Why we believe (was: fishing with the seventh seal)

From: Scott Badger (w_scott_badger@yahoo.com)
Date: Wed Jul 05 2000 - 11:08:12 MDT

Damien Broderick wrote:

> At 01:39 AM 5/07/00 -0900, John Grigg wrote quite
movingly about childhood apprehensions of nuclear war,
but ended with a mad flourish:
> ===============
> >Well... according to both Mormon and evangelical
> scriptural interpretation
> we WILL be seeing this sort of nightmarish conflict
> happen. So, the worst
> is yet to come if these views are correct. And the
> "miracle" technologies
> of AI, nanotech and biotech may also fulfill other
> Biblical prophecies.
> >A part of me hopes I am wrong and these things are
> not bound to happen. I
> don't claim that God will force humanity to nuke
> itself, but being divine
> can simply see what we will do to each other when
> left to our own devices.
> ===============
> Sigh. This is simply inaccurate. Leading scholars
> know that the world will be destroyed when the
> Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy fight to the
> death on top of Sugar Mountain, with the victor
> killed by Santa Claus. Luckily they will all be
> reincarnated when their thetans are retrieved from
> the pumping stations.
> Damien Broderick
> [sorry - but really, John, you've got to *get over
> this pathetic kindergarten fantasy*]

I've been making a list of the reasons why I suspect
people are prone to believe in deities. This has
probably been covered before but I missed it.

BTW, this doesn't mean I'm an atheist. It means that
I see lots of reasons why we are predisposed to
believing in god(s). This makes me pretty skeptical of
any human-generated belief system regarding a creator.

I'd be interested in hearing about any possible
reasons that I've missed.

1. To deal with the loss of loved ones

Earliest beliefs may not have centered so much around
god as they did an afterlife. The belief that there
is a life beyond this mortal one is a natural response
to the feelings of grief experienced by those who have
lost a child or a spouse. These losses are still the
most devastating emotional experience a human being
typically has in his/her life. It is certainly no
surprise that primitive people created the concept of
an afterlife as a coping mechanism to deal with death
of their loved ones. It is much more comforting to
think of our dead as still alive ... somewhere.
Weren't flowers laid upon neanderthal graves believed
to be the first signs of religious ritual?

2. Personal Death Anxiety

Our general instinct to survive carries over from the
physical domain into the psychological. I suspect that
this reason is actually secondary in importance to the
loss of loved ones.

3. To make sense of the universe

Moon gods, sun gods, wind gods, etc. We are curious
monkeys, compelled to make meaning out of our
experiences. When confronted with apparently
unexplainable phenomena, we tend to generate stories
which substitute for true understanding (aka "pathetic
kindergarten fantasies).

4. An attempt to manipulate the environment

Experiencing threatening elements in an environment
which seem beyond our control generates anxiety
(earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, etc.) The solution
is to create gods who are in control. This allows us
to pray to those gods and to at least have some
indirect influence/control over the elements.

5. The Parent Figure

We are psychologically attracted to the idea of the
ultimately wise, forgiving, protecting, beneficent,
and benevolent parent. (our heavenly father, holy

6. Let God Decide

Many people appear to relish the idea that they can
relinquish responsibility for their lives by placing
it in God’s hands. This tends to happen when
decisions are very difficult to make either due to
complexity or to insufficient information. This
strategy once again serves to relieve anxiety and
provides hope to those who perceive themselves to be
in hopeless situations.

7. We like rituals.

We’re attracted to the rituals and the structure of
religious organizations. These institutions provide
us with formulas for salvation. In addition, they
provide the moral guidance that many have problems
developing for themselves.

8. Social conformity

Many believe in god because all their neighbors
believe in god, and it would not be in their best
social interests to eschew those belief systems.

9. Our anthropomorphic tendencies

People tend to anthropomorphize things around them
because it is a useful strategy with survival value.
Assuming that the things you come across are animate
and purposeful is a safer mistake to make than the
converse. We have evolved to see persons everywhere.
With typical sloppiness, our brains use the "dealing
with people" faculties to handle interactions with
things that are not people at all.

Identifying the personality behind a phenomena gives
us the illusion that we can then predict what that
persnality will do next. And being able to anticipate
the future helps to relieve anxiety. Stewart Gutherie
has a book on this idea ... that religion, all
religion, at it's core is nothing other than applying
this useful and important survival strategy to the
world at large. Anthropomorphism is not an error that
the religious sometimes fall into. It is the very
essence of religious thought and feeling.

The problem, of course, is that it is all a very
reasonable and safe mistake. There is no God. There is
no consciousness behind nature. But we persist in
seeing it anyway, just as we persist in seeing
humanlike figures in inkblots. That's why religion is
so pervasive. That's why it seems so natural. That's
why "so many people" can be so wrong. (I'm mostly
quoting Gutherie here)

10. Altered states of consciousness

It so happens that humans experience a wide variety of
psychologically anomalous experiences. Maslow called
one class of them “peak” experiences, heightened
levels of consciousness, suggesting that every
religion’s founder probably had a peak experience of
some type. Whatever is responsible for out-of-body
experiences, near-death experiences, and other altered
states tends to convince those who have them that
there is a spiritual reality.

11. The Observer Illusion

We have a long history of separating the mind from the
body because it often seems to us that we are
observing and controlling ourselves to one degree or
another. This leads us to think that there is a
separation between the mind (i.e. the spirit) and the
body (i.e. the brain). We naturally enough conclude
that the observer, the narrator in our head is
evidence for god and a spiritual reality.

12. Ignorance

There is a tendency for humans to conclude that
unknown things are also unknowable things (i.e.
ignorance is rationalized by attaching the notion of

13. The Power of Myth

The story of Jesus is a classic tale of the hero.
There’s the prophecy, the chastity, the pureness of
character and deed, the betrayal and the denial by
those he loved, the self-doubt but finally facing his
fear and sacrificing his life for his beliefs, and
finally ... the resurrection ... the transformation
into the true savior, proving he was right all along.
What a great story to tell around the campfire.

The hero myth is the most powerful myth in the human
psyche and has been told over and over. The biggest
religions have a hero story don't they? ... Muhammad,
Buddha, Jesus?

What have I left out? or how might I clarify these?

Best regards,


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