The need to believe
Hello again, hope you had a nice winter season so far. I just felt compelled (after reading your other letters) to write to you on some of the things I’ve been pondering as of late. Mainly though, I wanted to know why so many people feel the need to believe in something.
I have a friend who is agnostic, in the sense that they do not buy into organized religion but still believe in a god or some other diety. They told me, “They feel like they need to believe in something.” She also gets into many fights with her boyfriend, who is Atheist, over this. She is emotional and he is very stubborn and narrowminded, which I alway point out when he makes ignorant comments about Christians needed to all go away and die. When I introduced him to my thoughts and ideas on Atheist, and Dawkin’s ideas, as well as your own, I tried to promote logic and reason, as well as understanding and tolerence. Unfortunate that only half of the message held.
Back to my friend who feels the need to believe. The best explanation I could come up with is that, we cannot comprehend absolute nothing. If we die, and cease to exist, we cannot fathom what that would be like. It just seems so devoid and empty, so we would like to think that our time here wasn’t for nothing (and I like to think that if we can change someone else’s life for the better, it wasn’t for nothing at all). But not only can religion be a nice pillow to comfort our mental fall, it seems to be a nice answer to things that would otherwise be complicated.
Life is complicated, and I do enjoy sorting out complicated things. Most of the people I have seen in life, do not like complicated things. The idea of God, and those that tag along (soul mates, true love, ect) all seem to be a nice and easy answer, that would imply that no other thought is needed on the matter. Where did all this come from? God of course, case closed.
But there also seems to be something else, as if our minds were wired to believe in a god. I don’t remember if that was mentioned here or somewhere else but I have not explored that research so much. I do believe that in addition to that, there is a social pressure to believe in God. People’s parents, friends, afriad of rejection or hate. I do know quite a few people who are Atheistic, but won’t dare admit it in public. To me they are only cheating themselves, and denying who they are. Unless, of course, they are lieing to me and still believe in a God; but that would just lead me back to square one.
So I seem to be a bit stuck in my thinking on the matter, perhaps you have some insite or a mental push?
I’d say that there are three reasons people have religious beliefs:
1) Society: If you’re brought up with religion, it can become part of your being. We see the same thing with morality — there are some things that Americans find immoral (women topless in public, eating dogs, plural marriage) that people in some other countries would have no problem with. But even though such things are obviously purely cultural, an American might still have a very deep-seated feeling of “wrongness” when confronted with such a thing. Similarly with religion, if you are raised with it, the feeling of God being “out there” can be a part of you.
2) Need: Religion is comforting to people in a variety of circumstances. It helps give meaning to tragedy (“God has a plan”), eases the sorrow of loss (“She’s gone to a better place”), promises justice (“He’ll pay for his sins,”) and explains incomprehensible concepts (“In the beginning…”). For many people, there would be great discomfort without these explanations and reassurances.
3) Patterns: I think that in a way humans are indeed hard-wired for religion. We are exceptionally good at spotting patterns, and we have a need for explanations. This leads us to magical thinking (“I prayed and then it rained”) and to accepting the “God of the gaps” (“I can’t explain it but I must have an explanation, therefore the explanation is God”).
I hope that helps explain my position.
Now go tell your friend’s boyfriend to stop being so narrowminded and try to see the world from his girlfriend’s perspective. He’s giving atheism a bad name.