Why Belief Isn't That Different for Atheists or Religious People
Continued from previous page
Newton codified the concept as his first law of motion: "Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it."
"In April 1819, the British colony on the Cape, Grahamstown, was menaced by a large Xhosan army. The Xhosan prophet, Nxele, had promised the Xhosan king, Ndlambe, the ability to turn white men's bullets to water. Due to the mystic's promise, the Xhosan army was ordered into harm's way and engaged the British colonial army in a rare pitched battle. Believing in the powerful magic of Nxele, they advanced in massed columns against their enemy. The British, lined up in formation, opened a withering fire with their muskets and artillery and decimated the Xhosan ranks, led personally by Nxele.”
-- Richard Petraitis, "Bullets Into Water: The Sorcerers of Africa," REALL Newsletter v.6
Belief in magic is a human universal. Fortunetellers, entrails readers and omen consultants have been advisers to generals and kings.
At other times they have been condemned. The Code of Ur-Nammu (ca. 2100 B.C.) is the oldest set of laws that we actually have a copy of. One of them is: If a man is accused of sorcery, he must undergo ordeal by water; if he is proved innocent, his accuser must pay 3 shekels. In 1401, a British Act of Parliament made the penalty for witchcraft and divination to be burned at the stake.
With the advent of science, supernatural claims were put to the test. It became obvious fairly quickly that nobody was able to demonstrate an act of actual magic, psychic ability (without "natural" information or fraud), or to forecast the future (better than at random or through natural reason). In 1735, the British passed a new witchcraft law. This time it treated the people who claimed to have such powers as con artists and reduced the penalty accordingly.
People still read their horoscopes, go to psychics and consult palmists. Many believe quite fervently. Nonetheless, if someone gets money out of someone else based on a promise of psychic or magic abilities, it is treated in law as fraud.
Belief, in and of itself, is a normal and necessary mental function. It’s utilitarian, functional and usually quite mundane.
False beliefs are frequent, common and widespread. Often, they’re even universal.
Belief in God
Belief in God -- working with the hypothesis that it’s a false belief -- seems significantly different from the examples above.
Religious beliefs are sometimes described as magical thinking.
But magic is case specific. A magic action has -- one thinks or expects or hopes -- one magic effect, which can be countered, by countermagic. It can also, as in the case of the Xhosa, be shown to not work. Belief in prayer, or in a specific prayer, can be considered magical thinking, but not religious faith itself.
God is all there, all the time. He working everything, whether he’s invoked or not. He cannot be countered, and he cannot fail.
Belief in God is a vastly more important belief. It affects a wider and deeper range of choices and of behavior.
It goes to identity. Whereas magic operates outside of and against identity -- it goes to a person’s worldview. Magic is an aberration, a violation, that breaks with the rest of the natural world.
Many people think that belief in God is based on evidence. They’ve seen and heard him. Or felt his presence. If not personally, then they know of many others who have had such experiences.