It's obvious as we look around us that theism is a popular meme. Probably
all of you have friends who are theists, and most of you probably have
friends who are weekly church-goers. Many of you are likely theists
yourselves. But why? Why religion? Why believe in the first place? Why do
most people on the earth believe in a supreme being of some sort,
especially one who fails to manifest himself to us?
The easiest answer is that most people were born into a religion of some
sort and simply raised to be Catholics, or Hindus, or Muslims. In many
cases they're taught not to question their beliefs--"blind faith" is the
standard. Also, there are great social pressures to conform religiously.
Churches give us a feeling of community, and of friendship and support.
Commercial sectors, the ease of travel, commuting, and a variety of other
factors have all but destroyed the local neighborhood's value as a strong
community. Organized religion fills that gap. It gives us a feeling that we
belong; it gives us friends and leaders who we can look up to, and who we
can rely on when times are hard. When living in an area where there exists
a dominant faith, a person with differing beliefs can feel left out and
even shunned. Many even convert to the dominant religion simply out of
But these are rather superficial answers, and concentrate more on a
particular church than on a belief in God itself. There are many who
believe in God but do not attend any particular church. There are likewise
many who currently hold beliefs strikingly dissimilar to those with which
they were raised--atheists who have become Christians, Christians who have
become atheists, members raised in one Christian sect who are now members
of another, or members of one religion who have now joined another or
abandoned organized religion as a whole. But what makes these people
believe? What evidence is there that God really exists?
For many people, simply looking at the world around us denotes that there
is a God. Looking at the beauty of a sunset, or the complexity of the
universe, or examining the astronomical odds that intelligent life could
have arisen by mere chance, gives many people the overwhelming feeling that
"something bigger" must be out there. Perhaps this feeling is why almost
every culture on the planet has, at one time or another, developed a
creation story--their explanation of how life came to be as it is today.
Normally featured is some sort of external intelligence, a being who
"created" the world, a person identified as God or one of the gods. This
idea, that the complexity and intricacy of the universe implies a creator,
is usually called the "Argument from Design"--and, of course, there exist
many good, logical arguments against it.1 At
the very least, the Argument from Design does not explain to us the nature
of the Creator or whether, indeed, he continues to have any influence in
But it is not my intention to attempt (futilely, I might add) to prove or
disprove the existence of Deity, hence I will not spend my time debating
the worth of various points. I merely would like to point out some of the
reasons I see why people believe in God.
Another common thread among theists is some sort of belief in a
continuation of life. Some believe that we existed in some form before we
were born on this earth. Almost all believe that life will continue in some
form after we die. Many believe in an "immortal soul", i.e. that our
"I"--our "self", our consciousness--will in some form continue living
forever. This belief probably arises from some sort of intuitive feeling of
other lives, either before this one or after.
Critics might say that this "feeling" is simply a response to the
evolutionary pressures of survival--our brains have this innate,
genetically-coded need to survive, and hence we've invented a
philosophy that will allow us to "survive" even after our death. Others
point out that the concept of an "afterlife" was likely invented to explain
the appearance of deceased relatives in dreams (often leading to the common
practice of ancestor-worship). These theories would easily explain why the
doctrine of the immortal soul is so widespread. However, it is just as
likely that the different cultures did not develop this idea independently;
perhaps they did all have the same origin. For example, many
cultures in the world also have some sort of "flood" story. It seems more
likely to me that these stories originated from a single source (perhaps
divine, perhaps simply an actual "great flood" that did occur in history),
than that the different cultures simply developed them independently.
Likewise the yearning for immortality may perhaps have a divine source. (Or
it could spring from thoughts implanted in us by the aliens who deposited
us on this planet.)2
But the single strongest reason, I feel, for believing in God, comes from
personal experience. (It also seems to be the only major reason
(apart from social pressures or convenience) for changing religions.) Many
people feel that God is watching out for them--they've discovered blessings
in their lives because of keeping God's commandments, for example, or
perhaps they've received powerful answers to prayers. They've heard voices
of warning or had feelings of premonition, cautioning them against danger.
They've had feelings of peace or happiness as they go to church or read the
scriptures. Others have had other inexplicable, incommunicable "religious
experiences". Some have even seen miracles, such as healing the sick or
raising the dead. Some people experience miraculous visions, or have
prophetic dreams. Perhaps words are given or ideas suddenly appear from an
unknown source--a person says something or does something spectacular and
admits that it felt as if "something (or someone) else" was working
Such personal experiences are commonly found throughout the religious
community. I've noticed myself that of the atheists I've known, most of
them are atheists due to a complete lack of any such experiences or
"evidences" of God's existence. Conversely, most of the strong theists I
know have had many such experiences. Some rely almost wholly on the
experiences of others, but even with such, they've experienced some little
"evidences" of their own.
Perhaps the theists are just deluded or feigning these experiences. Perhaps
the atheists have many such experiences but they choose to ignore them.
Honestly, I don't really know. It seems likely to me that, truly, the
theists do experience such things just as factually as the atheists
But this brings up a very good question. Why not religion? Faced
with this vast majority of theists, why not believe? What are
potential problems with believing?
Why Not Religion?
As I mentioned above, the biggest problem seems to be a simple lack of
evidence. Some people receive no answers to prayers, they see hoaxes
instead of miracles, and when trying to adhere to some religious creed they
end up more miserable than happy and peaceful. Another great hinderance is
the sheer number of religions. The biggest problem with these
"personal experiences" is that they don't seem to be limited to a
particular sect or even a particular religion. I'm not sure if atheists
themselves have ever heard "voices of warning" or had "feelings of
premonition" and simply have some other explanation for them--but certainly
worshipers in dissimilar faiths have had such experiences. When it comes to
"prophetic dreams and visions," you even find contradictions among
this vast sea of religion.
This is probably the biggest obstacle: in the quivering mass of
contradicting religions (many even contradicting themselves), how is
one supposed to find the truth? (As an aside, my recommendation is: pray to
find the truth. God will lead you to it. If he doesn't, well, that's one
heck of an excuse to use at Judgement Day. Just make certain you're
prepared to follow him if he does lead you to it.)
Another phenomenon occurs in the academic world, which Richard Feynman
examines in an essay entitled, "The Relation of Science and Religion". He
notes that, "A young man, brought up in a religious family, studies a
science, and as a result he comes to doubt--and perhaps later to disbelieve
in--his father's God. Now, this is not an isolated example; it happens time
and time again." He then poses the question: "Why does this young man come
to disbelieve?" After discussing various answers that are not likely to be
correct, Feynman then hits upon a major fault line.
... it is imperative in science to doubt; it is absolutely necessary, for
progress in science, to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your
inner nature. To make progress in understanding, we must remain modest and
allow that we do not know. Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt.
That is, if we investigate further, we find that the statements of science
are not of what is true and what is not true, but statements of what is
known to different degrees of certainty: "It is very much more likely that
so and so is true than that it is not true"; or "such and such is almost
certain but there is still a little bit of doubt"; or--at the other
extreme--"well, we really don't know." Every one of the concepts of science
is on a scale graduated somewhere between, but at neither end of, absolute
falsity or absolute truth. ...
What happens, then, is that the young man begins to doubt everything
because he cannot have it as absolute truth. So the question changes a
little bit from "Is there a God?" to "How sure is it that there is a God?"
This very subtle change is a great stroke and represents a parting of ways
between science and religion. I do not believe a real scientist can ever
believe in the same way again. Although there are scientists who believe in
God, I do not believe that they think of God in the same way as religious
people do. If they are consistent with their science, I think that they say
something like this to themselves: "I am almost certain there is a God. The
doubt is very small." That is quite different from saying, "I know that
there is a God." I do not believe that a scientist can ever obtain that
view--that really religious understanding, that real knowledge that there
is a God--that absolute certainty which religious people have.3
(By the way, I still feel that one can honestly say, "I know that there is
a God" the same way one says, "I know that China exists" even though he has
never seen China. In reality, of course, he's really saying "It is almost
certain that China exists. The doubt is very small." But humans don't
insist on rigidity in language.)
Feynman notes that it's not usually the existence of God that comes under
question first. Usually the student first begins to doubt "special tenets,
... or details of the religious doctrine." And what is the area of religion
most vulnerable to a scientific attack? I like to call it "God as spackling
"[It] happens all the time. Somebody comes up with an incomplete
explanation of the Universe that doesn't include God; then, some theologian
uses 'God' as a sort of spackling paste to fill in the holes, and manages
to convince others that that's part of the religion; then, when in due
course the quest for knowledge discovers the real explanation, there's this
big fight. It happened with astronomy and it happened with human evolution.
Would you really want it to happen here?"
-- FAQ about the Meaning of Life4
In most religions, there aren't answers specified for common, metaphysical
questions. For example, the Bible says nothing about the orbits of
celestial bodies, nor does it explain DNA and genetics. But there are some
who take ambiguous statements from their Holy Writ and expand them into a
complex, metaphysical answer (like Joshua's statement, "Sun, stand thou
still"5 turning into the Catholic Church's
condemnation of certain astronomers).
Inevitably, some authority, in whatever particular church it may be, will
make a scripturally-supported statement that later turns out to be provably
false. Perhaps for a while, staunch followers will defend the statement
with great rhetoric and zeal, but eventually, truth will prevail. And when
it does, it is almost always disastrous to the faith of the aforementioned
young man, who has already come to doubt. With his newly-found "scientific
mind", he almost subconsciously starts creating new hypotheses and testing
their validity against the "religious truth" which he has been brought up
not to question.
In some cases, theism wins out, although organized religion may be a
casualty along the way. But for those lacking that personal confirmation of
God's existence previously mentioned, it may be the final shattering of
What about you? Why do you believe? Or why don't you? Are the
theists simply confused, deluded, sheep-like people willing to believe
whatever is told them? Are the atheists egotistical infidel recalcitrants
who would stubbornly refuse to believe even if an angel appeared and
proclaimed God's existence?
Like I mentioned previously, I believe that theists believe in God because
they have experienced many evidences supporting that conclusion, and
likewise atheists disbelieve because the evidence they've
seen points entirely the other way. But why such disparate evidences,
enough so as to cause such a great rift among the people? That is the
question to which I do not know the answer.
1 The Atheism Web: Common Arguments
2 "Who is Xenu?" http://www.xenu.net/archive/leaflet/xenuleaf.htm
3 Feynman, Richard. "The Relation of Science and Religion". Reprinted in "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out", 1999.
4 FAQ about the Meaning of Life
5 Joshua x:12