Why You Believe in God,
But No Longer Believe in the Tooth Fairy,
The Easter Bunny, or Santa Claus,
And Why Should I Care.
Marcus P. Borom, Ph.D.
Let me begin with the last item in the title, “And Why Should I Care”. Ordinarily, I could not care less about what you believe. I would not care if you chose to worship the Great Pumpkin. I might worry if you chose to worship Pele, the goddess of the volcano, because you might be tempted to toss me into the molten lava after reading this tome. The current problem is that religion is having an adverse impact on our government.
Our constitutional forefathers were very farsighted:
1) In assuring the right of each individual to practice his/her own religion, and, even more farsighted
2) In advocating a separation of church and state for purposes of governing.
It may be of interest to you to read archival letters from Thomas Jefferson (who with Benjamin Franklin was the principal proponent for separation of church and state, and an avowed atheist.) I don’t think there is any individual, non-clerical, red-blooded American who would want to live in a theocratic society such as existed in Afghanistan under the Taliban, or in Iran under the Ayatollahs. Rather let me say, “would not want to live in any theocratic society that adhered to a religion that was not consistent with his/her personal beliefs”. That is the beauty of “Separation of Church and State”: you can practice your religion without having the faith of others imposed upon you. [Faith, by the way, is belief without evidence.]
How is that pertinent to the present situation in the USA? We have a government that is being led by a Born-Again, Evangelical Christian, who believes in such mythological events as The Rapture, and is intent on imposing his faith-based system of beliefs on the rest of the country by legislation. Anyone who believes (including himself) that his elevation to such a high post as President of the United States was divinely inspired is a danger to a democratic society. The philosophy of the Bush administration impacts my life, and I will:
a) Resist the imposition of any religion in government,
b) Oppose non-rational thought, and
c) Work to guarantee the right of others to believe whatever nonsense they choose to believe.
As a corollary, you should not worry yourself over what I “believe or accept”.
Now back to the beginning: “Why you believe in God, a god, their god, your god, my god, any god?” If you are fervent about your religion, I would ask whether you have really thought about why you believe. For the most part, people believe what their parents taught them to believe. The mantras are passed down from parent to child. Children are programmed to believe without question. I can only speak directly from my Methodist, Christian heritage from the Bible Belt of the South.
Programming consists of ritual, repetition, and compliance. Go to Sunday School, Sunday services, Bible studies, Prayer meetings, Revivals, etc. Learn that “Jesus loves me. This I know for the Bible tells me so.” And most frightening of all for a child is the fear of HELL if you do wrong. The wicked will be punished and the faithful will be rewarded. The same techniques are used in programming suicide bombers.
You may have converted to a religion as an adult. I am sure that conversion satisfied needs in your life. You may have chosen to accept the tenets of the faith, and have undergone whatever self-delusion was required to accommodate them. Religion appeals to the needful and the gullible. Highly educated people can be very religious, but their perspective on religion can be very narrow and colored by its satisfying their needs for promises of things better and involvement in a community.
Most religions offer basically four things to the supplicants:
1) Foremost – A promise for something better.
2) An answer for everything
3) A community of like-thinking individuals
4) A power structure in the clergy to sustain the system
The promise for something better is the thing that draws in the masses, particularly in the situations of poverty and hunger in the third world. It is also appealing to those who desire to see the wicked punished in the afterlife. Speaking of which, there has never been any substantive evidence of the existence of an afterlife. If there is no afterlife, there can be no Heaven, Hell, God or Satan. That surely simplifies things, but it removes one of the strongest holds of the clergy. If you carefully review the Christian concept of Hell, you, as a thinking individual, will have to recognize that the vision of Hell is a human construct supported by church icons, paintings and sculptures and derived principally from two documents – Dante’s Inferno (part of The Divine Comedy) written by Dante Alighieri in the 13th century and Paradise Lost written by John Milton in the 17th century.
The specious aspect of this promise for something better in the afterlife, is that the reward comes only after death. No one has ever come back to tell the story. Even the resurrection and deity of Jesus was not established until so proclaimed by the Roman Emperor Constantine around 400 years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth (Nicene Creed of 325 AD/CE). This is a human construct, not a divine pronouncement. For those who would take issue with this statement, I recommend that you read the scholarly work of Karen Armstrong entitled “The History of God”, or get the video of the program that aired on the A&E channel. But that is not the point. The point is that the reward is delayed. The promise is a means of control used by the clergy to keep the flock in line.
How about all those other things you were taught to believe
as a child – the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus? Why don’t you believe in them anymore (I am
assuming that the reader is an adult who is dealing with reality)? Of course you no longer believe in such
foolishness. You have learned that they
a well-meaning hoax perpetrated
on you as a child by your parents and incorporated into the stream of mass
consumerism. You have learned the truth
because you have lived long enough both to see the reality and to continue the
The clever part about the promise offered by religions is that you have to die to achieve the reward, so you never get a chance to experience the reality that when you are dead, you are dead. The postmortem granting of the promise holds true, certainly for Christianity and Islam, two of the three Abrahamic, monotheistic religions, and even in Hinduism through the promise of reincarnation. The hope is that you will recognize the fallacy, live your life to the fullest, achieve self-sufficiency, and work to make the lives of those less fortunate than you fuller. Religion is not a requirement for a good and moral life.
One of the most damaging aspects of religion is that it squelches rational thought. Why does one need to wonder about the marvels of the growth of a tree, and how it is similar to the growth of other plants when the simplistic answer is given by, “that is the way God made it.” The Roman Catholic Church, for instance, impeded the advancement of science by imprisoning Galileo for promoting a solar-centric planetary system instead of the earth-centric universe espoused by the Church. Christian fundamentalists still contend that the Theory of Evolution cannot be true since it does not conform to the creation of the universe and the origin of humans as described in the book of Genesis in the Bible. Acceptance of the scientific proof for the existence of the evolutionary process means, for a fundamentalist, the denial of a principal foundation of their belief system. Rational thought is not easy. Scientific principles are complex and require considerable cognition and attention to detail.
It is not the role of science to prove that God does not exist. It is not possible to prove the non-existence of anything. I, as a scientist, cannot prove that a polka-dotted crow does not exist. I also cannot prove that a GE toaster oven is not orbiting around Saturn among the frozen debris in its rings. In both cases, no matter how many crows I inspect and how many items of ring debris I classify, not finding the item in question does not prove that it does not exist. The burden of proof lies with those who make the claim of the existence of something. If one can provide repeatable proof of existence, it exists. If one cannot provide repeatable proof, the existence is only speculation. Recently, I was perusing a flyer handed to me by a sincere Baptist seeking to entice me to attend their Sunday services. The flyer starts off with the statement – “First, realize that God loves you”. The whole flyer falls apart at that point. The premise is that God exists even though there is no evidence of such existence. You shouldn’t even continue if your premise cannot be defended. The Bible, at best, is only anecdotal evidence. You need better proof than that to be convincing.
There is a process called pathological science. It deals with having decided on a result and doing everything to generate results that will be consistent with the expectation. A recent example of a worldwide involvement in pathological science was the announcement of the discovery of “Cold Fusion”. What a wonderful promise of abundant energy derived from our almost unlimited supply of water. People wanted the discovery to be true. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent trying to duplicate the results of the University of Utah scientists who claimed this discovery. Science, however, prevailed and the process was found to be a false report, and non-reproducible.
Religion follows the path of pathological science. The result is pre-established and all doctrine is constructed to support the result. People stop thinking. The community created by like-thinkers is comforted regardless of whether the process is correct or not. Look at the events in Jonesville in Guyana when James Jones, the charismatic religious leader convinced around 800 people to take cyanide laced Kool-Aid – a direct result of, the Killer B’s – Believe, Belong, Behave (or Be Damned), an expression common in Evangelical groups and invoked in “Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates” written by Tom Robbins.
An interesting assessment of the role played by religion in the lives of humans is given in the book, “The Different Drum” by M. Scott Peck, M.D. and psychotherapist. The author discusses human behavior and needs as a progression through four phases of “spirituality”:
I. Chaotic, antisocial
II. Formal, institutional
III. Skeptic, individual
IV. Mystic, communal
Peck describes the chaos of Phase I as a time of undeveloped spirituality and antisocial behavior in which the individuals focus on themselves. The conversion into Stage II can be sudden and dramatic – such as finding God. Individuals in Stage II accept submission to a higher authority for governance. Peck suggests that the higher authority may simply be a person, or something more formal like the military, but most often a Church provides the governance. Peck assigns Stage II to the majority of churchgoers and believers. They become so attached to the ritual that suggestions of even minor changes in wording produces upset in the flock.
Advancement from Stage II (formal, institutional) to Stage III (skeptic, individual) can be very difficult since it involves self-analysis and skeptical assessment both of one’s values and of the reality of the teachings of the community in which one resides. The transition may involve frequent reversions back into Stage II. The final break from Stage II may never happen, but when it does, as in my case, it becomes complete. Peck believes that the “non-believers”, the skeptics, the individualists of Stage III are generally more spiritually developed than many content to remain in Stage II. If people in Stage III seek truth deeply and widely enough “they find enough pieces to begin to be able to fit them together but never enough to complete the whole puzzle. In fact, the more pieces they find, the larger and more magnificent the puzzle becomes.” This is the beginning of the transition into Stage IV.
It is interesting to note Peck’s conclusion that people in lower stages are threatened by people in higher stages. To quote Peck – “Stage I people (for example, adolescents) are threatened by just about everything and everyone. Stage II people are not threatened by Stage I people – they are the “sinners.” Stage II people are commanded to love sinners. But they are VERY threatened by the individualists and skeptics of Stage III, and even more by the mystics of Stage IV who seem to believe in the same sorts of things they do but believe in them with a freedom they find absolutely terrifying. Stage III people, on the other hand, are not threatened by either Stage I people or Stage II people (whom they simply regard as superstitious).”
It is truly difficult to step away from the supportive community of Stage II, to give up the promise you have been embracing your entire life (particularly as death approaches), and to change your total outlook on life. Hold on to Stage II if it fits you, but only if it makes you happy and does not adversely affect the lives of others.
Go and do good deeds. They are their own rewards, but leave your mythology behind. Respect the right of others to believe their own brand of mythology. Also respect their right not to respect your beliefs.
Remember that FAITH is BELIEF without EVIDENCE.
Science involves acceptance based on proof. Help me understand your faith.. Show me your evidence!!!
As one looks back through history, it becomes evident that the power held by the clergy and leaders of various sects was both strong and significant. In most cases, failure of the religion was recognition that the promises made could never be realized, or that suppression of the supplicants became unbearable.
“But what about Morality without religion?” you ask. In spite of what clerics would have you believe, morality does not stem from religion. It stems from what makes society acceptable. Moral behavior is the ultimate application of “The Golden Rule” – do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. There are many tenets in religious doctrines that are just that – following the golden rule and doing what makes society tolerable. When the tenets become dogma and the dogma becomes unbearable, as in the case of the Taliban, societies revolt.
In most religions, the tenets do become dogma, and are, therefore, to be accepted without question. Belong, Believe, Behave or Be damned. Rational thinking and inquiry become the unacceptable behavior.
The Mayan civilization is a good example of promises gone wrong since the promises were to be delivered during the lifetime of the supplicants. The religious practice of the Mayas revolved around a priesthood that claimed to be able to influence weather. Human sacrifices were made to Chac, the god of rain, to assure a good crop of maize. People even volunteered to be honored as the sacrificial offering. Men and women, boys and girls were slaughtered to appease the gods and gain good crops.
Large communities, like Tikal in Guatemala, were formed around the priesthood with populations pushing into the tens of thousands. Large population gatherings were a preamble to the fall of the society. Rain forest societies depend on slash and burn agriculture. Slash and burn works only for small groups. The process involves clearing a small space in the jungle to make a garden. The rainforest soil is very thin and requires recycling of leaf matter from trees to provide growth nutrients. Slash and burn gardens will produce only for several years until the soil is depleted of nutrients. The family group has to move on to allow the forest to regenerate itself.
Large population gatherings depleted the soil. Crops began to fail. Human sacrifices increased to numbers like 50,000 per year. The crops still failed. Then came a period of drought. The priesthood collapsed because their promise of something better could be measured as not having being met. The great religious centers of the Mayan civilization were abandoned and fell into the enveloping grip of the jungle not to be found again for almost 1000 years. Now you see the genius of delaying “the promise of something better” until after death. With the latter situation, the priesthood survives.
And let’s not forget the grasp of fear that can be imposed by a power-hunger clergy. I am sure that you are all acquainted with the Spanish Inquisition. Such power can only be imposed on supplicants fearful for their “eternal” soul.
Let me end with the observation that, unfortunately, you can lead fanatics to knowledge, but you cannot make them think.
I hope that, after having read this minor essay and getting over whatever anger it may have generate in you, you will be able to think rationally about why you believe what you believe, and that you will be able to keep an open mind about the beliefs and philosophies of others. You may even be challenged to reassess your own belief system.