The Origins of Religious Faith
Within days after birth, helpless infants recognize the caretakers who provide food, warmth, and shelter. Babies and young children not only recognize, they also trust their parents. When told about a fairy who exchanges money for teeth and a fat man laden with presents who slides down chimneys, children have faith in the stories. They accept the version of reality foisted on them by their parents, peers, community leaders, and humble servants of the church.
We often trust authorities, and we should. I believe that the earth is round and smaller than the twinkly things that light up the night sky, not because I deduced those facts on my own, but because others told me so. Authorities have also convinced me that enormous reptiles once roamed the earth and Saudi Arabia gets hot. They have earned the right to their authority: Astronomers spend years learning how to interpret stellar data, archeologists do the same for fossils, and both types of scientists test their hypotheses with observations and controlled experiments.
But the public and private beliefs of many authority figures do not always correspond, as when prominent athletes hawk products on television or politicians open their mouths. With respect to religion, although theologians may be experts in interpreting a bible, they don’t know any more than laypeople whether any particular bible tells the truth or whether there is a supreme being or life continues after death. How does one become an expert on life after death?
If the evidence for religious beliefs were trustworthy, preferences would be independent of time and place of upbringing. They are not. More atheists live in Azerbaijan than Atlanta, more Baptists in Biloxi than Bombay, more Catholics in Cincinnati than Calcutta, more Jews in Jerusalem than Jakarta, and more Moslems in Malaysia than Monaco. The demographic details reflect the obvious fact that people living within a broad general region are exposed to the same newspapers, TV shows, films, and books. For the same reason, football fans from Cincinnati are more likely than Chicagoans to root for the Bengals whereas Chicago residents prefer the Bears. (But Bengal fans do not claim that their team’s playbook is the only true one or that Chicago fans worship false idols.)
Do you believe that Jesus turned water into wine, walked on water, and rose from the dead? Did God turn Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt? Do you stick pins into dolls of your enemy? Are you convinced that pairs of each of the more than two million animal species assembled and sailed peacefully in an ark? Will you be reincarnated? If you are a man who dies a martyr, will 72 virgins welcome you to paradise?
If you answered “No” to at least one of the questions– and I’d like to meet anyone who gives “Yeses” across the board– how do you account for the “Yeses?” Are the “yes” respondents lying? Ignorant savages? Psychotic? Stupid? Delusional? Undoubtedly, each category is represented, but there must be a more inclusive explanation.
The belief that life has meaning makes it worth living– even if life has no meaning. Whether or not the universe is ruled by a loving God, faith in a higher power helps millions get through each day. In the event of tragedy, faith consoles. To envisage a recently deceased loved one in a better place, to anticipate a heavenly reunion someday, is analgesic.
Religious Faith is Beneficial
Church attendance is a social occasion. People meet future friends, spouses, and business associates at church socials. By accepting the traditional beliefs of their community, they become part of a team. Congregations form powerful voting blocs. Faith enables people to achieve feats that would otherwise be beyond their capabilities. Imagine having to walk across a long, narrow plank suspended between the rooftops of two tall buildings, with no net down below. The terrifying task would likely end in death. Yet walking would be effortless if the plank lay on the ground. A hypnotist or evangelist who convinced you that the plank was on the ground might save your life. Your unjustified faith might save your life.
Faith benefits at both ends of the happiness spectrum. It comforts and consoles, giving hope to people in foxholes, or starving, or enslaved'”if not for this world, then for the next. Bishop George Berkeley wrote, “I can easily overlook any present momentary sorrow when I reflect that it is in my power to be happy a thousand years hence.” At the other end, successful people, cognizant of the fact that fame, power, wealth, and health are subject to fortune’s whims, may believe that God will be touched by their thankful prayers and shield them from any downturns.
“This human world of ours would be inconceivable without the practical existence of a religious belief.” Adolf Hitler
Philosopher Blaise Pascal argued that faith makes practical sense. He wrote that, if God exists, believers will be rewarded while disbelievers suffer eternal damnation. If He doesn’t exist, belief and disbelief won’t matter. In other words, faith separates children of God from benighted fools whose loving creator, if He exists, damns them to burn eternally in Hell.
But Pascal didn’t consider all the alternatives. God may not be all-loving. She may be indifferent to humans, possibly even malevolent. That is beside the point: whether or not Pascal’s wager is a smart one, having a reason for a belief does not make the belief true. Beneficial illusions are still illusions. Furthermore, given the hundreds of different religions, a small minority at most could possibly hold accurate beliefs. Most Americans accept that the Red Sea parted for Moses and angels sing in heaven, but they scoff at the idea of Zeus hurling thunderbolts or dances bringing rain. Would Pascal advise them to bet across the board?
Under Pascal’s conditions, there is no penalty for incorrect beliefs. But consider a modification in which, if a loving God rules the universe, believers and nonbelievers fare equally well. But if Satan is top dog, nonbelievers are unaffected while believers suffer an excruciatingly painful death. Would you believe? The question is not just irrelevant, it’s silly. If beliefs could be shaped that easily, the human condition would be one of unalloyed happiness. We’d have no concerns about war, pestilence, famine, or global warming, and we could eliminate the concept of God. He is, after all, only a middleman who rewards loyal subjects with eternal happiness. Why not just believe that eternal happiness is our birthright.
Anthropologist Marvin Harris also claimed that religious faith makes practical sense. Harris asserted that, despite appearances to the contrary, no religions decrease the potential for the well-being of their followers. People often require a manufactured “divine intervention” to get them to act in their best interests. For example, the Hindu religion bans killing cows, which is the only reason why cows are not routinely killed for their meat. The ban benefits Hindus, because cows are much more valuable to them for plowing fields and providing milk. Harris wrote, “Westerners think that Indians would rather starve than eat their cows. What they don’t understand is that they will starve if they do eat their cows.” For similar reasons, Jews and Muslims don’t eat pork. Although a common explanation is that pigs are dirty–impure, unclean, and therefore not to be eaten–a more realistic one is that pigs are not adapted for arid habitats. Lacking sweat glands, they need external sources of moisture to control their body temperature, which is why they wallow in mud. They would be prohibitively expensive to maintain in the hot Middle East.
Wealthy people might have been tempted to raise a few pigs as luxury food for special occasions. In the long run, that would have endangered precious resources. So it was better to have people believe that God decreed, “Thou shalt, under no circumstance, raise pigs.”
But Maybe Not So Beneficial
Benjamin Franklin stated that “religion will be a powerful regulator of our actions, give us peace and tranquility within our minds, and render us benevolent, useful and beneficial to others.” Dostoyevsky wrote, “If God does not exist, then everything is permissible.” But a study by Gregory Paul contradicts the belief that religion provides the moral foundations for a healthy society. In fact, religion may contribute to social problems.
Paul used interview data collected by the International Social Survey Program over the course of several years on 23,000 people in 38 nations. The data analyzed rates of religious belief and practice. Among the developed democracies, absolute belief in God, attendance of religious services, Bible literalism, prayer rates, and acceptance of evolution varied greatly.
Paul also used data from the UN Development Programme to assess such issues as societal health, homicide rates, youth suicide, sexually transmitted disease, teen pregnancy, and rates of abortion. He concluded that populations of the more secular democracies, in which the theory of evolution is widely accepted, feature low rates of lethal crime, juvenile-adult mortality, sex related dysfunction, and abortion. Rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate positively with rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion. The most theistic prosperous democracy, the U.S., is by almost all measures the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies.
Within the U.S., strong religious beliefs and acceptance of evolution are similarly positively correlated with rates of societal dysfunction. The strongly theistic, anti-evolution south and mid-west have markedly worse homicide, mortality, STD, youth pregnancy, marital, and related problems than the northeast where societal conditions, secularization, and acceptance of evolution approach European norms.
In recent years, many U.S. senators and representatives have received high approval ratings from influential Christian right advocacy groups and flunking grades from the League of Conservation Voters. One reason is that leaders of the Christian right, and millions of their followers, believe the words of a history text that, according to the Providence Foundation, has sold more than 100,000 copies since its first printing in 1989. The book, America’s Providential History, is used in home schooling, private and public schools, religious schools, political seminars, discussion groups, colleges, and seminaries.The authors wrote: “The secular or socialist has a limited resource mentality and views the world as a pie (there is only so much) that needs to be cut up so that everyone can get a piece. In contrast, the Christian knows that the potential in God is unlimited and that there is no shortage of resources in God’s earth. The resources are waiting to be tapped.”
Many in the Christian right believe that the return of the son of God is imminent. Upon His return, the righteous will enter heaven and sinners will be condemned to eternal hellfire. So, a second reason for being unconcerned about destruction of the environment–in fact, being pleased–is that it signals the coming Apocalypse.
Faith (of Others) is Definitely Beneficial to Some
The founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, once said “Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wanted to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.” Most religious leaders are charismatic figures whose opulent lifestyles depend on encouraging others to keep the faith.
- Religion has been very good to televangelist Pat Robertson. Some estimates put his net worth at 140 million.
- Trinity Broadcasting Network founder Paul Crouch and his wife earned close to one million dollars per year in salary alone. They also owned very expensive property.
- The Reverend Bill Graham is a highly successful businessman. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association became an incorporated company in 1950 and spawned numerous subsidiaries over the years, including the Billy Graham Evangelistic Film Ministry, the Grason Company (a publishing company for books, records, and music), World Wide Publications, and the Billy Graham Center (a museum dedicated to the study of evangelism).
- The Rev. Dr. Sun Myung Moonparlayed religion into a multibillion dollar business. In 1994, evangelist Jerry Falwell accepted $3.5 million from Moon.
- Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life has sold over fourteen million copies since October 2002, making it the bestselling hardback nonfiction book in history.
- Following is a very incomplete list of other people who have convinced the multitudes to part with large sums of money: Joel Osteen, Juanita Bynum, Rodney Howard-Browne, T.D. Jakes, Benny Hinn, Paula and Randy White, Mike Murdock, Rev. James Eugene Ewing, and John Hagee.
- Statement from the Economic Report of the Holy See for 2000: For the eighth consecutive year, the operating statement for fiscal year 2000 for the Holy See closes with a net gain of 17.720 billion, equal to $8,516,000 US at the exchange rate at the end of the year of 2,080.89 lire per dollar. The total expenses were 404.378 billion and the total income was 422.098 billion. Compared with the previous fiscal year, the income was more substantial, having increased by 64 billion.
“If God existed as an all-powerful being, He would not need the money that faithful believers donate to their churches.” Donald Morgan
Televangelists, rabbis, priests, and mullahs are not the only ones who benefit from the faith of others. Karl Marx called religion the opiate of the masses. Opium reduces both physical and emotional pain. Opium induces pleasant dreams. The rich and powerful can rest more comfortably when the downtrodden dream that acceptance of their terrible existence is a small price to pay for eternal salvation.
Religious Leaders Have God’s Cell Phone Number
In the 1980s, Pat Robertson claimed that God told him, “I want you to run for president of the United States.” In 2004, God told him that President Bush would easily win re-election against John Kerry. In Robertson’s words, “I’m hearing from the Lord it’s going to be like a blowout election in 2004.” God also told Robertson to buy a television station for his ministry, and not just the cheapest transmitter available. God said, “Pat, I want you to have an RCA transmitter.” In 1987, evangelist Oral Roberts announced to his television audience that God had told him that he must raise $8 million within the next 12 months or he would die. (His flock raised the money.) In 2003, Jerry Falwell explained that God is a shrewd strategist. Falwell said that He arranged for President Clinton to be re-elected so that Americans would beg for somebody else. Falwell also said, “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals; it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.”
But, strange as it may seem, God miscalculated. He underestimated America’s depth of perversity and had to administer an additional dollop of tough love. So, in the words of televangelist John Hagee (NPR interview in 2006): “All hurricanes are acts of God, because God controls the heavens. I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they were recipients of the judgment of God for that.” And, “Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans.”
Barbara Rose’s Internet site (http://borntoinspire.com/) offers “GOD Guided Heaven Sessions.” Rose, a paragon of humility, notes that “It is not ‘just me’ that does this work, but God who works through me.” It’s curious to think that god’s powers are so limited that he can make his will known only through others'”even more curious that he picks people like Robertson, Roberts, and Falwell. Couldn’t he write the Ten Commandments in the sky for everyone to see? Or whisper in everybody’s ear? Maybe we just haven’t appreciated his great sense of irony.
Maybe They Had a Bad Connection
Every profession has its share of hypocrites and criminals, but religious leaders'”the ones who instill moral codes in their followers'”should not compete with pornographers and snake oil salesmen for the moral vacuum award. Below is a very incomplete list of religious leaders who made headlines during the past 25 years.
You shall not murder. Sixth Commandment
- Shoko Asahara claimed to be a reincarnation of the Hindu god Shiva, and promised to lead his followers to salvation when Armageddon arrived. His cult, Aum Shinrikyo, released deadly sarin gas onto the Tokyo underground in 1995. Seven people were killed.
- Meir Kahane was an American Jewish Orthodox rabbi. He was imprisoned for plotting the bombing of a mosque.
- Swami Premananda set up an ashram in Sri Lanka that became noted for taking in orphans. He was convicted on several charges of raping girls and also for murder. He is currently serving a double life sentence.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:43)
- Fred Phelps, the leader of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, has organized demonstrations in at least 22 states at funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. His supporters carry placards reading “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” and they shout epithets at grieving parents. Phelps asserts that God punished the soldiers because the U.S. is tolerant of homosexuality. In his words, “God hates fags.”
- Jerry Falwell called James Bakker, a former Assemblies of God minister and host of a popular evangelical Christian television program, a liar, an embezzler, a sexual deviant, and “the greatest scab and cancer on the face of Christianity in 2,000 years of church history.”
You shall not commit adultery. (Seventh Commandment). According to many religious leaders, there are prohibitions of many other forms of sex.
- Bakker’s staff members paid $265,000 to his former secretary to keep secret her allegation that he had raped her, In 1987, following threats that the payoff would be revealed, Bakker resigned from his position.
- Warren Jeffs, the former President of Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was charged with conspiracy to commit sex crimes. He was arrested after being on the FBI Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list for a little over 16 weeks.
- In 1986 Jimmy Swaggart helped defrock fellow Assemblies of God minister Marvin Gorman for conducting an extramarital affair. The next year, a private detective hired by Gorman took photos of Jimmy Swaggart with a prostitute. Swaggart told the Assemblies of God leadership that he suffered a lifelong addiction to pornography.
- In 2006, Pastor Ted Haggard of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, admitted to some charges levied against him by his former male escort. The escort claimed that Haggard paid him for sex over a 3 year period and used methamphetamine with him. Haggard at first claimed he did not know his accuser. He later admitted that the escort had given him a massage but denied that it was sexual. He also admitted buying methamphetamine but denied using it. He was fired by the church for “sexually immoral conduct.”
- Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, has been repeatedly accused of breaking the law. In 2003, an Israeli newspaper published a report in which four young men accused Metzger of groping them. He has been accused of sexually harassing women as well.
- Paul Crouch is the co-founder, chairman, and president of the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), the world’s largest Christian television network. In 2004, the Los Angeles Times reported that Crouch in 1998 paid a former employee a $425,000 settlement to end a sexual harassment lawsuit alleging that the man was forced into a homosexual encounter with Crouch under threats of job termination. TBN officials acknowledged the settlement while claiming that it was made in order to avoid an expensive lawsuit.
- During the last decade, thousands of pedophile Roman Catholic priests have been exposed in the U.S., Ireland, Canada, Poland, Australia, Britain, France, Mexico and Austria. In some cases the crimes were covered up by Church authorities and the perpetrators moved to another location, sometimes repeatedly. As a result, some of the pedophile priests had continued access to children whose lives they ruined.
- And not just young boys. The Magdalene institutions, originally established in the nineteenth century by the Sisters of Mercy as spiritual refuges for prostitutes and other women penitents, took in as many as 30,000 women until they closed in 1996. The institutions held girls and women against their will for “offenses” such as flirting or having been raped. Inmates were often beaten, stripped naked, mocked by sadistic nuns, and abused in other ways.
- And not just the Catholic Church. In 2005, Rabbi David Kaye of Potomac resigned from his job after allegedly trying to solicit sex from minors online. It was part of an undercover probe by the television show “Dateline NBC.” In 2006, two lawsuits alleged that a Brooklyn Yeshiva knowingly harbored a child molester.
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Matthew 19:24.
- Between 1984 and 1987, James Bakker and his wife each received annual salaries of $200,000 plus huge bonuses. Bakker was charged with fraud, tax evasion, and racketeering and sentenced to 45 years in prison. His associate, Richard Dortch, senior vice-president of PTL, also went to prison.
- Televangelist Robert Tilton’s paid television program, Success-N-Life, aired in all 235 American TV markets. Tilton taught that all of life’s trials, especially poverty, were a result of sin. When a person made a vow to Tilton, Tilton preached that God would reward the donor with vast material riches. In 1991, ABC News reported that Tilton’s ministry threw away prayer requests without reading them, keeping only money and valuables sent by viewers. Investigations initiated by the state of Texas and the Federal government found nearly 10,000 pounds of prayer requests and letters to the Tilton ministry in a disposal bin at a Tulsa-area recycling firm.
- Gerald Payne founded the Tampa-based Greater Ministries International Church. In 2001 Payne received a 27 year prison sentence for promising 18,000 Christian investors that they would double their money through “divinely-inspired investments.” Before his arrest on 19 counts of fraud, conspiracy, money-laundering, and related charges, Payne and his partners took in almost $580 million.
- Brother Patrick Henry Talbert of the Indianapolis Baptist Temple told his audience, “God says give, and it shall be given. You give a gift, we basically take it offshore ‘” and we’ve been doing this for nine years, nobody’s ever lost a dime ‘” and we multiply it back through the body of Christ. … We don’t promise you nothing. We just say nobody’s lost a dime in nine years, and we double everything.” In 1999, a federal grand jury indicted Talbert and six others on charges of money laundering and mail fraud. According to the 20-count indictment, the group’s “Double Your Blessing” and “Faith Promises” programs were elaborate frauds that bilked thousands of people for tens of millions of dollars.
- By the mid-80s, Jimmy Swaggart’s weekly “Jimmy Swaggart Telecast” attracted eight million viewers. He amassed great wealth, taking in more than $150 million annually.
The pope nominated Mother Teresa for sainthood a year after her death in 1997. A “miracle” had to be attested. Christopher Hitchens wrote, “Surely any respectable Catholic cringes with shame at the obviousness of the fakery. A Bengali woman named Monica Besra claims that a beam of light emerged from a picture of MT, which she happened to have in her home, and relieved her of a cancerous tumor. Her physician, Dr. Ranjan Mustafi, says that she didn’t have a cancerous tumor in the first place and that the tubercular cyst she did have was cured by a course of prescription medicine. Was he interviewed by the Vatican’s investigators? No.”
Hitchens wrote that MT was a friend of poverty, not of the poor. She said that suffering was a gift from God. “She was a friend to the worst of the rich, taking misappropriated money from the atrocious Duvalier family in Haiti (whose rule she praised in return) and from Charles Keating.” Keating received a ten-year prison sentence for his part in the savings and loan scandal. During the course of his trial, she pleaded to the judge for clemency.
Hitchens, noting that her global income was more than enough to outfit several first class clinics, and that she never published an audit, asked what happened to the money. He wrote, “The primitive hospice in Calcutta was as run down when she died as it always had been.” He added that “The decision not to do so… is a deliberate one. The point is not the honest relief of suffering, but the promulgation of a cult based on death and suffering and subjection.” One of her volunteers described her “Home for the Dying” as resembling photos of concentration camps such as Belsen. No chairs, just stretcher beds. Virtually no medical care or painkillers beyond aspirin.
Hitchens noted that MT “checked into some of the finest and costliest clinics and hospitals in the West during her bouts with heart trouble and old age.” He concluded, “Many more people are poor and sick because of the life of MT: Even more will be poor and sick if her example is followed. She was a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud.”
Other People Also Get Messages From God
Voices told young mother Jennifer Cisowski to test her faith in god by repeatedly slamming her infant son to the ground and down a flight of stairs. She said she believed he would rise from the dead if her faith were strong enough. Deanna Laney believed that god ordered her to kill her children. She did. Teresa Ann Archie shot her daughter after becoming convinced the 16-year-old was possessed by Satan. She told police Shavon’s last words were, “Mama, don’t shoot me, I love you.” She replied, “I know, Baby, but I have to do the Lord’s will.” Andrea Yates received communications from God telling her to kill her five children. So she made them breakfast and then methodically drowned each one. Lashuan Harris dropped her three young boys over the railing on Pier 7 to drown in San Francisco Bay. Her psychiatrist testified that Harris believed God had told her to put her boys into the Bay.
God sometimes commands people to commit mass murders. george w. bush told the Palestinian Foreign Minister, “God told me to invade Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Points To Ponder (but not for long)
The first humans roamed the earth about 100,000 years ago. Why did god wait about 98,000 years before sending his messenger (Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha)?
The ancient Greeks believed that the heavens teemed with gods, and many of them were malicious. Has new evidence emerged to justify the notion of one exclusively benevolent being? Historian Lord Acton wrote that “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He referred to politicians, but wouldn’t his warning apply to an omniscient, omnipotent being? The Old Testament paints a decidedly unflattering picture of god’s character. Consider the stories of Job and Abraham. god took everything away from his faithful servant Job–family, health, and possessions–just to test whether Job would stay devoted. What insecurity! In the Hebrew Bible, god asks Abraham to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah and doesn’t even deign to give a reason. What a sadist!
The biblical god is superior to humans in both strength and ability to create special effects, so if he existed and we knew what he wanted (directly, not via some power-seeking evangelist claiming a pipeline), it would behoove us to obey. Slaves do not fare well who displease their masters. But he’s not a good role model. Willie Nelson sang, “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” Humanitarian mamas won’t let them grow up to be god either.
People of deep faith are called god-fearing. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 1:7). Ponder that. Fear of an all-loving being seems misplaced, even ungrateful. Loving children of loving parents aren’t called parent-fearing. Yet many true believers worship a god whose level of tolerance is far below the standards of most mothers.
Theologians argue that the world’s evil can be explained as the price for free will. That raises a question. Does evil exist in heaven? If not, then angels lack free will? How about god herself? Does his existence indicate the possibility of both free will and total goodness? If so, god shouldn’t have rushed things. If he’d have taken eight or nine days, he might have been able to create creatures really in his image.
Even a supreme being may have occasional lapses of attention. He must get excruciatingly bored from watching day after uneventful day as televangelists eke out their ascetic lives and priests instruct altar boys. Oops, bad examples. The point is that he may not know what his creations will do at every moment throughout eternity, and his small gaps in knowledge may become chasms of ignorance. He might miss a trivial insult that triggers a murderous rampage or a bacterium that initiates a deadly plague. On the other hand, if he is always aware, always having us perform precisely as choreographed, how can we be faulted for bad behavior. Who deserves the blame, he or Attila? Torquemada? Hitler? Pol Pot? If an engineer built an automaton that tortured and killed people, we would consider the engineer to be either incompetent or evil. Should worshippers hold god to a lower standard?
Nobody who talks about life after death has experienced it.
More than two billion Christians accept Jesus as their savior, but the various Christian denominations disagree on key points. More than one billion Muslims follow the teachings of Muhammad, and almost one billion Hindus pray to many gods. Buddhists, Confucians, Baha’is, Jains, Shintoists, and Sikhs together total about 500,000,000 and have widely divergent beliefs. So do about 100,000,000 Mormons, Jews, Scientologists, Christian Scientists, and the spunky Jehovah’s Witnesses who ring your doorbell with free copies of Watchtower and Awake. Imagine a science fiction scenario in which extraterrestrial beings land on earth and assemble the leaders of all the world’s religions. Eager to know which is correct, they give each leader two days to make his or her case. What evidence would they give? “God told me so.” “It says so in the bible.” “On Easter Sunday I bought a bushel of potatoes, and one of them was the spitting image of the Virgin Mary.”
Many religious leaders argue that sex (at least for others) should be indulged in only for the purpose of procreation. Masturbation, abortion, homosexuality, condoms, and premarital, oral, and anal sex, are all sins. But if procreation is the sole purpose'”if god wanted to produce 7,000,000,000 of us'”why didn’t he do it all at once? With no birth canal to navigate through, human heads and therefore brain sizes could have been much larger. Oh well, that may have reduced the number of worshippers.
“When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” Stephen Roberts
The Persistence of Religious Faith
Religious beliefs, by which so many people define themselves, are resistant to challenge. Being disabused of the belief that Venice is the capitol of Italy might embarrass but probably not cause serious discomfort; being disillusioned about deeply held religious beliefs might devastate. Most religious people are saved from devastation by Bible stories, catechisms, and other lobotomizing techniques. So, although children eventually outgrow their beliefs in Santa and the tooth fairy, maturity is, as often as not, associated with increased religious fervor.
The Old Testament recounts an argument between God and Satan. The devil claimed that Job was a good man only because God had blessed him with a loving family and material wealth. So God, ever the Fair Minded Sportsman, granted Satan permission to torment Job. Satan took away his livestock and servants, caused the deaths of his children, then afflicted him with horrible skin sores. The cumulative misfortunes finally wore him down and he cursed the day he was born. His friend Elihu cheered him up by explaining that God inflicts pain so that the sufferer can fully appreciate His love and forgiveness upon recovery. God appeared to Job in the form of a whirlwind, and Job acknowledged His unlimited power. God, notoriously susceptible to flattery, gave back Job’s health and property and blessed him with new children. The death of a loved one or other tragedy may cause people to question how God could be so cruel. Their spiritual advisors, that is, the ones who divvy up the proceeds from collection plates, recount the warm, fuzzy story of Job. What a deterrent to disbelief.
The inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah were wicked, so God destroyed their cities. But first He sent two angels to Lot, commanding him and his family to flee. The angels said to Lot, “Escape for thy life; look not behind thee.” Lot and his wife and daughters hastened away, but Lot’s wife looked back. God, pissed off at such a horrible betrayal, turned her into a pillar of salt. The message is, “Don’t question authority.”
Believers are occasionally exposed to the thoughts of doubt-provoking heathens. They are reassured by the Creation story, a particularly insidious neuron destroyer. Adam and Eve lived a blissful existence in the Garden of Eden until Satan, in the form of a serpent, approached Eve and convinced her to eat from the forbidden tree of knowledge (forbidden, because God wanted to keep them ignorant). Eve gave some of the fruit to Adam, and he ate too. God eventually found out–apparently even the omniscient are occasionally caught napping–and His blood pressure soared. He banished the miscreants from the garden. The moral is clear: The more sensible-seeming the heathen, the stronger must be the resistance. Knowledge is the devil’s work. Rationality is evil. Apostasy is treason. Believers dare not resolve the crisis by seeking meaningful evidence. They must dismiss enigmas and anomalies by recognizing that the Lord works in mysterious ways (although every preacher in every tiny church all over the world seems to know precisely what He wants).
People of faith are told who created the world, when He did it (in some religions, to the day and almost always by a He), and what happens when we die. Believers are taught when to pray, how to dress, what not to eat, which books to read, and the appropriate circumstances and positions for having sex.
We humans take pride in the giant forebrain that distinguishes us from other animals by giving us the ability to think deeply. Nevertheless, many people form their most important beliefs as young children, before that forebrain is fully developed. Later, they speak with certainty about what happens after we die and which one particular bible, of the more than 1,000 available around the world, speaks the literal truth. Answers to such questions stumped the likes of Aristotle, Einstein, and Bertrand Russell, yet these people “know”– typically within a few years of being toilet trained and disabused of the reality of Santa Claus but before learning the multiplication table. Then they ignore or even actively avoid information that would challenge any of their long-held beliefs. The more important the belief, the more desperately a person clings to it despite disconfirming evidence. People’s overall worldviews are especially resistant to change.
Religious faith does not require supporting evidence. Faith is belief by decree. In the beginning was THE WORD. The faithful know the truth. Their bible, pastor, rabbi, imam, or personal mystical experience tells them so. Parents, having learned THE TRUTH from their parents, pass it on to their children. But parents and other teachers are fallible. Their sources might have erred. Even if bibles were inspired by miracles, they were transcribed by fallible humans.
Bertrand Russell wrote, “When there is evidence, no one speaks of faith. We do not speak of faith that two and two are four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence.” In a similar vein, Ambrose Bierce defined faith as “belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks, without knowledge, of things without parallel.” Nietzsche defined faith as not wanting to know what is true.
Faith is not merely belief in the absence of evidence–it’s belief despite evidence. That’s peculiar, as people normally seek evidence whether serving on juries, investing in stocks, or choosing nectarines. If new evidence supplants the old, they typically discard or amend their beliefs. If they bet on a wrong horse, literally or figuratively, they revise betting criteria. But charismatic politicians and religious leaders have enriched themselves by persuading constituents to disregard intellect and sense.