Why people believe in God

The purpose of life is a life of purpose. – Robert Byrne

This is the second of six parts of my critique of religious belief.

If the leap of faith required for religious belief is illogical, then why is it so prevalent? Why do people believe?

There are several possibilities. The following are those I have encountered, but there may, of course, be more.

1. Indoctrination as children.

This might be the most important explanation for the propagation of religious belief. Children are biologically wired to believe what figures of authority tell them. These things will seem reasonable to them later in life, regardless of how unreasonable they may sound to fresh adult ears. At least one biblical author was clearly aware of this fact: “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” (Proverbs 22:6).

My own life is a good example. Even though I have, after some thirty years, come to see Christian doctrine as largely mythological, it still seems mostly normal to me, especially when compared to other religions such as Mormonism, Hinduism, Scientology, and others.

The concept of indoctrination extends also to nonbelievers living in religious societies. Consider the U.S.A., which has an unusually religious population for a first world nation. Although American nonbelievers might not have grown up as Christians, they are still aware of Christianity and many have church-going friends. An attitude or zeitgeist among many nonbelievers is that Christianity is somehow normal or even boring. It is part of western culture and taken for granted. The same may be said for a country like the U.K. which, despite its much smaller proportion of believers, has a state-sponsored church.

A demonstration of indoctrination is provided by a mock religious movement called the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, originally devised to demonstrate the logical flaws in intelligent design, which I won’t discuss here. The FSM church promotes belief in a creature made up of spaghetti and meatballs who created the earth and all life on it. Church members long to be touched by his Noodly Appendage.

Religious people may be offended that such a movement, with its obvious humor, makes fun of serious religious ideas. But this is the whole point: it forces us to view all religious claims from the perspective of the uninitiated. Our sense of judgment and experience tells us immediately that the FSM church is founded on a purely imaginary deity (even though the existence of this deity cannot actually be disproved). Yet, if we apply the same sense of judgment and experience to mainstream religious ideas without prior bias or prejudice, we must surely concede that these ideas carry a similar degree of strangeness. Why are we willing to believe religious doctrines that include claims (resurrection, walking on water, etc.) that go against common sense? I would suggest that indoctrination is most often the answer, and I would suggest that a small child indoctrinated into the Church of the FSM would believe it wholeheartedly. The fact that children believe in Santa Claus is evidence enough that this is possible.

It is important to emphasize that human teaching and record keeping seem to be the sole means of passing religious knowledge along. Believers often claim that they can communicate with God without a third party present (e.g., during prayer), so presumably God could introduce himself directly to every new born infant, thereby ensuring that knowledge of himself is sustained in the most direct manner possible. However, it is interesting to note that all the ideas of a particular religion are propagated only by teaching or by the dissemination of religious materials, in other words by very natural, human means.

Imagine if every iota of religious knowledge – every religious record and memory – were to vanish tomorrow. Never again would the name of Jesus, Allah, or Buddha be spoken. Knowledge of all ancient religious narratives, including Jesus’ death and resurrection, would be lost forever. It is possible (and quite likely) that young people growing up in this hypothetical nonreligious environment would construct new religions to satisfy their various needs and questions, but none of these would be quite the same as the religions we have now.

A final note on indoctrination concerns the sharp geographical partitioning of religious belief (see map below). For instance, Islam dominates northern Africa and the Middle East, Catholicism is dominant in southern and central America, etc. This shows that people are most likely to adhere to the prevaling religious beliefs of the society into which they are born. In other words, most people do not weigh each religion impartially and choose the one with the greatest inherent merit. Instead, they are indoctrinated automatically into the local belief system – their religious tradition is chosen by little more than the accident of their birth place.

Add to geographical influence the influence of the time people are born in. As author John Loftus puts it on his blog (emphasis his):

What we believe does not depend entirely on where we are born. It also depends on when we were born, and what beliefs and conditions were there when we grew up. What would you believe if you were born during the Middle Ages, or during the Ancient superstitious days before the rise of modern science, Frontier days in America, pre-civil war days in the South, and even pre-depression era days, WWII days, Vietnam protest days, the greed decade of the 80’s, and the microchip and cell phone revolution now? Is human reason that mallable [sic]? I think so.

2. The prevalence of religion.

Once a religion becomes prevalent, it may become self-perpetuating simply because of social pressure. This raises the question: is the prevalence of religion due to the existence of a god? Well, if so, then which one? Do the gods of all religions exist, or just one? If only one god exists, then why have all the other religions (based on what must therefore be imaginary gods) persisted for so long?

Furthermore, it seems unfair for the one true god, if he exists, to expect us to sort through the enormous, ever-expanding variety of available religions and correctly identify the true one before we die. Indeed, it seems even more unfair that God should allow children to be born and indoctrinated into a false religion, and expect them to have a fair chance at eventually identifying, and converting to, the true one.

The most parsimonious solution to these problems is, I would posit, that no gods exist, and that religion is a natural product of human psychology, varying geographically and qualitatively according to the cultures and imaginations that construct it (Richard Dawkins and other evolutionary biologists tackle these subjects).

Even without a complete biological understanding of the origins of religion, history testifies that the prevalence of a belief does not guarantee its truth. Widespread yet erroneous beliefs have been held many times before. Most people once believed that the earth was flat and that the sun revolved around the earth. Tellingly, these things were believed because they were the best theories available given the limited technological and mathematical tools at our disposal.

Similarly, it is possible that religions also arose as the best available explanations for what we saw around us. Indeed, religions arose at a time when explanations for the universe went hand in hand with human relationships: one has only to look to the ancient Greeks to know that people used to attribute to gods all kinds of natural phenomena, including storms, floods, eclipses, and droughts. Importantly, the manipulation of nature by these gods was understood to be a direct response to the believers’ sins or successes. Views of the physical universe and moral conduct were thus closely intertwined. Jesus himself was thought able to manipulate nature: he walked on water, calmed storms, and turned water into wine.

These factors, and others (such as the creation stories in Genesis) explain why, to this day, guides for moral living are still frequently tied to mythological stories about the structure and origins of the universe. Put differently, heavily outdated descriptions of our physical environment have survived because, at an early stage, they became irreversibly intertwined with moral guidelines that have maintained some degree of relevance. Christianity is somewhat more complex due to the marriage of the Old and New Testaments. The moral guidelines in the Old Testament are, in fact, largely outdated (as a reading of Leviticus will reveal) but, like the creation stories, these guidelines have successfully made it to modernity by “piggybacking” on the more contemporary New Testament morals.

Of course, the once popular idea that the earth is flat has, like similar ideas, been discarded because steady progress has been made in our scientific understanding of ourselves and the universe, and we know now that these old ideas are false. This has led to inevitable difficulty for many believers: they must either admit that their holy text is wrong about such matters and therefore is not the infallible word of God, or they must insist, against an overwhelming body of evidence, that the text is correct (this route has been chosen by America’s Creationist movement in their resistance to evolution).

The idea of steady progress under the scientific method is worth stressing. The scientific method allows us to solve problems by converging on solutions that can be widely agreed on, allowing us to move on to more ticklish questions. No such progress is apparent in religion: theologians still grapple with the same fundamental questions that arose with the birth of the monotheistic traditions many centuries ago. Rather than converging on universal truths about the spiritual realm (if such a realm exists), religion has instead spawned never-ending disagreement, as testified by the bewildering array of denominations, movements, cults, and other schism-formed entities that exist today. If there is agreement between religions, it tends to center on ethical or moral issues which, as I argue later, are fundamental to human nature and are not generated by supernatural means.

3. Consolation

People may believe in God in order to find consolation. In essence, such a person convinces him/herself of the existence of God because he/she needs God to exist. I don’t see anything especially harmful in this, and it has undoubtedly helped many people. Unfortunately though, even the most fervent wishes for something to be true do not make it so. Part of consolation is the preservation of the childhood ideal that life should be fair. Because it is obvious that the world we observe is not fair, fairness can only be brought about by introducing an extension of the world into a realm we cannot see, i.e. the supernatural. In such a realm, judgment (and the resulting punishment and reward it meters out) can proceed as needed in order to redress the injustices of the observable world.

Another aspect of religious consolation is the fostering (usually by clergy) of an “us versus them” mentality which serves to make believers feel safe in a supposedly cold and uncaring world. This is not necessarily done maliciously: I’ve heard preachers speak with genuine concern about the world “outside” or “out there” being full of lonely people who long to learn of God’s love, etc. Similarly, the “outside” world is sometimes described as caught up in materialism and greed. Such generalizations are false: there are lonely and materialistic people wherever you look, whether it be in a church or out of one. Similarly, there are caring, loving people both in and out of church. Moreover, in a country such as the U.S.A., most people in the “outside world” are adherents of the very same faith as the people within the church’s walls, rendering the “us versus them” attitude absurd.

Just as increased levels of superstitious behavior are often reported in athletes [1], increased levels of religiosity may be the result of social stresses [2], suggesting that the promise of consolation is, indeed, a common reason for enhanced religious belief.

4. Purpose in the universe

People have a natural tendency to ascribe purpose and meaning to objects. We are pattern-seeking creatures. Historically, this behavior probably served us well, especially in dangerous situations requiring quick decisions. On seeing a crouching leopard, we immediately inferred the intent of an attack – we did not waste time considering carefully the size and weight of the animal, the type of prey it might be seeking, or how much time had passed since its last meal. In this case, our tendency to reach hasty conclusions was justified: we stayed alive. Unfortunately, this has led us to make erroneous snap judgments in other areas of life. When we stub our toe on a stone, we often react angrily to it, as if it were deliberately trying to trip us up. We project a wide range of complex, yet largely imaginary, emotions and intentions onto our pets. The more extreme among us even believe that natural disasters have a purpose (punishment, perhaps). As an extension of this phenomenon, some people believe in a higher power simply because they feel that the universe must have some purpose or intent. Likewise, when we are bereaved we look for a reason or a deeper significance in the loss of a loved one, because this helps us to cope (again, this is not something I would actively discourage if it helped the bereaved). A common mantra, heard time and time again in our society is “everything happens for a reason”. It may be comforting to know that every action around us occurs in order to fulfill a particular purpose, but this idea depends on the existence of some governing uber-consciousness that orchestrates events according to its desires. The leap of faith required for this idea is precisely the same leap required to believe in a powerful supernatural deity. Furthermore, the idea of purpose is not guaranteed to be comforting. For instance, if God has a purpose for one’s life, how does one know for sure what that purpose is? Is it more comforting to live one’s life never knowing if this purpose is being fulfilled, or knowing that purpose can be freely chosen, and changed at will?

Ultimately, purpose and meaning are the domain of conscious, decision-making beings. Processes in the natural world, such as the formation of mountains, the eruption of volcanoes, the onset of drought, the evolution of life, all arise from inanimate and unconscious processes and interactions: there is no reason to believe that there is a purpose behind any of these. This may seem discouraging to some (see the last part of this essay), and most of us would like to find “happy”, encouraging solutions to our problems. However, there is no guarantee that the answers to the deep problems of life will be consistent with our values or desires. There is only one truth, and we may not like it. To find the truth, then, we cannot restrict ourselves to that subset of possible solutions that we find palatable. We must be objective and honest in our search. We must also learn to be satisfied with uncertainty: we cannot make up answers if real ones are not available. This brings me to my next reason for religious belief.

5. Unexplainable complexity, and creating “something out of nothing”

People may believe in God because certain things in the universe seem too intricate and complex to be explained by science. This is the logical fallacy known generally as the “argument from personal incredulity”, which people mistakenly use to discredit an idea based on their personal belief that it cannot be possible. In the religious arena, for instance, some believers attempt to discredit evolution by claiming that what they see as a mundane, random process could not possibly explain complex biological features such as the human eye – hence the need for an intelligent designer. As it happens, evolution (which is not a random process) is understood by a majority of scientists to be capable of producing all the biological complexity we see around us, and the old chestnuts of the creationist movement, like eye evolution, have long since been put to rest.

There is a second major obstacle to the idea of invoking God to explain complexity in the universe. God (rather than humans or other simpler creatures) is invoked on the assumption that a being must be superior to the things it creates. But how then is God explained? Surely, if we are to be consistent, the same principle of a superior creator should be applied to God himself, resulting in the need for an even more superior being, an even more powerful god, to create the first one? Similarly this second, more powerful god requires a third, even more powerful god, and we end up with an infinite regress of gods, each coming into existence to explain the existence of her subordinate. Clearly the initial assumption that complexity can only come from greater complexity cannot be upheld. And indeed, a significant characteristic of evolution is its gradual ratcheting-up of complexity from very simple beginnings – a process made possible by the external energy source the sun provides.

There is a third problem with the complexity argument. Even if evolution could be shown in some definitive manner to be unable to produce certain observed complexity, this would simply imply that an alternative, possibly natural, formation process must be sought. To claim, as many do, that this alternative source must not only be supernatural, but must be the specific supernatural entity called the Christian God requires, once again, an enormous leap of faith.

Scientists are willing to acknowledge that there are things in the world they do not understand (they would be out of jobs if they didn’t). However, instead of asserting an unsupported solution, they work hard to seek one that can be tested and developed until it fits all the evidence. In fact, some people who support the “God of the Gaps”, i.e. who attempt to provide religious solutions to problems that currently lack scientific explanations, labor under the false impression that science has already answered all the questions it can, that the book of science is closed. On the contrary, continual progress is being made toward a scientific understanding of ourselves and the universe we live in, and the gaps left to God continue to shrink.

Closely related to the complexity argument is the supposition sometimes made by believers that the universe could not have spontaneously come into being (“something doesn’t come out of nothing”) implying that God must have been there to make it happen. Unsurprisingly, scientists see it differently. First of all, science has yet to properly explain the origins of the universe, so no scientist worth her salt would state with complete confidence that it appeared out of nothing. Indeed, there are several competing theories for the origin of the universe that do not, in fact, require spontaneous appearance of energy and matter, or even any kind of origin at all (i.e. the universe has always existed). Second, and perhaps most important, our current inability to explain the origin of the universe does not imply that a supernatural cause was involved. As with the complexity argument, the worst case scenario (if it ever arose) would simply require us to abandon the currently favored theories in order to search for new ones, it would not require us to embrace the Christian god as creator of the universe. Indeed, resorting to God as creator would be nothing short of embracing the “something out of nothing” idea that believers accuse scientists of in the first place, since creating “something out of nothing” is precisely what God is supposed to have done.

Furthermore, embracing the “God hypothesis” raises far more thorny questions than it answers, such as what God is made of, how he interacts with the world, what gives him the power to create universes and, perhaps most difficult, how he came into existence in the first place. (Believers might say that God has always existed, but if this is the case then the universe, too, might always have existed, in which case God is no longer needed.)

6. Personal revelation

People may believe in God on the basis of personal spiritual experience. Some people may even choose to join a religion because they believe that the spiritual experience of a friend or family member is real. However, we have extremely complex brains capable of producing all manner of convincing illusions, as is readily apparent through our observations of psychotic disorders, including those featuring messianic delusions. In the face of this myriad of internally generated experiences that have no connection to spirituality, on what basis can we single out religious experiences as genuine? Moreover, people from a variety of religious backgrounds claim to have personal spiritual experiences of their gods. As described in the first part of this essay, this presents a dilemma: Any believer (especially one belonging to a monotheist tradition) must, by necessity, disregard the personal experiences of those who adhere to other religions. Either that, or the believer must accept the existence of these other religions’ gods. It is thus inconsistent and hypocritical of any adherent of monotheism to put stock in his or her own personal spiritual experience while tacitly disregarding the experiences of those with conflicting beliefs.

It might even be argued that the Bible itself warns against the reliance on personal revelation: “He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool: but whoso walketh wisely, he shall be delivered.” (Proverbs 28:26).

7. Fear

People may believe in God out of fear. Many religions teach that turning one’s back on God will result in punishment, often of the eternal variety, with liberal heat applied. Believing in God to hedge one’s bets, as Pascal did in his famous wager is, to me, a dishonest approach, and I do not expect that God (if he existed) would be fooled by it for a minute.

8. Desire for salvation

People may believe in God as a means to salvation. According to Christians, the concept of salvation starts with the fall into sin of the first man and woman to inhabit the earth. Every person born since this original sin is innately sinful and therefore separate from God. Only by accepting God (and Jesus, in particular) can one achieve atonement for one’s sins and be “put right” with God. The problem with the salvation doctrine is its starting point, the fall of man, which is itself a religious doctrine without any scientific support. Thus, in order to make the leap of faith required to believe in the God of salvation, one must first make the leap of faith required to believe in the very concept of salvation itself. Even the acceptance of sin as a religious concept requires a leap of faith. All the evidence points rather to an evolutionary development of homo sapiens which is not compatible with a fall into sin, because it never postulates a perfect state from which a fall could occur. It is certainly true that humans do immoral things that ought to be discouraged or punished but, as part five of this essay suggests, none of this requires a religious framework.

The perceived need for salvation highlights one of the main tools religion uses to convince people of its importance: it invents a problem, presents this problem as something that exists independent of itself, and then conveniently offers a solution (the only solution, it is usually claimed). It is striking that many people who leave Christianity still carry the belief that they need salvation (and this belief often prompts them to seek another religious belief rather than to discard religion altogether). Yet the need for salvation has no better footing in reality than any other Christian tenet.

9. A perceived necessity for belief

A number of times I have heard discussions about religious belief end with the conclusion “at least they believe in something.”  In other words, there seems to be a perception among many people that it is virtuous – necessary even – to have religious or spiritual beliefs, whether they involve a specific god or a more nebulous “greater power”. This perception may arise from the idea that spirituality permits one to escape negativity and immorality, to imbue one’s life with a sense of purpose and meaning. However, it is my contention that all people, even the religious, ultimately derive meaning and purpose from very ordinary, natural things: from the relationships they share with others, from their work, and from their hobbies and sports.

Part of the perceived necessity for belief is its provision of a grander purpose to life, a reason for us being on this planet. It is not easy to acknowledge that the universe is entirely indifferent to our presence. We wish our existence to be intentional, not accidental. We wish to occupy a special, elevated position in the cosmos. Spiritual beliefs handily provide the needed framework for these desires. However, no evidence whatsoever exists to support such a view. Rather, the evidence confirms the more mundane conclusion that we are, indeed, accidents of nature uncared for by the universe. To think otherwise is conceit.

To the nonbeliever, who finds meaning and purpose in friends, family, hobbies, and work, the uncaring silence of the universe is irrelevant, just as the uncaring silence of a rock or a pencil or a shoe is irrelevant.

10. Parental care

My final suggestion is that belief in God may appeal to people, perhaps unconsciously, as a source of parental care. Society requires adults to be independent, but our desire for the comfort and guidance of a parent doesn’t necessarily fade with age. As adults, though, we find it difficult to regard anyone with the child-like reverence we once had for our parents. The superhuman, super-loving figure of God provides the perfect replacement parent. This might help to explain why so many religions ascribe to their gods the role of wise and caring father or mother.


As a summary of this section, I mention a poll I conducted on a Christian Facebook group.  I posed the basic question “Why do you believe in God?”.  The answers consistently fell into one or more of the above categories. No respondents suggested that they arrived in belief in God via a rational, evidence-based process, with the possible exception of one respondent who appealed to the cosmological argument (God is the first cause of the universe), the teleological argument (the cornerstone of intelligent design), and the ontological argument (a philosophical approach that argues that if we can imagine god, he must exist), all of which have been thoroughly discredited (for excellent rebuttals to these arguments, see the following page at Ebon Musings). One respondent referred to what he believed was a miraculous healing of a serious ailment, while others referred to their sense of God’s presence (i.e., personal revelation). One respondent referred to a passage from the Bible for his reason for believing, although he did not explain why he considered the Bible to be authoritative on the matter.

For a more detailed list of common arguments for believing in god, follow this link.

Next part of this essay.

Previous part of this essay.

Introduction to this essay.

1. Schippers, M. and Lange, P. (2005), The Psychological Benefits of Superstitious Rituals in Top Sport (29 2005, 11). ERIM Report Series Reference No. ERS-2005-071-ORG.

2. Paul, G. (2009), The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions, Evolutionary Psychology, 7, 398-441.

Figure credits:

Map of religions: http://www.wadsworth.com/religion_d/special_features/popups/maps/



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