Crowdsourcing an answer for a young atheist

June 2, 2015 • 9:30 am

On Sunday I received an unusual email that was so mature, and so desirous of an answer, that I couldn’t help but respond. It comes from a young woman, only 13 years old, who attends middle school in the eastern U.S.  I have changed her real name to Linda, and have redacted her location in the following note.

“Linda”, already an atheist at this tender age, is doing a school project on the reasons why people believe in God, and asked my opinion. As I’m too occupied with preparations for my trip to write a long answer, I gave her two choices: she could call me and we’d discuss it, or I could post her email (with permission) on this site, and ask our many readers to help her out. In truth, I thought the latter procedure was better, as there are many former believers here whose answers could shed more light on her question than my own response. And that’s the procedure she preferred.

I am, then, asking readers to take a few minutes and give an answer to this young, questioning unbeliever. I’ve put her question in bold to make it easier to you to find. Please help out if you can, even if you have only a few words. Answers from former believers would be especially valuable.

Finally, I have verified “Linda’s” identity by writing her teacher, so this is a genuine request. I have to say that I think the “I Wonder” project is an excellent idea, and the fact that Linda is allowed to do this particular project reflects well on her teacher (as does the sophistication Linda evinces in this letter).

Dear Dr. Coyne,

My name is Linda. I am a middle school student in [STATE REDACTED], and I am doing a project in my science class called the “I Wonder” project. The “I Wonder” project is a project in which we choose a question, starting with “I wonder…”, about a topic relating to science. We then do research on our question and attempt to find someone in the field that may be able to help us with answering our question. My “I Wonder” question is, “Why do people still believe in religion and gods if science has otherwise proved the creation of the planet and evolution, as well as the fact that we don’t have souls, we have brains that create our personalities.” I came up with this question after thinking about how I have recently become an atheist and I wanted my I wonder question to focus on one of the large aspects of life and the universe without going into parallel realities and the like. Now that I have done more research, I have started to understand and wonder about the topic even more. I am writing to you to ask for help in answering my question because I think it could be beneficial for me to further delve into the psychology of belief in gods and other parts of religion, if science can and has proved otherwise.

I discovered you by reading multiple articles that quoted your books and speeches. I believe you are qualified to answer my question because  you have recently won the Richard Dawkins Award and published the book, “Faith Versus Fact” which largely focuses on the topic of my question. I hope to read it as soon as possible. Additionally, I have watched videos of some of your talks, debates, and lectures, and thought that you would understand my question more than most people, and especially more than a lot  of people my age. I do not know a lot about this subject because articles have been hard to find, but I do know a few  important facts. I know people like to believe in gods and religion because either they have been strictly raised in that religion or because they do not want to accept that there is no afterlife, reincarnation, or some heavenly power watching over us. They do not want to accept that we are alone in our accessible universe and that we completely decide our own fate. These facts scare some people, so they look at religion and see that it solves all those problems. I have seen that you agree with some of these views and have elaborated on them in your speeches and presentations. I believe you would be able to help me answer my question because of these facts and your further knowledge on the subject.

Thank you in advance for your time. I know you must be busy with teaching and working on other projects. I would really appreciate a reply to this email, even if you can not answer my question. It would really mean a lot to me. You can send me an email at this address. Thank you again for your time.


293 thoughts on “Crowdsourcing an answer for a young atheist

    1. You mean, the exact same reason why certain others grow up as atheists?

      I saw no indication atheist Linda had for instance Christian parents.

        1. Well everyone is born a baby, and all babies seem to be pretty sure that they are God. By the time they are two years old they are pretty sure about it.

      1. Your comment indicates that your reading comprehension needs work because “Linda” says:

        “I came up with this question after thinking about how I have recently become an atheist…”

        Did you miss that sentence or are you just trolling?

        Linda already nailed the answer: childhood indoctrination and fear of alienation of affection.

      1. There is a difference between teaching kids to evaluate based on evidence vs. believing something because they are told it is true. On one hand you are giving them the tools to think for themselves, on the other you are telling them what to think.

        Consider two conversations, one involves a Parent and a Child involved in a discussion about our senses and evidence based inquiry. The other involves a Parent telling a Child that this book contains the absolute truth and no amount of evidence will contradict it.

        I do not think those kids who profess to be Atheists have been “indoctrinated” into thinking so. Chances are they have made up their own minds using the tools that were given to them by their Parents.

        1. Or, they never even considered whether or not they should believe in gods because it never occured to them that it was something they should do in the first place.

          Basically, atheism does not mean or entail opposition against gods (though atheists certainly can be so), but merely a lack of belief in gods. One can be, would be by default actually, an atheist even if they had never encountered the concept of gods.

          Believers are fallaciously projecting when they argue from a point of view that implies that non-believers believe in god but have rejected It because they don’t like something about It. That extremely common trope is not atheism, it is theism. Dissatisfied to be sure, but theism none the less.

      2. Is it more persuasive if you say it twice?

        My experience is that indoctrination in atheism is not necessary. Although my wife and I didn’t hide the fact that we are not believers, we never taught atheism to our daughter, much less required her to accept it uncritically (which is a part of most definitions of “indoctrination”). She was allowed to attend religious services with her friends if she wanted to, with no pushback at all from either of us.

        No, a mere lack of indoctrination in religion seems sufficient.

        1. Ditto here. My wife and I raised two kids who are atheists as are we. We didn’t really talk ab out religion much at home at all. They even attended Catholic schools for a while. We just exposed them to a lot of science, clear thinking, and they did the rest.

          I still grin ear to ear when thinking of the Catholic 8th grade science/religion/homeroom (!!) teacher who, in the most somber terms, told us that our son seemed to be questioning faith.

          1. Our daughter never went to Catholic school, but I do remember the time she asked our devout Catholic nanny, to the latter’s horror, “Jesus is just made up, isn’t he?” (This was an idea she’d apparently come up with on her own, for I have no recollection of ever saying or even implying such a thing to her.)

          2. I was raised with no religion and my parents encouraged reading and learning about science. My dad is an anti-theist in many ways but I still ended up going to “Vacation Bible School” in the summer because my baby sitter’s kids went and I was exposed to Christianity through school (even though it was a public school). I really wanted to be religious so that I could be like everyone else, but it just wasn’t me and I couldn’t be something I wasn’t. So, in many ways, although raised without religion, I had ample opportunity to become religious and I didn’t do so. I think this is because I was encouraged to think for myself, had a higher than average ability to read and use language so could easily find answers to questions in books and I am a natural skeptic.

        2. I love these comments.

          My 2 boys, too, are atheists without having had any direct influence from either parent either way. Raised entirely in Oklahoma they were exposed to religion quite a bit, but always outside their home. Now that they’re grown I’ve been able to talk with them a bit about religion and god and am pleased with their viewpoints, of which they acquired entirely on their own. My oldest son won a soccer scholarship to a local christian college and used the time there to explore christianity. He came away with very strong affirmations that it’s a ruse.

          I’ve always thought that direct indoctrination in religion was needed for a kid to grow up thinking it’s viable. Without that sort of atmosphere I don’t know that they grow up feeling as though some sort of spiritual requirement, or condition, is missing. These comments seem to bear that out a bit.

          1. My mother did not preach atheism or religion to me. I was allowed to decide for myself.

            And one question kept nagging at me:

            If the world needs a creator, then who created God?

            I asked to go to Sunday school so that I could find out. I spent a few weeks there, to no avail. No one could answer my question, so I quit.

            Years later, as a teen, I went to bible camp with a religious friend. The minister there kept trying to convert me, mainly by explaining in great detail how I would suffer in Hell for eternity if I did not accept God. The entire experience scared the shit out of me, and for a few minutes there I finally, truly, understood how people can believe, what with being threatened with the worst kinds of torture imaginable.

            1. There are tons of stories to relate on the subject of personal experiences with religion. I’ve recently acquired a new favorite one that is actually about my son’s longtime girlfriend. She has recently received a bachelor’s degree from a private baptist university (where the keynote speaker at her graduation was none other than Barbara Green of Hobby Lobby infamy), but I know her to be a staunch atheist. I asked her how she could muster spending 4 years surrounded by the religious. Her response was that it was business as usual for her. She came to an epiphany of atheism at a very young age, around ten years old or so, while regularly attending church services with her family. She settled into a life of not believing the nonsense taught at church or Sunday school despite being surrounded by believers in her family and basically being forced to attend. The continuation of such into college didn’t faze her. She instead realized her education was being paid for by her family’s ties to the university, so she took classes that propelled her toward the Communications Degree she wanted and never thought twice about the spiritual state of affairs of her surroundings. I have a very high estimation of this bright young lady and hope someday to call her daughter in law.

        3. “Is it more persuasive if you say it twice?”

          No, I just thought I had lost the first time, so I reposted it to make sure it was posted.

          Should have come here all logged in on wordpress, but I didn’t.

          “we never taught atheism to our daughter”

          You never taught Big Bang to your daughter?

          You never taught Evolution to your daughter?

          You never taught Heliocentrism to your daughter?

          You never taught Mind is a Byproduct of Matter (brain matter or computer matter) to your daughter?

          Or you just didn’t think these items of atheistic explanations of the world we live in count as atheism?

          1. I’m sorry, but that seems like one giant non-sequitur.

            Is it “teaching atheism” to help a child set up an experiment to measure the acceleration of gravity? Because geocentricism and cosmogenesis both start with and inevitably follow from garden-variety gravity.

            …you do know that things fall down, right?


          2. I think you just forfeited the entire game there. Equating these bits of knowledge about the basic aspects of our world, which are so well and frequently confirmed, with atheism does not seem to be a good argument in favor of any religious belief system.

            But I largely agree with it! Reality does indeed strongly support the belief that gods do not exist.

      3. So you’re saying that never mentioning gods and faeries equals indoctrinating children in their inexistence? I’m not convinced.

      4. You write and think like a newly-thawed Cro-Magnon Man. I couldn’t quite figure out what you were even trying to say.

    2. Absolutely correct. And once religion has been drilled into you as a child, and you grow up in an environment where virtually everyone you know believes what you have been told to believe, the idea of actually saying the words “I don’t believe in God” out loud is terrifying. It probably took me ten years of reading many, many books like the God Delusion, the End of Faith, and even the Bible, and reading websites such as this one, before I could actually speak that phrase fearlessly and confidently.

    3. Put in other words, parents teach children all sorts of things that are demonstrably true, so if you are raised learning that god and so forth are also true, you’ll tend to believe it.

      It doesn’t hurt that Christian teaching often emphasizes that God and Jesus love you no matter what, so a child grows used to this as a comforting factor. Once a child becomes aware of death and experiences the loss of beloved relatives, even greater comfort derives from the idea of eternal life and meeting your dead relatives again in heaven.

      This belief in an afterlife is made even easier by the fact that we are so used to thinking about a person who is not at the moment physically present(say, dad is at work), that when the person is actually dead, they still feel somehow present. Hence, they must be looking down at us from Heaven.

      It is hard to reject all of this comforting and intuitively attractive stuff that feels so familiar that it simply must be True.

      1. “Put in other words, parents teach children all sorts of things that are demonstrably true, so if you are raised learning that god and so forth are also true, you’ll tend to believe it.”

        Ditto for atheistic explanations of the world, if taught these are true.

        “It doesn’t hurt that Christian teaching often emphasizes that God and Jesus love you no matter what, so a child grows used to this as a comforting factor.”

        It doesn’t hurt that atheistic teaching often emphasize that there is no supreme judge, and you need to love yourself and be around those that love you (btw, remind me to be around Catholics that love me a bit more!), while overstating the difficulties that religious morality might put you in.

        “Once a child becomes aware of death and experiences the loss of beloved relatives, even greater comfort derives from the idea of eternal life and meeting your dead relatives again in heaven.”

        Once a child becomes aware of death, and that religion teaches such a thing as Hell, atheism provides the comfort that there is no Hell to fear. That such and such a scoffer, unbeliever, anticlerical, who nevertheless gave you candy whenever you wanted it, is no worse off than any other dead person.

        “This belief in an afterlife is made even easier by the fact that we are so used to thinking about a person who is not at the moment physically present(say, dad is at work), that when the person is actually dead, they still feel somehow present. Hence, they must be looking down at us from Heaven.”

        Sure, that is how any belief in the afterlife ever started, right?

        Love these just so stories. Remember how the shark came to represent SH (but can’t recall whether it was the S or the H which were formed after some part of the shark) on that day when that family had decided to “let’s invent the alphabet”.

        Another favourite of mine (non-Kipling) is how some Homo Erectus invented the first word and the first concept and the first letter/sound and thus also language itself at the same time as inventing a method to relight fire. When you blow on embers to light them up, you tend to use the sounds of a bilabial f. Or like a very Scottish WH.

    4. I was trying to come up with a well thought out answer to this question, but all I could do was circle back to TJR’s response.

      People believe this stuff because they are induced to believe it at a very young age. They are told that they must believe it in order to be a good person, and that doubt is abnormal, something to be feared and prayed away.

      Likewise, their existential fears are inculcated in childhood. Worrying about the character of your afterlife only makes sense if you think you’ll have one.

      Without childhood indoctrination, religion would die out within a generation. It really is that simple.

      1. “People believe this stuff because they are induced to believe it at a very young age.”

        I wasn’t.

        “They are told that they must believe it in order to be a good person, and that doubt is abnormal, something to be feared and prayed away.”

        I wasn’t.

        “Likewise, their existential fears are inculcated in childhood.”

        Fear of Hell has sometimes been a motive for repentance for me, but never for belief.

        1. Your exceptionality proves the rule, which, by the way, is why I find people like you fascinating. The conscious transition to religion is much rarer than the transition from it.

          If you don’t mind my asking, how old were you when your beliefs became established?

    5. Child indoctrination.
      And religions have psychological tactics to keep people´s faith, even if science disproves their lies (God, the creation, the soul, the original sin, the species, Noah, etc). Those tactics are, among others, sin, culpability, fear to hell, fear to apostasy, obligation not to read “bad books” (evolution, sexuality, other religions, etc). Also the devil as an agent to robe faith, the plan of the darkness to destroy religion etc. And the promises of Heaven, Grace and even material goods to those who keep faith. Muslims even face to be death by anybody (even their family) if they left Mahomet.
      This maintains many people in a state of “don’t ask, don’t tell” about the science, its discovers and the consequences on religions myths.

  1. Growing up is hard for a lot of people. It means taking responsibility for your own ideas about how the universe works. A great many people never manage to do this and remain stuck in world views that they were taught as children.

    “Linda” is not one of these people and has a bright future.

  2. ‘Linda’, it appears that you already have the answers to your questions. Indoctrination while young, wishful thinking to deny harsh realities and conforming to social pressures cover a lot of reasons people are religious.

    1. I think as well as indoctrination by parents and other adults, there’s the evolutionary advantage to be gained in listening to our elders. We can’t experience everything for ourselves, especially when we’re young, and it’s advantageous to our survival to follow the lead of our elders. Mostly that works – but it does mean some bad explanations get learned and carried on too, like religious explanations. Once we’re indoctrinated, it’s hard to let go.

      There are lots of atheists too who never tell the parents (and others) they love they no longer believe because the don’t want to hurt them. That cuts down communication, which, of course, is how ideas are spread.

    1. And she probably had her atheist creed since very early on too.

      All atheists a generation older than she were not strictly condom only. Some couples have made babies and raised them atheist.

      And the answers she has are such as atheist parents would tend to give their children while explaining why not all are atheists.

        1. She is thirteen.

          She is atheist.

          It is 2015.

          And though atheists unlike Christians approve of condoms, they do not all and always use them for abstaining from progeniture.

          My take is, she grew up atheist, she has heard several good reasons (or so it appears to her) why atheism is true BUT she is making an effort to understand why, if so, not everyone is atheist.

          1. Atheism is a lack of belief in god, or gods, it can be neither true nor false. To say that it might be true or false suggests a misunderstand as to its nature. Truth or falsehood does not apply to atheism.

            It’s a mistake WLC made as well.

          2. Thank you this is really what I am asking “why, if so, not everyone is an atheist.” You summed it up very well.

            1. Well, perhaps these good reasons are best if not confronted to certain other reasons.

              Metaphysical ones on the mind.
              Historical ones on particular miracles.
              And even strictly technical ones about details in the “evolution” business.

              And your parents might not have told you about these, because they did not know them themselves.

      1. Creed? The root of that means ‘belief’On the other hand ‘belief’comes from the same root as German ‘leibe’ love. But really ‘creed’?

        1. They believe that:
          * we live in a Universe that started itself from a singularity
          * formed itself into galaxies and star systems over expanding from that singularity
          * we live in a Solar System centred around its sun, on an Earth that started hot and cooled down
          * and on this Earth by a curious chance arose life …

          These would all be items on the atheist creed.

            1. Sure, those Christians would be syncretists between the parts of the Christian creed they still go along with and the parts of the atheists creed they also go along with.

          1. All of these points have nothing to do with atheism. These are all scientific conclusions (strongly simplified versions of them).

            You could be an atheist without subscribing to a purely scientific worldview. It is just the case that many atheists value science over “other ways of knowing”(tm). You can be an atheist and still be superstitious.

            The only item on the “atheist creed” would be: “I don’t believe you when you say that there is a God.”

          2. hglundahl…. You’re making a basic error here confusing “creed” with “conclusion based on evidence”. These are very different things.

            Our host has just published a book on this subject. It is very accessible and clearly stated. You would do well to pick up a copy. I think you would find it clarifying.

            1. For practical purposes, certain conclusions (which anyway are awlays based on some kind of evidence) are as controversial as religious creeds between them.

              1. For practical purposes, you would do well to read Jerry’s book on the subject.

          3. Er…your first two bullet points ascribe agency to things that don’t have consciousness. That’s like saying that the gumballs in the gumball machine perfectly ordered themselves into nice and neat stacks of rows and columns. It’s a false dichotomy and / or a leading question, in the classic vein of, “When did you stop beating your wife?” The reality, of course is that nobody put any thought into how to stack the gumballs; that’s just what happens when a bunch of spheres pile up. Same thing with the whirlpool that forms in your bathtub when you pull the drain, or the whirlwind that forms when two airstreams flow past each other…and the dynamics of galaxy formation aren’t completely unlike those two phenomenon.

            And I’m most puzzled. Your third bullet point seems to suggest that word of the Copernican Revolution might not have reached you yet?


  3. Dear “Linda” –

    I have been an atheist since the age of 9, when I was literally booted out of my church by standing up and asking the pastor why he believed in god. I knew even then that, especially in small towns like the one I lived in, it wasn’t ok to challenge authority. I just knew then and there that something was up. I mean, it was only a few year before that the easter bunny and santa claus bit the dust…so the existence of god wasn’t a great shake for me.

    I was always one of those kids who asked “why?” over and over and, to the credit of my parents (who were atheist but didn’t tell me until later), they let me find out all this stuff on my own. They weren’t surprised the church kicked me to the curb.

    So, during the next 9 years I studied everything I could get my hands on relating to atheism, humanism, secularism, and then later, skepticism and pseudo-science (this was the early 1960’s, so all we had were scrolls lol).

    I was pretty good in science and math, so I studied things from the early Greek “thinkers” all the way through to the Bertrand Russell-type ones, both in the sciences and in philosophy. There’s a world of info out there if you go and find it.

    Since I am a skeptic by nature, my belief system craters around the “believe nothing what you hear, and only half of what you see” meme. So I don’t expect you to read this and say, “Hey, he’s right! He knows what he’s talking about!” So many writers, pundits and pie-holes today think they know a lot, but can be shot down with ease if you have the knowledge and fortitude to do just that. Most people don’t like to be challenged, even the atheist types, many who believe that, since they have gotten to this level of the game, they can’t be shot down.

    I could write all day on why I’m an atheist and why you should be too, but that would be self-serving and, more importantly, race against my skepticism belief. The one thing I do want you to believe in is yourself, the capability of your mind and your intellect, and your ability to rise above lazy thinkers and lazy thinking.

    Good Luck!

    1. Dear Linda,

      I too, have been an atheist, or, at least, a non-believer, since I was about 9. I wasn’t kicked out of church, but at the time, I attended a Catholic school and was sent to the headmaster by a teacher / nun to be caned for questioning the veracity of a passage of the bible. I cannot recall the passage, but I do recall the pain in the palms of my hands.

      I think what pushed me away was the fact that our teachers, all of whom were believers and most of whom were nuns, preached love, peace and salvation, but were not averse to contrary behaviour.

      I later came to realise that, from my perspective, the entire edifice of belief was built upon fear:

      Physical fear – believe or be painfully physically punished.

      Fear of the unknown. We don’t know what happens when we die, but join our club and if you pay your membership fees and come to meetings, you’ll get an invitation to a paradise that we can’t show you, you’ll just have to believe that it exists. Alternatively, you can disbelieve, in which case, when you die, you’ll go a really horrible place, which we also can’t show you, so you’ll just have to believe that it exists. You will also have to ignore that fact that, even amongst believers, no two people seem to be able to agree on the exact nature of either place.

      Fear of being alone or outcast, or a need to feel more secure through membership of a tribe or group. Join our club and you’ll have plenty of friends. Don’t join, or leave our club, and everyone will hate you, and, perhaps, worse things will happen, even violent death. This seems to be particularly true in those communities that view non-belief as the most heinous of crimes.

      Fear of supernatural punishment. If you don’t believe or behave in the right manner, not only will you go to a nasty place when you die, but the entity that we tell you to believe in will punish you while you are alive. I have clear memories of exactly this when I was losing my belief. I wasn’t entirely sure that I was right, none of those around me at school seemed to think that way and what if I am wrong? Will I be struck down by lightning or some other random ‘act of God’?

      Fear of those who think otherwise. Fiercely religious people will often react with verbal and / or physical abuse when they encounter those who do not adhere to their set of beliefs, no matter how outlandish those beliefs might be. I can’t be sure what, exactly, is going on in their minds, but it seems they fear that such people will pollute other believers around them, risking losing members of their particular tribe. The more outlandish and irrational the claims made by their belief set, the more likely they are to react with abuse and the stronger the abuse.

      The fact that a doctrine that espouses peace and love needs to control through fear and punishment, for me at least, rather exposes the lie.

  4. I have recently read a critique of the Albatross. Cant remember name of critic. He misses the point. He thinks that there is some good in religion.
    He misses the point that faith is not fact. I wish Jerry would write an article about how religion may be good or bad but it is not fact.
    I think Jerry is hung up somewhat. Religion is not fact. Faith is not fact. Period. However good or bad religion may be.

    1. I think that is the whole point of Faith vs. Fact: that religion makes claims about what is true or what is the case by faith (supported by authority, revelation, scripture, and emotion), but science makes claims about what is true or what is the case by the methods of science (skepticism, empiricism, theorizing, peer-review, observation, etc.) Only science produces facts, supported by evidence.

    2. Well let us be fair – religion explained the world in a rational way – until we knew better. Now there is no excuse for ignorance – but the brain-washed will not let a factual answer get in the way of a comfortable illusion.

      1. I think Linda’s parents, atheists though they were, had the good sense not to so unduly demonise non-atheists.

        Anyway, if they did, her asking means she is not buying it.

        And your saying it is hardly giving her more confidence in atheism than she had.

        1. I cannot see where it says in the post that her parents are atheists. Have I missed something?

          “your saying it is hardly giving her more confidence in atheism than she had” – what on earth do you mean by that? Which ‘it’?

          Question things. We should not be looking for confidence, but for evidence.

        2. In addition to Dominic’s point that we do not know if Linda’s parents are theists or atheists, let me also say that noting the problems and dangers of misconstruing faith as a valid epistemology is not “demonising non-atheists” (to use your quirkily inefficient term).

          1. My parents are not atheists, they are Catholic. I have tried to convince my mom to be atheist but have failed.

            1. Thanks for jumping in “Linda”. It’s interesting to learn more about you. Good luck on your report.

            2. Thanks for clearing that up. The fact that your parents aren’t atheists certainly puts a wrench in “hglundahl’s” claim that people turn out to be atheists because their parents indoctrinated them into atheism.

              I hope reading all these comments is helping you with your project. I’d recommend making reading Jerry’s posts and the comments they gather a regular thing. You will learn a lot. I certainly have, and I started reading this site when I was twice your age.

            3. Oh, you poor girl. “Good luck with that,” as they say.

              …and…well…frankly, that’s not the sort of thing anybody is actually likely to convince them of. If they’re to come to their senses, it’s something they’re going to pretty much have to do themselves.

              In the mean time, consider yourself very fortunate that they’re still speaking to you…many rationalist children of religious parents have…well…had some really nasty experiences.

              Don’t be afraid to appease them on this point to keep the peace until you’re on your own. You know who you are, and you won’t forget it, either.


  5. I recommend reading “The Denial of Death,” by Ernest Becker. Requires some heavy thought, but “Linda” certainly seems up to it.

    1. There is also a good lecture by Sheldon Solomon in context of the “Terror Management Theory” (controversial but interesting nonetheless). It holds that people seek confidence in death-denying beliefs and surround themselves with likeminded individuals who share their strategy around coping with mortality, and are averse to people (and ideas) who undermine their confidence.

      Sheldon Solomon – Ernest Becker & The Denial of Death

      1. Thanks, Aneris — I will watch that. TMT fascinates me. Although controversial, I think Becker was spot-on in defining the human condition.

  6. A few other reasons why people might turn to, or have god-belief:

    – Comfort.

    – The promise of eternal life.

    – Fear of death.

    – Desire for fellowship with others of like mind (a social outlet).

    – A sense of belonging.

    – A sense of community.

    – Discomfort with the logical implications of not having a god belief.

    – Personal misfortune such as injury, illness, or the loss of a loved one. (crutch syndrome). I know a guy who became a christian right after having a heart attack.

    – Personal failure or crisis related to substance abuse, gambling, guilty conscience, imprisonment, etc. and the need for an authority figure to keep one in check (lack of self responsibility).

    – A desire to reform one’s morality or behaviour, and the flawed thinking/belief that this can only come from a “higher power”.

    – Desire for hope in divine reward.

    – Fear of eternal damnation.

    – Feelings of guilt or shame (the time-worn tools of christianity).

    – A laziness in thinking, including a love for pat-answers.

    – The failure of an education system.

    – A desire (and need) for a certain “governance” in their lives.

    – A certain child-like emotional trigger activated in the brain by a story in which they are loved by a fatherly authority figure or imaginary being.

    – And probably number one: It just happens to be the god that you were raised, indoctrinated and brainwashed with.

    1. Great succinct summary Colin, I think your list will be very helpful to Linda.
      Some of what you’ve included are ‘triggers’ that often lead people in vulnerable situations to religion e.g. illness, loss of a loved one, imprisonment. What I still find incredible and very hard to relate to, is what must it take to sustain religious belief given the daily challenge from science, reason, and common sense (not to mention the baffling existence of dozens of competing religions, and hundreds of extinct ones).
      I used to think that if a religious person would simply drop their guard and take time to consider the counter-arguments seriously, they would soon find themselves reassessing their beliefs, and their position would crumble. But my experience of attempted discussion with religious friends and work colleagues indicates they become even more defensive and entrenched – they simply don’t want to be challenged.
      I’ve often been left feeling that their cosy comfortable certainty is just a cop out to facing up to reality, a refusal to put in the hard yards to understand science, and a reluctance to accept that for some profound questions, accepting ‘we don’t know’ is ok.
      Which I suppose is covered by your ‘laziness in thinking’ bullet-point.
      Good luck with the project Linda, hope you’re able to share what you write with Jerry so he can then post it here too,
      regards, Chris.

      1. Yes, it’s easy to remain in a bubble when one consciously or unconsciously puts blinders firmly in place.

    2. – The failure of an education system.

      As if it were the goal of a wellfunctioning such to breed atheists?

      Did you see one a bit higher up which looked as if at age 9 his church going education system failed?

      1. Quote: As if it were the goal of a well-functioning [education system] to breed atheists?”

        No, it is to educate. Not holding false beliefs (aka Theism) is merely a by-product.

        1. 1) why summarise “false beliefs” (plural, and negated as in none of them) as “Theism”?

          Are no Atheist or Indifferent beliefs false to you?

          2) If so, why would Christianity be a failure of it?

          1. “Are no Atheist or Indifferent beliefs false to you?”

            This is an incoherent question. I have no idea what is being asked.

            (btw… “atheist” and “indifferent” are incorrectly capitalized, not that making the corrections would make the question understandable.)

            1. Logic is perhaps not your forte.

              You used the phrase “false beliefs (aka Theism)” and my question is if Theism and the beliefs that make up Theism are the only ones that are false to you.

              One can imagine an Atheistic belief like Eternal Steady State Universe (as proposed by Epicure) qualifying as false to you.

              One can imagine certain beliefs that both Theists and Atheists have held (like ghosts not being illusions) to be also rejected especially by other Atheists.

              But this is not what is brought out by “false beliefs (aka Theism)”.

              Hence my very coherent question.

              Now it’s your turn to be coherent over an answer, even if it’s just sth like “I meant ‘inter alia’, not ‘also known as'”.

          2. I don’t think that was a “summary”. It was “one example of”.

            No, there are no “false atheist beliefs”. Atheism is (contra PZ) only a rejection of theism. It entails no beliefs. A person who happens to be an atheist may also believe many false things, e.g. that vaccines cause autism, but those false beliefs would be incidental and not required by the person’s atheism.

            1. A positive belief can still be atheistic insofar as it involves an explanation of the universe alternative and exclusive of Theism.

              And since there are more than one such set of beliefs, there are positive belief systems that compete among atheists.

              1. Explanations of phenomena that don’t invoke god(s) are “atheist beliefs”?

                Do you accept the explanation of how airplanes fly that involves only Bernoulli’s principle and lift? If so, does that make you an atheist?

                Atheism’s validity is not dependent on every non-theistic explanation ever offered for anything being correct. Homeopathy is “explained” without invoking a god, and that explanation is wrong, but that doesn’t invalidate the conclusion of atheism. It has nothing to do with atheism.

                Explanations of things that don’t invoke god =/= atheism.

                There is indeed more than one non-theistic theory about the origin of the universe out there. Some of them do indeed have to be false. This doesn’t invalidate atheism. Atheism, as I already wrote, is only a rejection of theism. All atheism is is noticing that the claims of theism are incorrect or at the very least unsupported by any good, objective evidence.

              2. hglundahl:

                You really fail to understand that the word atheism only exists because there is theism. The letter “a” in front of a word, simply means without; like symptomatic / asymptomatic.

                Atheism is not really an “ism” at all, it is merely not having god belief. You will save yourself a lot of confusion and frustration once you understand that. Is there a “creed” amongst those who don’t believe in unicorns?

      2. A good education teaches you how to think – i.e. critical thinking skills, not what to think. It gives you the ability to analyze evidence and reach sound conclusions. In the past, a lot of education has been about rote learning.

        1. Education has to be about rote learning.

          It is given to very young who are not yet in a very good position to think everything out for themselves (not that many ever are in such a very good position by themselves).

          It is there to give them a solid bases for the own thinking and that solid basis must be fact.

          Any education which is complete according to one creed will overstep that and include falsehoods according to another creed.

          But it is certain that fact can and should be learned by heart.

          “Tretti dagar har November
          April, Juni och September
          Tjugoåtta en allen
          Alla de öfriga trettioen.”

          Plus add that the one month that is alone in having “tjugoåtta” (28) days is february. Plus add that this is not strictly true for leap years (29!). How much more elegant can you get an introduction to days of the months?

          Reasoning it out would be unreasonable.

          There is no particular reason why Julius Caesar settled on giving Quintilius 31 and Sextilius 31, where Junius had only 30 and September only 30.

          Or there may be some reason which would be inappropriate for young decent Christian minds to know. But the rhyme (I hope you Englishmen have similar ones) will give us the correct day numbers for each month.

          1. There is a reason. Originally there were ten 30-day months. When it was discovered the year was the wrong length and needed a couple of extra months, and some needed 31 days. July and August were added, named after Julius and Augustus Caesar respectively. July was a 31 day month, but Augustus couldn’t have a shorter month than Julius, so it got 31 days too. Too accommodate now having too many 31 day months, February lost a couple of days, except in leap years. (That still wasn’t quite correct of course, but assuming you have a good education, you will know how to find out what happened next. Hint: 2000 wasn’t a leap year, although one was due, and 2400 won’t be either. 2100 will be a leap year. )

            1. One may find learning the number of days in our type of calendar by rote useful (like memorizing mnemonics, the multiplication tables or nursery rhymes.) But, ours is not the only calendar. Reading and education may inform you that there are a variety of kinds of calendars. There are solar vs. lunar calendars. There are calendars that have 5 extra days leftover at the end of the year. The Mayan calendar is especially interesting. Although in our calendar, the year is 2015, the Jewish calendar is 5000+.

    3. Good list.

      Can a British person help me out here?

      There’s an episode of a TV show I’d like to recommend to Linda, but it wasn’t broadcast in New Zealand, so I’m having trouble recalling it. I’ve seen it on YouTube. An illusionist demonstrated several aspects of creating “spiritual experiences” including one where he got an atheist to believe in God. In another segment he showed how people behaved differently when they thought someone was watching. There was other interesting stuff along the same lines too.

          1. I noted that the uppermost comment was a very agressive one:

            “My question is, what does this science teach us about how to deprogram people from their religious delusions?”

            Linda, age 13, do you really feel comfortable with being part of an Atheist community which makes such statements?

            1. Wha? You’re dismissing this video because of a comment that someone made in the comments section on YouTube? That’s it? That’s all you got?

              And this gem: “Atheist Community”? What is that? I don’t collect stamps, so I guess I must be a part of the non stamp-collecting community.

            2. I confess, there are times I’d like to excuse myself from the “human community” given my observations of what various humans, of many different stripes, are up to.

              In any case, it’s not a moral competition but a factual one. Even if atheists were all bad people, and obviously they aren’t, it would have no bearing on the truth that they speak: there is no evidence for any gods, djinn, or fairies. It’d be like saying, after hearing a nasty comment by a physicist, “Do you really want to embrace the conservation of energy crowd when they make statements like this?” It’s just a non-sequitur.

          1. That is, Heather is thinking about Derren Brown, Lowen Gartner is right and it’s up on youtube. x

      1. Heather, some time ago I posted a link to the Derren Brown programme where he created a false religious experience in an atheist woman. I’ve just spent ages trying to find it again, and just realised it’s not on YouTube! The Programme is Fear and Faith Episode 2 available on dailymotion. The religious conversion part is spread through the whole programme of 47 minutes, but it’s worth watching. Disclaimer: no atheists were harmed during the making of this programme.

        Everyone should bookmark this link for future reference.

        1. I remember you posting it – I’d seen it via Twi**er, but couldn’t recall where from. I watched it again when you posted it. (I have this mental block remembering people’s names – they take much longer to embed than other information, which is why I still couldn’t remember Derren Brown’s name.)

          Anyway, I watched it again after you posted it, so it must have been on YouTube then, and since taken down. Thanks so much for looking. 🙂

  7. The two main motivators are fear and trauma. Children are taught about the horrific consequences of going to hell. Giving up the belief in hell is a risk that many people don’t want to take so they continue to believe in God.
    Secondly, when some people experience an emotional trauma they feel out of control. Research has shown that feeling in control is important for us. This out-of-controlness pushes the brain to search for other ways to feel in control. What better solution than an invisible all-powerful entity that is supposed to love us. I hope this helps your wonderful project.

  8. My mother took me to church each week, and I was baptized at an early age. My father, on the other hand, did not attend church. I would not, I think, have believed in God were it not for my mother’s actions. Although I had doubts about the truth of many of the church’s teachings, I did not become an atheist until I was in college.
    As a consequence of my experiences, I did not raise my children to be religious.

  9. Linda,
    You’ve gotten a few answers already. But I think a very good thing to do would be to talk to believers, not just nonbelievers (which I think form the majority of Jerry’s regular posters). There is value in reporting on the “outsider” answer (i.e., we outsiders think people continue to be religious because…) but there is also, I think, value in reporting on the “insider” answer.

    Best of luck,

    1. I agree, good advice. But, the issue with doing so is that it may be difficult to find believers that will be willing to be critically introspective enough to give you a honest answer beyond the standard pablum.

      And to be fair, many people don’t know the reasons they behave as they do and believe what they do. Even when they think they do!

      1. “…it may be difficult to find believers that will be willing to be critically introspective enough to give you a honest answer beyond the standard pablum.”

        I think there is value in getting some exposure to standard pablum. A smart person, like the student who isn’t Linda, will likely tire of it soon. But that, too, is a useful lesson.

      2. There are some interesting examples of conversations with religious people online. Google ‘street epistemology’, there are some interesting discussions.

      3. That is somewhat unfair (IMO). I know this is often very hard for atheists to believe, but I think a lot of them do their critical introspection and afterwards give back an honest and sincere belief in the standard pablum (or at least non-sociological reasons).

        We humans have a very hard time thinking of others being sincere and honest believers of things we personally find profoundly alien or (to our way of thinking) irrational. You see the same “they can’t actually believe that; there must be a secret motive they aren’t admitting” attitude in right-wingers talking about liberals…and in left-wingers talking about conservatives. You also see fundie christians saying something similar: all we atheists really know God exists, we just deny him so we can sin. Well, that’s a highly insulting argument to use against atheists, right? You don’t think they know your mind better than you do, right? So don’t use its equivalent against believers. Don’t imply you know their mind better than they do. Do not assume that they don’t introspect. Do not assume that if they really did, they would come up with the same reasons for belief you would.

        1. “You don’t think they know your mind better than you do, right? So don’t use its equivalent against believers.”

          I didn’t. You constructed this argument, not me. You presume too much here. You have a record of misinterpreting people and embarking on moralistic diatribes based on your misinterpretation. I think it is a good idea to ask a question or two to test your interpretation before you let loose.

          “Don’t imply you know their mind better than they do.”

          I did not imply that. This is something you could have easily asked about with a sentence or two to test if what you assumed was correct.

          “Do not assume that they don’t introspect.”

          You seem to mean in the general sense here, as in I shouldn’t assume that believers in general never introspect. This is obvious enough that I don’t think you needed to say it. If you mean something like, since you can never be sure you should always assume that any particular believer has, then no. I won’t be taking your advice. I’ll take people on a case by case basis, believers and otherwise.

          I think you are being naive if you are suggesting that a significant number of people of any stripe will spend much time in deep introspection about the reasons they’ve come to hold the world view that they do when put on the spot by being asked directly about them by another person. Especially when being asked by a middle school student. That is the context here, not any of the ones you seem to be suggesting.

          “Do not assume that if they really did, they would come up with the same reasons for belief you would.”

          Again, you presume too much. I neither said or implied any such thing.

          1. Oh very well. I think you are wrong: it will not be difficult for Linda to find believers that will be willing to be critically introspective enough to give her an honest answer. Those answers may include standard pablum. Claiming a standard pablum answer means they weren’t critically introspective enough is a No True Thinker fallacy.

            Is that on point enough for you?

            1. That is on point. We do disagree. Taking what I said, and then clarified, to one possible extreme and claiming fallacy can be done for literally anything. At some point it becomes meaningless except as a way of saying that you strongly disagree.

              1. If a religious believer tells you they have thought deeply and critically about their belief, and they believe not because they were raised that way, not because its a psychological comfort/crutch, but rather because [evidence for design] or [makes more sense than atheism] or [ontological argument] or [other standard pablum], what is your conclusion? Do you conclude that they thought deeply and critically about it enough to give you an honest answer? Or do you conclude that they must not actually have thought critically enough about it to give you an honest answer? If the latter, then IMO you are making a No True Thinker fallacy.

              2. I think it can help to understand the sincerity of hard-thinking religious believers by recognizing that “I don’t know” is just as valid an answer in a religious context as it is in a scientific one. Only the religious typically use the word, “mystery,” instead, and generally seem less inclined to investigate.

                As a parallel…we don’t have a complete theory of either abiogenesis or cosmogenesis, but we can also have overwhelming confidence that, at least for abiogenesis, we’ve got the broad outlines of what happened set in stone and a not-bad idea of the sorts of things that probably happened. We can be similarly confident in ruling out all sorts of other attempts at explanation. But what actually happened? I don’t know.

                Many Christians are sincerely convinced that Jesus really is really real and that the Gospels represent a good straight-up biographical account of the most important parts of his life on Earth. And they also will readily admit that bad things happen to good people. Many have ideas about why that should be so, from it being part of a bigger plan to a consequence of the necessity of free will or whatever. But the real reason for the existence of evil? It’s a mystery. God only knows.

                If we want theists to acknowledge our sincerity in our certainty that life on Earth had a natural origin even though we can’t give an exact account of the details, we have to acknowledge the sincerity of theists whose own explanations are also incomplete. Or even inconsistent…we’ve yet to reconcile Relativistic and Quantum Mechanics, after all….



              3. Eric,

                Everything from “If” to “what is your conclusion” is something that you have added that is quite different from anything I have said here.

                Let me try and be as crystal clear here as I can instead of trying to figure out why or how you’ve come to these conclusions about my comment. No, I do not conclude the later. In general it would not occur to me to spend any time at all on questioning anyone’s self stated reasons for why they beleive something. Clear enough?

              4. “Taking what I said, and then clarified, to one possible extreme and claiming fallacy can be done for literally anything.”

                Is that ever a familiar tactic here!

    2. When I still believed, it was mainly because it didn’t occur to me to do otherwise. Everyone (or so I thought) believed in God – it was just normal. I’d had doubts about what I was taught for as long as I could remember, but I interpreted that as a problem with religion and its interpretations, rather than God himself. I was taught that “atheist” and “Satanist” were synonyms, and I didn’t even think about that, even though there was nothing wrong with my reading/comprehension skills (I was reading chapter books at five). The only Bibles I read in full back then were children’s ones, so I was unaware of the contradictions.)

      There was no Internet when I was a kid, and as a girl my science education was deliberately limited until I was a teenager.

      I knew the basics of science, but just assumed it was god-guided. It was only when I started looking more into science that I knew the little I had read of the Bible (then) was just wrong. Compared to most of the commenters on Jerry’s website, my science literacy is still pretty basic, but it’s now enough that I can argue the toss with most theists. And because of things like the internet, knowledge is much more accessible. (My education means I can tell the difference between good information and bad, which is critical too I think.)

  10. “Why do people still believe in religion and gods if science has otherwise proved the creation of the planet and evolution, as well as the fact that we don’t have souls, we have brains that create our personalities.”

    First of all, are your starting assumptions correct?

    Science has indeed provided an explanation for the creation of the planet ~ 4.5 billion years ago, and evolution does provide a good answer for the diversification of life into all the various forms we see today. Religious people look for remaining gaps; such as the creation of the universe ~ 14 billion years ago, or the creation (as opposed to evolution and diversification) of life.

    Science has not proven that we do not have souls. The evidence that our brains are responsible for our personalities is pretty sound, but neuroscience has not (yet) provided a complete explanation for human cognition and consciousness. The soul is not disproven, but so far it seems to be unnecessary. Science uses the principle of parsimony, aka “Occam’s razor” to dispense with unnecessary explanations, so unnecessary is still a bad status for the soul hypothesis. But, technically, it is not completely disproven. Also, the concept of a “soul” has shifted over time as our scientific knowledge has advanced.

    BTW, a side note about the application of Occam’s razor: If the available evidence can be explained by either of two hypotheses, and you think that the simpler one is not the correct one, the way to address the situation is to collect more data. Specifically, you should collect data that would clearly distinguish between the two hypotheses. This will probably require some effort to design an appropriate experiment to produce that data. This is part of what scientists do all the time.


    Anyway, that was all nitpicking your assumptions. Now I’ll try to provide some answers. Why do people still try to fill those gaps with their gods?

    1) They were raised that way. What a remarkable coincidence that most people follow the religious beliefs of their parents. This was true for me, and I eventually discarded my beliefs when I went to college.

    2) A general tendency towards superstition. Plenty of people still believe in astrology, lucky charms, ‘alternative’ medicine, etc. Why does religion get called out for special consideration?

    3) Comfort and a safety net. See the work of Phil Zuckerman regarding the correlation of atheism to social services and stability across modern societies.

    1. RE creation of planet Earth and the rest of the solar system: see the “nebular hypothesis.”

    2. Quote: “Science has not proven that we do not have souls.”

      It is not the job of anyone to disprove said claim; it is the claim-maker who is saddled with providing evidence for the claim that there is such a thing as a soul.

      But given that we KNOW the biological origins of homo sapiens, and that we are merely a part of the vast tree of carbon-based life which has evolved on planet earth in the last 3.5 billion years, how does the idea of a soul map onto this fact?

    3. The soul hypothesis originated as a way to explain how humans work, because our ancestors thought souls were the only way humans could possibly work. Now that we have a more robust explanation, the soul hypothesis is useless. It doesn’t need to be disproven any more than the hypothesis that God makes lightning needs to be disproven. Nobody nowadays believes God makes lighning, because we teach the real origin of lightning in grade school, and it’s easy to grasp. People still believe in souls because the science of human behavior is too complicated to teach to children.

      1. “The soul hypothesis originated as a way to explain how humans work, because our ancestors thought souls were the only way humans could possibly work.”


        “Now that we have a more robust explanation”

        Have we?

        1. We know that bodies/brains do all the things that souls/minds used to be thought to do, except for the things that are incoherently described or have never been observed and thus don’t require an explanation. The explanation is more robust for discarding the unnecessary hypothesis of dualism.

        2. Once upon a time, souls were thought to be composed of breath, or blood, or combinations of four basic elements including fire and water. There is no one infinite definition of soul. As we learn ever more about our bodies and brains, we
          will, perhaps, know that we don’t have souls.

  11. I’ve written a lot on this, you might have trouble getting access, but my article “Beyond Belief” in Sociological Spectrum in 2008 addresses the predictors of belief and nonbelief, and I develop that further in my 2014 book Changing Faith. Related to your specific question about science, my research on scientific literacy and verbal ability (Social Science Quarterly, 2011, Social Science Research 2010) suggests that people in sectarian denominations and those who hold fundamentalist beliefs restrict their social ties and information sources, and this makes them less knowledgeable about science and hinders their ability to communicate in a sophisticated fashion. If you can’t find these, you can goggle Sherkat and find my e-mail and I’ll send you the articles.

    1. I can attest to this from personal experience. I was raised in a fundamentalist Protestant home, and was for a time educated at a private Christian school (in Canada). There was no one I could talk to about religion and God who did not reinforce the same ideas about the invalidity of evolution, the wonderful and praiseworthy nature of God, and the inferiority and stubbornness of those who did not believe. It was not until I went to public school that I encountered any semblance of irreverence to God and appreciation for science, as well as encouragement to find information on the internet. This exposure gradually undermined my faith and changes my entire outlook. For the first time, I heard someone like Christopher Hitchens intone God’s name with sincere distaste. For all those who decry the “strident” opposition of New Atheists to religion; their stridency saved me from ignorance and guilt and fear. Those few dissenting voices against a sea of conformity made all the difference.

      1. >Those few dissenting voices against a sea of conformity made all the difference.

        Amen – this “preaching to the choir” criticism is nonsense. For me, the loud dissenting voices (think Sagan at the time) was my still small voice. Sure most of the audience was the choir, but most atheists I know today were not raised that way, but became that because of the courage of vocal strident atheists.

  12. There are a lot of questions that we do not know the answer to, and some people are very uncomfortable with this. Invoking an omnipotent God will explain away all these problems.

    At one time we didn’t know why the sun (apparently) crosses the heavens. Answer: the Sun God was carrying it in his chariot. Then we didn’t know why the many different kinds of living thing are, on the whole, well adapted to their niches. Answer: natural selection. Then we didn’t know where the atoms came from, and Isaac Newton (no less) thought that God had made in the first place. Answer: synthesis from quarks after the big bang, and then by nuclear reactions in stars.

    Some things we still don’t know: the origins of life (although we know the kind of chemistry that might have been involved); how a material system like the brain can link up with consciousness, which doesn’t feel like a material process; whether it was inevitable that quantum fluctuations would give rise to a Universe as interesting as ours (several possible answers to that last question).

    But I think the real reason is that believers imagine that God gives purpose and meaning to their lives. As to why that belief is illusory, and would be even if God exists, I recommend you look up what is called Euthyphro’s dilemma.

    1. “At one time we didn’t know why the sun (apparently) crosses the heavens. Answer: the Sun God was carrying it in his chariot.”

      Apart from chariot, I suppose, are you sure the explanation is wrong?

      I mean, of course, for Theists you would replace “Sun God” with “Sun Angel”, since there is one God who is invisible. But apart from that and possibly the chariot, do you know your Newtonian and Heliocentric explanation of Earth turning around its axis (with an angular momentum which seems to be infinitely conservable on your view!) is the right explanation?

      “how a material system like the brain can link up with consciousness, which doesn’t feel like a material process”

      It is not a material system which actively links up with consciousness, it is our soul, which is conscious, that is also vivifying our material systems, including brain.

      “As to why that belief is illusory, and would be even if God exists, I recommend you look up what is called Euthyphro’s dilemma.”

      It would be illusory if good were the will of “gods”, yes. But Theism has a very good take on Eutyphro. Good and God are ontologically synonymous. Though any choice by God is good (since being Goodness Itself He can chose nothing else), it does not just become good because so chosen, it is good because of the One Chosing Being Himself, that is, Good.

      1. “It is not a material system which actively links up with consciousness, it is our soul, which is conscious, that is also vivifying our material systems, including brain”

        A soul? Where is it? Have you seen it?

        Oh dear! If you believe in a soul you are in the wrong place mush!

      2. You mean you really are a geocentrist?


        Erm…have you heard of this group of people who work at a place called, NASA? They’ve like, actually sent men to the Moon, and robots to pretty much every planet. And taken lots of pretty pictures, too.

        Did you know that not only your whole life, but all of human history has played out on a pale blue dot that’s actually visible through the rings of Saturn if you’re on the other side of them?

        …you do know, do you not, that Saturn has rings, as well as moons that orbit it, and other moons that orbit Jupiter? And that you can see them for your help with this nifty invention known as the telescope?

        As to your attempts at theodicity, Epicurus coughed up the evidence centuries before the crafting of the terrestrial biography for your favorite Jewish archangel that there aren’t any powerful agents within the sphere of human influence with our best interests at heart. In modern terms, a simple question demonstrates the overwhelmingly powerful nature of the evidence:

        Why doesn’t Jesus ever call 9-1-1?

        Every time a young child with a cellphone calls for help in a crisis, she does more good than all the gods of all history every have combined.



  13. A wonderfully written letter.
    Never having being indoctrinated I can give you my opinion as a religious outsider. From most of the religious people I talk to I get the impression that religion provides explanations to all questions, to many people it doesn’t matter if the answers are true, only that they feel true. Also, you can use religion to buttress any belief you already have. Because you can point to a sacred text that either explicitly states your view, or you can tweak it to fit your view, you now have the ability to claim that your view is really god’s view instead of the other way round and this provides people with a sense of authority.
    Religion also provides people with a way to deal with actual or perceived personal tragedies. Many of the religious people I know have a family member with an addiction, experienced sexual assault, or a child or spouse has died and religion relieves them of their feeling of responsibility.
    Again, just my opinion.

  14. Dear Linda,

    You’re writing reflects the skills of a person far beyond your middle-school status. As another commentor noted here, you’ve already answered your own question.

    My strongest recommendation would be that you consider plaguing your teacher and parents to advance you to your 1st year of study at Cambridge today!

    1. Did you know that in the Catholic Middle Ages it was fairly common for someone to start university at 14/15 if at all going there, that is?

  15. Linda:

    As Richard Dawkins posited in “The God Delusion,” it is likely that our genetics predispose us to trust our parents. So, when parents tell children that their religion is true, children trust that it is. When confronted with contradictory positions, there seems to be a knee-jerk resistance even to contemplating that the religion foisted upon the child is wrong because that would amount to no longer trusting one’s parents. This resistance builds over time so that unless confronted with contrary evidence early or having a natural doubt, the “truth” becomes ingrained. The belief has time to become ingrained because parents typically shield their children from opposing views. This is likely not done with mean-spirited motivation, but from a sincere belief that this helps the child, and possibly with a bit of self-serving motivation for the parent to avoid confronting the possibility that the parent has been wrong all these years, and that the parent’s parents did not tell the truth (or at least were wrong). Add to this the innate resistance to admitting that you are wrong (even if just for believing your parents), and there is a powerful mechanism to resist reality no matter the evidence. It is a vicious cycle that feeds upon our natures.

    1. Indeed. I like how A.C. Grayling put it:

      “Religions survive mainly because they brainwash the young. Three-quarters of Church of England schools are primary schools; all the faiths currently jostling for our tax money to run their “faith-based” schools know that if they do not proselytize intellectually defenseless three- and four-year-olds, their grip will eventually loosen.

      Inculcating the various competing — competing, note — falsehoods of the major faiths into small children is a form of child abuse, and a scandal. Let us challenge religion to leave children alone until they are adults, whereupon they can be presented with the essentials of religion for mature consideration.

      For example: tell an averagely intelligent adult hitherto free of religious brainwashing that somewhere, invisibly, there is a being somewhat like us, with desires, interests, purposes, memories, and emotions of anger, love, vengefulness, and jealousy, yet with the negation of such other of our failings as mortality, weakness, corporeality, visibility, limited knowledge and insight; and that this god magically impregnates a mortal woman, who then gives birth to a special being who performs various prodigious feats before departing for heaven.

      Take your pick of which version of this story to tell: let a King of Heaven impregnate — let’s see — Danae or Io or Leda or the Virgin Mary (etc., etc.) and let there be resulting heaven-destined progeny (Heracles, Castor and Pollux, Jesus., etc., etc.) — or any of the other forms of exactly such tales in Babylonian, Egyptian, and other mythologies — then ask which of them he wishes to believe. One can guarantee that such a person would say: none of them.”

    2. I agree with this, and I added another part of Dawkins thoughts on the origin of religiosity farther down.

    3. ” So, when parents tell children that their religion is true, children trust that it is.”

      Including the religion of Evolution.

      I had a Christian and Creationist ma who kept a bit in the background while Evolutionist maternal grandparents pushed evolutionism on me.

      I didn’t become Christian till age 9 (or a little before) and I didn’t really question evolution until spending another year or two trying to find loopholes how it could fit with Christianity anyway.

      1. Evolution is not a religion, it’s a science. It’s based on fact, not faith, and there is plenty for evidence for it, unlike for gods. And it does not worship supernatural beings.

      2. In this earlier comment, hglundahl claimed not to have been induced to believe in a religion at a very young age. Now, ‘didn’t become a Christian till age 9 (or a little before)’ is not necessarily a contradiction, but it sounds like you were dropped into the religion pretty early. It’s a very common pattern for religious apologists to claim to have been atheists before converting, but they usually turn out to have been raised religious (most people still are, so it’s not surprising).

  16. The easy answers, indoctrination and wish thinking, are already known to Linda from her letter. So what can we add to that?

    Well, for one, we know that religion comes fairly naturally to humans because religion is so very common. In every region of the world, in almost every people we have encountered at every point in history we find some kind of religion. When Europeans traveled around the world and encountered people who have been isolated from them for ten thousand years, they found people with religion. The Aztecs, for example, had an elaborate religion. Looking further back in time at the earliest writings we have, cuneiform clay texts from the Sumerians in Ur, we find their writing is already full of gods and religious elements. The ancient Egyptians believed in their religion so strongly that they built giant pyramids, an enduring legacy even today.

    So while it’s obvious that people adopt the particular religion that they are born into, the one they hear from their mother’s knee, and it is also obvious that wish thinking plays a part in the existence and persistence of religion, it’s nearly universal nature suggests to me that religion might also be the product of some other kind of flaw in our brain. What the exact nature of that flaw is I’m not sure. One possibility is the overgeneralization of our “mental model”. That is, our brains seem well adapted for modeling other brains, for making a model of our own behavior and the behavior of others. As social animals this is not surprising. But that part of our brain that is always looking for agency (“did someone steal my bowl?”) in the world overgeneralizes, and sees agency where there is none. Something like that.

    Which raises the question what, exactly, is religion? Some elements of religion could be described as social rule following. Some could be described as superstition: believing in hidden connections that aren’t really there. One fairly common element of religion is seeing agency where there is none.

    1. I have wondered what the European explorers thought when they discovered whole societies of thousands to millions who never heard of God or the 6 days of creation. How could these descendants of Noah so completely forget their own history?
      I wonder if they wondered.

      1. John Locke makes a point of this when he uses theism as an example of where people claimed innate ideas. He points out that the literati in China was more or less atheistic (but not, in modern terms, areligious). 17th century – and so I am pretty sure that he wondered how they fit into the Christian chronology. No doubt Spinoza and Hobbes, who were already questioning said chronology did.

      2. Good question. I expect that they did, but probably not for long or very seriously.

        The Bible is full of stories of people worshiping “false gods”, even when they were next door neighbors to the people worshiping the “true god”. Lots of killing ensued.

        So my first guess is that they probably felt themselves to be in the same position as Joshua moving through The Promised Land, encountering and, as needed, slaughtering followers of various false gods.

        The Bible does not ponder much on why these people worship false gods or on how they lost knowledge of the true god (and in many cases it was clear they had not heard of YHWH). I suspect the explorers did not ponder it much either. Though, I should add, that the Bible itself evolves on the question, starting off treating these “other gods” as possibly real rivals to YHWH, as actual other gods, and only later evolving into true mono-theism that rejects the existence of these other gods. I have a few Christian friends who think that every false god, every false religion, actually has a demon behind it, and that some of the extraordinary claims of these other religions, miracle claims and the sort, derive from the demon’s power! So there is that too.

    2. Gluonspring, you touch there on something not yet addressed in this thread: the reasons for our innate tendency to religion.
      “What the exact nature of that flaw is I’m not sure”. Nor am I, but Michael Shermer in his “Why people believe weird things” points out 2 of them:
      – ‘Patternicity’, our tendency to recognise patterns, even when there are none, and
      – The ‘Intentional Stance” (on which Dennet has some interesting things to say too), our tendency to ascribe agency to processes, even if there is none.
      He also makes clear we have these tendencies for good evolutionary reasons.

  17. Many people want to live forever (it is an attractive notion) and religion provides a socially accepted justification for believing in the transcendent (soul/afterlife).

    I believe that most if not all religious people sincerely would easily abandon the notion of God if there were no afterlife attached to it.

    So ask people: Would you believe in God if there was no afterlife? Most people would think it was nonsensical as they are closely linked, but no one would admit they are the same thing. God does not equal heaven or nirvana or elysium or whatever.

    People’s ultimate desire is a selfish one in religion: “I want an afterlife”. I would further contend that they do not have to justify evidence for the soul, just that there is something that functions after they die.

    It is easy to neglect reason for the undiscovered country.

      1. Perhaps one component of the retention of religion into adulthood has to do with an innate need to assign blame to or to offer thanks to someone or something when bad or good fortune occurs without any natural source. It is not unusual to hear someone blame God for their misfortune or to praise him at times of good luck.

        1. Yes, I call that the “Daddy syndrome”. A child is taught from infancy, through the all-important formative years that this “god” is a kind of father figure, and a part of one’s brain remains stuck in this mental infancy or child-like state.

          When one exercises intellectual honesty, accepts 100% responsibility for their own life, and cares more about what is true over what is familiar or comforting, this is when one truly grows up.

  18. I like to visualize beliefs and mental models of the universe as thought bubbles floating over our heads, some bubbles are transparent, some are opaque, some are fragile and others are rigid, some are large and some small.

    When a belief is challenged / criticized the bubble starts to jiggle – which can be uncomfortable and interpreted as the subjective experience of being offended. You can do one of several things:

    1) Ignore the challenge – bubble becomes rigid and immune to further attacks.
    2) Accept the criticism and adopt the new information into your existing model of how things work – bubble becomes larger.
    3) Accept the critique and replace your existing views with the new model – burst your bubble and build a new one.

    Religion is a bubble that has been placed upon you through early childhood indoctrination (in most cases) and you are usually taught to approach challenges using option 1 above. Many of us have chosen to go with option 3 and have burst our religious bubbles and replaced them with a new atheistic bubble.

    In general, life is about building up these bubbles that are constantly shifting around, expanding and blowing up. Sometimes it can be pretty traumatic – e.g. losing faith. Sometimes it can be amazing – e.g. learning the truth about evolution, falling in love etc…

    Good luck on your project, I wish I had good teachers back then – I was stuck in a Catholic school and had to go through my de-conversion alone in my head.

  19. I think there are many reasons people believe.

    For one, most people are terrified of death and are comforted by the thought that their existence continues after their physical bodies are gone.

    People are also scared of being at the mercy of the universe around them. So the idea that there is a power that can intercede on their behalf and that it is possible to successfully ask that power for help is also seductive.

    Finally, people want to feel that they matter. If your only way to do that, sadly, is to feel that you were specially selected by some powerful entity, then that becomes a desperate desire. As a result, you also look at the parts of science that diminish that sense of specialness with anger and horror.

    But one of the inexorable effects of science is to understand that we live on a planet on the outskirts of one of unfathomably many galaxies (which may be part of many universes!) and that we are animals like the other animals on the earth. We’re not the center of the Universe and we weren’t specially created.

    My solution to this problem is to define people’s importance by what they bring into the world – new knowledge and understanding, new art, and just basic kindness to others.

    Good luck with your project.

  20. The two reasons for belief that I have observed are: 1) the believer was raised that way, and either unthinkingly maintains the practices of belief (including the expectation of reward), or only sees the evidence that seems to confirm their beliefs (“confirmation bias”); 2) Fear or disquietude. I have observed friends and family members, who, nominally religious, become more religious when someone they know dies. I have heard them say that the only way they could make sense of a person’s death was to believe that there must be an afterlife, or that there must be a reason (unknown, but one that justifies the loss) for the death. I have also seen the search for “why” in relation to physical suffering or other intense hardship.

    I know that there are many other reasons people believe in god, but those are second-hand. Depending on the amount of time available, I would recommend H.L. Mencken’s Treatise on the Gods as a sensible look at the origins of religion. It was written in 1930, but I don’t think we’ve added much to the story since then. (It is still in print, and I believe still under copyright, but I’ve seen online versions.) Also, it’s been a while since I read Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, and I don’t recall that it deals specifically with religion, as opposed to political movements, but a lot of what he says applies to the social aspects of religion’s appeal.

    Finally, good luck to “Linda”!

  21. Linda, you read as if you don’t need any oldsters’ advice about how to be without gods but rather as if it would be interesting to know different stories for how people come to be atheists.

    Take Northern Ireland where Catholics and Protestants have been segregated educationally for decades: they do not go to the same school. Catholics politically were expected to support a united Ireland and Protestants opposed them. Both sides engaged in gun-running (my family among them), racketeering and worse: and both sets of clerics were happy to run their own petty parishes, keeping their flocks in check with the bogeyman of what might happen if the other side took over.

    For my dad, after one last indignity by his Bishop, that was enough: and when he refused an act of obedience, the Bishop excommunicated him. He said that my dad would never get a job again in Northern Ireland. These are powerful people, even in places where they have no official relation to the state.

    It must be easier for some rather than others to give up God. Because the disapproval of your community will be lesser or greater. And the amount of condemnation will depend on the strength or beleagueredness of the religious group you come from. There are occasions when the demands of the religious authorities and their cover for gangsters become unbearable. In such a situation you would end up having no choice but to leave the church. Hope this helps and good luck with your project. x

  22. If nearly everyone who provides physical and emotional support for you as an infant and a child wants to they can literally make you believe anything — no matter how crazy it might seem to those who are not indoctrinated.

    We have proof of this through all the world’s various religions. Your support group (e.g. your parents and community) can make you believe that someone is listening to your private thoughts, that the dead will rise, that winged horses exist and that a powerful space creature (or creatures for polytheists) created everything we see. This is actually a nearly perfect experiment in brainwashing. The number of people who change or get religion as adults is so small in percentage terms that it can be largely ignored — or, explained through emotional stress.

    Religion is almost entirely a matter of childhood indoctrination. It works so well because the people doing the indoctrination provide complete physical and emotional support. If even a small crack happens in this the indoctrination can fail. This is why religions have such strong laws against blasphemy — they are vital to protect the religion.

  23. There’s a Jewish story that explains it all for me:
    “Grandpa, why do you go to synagogue when you’re an atheist”
    “You know my fried Schlomo?”
    “Yes; he’s really devout.”
    “Right. Schlomo goes to talk to God. I go to talk to Schlomo.”

    We are social organisms; religion is a social phenomenon. The belief is less important.

    1. Quote: “We are social organisms; religion is a social phenomenon. The belief is less important.”

      Not to 99.999999% of the believers I know.

  24. Linda has pretty well answered her own question, and everyone else has filled in most of the gaps that might remain. My only contribution is to point to the social side of churchgoing, which can keep people turning up Sunday after Sunday even after they have stopped believing in any meaningful sense. When we lived in a small village, many of the local activities (choir, sports clubs, amateur dramatics, village fetes) were centred on the church and its regulars. It was almost easier to go along and take part in the familiar rituals than to stand aside!

  25. Dear Linda,

    Another fruitful line of inquiry, though one you might undertake in future years, is to examine what some people substitute for religion when their birth religion does not seem to work any more.

    A quick glance at the internet shows long lists of sites devoted to living a purpose-driving life, or finding the meaning behind Nature, or how to connect better with the communities you are in.

    All of these show that religion and religious communities serve a social purpose. I know several non-believers who still attend church to see their friends and (depending on their community) to engage in activities where they can contribute to helping others. I’ve known many others who have left their faith community, only to land in some secular ‘religion’ that serves the same role of establishing connections. All of these individuals are faith-less, in that they did not really believe the particular religious dogma of their churches, but were in it anyhow because it was a ready-made culture and community they felt at home with.

    This is often called tribalism.

    You will see a lot of debate among certain atheists about whether there should be such communities of non-believers.

    Best wishes. You are well on the way to living a life of learning, discernment, and inquiry.


  26. Dear Linda,
    Simple animals can’t learn, their brains are wired by their genes. More complex animals have brains that can change with input from the senses and so can learn from their own experience. More advanced still are animals that can watch and learn from others experience, by imitating them.
    Humans have the most complex brains of all. We have hard wired tendencies, and we can learn from our own experience, and we can watch and learn from the experience of others but best of all, we can learn from the experiences of other people thousands of miles and thousands of years away from us by listening to the stories they tell. It’s our greatest strength but it is also our deepest and steepest pitfall. There’s nothing in our brains that can tell a true story from a fable so we will go with the stories that our tribe identifies with. Unless, like you, we take the time to think about what we’re hearing.

    1. Similar to this, I’d say simply that humans have vivid imaginations, and with the ability to convey thoughts with words came storytelling. On those two rocks, religion was founded.

  27. Some fine comments here. My final denouement came a couple of years after thoroughly questioning the belief I was brought up with(age14) when I did ask questions from the people in the church. No one understood the questions nor did they appear to have thought about any of them.they advised me to just go along and pretend. I stuck with what I considered to be intellectual integrity and trust in myself. It was a wrench but it left me free and led to further trust in my own ability and strength. so to try to address the actual question-I think a lot of people simply don’t think about things a great deal and if they happen to they don’t have enough trust in themselves to step outside superficial societal guidelines.Or they are too worried about how to get into the adult world and make a living or get a partner-so they stick with a kind of herd mentality-which can be in itself very (falsely)comfortable.
    I congratulate you on thinking freely and I have found in life that if one makes decisions based on honest understanding and respect for oneself-even when the decision to be made scares you a bit-that works and the world turns out to be very flexible and open and you learn your own goodness and honesty. On the other hand if one makes decisions based even slightly on fear or willing ignorance or trying to stay comfortable the world contracts and further neuroses find a bed to multiply in.

  28. Linda,

    I don’t have a direct answer, but your question leads me to the observation that while there is a lot of academic literature on the !*origin*! of religion, there is considerably less on the !*persistence*! of religion in the face of counter-evidence.

    I think there are a variety of interacting reasons, but all have something to do with religion having a ‘hook’ so that one’s religious beliefs become a basic way of orienting oneself to the world.

    Both atheist David Eller and Christian apologist CS Lewis have similar metaphors. Eller says that for many religion is less like something you claim to see, but is more like a pair of (tinted) glasses through which one sees everything else. More optimistically, Lewis says his religion is not something he sees, but like the sunlight by which one sees all else. Perhaps one could also say religion is like an over-decorated picture frame in which one puts all pictures.

    In some cases the hook of religion is quite toxic. I hesitate to recommend technical literature to you, but you might enjoy the chapter comparing religion to Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky (“The jaws that bite, the claws that catch”) in psychologist Valerie Tarico’s book “Trusting Doubt”

    1. I should probably add some notes from my own experience. I grew up in a highly liberal religious household (with a Christian father and Buddhist mother) in which the Bible stories were largely seen as symbolic metaphor, and allegory.

      My difficulties with continuing to identify as Christian developed when I realized the Bible was a bizarre mixture of beauty and barbarism and that progressive Christians cherry pick the Bible a lot.

      There is no meaningful symbolic interpretation of the genocides in Genesis, or of God’s request of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, and some liberal Christians (mainly Catholics) hem and haw over whether there was a real Adam and Eve.

      Liberal Christianity is a kind of residual religion like the stain left on a tea cup after you pour out the tea. (Or maybe something like what biologists call a vestigia trait.) But it’s a much much better way to grow up than being a fundamentalist and I remain grateful for many of my experiences there.

      I continue to be active in the community known formally as “secular Buddhism”.

      1. I wonder if there’s something like confirmation bias too. We tend to attribute meaning to coincidence. So if we dream about someone we haven’t seen for ten years and see them the next day, we’re much more likely to remember that than all the times the opposite occurs. Some consider that strange, and for others that leads to a belief they have precognition. In reality, it means nothing.

  29. I was raised Catholic, and for myself, I can answer that my reason for believing at the time is just that I never had a reason to question it (until I became an adult). I never encountered abuse or any of the traumatizing experiences that drive people from their religion. For me, I was able to go about my life as an ordinary kid, and going to Catholic school was just part of it. So, to summarize – I believed because I just never thought about it.

    When I went off to college, though, I started encountering new ideas about the world, meeting and befriending people who saw the world differently. Over time, as I read more, talked to more people and just lived my life, I realized that religion just seemed irrelevant to real life. I never had a difficult de-conversion or even and family problems from becoming an atheist. I just gradually drifted away, but as an adult I encounter religion more than I’d like to, and I’ve realized it’s not just an old-fashioned idea I can ignore so simply. I’ve realized that, as an adult, I have to be able to justify my own opinions and views of the world, so I’ve read a lot more about science, books on religion/atheism, etc. So it’s ironic that I think more (and know more!) about religion now, as a non-believer, than I did when I was a believer. I can’t say if it’s like that for everyone, but that’s how it is for me.

    I hope this helps.

    1. Similarly for me, I was raised as a southern baptist and though I had a questioning attitude towards most things, challenging the veracity of a book held in such high regard by my community didn’t enter into my thoughts until adulthood. I recall another factor which played a role in my beliefs persisting- the demonization of those who publicly challenged the belief system of my community i.e. Richard Dawkins was evil, manipulative, and not to be trusted. Also, evolution and geology were conveniently left out of the syllabus in my Christian grade school. Were it not for my later interest in psychology and Steven Pinker commenting on what Dawkins actually says, I may have never gained an interest in biology, evolution, etc. And I may never have become an atheist. Just as kids have been taught patriotism is a virtue and never questioned it, despite it being a vacuous, solipsistic notion. So too does religion often remain in the hearts and minds of those in communities which relentlessly champion it. Turning a blind eye to those who challenge its tenets.

  30. Dear Linda,

    Every thought is an act of labor. It takes resources — energy and time — to achieve. When children have a significant portion of their time dedicated to hearing specific stories, the elements of those stories become embedded in their memories, and themselves become resources available to future thought processes.

    We all have only so many resources available for thinking. Many children spend far more hours being told stories that buttress religious creation myths than they spend learning science.

  31. Hi Linda.

    First of all, congrats for your selection of the theme for the I Wonder project, really interesting.

    My favorite reason our ancestors came up with innumerous gods and religions, during the early history of our species, is the need for explanation.

    Our brains do not like to carry on with unanswered questions, and our ancestors had plenty of motivation to create entities able to put some order in the prevailing chaos.

    We are now in a sort of transition period, the supernatural tool that helped us back then is not necessary anymore.

    When you come of age you will be able to look back and say, how could so many take so long to understand?

    Cheers, keep asking and wondering!

  32. If you have read this far {Linda}, congratulations on your project. I have a 13 yr old daughter who has also recently come out as an atheist and she says “proud of it”.Our teaching has been to make up her own mind while trying to dispel misinformation about religion. We encourage her to be willing to change her mind about her beliefs if the evidence supports a change. Thats not easy for adults much less a teenage

    A few more reasons for your growing list as i was once a believer (now I am Free):

    -Relationship with god “God the Father”
    -Fear that if he exists he will not like you
    -Everyone else seems to believe, could they all be wrong?
    -Not trusting your own decision about the facts because you might not be smart enough and what if your wrong

    Good Luck!! Stay Smart!

  33. Linda

    I can answer your question from both sides. I became a christian at age 12, and became an atheist about 35 years later.

    My family wasn’t religious, but I had a curiousity about religion. My family had moved to a very religious part of the country and I liked the friends I made, the community, being part of something and believing in something. I liked believing that every happened for a reason. I really wanted to believe.

    As an adult, I began to see through the smoke. The most important was the realization that religion was powerless, impotent. Religion simply did not matter in how a person or a church behaved. There was nothing there. Then I paid attention to the bible and saw that it was a few pretty sound bites surrounded by filth. I still paid lip service to spirituality, when I decided I needed to understand evolution. I read several books, including one called Why Evolution Is True. (You may have heard of it.:) ) Evolution is elegant but brutal. No loving god would create a system where nearly every animal died by starvation or being eaten alive. I rejected the last pretense of religion.

    Reality is amazing! I don’t miss religion. I wish I hadn’t wasted so many years on it.

    I hope this helps. Good luck on your project.

  34. Hi Linda,
    Thanks for the maturity and quality of your question. From the comments above, you have impressed this forum.
    I have only one thing to add to the fine advice already given and I believe, based on your writing, that you are old enough to understand a hard truth: There is not always just black and white in the world. Not all ‘believers’ really believe. Remember that there are some out there who will profess belief in religious dogma simply for personal gain, whether greed, power, cruelty, or other nefarious reason. These people will do their best to keep others from abandoning religion and so they are one more reason why people still believe despite evidence to the contrary.

  35. Great question, Linda, good luck with your project! My thoughts:

    People believe things that are not true so often and so consistently that we may conclude that belief in untruth is a feature of the human mind, either evolved because those who believed in falsehoods ended up being more successful at reproduction, or arriving in our minds as an unfortunate accident, as a byproduct of other features that were and may still be useful.

    The psychological origins of fabulism – defined here as belief in things that lack sufficient evidence – can only be guessed at currently, but I prefer to think that fabulism evolved in its own right, that belief in certain kinds of falsities served us so well in the days when much truth was unattainable that evolution favored it. Belief in one’s absolute rightness imbued one with confidence, for example, and confidence has been shown to produce better performances. Certainty on the basis of a few scraps of evidence, further, or just a story or two from someone else’s mouth, spared the ancient denizens of the jungle the unaffordable time and trouble of pondering too deeply, or conducting actual research. Certainty led often enough to action, we might guess, and action in the jungle might have been on average better than doing nothing, even if that action was based on nonsense.

    1. belief in untruth is a feature of the human mind,

      Not untruth, so much, as a lack of skepticism. Humans seem naturally credulous to our parents, family, and authority generally. This might be incidental or it might be adaptive since one does not have time in life to figure out everything on one’s own. Moreover, in the state of nature, figuring things out on one’s own can be dangerous (Oh! I just discovered that some snakes are poisonous).

    2. I meant to say, I agree with your cognitive short-cuts thought. In the state of nature doing science is probably counter-productive. Finding epistemic truth probably was not a survival trait. Making quick inferences, which were right often enough in the narrow circumstances where they arose, probably was.

  36. As seen in the comments above, there may be several reasons for religious belief not excluding each other, or different reasons for different persons.

    I’d like to add another one that seems to be missing so far: Believing that you have evidence for it. My own very short brush with superstitious thinking at the age of 12 (thinking I could ward off bad luck by wishing it) came about precisely because I was told a story where it was said to have worked.

    That is also one of the reasons so many believers have problems to accept the theory of evolution: To think that no one but god could have created something as complex as living organisms, is seen as powerful proof for his existence, so the alternative explanation by the theory of evolution undermines the credibility of this proof, and with it, the faith in god.

    1. Believing there’s actual evidence, Yes!
      I was never actually told, as a child, that the whole bible or particular miracle stories in it were literally true (my parents were Newman Society/Vatican II Catholics and science graduates, however devout), but was nevertheless led to believe that there were everday, easily observed, reasonable grounds for belief in a god who was actually present in church, and that (for instance) souls had been detected by a change in weight at the moment of bodily death. I never attended church schools as my older brothers and sisters did (something to do with Mum’s public advocacy of The Pill about the time I started school, whatever that was about), but that was the sort of stuff that filtered down to me from the priests and nuns.
      Happening to observe the ‘presence light’ being refilled with oil and relit, learning that the bells during mass were rung by an altar boy, and (at the dinner table one time when I was six or seven) my dad correcting my sister’s avowal that the world and everything in it was created in the course of six days (the words ‘evolution’ and ‘Darwin’ were mentioned, and she burst into tears) started this excessively factual view of religion falling like slow dominoes; the last time I thought there might be something there was shortly before the C14 results on the Turin ‘shroud’ came in.
      Trying to appreciate the value of religion as metaphorical took several more years (including trying to read the bible as literature – ha!) to run its course to the end.

      1. Believing there’s actual evidence, Yes!

        That’s an excellent point. I still remember the first time I heard a Christian tell me that Jesus was the best-evidenced historical figure ever, and that there was more evidence for his existence than even for Julius Caesar. He might even have been sincere — and, at the time, as a young college student, I certainly didn’t have a clue. I think I was skeptical but also knew so little about ancient history that it didn’t seem like such an outrageous claim.

        Of course, the fact of the matter is that, as an historical figure, Jesus is about the worst-evidenced figure there is and Caesar the best…but, on the other hand, the evidence for the mythological construction of a fake visit by an ancient Jewish demigod is about as good as it gets.

        And, as you note, there’s the Shroud, and the claimed miracles of Lourdes, and Fatima, and all the rest. All are laughable cons that fall apart the instant you start prodding them…but if you never have reason to prod them, the edifice seems so overwhelming that to suggest it’s just a scam seems like paranoid conspiracy theory crazy talk.


  37. Linda,

    I’ve just read (or at least skimmed) through the answers above. And many are excellent at giving reasons why people adopt a belief in a god in the first place…

    …but none actually answer your question of why an individual persists in belief in the face of powerful evidence to the contrary.

    For that, you have to turn to psychology, and especially what is known as, “cognitive dissonance.”

    Cognitive dissonance is a very powerful tool that explains all sorts of irrational human behaviors. It recognizes that we experience multiple conflicting drives and motivators and experience pain from some of them. We naturally seek to reduce pain…but the problem comes that what you must do to reduce one source of pain may well increase the pain you experience from another source.

    Hazing is an excellent example. When you go to college, you may wish to join a sorority, and there’re all sorts of good reasons to do so — they can potentially be good social support structures, a ready-made family away from home. But some of them are insecure in their convictions…and so they (typically unknowingly) rely upon the effects of cognitive dissonance to “strengthen the bonding experience” or however they might phrase it. Hazing is the requiring (or even forcing) of initiates to undergo painful or humiliating activities before accepting them into the group.

    Superficially, it would seem absolutely nuts. Why would you want to have anything at all to do with people who would do such awful things to you?

    But, in practice, it’s quite powerful. What happens is that people think to themselves, “Gee, I’m going through Hell itself in order to get into this sorority. I wouldn’t do something like that unless it really was something really special worth all this bother. Therefore, the sorority must really be something really special worth all this bother.” And that persists afterwards. “Remember the way you had to run naked through the brambles in freezing weather and almost died? You wouldn’t have done that unless it was worth it; therefore, it was worth it.”

    That, of course, also convinces the members that they should, in turn, require even more outrageous and dangerous “proof of loyalty” or whatever of the next crowd. If the initiates are truly dedicated, they’ll do it; if the won’t do it, they’re not worthy to join the ranks.

    You have unquestionably experienced cognitive dissonance yourself. You might have dithered between two toys when you were younger, picked one of them, later discovered that you would have been better off with the one you didn’t pick…and then proceeded to convince yourself that the toy you didn’t pick was really worthless and the one you actually picked was even better than you initially thought, even though it actually isn’t. More than one adult has done that with cars, homes…spouses…

    …and worldviews.

    When you read the Bible with fresh eyes, you discover that it opens with a story about an enchanted garden with talking animals and an angry wizard. (Adam and Eve and the Serpent and God in the Garden of Eden.) It later features a talking plant — on fire! — that gives magic wand lessons to the reluctant hero. (Moses and the burning bush.) And it ends with an utterly bizarre zombie snuff pr0n fantasy where the king of the undead gets his intestines fondled through a gaping chest wound. (“Doubting Thomas.”)

    No adult would ever want to admit to taking seriously such palpable nonsense. And so true believing Christians don’t. They instead wax poetically at length about “the mystery of faith” and the elegance of this and the deep meaning of that and the sophistication of the other. But none of that changes the fact that it’s still enchanted gardens, magic wands, and sick-and-twisted zombies.

    They do this because it would cause great agony to admit to themselves that they’ve invested so much of their lives and their personal identities to the childishness, and they don’t want to admit, even to themselves, that they’re the sort of person who could be so astonishingly foolish. So they protect themselves from that pain by digging in their heels even deeper and inventing all sorts of new reasons why it’s perfectly fine to think that the ultimate source of all moral authority would drown every last kitten on the planet (Noah’s Flood) or murder hundreds of thousands of babies (The Tenth Plague)…or do some other truly horrific things to girls just like you and their families (Numbers 31).

    The sane thing to do, of course, is to admit your error…but that’s (typically incorrectly) perceived as being even more painful than rationalizing all the really nasty baggage that gets carried around everywhere, so people retreat from the perceived pain of admitting error into the familiar pain of business as usual.

    If your education to this point has been complete, you’ll have by now thought of the story of the emperor’s new clothes…and, now, you hopefully have a new appreciation for why all the adults pretended the emperor was clothed and it took the young boy who hadn’t yet invested himself into the clothing myth to break the spell.

    You can also probably imagine the anger the adults would have directed at the boy for exposing their humiliation and forcing them to confront their pain head-on…and how fear of that real-world pain can cause people to know full well that it’s all nonsense but to not only not dare to say so publicly, but to outwardly pretend to fully embrace the nonsense.

    …but I’ll let somebody else elaborate on that one, as I’ve already rambled on longer than I should….

    Enjoy the project! You’re lucky to have the chance to do something like this.



    1. There’s another piece of the puzzle that I should add…and that’s to identify what the gods actually are and what their function and purpose is.

      And it’s very simple, actually.

      Gods are a particular type of stock character in a certain variety of fiction. The authors of the fiction use the gods to express propositions that the authors wish people to accept unquestioningly, and, to do so, they rely on the authority of the gods. The gods themselves, in the fiction, establish their authority by performing impossible feats — miracles. And not just any miracles, but the most important and impressive and significant miracles of all, ones that can’t even be topped in the imagination. God created everything, and Jesus will return you back to life after you die.

      It is very important from a technical literary perspective that the miracles that the gods perform really must be impossible in reality, else somebody else could come along, perform the miracle, and thereby usurp the authority of the gods (and the gods’s authors!) for themselves.

      The more successful gods establish priesthoods to speak for the gods long after the original authors have died. That’s why we still remember Jesus, who founded his church upon the rock of Peter, and why all popes trace their authority back to Peter.

      In so doing, the priests themselves can thereby wield all the power and authority of the gods. Jesus wants you to give ten percent — no, better make that fifteen percent, and twenty for the truly righteous — twenty-five percent of your income (pre-tax, of course) to the Church. And who’re you to challenge Jesus’s authority and question him?

      The trick, of course, lies in convincing people that the stories of the gods are actual, factual, and honest reporting. And the techniques the priests use are no different from those of any other confidence scam. “Trust me, I have inside information; this stock set set to soar!” “No need to take this cherry car to your own mechanic to check it out; it’s a real beaut!” “Don’t you see? Everybody else is doing it, and they can’t be worng; you gotta get in on the action, yourself, before it’s too late!”

      What they all have in common is a reliance upon faith — and it’s no accident that faith lies at the heart of religion, too.

      Most people wouldn’t buy Arizona oceanfront property on faith….but overwhelming numbers buy entire fanciful worldviews with talking animals and collection plates in the pews, all on faith.

      As to why they do…others have already covered the childhood indoctrination angle, and I hope my earlier post helps you understand why they stay in long after they’ve grown up enough to know better.

      Realizing that “faith” is simply a confidence scam and priests are, wittingly or otherwise, just garden-variety conmen with a particularly profitable graft, helps to understand why this particular delusion has such staying power.

      “Follow the money,” in other words…all the way back to the god characters in the book who, by design, can’t be beat and who “just happen” to be telling you exactly what the authors want you to believe conconditionaly.


    2. Hi Linda,

      To add to what Ben Goren has said about _how_ people maintain religious beliefs that are completely at odds with scientific knowledge of the natural world I would add ‘avoidance’ and ‘compartmentalization’.

      Some people simply avoid or ignore the scientific facts which would otherwise cause cognitive dissonance. People can go their whole lives without ever seriously examining the religious beliefs they have organized their lives around. And they have lots of help from people who distort and misrepresent these troublesome scientific principles (like evolution, geology, etc.) so that they can be safely ignored.

      With compartmentalization, people hold two different standards for evaluating what is true about the world: the religious precepts of faith and revelation, versus reason and evidence which they use in pretty much every other facet of their lives (except maybe politics). This is most apparent in scientists who remain religious believers, since they are unable to apply rational scientific standards of evidence to religion without creating cognitive dissonance. However, all religious people must use compartmentalization to some degree, since no one takes everything on faith (as in religious faith: believing in the absence of evidence) in everyday life. People make rational choices based on experience (evidence, however anecdotal it may be).

      Enjoy your project, and NEVER stop thinking for yourself.

      1. To riff on that just a bit further…avoidance is a classic strategy to deal with cognitive dissonance. If you never think about the pain, you don’t experience it.

        And there’s a brilliant but positively soul-crushing novel which can give you all kinds of insight into what compartmentalization can entail taken to its extreme: George Orwell’s 1984. Make sure your parents and / or English teacher know before and after you read that one…it’s brutal, as awful as they come, but, again, an unmatched and brilliant insight into depths of the human psyche that can never have enough light shed on them. A true “must-read,” most gripping and engaging and as compelling a can’t-put-it-down page-turner as you’ll ever read…and yet utterly agonizing and horrific at the same time. Make sure you have ready a shoulder to cry on when you’re done…you’ll need it.


        1. Well then…… I guess I’ll read it but I’m not going to be able to ask my english teacher because my school gets out next week. Thank you for the recommendation.

          1. Aside from any literary merit, 1984 is also the source of many current memes. Orwell’s vision of a dystopian totalitarian society that controlled its peoples’ thoughts has been very influential. You’ve probably heard of a few – “Big Brother is watching you”, or doublethink – “War is peace, freedom is slavery”, etc. Also worth reading (and an easier read) is Animal Farm – “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”.

            1. Probably also worth mentioning that, though Orwell was perhaps the greatest of the dystopian authors and 1984 the apex (nadir?) of the genre, he’s far from the only of the dystopians worth reading. Huxley’s Brave New World especially also belongs on the short list.

              And, of course they all stand in stark contrast to the utopians they were reacting too; to fully understand the dystopians, you should also read the utopians, starting with Plato’s Republic, probably including Thomas More’s Utopia (which, obviously, gave its name to the genre), and including some of the Science Fiction greats like H.G. Wells’s Men Like Gods and, especially, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.

              “Linda,” consider yourself quite lucky to be discovering all these things for the first time!


              1. Brave New World crossed my mind too, it occupies the same area in my mental landscape as 1984.

                But I’d much rather read either of those books, dystopian or not, than some dreary turgid literary work in which I have no interest at all.

          2. You’re welcome. I’d normally write something along the lines of, “I hope you enjoy the book” at this point…but the word, “enjoy,” is not an accurate description of what one does with Orwell. It is very much not a nice book; if ever there were an anti-happy book, this is it. Fasten your seatbelt….


            1. In high school I had a teacher encouragement to write a comparison/contrast of the dystopias described in Brave New World and 1984. At the time it was just an exercise. But as time has marched on, it is more and more clear how prescient these authors were (Huxley using some visioning substances I believe) and how it appears we are moving to incorporate elements of both nightmares.

              1. Yes. That so many, especially in government, see the dystopian works not as cautionary tales but as inspirational reading represents the true horror of the literature.


              2. I feel that way about Philip K Dick too. He may have taken a lot of hallucinogenics and was constantly paranoid but more and more I feel like a character in his stories.

              3. Just so long as I don’t wake up in a Schwarzenegger movie adaptation of one of his novels, I think I might be able to manage….


              4. Somehow, I just can’t imagine anybody other than Ahnuhld getting his ass to Mars for two…weeks. And does the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘s triple-breasted whore still put in a cameo in the sleazy-but-noble working class bar?


  38. Linda,
    I have not yet looked over the comments up there but I think a pretty good argument for why people tend to believe in the supernatural is that it is a hold-over from when it made survival sense to believe that something makes things happen for a purpose. This is described in Richard Dawkins book The God Delusion. I do not recall if he got this idea from someone else, or if it is his.

    It goes like this:
    When we were living in the wild as a kind of brainy primate, we would at times see things like movement in the tall grass. Now moving grass would be caused by something, but what? It could be the breeze, and so not be dangerous. But it could also be a lion whose purpose right then was to kill and eat us.
    Any ancestor that assumed that such things were just the wind would eventually be proven disasterously wrong, and they would not pass on their genes.
    Any ancestor that assumed that a stirring in the grass was a lion would run from it. Now they would sometimes be wrong with no real good or harm done. But sometimes they would have been right and so managed to escape the lions a bit more often.
    We are descendants of those whose genes directed us to make choices that turned out to be good for survival. Those useful genes included those that make us even today perceive that events are caused by something with an intention. Back then, it was moving grass caused by a lion. Today is is what caused you survive an airplane crash, or why a huge hurricane hit New Jersey.

    And so today we still often think that events are not only caused by something — by the weather, by disease causing microbes, or by earthquakes. Many of us tend to think that things happen for an intention or for a purpose. Since there is no material evidence for this agent that causes stuff to happen, some of us declare that mysterious things that happen are caused by a supernatural entity. They are caused by god, or gods, or spirits, or ghosts, or whatever. This tendency is reinforced if one is brought up in a religious family. But this tendency can also be overcome by being reared in a different household, or by sheer intellect.

    1. I like the story better when they’re at a watering hole. The one who thinks it’s the wind gets plenty of water, but eventually gets eaten when it isn’t the wind. The one who thinks it’s a lion, will perhaps run when it’s the wind and may not get enough water. It’s the one who is cautious but evaluates the situation, that doesn’t get eaten and gets more water…and passes critical thinking skills to their progeny.

      BTW, how does an ancestor not pass on their genes?

  39. Dear Linda, I think people believe in gods because we are really smart animals. We’re storytellers, we’re order seekers, and risk takers. Imagine our ancestors thinking about seeds, what story would they tell each other around the campfire to explain how a seed contains the ability to become a plant? It’s also easy to see the biological advantages in trusting elders and parents and conforming to the group. Evolution takes some weird and winding turns and belief in gods is very much a part of our human evolution story.

  40. Although I was brought up with religion, and was a cathedral chorister so I heard all about it every blooming day, and was confirmed through some pressure from the precentor, I never believed in a god or gods. To the early humans who first considered such this, the world was animated by unseen things – it made sense that this developed into the idea of spirits & then gods, but when we began to understand that the world is complex and needs no gods to explain it, that created fear in many people. People who fear death want there to be something more.
    “Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
    Cannot bear very much reality.” Elliott.

    I cannot even conceive a universe created by a being – it is just too absurd, too complex an origin for the universe.
    As Darwin said, “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

    As you identify, it is very hard for people to accept that the universe is totally indifferent to us. People are constantly told that they are important or significant, but they/we are not. Self-delusion. There is no good, there is no evil.

    I do not see that as grim!

  41. Linda,

    You wrote that you hope to read Prof Coyne’s new book Faith vs. Fact as soon as possible. This is certainly a very good idea (I’m reading it these days.) but it will not directly help you with your project. Instead, I suggest that you read parts of the book “Sacred and Secular” by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart as soon as possible (see link below). This is a Professor Ceiling Cat (aka Jerry Coyne) recommended book:

    Here’s stuff that will be directly helpful:

    I. Most relevant:

    Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart: Sellers or Buyers in Religious Markets? Hedgehog Review, Volume 8, Numbers 1-2 (Spring/Summer 2006)
    an article that summarizes some arguments and evidence presented in more detail in “Sacred and Secular”

    Pippa Norris & Ronald Inglehart: Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge University Press, 2nd revised & updated edition, 2011 (first edition 2004)
    these are the relevant chapters:
    Ch.1 The secularisation debate
    Ch.2 Measuring secularisation
    Ch.3 Comparing secularisation in the world
    Ch.4 The puzzle of secularization in the United States and Western Europe
    chapters added in 2nd edition:
    Ch.11 Reexamining the theory of existential security
    Ch.12 Reexamining evidence for the security thesis

    Martin Paldam & Erich Gundlach: The religious transition. A long-run perspective. Public Choice, July 2013, Volume 156(numbers 1-2), pages 105-123 secularization
    Martin Paldam: An essay on the religious transition. August 2013

    Daniel Pals: Nine Theories of Religion. Oxford University Press, 2014

    A number of blogposts by Prof Coyne bearing on this topic:

    II. Also useful

    Hardin, Russell.1997. “The Economics of Religious Belief,” Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics, v. 153, no. 1 (March), pp. 259-278

    Gregory Paul & Phil Zuckerman, 2007: Why The Gods Are Not Winning. The Edge

    Think religion is declining? Don’t forget who is ‘going forth and multiplying’

    Bad news: “nones” projected to fall as percentage of worldwide population

    5 signs of the ‘Great Decline’ of religion in America

    Daniel Dennett: Why the Future of Religion Is Bleak. Wall Street Journal, April 26, 2015

  42. Since none of us are naturally born religious it might also be part of your answer to consider how so many of us became religious in the first place. It was taught to us by parents and then reinforced by attendance and group exposure with others of the religion you have. This generally becomes part of your life before you learn enough other things in your education that may cause you to question these religious beliefs.

    Changing the already directed mind from one belief to one that is totally different is hard to do. Also, there is seldom a group that encourages you to make this change and, in fact, tells you to do it. It is almost always a personal choice that you make by yourself.

  43. Hi Linda,

    Great question! And here just two ideas that maybe can help you understand the problem and build your own answer: 1. You probably have a lot or friends who are believers, have you considered asking them this same question? Are the answers convincing? Why? 2. When you were a believer, how would you have answered it? Why is that answer not satisfactory anymore?

    Good Luck!

  44. Many people believe in God because they think that the existence of a certain type of God is a logical answer to the following questions:

    – Why is there something rather than nothing?
    – What is the explanation for complex things in the Universe?
    – On what objective basis can we tell right from wrong?

    Now, “God” is not a good answer to these questions, but for many people the God hypothesis makes intuitive sense and can be gussied up with rational-sounding support like the Cosmological Argument or Divine Command Theory.

    The good news is that people who believe in God primarily for these reasons are the ones who may have a chance of thinking themselves out of their religious beliefs.

    On the other hand, you will often find that the so-called rational theists just use stuff like the Kalam Cosmological argument as cover for their purely emotion-based beliefs or fear of death.

  45. I think the main reason people stay hooked on religion is because they are afraid to be criticized by their community of believers. Even if they have doubts, its much easier to keep up the appearance of piety, and just get along. Additionally, I think many have not thought about the negative effects of religion, so they are not aware they are upholding and supporting a source of societies problems.

    1. This is often true, especially when one is truly surrounded with it. The investment level is just too great.

  46. Dear “Linda”,

    Not every idea we accept has evidence behind it. Some are useful for other reasons than being true. Maybe they are comforting, entertaining or just interesting. Then people wind up with reasons why they like the idea. This is what all humans do, you, me and everybody else: finding reasons why we like, or dislike, something. To most people the best reason to like an idea is that it is true, even when there is actually no good reason to believe it’s true. When people have a sense that their cherished idea might not be true, they find reasons to not think about it too hard. Maybe the scientists have overlooked something? Maybe there is something to it, even if not exactly as stated in the Holy Books? Maybe it’s all metaphorical, or mysteriously hidden in a sacred text?

    Now religion is older than any of us. It was always there and as such it never had to persuade us. There was never a moment when someone proposed the idea that there is a god. When we begin to think about the world, religion and god(s) are already part of our culture. For one that makes it very difficult, even for experts (such as sociologists) to tell where religion ends and culture begins, and for another we have great many customs and conventions that are also not strictly true and that might even be silly would we think about them too hard. To most people, the culture informs who they are. This is itself a silly idea: what does it mean to have an identity? That’s our place in the world, a bit of story where we come from and what we like. It is part of what people call “meaning”. Somehow, people look for “meaning” in the world. And they want that they, and their lives, are meaningful. That’s another idea we love: things must have a purpose, because we don’t like it when things are random or just happen. It makes us feel powerless and in uncertainty (for the same reason we don’t like darkness).

    Cognitive Scientist, psychologist and behavioural economist who study people’s minds (their perception, memory, reasoning, decision making and much more) have found out that humans are not as rational and clear thinking as we think we are. Most people never reasoned themselves into a religion. It’s comforting, interesting, or even entertaining to them. It gives meaning and purpose, and is part of their culture. They are fans, as if it were Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or Star Wars. And so they have little reason to “give it up”. Whether it is also true might not even be that important to most religious people. Humans often rather have a map of the wrong town with them, than having no map at all.

    People also don’t like nay-sayers and those who rain onto a parade. Since religions are already around, atheists and other people can only argue “against it”. The problem is that you can never demonstrate (conclusively) that something is not there. And this is just a bit of uncertainty, a little wiggle room to cling to religions as well. I believe that most religious people don’t think about their beliefs too hard and maybe even avoid verifying every tenet of their faith. Most of what they do can exist as “culture” as well, as you see in many Northern European countries. The religious part that supposedly anchors all the silly customs in something truthful is not examined closely.

    (we all have silly customs, I don’t mean that deprecative. It’s just silly from a certain point of view. We are monkey wearing skirts and ties after all).

    “Most of our ancestors were not perfect ladies and gentlemen. The majority of them weren’t even mammals.” – Robert A. Wilson

  47. Linda,

    you will have seen lots of reasons in the comments why people believe in a particular religion. But it’s not just the religion or god you need to think about but why people seem to want to ‘believe’ in the first place.

    There’s lots of debate about it, but ask yourself if people believe that they have a separate spirit or soul or essence inside their head independent of their brain or body. Most people do and by metaphor they extend the ‘the me inside me that talks to me’ to a ‘big spirit/soul/essence that makes the universe work’. The particular god and religion believed in seems to follow local custom. Similarly people seek experiences of spirituality, or transcendence, or communion because is will satisfy them emotionally – but people who have no beliefs in a god can have these convincing feelings too.

    ‘The me inside me that talks to me’ is probably a compelling illusion created by your body and brain experiencing life. Some people claim that they can step away from this illusion through meditation, but it seems to take a great deal of practice.

    Aren’t people wonderful?

  48. “Why do people still believe in religion and gods if science has otherwise proved the creation of the planet and evolution, as well as the fact that we don’t have souls, we have brains that create our personalities.”

    There is no single reason. Not for religious believers in general, or for any individual religious believer. There are many reasons. I have not read all the answers, so this particular favorite of mine may be redundant:

    Scientific thinking goes against the grain of human nature. It doesn’t come easily to us. Being objective and skeptical isn’t as simple, intuitive, or familiar as being subjective and affirming.

    That last stance is how we generally operate in our daily lives. We approach problems from a personal or social point of view using our “common sense,” forming meaningful connections to ourselves. Science instead is something we learn and practice. It requires mental discipline to distance ourselves.

    There will always be people who think that the first, easy assumptions which “feel right” are the deepest and wisest ones. They’re applying what’s reasonable in one situation to situations where it’s no longer reasonable.

    For example, when a volcano explodes and destroys someone’s home the question “why did this happen?” is often asked as if it was a personal matter. A step-by-step scientific explanation won’t feel as “right” then as an answer which talks about who was good, who was evil, and who did something to make the volcano happen. That’s the kind of thinking which comes most naturally to us, because it comes first.

  49. Fear has a lot to do with belief in the gods. People who have moved from the safety of their home village to life in a modern city might find it comforting to retain their beliefs about the supernatural. It requires courage to think for oneself and to commit yourself to a life of reason and evidence based thinking. It requires a support community. I encourage folks to read the autobiographies of Bertrand Russell, John Stuart Mill and David Hume for background.

    Warmest regards,

    John J. Fitzgerald

  50. There are so many good answers here, I think “Linda” will be well informed and I’m sure she’ll get an “A” with all the readers’ help. Though to be honest, her email already answers her question to a large extent.

    I have an anecdote about my cousin that is different from many here. (I didn’t read every comment, so maybe someone talked about this phenomena.)

    My cousin became religious when he was around 17 or 18 after taking psychedelic mushrooms. He describes “seeing God” and it was “colors, light and hope” and he attributed the experience to the Christian God. To this day, over 20 years later, he still eats mushrooms- and lots of them. He “preaches” that the mushroom is an alien life form sent to earth from God to teach humans about Jesus and the bible (he never mentions other religions, which is a common flaw). He thinks references to manna, or stones and even water in the bible symbolize mushrooms. Christianity, says he, was a mushroom cult, and all the apostles “ate the bread/body of Christ”. Yes, you can guess what the bread refers to. He also studies ancient paintings and even hieroglyphs to espy the hidden mushrooms. (He’s sent me some of these as proof, which to me are all feats of pareidolia…instead of faces, he sees mushrooms, especially when the color blue is used.) He also believes that while on mushrooms and meditating he can use God’s power to create earthquakes, rain, drought and other geological/weather events, though he never talks about trying to create peace or a better world. It’s strange that we continue to discuss these issues as I refute everything he says and he gets extremely angry when I do. He believes I will burn in hell. I just laugh, what else can you do? Usually our telephone conversations end with him hanging up on me. He is an important example to me how religion is a brain chemistry phenomenon, not based on a spirit, but based on neurons. I feel sorry for him that he doesn’t see the irony that his religious “enlightenment” was simply brought on by drugs.

    Readers: if you want to chime in how deluded my cousin is, I won’t take offense. There’s one in every family, right? 🙂

      1. This is the best answer ever ;D I have a weird uncle and there is definitely someone in every family

    1. There are scholars who think Christianity started as a mushroom cult and that “Jesus” was a mushroom.

      1. Those same scholars are excessively fond of the shrooms, themselves. There’s nothing I’m aware of that’s unique to Christianity that’s best explained by psychedelics. If there is anything like that underlying the origins of the religion, it’s common to all the religions of the region and time.

        …which, incidentally, would tend to point more towards ergot than shrooms….


        1. My reading on Christian origins (such as The Amazing Colossal Apostle) and those centered on AoI make it clear how important vivid “true” visions were in the foundational cults that evolved into Christianity.

          Given the history of humans and psychedelics, it seems likely to me that there was a substance that was used to create these visions, it also seems likely there was a ceremony around it, and that ceremony could have had “blood” and “body” (think Ayahuasca DMT-containing plants also require an MAO inhibitor). The substance could have then had a name that was or resembled the name of the divine figure the would perceive in the vision).

          All speculation, I know.

          1. While not especially improbable, I’m unaware of any positive evidence to support such a claim…and that lack of evidence would tend to weigh against it.

            It’s also worth noting that psychedelics aren’t at all necessary to produce vivid hallucinations…and, indeed, we’ve all had all sorts of vivid hallucinations and regularly do so while asleep. Today we dismiss dreams as nothing of any huge significance, but until recently it wasn’t uncommon for people to consider them messages from the gods delivered to us as we peered into the spirit world.


  51. I’m only speculating, but I think most people believe more out of habit than anything else. (I’m talking about most people and not the most fervent religionists.) Sure, some people were “indoctrinated” as children, but the rest simply behave as their parents did, attending church, saying grace, etc. — with or without conviction and with no real reason to question their behavior.

    It’s comfortable to do what everyone else is doing, and there’s a big social element to religion. So why go to the trouble of thinking it through if you don’t have to?

    Not very many people care to delve into the obvious question of how adherents of so many different faiths could possibly all have been born into the “one true religion.”

    It reflects well on you that you did go to the bother of questioning and that you continue to do so. Keep it up, “Linda,” and you will go far!

  52. First of all, Linda, brava! You write extraordinarily well and your keen intellectual curiosity is admirable. The college that gets you will be most fortunate (and the faculty more so).

    Now to the ‘why believe in god’ question. All of the responses before this one have given you plenty to reflect on and continue your study with. I shall only add this: that religious belief and practice can palliate existential anxiety, and a fortiori when enacted socially. That is sufficient justification for many people. . . until for some, such as yourself and most of the folks who comment on this site, it no longer is.

    Best of luck to you!

  53. My answer, similar to Kevin Meredith (answer 37):

    If evolution is true we are built mainly and mostly for reproduction and survival of our offspring, not for truth seeking. Evolution doesn’t care for the truth unless it benefits our reproductive success. In this light a lot of false beliefs are to be expected and is it likely that most people really do not care if their beliefs are true. Going with the flow is in these circumstances much easier.

    Why some people still seem to care for the truth is in my opinion a more intriguing question. Probably they found a niche with a little help from natural biological variation and a big help from the success of natural science.

  54. Also, brace yourself for possible negative reactions, from other students, from parents, etc. You may get favorable reactions, depending on the composition of your class and community, but I would not want you to be blindsided if someone does have a strong negative reaction. People’s response to having their religion poked can be pretty unhinged, and in lots of audiences your letter above would already have people stirred up (c.f. Jerry’s book talks). So if there are religious students in your class I’d suggest you take a moment to mentally prepare for the kind of negative reactions that could occur.

    1. Yes. My first thought upon reading this post (a few days ago now) was “oooh…not sure if I’d recommend doing that”.

      But I also didn’t want to discourage “Linda”.

      I hope it goes smoothly for her.

        1. “Linda”:

          I think it’s key to remember that you needn’t identify as an “atheist”; you merely don’t accept the baseless assertions of theists.

          I would encourage everyone to take the time to watch this video where Sam Harris articulates this (skip to the 4 minute point):

    2. My science teacher sort of took a double take when she heard my question and almost tried to manipulate it so it wasn’t about religion. I think she believes and I think she dislikes me even more than she already did for questioning religion.

      1. Or she may – also or instead – just be apprehensive that the topic will cause a disturbance in her class.

        You may have to be a little diplomatic in presenting your conclusions. “Because people are easily deceived” might not go down too well (if that was one of your conclusions, I have no intention of suggesting what they might be) – you might need to dress it up a little e.g. “Social experiences have led to a willingness to believe in appealing concepts which have limited objective evidence” or something of that sort.

        I think you may learn something of diplomacy as well as the scientific method 😉

        [I posted this from another computer – twice – and it failed to appear, I was probably ‘anonymous’. If it does appear, my apologies to all for inadvertently spamming the list]

      2. You’ll find people like that…but it’s best to keep at the front of your mind the story about the Emperor’s New Clothes. “Shooting the messenger” is a natural and common urge amongst humans. You don’t have to admire those who pull the trigger…but it’s not such a terrible idea to cut them some slack, take the high road…and I should probably stop with the aphorisms there.

        The world needs lots of people like you to stand up and say, “Look! The Emperor is naked! And fat and old and ugly, to boot.” But…there’s also nothing that says that you have to say that sort of thing directly to somebody, or to try to personally force people to admit that, yes, the Emperor really is naked and fat and old and ugly.

        If I can sneak in another aphorism…you can, to a certain extent, have your cake and eat it, too. The trick lies in laying it all out without reservation in public, but not making a big deal of it in one-on-one situations. You shouldn’t lie in private, of course, but you can certainly play the “agree to disagree, so let’s change the subject to something we both agree on like kittens and butterflies” card.

        And one very important thing to keep in mind…though religions, especially Christianity, are thoroughly rotten to the core, most religious people to their great credit have transcended their religions and become genuinely good people not because of, but in spite of, their religions. The Jesus taught in Sunday School bears little resemblance to the Jesus in the Bible…but that’s a good thing, because Sunday School Jesus is far less abhorrent than Bible Jesus. And the people around you mostly embrace Sunday School Jesus and are largely ignorant of Bible Jesus.



  55. it’s also important to recognize that people have ‘religious’ experiences. These run the gamut from feelings of esthetic intensity (e.g., I get chills when I go to the local baroque orchestra’s yearly performance of ‘Messiah’, a masterful piece of music regardless of its content) to feelings that their prayers are answered (when I was 9, I prayed to Jesus that we’d find my anole lizard, who’d escaped from his terrarium; just as I got done praying, my mother called to me that they’d recaptured him!) and our brains pay special attention to feelings of significance and motivational relevance. This is a good thing, as it causes us to develop survival skills, find food and shelter, form relationships, fall in love and raise children. But the mechanism is just good enough to help us get by and can cause the brain to attribute salience (importance, generally) to experiences that are, from a rational perspective, not important at all.

    Erroneous attribution of importance happens naturally and can lead to superstitions. E.g., a relative once told me, “A dove flew against the window right before we got a call that Uncle Pete died”, which actually happened, as others who were present attested. All who experienced this coincidence said that they felt chills and many gave the incident a religious interpretation (the bird was a messenger, a soul, etc.).

    Similarly, people in religious ceremonies can get this feeling of importance. This is amply demonstrated by gospel music in African American churches and in Pentecostal services where people ‘speak in tongues’.

    These feelings are real and can be quite intense. The *attribution* of the feelings is erroneous and can vary depending on the person’s religious upbringing and scientific sophistication. But the important point that is germane to your questions is that many people develop religious belief not only because of indoctrination, fear of death or community values, but also because they have had intense emotional experiences that they interpret as religious experiences. These experiences often constitute ‘proof’ of religion for these folks. They may feel your questioning their belief also invalidates their feelings and experience.

    The brain tries to repeat behavior that it interprets as salient, motivationally relevant and important (those words mean mostly the same thing). So you get food, water, shelter, and the company of people you care about. We also pursue things that don’t have immediate importance for survival (although some may enhance our survivability in the long run and some may not), like religion or addictive drugs (drugs also hijack the ‘salience detector’ function of the brain). Interestingly, people pursue science and math for similar reasons: knowledge, insight and (more rarely) discovery feel good. I’ve had chills a few times when I put together the pieces of a scientific puzzle and that feeling was as intense as my wonder when I thought Jesus saved my lizard.

    1. Most wooist (not just the religious ones) at one point or another use faith to make the mistake of conflating experience with explanation.

  56. I look at this as two questions. First “Why is any specific person religious?”, and they are many many different possible answers to this, which have been well covered above.

    But the other question for me is “Why are people in general religious? One piece of the answer has to be because religions evolve the way organisms do. Once religions are established they reproduce, mutate, pick up traits from other religions, divide, and compete for the resources they need to grow (the human minds that carry and spread them). Those that are good at spreading themselves will out-compete those that aren’t. This process has been going on for a very long time now. As a result, any long-established religion that still exists today does so because it has become very well adapted for acquiring and keeping followers.

  57. I wasn’t able to read every comment, but I might be the lone theist commenting here. While I certainly don’t disagree with much of what has been written already – tone aside of course 🙂 – it certainly is true that many look to religion as a sort of warm blanket to comfort the fear of the unknown, to find community, because they were indoctrinated and never questioned, etc… that doesn’t cover every use case. My personal favorite for junk reasons to believe is what Daniel Dennett calls ‘faith in faith’ (which is consistent with what some others have mentioned here – i.e. the idea that religion is a good way to install moral values on kids and/or society and therefore the institutions should be supported for that reason). I might also point out that much of what is being discussed here is almost a mirror description of what sociologist Christian Smith calls ‘moral therapeutic deism’.

    There are such things as adult converts to a variety of religious beliefs and some of them are actually convinced it it true and not just that it’s a nice warm blanket.

    When it boils down to it, many of the same questions raised here have been raised for thousands of years. It may be less reasonable today to believe in the god-of-the-gaps than it did before the Enlightenment/Darwin/etc, but the god-of-the-gaps vs. atheism isn’t the only show in town… and be careful about what you claim as ‘fact’ – calling something a ‘fact’ doesn’t make it so, and just because an assertion rightly describes some members of a given class (some atheists are humanists) does not mean it applies to all (some atheists like John Nicholas Gray are also decidedly not humanist).

    If you would suffer me for a little advice, it’s best to at least try to be consistent in your judgment and analysis – e.g. to have integrity in your argumentation (which will really lead towards having conversations instead of arguments) and not just have political shouting matches that have everything to do with winning and rhetoric and nothing to do with truth (for an interesting historical context, check out the history behind the term sophistry some time). Also, be careful about thinking that you’re the only objective thinker in the conversation… none of us are perfectly objective in our thinking.

    At the end of the day, either this is all there is, or there is something after – either we are the result of random chance, or we’re not ( – either there is such a thing as an objective meaning to existence, or it’s all a choose your own adventure. It doesn’t matter how much we believe in something (or the lack thereof) – that something either is or is not true, and our beliefs either correspond to reality or they don’t.

    I hope your paper turns out well… try to be nice to us dumb theists will you? 🙂

    1. What tone?

      One of the things we atheists find aggravating about religion is that simply talking plainly about it is perceived as adopting an insulting “tone”. We should be able to discuss religion without having to tread on eggshells.

  58. I know people like to believe in gods and religion because … they have been strictly raised in that religion


    I was a very strong believer for most of my formative years, and it was very difficult for me to reject what I had been taught. But the reason was not because I was raised strictly. It was because I was told about god by my mother, while we worked outdoors planting living things. She would remark that all the beauty of the natural world was god’s gift to us. I loved my mother deeply, and I loved the beautiful flowers and trees we planted together, the smell of the freshly dug dirt, the bringing together of soil, water and seed to create new life… and her message, that god wanted us to appreciate and take care of this world, and that he had made it so beautiful because he loves us, was a powerful positive message in my life, connecting my love for nature and my love for my mother with her religious views and my innate desire to belong and be a good person. This was not ‘strict’ in any sense, It was gentle, unassuming, heartfelt communication in which I was able to feel my mother’s love for me as she was sharing her own love of nature with me.

    The reason it was so hard for me to let go of those beliefs, even long after I had questioned their foundation, was because to do so seemed somehow a betrayal of our love and a denial of all that natural beauty.

    And yes, this is a form of indoctrination… but it has nothing to do with fear or discipline, two methods commonly associated with indoctrination, and I don’t think it was in any way calculated on my mother’s part to share her view of god with me in order to make me be religious. It was just part of getting to know one another and sharing mutual feelings of love and wonder.

  59. Dear Linda,

    There are already many posts dealing with the points that you raise in your email to PCC. You have a lot of reading to do to consider all the information and opinions that WEIT readers have offered.

    I’m not going to add to the already extraordinary workload. I just wanted to express my admiration for your clear thinking and intellectual honesty, and to wish you good luck in this project and all your feature endeavours.

    Like other posters, I do hope that you will send Dr Coyne your final report, so that he can celebrate it here.

    Kind regards,


  60. The persistence of religion, faith when so much evidence is weighted against their being true is an artifact of the brain.
    Evolution is the foundation of what we are but if you were to do a little research on how the brain works I think you would find this revealing.
    It was (the brain) a very secret world until technology and some fine work by nueroscientists and associated fields, (psychology being one) have shown how we fool ourselves into believing, basically, we can’t help believing.
    It is only by inquiry as you are pursuing now that can help you understand these illusions, some are so automatic we simply are not aware of them. They exist on all levels of our cognitive lives as you will find out no doubt. I also think that it will give you a little slack to understanding irrational behaviours.. like believing in ‘this’ over ‘that’ being ‘left or ‘right’ as evidence points elsewhere, to keeping you skeptical and alert.
    The wonder of it all “Linda” is that science has changed our view from ignorance of ourselves to an open ended discovery of ourselves. Science moves with each discovery, religion chooses to remain static and archaic for the reason of self preservation and seemingly a reward. Science has shown it, religion and it’s like, are not required to explain anything anymore, faith is one of ‘those’ an illusion.
    All the best in your discovery.

  61. “Why do people still believe in religion and gods if science has otherwise proved the creation of the planet and evolution, as well as the fact that we don’t have souls, we have brains that create our personalities?”

    Because of the deeply ingrained superstition trait within humanity implanted during its early stages, it is a very difficult thing to suppress with science-based thinking, especially in our science-illiterate and religion-saturated cultural environment I commend you for being able to overcome this tendency. Please realize that there is a very large community of like-minded people ready and willing to support you, and other young folks, in the promotion of rational, science-based thinking.

  62. Hello “Linda,”

    Coming to this late and have not read all umpteen-hundred replies, so apologies if I repeat anything or inadvertently slight anyone.

    First off, a caveat: there are a lot of different answers here, and while many of them are converging, it can easily give the impression that a) there are many reasons, or b) that we’re just guessing. And the truth may well be a little of both, to be perfectly honest. While there have been a few studies done, I don’t think the answers to your questions are firmly established, or even could be. Like asking why The Beatles are so popular, there isn’t a simple answer, nor is it the same for everyone.

    That said, I haven’t seen one answer so far that has struck me as wrong, or impossible. But proving them right might be very hard.

    There are two other factors that I haven’t seen addressed (again, apologies if they have been.) The first is agency. Humans have a tendency to find not just a cause for something that happens, but an intention, as if someone or something did it on purpose. Basic survival trait, one that can easily evolve into any species (and likely has): if you hear a rustle in the undergrowth, it might be the wind, or it might be a dangerous predator. If you think “wind” and it’s actually a predator, that can mean death. If you think “predator” and it’s only the wind, well, no harm done. Natural selection means the ones that err on the side of it being dangerous are the ones who survive.

    When it comes to big things like vicious storms, earthquakes, volcanoes, and so on, it’s very hard to believe these come about through simple properties. Everyday things, sure, no problem. But the devastating flood? How does this occur? And it isn’t long before someone starts proposing very strong new forces.

    The second factor, closely related, is pattern recognition. Again, very useful in survival – we learn to spot the patterns of dangerous predators, know when a storm is brewing, and can plant seeds to produce food many weeks hence. But it’s also easy to find a pattern where none exists, and this ties in very well with superstition. I wore these socks for the first time and found a dollar – they must be related! Or worse, our tribe was mean to another tribe and this wicked drought occurred. Once you believe they’re linked, it’s easy to suspect that it’s not a natural law, but a thinking being that is responding.

    Personally, though, I think the heaviest burden is on our tendency to take our cues from others – peer pressure, social acceptance, and all that rot. It can make us do a lot of goofy things because we find it incredibly important to “fit in.” And this is even reflected in not having your real name published with this post 😉

    Good luck!

  63. Linda, I think it might be worth adding this point. Your question assumes that the religious person will live in an environment where they can find out about the science-based arguments against God. Like in the U.S. and here in Northern Europe. Where religion in general does not run the government.

    But in huge parts of the world people are less well educated than you and they live in states where religious leaders also are the politicians. The state power therefore gives huge credibility to the state religion. I’m thinking of Latin America and Catholicism and the 49 countries of Islamic government.

    That leads to a double whammy for the individual in those countries. There is not enough information to challenge the truth claims of the religion and there exists a credible fear in declaring one’s atheism or doubt. At best one can be sent to Coventry and at worst one can be executed.

    That’s why it’s reasonable to think that the number of believers in the world is lower than the figures suggest. There must be a difference between what people believe and what they SAY they believe.

    In a huge number of countries religion rules by brute fear. Look up Iran since 1979 and the Rwandan genocide of 1994 if you can bear to – it is very upsetting, and not for the faint-hearted. x

  64. Hi Linda,

    I’m going to expand on the above response. If science has proven evolution, and that we don’t have souls, etc., then you would expect the scientifically literate people to be atheists. In fact, a large majority of scientists are atheists, especially in the hard sciences, like physics and biology. Well-educated non-scientists are also largely atheist. So to answer your question, “Why do people still believe in religion and gods if science has otherwise proven…”, I would say that those people don’t know (or don’t understand) the science behind the proofs.

  65. Ms Linda:

    Religions are accountable for all of the above and this one behavior, too, as well: religions are a very, very effective way for men to control women and female humans’ behavior. From her littlest git – go. So these Rules By Which To Live are hugely inculcating. And, into her, for decades thereafter.

    If gods exist and are the effectors of smite for certain behaviors, then she will

    i) feel guilt and shame and thus,
    ii) have to behave the way that He, the Man, wants her to — but without the Man being viewed as the Controller, as the Dictator. Very often, other and / or older women than she are complicit in this of the Man’s Controlling.

    Since the gods of the scriptures (of whichever religion) dictate, why therefore, either
    i) she obeys or
    ii) she fails but is shamed and guilt – ridden so thus becomes contrite or
    iii) she fails and she is not contrite.

    Her last option of iii) the World over as well as over nearly all of Its religions, certainly the major ones in vogue now?

    That last option at where she is independent and free in her comings and goings and doings and, particularly, in her thinkings? That one often gets her killed.

    Best to you in this I Wonder – endeavor, Linda.


    1. Two treatises of history which I have found more helpful (and comforting, actually) than ANY other (and, most certainly, than any other of .all. of the religions’ scriptures for sure !) are these two, Ms Linda: and

      One thing I shall state re these two works? Both for me, an adult into my 50s (still harboring much, although by then not all anymore, of my childhood’s inculcated shame and guilt) when I first digested them? These two for me were both quite a difficult read. Not from the stance of .what. is stated within them but from the authors’ writing styles = the .how. of these writings … … that type of difficulty.

      But. And a soooo important but: these two have formed for me, then and since, my own .enlightenment. on my and as re >53% of the World’s entire human / demographic populations — this enlightenment, thankfully, for at least the rest of my lifetime.

      As others have stated elsewhere in these comments? I soooo would have liked to have come to this knowledge at .your. age and, for sure, long, long, loooong before that age into my sixth decade.


  66. Dear Linda,

    Scientists say that our universe came to be in what is called The Big Bang, but no one knows where the stuff came from: matter, energy, space, and time. Further, no one knows why the universe exists and the laws of physics as we understand them. Some people are not content to simply say “I don’t know.” These people crave explanations, so they invent them, imagining a “higher power” that is the source of all that is. Like-minded people organize and decide how to venerate this higher power, thereby creating theistic religions. To the question of “Where did God come from?” they answer “God always was.”

    Agnostics acknowledge that some ontological questions might be unanswerable. Atheists are of various kinds, some declaring that God does not exist (How they could know this is another issue.), some claiming that there is no evidence that God exists so why believe (The conclusion does not logically follow from the premise.), and others do not see the need or worth for believing in God.

    The conundrum facing you and everyone else is this: Either something can be created ex nihilo or something can always have existed, but neither of these notions comports with our everyday experience of causality. How to we reconcile this dilemma? Logic does not seem to apply, so some people decide on faith that something must have always existed, and attribute to that something the various powers needed to account for the existence of the stuff of the universe and the laws that govern same.

    Interestingly, numerous studies have concluded that people who report being religious are on average happier, healthier, and wealthier than the heathens. Perhaps religion imbues a world view that proves more beneficial than heathenism. Or perhaps the benefits of religion come from the resulting network, and some secular organizations are similarly beneficial.

    I suggest interacting with people of various beliefs and studying comparative religions and philosophy to gain a better understanding of what sense to make of why we exist and what to do with our lives. And I strongly suggest that whatever you decide, be mindful that others have come to different conclusions that make sense for them, and to be tolerant of different beliefs.

    I wish you well in your journey toward enlightenment.


    1. The conundrum facing you and everyone else is this: Either something can be created ex nihilo or something can always have existed, but neither of these notions comports with our everyday experience of causality.

      We’ve pretty emphatically demonstrated that Aristotelian formulations of causality have basically nothing whatsoever to do with reality. Experimental confirmation of uncaused events is trivial — just go grab a geiger counter and stick it near a radioactive substance (such as the tiny piece of Americium in your smoke detector).

      Causality is bunk. “Shit happens” is the way the Cosmos works…though, to be fair, the aggregate of shit happening functions in a way that gives the appearance of causality at human scales….


    2. Conservation principles that led to our discovery of the laws (eventually) are pretty basic to our thinking – though they are not learned immediately or completely, which is why scientific research was necessary.

      Hence I think eternity is the natural consequence of our beliefs, even if we sometimes fail to draw it.

      (Note that Aristotle and Democritus – very different natural philosophers – did, however.)

  67. Hi Linda,

    First, I’d like to commend you for your atheism and your desire for an honest inquiry into the reason for religious belief.

    I think that susceptibility to belief is a product of human evolution – pattern recognition, coupled with attribution of agency and a respect for authority. These were positive survival skills in the distant past. Other commenters have explained these phenomena very effectively.

    Add to that our very natural fear of death. It’s the end! Most modern (a misnomer, if ever there was one) organized religions promise that believers get to survive their own deaths. That’s completely unsupported by evidence of any kind, but it’s probably one of the most seductive beliefs of all.

    Mortality is frightening. Rational, critical thinking is hard. But, the rewards of truth are out there. Surely, secular societies, based on rule of law, without resort to the supernatural, are the best reward of all.

  68. Linda, you said “I know people like to believe in gods and religion because either they have been strictly raised in that religion or because they do not want to accept that there is no afterlife”

    I think those are the two most important reasons why people believe in gods. People who are born into a devout Christian (or other religion) family are taught to believe before they are old enough to think for themselves. Then it becomes almost impossible for them to see that they were wrong. It’s like a psychological chain binding their beliefs. I was in this state. I was a very devout Christian until I was 42 years old, but I finally broke free and realized there is no god. Now I am a 75-year-old atheist.

    One of the things religious people keep asking me is “Don’t you want to see your father and mother in heaven?” The answer is that of course I do. I want to live forever in heaven, in perfect health, with family and friends. But I realize now it’s a fairy tale.

    I hope this helps with your project. I wish I could have become an atheist at an early age, as you did.

  69. Linda, I already posted note #71 above, but I thought of something else. You asked, “Why do people still believe in religion and gods if science has otherwise proved the creation of the planet and evolution, as well as the fact that we don’t have souls, we have brains that create our personalities.”

    It’s important to understand that science has not proved god does not exist or that we don’t have some kind of invisible, immaterial souls. What science has done is show that there is no evidence that gods or souls exist. Now if people want us to believe, it is up to them to produce evidence.

    Since nobody can produce any evidence, we can assume there is no god and no souls. But this is different from proof.

    1. It’s important to understand that science has not proved god does not exist

      A big part of the reason for that is that the religious can’t even come close to offering up a coherent non-self-contradictory definition for what a god is supposed to be — never mind any evidence of one’s existence.

      Considering that the gods are really simply a certain type of stock character in a particular fictional genre, this should be hardly surprising.


  70. For a person to find something valuable it must meet perceived needs that the person has. Religions try to meet as many important needs in their public as possible to gain the greatest market share. Religions that have evolved to provide the most important things have survived and those that have not have diminished or passed into history. Modern religions have had several thousand years of evolution to dial this in and they are good at it.

    When a person perceives that a need is met that person receives a reward in the brain from the dopamine system. An unfortunate problem with the neurological system is that it has flaws that can be hijacked in many different ways in the environment. Drugs can hijack the system and so can gambling, food, sex, video gaming, TV and religion to name a few.

    The earlier an addiction is started the more likely it is to set up shop in the neurology for life. Religions are well aware of this and spend a good deal of money and time installing religion in its adherents as early as possible. If they don’t catch a person when they are young they are likely to not get that person at all. But all is not lost, there is another time that a person is vulnerable to addictions. During times of depression, times of great loss, times the future is uncertain, threats to self, family or close friends and peaks of stress a person can turn to an addiction to solve the dopamine starvation that results from these life problems. Religion is well aware of this phenomena too so they haunt hospitals, mortuaries, homeless centers, prisons and troll for converts.

    Now the last piece of this puzzle is that the neurology of the brain is set up so that most of the thinking done by the individual is done outside the conscious awareness. You didn’t tell the heart to beat or the diaphragm to breath just now. I can also guarantee that there is a part of your brain that is monitoring for predators that you are completely unaware of until something scary pops up. Decisions of hunger are presented to your conscious mind, you don’t decide to be hungry now. The parts of the brain that monitor blood sugar work in concert with other parts of the brain to present you with the feeling of hunger. Rarely do people decide who to be attracted to, it is presented to them by the emotional response in the body often triggered off by pheromones, subliminal cues to resistance to diseases and parasites, subliminal cues to social standing and in men a subliminal sensitivity to when a woman can become pregnant. The same subliminal brain thinking applies to social situations and religion is all about social connections from the god on down.

    Understanding all this we can now answer the question, “Why do people still believe in religion and gods if science has otherwise proved the creation of the planet and evolution, as well as the fact that we don’t have souls, we have brains that create our personalities.”

    The beliefs largely occur in the subliminal parts of the brain. A person does not decide to believe any more than who to love or when they are hungry. The back room guys in the brain decide what to believe and hand it to the conscious brain to decide how to justify the belief.

    When the brain perceives (subliminally) religion supplying tribal affiliation, positive social standing in the group, mates, food, avoidance of death, friends (including the invisible ones) and most importantly differed uncertain reward, the brain fairly baths itself in dopamine. Some researchers have wondered if religion might be more addictive than heroin. If shear numbers are any clue, religion wins hands down.

    Now to complete your answer you must watch two videos and you will be set to ace this question.

    And for bonus points, here is another one for you:

    Good luck on your project.

  71. I just realized that the second paragraph of my explaination was in error. Here is how it should read.

    When a person perceives that there is a potential way to meet a need that person receives a reward in the brain from the dopamine system. An unfortunate problem with the dopamine system in the neurology is that it has flaws that can be hijacked in many different ways in the environment. Drugs can hijack the system and so can gambling, food, sex, video gaming, TV and religion to name a few.

  72. To the reasons given above, I’d add a sense of fairness or justice. I think humans have an instinctive idea of what is ‘fair’ or ‘right’. Unfortunately Nature (or blind chance, or the universe) doesn’t give a damn about fairness or justice. So when we see some grievous wrong being committed, we would like to believe in some higher power that can right the wrong, compensate the victims and punish the villains. It happens all the time in stories, it would be so satisfying if there were something to make it happen in real life.

    So I think there is an innate, unconscious desire for a just God to exist.

  73. Another thought: Some religions concentrate on the worship of ancestors. The Buddhists burn fake paper money ritualistically to support their dearly departed relatives. The idea is that the money is actually spendable in the afterlife. This belief suggests that religion serves a vital interest in connecting with the dead in some way. We miss our parents when they pass on and cling to the promise of religion in hopes of seeing them again.

  74. Linda has such a fine mind for such a young age. Very impressive.

    I’ve read some of the answers here and when I have time, I’ll go back and read the rest. I think everyone has the God question covered, so I’d like to recommend to Linda, as future reading, the fine book by Pascal Boyer called “Religion Explained”.

    LLAP, Linda.

  75. 1)People sometimes prefer comfort over the truth. 2) You’re in the US, so it is considered normal to believe in God in the first place. 3) I don’t doubt that people experience a certain sort of emotional balance and calm while praying/meditating. The problem is that they attribute that to a deity. 4) Childhood indoctrination. 5) Confirmation bias. 6) Lack of education and being exposed to opposing viewpoints.

  76. “Confirmation bias” is a good one to look up

    look up the Wikipedia page on cognitive biases

    – lots of our cognitive biases support superstition. Wishful thinking, fear of being an outcast. Social pressure. I think the biggest one in our culture is the confirmation bias – people know things are not rational but they are looking for answers.. If you look for a god you will probably find one.

    1. Which reminded me of this:

      A philosopher and a theologian were engaged in a dispute, and the theologian used the old quip about a philosopher being like a blind man, in a dark room, looking for a black cat which wasn’t there. “That may be,” said the philosopher, “but a theologian would’ve found it”. (Julian Huxley)

  77. That innate sense of fairness and justice humans have from a young age- there were actual experiments proving this if I recall correctly. That sense would demand explanations for ‘why bad things happen’.

    The only thing I could add to all of the great comments above is that the comfort of rituals shouldn’t be underestimated.

  78. Dear Linda,

    First, let me congratulate you for questioning one of the most profound beliefs in human history. After struggling with the ”why do they believe this stuff?” issue for much of my life, I’ve decided we believe in gods because we’re afraid of the unknown and it makes us feel safe and cuddly to believe we have a ”big daddy” looking out for us.

    Good luck to you, always.

  79. Fear of Death, its a very seductive message that you hold the Key to Everlasting Life especially if you live in a part of the World where Life is a constant daily struggle to survive, the thought of Paradise is very very hard to deny.

  80. Dear Linda:

    People belive in god (or gods) because we have a complex thinking machine in our heads that needs to explain whatever happens around, and in antiquity (whan science was not developed) this was one hell of a quest. Religion, then philosophy, and finally science, developed in order to give us answers, of course, religion was first, our most primitive way to come up with answers, admittedly, made up/ad hoc animistic answers that evolved on magic, predestination, astrology and lots of other superstitions. Our feeble constitution and the magnanimus power nature manifests was awe inspiring, but specially frightening. Controlling nature and events was a necessity, since nobody wants to live in fear and unpredictability. Religion, magic, astology and company were coping belief systems that relive pressure and gave spiritual comfort and a equivocal sense of control. It certainly does not help that our thinking machine once it realizes it may not live forever desires immortality, it does not want to meet its end, so there you have proclivity to believe in whatever promise to eternal life, even a spiritual one will do (which is better than nothing for most people).

    I am in the middle of work, but I think this may help, you will need to further elaborate, hope this is useful and wish you the best life, you seem to be doing remarkably great. Contratulations!

  81. Dear Linda,

    Thank you for your cogent letter which elicited such an interesting array of responses. I hope you will find them all helpful. I will retain this series of letters
    for my own reference to the letters, suggestions of articles and books to read, and internet lectures to watch. There is always more to learn and this is an excellent group to learn from.

    I come from a long line of fundamentalist Christians, mostly Baptist and Church of God, Holiness. But, I was raised as a Nazarene and spent my freshman year of college at a Nazarene College in Pasadena, CA, before it moved to Point Loma.

    When my husband and I married, for awhile we tried to participate in less fundamentalist churches, but found them unsatisfactory as well. Over a period of years, we read and studied and discussed until we realized we had become secularists or humanists or agnostics or atheists. (In the so-called atheist community there are many names for us, and absolutely no uniform creed. And, there are significantly more “nones”.)

    We did not raise our children in a religion, but their grandparents tried to indoctrinate them. One of my children is an atheist, one is a Christian, and one is somewhat a spiritualist (and reiki master). They have chosen their own paths for their own reasons.

    I would wish that we all could be more accepting of each other, and less vehement and rigidly certain of our rightness. Separation of church and state is critical. Using religion to justify the perpetuation
    of inequality, brutality and murder must not be condoned. It has been with us for far too many centuries.

    In addition to learning science, math, philosophy, humanities, history and arts for a well-rounded education, I would hope you
    could also familiarize yourself with comparative religions, the complete Bible, the Nag Hammadi Library, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Koran, other “holy” books, mythologies of the world, etc. Human beings seem to be endlessly creative and change their perceptions and knowledge of the world over time.

    You have made a wonderful start and I wish you the very best as you go forward.

  82. Scanning the comments, I noticed that the explanations for religion all cited culture and learning. Isn’t the right answer that belief in God evolved like every other mental power and capacity — hard-wired in our brains because it conferred a survival and reproductive advantage for our ancestors?

    1. There’s no reason to think that religion is even remotely close to being hard-wired. Were that the case, an infant of parents of one particular religion adopted by parents of another religion would inevitably or overwhelmingly grow to become an adherent of the child’s genetic heritage. In reality, religious belief is closely tied to the environment the child is reared in.

      Religions do, however, very commonly leverage various common human characteristics, some of which may very likely have genetic components. One oft-cited example is the tendency of children to unquestionably trust their parents — the child who doesn’t is more likely to get eaten by the bear the parents warn about. Similarly, the hyperactive human sense of agency; the hunter who thinks the rustling in the grass is something watching, even if the “something” is the sprit of the wind, is less likely to be caught unawares by the tiger stalking him.

      And there certainly are various intense and overwhelming mental states that are not at all uncommon, and religions absolutely love to exploit and even induce those mental states for their emotional impact and as evidence of divinity.

      But, again, there’s no evidence for anything remotely approaching a “god gene” or any other sort of generic genetic component to religion.


  83. Isn’t the right answer that belief in God evolved like every other mental power and capacity? Isn’t it hardwired in our brains because it provided a survival, reproductive, and fitness advantage?

  84. Please correct me if I am wrong:
    isn’t that Freud said it (or something like it):
    “we will believe in god as long as we will fear death”

  85. Linda,

    I was a lifelong atheist but didn’t know it until I was 13 myself when I actively starting questioning things. I grew up in a small town in central Texas – the big ole rodeo belt buckle of the bible belt. It was pretty hard coming out as an atheist at that age there. One of my teachers actually told me I was going to burn in hell for being an atheist devil worshiper.

    But I survived the ignorant and unquestioning place I was born in. And I wore dog tags with ATHEIST stamped on them when I deployed to Iraq where strangers tried to kill me over their political and religious beliefs. A friend of mine thought that I would find her ‘benevolent and merciful’ christian god in war. She couldn’t have been more wrong.

    I think that religion is a by product of other heritable traits that proved useful tools in surviving in a hostile world: a sense of agency (perceiving cause and effect as the thoughts and actions of another), learning by observing (initially from our parents and later other authority figures), and curiosity.

    These heritable traits are neither good or bad, they simply are. They can be extremely useful when properly applied. But can be misleading if misused.

    Sense of agency lets us put ourselves in the mind of another to better understand their motivations. Very useful in a social animal. But useless in determining the cause of things that don’t involve other thinking animals. i.e. The cause of thunder: is it god getting a strike while bowling in the clouds, that big guy with the hammer and pretty blond hair smiting a frost giant, or lightning super-heating the air causing it to expand rapidly resulting in a sonic boom?

    Learning by observing lets us get the benefits of mistakes made by others without suffering the negative consequences of those mistakes. “Will that bear hurt me? That is a grizzly bear. Avoid it and it will avoid you. But surprise it, or get to close to its cubs and it can kill you. One of those nearly tore my arm off when I was younger, and I haven’t been able to use it since.” But learning by observing fails if those we learn from were not thorough, open minded or sought independent confirmation of their own observations.

    Curiosity drives us to question others and the world around us. It is useful if we think about the issues thoroughly and only accept answers based upon evidence. It is not useful to accept an answer simply because it makes us feel good, or is the easiest answer to reach, or is the first thing we arrive at because that answer may not be supported by the actual evidence.

    As to why religion continues I think this quote often attributed to Seneca the Younger says it best: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful”

    “Religion is regarded by the common people as true” – People undergoing hardship seek out relief from that hardship or at least comfort. Religion promises relief in the afterlife and comfort today. “They are with god now but you’ll see them again when you get to heaven.”

    “by the wise as false” – It is unwise to believe in something without sufficient evidence. Because if you don’t want evidence, I have some beautiful oceanfront property to sell you in Arizona. 20,000 acres for only $10 an acre! I’ve got several resort companies who desperately want it but I’d rather sell it to you!

    “and by rulers as useful” – And by anyone else with something to sell, con artists, hucksters, corrupt politicians. Promise people what they want for only $9.99. Tell them they are sick and sell them the cure. Tell them the reason they are suffering isn’t their fault, its the devil/commies/’those bad people who aren’t like you’, and you know how to stop it. And those who don’t demand evidence will buy your product, tithe to your church, vote for you.

    I wish that I had teachers like yours, Good luck in your search for answers and on this school project Linda.

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