Funny question, isn’t it?
If you don’t believe in (a) God, but live in a place where most people do, you’ve probably thought about this – even if just to understand others better. If you do believe, however, it’s likely that you know why you believe, but haven’t given much thought to what makes others believe.
Well, as readers of this blog know, I’m one of the former – I don’t believe in God or gods, but I like to understand people better. Therefore, I’ll try to list the several possible causes of belief in God, and add what I think about each. I mean mostly the Christian God, here, though I believe this list could apply to the other monotheistic religions.
The list isn’t probably complete, so, if you’re not included, please comment.
- You can’t explain the existence or origin of something, so you believe God must have done it. Once, we didn’t know the cause of a lot of things. Today, the last few remaining questions seem to be “how did the universe come to be” and “what is the origin of life”. This is the God of the Gaps, of course. Much like ancient people believed that Zeus or Thor created lightning, and were wrong, it’s quite likely that these last two questions also have a natural explanation – and, yet, we still make the same mistake that our ancestors did: come up with supernatural explanations, instead of simply admitting that we don’t know, yet.
- The universe seems too complex, too ordered, too beautiful, to have appeared naturally. A variant of the above, really. Things seem much too interconnected to have appeared randomly, and we have everything we need in this world to survive; it almost seems like the universe was made for us. A universe with billions of stars, and we’re on this infinitesimal planet… made for us, indeed. I may write more about this point in the future; it would make this post too long.
- You’ve been educated that way. I was, myself. But we shouldn’t accept “knowledge” on authority. Parents and teachers can lie (e.g. Santa Claus) or simply be wrong (the Earth being in the center of the universe, whites being superior to blacks, etc.). It’s always a bad idea to lose the ablity to question. Besides, as Richard Dawkins says, most people have the religion of their parents, which makes one’s religion a matter of chance – if you’d been born in Saudi Arabia, you’d be a muslim; in India, you’d be a hindu, and so on. If you accept your parents’ religion, it was randomly selected, in a way – so why be so sure it’s the “real” one?
- You feel that your faith in something greater than yourself gives your life purpose and meaning. This is a very common one. Life seems so random, so ephemeral, and so pointless… surely, there’s got to be something more, doesn’t it? Trouble is, this is no more than wishful thinking. We want it to be true, therefore it must be true. Besides, life – wordly life, in our reality – is much more fascinating and meaningful than these people believe.
- You’ve “felt” the presence / touch of God. Another common one. Feelings or sensations, as we know, are subjective. Quite often, we feel what we expect to feel, or what we want to feel – it’s either a placebo effect, or wishful thinking, again. Besides, if the only thing God does is to make us feel “warm inside” from time to time (if you believe in him for just this reason, that’s what you’re implying), then does such a God deserve worship? He’s no more than a “spiritual foot warmer”, after all…
- It’s comforting to believe that someone is taking care of you. It is, indeed – but, if the reason for such comfort doesn’t exist, it can actually be dangerous. It’s like convincing yourself that you have Superman-like powers, or that your (perfectly common) shirt is bullet-proof. If you behave according to those beliefs, you’ll probably injure yourself, or even die. If you don’t, then you don’t really believe, right? Anyway, this is – once again – wishful thinking. Believing (whether it’s true or not) feels good, so you believe.
- You’re afraid of death, and want to believe that it’s not the end, that you simply go to a better place. Wishful thinking, once again. In reality, things don’t become true just because we want them to be true. Alternatively, it may not be about you: sometimes, the death of a loved one causes you to need to believe that the essential part of them isn’t really dead, it’s just gone to a better place, where there is no more suffering, and where you’ll meet them someday.
- You feel that (finite) life in this world is meaningless unless there’s something afterwards. In other words, if, no matter what you do, you die and turn to dust, what difference does it make whatever you do in your life? So you have to believe that there’s something more. However, not only is this wishful thinking (again…), but it’s a limiting view of life. If you believe that the purpose of life is something “exterior”, then this view makes sense; however, if you instead believe that the purpose of life is life itself – that is, that life needs no external justification, and is worth it on its own – not to mention that it can be utterly enjoyable, and that you actually can make a difference while you’re here -, then you can easily see what’s wrong with this view of existence.
- You want to believe that there’s some kind of absolute, perfect justice in the universe, even if only after death. I’d like that, too. Really. You can’t imagine how strongly I wish that was true. I’ve seen monsters living in luxury their entire lives, and never paying for their crimes, and I’ve seen terrible things happen unfairly to good people – sometimes randomly, sometimes caused by the monsters I mentioned. I wish that both would get what they deserve. It would be so… comforting to believe so. Unfortunately, wishing doesn’t make it so. The best thing we can do is try to make things better here, not resign ourselves and hope for some kind of “justice” later.
- You’ve had some unusual experience that made you believe. Not necessarily a miracle (that’s the next one), but an “amazing coincidence”. Say, you prayed for something that was quite improbable, and it happened. The problem here is usually referred to as “counting the hits and ignoring the misses”. I’ll write more about it in the near future.
- You’ve witnessed an apparent miracle. Now, this should be it, right? I mean, if you witness an actual miracle, it means, at least, that the supernatural exists – not necessarily God (or gods), but at the very least there’s something out there, right? So, what are those miracles? Oddly enough, they are always one of the following:
- A disease goes into remission, or actually vanishes, even though doctors were pessimistic;
- Someone “speaks in tongues”, or acting as if they were possessed;
- Something, by random chance, looks like a religious entity (such as Jesus or the Virgin Mary in tree bark, or in a slice of pizza);
- Statues or pictures of religious entities, usually in a church, appear to “cry” or “bleed”;
And that’s it. All but the first are so absurd that they don’t deserve consideration (if all that God does is appear on slices of pizza, then that’s not a god I’d want to worship anyway…). And that one, well, doctors can make mistakes, and there’s still much about the human body and diseases that we don’t know. Still, if it was actually God doing it, and since God has no limits, then why doesn’t he heal amputees? Are those “beyond” God? Does God hate them for some reason?
- You’re desperate for a miracle. Similar to the previous one, but in this case the “miracle” hasn’t happened yet. But you’re desperate, and ready to try anything, including becoming religious – or, possibly, changing religions.
- You see your death getting closer and closer. You don’t really want your existence to end. If something – anything – promises that it won’t, that there is an afterlife, you grab it.
- The example of another believer or believers inspired you. I’d say that this is actually more common in less religious societies, like in Europe, than in more fundamentalist ones, like the US or Muslim countries. I’ve seen it happen myself. Some of the best people I knew in my youth were devout believers (though not fundamentalists), and they radiated happiness and love wherever they went. It’s quite natural for others to be inspired by them. But I’d say that they weren’t good people because of religion; they’d be good people anyway.
- Other believers were there for you when you needed it. Similar to the above, and, again, I know cases like that. Say, you were going through a bad phase, your close family rejected you for some reason, you didn’t have any real friends, and the only people who really cared and tried to help were members of a church. It’s understandable that you may start to believe, too. Still, I maintain that you don’t need God or religion to be a good, caring human being. There are good and bad theists, and good and bad atheists.
- You like the sense of community that comes from belonging to a church. Again, similar. In this particular case, curiously, you don’t even need God; it’s the group itself, and its activities, that makes you feel like a part of something.
- Being told what to do and what to think comforts you. Sad, but true. A lot of people don’t want the burden and the responsibility of having to think and decide for themselves, and anyone or anything who relieves them of that burden and responsability will have their hearts and minds. This doesn’t happen only with religion, of course. Many people join groups – religious or otherwise – just so they can be told what to do and think.
- While reading the Bible, something made you believe. I almost didn’t include this one, as I’m convinced that reading the Bible, critically and dispassionately, and in its entirety, will unconvert at least ten people for each one it helps converting. Almost everyone who reads the Bible already believes; I’ve never heard of someone believing just because they read the Bible. Even most Christians are forced to ignore most of it.
And that’s it. I’ve tried to be comprehensive, but it’s possible that I missed a couple of reasons.
Now, please be honest: if you’re a believer, do you fit into one (or more) of the above? Or is your case different? I’d like to know.
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