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Why Belief Isn't That Different for Atheists or Religious People

We never know 100 percent about anything. There's always an information gap between ourselves and certainty.

Editor’s note: Religion is among the most volatile and divisive issues in the world today. Yet there’s little serious investigation into why people believe, or why some will kill and die for their faith. Larry Beinhart, in his new novel, Salvation Boulevard -- and this series of articles -- is hoping to start a conversation about these issues. This is the third in the series; the first two can be read here and here.


When we hear or use the words "belief" and "believe," we tend to jump to the top of the chain of complexity. The home of grand cathedrals, ornate mosques, colorful rituals and long, sacred texts.

However, belief, as a psychological mechanism, is much simpler. 

We need to make decisions in order to act. To make decisions, we seek information. Food/not food. Safe/dangerous. Easy/hard. Friend/foe. Pretty drapes that go with our color scheme/ugly ones that don’t. 

We never know 100 percent about anything. There’s always an information gap between ourselves and certainty. When we get into a car, we don’t "know" that a tire won’t blow, that a speeding garbage truck won’t sideswipe us, that the bridge across the river won’t fail. But we can’t afford the time and energy and effort that it would take to get all that knowledge. If, in reality, it is all getable. Yet, we still need to get to the elementary school to pick up our children. To the office, to the grocery. To the water hole where the game might be.

We have a psychological mechanism that bridges the gap between the knowledge we don’t have and the need to feel certain enough to act: belief.

You believe the car will work. And that your driving ability is sufficient to cope with the trials and tribulations that stand between you and Nancy Reagan Elementary School, where -- you believe -- your 7-year-old will soon be ready for pickup.

We "believe" in thousands, millions, of things, every day. Belief is a standard, normal, useful and necessary function of our minds. 

Belief in Things That Are False  

The sun rises. The sun sets. Except, of course, that it doesn’t. For most of human history, people didn’t know it was an illusion. 

The earth is flat: If you sail too far, you’ll fall of the edge. 


Actual people, grown-ups, educated grown-ups who had gone to universities like Oxford and had medical degrees, have believed in fairies. In 1917, two girls in England put paper cutouts of fairies in their garden shrubbery, took photos of them, and people -- led by the famous Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes -- were convinced the fairies were real. 


I’m on my brown deck, looking over the blue-gray patio, to the green trees and yellow apples. There’s a red iPod and a multicolored magazine on the table. It seems self-evident that there is color in the world.

But there isn’t. There are electromagnetic waves of different lengths that bounce off of, or are absorbed by, different materials. Through evolution, animal and human minds acquired a way of "seeing" that happen, and, a great way to sort it out. Instead of "seeing" a multitude of minute wavy lines, we translate it into an analog code -- colors.

It’s the original of Homeland Security alerts.  


It seems pretty obvious that things slow down and come to a stop -- your car, the ball you hit, yourself -- unless something keeps pushing or pulling. That’s what almost everyone thought from whenever thinking first started, until Galileo came along. He said it was the opposite. Left to themselves, things will keep going unless something stops them.

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