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Why Belief Persists

Question from a reader:  “Surely people have doubted their religions for centuries, yet all of the major religions have continued to grow and thrive.  Perhaps it is our more recent understanding of science that has helped fuel the growth of religious dissent.   How is it that we can still have so many people DEEPLY devoted to religion in the face of all we know?

Well, the short answer to the last question is that old habits die hard. And religion is a very old habit–a habit which evolved tens of thousands of years ago while the human brain was still developing.   The human brain tends to naturally believe in gods because in our prehistoric past belief in the tribal myths conferred various survival advantages.

On one level, humans have a natural tendency to over-infer agency;  we are predisposed to see threats to our existence everywhere.   We tend to assume the worst–that the stick shaped like a snake is, in fact, a snake.   A noise in the underbrush could be a predator.   Natural selection of course would favor individuals who successfully avoided predators.  And that’s a big reason why humans today still see agency everywhere, even where it’s not.   The old Christian hymn “This is My Father’s World”  expresses this primitive impulse:  “In the rustling grass I hear Him pass; He speaks to me everywhere.”

Ancient hunter-gatherer tribes also discovered that devotion to the  gods was an effective tool for tribal cohesion.   The threats and rewards of religion motivated people to sacrifice and even die for the tribe.   In the prehistoric world of almost constant inter-tribal conflict, the tribe with the strongest religion would survive and the genetic algorithm for religiosity would proliferate.   It’s a little bit of an over-simplification, but not much.

So why do people still believe?   Because belief is in our DNA.  Science, however, having emerged long after the human brain evolved does not come naturally to us.

In your question you said that all the major religions have continued to grow and thrive.   Actually that seems to be changing fairly quickly.  In the parts of the world with access to better education, religion is stagnating or declining.  There are very few believing Christians left in Western Europe.  Religious Buddhism (as opposed to the non-theistic philosophy) hit a wall in Japan a long time ago.  And this week the Southern Baptist Convention reported a loss of members for the fifth year in a row, which is astonishing for this powerhouse evangelical denomination.  I think it’s a pretty clear indication of where the culture is going.


  1. June 23, 2012 at 2:48 am

    I think that people still believe because it’s the easier choice. I do agree that it’s in our DNA to a point – we are inherently driven to seek comfort and ease – but I don’t think we have to be slaves to those tendencies because we are the only animal on the planet with conscious volition and the ability to shape our environment into something we desire. I don’t believe any other animal has this ability to conceptualise the way humans can. But as we know, it is just impossible to avoid all of life’s trials and tribulations. In fact, what we can see happen is that people who are so active in their avoidance of difficulty (and children of parents who do everything to shield their children from difficulty) end up being unable to cope with even the simplest of problems. I view theistic belief like this. It is avoidance of facing up to the realities of life. By beseeching an external (imaginary) entity, they are not taking responsibility for their own lives. Always hoping someone else will fix it: ignore it and it’ll go away. It’s a comfort thing. And ultimately, laziness, because it’s really difficult to take that step and acknowledge that you are completely responsible for everything that happens in your life (responsibility doesn’t = fault by the way).

    • June 24, 2012 at 10:27 pm

      I agree with Olivia!

  2. John Stutzer
    June 25, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    I could almost agree with Olivia unreservedly – if affixing blame and responsibility on some untouchable “other” were the only function of theism based religions.

    I also cannot agree that we are the only species with volition, or environment shaping. Just as science has debunked the Universe revolving around Earth, it already has debunked those two “humans are unique” notions.

    Maybe the only thing we “Humans” do that is unique from all other species – is conjure up religions to explain away our existence/misery. Oh wait – what about those snow monkeys in Japan – the ones who ritualize bathing in the hot pools?

    The difference is in degree only – we may practice at some aspect of “being”, and do it “better” than any other species, but we are simply amalgamated expressions of evolutionary experiments that have been done before.

    I also take exception to the notion “people still believe”, at least if it’s in the context of the Christian framework. Rather, my conversations with others reveal that it is more like “people still tolerate”, with the benefits of a well-developed theist religious organization outweighing the impossibilities of some of its myths.

    But on this I agree, and I’ve said it before – Christian religious institutions provide a very convenient social mechanism, the best so far for.

    What Mike said gets at the core of it, but I sincerely doubt that Christian religion – even with all its dried, moldering entrails will dissipate any time soon. Instead, it will continue to morph. DNA and social structures cannot keep up with intellectual advances. There will always be another Crystal Cathedral, or Lakewood Church, and yes, another Jonestown.

    • June 25, 2012 at 4:59 pm

      Thanks for the comments, John. Lots of food for thought here which I’d like to explore in future posts. One quick question for you regarding your assessment of religion’s continued viability: Do you see unique factors here in the States that would indicate that we are not headed towards a near complete abandonment of religiosity like western Europe has experienced?

  3. John Stutzer
    June 25, 2012 at 6:50 pm

    Good question Mike, and one I wanted to respond to in the earlier response, but felt it was already too wordy and so trimmed A LOT.

    “Mike Aus/PP observed that here in America, at least some formal religions are losing membership. In France, a country whose adventurous priests provided the names for many of the towns and landmarks in my neck of the woods, religion has become an artifact.”

    In 1923, a large care package from a Methodist church in Flint, Michigan arrived in Augsburg Germany, and was distributed at the local Lutheran church. My dad’s grandparents were among those the goods were distributed to. Amongst them was a vest – it fit Grandpa. In the vest pocket was a note: “If my wife or I can be of any help to the wearer of this vest please contact us at…”. A few months later, grandparents & kids arrived at Ellis Island, made their way to Flint, and became good Methodist members. I’m sure additional help was provided in housing, Tool & Die work for Grandpa, translating, citizenship, etc.

    That, in a nutshell, is “the other”. It is an example of those other things religious institutions provide. If every soul in America awoke tomorrow with a group epiphany that Christianity is a farce, the other needs would still exist.

    Ellis Island no longer handles immigrants, but we still allow them (thankfully). Today, new Mosques are being built, and they fill the same role as the Methodist church did for my grandparents. Grandpa’s last new home was built by hand in Dexter – a little village close to Ann Arbor. The one new church there is Catholic – moved outside town and closer to highway U.S. 23 – the new facility can seat 500 or so, compared to the 120 of the old facility – with acres to grow on.

    The complexion of that Catholic church has changed mightily – along with Germans and Poles and Scots/Irish are Vietnamese, Brazilians and Koreans.

    And that is what makes the United States unique: We began as a mono-culture – but only briefly. For most of our democratic history, we have been a multicultural nation – and each immigrant culture needs support that is not pro-offered by any national authority.

    So, while the time may come when religion is no longer useful here in the states, it will be decades (maybe centuries?) later than just about anywhere else. In other words, to misappropriate science, France has reached Entropy; these United States have not.

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