“Jason, Do You Have A Half-Baked Theory On Why People Are Religious?” Why, Yes I Do!

I’ve talked to many people over the years about religion and faith and have developed my own personal theory why I think people are religious.

I know people will cite all kinds of different reasons for their faith – everything from that feeling of “there has to be something that created this” when you consider the beauty and diversity of nature to “The Bible gives me the morals that guide my life” to “I believe in the good work the church does” to “I simply feel it in my soul” and probably a million other reasons.

But I think, underlying all of these, on a conscious or subconscious level, there are three real reasons why people are religious and all people of faith have one or some combination of these three as the cause of their faith:

1. Conformity

By far, the major reason I think people follow a particular religion is that they were born into it and they were, if this isn’t too strong of a word,  indoctrinated from a young age.  This  makes it harder to either change religions or be less religious as they get older – especially with some of the threatened punishments for not believing.  (With that said, belief among young people is dropping at an enormous rate – which I think comes from a number of things – the wider availability of alternate viewpoints on the Internet, church scandals, more vocal proponents of atheism in popular culture.)

This idea of conformity is best illustrated by one of the American exchange students I had this debate with when I was in England.  He was Jewish and we were talking about religion and faith and belief.  I said, “So, you’re telling me that if you were essentially the same person but were born to two Indian parents, you believe you’d still eventually become Jewish instead of being a Hindu?  If you were born in rural Japan, you’d still be Jewish instead of Shinto?”  He replied in the affirmative and perhaps he truly believed this.  But it sounded like a whole lot of denial to me.   Richard Dawkins has used this same line of reasoning to great effect.

2. Comfort
I touched on this in my “Evolution of an Atheist” post where I mentioned how I used to pray every night when I was young, mostly because I was afraid of the dark.  I think one of the greatest appeals of religion is that it helps to give comforting answers to frightening questions. “I lost my job but I know God will provide for me,”  “Aunt Sue has cancer – I’ll pray for her to get better,”  “A natural disaster killed 30 000 people halfway around the world but that’s not random, it’s part of God’s master plan.”

The biggest “scared of the dark” for most of us of course is death.  Dying is extremely frightening to most people since, without Heaven or reincarnation or whatever, there is a terrifying finality to it.

Dawkins’ response to this (maybe I should call this Dawkins Week instead of Atheist Week?) is that we should truly be overjoyed at the fact we’re even here to enjoy the 80 or so years most of us will get.  He points out that for this to have happened, every single one of our ancestors over millions of years had to live, at least to the point they could successfully pro-create – no dying by accident or in war or disease or being mauled by a bear.  Then that child had to do the same thing – no death of influenza or crib death or drowning in a pool.  Each time, one single sperm cell out of millions had to successfully implant an egg to create the unique snowflake that is each individual human.

Of course, after I die I’d love to live forever and look down from in heaven and watch how the future unfolds and see what Pace and my future grandchildren and great-grandchildren might do in their lives.  But from a scientific/rational point of view, we’re already immortal by passing along our genes and our traits.  That’s not as good as smiling down on Pace Jr. from a golden mansion.  But it’s still pretty cool and reassuring in the face of The Big Dark.

3. Community
This is sort of parallel to my last point in that there’s another form of comfort that comes from having a community of people who are automatically your tribe, just because you go to a house of worship with them once a week (or twice a year as is the case for many believers!)  Whether it’s Sunday barbeques in the parking lot or a mission to build churches in central Mexico, having a sense of common purpose and belonging is a powerful motivator for human beings, especially when many of our other traditional “communities” – whether it’s our dissolving family units, lack of connection with our neighbours in ever-colder cities or even falling memberships in some organized sports or service clubs.  Religion can be a quick and easy way to find a ready-made group of friends and acquaintances who, by virtue of belonging to the same church, are already “vetted”.

I don’t want to sound too dismissive of all the myriad reasons people give for why they are religious since I know they believe those to be true for themselves.  But after many years of thinking about this and talking to people of faith, it’s been my experience that it is one of these reasons (or some combination of the three) that underpins why they are religious.

Comments 10

  1. John wrote:

    That’s a good half-baked theory, Jason, but there’s a little more baking before it’s ready for eating.

    Your earlier post got me thinking how much people spurn the word, religion. Atheists sneer at those with religion, but then those with religion also feel above it. Fundamentalists, I know ’em think the word religion degrades their personal relationship with God. Ok.

    Me, I am no theist. I prefer not to argue about God because I think it’s pointless. But I am okay with being called religious. You talk about Dawkins 99% and I agree that 99% of practical lives can be explained better and simply without a God. But it is the 1% that really intrigues me, the black swan if you will, the improbable event that may change everything. I find more juice in considering the 1 than the 99 (sounds like the parable of lambs). So I don’t mind being called religious. There are many others too. You are not capturing this in your theory.

    Posted 22 Dec 2010 at 8:19 am
  2. HeadTale wrote:

    Hey John,

    Although it may appear to be what I’m doing with this series of posts, I actually prefer not to argue about god either (at least not anymore!)

    My goal is to to explain my point of view on religion, how I came to this worldview and explore some of the issues around the topic (although I know I’m probably sliding into wording that is dismissive or argumentative as that’s almost inevitably the nature of this type of discussion – or any discussion where people have strongly held opinions – in my experience.)

    I agree with you that it’s pointless to argue about god but perhaps for a different reason. I think once someone can cite “faith” as the reason for why they believe something, it makes it almost impossible to change their mind via evidence or rational thought or whatever.

    As I said, my theory is based on my own observations of what appears to be the main appeals of religion – not what people actually cite. If I’m reading you right on the 1% – that mysterious sense of awe/mystery/what have you – as a reason for being religious, I would probably lump that into the Comfort category – it’s easier to explain away the mysteries of life as something well, mysterious, rather than just coincidence or science or whatever.

    I always think about how so much of our current technology would appear to our grandparents and great-grandparents. Airplanes and iPhones and frozen pizzas would all seem improbable items that change everything if you’d never seen them before too. (I know I’m dismissing the natural and seemingly supernatural here but the earth used to be the centre of the universe but then it wasn’t.)

    I hope that makes sense. I feel like I’m rambling and blog comments aren’t the best place to have these types of discussions – we should’ve done this over beers at the Grad Club!

    Posted 23 Dec 2010 at 11:57 pm
  3. John wrote:

    To clarify, the 1%, for me, does not mean God in any traditional sense. It means mystery, the big dark, the big picture stuff we can’t explain. It’s hard to think very long about that stuff and not feel a little religious. It’s only too bad when folks turn that feeling into some dogmatic and literal.

    (I’m glad you decided to run this series.)

    Posted 22 Dec 2010 at 1:20 pm
  4. HeadTale wrote:

    Thanks for the thanks on running this series. Being so public with my atheism is pretty nerve-wracking – partly because it’s such a personal topic for many people and partly because I feel like I don’t have the deeper grounding in philosophy and religious history to strengthen my arguments.

    As for the 1%, another one of my theories (this one quarter-baked!) is that if I were to believe in a religion, I’d be more likely to get behind the general premise of Scientology – that aliens “planted” life on earth – rather than the more supernatural explanations.

    The massive number of stars in the universe and thus, the even more massive number of planets means it’s *extremely* likely that other intelligent life has developed somewhere else. If they’re a few eons ahead of us, who knows what technologies and abilities they have?

    Posted 24 Dec 2010 at 12:00 am
  5. Heather wrote:

    I’m not as eloquent as John, and I must some day look harder at why I find fundamentalism dangerous in any religion. I find the working definitions of both religion and community here to be narrow and monochromatic. When you promote members of the NDP community, is it because of a comforting mindless conformity in which all members meld together into a vetted group-speak without differences or challenges to beliefs? Or do you find that representation belittling, dismissive, and failing to represent the richness and depth of your considered political philosophy and beliefs?

    But then, I am impatient with Hitchens’ and Dawkns’ shallow take on faith. The literal childhood questions about Biblical or Talmudic texts are just that, the questions children ask. When I was 3 I thought that if I prayed really hard to fly and then jumped out of a tree, all would be well. I suppose that some adults never pass that point, and envision an old man with a white beard in the sky grumpily punishing people with lightening bolts or whimsically rewarding others (and I’ve seen those adults on tv asking for money). Other people of faith can have a more courageous, metaphorical, and intellectually nuanced and struggled-out sense of morality and wonder — for example, Islam traditionally referred to Jews and Christians as fellow “people of the Book.” Try Matthew Fox, maybe.

    “This is the irrational season, When love blooms bright and wild.” Madeleine L’Engle

    Posted 23 Dec 2010 at 10:28 pm
  6. HeadTale wrote:

    Re: “Narrow and monochromatic definition of religion”

    If this is true, I guess for me, the reason is that once you draw the line as an atheist that…

    …everything below the line, no matter how well-intentioned or nuanced, ultimately derives from the same false premise.

    Your NDP analogy is an interesting one (I’m no fan of the fundamentalists in the party, let me tell you!)but for me, the big difference is that every political party, from the far-right Wild Rose Alliance to the Greens to the NDP were formed out of real world concerns and base their philosophies in real world issues.

    (And yes, many churches do that too but without god, what’s the difference between say, Lutherans and the Lions? The service club Lions that is, not the ones that lay down with the lambs! ;-))

    I don’t agree with you that Hitchens and Dawkins have a shallow take on faith – I just think that they have a huge frustration that so many people do indeed, to use your phrase, hold a three-year old’s viewpoint of religion in the face of so much evidence to the contrary in regards to any type of supernatural explanation for our existence of earth.

    How is a “more nuanced” view of religion any better than the less-nuanced “I’ll pray for money” take when both are based in something that all evidence suggests is false?

    This also relates back to the fundamentalism point. The reason I think that charge is off-target when leveled at atheists is that I’ve never heard of an atheist willing to die for their beliefs, no matter how strongly held they are while people of pretty much every other faith have chosen to do so.

    I would propose that atheists, on the other hand, tend to be the group most willing to change their views as evidence changes.

    (I can’t help but think of this church sign: http://www.flickr.com/photos/13318190@N04/2780739690/

    Thanks for your comments. I knew I was asking for it doing a series on my thoughts on religion! 😉

    Merry Christmas!

    Posted 24 Dec 2010 at 12:49 am
  7. John wrote:

    “If I’m reading you right on the 1% – that mysterious sense of awe/mystery/what have you – as a reason for being religious, I would probably lump that into the Comfort category”

    I was almost going to let that one go, but I came across this post by a writer I admire:


    (Did you just add that “Notify me of follow-up comments via e-mail”? Thanks. It makes conversations so much easier.)

    Posted 04 Jan 2011 at 6:39 pm
  8. HeadTale wrote:

    Sorry for the delay in replying – let this comment slip to the bottom of my inbox which is a place I rarely see!

    In regards to the comment/response plug-in, yeah, I’m still playing around with plug-ins to make this blog as usable and fully-featured as many of the other blogs I read.

    I can’t believe this comment/response format isn’t the default on WordPress to be honest!

    As for that “awe and wonder” argument, I don’t think it’s mutually exclusive with atheism. In fact, many atheists marvel at the big bang theory (which means we are all literally made of stars), evolution (which is mindblowing is its beauty) and the odds that even got us here as unique individuals in the first place.

    On that “we’re all stardust” note, I love this quote from “Atheist’s Guide to Christmas”: “Because we are made from the debris of nuclear reactions that took place in exploding stars, the romantics among you might like to think of yourselves as being composed of stardust. On the other hand, cynics might prefer to think of yourselves as nuclear waste.”

    Posted 05 Feb 2011 at 8:45 pm
  9. lazerous wrote:

    Mr. Hammond, the reason you are an athiest is much like the reason people thought the earth was flat, you can’t see it. Does the atom exist? yes. can you see it? no but someone told you it was there, and from the information you have collected, you beleive that to be true. The “1%” I think has never touched you, you haven’t seen it, and the information you choose to seek out, and collect tells you that the “1%” can be explained away by chance, coincedence, or something you can not yet understand. Is it the pride of man, that makes it so hard for you to open your yourself the the chance that the thing you can not yet understand is a higher power? that when man itself in your belief is just a beast of higher evolution, that has given itself domain over other beasts, that there can not be something greater than ourselves? every action must have an equal and oposite reaction, matter and energy can never be created or destroyed only change form, there are countless rules for existance. Is it not possible something created these rules? rules are usually the result carefully thught out, and tested theories, not random chance. If i can guide the lives of bacteria in a lab without the bacteria even knowing i exist, could not something be guiding our own lives, setting rules, and boundries without us being able to “prove its existance”? i am not so pridefull to believe that i am the greatest, most advanced, highly evolved thing ever in the history of existance.

    It seems to me as this topic comes up often with you, that its a big deal if people do not agree with you on the subject of god, or religion. I have heard you say that educated intellectuals never beleive in god, yet some of your peers seem to? Do you feel the same about lovers of cats versus dogs? vegitarians versus carnivores? extrovert versus introvert? no, i am sure you have opinions, I like that about you, you have opinions on everything, and thats good. My half baked theory is that you want to understand god, you feel left out that out of the billions of people god forgot to tell you personally that there is a god. a human being saying there is no god.

    In all honesty if one of us is right, i hope its you, otherwise, if its us the beleivers, may god have mercey on our souls, because we individually, and as a whole, have broken a lot of rules, and though have acomplished much to be proud of, have alot to be shamed for.

    Posted 12 Feb 2011 at 11:41 am
  10. HeadTale wrote:

    Cousin Brad, is that you? Between the typos and the tone, it sure sounds like it! (I’ll never understand why people post anonymous comments – it gives so much more weight when people give their real names.)

    Anyhew, on to your points…
    – “Can I see an atom?” Well, if I had an electron microscope I could. But the point is that there was a theory with lots of evidence but which couldn’t be definitely “proven”. But then science advanced and atomic theory *was* proven. That will never happen with religion. There are no facts to religion – it’s 100% belief and always will be. Most “miracles” have explanations or are coincidences. Just as many players who pray to God lose the Superbowl as win it. And so on…

    – “is it the pride of man?” No, pride is continuing to believe in something when 99% of the evidence is against you.

    – I guess I set myself up by ascribing three “real” reasons people become and remain religious without giving much time for people’s own personal reasons. But you doing similar for why I’m secretly longing to be religious reminds me of my fundamentalist roommate in college who, upon hearing I was an atheist, replied “Oh, that just means you have the devil in you.” I honestly have no secret desire to be religious or “understand” god.

    – you defeat your own argument when you say matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, only change form. If that’s the case, what is god? Is he/she/it outside of our universe’s physical laws? if so, how does he/she/it interact with our universe? For more on this, read _Godless: How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists_

    – your analogy about humans and bacteria doesn’t work either unless bacteria *are* aware of humans controlling their lives and think they can even influence their human gods by clasping their little bacteria hands or praying with their little bacteria voices! If your analogy was accurate, humans would go about their business in ignorance of god. Or to put it another way, I’m pretty sure all bacteria are atheists!

    – I do like your point about knowing that you’re not the greatest, most advanced thing ever created. If only more religious folks would realise humanity was not the end point of evolution either but one stop along the train ride. (We are conditioned to think in terms of years and decades, evolution happens over *millions* of years – essentially beyond human comprehension – which is why we tend to think of ourselves at the end point/top of the pyramid.)

    – you’re putting up a straw man (and trying to get me in trouble with my friends! ) when you make your point about how I’ve said “educated people are less likely to believe” yet “some of my peers seem to [be believers]”. It’s proven by repeated surveys – belief in higher powers tends to decline as education levels increases. Any reasonably-sized sample will show that (assuming by “educated”, we don’t mean Bob Jones University.”) I don’t deny that non-belief is only about 10-20% of the population but just because it’s a majority opinion doesn’t mean it’s right. At other points in time, the majority believed women were inferior or that black people were property.

    – honestly, I don’t want to understand god. I want to understand why so many people on this planet, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, cling to the creation myths of a desert-going people from 2000 years ago. And why those churches are tax free today? Why do they get such a special privilege? 😉

    – how do I prove there is no god? You tell me how you prove there’s no Zeus and I’ll use the same methodology to prove there’s no Christian (or Muslim or whatever) god!

    Thanks for writing. If it is Brad, you were the first one I ever tried my “The Three Real Reasons People Are Religious” theory on so thanks for being that sounding board. Did you ever read “God Delusion” like I recommended?

    Posted 14 Feb 2011 at 8:09 pm

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  1. From Head Tale - Resurrecting An Idea (Getit???) on 24 Apr 2011 at 11:41 pm

    […] even though believers give dozens of reasons why they are religious, from my perspective there were three main reasons I thought people actually were religious – whether the believer acknowledges them or […]

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