How Could Intelligent,
Educated People Believe This?
December 9, 1998
Why is it that I used to sit in a Catholic church every Sunday, at the age of twelve and wonder how all of these intelligent adults could posibily believe in something so far-fetched and diametrically opposed to science (which we were taught in school at the time).
As they swung their "smoke pots" around and recited all of this "mumbo-jumbo", I used to think that how can these supposedly intelligent rational adults who are cabable of running countries, building skyscrapers, flying airplanes, sending radio and telephone signals across the entire planet, swallow all this crap! THAT has always been a "mystery" to me!
Chuck & Carol
Cliff's initial response:
Clues to this question could come from several directions:
Do we have these notions by nature, and the theologians simply know how to exploit them?
Do we learn these notions at an early age, and then become unable to shake them?
Also, there is the angle that presents religion and the supernatural as a comfortable myth that many people simply want to believe, regardless of whether it is true.
Any or all of these thoughts and more may apply to your question.
As for the President, Robert Green Ingersoll's imaginary monument to Abraham Lincoln would have read: "Here sleeps the only man in the history of the world, who, having been clothed with almost absolute power, never abused it, except upon the side of mercy." I think human politics goes down from here, and we cannot take their expressed sentiments at face value. Lincoln, "at times, an atheist," in private, was well known for his public expressions of religious sentiments. No less than Gandhi did the same thing. Both did this for the purpose of achieving specific goals. Hell, President Clinton's bible seems to be getting bigger and bigger every time we see it on TV (which is often, these days)!
Note: In his Biography of Lincoln, written to set straight many things that had been falsely reported in other biographies, William Herndon, Lincoln's closest associate, said, of Lincoln's religious views that he was "at times, an atheist."
However, crucial to your question (as I read it) is: Can and should the atheist maintain dignity toward those who believe? The dignity element would be of utmost importance according to the mission of the Positive Atheism website and magazine.
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
P.O. Box 16811
Portland, OR 97292
What are they highly educated in? Christianity, of course! Their position of power gives them a platform that no atheist could ever have, since in order to be a part of the power structure one has to a least have a tacit belief in a deity.
I believe many are indeed disingenuous, as any one with a little knowledge of our present day discoveries in science has to have doubts from time to time. In order to believe the "creation" story one must deny the evidence of evolution and the "big bang" theory.
The Christian fundamentalist must also deny the freedom of religion clause in the Constitution in order to push their religion and their god's laws into government and public education and deny rights to homosexuals and others who do not follow their beliefs.
With all the translations and interpretations of their Bible, how can it be put forth as the truth. The only truth that is established is by faith and philosophical inquiry.
I've also puzzled over the grasping for deity among otherwise bright persons. Scientists, physicians, leaders -- people with a rugged investment in logic and measured sense -- go limp in intellect and hope like hell there's a god. Why?
Could be inbred fear, as you imply, Cliff. Or disingenuousness, or comfortable rut-following, or myth-seeking, or all combinations of these. Very well. But why can this happen, this amazing proclivity of abandoning without shame one's rational means and taking up with the unlikely and weird?
I'm ready to try a more biological slant to the matter. And suggest that we're an undercooked species, developmentally, with quirks and odd imprints left over from the evolutionary passage. As a wolf pack cedes and surrenders up to the alpha wolf, the human race seems to want to cede and surrender up to an entity that isn't there anymore. It may have been, once, an alpha leader to whom utter loyalty and investment was certain. Printed into the species, then, is an antique neural chip, let's say, incontrovertible and barely approachable for validation by humans sturdily retaining it. Even very intelligent ones.
It's an idea anyway.
"How'd you get so smart?" is the very question my father has posed to me regarding my professed atheism. And my honest answer is, "I don't know." My family is staunchly Mormon going back to the earliest days of the church, before, even, the Mormons arrived in Utah. My family is very proud of its Mormon pioneer heritage, having been part of that overland trek. So my departure bucks several generations of family history.
How did I get so smart? Perhaps in my experience as a prodigal there are some clues. It seems to me, in my own case, not to be a question of intelligence really, but rather one of personality. While I think of myself as a fairly sociable, I also see an iconoclast streak. That I tend to question things, especially authorities, seems more a function of my personality than of my intelligence. As a teenager I tested parental authority much more strenuously than my sisters and more even than my closest friends. It wasn't until my early 20s that I much questioned the authority of the Church. But that chink in the armor was crucial. Faith questioned is faith denied. Once I had asked "Why Mormonism? Why not Catholicism? Why not Judaism? Why not Islam? Why not Astrology? Why not Satanism?," a floodgate was opened, the cat was out of the bag. The question was more important than the answer.
I'd have to say that for most people, myself included, questions of survival are more important than the more general and more abstract questions of truth ... or is that Truth? At any rate, I think many find it useful to accept as given some things that don't seem to have much to do with survival so that they may better address things that do. Nor can I argue against that as a strategy. It may very well be that on a personal level it is a more efficient way to live one's life. Altho, it is my prejudice that one takes on a lot of excess baggage that way. It's important to remember that truths revealed generally seem so obvious. But before they are revealed they are by definition "hidden" and not obvious at all. It's easy to see as "stupid" people who don't have an understanding of a principle that you do have an understanding of. But I don't really see it as stupid merely to have asked different questions. And the question I asked, "Why Mormonism, etc.?; why one religion over another, why one set of contradicting beliefs over another?," yielded what was for me a very unsatisfactory answer. How could I verify the virgin birth, the testimony of (Mormon prophet) Joseph Smith, the importance of handling poisonous snakes as a demonstration of my dedication to god, etc.? The answer in all cases was virtually the same. You must have faith. And how to verify that faith? "A still, small voice." In other words a "feeling" inside myself would tell me what was true. Well, it seems to me that as a method for determining truth this "still, small voice" is wrong in at least every case but one. But which one? So it would seem to me not to take a great deal of intelligence to see that faith as method for determining truth is completely invalid. It just takes the right question.
Dear friend and hero Cliff,
As for the President, Robert Green Ingersoll's imaginary monument to Abraham Lincoln would have read: "Here sleeps the only man in the history of the world, who, having been clothed with almost absolute power, never abused it, except upon the side of mercy."
In truth, Abraham Lincoln severely abused his power. For a strongly worded, but or therefore all the more enjoyable, look for L. Neil Smith's "An American Lenin." It's on the Net.
Thanking you for your good work, and for your time and attention, I am
Another way of posing this question, which I think is useful is: if there is no god, why do so many, otherwise sensible, people think there is?
My position on this is somewhat different than the usual ones. I think that a belief in god is a cognitive illusion. Let me draw an analogy. When human beings view the moon low in the horizon, it appears to be larger than when viewed in mid sky. It is not. This can be verified by using instruments that measure its real size. For reasons that are lost in evolutionary history, the human brain experiences the world in this way. It should be remembered that evolution includes significant elements of randomness that are non-adaptive.
The God Illusion is similar to the Moon Illusion. Religions people experience something cognitively real but illusory. This view explains better than any other I have heard why otherwise intelligent people are theists. The real question then becomes why do these people not engage their intelligence in revealing the illusion? I leave this one for another time.
PS: One of the first acts of Lincoln was to suspend Habeas Corpus, the foundation of due process under law.
I think most people realize that belief in a literal 'God' of the Bible, or gods of other religions is an irrational belief, and that believing something does not make it true, we are none the less 'Hard wired' for religion. Our brains are complex things, and remember we did not always have our scientific understanding of it. Certainly some physiological events in the brain therefor adopted mystical significance. -- See Dr. Persinger's work on 'The God Machine' -- Free Inquiry Magazine.
Also, religion provides a framework for teaching morals, as we are not amoral creatures that is we have a sense of right and wrong Religion can teach what values fall in the category of 'Right' and which ones fall in the category of 'Wrong' So even though people may be atheists, when thinking logically, they still see some value in the mythologies, and a sense of 'spirituality' or an acceptance of where they find themselves -- an Answer to 'why am I here?' The problem with Religion based morality is of course that it is static. The Bible will always have its mysogynistic, and homophobic passages. John 3:16 will always read "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotton son, that whosoever believe in him shall not perish but have eternal life" Meanwhile people will still be mortal, write up wills, and have children to continue the species. John 3:16 is flat out false, apart from the concept of puercide (killing a Son) that the line brings up.
[Regarding your question, I quote] Fyodor Dostoevesky, Brothers Karmazov:
"So long as man remains free, he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find something or someone to worship. For these pitiful creatures are concerned not only to find what one or the other can worship, but to find something that all would believe in and worship. What is essential is that all may be together in it. This craving for community worship is the chief misery of every man, individually and for all humanity from the beginning of time. For the sake of common worship, they have slain each other with the sward. They have set up their gods and challenged each other. Put away your gods and worship ours, or we will kill you and your gods. And so it will be till the end of the world. And when the gods have disappeared from the earth, they will fall down before idols just the same."
I think the above paragraph seems to explain some of the reasons, if not the dogmatizing in early youth.
PS: I like this as the introduction to your posts. It certainly is a concept we should and must use to fight the believers in the unknown.
A wise man once said, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for enough good men to do nothing."
Dear Cliff: Are people who believe in god stupid or just severely misled? It seems to be a vicious circle of ignorance: following your parents lame principles, therefore becoming lame like them. Another example: believing that the reason the tornado evaded your house and killed your Christian neighbor was god's will or grace. I prayed, therefore my house did not become leveled. What about your Christian neighbor who lost everything, probably while calling on god? Does god pick and choose who he will save?
On an extremely serious note: my father has been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. He will probably pass away in a couple of months -- according to doctors. I am flying home to the East coast to be by his side. My parents are "devout" Christians (whatever that means). They will want to join hands with me in prayer. How do I handle this? I am a serious atheist and would actually be offended in this situation. I absolutely do not believe in god. I have to tell them that I am an atheist and make a stand, but you know -- he is dying. What to do...
The question should not be "how can these supposedly intelligent rational adults ... swallow all this crap". The investigation into this question should be "why are there so many irrational, uneducated gullible adults." I'm quite sure that if you questioned the congregations of your Catholic youth, you would find very few, if any, educated in the metaphysical inquiries of Plato, Aristotle, Russel and the like. Most people are very ignorant about these issues, yet they feel free to express their ignorance.
Another reason why religious feelings persist (in whatever local cultural version) relates to the concept of inner narrative structuring in human thought and cognition. Consider the ability to make imaginative and predictive leaps between disparate experiences: we are able to believe in all sorts of abstracts as they form narrative building blocks in wider ideas. Contrary to the Cartesian primacy of doubt vs certainty as characterising human cognition, we actually tend to work on givens. Thus, I don't need to see the ball land to know that if I throw it over the fence it will land somewhere. I don't need to establish certainty in order to 'know' that this has happened. I don't doubt it unless there is reason to.
This mechanism is at work in pre-modern explanations of the seasons (Gods) the success of harvests (Gods) and battles (Gods!) and so forth. At a time when the circle of established physical knowledge was so small, all the remaining room was filled with metaphysics, superstition and deity-narratives that tend to glorify putting up with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in the name of something better later. (narratives in theeir very nature suggest and allow for deferral). Similarly it is no surprise that God(s) generally tend to be allowed to be unknowable and unpredictable -- how else are they allowed to allow earthquakes failed harvests and lost battles.
This capability to believe is what I think other correspondents to this page have correctly identified in our post-darwinian terms as 'hard-wired'. We are able to mentally appeal to unseen forces as somehow causal.If we then trvel forward to modern post-scientific technocracies you notice that God narratives are almost never appealed to for their explanatory force. Science and the public education system have taken this away. The knowledge may often be specialised and couched in difficult language, but most people grasp say the danger of an ill-maintained nuclear reactor and would assume that if one exploded it is human error not Godly will that was the most probable explanation. With more and more information about our minds and bodies coming into the public domain it becomes harder and harder to keep a clear image of what belief might mean beyond a fuzzy warming 'otherness' -- often now presented as a (bogus) point of moral origin from which we have somehow 'fallen' in our quest to be happy in the consumer age. Religious figures as they appear now tend to be viewed with suspicion, because in our modern world their charismatic and persuasive speech can't be accepted as keying into anything other than delusion and mental fraility. We regard them schizophrenically as being both poor imitations of the "real" thing (Jesus) at the same time as exhibiting a mistrust of religion that should suggest we don't really believe in the possibility of "Him" either. Yet in the version of the Christian story that we get taught in schools no-one points out that the Romans were similarly bemused by Jesus; indeed for a longtime they didn't consider him even a threat compared to his contemporary messiah candidates. Indeed that in their system of belief his self-proclamations were insulting and ridiculous. (The same feelings ordinary have on hearing Moon, Koresh, Hubbard etc. today).
Simply put our narratives, our common social stories, the threads that explain our situation are no longer being written by the superstitious minority but by politics, economics and increasingly technology and medicine. However, even with this growth of secular logic the basic mechanisms of imagination and prediction will continue to make room in the much-cluttered mind for deities and hobgoblins, devils and toasting forks because the mind is not simply rational.
Athiesm is a considered position in the light of what have firmed up as 'facts' about the human condition physical and psychological in this and the latter half of the last century. One should always bear in mind that before this athiesm was seen as nonsensical -- in fact due to the ascendant position of the church in legal and educational spheres one could scarcely 'think' athiestically. A hundred and fifty years is not long in the history of the human condition -- religion and its psychological wellspring will be with us for a long time to come.
July 31, 2000
I think many "Christians" are by nature moral, loving, kind people. They are taught from youth that whatever decency they have is given to them by the beneficence of a "loving creator" and is not of their own volition.
These people would be generous, merciful and loving no matter what religion they were born to.
They would be the same if they were raised with no religion. And to those the moral atheist must appeal.
There are instances where SS men in concentration camps showed mercy and kindness to their captives. Common human decency -- plain and simple.
Why the question if you are not religious you are incapable of human decency? I don't get it.
Somehow, religion is equated with decency. It's as though if you aren't religious you cannot be decent.
I beg to differ.
The Crusades, the Inquisition, the conquering of the Americas for Catholic Spain, the witch hunts all show the absolute horror of religion.
For the apologists, there is always how "Christianity" far outweighed the damage it inflicted in the name of "truth" but I am left skeptical -- and horrified by the slaughter of a civilization (American Indians) in the name of "manifest destiny."
Call it by it's truthful name -- flight from overpopulation, freedom of religious belif, greed, or whatever, and I can respect the philosophy, but to call it "God's Will" is to test the intellect of rightous thinkng.
To destroy that in it's path has always been the tenet of "Chrisitan" thinking, and no matter how the "beiever" may see it, there is always an excuse for plundering those who need "saving".
Now, the Fundamentalists sit in their well-appointed sanctuaries giving glory to the "god" who abhors human reasonig, who has sent AIDS to the degenerate sinner, who would condem millions to suffering a childbirth that would condemn them to a life of misery for ill-gotten passion: where does it end?
Where is love? Where is compassion? Where is the community that their "Jesus" proclaimed?
I see none of it -- but the Constitution of the United States protects me from such evangelists and I will fight them to the death for their shameful adulteration of human decency.
I look into the eyes of a believer who has stated that I am a tool of Satan and am an enemy and I wonder at her audaciy -- is it possible that such insanity could destroy my liberty? I'm afraid that it could, if I don't fight for my civil rights under the laws of this land.
October 02, 2000
I just read your response, Cliff, to this question. One thing you said is exactly true, do we have these notions by nature and I believe the answer to be affirmatve. As I read a great deal of Carl Jung, I would like to refer to something from his book, "The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious". "When a situation occurs which corresponds to a given archetype(original model from which a pattern is developed), that archetype becomes activated and a compulsiveness appears, which, like an instinctual drive, gains its way against all reason and will, or else produces a conflict of pathological dimensions, that is to say, a neurosis." I will use my own personal experience as an example here. I believe we all possess a collective unconscious. When I saw the movie "The Exorcist", I believe it triggered primitive memories buried in my unconscious mind, as well as some preconscious conflicts that were going on at the time, which caused me the distress I experienced after viewing the movie. In thinking about the many nights I covered my head and prayed the 23rd psalm, it reminded me of possibly how the cave people reacted to the rumblings of the planet, then the erupting of a volcano, or the prowlings of some large reptile.
A crucifix, a painting of Jesus, a bad deed, can all trigger unconscious material in our psyches, bringing forth the fear we experience, but intellectually know is not rational. I try to remember that there was time when we did not know anything about our universe, that there were fires on the earth most likely from the gases and heat from the interior of our planet, hugh animals, erupting volcanoes, that the minds of those in the BC period had no explanation for, and it was only in the 1920's that man was able to explore space. That was only 80 years ago, not a very long time in terms of man's existence on this planet.
Kay F Gibbs
August 23, 2001
In response to your question, "How could such supposedly intelligent, educated people believe in this crap". I have thought long and hard on this very topic and concluded that as people become more aware of their existence on earth being terminal. Their need, by degrees of course to grab hold of anything that will quell this fear would easily and most likely be permanently embraced. To this end, all reasonable thought will by necessity be disregarded absolutely. To support this conclusion I have entered into test discussions with people of differing persuasions on topics such as politics, sports, school education, as well as other similar topics. In entering these debates I knew beforehand what the persuasions of the oppositions were. I took the position of playing the devil's advocate (pun intended) to see just how far I could push these people. The discussions, as you can well imagine became loud and spirited. To conclude these debates I said to all that if I could come up with proof of my claims would they be willing to rethink there claims. In all I received a reply to the positive. When the debate involved religion and I made the same suggestion, "would you reconsider your position if I can offer you proof of my claims". The answers were all as best I can recall were to the negative with an accompanying comment like "god said it, I believe it, and that is all there is to it".
In summery: The fear of death to these people is so strong that they are just not able to accept even the smallest compromise even in the interest of reason, lest they become mentally anguished.
Conclusion: People that have allowed themselves to get wrapped so tight that they are not able to see any light are for the most part beyond reasonable help.
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