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

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.

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.

There’s far better and far more frequent "evidence" that the sun is traveling around us. We see it happen daily.

Yet almost everyone in the world is willing to accept that what we see is based on an illusion. Even that the illusion is caused by something that we cannot perceive. That the earth, which feels so solid and still beneath our feet -- another illusion, is actually spinning around. 

More often, the case for God is based on inference.

"Oh look, what an amazing, wonderful world. And see how it all fits together, more intricately than a Swiss watch, but a million, million times more complicated, it must have taken one heck of a Great Watchmaker! There’s no other way to account for it!"

This is, in fact, a very normal thing to do.

We have lots and lots of theories that involve things we can’t "see," that create a whole story to explain the effects that we do see. Evolution is one.

We have theories that claim the existence of things we don’t understand.

From Newton, right up to the present, nobody knows what gravity actually is.

There are theories about things that are a lot stranger than God, who is, after all, a lot like a human -- with the same sort of values, standards, practices, consciousness -- just bigger and better.

People commonly say that God moves in mysterious ways, but not nearly as mysteriously as things move according to quantum theory. 

I think it is safe to say that no one understands quantum mechanics. Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, "But how can it possibly be like that?" Because you will go down the drain into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped.

Nobody knows how it can be like that.

                        -- Richard Feynman 

The more success the quantum theory has, the sillier it looks.

                        -- Albert Einstein 

Anyone who is not shocked by quantum mechanics has not fully understood it.

                        -- Niels Bohr 

So how do we sort out weird theories -- including those about invisible things, those with big, gaping holes, and those that involve strange, inexplicable ideas -- and pick the ones that we accept and reject others?

We play a game called "If … Then …"

We take whatever observations we have. Then we make up a story that "explains" it. Once we have a story, we say, "If this story is true, then things should happen in a certain way." 

It is often stated that of all the theories proposed in this century, the silliest is quantum theory. In fact, some say that the only thing quantum theory has going for it is that it is unquestionably correct.

                        -- Michio Kaku 

What Kaku means by that is, if you plug in quantum equations, then make a prediction, it works.

If you imagine a mystery force called gravity -- without being able to describe what it is or how it works -- you can plug in Newton’s equations and then discover that it works every time.

The same is true with evolution. Whatever the gaps, however incredible it seems, if you proceed on the assumption that it’s real, then everything else in biology works with it. 

The opposite is true with theories of God.

If God tells the truth and there’s nothing wrong with the chain of evidence, then there should be no contradictions within sacred texts. But there are.

If God made the world in seven days, from the rock itself to humans, then the geological, fossil and historical records should reflect that.

If God created a flood that covered the whole world, then there should be physical evidence that reflects that.

If the sun stood still in the sky, then it must be moving around the earth.

This could go on for pages. And it’s true of other sacred texts as well. 

The point of all this is that we will drop perfectly obvious, commonsense ideas (the sun goes around the earth) in favor of truly weird ideas (the earth beneath us is spinning) when there are things they don’t account for (fails some if-then tests) and the new idea satisfies the if-then tests, but that we don’t do it with religious ideas.

If we are going to work on the assumption that God is a false belief, we still have to acknowledge that it has a special status in the world of false beliefs. It is not only broader and more profound, it is stronger and has a special hold on people.

Any theory of why we believe has to account for those qualities.  

This is part of a series on God, Religion, Faith and such. The next one will propose a theory of Why We Believe in God.


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