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.