News & Politics

Why Do People Believe in God?

Many people continue to clutch to their belief in God, even though there's no evidence of a higher power. Why?

We're doing that because if we start with the idea that if God does exist, then we have to explain why there are so many versions of Him (her or it) and why we can't figure out the right one. Historically, that's a dead end, stuck in the same battle as Saladin and Richard the Lionheart in the Crusades.

The agnostic position -- either we can't know, or let's wait until rocket ship (real or metaphorical) finally lands in heaven or some place of infinite vistas from which we can see there is no God -- leaves like Samuel Becket's two tramps, eternally Waiting for Godot.

So we start with "God does not exist," which demands that we come up with a theory that will explain why we believe, why belief is so popular, and so strong that people will kill and die for their own particular brand of it.

There are other false beliefs for which the evidence is stronger and more easily seen, that people have readily given up.

Such beliefs include: the earth is standing still (it certainly looks like it), that the sun rises and sets (you see it every day), the earth is solid (it has a hard crust over a molten center), that the earth is flat and you can fall of the edge, that matter is solid (atoms are mostly empty space), that something can't be both a wave and a particle (electrons are apparently both), that all the species were created separately and simultaneously (give or take a day).

Our theory has to explain why belief in God is more tenacious, with less evidence, than those.

It also has to deal with The Atheist's Dilemma.

The Atheist's Dilemma

Atheists claim (as I am doing here and as Richard Dawkins did in the title of his book) that God is a delusion.

A delusion is, pretty much by definition, dysfunctional.

Or certainly should be, as compared to accurate perceptions. We can argue that comforting illusions provide comfort and therefore make us happy. But we have constant decision making moments, and sweet fantasies should, at some of those times, cause us to make bad choices, leading ultimately to dysfunction.

Clear sighted atheists should, therefore, routinely outperform their delusionally dysfunctional peers.

But they do not. Atheists are not routinely happier, healthier and wealthier than believers. According to most surveys, they don't even have more sex. Based on the religious sex scandals that hit the news on a regular basis, atheists don't even get to have kinkier sex.

So a theory about belief in God should at least allow for how such a delusion is not dysfunctional and suggest how it might be beneficial.

The Theory: The Imperative of Meaning

Our number one drive is to understand what the world means in relationship to ourselves.

This comes ahead of our need for food, safety, sex, or anything else.

If we don't know what things mean in relationship to ourselves, we will eat dirt, walk off cliffs, and attempt to procreate with porcupines.

If we don't know what things are -- in relationship to ourselves, to our needs, to our level of existence -- we can't satisfy any of the other needs.

And we die. Sooner, rather than later.

All our needs and drives function in roughly the same way.

We sense (or feel or perceive) something in ourselves, or in the outside world, that needs to be dealt with. That we need food, water, air, sex, companionship, to determine if something is a threat or an opportunity, then deal with it appropriately.

A biological event takes place.

A chemical is released.

The chemical jolt is calibrated -- through an unconscious process -- to the urgency of the situation. If there's a bear in the living room, you get a big jolt! Do something! Now!

If there's not much urgency -- it's noon and we haven't eaten since seven this morning -- we get a small dose that feels like a mild stimulant.

"Yo, you're hungry," it sort of says. "Get up and see what's in the kitchen." Or in simpler times, go see if there are apples on the tree, fish in the stream, buffalo down on the plain.

So you go, and you check, and there's nothing there.

You say, the hell with it, and go back to work or watching TV or whatever. But, no, your body won't leave you alone. It hits you with a bigger jolt. Enough to get you up off your lazy bottom and out to the store. Or the next valley, or whatever it takes.

The mild stimulus has become discomfort, from discomfort it will crank itself up to pain.

When the need is met, the pain stops. That feels good, really good.

Not only that, your body, which acts like some street corner dealer you did a favor for, gives you a little hit of some feel-good stuff. You get one of those nice, natural highs: let me lay back and digest; bask in the afterglow; enjoy my sense of self-glorification over my recent great achievement.

The need to understand the world in relationship to self, functions in exactly the same way.

There is a chemical prompt.

If the matter doesn't appear urgent, it's a pleasant stimulus that we feel as curiosity. Children are full of this particular juice, as they need to be, and go about exploring their environment cheerfully and energetically.

If we can't figure it out, it nags at us. If we're able to dismiss it as unimportant, that's a form of figuring out what it means in relation to us. But if we can't do that, it keeps bothering us, until we do.

If the matter is urgent -- is it methe FBI is looking for? -- we get a big bio-chemical hit. So big that our other needs -- to eat, to sleep, to procreate, everything -- will be overwhelmed, until we know.

If the matter is insanely urgent (or, rather, felt as insanely urgent) we get such a big hit that it's as if our body is screaming, do nothing until you figure this out! Or sometimes, get the hell out of here! Get somewhere and hide! Until you can figure things out. Which is called panic.

We start as infants and move out into the world.

As we move out, we understand more and more, in ever-widening circles.

Then, we get to a point where we can't figure things out.

Through most of human history this was simply because we didn't know enough.

Along came science and the range of our knowledge grew exponentially. That was useful and felt good.

Until we saw a universe that was too big. We tried to measure it and discovered that there was something so far beyond our senses that we could only describe it as "dark." Dark matter and dark energy. And there was vastly more of it than there was of our stuff.

Looking in the other direction -- down toward the small -- we got past atoms, to subatomic particles, and encountered quantum weirdness.

The theory of quantum electrodynamics describes nature as absurd from the point of view of common sense. And it agrees fully with experiment. So I hope you can accept nature as she is -- absurd.

--Richard Feynman, (Nobel Prize in Physics)

The study of biology brought us to the theory of evolution. That showed us that we hadn't been produced for a reason, but by accident.

Such new knowledge is very useful.

But it does not address what the underlying drive really wants -- to know what it all means in relation to self.

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.

That's not what we want to know.

In fact, it's precisely the opposite of what we want to know -- what it means in relation to me.

In either case, too little knowledge, or too much, we're frustrated.

Needs that can't be satisfied don't go away.

Hunger doesn't cease when there's no food, thirst when there's nothing to drink, the desire for sex when there's no appropriate partner, the yearning for love when everyone hates us.

Our being is built to keep pushing itself. The chemical goads don't relent. The pain does not stop.

At this point we have a choice.

We can accept that this particular need can't be satisfied. That our knowledge is insufficient. Or, in modern times, that the universe does not mean anything in the terms we want to hear about.

The pain remains.

Until someone creative comes along and says, "I have an answer. There's a God." Actually, prior to about to about 1300 BC, when monotheism was invented, they would have said gods. "He's like the king. But bigger and better. He knows it all. He has a master plan. You're included. So it all has meaning, in relation to you."

Even if it's not true, if you accept it, the pain suddenly stops.

When we have a toothache, it's not just the tooth that's out of whack. Our whole being is out of balance. When it's fixed we feel good all over.

Then, on top of that, we get a hit of joy juice from our being. It's a reward for fixing the problem. So we feel really, really good.

If it's Tuesday and the dentist can't see us until Friday, we take a painkiller. It doesn't fix the problem, but it does make us feel better, allows the rest of our body to come into balance, and makes it so we can go on about our business.

That's why we believe in God, even when one doesn't exist.

Because a false answer is better than no answer at all. And that's our only choice, no answer or a false one.

That creates a whole set of new questions.

If there is no God, what is morality, where does it come from, and will it work without God? What is spirituality? How is it different than religion? Does it have value if God is a mere myth and legend? Why are there atheists? Why gods, and then a God? Why is monotheism successful in some societies and not in others? Why is belief more prevalent among some groups and cultures than in others? Why are we willing to kill and die for this particular idea?

But that's OK, because those are questions about us, as natural human beings, and they can be answered. They will be taken up in subsequent articles in this series.

Larry Beinhart is the author of "Wag the Dog," "The Librarian," and "Fog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin." His latest book is Salvation Boulevard. Responses can be sent to beinhart@earthlink.net.