"...For the hypotheses need not be true nor even probable. On the
contrary, if they provide a calculus consistent with observations,
that lone is enough." -- a theologian's foreword
to the first edition of Nicolaus Copernicus's De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, which introduced the heliocentric theory to Europe
and greatly expanded it, 1543.
"This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory,
not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material
should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and
critically considered." -- Sticker on biology textbooks in Cobb
County, Georgia, 2001 - 2005
Someone with a naturalistic worldview may wonder how an otherwise
sane, rational adult can believe in a religion that has been proven
to be less and less likely and more and more redundant with each new
scientific discovery, be it Judaism with its vengeful god, Buddhism
with its reincarnation, or Scientology with its galactic overlord
Our knowledge of how our brains work, where we come from, and where
we are is being expanded daily by studies in neurology, genetics,
and astronomy to name just a few disciplines that provide real
insights. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, however,
many people still cling to superstitious beliefs about what we are
and how the universe works. It's clear that logical arguments based
upon observed facts about the universe do nothing to sway people
from such beliefs.
Some people still refuse to accept that we evolved from other hominins,
for instance, just as some people used to refuse to accept that the
Earth evolves around the sun, stating that there must be some sort
of flaw in the evidence that supports this fact, or the methodology
of examining it. In both cases, this is obviously not because they
have looked at the available evidence and made an informed decision.
So what can cause someone to cling so rigidly to their beliefs that
they are unwilling to shed them in light of contradictory evidence?
In other words, how can a thinking, rational adult be religious?
This question makes two mistaken assumptions about how people choose
their religion: firstly, that they do so rationally; and secondly,
that they do so as adults.
"I want to believe" -- Poster, The X-Files
In Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink, he talked about a world expert in
archaic sculpture by the name of Ernst Langlotz, who could easily
spot a fake, with one exception: a single bronze statuette, one of
the first pieces of art he acquired. Perhaps he fell in love with
it, suggested art historian George Ortiz, whom Langlotz had once
offered to sell the statuette to, and perhaps that long lasting love
had clouded his judgement, even though he could be so rational about
other fakes, seeing them for what they were.
In Richard Dawkins's book The God Delusion, he told a similar story
of a prominent Cambridge theologian. While having dinner with the
anthropologist Pascal Boyer, the theologian commented on the absurdity
of other people's irrational beliefs despite himself presumably
believing in someone who can telepathically communicate with every
human on the planet simultaneously, but won't do anything to help
I think these are perfect examples of how the human mind works: we
can see everything as it truly is, except things we hold dear.
As a species, us humans are indeed capable of rational thought, but
we'd be deluding ourselves if we assumed that all our decisions were
made consciously by logically weighing up the pros and cons of the
available options, or by looking at which theory the available
evidence proves. With effort, we can train ourselves to think this
way, but it's not our default way of thinking.
Instead, a lot of the time we just decide to do what feels better.
We stick with what's familiar and comfortable. We defend what we
have fond memories of and what's worked well for us in the past. We
favour what seems intuitive. This has nothing to do with what is
correct, and everything to do with what has personally served us
You can use all sorts of complex mental gymnastics to avoid confronting
the absurdity of a mistaken belief that you hold dear, whether that
belief is in magick or gods. The reason you'd want to put in so
much mental effort to do this, however, likely has a lot more to do
with your desire to believe in something than it has to do with any
logical arguments or observations about reality.
Some people just plain want to believe stories about an omnipotent
parent figure who can dish out justice to anyone while "lovingly"
watching over them, even if the parent figure in question is an
abusive one. Others want to believe that the universe will magically
dish out justice of its own accord. Pretty much everyone wants to
believe that she will live forever, that we're special as a species,
and that we're not alone. It's not surprising that these themes are
common ideas that have formed the basis of many religions.
"Hook 'em while they're young." -- Cardinal Glick, Dogma
Very few people start to delude themselves with a religion once
they're an adult. Those who do usually do so because they need a
mental crutch as they're breaking free of an antisocial addiction,
coming to terms with with the death of a loved one, or getting through
a painful divorce. Religious people use all of these opportunities
to convert people.
Indeed, a religious person trying to convert someone while she's
grieving over the death of a loved one seems the worst of these, as
in the case of religion and spirituality, the promise of eternal
life may hinder the grieving process, and at any rate is in very bad taste. This is bad enough with tales of heaven or reincarnation,
and downright abhorrent when a so-called medium pretends - or, in
rare cases, genuinely believes - they can talk to the deceased person
However, the vast majority of loyal members become such during their
childhood, when they're too young to question their parents' advice.
This is why the three Abrahamic religions condemn contraception and
anything else that would let people have the fun of sex without the
hassle of producing more children to indoctrinate. It's why religious
parents send their children to separate schools where they can be
indoctrinated with whichever religion they happen to believe is the
one true faith.
It would be nice if ideologies didn't target such vulnerable people.
This seems unlikely to happen though, as any ideologies that allow
consideration towards the humans that believe in them will merely
be weeded out by their evolution to make way for other ideologies
that aren't afraid to get away with whatever they can in the name
In conclusion, we don't always make rational decisions. Far more
frequently, we make emotional ones, then try to justify them later
on by coming up with plausible sounding arguments for them.
The reason a thinking, rational adult can be religious is usually
that she was indoctrinated when she was either very young or in some
other way vulnerable, and as a consequence, dependent.
The reason a thinking, rational adult can stay religious is either
that she's ill informed, or, more likely in this day and age, that
she's more comfortable ignoring the facts we now know about life and
how the universe works than she would be embracing the change in her
worldview necessary to see the world as it truly is. She likely has
a lot of emotions and experiences tied up with her idea of what her
religion is, and her religion may even be a part of her own identity.
These feelings are far more compelling than cold facts about the
"The universe is unbelievable. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, a hundred
billion stars. A hundred billion stars! We wouldn't count up to
a hundred billion! We could count up to a hundred billion, but
we would not. They have clusters of galaxies, and then these big
bits of nothing. So it's awesome, yeah? The universe is awesome
using the original version, the meaning of the word awesome." --
Eddie Izzard, Circle
I suspect the main flaw in the thinking of people like Richard Dawkins
is that he seems to expect a rational argument to be able to convince
someone to pluck up the courage to make that change in their worldview
necessary to break free.
Maybe a better strategy would be to point out how beautiful the
universe truly is, from the elegant way bacteria communicate with
one another to the beautiful dance of the planets, stars and galaxies.
Maybe then people will realise the universe is far from lonely or
random, but rather a beautiful, majestic place, that turns out to
be even more literally wonderful and awesome with each new thing we
learn about it.
Update: OK, it looks like it's mostly Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism that don't allow contraception, so I have to let most Muslim, Protestant and Jewish variations off the hook in this regard, although this doesn't necessarily mean they condone people having sex for fun, and some religions that allow contraception still require it to be in the context of a marriage. Maybe I should have used the example of gay sex instead...