Monday, August 25, 2014

Making Sense of Beliefs

Your god?
What do you believe?  There is a God?  No god?  How about a God who sacrificed His Son for the benefit of mankind or, childless, send a final prophet with blueprints for how people are supposed to live?

Something else?

There are so many choices: religions with no gods or with thousands of them.

Why would anyone believe any of these claims?  People obviously do.  In fact, they’ll willingly kill someone who attacks their faith and, in some cases, will eagerly try to impose their belief on everyone else.  They’ll even faithfully deny clear, contrary scientific and historical evidence in order to hold onto their faith.

There are several reasons for such obstinate behavior:

To begin with, humans like answers.  Why does the sun rise in the East?  Why is the sky blue?  You name it, we want to know.  Science has found many of the answers, including the orbit of our planet around the Sun, and the way that colors are perceived.  We know the origin of lightning and thunder, how life began and a lot more.

Some things we will never know, such as what happens after death, is there a soul, does sin really exist?  For those puzzlers, we invent answers.  Those answers take on a special quality because they are our answers, as opposed to answers provided by someone else.
Early family

That’s because humans evolved in small family groups.  In order to survive, we developed the ability to go along with the family.  Lone humans, not blessed with fangs or sharp claws, had little chance to survive away from the clan.

Of course, our answers to the unanswerable questions then became dogma in contrast with answers provided by other human families. 

That dichotomy continues today, just on a larger scale.  Religions are bigger and radiate worldwide; so are families that espouse one belief ahead of another.

Bathing in the Ganges
In addition, those answers provide a helpful framework in a very confusing world.   Many people need that.  If they follow these guidelines – fast 30 days in a row, eat the body and blood of a god, bathe in the polluted Ganges River and so on – all will be well. How easy.  How simple.  The rest of reality becomes a blur of meaningless noise.

Another reason has to do with how we treat people who provide our answers.  Our religious representatives supposedly have some special knowledge or contact with a higher authority.  As a result, people longing for such ego-stroking happily join the accepted religion and strongly support its views.  Their social standing and self-esteem depend on that.  

In contrast, an imam carries no status in a community that does not recognize the Muslim faith.  That’s equally true for a pope, who could be mistaken for actor Jonathan Pryce while touring a non-Catholic locale.  

In addition, there’s something called plausibility.  People believe because the accepted paradigm is not completely plausible.  That’s why the Da Vinci Code, a novel with no basis in fact, attracted so many people who find the Christian  historical claims difficult to swallow.

In another example, I was recently reading where some conspiratorial theorists are insisting 9/11 was an “inside” job.  That’s despite all the evidence that the attacks were plotted by a small group of Islamic terrorists then in Pakistan.  Why?  Because the theorists don’t trust the government and prefer to accept an outlandish, alternative theory that seems more “plausible.” 
Kennedy with his wife

The same process is involved with hard-core believers who tout alternative assassins of President John Kennedy.

Both conspiracies collapse when you realize that, for the theories to be accurate, they must have included thousands of people, an impossibility for any conspiracy.

Unfortunately, such facts won’t puncture beliefs.  That’s understandable since beliefs come with such emotional links to both our past and our present.  To deny them would be to reject ourselves, something only the few with strong identities can endure.

People who finally recognize that what they believe simply can’t be true often find themselves foundering emotionally and psychologically.  As one ex-Mormon leader noted that, when he finally understood that Church teachings were inaccurate, he felt as though he had been “kicked in the stomach.”  Months late, he still could not decide what he believed.

For most others, even as reality closes in, they continue to believe.  They often adopt an attitude that one friend who became an Orthodox Jew told me: “I made up my mind.  Don’t bother me with the facts.” 

That’s belief’s greatest asset: no facts required.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

Bill is now teaching religious history classes in DeLand.  To sign up, contact him at

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

No comments:

Post a Comment