The Atheist Bible, CC-BY Fabian M. Suchanek


No education in physics

Real or divine?Real. A Northern Light CC-BY Jim Trodel
We 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 less knowledge 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 appeared random at times. 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.
David Hume

No strict concept of truth

One 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 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.

Tell people that there is an invisible being who created the universe, and the vast majority will believe you. Tell them that the paint is wet and they have to touch it to be sure.
George Carlin

No strict concept of truth today

In the past, 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.

In these cases, modern human thinking does not draw the line between scientific truth and the rest either.

You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work?
Tim Minchin


In 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 1. As late as 1841, 33% of all Englishmen and 44% of Englishwomen signed marriage certificates with their mark as they were unable to write . 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. 2
Literacy rate over time
CC-BY Our World In Data. Caption, sources, and logo removed.

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 may have had an interest in establishing a religion. This goal is easier to achieve with uneducated people. Thus, religion benefits from uneducated masses. Hence, many religions actively discouraged education.

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 citizen was in no position to challenge it. Unfortunately, this is still the case today in many countries.

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

Illiteracy today

We 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. 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.
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.
The Candid Atheist

No alternatives

One 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 . 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.
Frank Sinatra in his song “When I’m Not Near The Girl I Love”


Several 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:

In all of these cases, people readily believe arbitrary things — even in developed societies. Hence, people are also ready to believe in religious theories.

Chew before you swallow.
The Candid Atheist


Many 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, 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 it4. We are the descendants of those humans who followed — a phenomenon called 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 . As 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 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 in5. Such behavior encourages people to follow whatever religion is prevalent in their society. Daniel Dennett has argued in the same direction: For him, religion is an an indefensible mutual presumption, which is kept alife for centuries because each person assumes somebody else has some very good reasons for maintaining it6. 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

Childhood education

There 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 7:

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 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.
Thomas Paine in “The Age of Reason”


People may also believe in the supernatural because they were convinced by the proofs for the supernatural. Such proofs include, e.g.,
Religion is the practice of nonsense in order to explain ignorance.


Fear of Hell

There 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. 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.

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


One 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 the 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 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.

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

God’s voice

Some people say that they are religious because they heard God talking to them. There is the story of a person who, after talking with a group of Christians, 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.
It’s actually easy to tell if your house is haunted.
It isn’t.
Jimmy Carr


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. 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.

To find out who rules you, simply find out whom you’re not allowed to criticize.

Peer pressure

We 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.
Ignorance is of a peculiar nature. Once dispelled, it is impossible to re-establish it. Though people may be kept ignorant, they cannot be made ignorant.
Thomas Paine

The Emperor’s new cloths

“The Emperor’s new cloths” is a story that 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.

There is 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.

Desire to influence

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

The 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 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. 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. As Sam Harris put it, religion remains a marriage of hope and ignorance 8.

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

The desire to influence in context

People 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.

Proportion of people who say that religion is important in their daily life, according to a 2009 Gallup poll9.
Lightest blue: 10%-19%, darkest blue: 90%-100%CC-BY-SA Kamalthebest, Antarctica removed
The same goes for times of crises. Studies suggest that, in Muslim countries, Islamic school attendance increases in times of economic crisis 10. 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 countries11. 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 . Countries with a stable social system, universal healthcare, mandatory insurance, and job security are typically atheist. 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 reincarnation12.

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. If an uninsured 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. In 2022, 14% of Americans have taken on debt to cover medical expenses13. 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 line14. 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 cost14. Nearly 40% of uninsured adults said they had outstanding medical bills, and a fifth said they had medical bills that caused serious financial strain14. Thus, people enjoy less health security in the US than in other developed countries.
The average American household is indebted with USD 170,00013. The average household with debt pays USD 1380 in interest per year to credit card companies. Debut 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 months. The majority of students borrow money each year. 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. This poses a considerable level of stress on the debtor15 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. The police routinely discriminates against black people16. The National Security Agency (NSA) surveils millions of citizens without warrant and without their approval. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) tortures, extradites, and assassinates outside the law . 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.”17. 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 . While the US has only 5% of the world’s population, it has 25% of the world’s prison inmates 18. 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.

in Chicago/US

Crime is more prevalent in the US than in other developed countries. With a rate of 6.1 per 100,000 people per year, the US has the highest murder rate among the developed countries, as of 202019. The next developed country in the list comes 30 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, with 120 arms per 100 people20. 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 colleges21. 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. In some cases, employees are fired from one day to the other. The Microsoft research lab where the author of this book was employed, for example, was closed with a week’s notice only, putting around 50 people in the street22. 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 201923. That is the highest rate in the developed world (after Romania and Bulgaria, where it is high mainly among the Roma population24). By way of comparison, the value is 7 for Germany. 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 pregnancies25. 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”.
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

Spurious correlation

One 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:

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. 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. This readiness is higher if the stake is larger, and if the individual control is smaller (as in the basketball example, and as with religion in general).

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”. 26

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.27

Of course, there exists no causal relation in these cases. Rather, it is a rule that got generalized from a single example. In other words, it is a superstition.

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 evils.

in Arequipa/Peru

We 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 . It is, as Rolf Dobelli argues, the mother of all misconceptions4. It is also one of the foundations of magical thinking . This type of thinking makes people more open to religious procedures such as prayers.

The Illusion of Control

One of our weaknesses as humans is that we readily assume that we have control over a situation, even if we do not. This illusion of control 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 switches4. 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 28

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


Many 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.
Nassim Taleb in “The Black Swan”, paraphrased

Wishful Thinking

Justification of suffering

There 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. In psychology, such theories are grouped together as the “Just-World Hypothesis” (JWH). The JWH says that everything happens for a just reason. Thus, if something bad happens to someone, that person must somehow deserve it. It can be shown that people who adhere to the JWH have a greater life satisfaction and well-being and less depressive affect.

The flipside of the JWH is that it makes people justify bad events. It can be shown, e.g., that adherents of the JWH have a tendency to blame victims for their suffering. When confronted with people who suffered from violence (e.g., rape), they tend to believe that the victim was responsible for it, and they tend to devalue and reject the victim. They also tend to believe that poverty is self-inflicted, and that people are responsible for the illnesses they suffer. Thus, they justify the evil on Earth for their own emotional comfort. This is, of course, a horrible thing to do.

Religion promises things that people want, like love and peace and friendship, for one reason: because people want them. It does not have the faintest chance of delivering them — nor even the intention. It wants you to sign up and pay in. Period.
Roy Sablosky

Hope for justice

A 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. This need for justice does not just exist for bad people, but also for good people. 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.

Better the hard truth, I say, than a comforting fantasy.
Carl Sagan


We 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 everything work out for the best eventually — 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. Thus, the promise of hope is one more factor that makes religions attractive.

Religion is basically the belief that two birds in the bush are better than a bird in the hand.
The Candid Atheist

Hope for the afterlife

Almost all religions promise some continuation of life after death. 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.

At the same time, few people in the West really believe the promise of the afterlife.


Religions 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. As Marshall Brain has argued, 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.” 29

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.

Nature is what we know. We do not know the gods of religions. And nature is not kind, or merciful, or loving. If God made me — the fabled God of the three qualities of which I spoke: mercy, kindness, love — He also made the fish I catch and eat. And where do His mercy, kindness, and love for that fish come in? No; nature made us — nature did it all — not the gods of the religions.
Thomas Edison



Christian pilgrims hiking to Mont Saint Michel/France through the mud of the low sea.
Religions 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 . 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]. 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. 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 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 consensual[Intelligent Design: 2:3:5]. Sensual massages are part of the religious rites, and homosexuality, bisexuality, pansexuality, and naturism are accepted. 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[Quran: 8:45, 8:69, 33:50, 23:5-6, 4:24]. This made the religion attractive to the tribes30.
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.
In all of these cases, the religion gives physical and material advantages to its adherents. Therefore, people have an incentive to follow it.
America’s only belief about God that is taxed.
Betty Bower

Won battles

In 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 . 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 . 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.
From an atheist point of view, these won battles had nothing to do with the particular religion. In a war, there is always one party that wins, and whatever religion that party has is then considered a winner religion. When other wars are later lost in the name of that religion, people do not ditch it as a consequence. Hence, they are stuck with whatever their leader chose when he won the war.


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.

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


Religion 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. 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 universe10. 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.10

Absolute conviction

Many things that you know may turn out to be wrong: You thought our husband loved you, but then he cheats on us. You trust a politician, but then she does not do what she promised. You 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 false. 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.

Philosophy: While diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be.
Bertrand Russel

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 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.

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 31. 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 Today

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 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 32. 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”33. 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 . 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. 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. 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”. 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 persons. 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, the people hesitate to assume this responsibility. They prefer to justify their viewpoint with ancient documents.

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 frameworks 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.
There is 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.

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 framework12. People may rationally choose to display religious symbols pertaining to a given religion regardless of the true nature of their deep beliefs10.

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 Spong34:

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 component of a religion works just as well without believing.
I give them what they need, and they give me what I need.
an unidentified atheist clergyman cited on

Sunk cost

Some 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:

If you stop adhering to the religion, then all this effort looks wasted. You would have to admit that you were wrong. Crucially, you would start regretting the decisions you made. Furthermore, you would be perceived as incoherent and thus untrustworthy. Therefore, it appears much safer to continue believing.

This way of reasoning is known as the “sunk cost fallacy” 35. 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.
François de la Rochefoucauld

Positive effects of religion

There is an entire range of positive effects of religion that go beyond the egoistic and immediate advantages that we just discussed. They concern more long-term effects such as social stability, peace of mind, better life expectancy, and the like. We discuss these factors in the Chapter on the Benefits of Religion. Some adherents will follow a religion also because of these factors.
Yesterday is history,
tomorrow is a mystery,
but today is a gift.
That is why it is called the present.
The Atheist Bible, next chapter: Memes


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  30. Ibn Warraq: Why I am not a Muslim, 1995
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  32. Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland / § 87a
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