Good Morning! Our world is an unstable place. Nations rise and governments topple. Unbalanced people around the world torture and kill each other for the sake of religion or other groundless causes.
Earthquakes, volcanoes, and wars periodically scourge our globe. Continents drift about and collide with each other, and oceans form and disappear. As it spins on its axis, the earth is not stable. Like the center peg of a toy top, the axis of the spinning earth slowly wobbles in a circle, tracing out the surface of a double cone in space. So, why do people believe in religious doctrines that has no affect on the reality?
Most of the classical religious beliefs emerged in a pre-scientific era before the application of the methods of science. Unfortunately, the origins of the venerated ancient religions are often buried by the sands of historical time—though biblical critics have endeavored to reconstruct the foundations of these religions by using the best scholarly and scientific methods of inquiry.
It is often difficult to engage in impartial scholarly or scientific inquiry into the origins of religious doctrines, particularly when those critically examining the foundations of the revered truths are often placed in jeopardy by their societies.
The ancient religions of prophecies and revelations—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all claim that God intervened at one time in history, spoke to Moses and the prophets, resurrected Jesus, or communicated through Gabriel to Muhammad.
The narratives of alleged supernatural intervention that appear in the Bible and the Koran were at first transmitted by oral traditions after the alleged facts occurred. They were written down by second- or third-hand sources, many years and even decades later. They most likely weave into their parables dramatic renditions bordering on fiction, and written by passionate propagandists for new faiths.
These sacred books promise believers another world beyond this vale of tears. Their messages of salvation were attractive to countless generations of poor and struggling souls endeavoring to overcome the blows of existential reality. Believers ever since have accepted them as gospel truth; after centuries they became deeply ingrained in the entire fabric of society.
These ancient religions have persisted in part because they have ostracized or condemned heretics and disbelievers. They have gained adherents over time by policies of selective breeding: marriage could only be by members of the same clan or tribe or church, and those who married outside of the faith were disowned. They sought to inculcate and transmit the tenets of the faith to the young, so as to ensure the continuity of the tradition. The entire artistic, moral, philosophical, economic, social, and legal structure of ancient societies were rooted in religious institutions.
In many new religions the historical records are abundant. In all of these religions, critics have pointed out the role of deception or self-deception, such as Joseph Smith’s writing of the Book of Mormon and his accounts of the golden plates delivered by the angel
Closer still, twentieth-century skeptics have been able to witness firsthand the spinning out of New Age paranormal religions. A good illustration of this is the power of suggestion exercised by psychics and mediums, often through the use of deception or self-deception, and the receptiveness of so many believers, all too willing to accept claims of supernormal powers by abandoning rigorous standards of corroboration.
Thus the question is raised anew, How do we explain the willingness of so many people—no doubt a majority of humankind—to outstrip the evidence and to weave out fantasies in which their deepest psychological longings are expressed and their national mythologies fulfilled? How explain the willingness to believe even the most bizarre tales?
Skeptics have been challenged to account for the apparent extraordinary feats of their proponents. After detailed investigation their weird claims have been debunked; yet in spite of this otherwise sensible people have persisted in beliefs that are patently false. Indeed, there seems to be a bizarre kind of logic at work: belief systems for which there is entirely scanty evidence or no evidence, or indeed abundant evidence to the contrary are fervently accepted; indeed, people will devote their entire lives to a groundless creed. This has been heralded in the past as faith in things unseen or things hoped for.
The will to believe in spite of negative evidence has been acclaimed as morally praiseworthy. David Hume thought it a “miracle” that people who believe in miracles are willing to subvert all of the evidence of the senses and the processes of rationality in order to accept their beliefs.
There are at least two possible explanations that I wish to focus on. (There are no doubt others, such as the need for identity, ethnicity, the quest for community, the role of indoctrination, the power of tradition, etc.)
In answer to the question, “Why do people believe?,” the first explanation is that believers have not been exposed to the factual critiques of their faith. These critiques apply to the cognitive basis of their belief.
There are alternative naturalistic explanations of the alleged phenomena, cognitivists maintain, and if criticisms of the claims were made available to them, they would abandon their irrational beliefs. This is no doubt true of some people, who are committed to inquiry, but not of all, for processes of rationalization intervene to rescue the faith.
Accordingly, a second explanation for this is that noncognitive tendencies and impulses are at work, tempting believers to accept the “unbelievable.” This disposition to believe in spite of insufficient or contrary evidence has deep roots in our biological and social nature.
In the first instance, cognition performs a powerful role in human life, liberating us from false ideas. In the form of common sense, it is essential, at least up to a point, if we are to live and function in the real world.
Critical thinking is the preeminent instrument of human action; it is the most effective means that we have to fulfill our purposes and solve the problems of living. From it philosophy and science have emerged, contributing to our understanding of nature and ourselves.
We all know that we need to use practical reason to deal with empirical questions, such as: “Is it snowing outside?” or “How do I cope with my toothache?” And we also apply such methods within the sciences, to deal with issues such as the following: “The dinosaurs were most likely extinguished by an asteroid impact some sixty-five million years ago.” Or, “We are unable to cure people by therapeutic touch.”
Each of these beliefs may be tested by the experimental evidence or by theories accepted as probable or improbable on the basis of these considerations. In addition, an open-minded inquirer may be led to accept or reject any number of propositions, which he or she previously asserted, such as, “There is no evidence that a great flood engulfed the entire globe as related in the Bible.”
We may ask, “Why do many people accept unverified occult explanations when they are clothed in religious or paranormal guise?” The answer, I think, in part at least, is because such accounts arouse awe and entice the passionate imagination. The transcendental temptation is the temptation to believe in things unseen, because they satisfy felt needs and desires.
The transcendental temptation has various dimensions. It was resorted to by primitive men and women, unable to cope with the intractable in nature, unmitigated disasters, unbearable pain or sorrow. It is drawn upon by humans in order to assuage the dread of death—by postulating another dimension to existence, the hope for an afterlife in which the evils and injustices of this world are overcome. The lure of the transcendental temptation appeals to the frail and forlorn.
There may not be any evidence for a transcendental realm; but the emotive and intellectual desire to submit to it can provide a source of comfort and consolation. To believe that we will meet in another life those whom we have loved in this life can be immensely satisfying, or at least it can provide some saving grace. It may enable a person to get through the grievous losses that he or she suffers in this life. If I can’t be with those I cherish today, I can at least do so in my dreams and fantasies, and if I submit to and propitiate the unseen powers that govern the universe this will miraculously right the wrongs that I have endured in this vale of tears.
Thus the transcendental temptation is tempting because it enables human beings to survive the often cruel trials and tribulations that are our constant companion, and it enables us to endure this life in anticipation of the next. It is the mystery and magic of religion, its incantations and rituals, that fan the passions of overbelief, and nourish illusion and unreality.
There is a real and dangerous world out there that primitive and modern humans need to cope with—wild animals and marauding tribes, droughts and famine, lightning and forest fires, calamities and deprivation, accidents and contingencies. Surely, there is pleasure and satisfaction, achievement, and realization in life, but also tragedy and failure, defeat, and bitterness.
Our world is a complex tapestry of joy and suffering. The transcendental temptation thus can provide a powerful palliative enabling humans to cope with the unbearable, overcome mortality, and finitude; and it does so by creating fanciful systems of religious overbelief in which priests and prophets propitiate the unseen sources of power and thus shield us from the vicissitudes of fortune.
It is only in recent human history that the species has gradually been able to overcome mythological explanations. Yet there still remained a residue of unanswered questions, and it is here in the swamp of the unknowable that the transcendental temptation festers. This beguiling temptation reaches beyond the natural world by sheer force of habit and passion, and it resists all efforts to contain it. Rather than suspend judgments about those questions for which there is no evidence either way, it leaps in to fill the void and comfort the aching soul. It is the most frequent salve used to calm existential fear and trembling.
Why is this so? Because I think that the temptation has its roots in a tendency, and this in a disposition. In other words, there is most likely within the human species a genetic component, which is stronger than temptation and weaker than instinct. The hypothesis that I wish to offer is that the belief in the efficacy of prayer and the submission to divine power persists because it has had some survival value in the infancy of the race; powerful psycho-sociobiological factors are thus at work, predisposing humans to submit to the temptation.
The Reasons for Disbelief
We need also to ask, Why do some humans disbelieve? — for there is a minority of people who remain unbelievers, agnostics, or atheists. There are a number of important research projects that I think should be undertaken. To ascertain if there is a genetic tendency — or lack of it — we should study the family trees of both believers and unbelievers.
We need to examine the sociocultural contexts in which religious ideas appear and disappear. We have an excellent data pool today in
Similarly, many Western European countries have seen a rather rapid decline in traditional religion since World War II, especially under the influence of liberalism and humanism. For example, in The Netherlands before the war, approximately half of the population identified with Roman Catholicism and half with Protestantism, with a small percentage of Jews and other minorities. This has changed since World War II, and there is now a higher percentage of humanists than either Protestants or Catholics. Similar processes have been observed in
Atheism is a doctrine that states that nothing exists but natural phenomena (matter), that thought is a property or function of matter, and that death irreversibly and totally terminates individual organic units. This definition means that there are no forces, phenomena, or entities which exist outside of or apart from physical nature, or which transcend nature, or are “super” natural, nor can there be. Humankind is on its own.
An Atheist believes that only in knowledge of himself and knowledge of his fellow man can he find the understanding that will help to a life of fulfillment.
Kemo D. (a.k.a. no.7) www.beyondgenes.com