Why Do People Believe in God?
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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.