How to fake a belief system

A little magic goes a long way.

How could I get hundreds or thousands of people to believe something that couldn’t be verified empirically?

It’s a tough problem.

Whose idea should it be?

Let’s start with authority. No one is going to accept something as true just because I say it. I need to pretend that someone much more important said it.

But what if I choose someone really important, and people go to this person and ask her directly about what she said (people will have doubts)? This important person has to be inaccessible. But not inaccessible in a way that will piss people off. I can’t have some grand leader sequestered in her office (or palace, or whatever), with angry people banging on her door demanding to have their questions answered.

The important person has to be inaccessible in a much more fundamental way. A way that people will readily accept. And a surefire way to do this is to remove the person from normal three-dimensional space altogether (or eleven-dimensional space, if you speak to an M-theorist). Put her in some special realm that cannot be visited by human beings. Somewhere “supernatural”. This is a concept most people seem happy accepting already.

Unfortunately, I’ve now created another problem for myself. How can I get people to believe that such a special, authoritative person exists if she can’t be seen, heard, or sensed in any way? I need some sort of argument that leads naturally to the conclusion that she exists.

And if I’m going to argue that a supernatural being exists, I’ll have to go where science has not yet gone. I can’t claim that the being is responsible for lightning or volcanoes or earthquakes. These things have been demystified. I have to look at areas where science is still undecided.

Like the beginning of the universe. No one really knows how it began (not even M-theorists).

So, let my authoritative person be the one who created the universe. Perfect! No one will expect to find such a person behind some desk in America, or France, or Burkina Faso, or anywhere else for that matter. Such a person would be truly supernatural. She’d be powerful, too.

Convincing the masses

I’m not quite done yet, though. Why would the creator of the universe suddenly make her ideas and desires known now, in 2013? “Where the hell has she been the past several millennia?”, people will ask.

I have to convince everyone that she first communicated with humans a long time ago. Thousands of years at the very least. But this is tricky, if not impossible. People today are tech savvy. They can check records. They can do archaeology.

If I’m to convince people, I’m must find a way to go back in time. Go back in time and plant the ideas that need to be planted, and let the whole thing unfold. By the time it gets to 2013, there’ll be a long history of the creator of the universe communicating with her people. It might even seem normal.

But still, there are some kinks to this plan. First, I’ve been talking about a she. People thousands of years ago were pretty chauvinistic, to put it mildly. Women were often regarded as property. My creator of the universe will have to be male.

Second, people of that time might not have been tech savvy, but they presumably wouldn’t believe just any extraordinary claim. I have to think of a way of convincing them that my ideas are true.

What if I were to actually take advantage of their lack of technological know-how? Superstition was pretty strong in those days. What if I could stage some illusions that fooled them into thinking the creator of the universe was communicating with them? Illusionists these days are pretty impressive. A few thousands of years ago, they’d be considered gods.

Once I have their attention with a few magic tricks, I can tell them all the things I want them to believe, and they’ll be much more inclined to accept them. And, come to think of it, I might be able to avoid the magic tricks altogether, and simply start some rumors that they were performed.

So far, I think this scheme is looking reasonably good (assuming I can figure out a way to go back in time!).

What’s in it for me?

Unfortunately there’s another big problem in need of a solution. It’s really hard to get people to believe something if there is nothing at stake. If there is nothing riding on their decision to believe, they are likely to fall off the bandwagon at some point. The whole thing could succumb to apathy. “What’s in it for me?”, I can hear them say.

I need to convince people they have something valuable to gain by adopting my ideas. But I don’t have the resources to go around handing out gifts. I need to promise them something intangible. Maybe something they have to wait for.

What is people’s greatest fear? Death. What if I told them they could somehow escape death if they believed my ideas? This would fit in well with the whole creator-of-the-universe set up, because the creator of the universe would be just the person to keep people alive following their bodily death.

But will promise of reward be enough? Maybe I need threats, too. Tell people that something terrible awaits them if they fail to believe. But I can’t tell them they’ll lose their families or their jobs or their health, or anything real. Once again, I don’t have the resources to run around kidnapping families and having people fired. I wouldn’t want to, even if I could.

I need to tell people that they’ll suffer after they’re dead, if they don’t believe. Make it part of the whole afterlife idea. Believe, and you live forever, perhaps in some comfort-filled paradise. Don’t believe, and you live forever in torment.

I need a hero

All of this talk of an invisible person and invisible consequences is beginning to make this project seem a little unreal and fluffy. We need someone real in all of this. We need a hero. Someone who will show his commitment to the cause in a dramatic and, if possible, tragic fashion. Something that will make people feel indebted.

In short, I need a martyr. Someone who will sacrifice his life for the cause. Someone who will leave a tale of heroic sacrifice for people to pass down from generation to generation.

I might be able to do better than that, though. An ordinary person giving her life for a cause, while remarkable, is not unheard of. It might not make a strong enough impression.

Maybe we need an extraordinary person to do it: Someone who has enough power to escape whatever people might do to him, but who chooses to submit instead. Someone like a president or a king. Perhaps someone who is specially chosen by the creator himself. Maybe someone who’s even related to the creator – a sort of human extension of the supernatural.

Back to reality

Let’s take stock of where we’ve come thus far. I’ve made arguments for some key features of a belief system that might aid its survival. Give it a voice of authority, someone who can’t actually be seen or heard, and therefore questioned. (Or, more accurately, someone who will not be expected to answer people’s questions.) Almost anything could be put in this person’s mouth.

Also, it’s important that there be consequences for doubt. Make it a matter of life and death or, even better, eternal life and eternal suffering. Make the stakes as high as possible, and defer them to the afterlife to avoid actually delivering the goods or meting out the punishment.

And start the whole thing before people have begun to understand how the world around them really works. Do it when everything is still spirits, demons, and gods.

I’m talking about Christianity, right?

The parallels to Christianity (and, for that matter, many other religions) in the above discussion are obvious. There is, however, one major break in the analogy. I don’t believe that anyone deliberately set out to start Christianity as an experiment in propagating fake belief systems.

Instead, it is much more likely that the superstitious crucible of ancient culture kindled a new religion which, because it escaped some of the problems tackled in the above narrative, caught on, and spread. And, the longer it lasted, the more authority it accrued. Time is religion’s best friend.

My conclusion, then, is that Christianity looks for all the world like a belief system that is adapted (not necessarily through any conscious human effort) to take advantage of human psychology.  In the survival of the fittest, Christianity is a big winner.

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