Why do people believe?

Evolutionary speculation of the origins of belief

I recently read an article in American Scientist , by Jesse M Bering (Pg 142 March- April 2006) Cognitive Psychology of Belief in the Supernatural That was exploring the origins of Belief.  I think the author had some good points but was somewhat wrong in his conclusions.

Abstract Thought

What makes man unique is our ability of abstract thought. I think it is a recently acquired trait. The ability to model future events in our head is not a universal talent (is it on the order of 50%?).  Such an ability causes problems with death anxiety, not at the time of death, but every day.  If we use our abstraction ability to think of our own demise (even accidentally), it triggers our fight or flight response and most people are not strong enough to look death in the eyes.  I wonder if death anxiety is what prevents so many from using abstract thought - they may have the ability, but fear it and never use it?

Death anxiety

Mr. Bering dismisses death anxiety in haste. As his sited study shows, I think most will be equally anxious at their time of death, but that does not measure how much comfort is gained with a belief in an after life on a day-to-day basis. Studies suggest that people that believe in an after-life report less stress and show less symptoms of stress born disease.  I think most people know in the back of their mind that an after-life is merely a wish, and at the time of death the ability to keep the delusion going may often start to fail.

Our lack of ability to turn off this anxiety when modeling ourselves or a close loved one, makes me think our abstraction ability is rather recent. (To think that the brevity of recorded history is only due to the discovery of written language fails to explain the lack of ancient prehistoric art work? Even without language we should see signs of abstract thought in cave drawings if this ability is more than 50,000 years or so old.)  

So, is death anxiety really a result of our recent evolution of abstract thought and our ability to model our own end?  No other creature has had to deal with this problem.

Empathy as an Abstraction Ability

Our abstraction ability may well have come to be for the valued ability to empathize.  In order to empathize, we need to model how someone else feels - to find a sense of what it is to be in their shoes.  Empathy gives us the ability to work together more productively and would confer a enhanced survival ability.

Empathy and inborn prototype of self and others?

As a social creature, we need inborn empathy but also a want to be together.  Such a want of another may include an inborn prototype of others - and this 'other prototype' may well be what people call god, others may call it a super-ego.  We empathize with others and also our past and future self. Do we look at ourself as an 'other' based on an inborn prototype of other or self? I think there is a part of consciousness where there is an inborn prototype of "other" and "self", (they are not completely separate) that gives rise to empathy. This is primal - and causes conflict. I am wondering if this model is the 'person' of god for many?

I've read an article (I think Scientific American) that looked at the psychology of self - it focused on phantom limbs of amputees - they still have a sense that the leg is there often floating about to the side. The idea of self does not change to reflect the reality - is it part of this 'self' prototype?

My theory doesn't limit the anxiety to just death anxiety - it is just as hard to see our life being so humble. To think that our purpose is to regenerate DNA is hard to look at. The need for a "bigger purpose" may also have to do with an inborn sense of community that gives us a survival advantage. Such a inborn image of others gives society the ability to manipulate each other and exploitation is also possible.  To be exploitable may not confer survival ability to the individual except by giving it to the group. I wonder if a sociopath is one that lacks this image or any empathy? Or perhaps sociopaths have simply failed to transfer this image to others.

The value of Delusion

I've read that pointing out delusions to mental patients often agitates them; analyzing the delusion often reveals the comforting aspect of it. For example, the delusion of a ghost of a dead parent, lets the off-spring avoid facing the loss.  Pointing out the errors in logic renews the pain of the loss.

If a non believer tries to reason with a believer and point out the errors in reason and logic - the response is rather universal - anxiety that turns to anger. 
I have been around religion debates that got ugly - (It is not kind to kick someones belief out from under them with logic).  To take away the myth is very threatening to believers.  I don't think most people are strong enough to look at life with both feet on the ground - without resorting to wishful thinking of some kind or another, but to see life, as it really is, has advantages. Very few people that once believe will give up the crutch later in life. The function of religious gatherings may well be a sort of  'delusion group-reinforcement meeting' that reassures those to keep the faith and makes it easier to avoid death anxiety in day-to-day life.  If true, this is clearly self reinforcing, but is holding a delusion dear good for society in the long run?

The Greater Harm of Delusion

The documented cases of exploitation of peoples delusions are many. To maintain delusions also ends up wasting precious life time and expending energy to rationalize ways to support the delusion. Conclusions based on delusions cost lives in war and prevent a common reality.  As the world has become a smaller place, we need to maintain a common reality to avoid global war.  Will the common reality be dictated by the most ruthless of the religions? Will man evolve to be more rational as our social groups have enlarged to enormous numbers?

I think rational people see the value of working together.  The problem is we have evolved to work in small groups - not the large cities we find ourselves in. As the group gets larger, we become more anonymous and the value of cooperative nature goes down. But will natural evolution be our future? Perhaps we will engineer ourselves to a sustainable phenotype?  I hope man will someday have a common reality - the super natural is where that breaks down. The one thing every religion has in common is the insistence that all the other beliefs are wrong - and this is often used to fuel bigotry and hate.

The Quest

I started questioning faith when I was 9 years old in Sunday school (The burning bush that didn't burn up seemed implausible) - and ever after, I've been trying to understand why people believe.

Talking to god?

I once had kidney stones - (I was surprised that something could hurt that bad  - I kept thinking I would just pass out - but didn't) - in the 2-3 hours (while they were figuring out I wasn't a junky trying to get a fix) I rolled on a gurney  in pain - I too shouted, "Stop god stop", - but not to a god - I wanted  to make it stop. I wanted control! My use of the word god was an expression to anyone/everyone in general while not blaming anyone. No different than when I Say, "God Damn" - I'm not talking to a god - it is an expression. Was it a call to the prototype of other or 'super ego' within myself? I think that is all 'god' really is.

I think there is some truth in social evolution and have read allot on the subject. My hunch is that our abstraction ability is still evolving -- and that the 'god stuff' is a coping mechanism left over from our earlier evolutionary reality.

Talking about Real Death

I've had a problem in finding people - even within nonbelievers - that are comfortable with even talking about these ideas - non believers often have other ways of avoiding the thought of 'end of self". If you have any other things I might read please point me in that direction.

I really think this is an important topic - a better understanding may well help prevent alternate realities and the destructive wars they breed.

I'm also looking at fallacies - I'm in the midst of writing a page up, partly to explore the bigger picture of why we are prone to different fallacies - (partly inspired by the book 'Why People Believe Weird Things).

Noise and the Bible

If you listen to static for  long enough you will begin to hear things that almost sound like something once in a while - the bible is no different. It is just cultural noise of the bronze age set in print - like a good fiddle, you can play many tunes with it -- or much like a Rorschach test you will see in it what you want to.

So people have watched the noise on a TV screen of a TV tuned to an empty channel and claim to see things -- I think what they say has more to do with who is looking than the noise - same applies with the bible.

Astrology and the Bible

The fish symbolizes the astrological sign of Pisces. Jesus symbolizes the age of Pisces which began around the time of his alleged birth. The Christian fish symbol is another indication of the astrological roots of Christianity.

In 274 A.D., the Roman emperor Aurelia declared December 25th as he birthday of the unconquered sun ("natAlis solis invicti"), which at the winter solstice begins to show an increase of light. Later, the 'Church of Rome' established the celebration of the birthday of Christ, the "sun of righteousness," on the same Date December 25th. Before that time, the birthday of Jesus Christ was celebrated on January 6th. The religion of most of the Romans and many people of the European continent was still Mithraism. Pope Leo in the fourth century, after almost destroying the temple of Mithra in 376 A.D., in his campaign against Mithraism, he co-oped the date and proclaimed the 25th of December as Christ's birthday instead of January 6th. The Eastern Orthodox Church and Armenians still think JC's birthday is Jan 6th.



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 (C)2006-8  Karl Schmidt