Why do people believe in gods?

by Marcus Loane


 It is often said that many people believe in a god, and so many people cannot be wrong. However, in the past the majority of the world's population have had many false beliefs. For example there was the widely held belief that the earth was at the centre of the universe with everything revolving around it. The Egyptians believed in a god called Osiris for over two thousand years. Should we conclude they could not all have been wrong for such a long time? A good rule of thumb may be that the majority are usually wrong. Half of the world's population has below average intelligence (obvious when you think about it). The majority of the world's population is illiterate (through no fault of their own). Even educations in rich western societies only provide to an individual, a really minute fraction of knowledge out of the total world knowledge base.

We are all born atheist

We are not born with many beliefs. Beliefs are acquired. While we are born without beliefs and are thus born atheist, we are born with certain traits that lead some to acquire beliefs in gods, demons, spirits or other invisible person-like entities.

Widespread belief in a god is something that needs explaining. I am not going to provide a single answer, because there isn't one. There are many. I have borrowed ideas from anthropology and psychology which are possible factors leading to our over eager acceptance of god ideas.

Anthropomorphism is a basic instinct that should be resisted

One of these traits is the ability to project our own thoughts and feelings outside of ourselves unto other people, animals, objects and even abstract concepts such as the god idea. You know the sort of thing - Thomas the tank engine with a smiling human face, talking trees in children's books. Humanising the non-human comes naturally. Being able to project our thoughts on to other people to work out what they might be thinking is a useful ability which had/has survival and mate-getting advantages. Many species depend on sociability for their survival. Observing our close relatives, chimpanzees, reveals a complicated social structure where the successful playing out of mind games can lead to getting the best mates. To be able to play mind games you need to be able to project your own thought processes on to other beings.

Belief in god is projecting human thoughts and motives on to an abstract idea. It is the misdirection of some of our natural psychology that evolved for a different reason.

We are born helpless so another trait that evolved is the relationship between a child and its parents. The infant is preprogrammed to relate to its parents. It accepts them as knowing more than they do, being more powerful and being dispensers of punishments and rewards. This is exactly how some of the world’s gods are portrayed. They are said to know more, be more powerful and they punish and reward. So again we have a part of our psychology wired in at birth (for good evolutionary reasons) that can be misdirected towards the abstract concept of gods.

Other primates live in small groups and a dominance hierarchy becomes established. At the summit is the top ape who must be respected. Any challenge to the top ape's dominance can be met with violence. The top ape is usually the biggest and strongest in the group. Perhaps the inherited primitive psychology for deference to the top ape explains the desire to worship which so many seem to need - some people just feel they need something or someone who is more powerful than they are.

Another trait that evolution has given us is the fear of death. Any potential ancestors who quite liked the idea of dying would have been less likely to survive and pass on the genes for the "don’t mind dying" trait. Those ancestors who feared death the most and tried the hardest to evade it were the ones who would survive and pass on the genes for "fear death a lot" to their children. This explains the attractiveness of certain aspects of some of the world’s religions. In Buddhism it is reincarnation. In Islam or the different brands of Christianity it is an afterlife. It is the ultimate expression of the evolved desire to evade death.

We are born with traits which lead some to believe in gods. The god belief is an anomaly, an incidental byproduct of traits that evolved for different reasons.

God belief and cheesecake

Why do we enjoy eating strawberry cheese cake? We could not have evolved to enjoy strawberry cheesecake since cheese cake is a recent invention. However in a fat scarce environment, we did evolve to like the texture of fatty foods in the mouth. We did evolve to like the sensation of cold water on our lips. We also evolved to enjoy the taste of fresh fruit. A strawberry cheesecake triggers all three of these circuits in our brains giving us a triple dose of pleasure. God belief also slots in to psychological traits wired into our brains for different reasons.

Another reason why belief in supernatural entities persists is because it provides quick, easy to understand answers to difficult questions such as "Does life have a meaning?". Belief in a god gives people the instant gratification of feeling that everything has a purpose, that they are important, and they can stop thinking. After all, god will take care of everything.

Ignorance of prophets

To understand your true place in the universe takes time and effort. It requires knowledge of physics, cosmology and evolution. The universe is far more elegant, far more subtle than any prophet ever imagined. The truth really is stranger than fiction. The tales from the "divinely" inspired look distinctly parochial when compared with the reality of quantum physics or the formation of galaxies. Why were the prophets so ignorant of the true wonders? The universe revealed by science is far more awe inspiring than any story from ancient scriptures. To have been born at this time in history when there is so much accumulated knowledge is incredibly fortunate.

Marcus Loane