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I had another email from a reader, this time in response to my article on why I became an atheist. http://exm.nr/Why-atheist The reader wondered how I could explain why so many people are believers, even though they are also exposed to the issues that caused me to stop believing.
There are really three issues in this question. One is why people become believers, two is why people stay believers, and three is do those who profess belief really believe.
At the end of this article is a 20-minute video of Michael Shermer, founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, Executive Director of the Skeptics Society, and columnist for Scientific American. In the video, shot at the TED conference, Shermer discusses the idea that people are programmed by evolution to believe in the existence of things with very little, or perhaps, no evidence.
Although much of the video is interesting, my point is Shermer’s discussion of patternicity: “The tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise.” Shermer says there are two types of patternicity errors, type I and type II. Type I is seeing a pattern when there is none and type II is not recognizing a pattern when one is present. People have evolved to be the way we are because people who tended to make type II errors did not survive as well as people who tended to make type I errors. The present population of humans is more prone to see patterns, even when no pattern exists.
We look at the sky to see animals in the clouds and we see Jesus in a burnt piece of toast.
Shermer also introduces the concept of agenticity: “the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency, often-invisible beings and from the top down.”
What does this mean in terms of why people believe in things that have no proof of existence? Basically, people have been programmed via evolution to see patterns even when none exists and then to attach meaning and agency to that perceived pattern, even if the agent has to be invisible and disembodied.
People perceive something as being in control of the world around them even when there is no proof of the existence of that being.
Several years ago, I began writing a piece of fiction about how a religion get started in a primitive society and how they change over time. It is called, “Green Sky Gods” and rather than pad out this article, I have placed it on a website of its own. If you want to take the 10 minutes to read it, you can find it here: http://bit.ly/bJRuus
Pattericity, agencity, and my story offer explanations for why some beliefs got started. This is an answer to the first issue: many people become believers because, as evolved creatures, we are programmed to believe. It is hard to shake off that conditioning.
Once a few people started believing in something, it was not difficult for that belief to be transmitted to others, especially if the transmission is from parent to child or from an older generation to a younger.
If you look at a distribution of beliefs around the world, you will find that large areas hold similar beliefs. Most people in a particular area are of the same religion. Most children become the religion of their parents. Muslim children grow up and become Muslim; Hindu children grow up and become Hindu; Christian children grow up, become Christian and so on. Chinese or Korean babies, adopted by Christian parents, grow up as Christian.
In addition, there are strong taboos against changing religion or forsaking religion. Muslims who want to stop being Muslim may face death or could be forced to flee family and friends for making the choice to change. Many Christian families have ‘black sheep’ cut off from contact because they have left the faith or abandoned their beliefs.
This deals with the first and second issue: many people become believers because their parents, family and friends are believers. Believing is the way to be, the thing to do. People remain believers because we are programmed to be believers and because of social pressure to remain in the group, to conform, to continue to bask the warmth of social acceptance.
The third issue or point that I am making is to question the number of people living in the closet; non-believers who continue to profess belief. I spent most of my adult life living a lie. I stopped believing in my teens, but I did not come out of the closet and publicly admit my atheism until I was in my 60s. For over forty years, I was a nominal, if fallen-away Roman Catholic. I occasionally attended mass with my family on Christmas or Easter, genuflecting, making the sign of the cross and even receiving communion. How many others are like me, concealing their true feelings, to protect themselves and their families?
Overtly atheist politicians have more difficulties being elected, just as an overtly atheist businessperson might have more trouble selling products, especially to believers aware of his or her lack of faith. How many politicians and businesspeople proclaim a faith, just to get votes or make sales?
Finding a sexual partner or someone to marry is more difficult for a person who is overtly atheistic. Getting and keeping a job can be a greater challenge. Like being a woman or black, an atheist has to excel beyond the competition to be accepted.
If 10 to 15 percent of Americans profess lack of faith, might there be another 5, 10 or 20 percent who are just as faithless but still giving the appearance of believing so they can continue to belong?
Every year, huge numbers of Christians change churches. How strong is their faith? How many of them are actually faithless but unwilling to admit it? How many of these restless wanders have lost their faith and fruitlessly seek it by changing churches?
Why aren’t there more atheists? First, humans are programmed by evolution to be believers and it is hard to move beyond that conditioning. Second, humans accept the beliefs of their parents, family and culture. Third, many atheists hide their non-belief for social, political, and business reasons.
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