebted with USD 170,000 29. The average household pays USD 1000 in interest per year to credit card companies30. Debt is not just a financial burden, but also a psychological one: 41% of Americans who currently have debt feel anxious about it. Nearly 7 in 10 Americans (69%) have financial concerns about the next 12 months29. The majority of students borrow money each year . Thus, a large proportion of Americans live with a considerable psychological and material burden (see 31 for an illustration).
Rule of Law
The rule of law is less developed in the US than in other rich countries. Police brutality is a prevalent problem. An extensive report prepared for the United Nations Human Rights Committee of 2007 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.” 32. People of color, in particular, are “disproportionately subjected to human rights violations at the hands of law enforcement officers, ranging from pervasive verbal abuse and harassment, racial profiling, routine stops and frisks, based solely on race or gender to excessive force, unjustified shootings, and torture”. This imbalance has been highlighted by the murder of George Floyd (and others), which caused widespread protests against racist police brutality33. The US also has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, with 513 per 100,000 of its people in prison 34. While the US has only 5% of the world’s population, it has 25% of the world’s prison inmates 35. 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 — in particular if she or he is not white. 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

in Chicago, US

Crime is more prevalent in the US than in other developed countries. With a rate of 6.4 per 100,000 people per year, the US has the second-highest murder rate among the IMF advanced economy countries, as of 2022 36 . The next advanced economy in the list comes 50 countries later, and has a rate of just 2.6. (The country is Andorra, and two people were killed in that year in that country.) So the US is really an outlier among the rich countries. Part of the reason may be the fact that the US has less strict gun laws than other countries. It is the country with the highest number of firearms per citizen. It has more arms than people, with 120 arms per 100 inhabitants 37. People can own guns that are so strong that they can pierce the body armor used by police. Around 50 shootings per year occur at schools and colleges 38. Other assaults, such as rape, violent assault, and robbery are also more frequent in the US than in other developed countries . 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. The Microsoft research lab where the author of this book was previously employed, for example, was closed with a week’s notice only, putting around 50 people out of work 39. 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 .
Undesired Pregnancies
In the US, 16 of every 1000 teenage women got pregnant in 2019 40 . That is the highest rate in the developed world (after Romania and Bulgaria, where it is high mainly among the Roma population 41). By way of comparison, the value is 7 for Germany. One of the reasons for this high number of teenage pregnancies may be a reluctance to use contraception: in a survey, 44% of young American women agreed that “It doesn’t matter whether you use birth control or not; when it is your time to get pregnant it will happen”42. 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 42. Thus, a teenage pregnancy is an example where people in the US have less control over their lives than in other developed countries.
All of these factors make life in the US less secure for the individual than in other developed countries. This explains , according to our theory , why the US is more religious than other developed countries.
Two hands working can do more than a thousand clasped in prayer.
Madalyn Murray O'Hair

Powerlessness

We have argued that a loss of control over one’s life can result in a greater need to appeal to the supernatural. Our examples so far have focused mainly on negative life events such as illness, joblessness, and crime. However, it is not just the poor and the ill who are religious. Many rich, healthy, and happy people are religious, too. One reason may be that positive events, too, can be outside one’s control: we are lucky to be born into a rich family; we have the fortune to have no genetic predisposition for cancer; or we owe our wealth or partnership to an unexpected coincidence. Our theory predicts that such circumstances, too, should increase one’s readiness to believe in the supernatural. This is because such circumstances show people that there are things outside their control. When uncontrollable things happen (positive or negative), some people conclude that there must be “something more” than what we think there is. They then conclude that this “something more” is the supernatural. Religion, in turn, 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.

We can hypothesize that 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.

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.
Nassim Taleb in “The Black Swan”, paraphrased

Spurious correlation

We have argued that people appeal to the supernatural in search for help, but we have also argued that this help never materializes because the supernatural does not exist. Why then do people still appeal to the supernatural?

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:

Assume that you are playing in a school basketball team. Tonight, there is the grand final game with the competing team from the other school. The coach has explained to you that it is of utmost importance that your team wins this game. Your team has been preparing for this day for the past 2 months. You are in the changing room with your team mates, and the atmosphere is kind of loaded. You anxiously try to avoid anything that could lead to a failure of your team. You remember what you did last time when you had such an important game. You remember that, last time, you actually spit into the dust bin just before you got out of the changing room for the game. And last time, your team won. Maybe this was a good thing to do. It’s silly, of course, but, well, who knows? You better take no chances. And, when the team walks out of the changing room, you quickly do that spit into the dust bin. Just in case.
And voilà, a superstition is born. And indeed, such examples abound: the professional golfer Tiger Woods wears red shirts to help his luck; the professional tennis player Serena Williams ties her shoelaces in a specific way; the writer Quentin Tarantino has a series of writing rituals that involve specially purchased notebooks; the model Heidi Klum carries a little bag containing her children’s lost teeth for luck; the former US first lady Nancy Reagan relied on astrology; the rapper Missy Elliott avoids black cats; the actor Benicio Del Toro wears a lucky ring ; former US president Harry Truman mounted a horseshoe above the door to his office for good luck; and professional basketball player Michael Jordan wore his college practice shorts under his NBA uniform for good luck43. In a similar way, people tend to accept prayer, lucky charms, and other superstitions if they have been shown to work once. People are ready to give such techniques the benefit of the doubt . Our theory hypothesizes that this readiness should be higher if the stake is larger, and if the individual control is smaller.

Technically speaking, a superstition is a “belief or practice for which there appears to be no rational substance”44. In the terminology of our book, a superstition is a rule of the form “If I do this, then this event will have a positive outcome”, which is accepted based on a single positive example or none at all, and which will not withstand systematic validation. The question is then why people are ready to accept such a rule already with a single instance. The reason may be evolutionary, as the American science writer 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”. 45

This phenomenon is not restricted to humans. In a sociological experiment, the behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner gave food to pigeons in a cage at random intervals. After some time, he noted that the pigeons showed some very strange behavior: They would shake their heads in rhythm, or walk around in circles. He 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.46 Of course, there exists no causal relation in these cases. Rather, it is a rule that got generalized from a single example — a superstition.

We thus conclude that people (and pigeons) have a tendency to accept rules even if they have worked only in a single case. It is thus sufficient for many people to have seen (or heard) that a prayer worked once to continue praying.

Religion is a superstition plus the conviction that it is not.
The Candid Atheist

Confirmation bias

Magical belief is popular in South America. This magician promises to cure all your discomforts.

in Arequipa, Peru

We have seen that humans (and animals) readily generalize rules and superstitions from a very few examples . However, superstitions generate not just positive examples, but also counter-examples: cases where the good luck charm, the special clothing, or the prayer do not work. Then why do people not abandon these practices?

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 known as the confirmation bias. It is a particularly frequent fallacy that has been confirmed by numerous psychological studies473. Different explanations have been proposed for this phenomenon47: people are generally happy to believe what they want to be true; some people may just be unable to consider both positive and negative evidence at the same time; people may have a general tendency to assume that statements are true rather than false; people strengthen their belief in a hypothesis if they have to explain why the hypothesis is true — even if confronted with evidence that the hypothesis is false; in some cases a false statement may be less harmful when erroneously considered true than a true statement that is erroneously considered false; and people have learned to defend their own hypotheses by positive evidence and to disregard counter-evidence. The fallacy may even have beneficial effects, because it reinforces belief in one’s own world view and thus strengthens one’s self-confidence.

In general, the confirmation bias makes people more open a theory that fails more often than it works — and this includes both superstitions and religious practices. From a rational viewpoint, of course, the confirmation bias is fallacious: As soon as a theory produces more counter-examples than positive examples, that theory is unlikely to predict the truth correctly. It is thus to be rejected.

God does miracles in the same way that Santa delivers presents —
by taking credit for other people’s work.
anonymous

The Illusion of Control

Another reason why people do not abandon superstitions even when they don’t work is that people readily assume that they have control over a situation, even when they don’t. This phenomenon is called the illusion of control, and it was first studied by Herbert Jenkins and William Ward in 1965. Their experiment was simple, consisting of just two switches and a light. The scientists 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 3. 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 signal buttons that do nothing, but just give the pedestrian a feeling of control 48

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.
Alduous Huxley

The pressure to believe

Coercion

So far, we have discussed scenarios where people truly believe in their religion or at least want their religion to be true. We now come to scenarios where people are forced to adhere to their religion. Indeed, one 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: people who did not adhere to the Christian dogma (or were just suspected of not adhering) were persecuted, caught, and burned at the stake. This practice ceased only in the 19th century. Judaism, too, historically punished apostates by death. Traditional interpretations of Hinduism banished apostates from town. In Islam, several interpretations of the faith call for the death penalty for apostates to this day. This punishment enjoys widespread support in the society of many Muslim countries, and it is the law in some of them.

In all of these cases, the principle is the same: pressure makes people follow a religion. This does not mean that the people necessarily believe in the tenets of the religion. But that does not matter for the survival of the faith: these people will be constrained to teach the religion to their children, and the religion will survive — believe or not. This is indeed a common strategy of survival for many religions.

Peer pressure

We have seen that coercion is one of the most effective means for making a person adhere to a religion . 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 : In the US, a quarter of Muslims have left their faith, but are afraid to say it for fear to put at risk their relationships with their parents, siblings, and friends49. Muslim apostates in the West face psychological abuse and assault by family members and members of their local community50. They also face ostracism, beatings, harassment, and threats from their families and communities51. In France, the overwhelming majority of apostates undergo family and community persecutions, which can include physical aggression, threats, harassment and rejection52. Some Muslims 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.

But also ex-Christians face pressure, as we have already discussed: In the US, apostates (or atheists) are routinely discriminated against. They are excluded from taking a public office in some US states, are associated with criminality, are excluded from family and friends, and discouraged as life partners. In other Western countries, atheists are legally discriminated against, too, as we have discussed.

In India, the vast majority of people form friendship circles within their own religious community. Interreligious marriages are very uncommon, and a majority of Indians say it is very important to stop both women and men in their community from marrying outside their religion53. Arranged marriages are the norm in India, and even Hindus living abroad tend to have arranged marriages, which entails that these marriages happen within the faith54. In this way, the Hindu faith (and caste) is maintained even for adherents who venture outside India.

Everybody is a prisoner of their own convictions.
The Candid Atheist

Fear of Hell

A substantial proportion of the world’s population believes in hell (or its analoga in the non-Abrahamic religions)55: less than 25% of the population in most European countries, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Uruguay, but around 80% of the population in African countries and the Middle East, and more than half of the population in most of the other countries as well56.

We can hypothesize that this fear of hell keeps people in the religion. Such an argument may seem irrational, because the threat of hell can work only if you believe in the religion 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. 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 indeed a very popular technique in today’s world religions. It appears most prominently in the Abrahamic Religions , but the Indian religions and the Chinese religions, too, have their analoga of hell.

If the person who offers you salvation from punishment is also the one who administers that punishment, it’s not really salvation. It’s extortion.
The Candid Atheist

The display of belief

Absolution

Christian pilgrims hiking to Mont Saint Michel/France through the mud of the low sea.
We now come to an array of more pragmatic reasons for people to follow a religion — be it for its perceived usefulness or for personal gain. In the psychological literature, such reasons are known as extrinsic motivations57. We start with 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 . For graver sins, a pilgrimage might do the job (see picture)58. In Islam, we can ask for forgiveness directly from God[Quran: 2:160, 39:54, 3:135, 25:71, 6:54]. Otherwise, a pilgrimage to Mecca can help[Hadith 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, as those suffering from anxiety and guilt are understandably drawn to resources that promise forgiveness59. It has to be noted, though, that in some cases the religion first instills the guilt, in order to then offer remedies against it.

There is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all.
Peter Drucker

Personal advantages

People 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.

Examples are:

Raëlism
Raëlism is a New Religious Movement . It promotes free love and believes that sex is a normal, important, and healthy part of life. It accepts all sexual orientations, advocates polygamy over monogamy, and hold summer courses and summer camps to help members discover their own sexuality. Any sexual activity is permitted and encouraged, as long as it is consensual [Intelligent Design: 2:3:5] 60. Thus, adherents of Raëlism enjoy permissions that adherents of many other religions do not enjoy. This makes the religion attractive.
Islam
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 booty of the war: money, slaves, and sex slaves. This looting was divinely sanctioned [Quran: 8:45 , 8:69 , 33:50 , 23:5-6 , 4:24] . This made the religion attractive to the tribes 61.
Christianity
Christianity, in particular Catholicism and European Protestantism, has an extensive system of priests, bishops, and other staff. Christian organizations also run schools, hospitals, and senior citizen homes . The churches thus act as an employer (in Germany, e.g., they are the second largest employer after the government62). In the European Union, a religious organization can impose adherence to the religion in certain cases when hiring63. This makes adherence to the religion materially attractive to those who look to be employed.
In all of these cases, the religion gives physical and material advantages to its adherents. Therefore, people have an incentive to follow it.
Atheism.
America’s only belief about God that is taxed.
Betty Bower

Community

One of the main features of a religion is that it establishes a community . This works through several factors:

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.

This creation of a community can be particularly useful outside one’s home country. 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. 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 27. Religion also works as a contract enforcement mechanism.

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.

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.27

I sometimes suspect that people just don’t really care if some of their most cherished beliefs are rationally groundless. [...] What many people gain from religious belief, and what they legitimately care about, is the ritual, the community, the shared ethical values, the coffee and donuts.
Owen Flanagan in “The problem of the soul”, 2002

A Moral Frame

We 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 ok? 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 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.

Here is a story to illustrate this:

A Jewish couple in New York fell out with the parents of the husband. The couple does not want to see the parents any more. In particular, the couple does not allow the parents to see their grand-children. The grand-parents complain that they have a right to see the grand-children. But the couple maintains that the children are theirs, and that it is their choice who can see them. How would you decide?

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.

In this example, we see how a religious moral decision can simplify our lives: The Rabbi has spoken and the case is decided. There is no discussion about whether this is right or wrong, or whether a fortnight is the right measure — simply because the Rabbi has the authority to decide these matters. There is also no shame for the couple or the grand-parents in having ceded to the other party, because nobody can challenge the ruling of the Rabbi.

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 64. 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.

The flesh is willing if the spirit is weak.
The Candid Atheist

Moral Frame Case Studies

A 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 out of place in the rich world, where 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 rich countries. 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 65. This has long been interpreted to mean that any military missions abroad with no link to Germany are prohibited. However, in 2002, 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” 66 . 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 67. 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 countries68. All of this was done without making use of the article that allows an amendment of the constitution69. 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. To answer that question, the public and the judiciary turn to the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, which dates to 1791. It reads that “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”70. Leaving the syntactic problems of this sentence apart, the current debate is what the meaning of “militia” is, whether the weapons have to be in connection with the militia or not, whether “to bear arms” applies only in a military context, and whether “the people” is a metaphor for the government or refers to the individual persons71. Proponents of each camp accuse the other camp of misinterpreting the will of the founding fathers. Again, we see that people prefer to justify their own position by interpreting ancient documents, instead of assuming the responsibility for taking their own decision. .

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. They prefer re-interpreting an ancient framework beyond recognition rather than making a moral decision by themselves. This tendency to delegate decisions to ancient documents plays in the favor of religions, as all major religions have suitable ancient documents on offer.

For psychological comfort, some people would rather use a map of the Pyrénées while lost in the Alps than use nothing at all.
Nassim Taleb in “The Black Swan”

The clack game

The clack game.
We have seen that adherents of a religion can benefit from a number of material or practical advantages. But how do they manage to believe in the theological tenets of the religion in order to benefit from these advantages? The answer might well be that they don’t. Let us illustrate this hypothesis with a game that we will call the clack game. It 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. However, it is not necessary to actually have that connection in order to get the “clack”, i.e., to benefit from the social advantages of the religion.

Canadian-American cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker has suggested that religious beliefs fulfill a social rather than a cognitive function: people say that they believe certain things not because they rationally hold these things to be true, but because it makes them fit into a social, moral, and philosophical framework4. People may rationally choose to display religious symbols pertaining to a given religion regardless of the true nature of their deep beliefs27.

This disconnection between the true belief in the dogmata and the social role is maybe best described by the Episcopal Bishop of Newark, John Shelby Spong72:

As I first studied the birth narratives, it was clear that no major scholar of any persuasion took them literally... how long could the educated folk of the twentieth century continue to be literal about such things as the conception that occurred for a couple when both were well beyond menopause, the visit of the angel Gabriel, a pregnancy without a male agent, an angelic choir that sang in the sky, a star that roamed through the heavens, shepherds that have no trouble finding a baby in a city crowded with people called for a special census, and a king named Herod who would rely on three men he never met before to bring him an intelligence report about a pretender to his throne who was said to have been born just six miles away?
This means that the Anglican scholars had long given up on a literal interpretation of the Bible. At the same time, they maintained the entire social frame around it, including masses, churches, weddings, ceremonies, etc. The social, material, and pragmatic components of a religion work just as well without believing.
I give them what they need, and they give me what I need.
an unidentified atheist clergyman cited on Quora.com

Positive effects of religion

We have discussed a number of reasons that make people adhere to a religion. Some people truly believe in the religion, and we have argued that this is mainly because they were brought up with it. Other people want to believe in the religion, because they long for ways to influence their environment. Again others are forced to believe in (or at least adhere to) the faith. Finally, some people show adherence to the religion mainly for pragmatic reasons. However, some people also follow a religion because of the positive effects of the faith that they themselves experience: a personal strength in times of hardship, a healthier life style, more connections with like-minded people, and a reason for being.. We discuss these factors in the Chapter on the Benefits of Religion .
Adhere to a principle not because you decided for it, but because it is good.
François de la Rochefoucauld
The Atheist Bible, next chapter: Memes

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