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David Lucifer
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Why do people believe in God?
« on: 2003-06-24 10:00:03 »
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Author: Dlugar
Source: Kuro5hin
Dated: 2003-06-20

Why Religion?

It's obvious as we look around us that theism is a popular meme. Probably all of you have friends who are theists, and most of you probably have friends who are weekly church-goers. Many of you are likely theists yourselves. But why? Why religion? Why believe in the first place? Why do most people on the earth believe in a supreme being of some sort, especially one who fails to manifest himself to us?


The easiest answer is that most people were born into a religion of some sort and simply raised to be Catholics, or Hindus, or Muslims. In many cases they're taught not to question their beliefs--"blind faith" is the standard. Also, there are great social pressures to conform religiously.

Churches give us a feeling of community, and of friendship and support. Commercial sectors, the ease of travel, commuting, and a variety of other factors have all but destroyed the local neighborhood's value as a strong community. Organized religion fills that gap. It gives us a feeling that we belong; it gives us friends and leaders who we can look up to, and who we can rely on when times are hard. When living in an area where there exists a dominant faith, a person with differing beliefs can feel left out and even shunned. Many even convert to the dominant religion simply out of convenience.

But these are rather superficial answers, and concentrate more on a particular church than on a belief in God itself. There are many who believe in God but do not attend any particular church. There are likewise many who currently hold beliefs strikingly dissimilar to those with which they were raised--atheists who have become Christians, Christians who have become atheists, members raised in one Christian sect who are now members of another, or members of one religion who have now joined another or abandoned organized religion as a whole. But what makes these people believe? What evidence is there that God really exists?


For many people, simply looking at the world around us denotes that there is a God. Looking at the beauty of a sunset, or the complexity of the universe, or examining the astronomical odds that intelligent life could have arisen by mere chance, gives many people the overwhelming feeling that "something bigger" must be out there. Perhaps this feeling is why almost every culture on the planet has, at one time or another, developed a creation story--their explanation of how life came to be as it is today. Normally featured is some sort of external intelligence, a being who "created" the world, a person identified as God or one of the gods. This idea, that the complexity and intricacy of the universe implies a creator, is usually called the "Argument from Design"--and, of course, there exist many good, logical arguments against it.1 At the very least, the Argument from Design does not explain to us the nature of the Creator or whether, indeed, he continues to have any influence in our world.

But it is not my intention to attempt (futilely, I might add) to prove or disprove the existence of Deity, hence I will not spend my time debating the worth of various points. I merely would like to point out some of the reasons I see why people believe in God.

Another common thread among theists is some sort of belief in a continuation of life. Some believe that we existed in some form before we were born on this earth. Almost all believe that life will continue in some form after we die. Many believe in an "immortal soul", i.e. that our "I"--our "self", our consciousness--will in some form continue living forever. This belief probably arises from some sort of intuitive feeling of other lives, either before this one or after.

Critics might say that this "feeling" is simply a response to the evolutionary pressures of survival--our brains have this innate, genetically-coded need to survive, and hence we've invented a philosophy that will allow us to "survive" even after our death. Others point out that the concept of an "afterlife" was likely invented to explain the appearance of deceased relatives in dreams (often leading to the common practice of ancestor-worship). These theories would easily explain why the doctrine of the immortal soul is so widespread. However, it is just as likely that the different cultures did not develop this idea independently; perhaps they did all have the same origin. For example, many cultures in the world also have some sort of "flood" story. It seems more likely to me that these stories originated from a single source (perhaps divine, perhaps simply an actual "great flood" that did occur in history), than that the different cultures simply developed them independently. Likewise the yearning for immortality may perhaps have a divine source. (Or it could spring from thoughts implanted in us by the aliens who deposited us on this planet.)2


But the single strongest reason, I feel, for believing in God, comes from personal experience. (It also seems to be the only major reason (apart from social pressures or convenience) for changing religions.) Many people feel that God is watching out for them--they've discovered blessings in their lives because of keeping God's commandments, for example, or perhaps they've received powerful answers to prayers. They've heard voices of warning or had feelings of premonition, cautioning them against danger. They've had feelings of peace or happiness as they go to church or read the scriptures. Others have had other inexplicable, incommunicable "religious experiences". Some have even seen miracles, such as healing the sick or raising the dead. Some people experience miraculous visions, or have prophetic dreams. Perhaps words are given or ideas suddenly appear from an unknown source--a person says something or does something spectacular and admits that it felt as if "something (or someone) else" was working through him.

Such personal experiences are commonly found throughout the religious community. I've noticed myself that of the atheists I've known, most of them are atheists due to a complete lack of any such experiences or "evidences" of God's existence. Conversely, most of the strong theists I know have had many such experiences. Some rely almost wholly on the experiences of others, but even with such, they've experienced some little "evidences" of their own.

Perhaps the theists are just deluded or feigning these experiences. Perhaps the atheists have many such experiences but they choose to ignore them. Honestly, I don't really know. It seems likely to me that, truly, the theists do experience such things just as factually as the atheists don't.

But this brings up a very good question. Why not religion? Faced with this vast majority of theists, why not believe? What are potential problems with believing?


Why Not Religion?

As I mentioned above, the biggest problem seems to be a simple lack of evidence. Some people receive no answers to prayers, they see hoaxes instead of miracles, and when trying to adhere to some religious creed they end up more miserable than happy and peaceful. Another great hinderance is the sheer number of religions. The biggest problem with these "personal experiences" is that they don't seem to be limited to a particular sect or even a particular religion. I'm not sure if atheists themselves have ever heard "voices of warning" or had "feelings of premonition" and simply have some other explanation for them--but certainly worshipers in dissimilar faiths have had such experiences. When it comes to "prophetic dreams and visions," you even find contradictions among this vast sea of religion.

This is probably the biggest obstacle: in the quivering mass of contradicting religions (many even contradicting themselves), how is one supposed to find the truth? (As an aside, my recommendation is: pray to find the truth. God will lead you to it. If he doesn't, well, that's one heck of an excuse to use at Judgement Day. Just make certain you're prepared to follow him if he does lead you to it.)


Another phenomenon occurs in the academic world, which Richard Feynman examines in an essay entitled, "The Relation of Science and Religion". He notes that, "A young man, brought up in a religious family, studies a science, and as a result he comes to doubt--and perhaps later to disbelieve in--his father's God. Now, this is not an isolated example; it happens time and time again." He then poses the question: "Why does this young man come to disbelieve?" After discussing various answers that are not likely to be correct, Feynman then hits upon a major fault line.

Quote:
... it is imperative in science to doubt; it is absolutely necessary, for progress in science, to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature. To make progress in understanding, we must remain modest and allow that we do not know. Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt. ...

That is, if we investigate further, we find that the statements of science are not of what is true and what is not true, but statements of what is known to different degrees of certainty: "It is very much more likely that so and so is true than that it is not true"; or "such and such is almost certain but there is still a little bit of doubt"; or--at the other extreme--"well, we really don't know." Every one of the concepts of science is on a scale graduated somewhere between, but at neither end of, absolute falsity or absolute truth. ...

What happens, then, is that the young man begins to doubt everything because he cannot have it as absolute truth. So the question changes a little bit from "Is there a God?" to "How sure is it that there is a God?" This very subtle change is a great stroke and represents a parting of ways between science and religion. I do not believe a real scientist can ever believe in the same way again. Although there are scientists who believe in God, I do not believe that they think of God in the same way as religious people do. If they are consistent with their science, I think that they say something like this to themselves: "I am almost certain there is a God. The doubt is very small." That is quite different from saying, "I know that there is a God." I do not believe that a scientist can ever obtain that view--that really religious understanding, that real knowledge that there is a God--that absolute certainty which religious people have.3



(By the way, I still feel that one can honestly say, "I know that there is a God" the same way one says, "I know that China exists" even though he has never seen China. In reality, of course, he's really saying "It is almost certain that China exists. The doubt is very small." But humans don't insist on rigidity in language.)

Feynman notes that it's not usually the existence of God that comes under question first. Usually the student first begins to doubt "special tenets, ... or details of the religious doctrine." And what is the area of religion most vulnerable to a scientific attack? I like to call it "God as spackling paste."

Quote:
"[It] happens all the time. Somebody comes up with an incomplete explanation of the Universe that doesn't include God; then, some theologian uses 'God' as a sort of spackling paste to fill in the holes, and manages to convince others that that's part of the religion; then, when in due course the quest for knowledge discovers the real explanation, there's this big fight. It happened with astronomy and it happened with human evolution. Would you really want it to happen here?"
-- FAQ about the Meaning of Life4


In most religions, there aren't answers specified for common, metaphysical questions. For example, the Bible says nothing about the orbits of celestial bodies, nor does it explain DNA and genetics. But there are some who take ambiguous statements from their Holy Writ and expand them into a complex, metaphysical answer (like Joshua's statement, "Sun, stand thou still"5 turning into the Catholic Church's condemnation of certain astronomers).

Inevitably, some authority, in whatever particular church it may be, will make a scripturally-supported statement that later turns out to be provably false. Perhaps for a while, staunch followers will defend the statement with great rhetoric and zeal, but eventually, truth will prevail. And when it does, it is almost always disastrous to the faith of the aforementioned young man, who has already come to doubt. With his newly-found "scientific mind", he almost subconsciously starts creating new hypotheses and testing their validity against the "religious truth" which he has been brought up not to question.

In some cases, theism wins out, although organized religion may be a casualty along the way. But for those lacking that personal confirmation of God's existence previously mentioned, it may be the final shattering of their belief.


And You?

What about you? Why do you believe? Or why don't you? Are the theists simply confused, deluded, sheep-like people willing to believe whatever is told them? Are the atheists egotistical infidel recalcitrants who would stubbornly refuse to believe even if an angel appeared and proclaimed God's existence?

Like I mentioned previously, I believe that theists believe in God because they have experienced many evidences supporting that conclusion, and likewise atheists disbelieve because the evidence they've seen points entirely the other way. But why such disparate evidences, enough so as to cause such a great rift among the people? That is the question to which I do not know the answer.



1 The Atheism Web: Common Arguments
2 "Who is Xenu?" http://www.xenu.net/archive/leaflet/xenuleaf.htm
3 Feynman, Richard. "The Relation of Science and Religion". Reprinted in "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out", 1999.
4 FAQ about the Meaning of Life
5 Joshua x:12
« Last Edit: 2003-06-24 10:01:29 by David Lucifer » Report to moderator   Logged
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Re:Why do people believe in God?
« Reply #1 on: 2003-06-24 14:58:13 »
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Re:Why do people believe in God?
« Reply #2 on: 2003-06-24 17:15:02 »
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Based on the fact that people with scientific education are unlikely to vest belief in gods, that the children of atheists are unlikely to be anything but atheists, and the fact that people who are not taught to believe in gods don't, it seems that the entire angst reflected here can be short circuited:

    The most proximal answer is evidently insufficient education of the correct type.
    Stepping back a level, the greatest indicator for belief in a god or gods is because the believers' parents believed in gods.
    Stepping back yet another level, because somebody taught them (or their family) to believe in gods or terrified them into pretending to.

Can anyone think of other reasons (other than the obvious possibility that somebody previously exposed to the concept of god belief might become insane or otherwise irrational (possibly through drugs, starvation or hypnosis), and finds it easier to accept god-belief in lieu of accepting cognitive failure)?

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With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. - Steven Weinberg, 1999
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Re:Why do people believe in God?
« Reply #3 on: 2003-06-24 20:59:29 »
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[David Lucifer]

<quote from Eliezer's "FAQ about the Meaning of Life">

"[It] happens all the time. Somebody comes up with an incomplete explanation of the Universe that doesn't include God; then, some theologian uses 'God' as a sort of spackling paste to fill in the holes, and manages to convince others that that's part of the religion; then, when in due course the quest for knowledge discovers the real explanation, there's this big fight. It happened with astronomy and it happened with human evolution. Would you really want it to happen here?"

<end quote>


[rhinoceros]
"Spackling paste!" Someone found a word for what I had been preaching for a long time!

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Re:Why do people believe in God?
« Reply #4 on: 2003-06-26 15:59:00 »
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I deem it a mark of human weakness to seek to discover the shape and form of God. Pliny (Natural History Vol II.)
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With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. - Steven Weinberg, 1999
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Re:Why do people believe in God?
« Reply #5 on: 2003-06-27 05:59:54 »
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I suspect much of the 'hardwired for god' arguments, while an interesting diversion, are somewhat unhelpful, since establishing a genetic basis for religion only serves to simultaneously discredit and perpetuate religion; not a helpful combination. Like Hermit, I think I'm more interested in the environmental issues (though some of the anecdotal parallels between mystical experience and drug usage are amusing in a judaeo-christian context, to say the least). For example;

"The general conclusion of the book which the reader has before him is that religion is something eminently social. Religious representations are collective representations which express collective realities; the rites are a manner of acting which take rise in the midst of assembled groups and which are destined to excite, maintain, or recreate certain mental states in these groups. So if the categories are of religious origin, they ought to participate in this nature common to all religious facts; they should be social affairs and the product of collective thought. At least -- for in the actual condition of our knowledge of these matters, one should be careful to avoid all radical and exclusive statements -- it is allowable to suppose that they are rich in social elements."
(Thompson, 1982, p. 125 [excerpt from The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life])

The Durkheimite thesis then, as briefly alluded to in the original Kuroshin piece. One aspect of this is whether there are any comparative studies of the role of religion, respectively, in rural and urban societies. My thinking is simply that churches tend to play an important role in the social life of villages, while urban societies have many competing social centres.
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Re:Why do people believe in God?
« Reply #7 on: 2003-06-27 21:40:09 »
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Re:Why do people believe in God?
« Reply #8 on: 2003-06-28 00:14:20 »
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Re:Why do people believe in God?
« Reply #10 on: 2003-06-28 10:00:48 »
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I would have to agree that major religions did not occur until recently and in this time evolutionary
adaptations are not possible.  The major reason i would have to object to idea that the notion of God is
cause by genes has to do with social heirarchy as was already mentioned. In the minds of todays over
equationized social identities the primary drive for individualism has to diversify. The new self image is
a thousand times more complex than it's evolutionary genes intended it to be and because of this memetic
explosion this identity has no solid backbone in which it can't easily deviate. The undefinable association
of a "God" satisfies the ends to most of these puzzle piece contradictories of oneself.  Social Identity
is a entelechy.  And it's complexity has reached the piont in which many like us can differentiate ourselves
in a more complex pattern to sort out these countradictions. I would like to think that on the whole the
growth in social identities is continueing throughout the world in a typical exponential pattern but such data
has never been collected or tested that i know of. If only I had a billion dollars.  Nate       
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Re:Why do people believe in God?
« Reply #11 on: 2003-06-28 16:11:58 »
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Re:Why do people believe in God?
« Reply #12 on: 2003-06-30 14:11:08 »
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Quote:
"Pascal Boyer suggests a twist on the "hard-wired for god" notion that Kharin rejects."


I didn't reject it; I characterised it as unhelpful, largely because focussing attention on genetic explanations (however valid that may be) leaves scant room for memetics. In particular, it does little to explain why some societies have seen organised religion decline (e.g. much of Europe) and others have seen this to a much less marked extent  (e.g. The United States). For example, 48% of people in the UK claim to belong to a religion, compared with 86% of people in the US and 92% of Italians. In order to explain that, you need to look to environmental influences. For example:

1. A shift from local to national or transnational society (e.g. Europe). In a small and relatively closed community like a village, religion can inculcate and reproduce shared values. In a larger society, religion ceases to be a public performance and becomes a private consolation. As such, urban areas may be more conducive to secularisation than rural ones.

2. Dogmatic conceptions within Churches. Since a church is a social system, it develops and seeks to reinforce group norms, which may prove to be self-limiting in the long term e.g.

http://www.nytimes.com/library/financial/061500econ-scene.html

"The group may attract fewer members at first, but it will be stronger over time. Distinctiveness also gives people a reason for affiliation and a sense of camaraderie. ... But a church cannot survive if the cost of membership is too great, especially if it wants to draw members from social groups that have other opportunities. By raising the costs of the old rules, social change poses a significant challenge to conservative religious groups. It is harder for members to find a happy compromise between the church's ideals and social norms, because the two are now far apart."

Bear in mind that most European countries have had state churches, so lapsed believers are likely to fall into passive observance or non-belief. The US has historically had more of a free-market in religion and lapsed believers may have greater choice of alternatives.

2. Displacement of religious institutions.  The rise of new roles and specialist institutions handling functions previously carried out by religious institutions, often based on increasingly rational principles (again an area where Europe is different to the US and is suggestive of policies that involve fairh groups in public service provision). These include education, health care,  social security, even art and culture.
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Re:Why do people believe in God?
« Reply #13 on: 2003-06-30 17:33:49 »
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Re:Why do people believe in God?
« Reply #14 on: 2003-07-01 04:22:30 »
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Quote:
I apologize for mischaracterizing your beliefs; however, I still maintain that Boyer's explanation is helpful and does leave room for memetics.

I think I was talking about hardwiring explanations in general, and evolutionary pscyhology in particular. The Boyer explanation sounds like it explains religious propensities almost in terms of Gould's spandrel concept. As you indicate, I don't see that it would incompatible with sociological explanations.

Regarding your additions, the first if arguably an extension of my first, since religious are not geographical markers anymore. I agree with your second point, though I suspect it would probably apply to a large extent to the most educated classes, a process which certainly began to set in in the Victorian period.
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