Why People Are Religious

On this blog I regularly criticise religion and point out why I think it’s incorrect. Yet there are billions of religious people. Why? Why do they believe and I do not? Why are they convinced? When it comes to debates, Atheists have a huge advantage in that they (mostly) were once religious and can therefore understand how their opponent thinks. So I don’t view myself as raging against incomprehensible fools caught in their delusions, but instead try to understand why people have different beliefs to me. In my opinion the main reasons people are religious is due to the default way that they were raised, social reasons, fear, explanation of the world and because they wish it was.

Without a doubt, the overwhelming reason why people are religious is that they were raised that way. It was their default setting so to speak. The vast majority of people are told from a young age that there is a God and never question it. God is unquestionably accepted like driving on the left hand side of the road. It is just the default option and many are surprised that a choice is even possible. Children are malleable individuals and if you repeatedly tell them something, they will soon believe it without doubt. Once people’s ideas are formed, they are notoriously hard to change (as anyone who has ever been in a debate can attest) so it is important for ideas to take hold early. It is for this reason that churches make such an effort to reach out to children. Humans are creatures of habit and familiarity is breeds attachment. It is for this reasons that many adults believe incredible stories such as Noah’s Ark, they have believed it all through their childhood so that it would be disconcerting to change now. Church reminds many people of their childhood, a time some want to hold onto.

Religion is also a very social activity. While Protestant faiths put more emphasis on individual study of the Bible, Catholicism is all about the Church and the social aspects of it. Sunday morning mass is a cliché in Ireland where people (particularly isolated country people) meet and socialise. As a child, my favourite thing about Mass was that I would see my friends, rather than anything in the ceremony. I still remember the crowds that would mill around the Church doors as neighbours caught up on news. There would be various other social events in pubs and houses afterwards as Mass was used to bring people together. Many people consider them part of this, and to them being Catholic is about being part of a community. This may strike people as a rather secular reason, but humans have a deep desire to be part of a community as we are, after all, social creatures. I don’t have enough experience of other religions to comment on them, but I know this is certainly crucial to understanding Catholics in rural Ireland.

Religion was traditionally a means of explaining the natural world and providing answers to life’s problems. Religion formed in societies which understood little of the world around them. Myths were created to explain natural phenomenon. So pagan religions developed elaborate legends of divine struggles to explain the changing of the seasons and whether crops would grow or not. People who could not understand where thunder came from or what was in the sky above them, created stories that morphed into religions. The advancement of scientific knowledge dealt these stories a severe blow as one by one each phenomenon was explained scientifically and not by use of Gods. However, many people to this day still believe that a God must be necessary to create the world. This is the most common response to an Atheist and is seen by many as the strongest argument for God. I discuss elsewhere why I think this view is incorrect, but it is suffice to say that this is an important reason.

It is crucial to mention fear. We must not fall into the trap of imposing modern liberal concepts onto something as ancient as religion. We mustn’t pretend that religion is simply a choice that people make based on the evidence, because for many it isn’t. To them, you have to believe. All religions contain threats of punishments for non-believers and while modern preachers play down Hell, the fear of eternal punishment keeps many within the fold of religion. Many people have doubts, but feel that the awful agony of Hell is so terrible that it is better to play it safe. For most of its history, it was through threats not persuasion that priests kept their flock. Children from an early age are taught religious principles that include the imposition of guilt for breaking the rules (this is very strong among Catholics, but I’ve heard other groups suffer from it too). Hence many people are made to feel guilty if they slacken in their religious observation. All of this is to say nothing of the laws which make religion mandatory in some countries (a practice that thankfully belongs more to the past).

There is a second kind of fear, a kind mixed with desperation that makes people turn to religion. Life is full of uncertainties and dangers and many people wish they had some sort of protector. They wish there was someone to keep them safe and look out for them, the way parents mind their children. Many people suffer hard lives and crave some form of relief. To these people the message of religion is comforting and appealing. After all, religion is always strongest among the poorest and most marginalised sections of society. When we meet tough challenges in life, we often reach out in desperation for some sort of help. Hence students light candles before exams or employees pray they’ll avoid redundancy. Even I sometimes silently beg for help to catch a bus or find something I’ve lost (though of course I know only I can hear my thoughts).

Finally many people in religion because they want it to be true. The promise of eternal bliss where every desire is fulfilled is so tempting that many people are willing to ignore the logical flaws in religion. Just as many people are willing to buy lottery tickets despite the fact it is extremely unlikely that they’ll win, the glamour of the reward outweighs the logical facts. People want there to be someone who notices all their good deeds and will reward them for it. People want the villains to be punished for their crimes to remedy the injustices on Earth. People want their lives to have meaning and a purpose. They want to be reunited with their loved ones. They want to be valued and loved. They don’t want to be alone. They want a guardian to help them with their problems and make sure they work out. They want it so bad that they are willing to accept it on blind faith without examining the evidence to see if it’s true.


Filed under Religion

34 responses to “Why People Are Religious

  1. Namnack

    Excellent post.

    Another take on this would be that humans (and other animals) have a compartmentalized ‘part of the brain’ where the day to day operations under protection and guidance of parents resides. Of course this part is subject to erosion and change as one gets older but it stays fully tact as a blue print. To introduce a third ‘parent’ into this system is simple enough to do, whether it be a god, Santa Claus or real persons such as an older sister or brother or a higher ranking persons which could include clergy. Even at a later age such authorities can be introduced and it doesn’t really matter if they actually exist or not. Like Morpheus said: ‘The brain makes it real’.

    It is much harder to get rid of these authority figures once they’ve been introduced than it is to create new ones. It will most likely leave a void of some kind when one is removed from the system which can be a very painful experience. This could be the (slow) demise of a parent, the loss of a teacher/mentor after finishing school or the realization of the absurdity of gods themselves.

    • I think people certainly keep their religious beliefs in a separate compartment from the rest of their mind and that is the only reason they stay religious for so long. I know thats why I stayed religious for so long, I simply didn’t think about it.

      Once you get an idea it is difficult to drop it so people instead try to adapt it. So I tried to convince myself that evolution and my liberal politics were compatible with my religious beliefs.

  2. afilmjunkie

    Hi, my name is Carmen. I just want to say that I totally agree you. I was raised Catholic and I compulsorily had to go to the church which was a burden for me. I believed in God but I didn’t consider myself a Catholic. I remember a girl who told me that she believed God was created by man but I didn’t want to believe it. But this year, after some things which have happened, looking over history, thinking carefully about it, God started to make less sense for me and now I agree with that girl. Now I believe God is a creation of the man. It’s an idea. I think some people need someone omnipotent to punish and to reward them.I remember my sister was telling me a man who stopped believing in God after some relatives died. She (she’s Catholic) told me that God doesn’t have power over that. So if God doesn’t have power over that why do you pray for things to happen to you or get better? It’s contradictory. If God doesn’t have power over good or bad things why do we have to believe him? If I’m responsible of all the good and the bad things I do and nobody, not even God over the good and bad things that I can’t control, why should I believe in him? And there are sometimes that even people attribute to God all of the good things that happen to them but in reality those good things are happening to them for their own merits. In short, I consider myself an agnostic atheist. It’s really hard to renounce such a stuck belief but now I believe that God doesn’t exist. At first, it’s really frightening but then kind of liberating. And the idea of afterlife, hell or heaven, I don’t think it can apply to human nature. How bad would we have to be to go to hell? How good would we have to be to go heaven?

    Lastly I just want to say your blog is really great and there a lot of interesting and thought-provoking topics.

    • Glad you like my blog and I enjoyed reading your deconversion story. In a way it resembles mine, both in the creeping doubts, the initial fears, followed by the feeling of liberation. I remember the moment I realised that the contradictions in God were too great to be surmounted and that it was not possible for it to control good and evil as was claimed. Thanks for sharing your story.

  3. I think you have hit on all of the critical points and explained them well. Nicely done.

  4. I think this question can really be broken into two parts. First, why is a particular individual religious? I think you have done a good job answering that one, above.

    But secondly, what is it about human nature that leads us to create and follow religions in the first place? I spent quite awhile looking for my own answers to that, and did a ton of reading. (I wound up finding Michael Shermer and Valerie Tarico’s books very helpful here.)

    I came up with a four-part answer:
    1. Patternicity – Humans need to be able to identify patterns of behavior in their environment to survive. This is so important that our pattern detectors are on overdrive, seeing patterns where none exist. It’s more dangerous to miss a real pattern than it is to misidentify a false one, so we’re wired to see them everywhere.
    2. Agenticity – as an extension of pattern recognition, it’s vitally important that we recognize when there is intention behind an action, and so our agency detectors are likewise on overdrive as well.
    3. Confirmation Bias – once we have discovered what we think is a pattern, or decided that the pattern we see is the result of an conscious agent, we pay more attention to the information that confirms what we think, and ignore information that does not.
    4. Credulous Childhood – you addressed this above, very well. Children believe what their parents tell them, and this goes for “don’t anger Thor” just as much as it does for “don’t put your hand in a fire.” Once a superstition gets going, this lets it propagate over the generations until it congeals into a religion.

    Now I’m working on a different set of questions: “Why are women more religious than men?” and “Can anything be done about this?” I fear I have a lot more reading ahead of me for this one.

    • Excellent points. Certainly pattern recognition explains the beginning of religion which in a sense was humanity’s first attempt at science. Confirmation bias and the fact children will believe anything they’re told are probably the two largest reasons was religion predominates.

      Why women are religious might have something to do with the traditional weaker position of women in society. They had less avenues to change their life so religion was one where they fell back on.

      Can anything be done? Its not easy but once people lose their faith, they almost never regain it. Also as the reasons you list show how religion is self-perpetuating, once religion is lost, it won’t rise again. So if we win the tough battle of using logic and science to show the flaws of religion, then it will be vanquished for good.

  5. What about people that were religious and became atheists and returned, when the atheist states he does not believe in God? what God are they talking about the Jewish God? or the Hindu God and Gods? is is not sensible to say I do not believe in God without knowing the definition of what he means, at present even science is unsure of where water came from or how it got here, God is much more of a problem than water, the emergence of the Universe from nothing seems mystical to me, the God you have turned your back on may not answer your prayers as such or you manipulate your idea of what form or non form God is? it just is not making sense Neilsen, as to how you see this problem.

    • Very few Atheists convert back to religion, so thats not much of a point.

      When an Atheist states their belief they mean all Gods that people claim to believe in from all religions (its not a difficult point). Science may not have an explanation of water, but its better than the religious story that God made it appear one day, end of story.

      “it just is not making sense Neilsen”
      No you’re not, you just are not and that’s why most of your comments end up in the spam folder

  6. Bob

    I Agree with some of your remarks, we’ve been raised religious because simply our parents are ! no surprising right. This is was an observation made by a 10th century theologian called Al-Ghazali, he observed that Christians are born Christians because there parents were, and the same for Jews and Muslims, and then started to doubt his own believe and went in a journey looking for “Certitude”. If you’re not sincere you will never find the truth. reset your mind and for the same journey and study and find out. everyone is pushing his version, and you have to use your critical thinking and ask the questions and look for answers.

    • Pretty accurate insight. Religion has more to do with your parents than whether or not it makes sense or is what people believe. As people grow older they want to find answers themselves instead of just taking what they are given. This usually leads them away from religion and into some degree of skepticism.

  7. Pingback: Philosophy 12

  8. How can we discuss something that just doesn’t exist?… you are right: “they were raised that way”.

  9. Stephanie

    Amazing. You took the words right out of my brain. I’ve been struggling a lot lately coming from a family who is deeply religious. I never really believed in the bible just as I never really believed in Santa Claus… I guess I’ve always just been smarter or more logical than that. I am now a psychology major, and the more I study the more I realize how brainwashed and naive my family members are. It hurts so much to see them dedicate their whole lives to a cause that is simply ridiculous in my eyes… But after reading your blog, I’ve reassured myself something that I’ve been telling myself all along… It’s something that they need to get by… Just like a person needs a drink or a smoke to deal with daily stressors… The unfortunate part is that they have to judge for the way that other people cope with life and that only their way of life is correct…. This is the part I wish that I could convince them otherwise… I think that life should be spent just living as a good person… Not living by any rules or regulations… Just treating everyone with respect and compassion and helping people be the best they can be….

    • Hi Stephanie; there are entire communities of others who have been through what you’re describing. Please don’t be afraid to reach out to other like minded people and seek truthful, honest answers.
      Although I was raised secular, which has been a different path than yours, for decades thought that I was the only one who didn’t believe in a god or gods. Obviously, I was wrong about that; I learned this because I sought knowledge.
      Good luck to you. I simply wanted to provide some encouragement.

  10. Ace

    I like to apologize for my bad English if it is hard for you to understand. I am totally agree with all the points you have covered in this posts. I would like to add another point why religion exists, and why people are religious in the first place.

    There is a famous quote “Religion is a mechanism to control the masses”, i find this very true as you can see, there are billions of religious people around the world. As you know, religious think it is their duty to donate to the church, temple or whatever your religion is. They were exploited in the past for being religious

    Thousand of years ago, in the ancient Asia. The best way to raise money for a revolution or an army is to start a religion. People back in the day would do anything if you promise them their prayers will be heard, they will go to heaven etc.

    To sum it up, i think the first person come up with the idea of “God”. He either want mankind to have hope in their life or just simply manipulate people in masses.

    P.S: i was raised up religious too but in highschool when i learned about the Holocaust in ww2. I asked my teacher “The Jewish have so much faith in God, why didn’t God save them from Hitler. I think there is no God”. My teacher was speechless and i stopped believing since then.

    • Ray

      I agree, religion was created to control the masses and is still used today. The idea of creating an all seeing and all knowing superior being seems to far fetch for this ex-catholic.
      It’s more likely to have been created by a monarch. Sure it might have been easy to control the population within a king’s proximity using guards and soldiers. But what about the rest of the kindom of whom many were too far away to control? A king would have access to the best minds in his kindom, it would have been rather easy to write a bible and create a belief system along with a few rituals.
      I’m not saying there is no god, I simply don’t think that if there were a god he would give a shit about a little blue planet located in a tiny solar system within one of the billions galaxies within a universe.

      • If there were a God?, as God, is a different interpretation, the beginning of the Universe apparently started with a fraction in size of a atom, according to quantum mechanics, if God exists, this manifestation would not be looking at the Earth as insignificant, as this existence would not be seen as size or what power this planet exists in, God presumable would not be looking at the creation as how big or small stuff is, this is mans interpretation of how God’s mind would view this manifestation, the laws governing this Planet would be the same laws that govern all of creation, the small would be as important as the big, as Planck, dealt with the small such as matter and anti matter in space, as Einstein, is to relativity, or mass parts of the Universe.

  11. xxxxx

    The prime reason people are religious is because they want something: namely, to continue past death and have a good time.

  12. david mackay

    the only solution to religion is the creation of an atheist nation, based on agrarian values and extended families

  13. David Nash

    Thankfully, growing in Ireland in from the 70’s did not prevent me from questioning. This was dangerous then, but as an 11 year starting into secondary school, run by the usual order, I refused to do the religion class, which was twice a week.
    I was sent to the school President, thinking it would make me retract my dissent ( Which as you mentioned would have been part of the instilling fear factor ) but I went.
    The President was a deliberately nasty person, and said if I can give an argument to him that would allow me to avoid the class, I would be exempt for the next 5 years.
    I simply replied, ” I have a priest for science at 9:40 am, and, at 10:20 am I have the same priest for religion. In the first class he will teach me about the big bang theory, and in the second class he will tell me the world was made in 7 days…which one is it? ”
    I went to the study hall for the next 5 years while the religion class was on.
    I am not religious, but I do give respect to those that are as they are entitled to believe what they want. I just do not want it beaten into me!
    I believe in taking responsibility for my own actions and not blaming something else for my weaknesses.
    If people had the choice to hold off from making a decision until they were adults, say 18, I wonder how many would go ahead and get baptized voluntarily? By baptizing at an early age, the choice is taken away from the person. So the name is added to the list of Catholics, whether you believe or not. It is basically impossible to get yourself removed.
    I was baptized at the age of 5, only because, if I was not, I would not have been allowed to go to school. Again this plays into the forced belief.
    Most Monday mornings, I would have been put to the top of the class and got a few lashes of a stick, because my teacher would have been informed that I was not at mass. But I took one for the team!, my beliefs!
    Today, I have two children, and thankfully, the times have somewhat changed. I do not instill my beliefs on them, they are to make up their own minds. If they believe, they are still my kids and it will not change them as people.

    • The questionable assertions of the bible are to the more enlightened mind today suspect, the big bang theory is also a problem in so far as it is a regular axiom that their is no such thing as a free lunch? how come the conflicting idea the everything came from nothing?

  14. I notice that points of your critique correctly pivot on the weakness inherent in the human emotional nature (fear, desire, and the emotional “imprint” of childhood conditioning). You view religion from a certain intellectual standpoint, a certain altitude, and from that vantage point your analysis is reasonable and realistic. Having achieved a measure of transcendence over the glamor of the lower human emotions–in which orthodox religion is rooted–you arrive at a position of insight where, from the vantage point of mental polarization you are able to look down upon the chaos of human emotion as it relates to religion. So, well done.

    Now that said, I’d like to add that there are other dimensions of the religious theme and other steps that are possible. I suggest that human emotions are a type of consciousness, and that intellectual analysis is another type of consciousness. But human consciousness is not limited to these two. In a broader sense, people don’t believe as they do simply from emotion (whether true or delusional) or from reason (well founded or not). Rather they believe as they do because of what they are, because of what they have or have not experienced in life. The person of fearful and conditioned emotions can not see your reasoned perspective because of the limit of thier experience, though some, by wider educational experience, might come to appreciate your intellectual viewpoint. There are however, other viewpoints and other types of experience that derive neither from ordinary religious emotions nor from intellectual analysis. It may be that behind the childish religions of humanity there is a deeper meaning, a meaning not divined by the usual emotions or mentation.

  15. Ncamiso

    I do not think religion was created by someone. I think its a form of evolution, an adaptation that enhance human survival. It is true though that some manipulate it to control masses. I thnk people are continuing to evolve and are becoming concoius. In the future talking about religion will be like saying the earth is flat. To us who are at the forefront of evolution we must not judge those who havent caught up.

    • I have written about this very subject and I agree, there is likely an evolutionary bases for belief in superstition to explain the explainable. Beliefs whether illogical or no, influence other beliefs and may influence some of our actions, as in the case of fundamentalist religious convictions. It is likely that with time, understanding, and education, illogical or irrational beliefs will diminish at least as far as population studies, polls, etc; this is not to say that we can overcome our propensity to believe strange things for which there is no justifiable reason.

  16. Damien

    i am not religious, cuz there is no proof. love the humans who do not suffer from religion

    … religion is a disease and our planet earth needs to find a cure

  17. Of course there is no proof. That is not the point. What I am saying is that with improved communication, education, arguments, etc, I think that religion will eventually continue to decline.
    That will ultimately be the cure.

  18. JD

    You forgot the only reason that really matters, because its true. My search for truth has led me to the Catholic Church. A rational and objective study of world religions unbiased by wishful thinking and desires is likely to lead there. Truth is what really matters when choosing a worldview. Other factors may lead you there but the reason you should follow it is because you are convinced its true. Of course, it is not provable because it is not amenable to proof, but there is plenty of evidence to believe that Christ was God and this is the Church he founded. The alternate explanations are so unlikely as to be obvious that those that choose them are prejudiced in some way, consciously or unconsciously. There is overwhelming evidence of Christ being God and scant evidence for the alternate views. The consensus among secular scholars currently is that the Gospels were written in the style of Greco-Roman Biographies of which inclusion of myths and fabrications are completely outside the genre. I think the main problem is willing and wanting to believe. There is ample evidence to believe with strong conviction but not irrefutable proof because God gives us free will in what we ultimately choose. Not choosing is making a choice. Ultimately atheism is blind fury signifying nothing. A most miserable view to have.

    “A man without religion is to be pitied. A woman without religion is a horror beyond all things.”

    • “You forgot the only reason that really matters, because its true.”

      But why do people believe that it is true? Everyone thinks they have discovered the truth, what makes you certain that I am right and they are wrong.

      “A rational and objective study of world religions unbiased by wishful thinking and desires is likely to lead there.”

      I would like to hear more about this journey. What religion did you begin with, what religion were you raised with? What convinced you to believe in the Catholic Church instead of all the others.

      “but there is plenty of evidence to believe that Christ was God and this is the Church he founded.”

      I would like to see some of this evidence. Also, Jesus didn’t establish the Catholic Church and few of its practices come from the Bible. For example, the Papacy, celibacy, mass, confession, the hierarchy etc were all later inventions.

      “The consensus among secular scholars currently is that the Gospels were written in the style of Greco-Roman Biographies of which inclusion of myths and fabrications are completely outside the genre.”

      That is a fabrication. The consensus among scholars is that the Gospels are riddled with inaccuracies and contradictions.

      “think the main problem is willing and wanting to believe. ”

      Exactly. You want to believe so much that you are willing to overlook any contrary evidence.

      “A most miserable view to have.”

      There’s no need to be rude.

      “A man without religion is to be pitied. A woman without religion is a horror beyond all things.”

      I don’t know who you are quoting, but they are applying a sexist double standard.

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