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Why has religion been so persistent?

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SoftwareNerd, thank you for pointing out Peikoff's web-site. I hadn't viewed it in a while, and the additional information he provides is quite interesting. Much of it is right on topic for this thread. In particular, I found the following statement of his quite interesting:

There are several reasons why people believe in arrant mysticism. One is that mankind is still in its early stages, so that most people have not outgrown the primitive mentality that ruled the early periods in the development of the human race. Another is that people want a crutch to avoid the need of independence, and an escape to avoid the need of making their life in this world successful. Still a third is that some religious people are genuinely idealistic and, looking at modern depravity, simply can't believe that there isn't something better somewhere.

Source: www.leonardpeikoff.com

The first reason he states is something I hadn't thought of before. Considering that there has been no time yet in human history when rationality has completely dominated a society, it is true that mankind has never completely "outgrown the primitive mentality that ruled the early periods in the development of the human race." Religion has always been with man, to varying degrees. When man reaches a point where religion is thoroughly uprooted, he will have progressed beyond this early period of development.

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True, but...

... the recent trend in the U.S. is disconcerting.

After the Christian part of the world started down the road of reason, things seemed to go well for a long while. The slow de-emphasis on the rituals and concretes of the religion, the deism of the founding fathers, all the way to the nineteenth century christian who has more of a secular altruistic ethics (i.e. a primarily reality-based approach to metaphysics and epistemology). After that long trend, we look at the US now and find a Yale survey that shows Americans answering as follows:

As the Bible says, the world literally was created in six days: 42% mostly agree, 16% somewhat agree
This makes me wonder: is this some type of compartmentalization within the metaphysics of the person answering, or do 42% really have such a 1600's metaphysics? I wish I could see a similar study from the 1960's (e.g., if an older study showed that 40% or so thought the same then, I'll feel much better).

As an aside: The Muslim revival does not worry me as much as the Christian one, because for them it was not as much back-tracking.


  1. I just realized that Russia and Eastern Europe also seem to have seen some type of Christian revival after the fall of communism, but I'm not sure if this was simply hidden before.
  2. I found a brief article from the Pew Trust that had a little info on the 60's and 70's. According to the article:

  • The proportion of Americans who believe in God has remained constant (around 96%) since a 1965 survey.

  • But, in 1972 only 7% described themselves as secular (no particular religious preference even if they believe in God, while around 2000 their were 14% "secular".

Could not find good information about specific attitudes.

Edited by softwareNerd
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... the recent trend in the U.S. is disconcerting.

I agree wholeheartedly. On a personal level, I can only relate to the period from the 1980s (when I went to college) to the present. In my adult life, the biggest change I see is the level of political intensity of the Religious Right. The Religious Right has wormed its way into government in sundry ways. Examples:

* influencing decisions by the FDA on whether to approve drugs such as the morning after pill or the recent vaccine against a venereal disease

* getting money from various branches of government for religious ministries in prison and charities run by religious groups

* influencing U.S. foreign aid policy [of course, there should be no foreign aid] to deny funds to groups advocating birth control and abortion

* heavy lobbying for appointments of federal judges who are anti-abortion and amenable to violating the separation of church & state

* becoming powerful enough to have near-veto power on who the Republican Party nominates for President. E.g.: John McCain changing his position on abortion to placate the Religious Right in his effort to get the nomination. I say near-veto, because Giuliani has not done that, yet, and still remains popular among Republicans.

When I was in college at a public university in the South (on the edge of the Bible Belt), groups such as "Maranatha" and "Campus Crusade for Christ" were active. These groups are literal-Bible fundamentalists, I believe. Of course, other groups were also active such as the Moonies and Hare Krishnas. I am sure these Christian groups are still active on my old campus, if not the other cults. I do not know how this experience compares with, say, a Northeastern Ivy League school which would have to be more secular. Have these more secular schools become more influenced by religious groups over the years?

In sum, religious attitudes as measured by the types of polls you cite may not have changed too much, but the success and willingness of religious groups to actively use the government to advance their agenda has changed. That is something new and it is very ominous.

On a small level, I am encouraged by three things: (1) Bush's utter idiotic failure as President. Indirectly, it has to cast aspersion on the Religious Right since he is so closely identified with that group. (2) The rise and popularity of Rudolf Giuliani, a seemingly secular Republican who advocates abortion rights, for instance. (3) The rise of the Democrats who, despite religious lip-service (which in itself is disturbing), remain largely the same, old, tired secular Left.

In all likelihood, though, the ineptitude of Bush dampens the Religious Right just a little bit. We shall see if that is the case or if the very small shift away from the Religious Right has some legs.

As an aside, Ronald Reagan, despite being the first Republican endorsed by the Religious Right to gain the Presidency, seems like a downright atheist next to George Bush. He believed that religion was a private matter and I find it nearly impossible to believe that he would pretend for a second that the Bible was a literal document. He also had a lot more intellectual depth than to say something as inane as what George Bush said: "Jesus Christ is my favorite philosopher." [quoting from memory]

Of course, Ronald Reagan's Presidency did begin the process by which the Religious Right gained their political influence.

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GB, I guess you're right that while the proportion of "literal christian" types is probably not much changed (or even slightly down), they are more active in political life.

Perhaps if one were to go back a few decades one might find the same percent who think the bible is the literal word of God, but who also knew in their hearts that they were hill-billies, and lacked the confidence to assert their views too loudly, in the face of the onward march of secularism. Perhaps, modern philosophy is to blame for the change. Perhaps their nihilistic idea that they know nothing, and that every one's view are just as subjectively invalid actually played a role in elevating the backward-thinking literal-Christians to a point where they thought they ought to have a voice. Fools rush in...

But then (I ask myself)... should not Europe have seen the same trend toward a new assertiveness among the "flock"?

Whatever the reasons, I don't see Bush's failings or Giuliani's possible ascendancy as something that will influence the underlying Christian assertiveness, nor something that is indicative of a substantial change therein.

If I had to guess, I'd say that the proportion of literalist-kooks will probably decline ever so slowly over time, as it has probably done for decades. Without a decent intellectual alternative this processes will probably be just as slow as in the past. I don't know if those who remain nut-jobs will become at least a little embarrassed about their nuttiness; without a reasonable alternative that says "we are certainly right, in reason" -- I doubt it.

So, I agree: the real danger is not that we're seeing more half-wits who believe in the literal word of the bible; rather, it is that the lunatics think they ought to be able to use government to impose their insanity on others. The really dangerous ones are those who are well-compartmentalized: the one's who are rational in many other spheres of life, but extremely irrational in religion -- John Templeton and Tom Monahan come to mind.

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The Sunday New York Times magazine today had an article that asks why religious belief is so persistent and prevalent across human history and cultures. The article identifies the answer as evolution. The human brain has evolved in a way where a tendency to believe in a god is hard-wired. Because of this, it is easier and more natural to believe in god(s) than not to believe.

I do not agree with the article on several levels, but the basic question is one that has interested me. Why is religious belief so prevalent across cultures and throughout history?


Of course concepts must have a biological structure in addition to an "epistemological" structure.

Suppose this: that what human beings know as deliberate reasoning actually doesn't change this physical structure, although one obviously can inter-relate parts of it while deliberately thinking, and remember those relationships.

That because of that, humans can grasp concepts they learn from other people without really becoming any different than they were before--without coming to "really" believe a new idea (perhaps this is why there are people who 'believe' in reincarnation and virgin birth).

Assume that the animal mind developed in an evolutionary process which favored beings whose concepts could really alter in response to new conditions--who are capable of PHYSICALLY CHANGING, and actually SEEING the world anew and therefore acting unhesitatingly on their new knowldge; and that humans have this ability.

Tht the mind can use our existing concepts, plus whatever "knowledge" we glean from other people, as well as our own observations of the world, to create new or altered concepts by physically changing its very structure.

That, at least for human beings, this conceptual structure can change only if we allow it to; in other words we can easily hold onto our existing ideas (for most people (I wonder about Helen Keller!) this ability probably comes from our ability to "hear" words in our mind.

But that if we DO allow our conceptual structure to change, there is no way of predicting or controlling what changes will result; and that after it changes we have to make an effort to try to find out or grasp whatever new "conceptual common denominators" are now present in the structure. That in some small way we really become--to ourselves!--someone a little strange and different.

That allowing our conceptual structure to change entails freeing our minds at least momentarily from everything we know now, everything we have learned in the past, everything we are. Se just have to go off by ourselves and let it happen . (Nature wants us to adapt to situations we don't yet understand!).

Wouldn't that be exceedingly frightening? Who would dare to do it? Why would this supposed evolutionary scheme ever succeed in actually getting us to adapt in this way? If our "free will" actually consists in the decision to "think", who would ever dare to exercise this "free will"?

Isn't it possible that certain so-called religious feelings were built into the brain just to get people to do this very frightening thing? In particular, a sense of AWE or WONDER that leads us to "open our minds"?

(An aside!) Could it be that in a similar thrust to allay fear in the human mind, evolution has led to the phenomenon of HUMOR? when we come across something thqt seems COMPLETELY CONTRARY to our knowledge, wouldn't that also be terribly frightening? Wouldn't it be to an animal's advantag4e if instead of being paralyzed by fear, it felt. . . . . .JOY! . . .until it had time to work the new things into its conceptual structure? The world's happiest music (ragtime/jazz) consists of a staid march tempo combined with a voice which acts "crazy" in that it persistently throws the accent off onto the wrong beat. The more contrary it is, the more (involuntary!) joy we feel!)

Edited by Ragtime
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To elaborate on that a bit, viewing religion as a primitive philosophy rather then a collection of mystical nonsense helps understand its appeal. Many of the people who become atheists when they are 17 make the mistake of throwing out the baby with the bath water and find themselves in the nihilist position of having to act with no rules for action. Their life, understandably falls apart, then years later when they "find jesus" and start applying christian morality to their lives, their life begins to change for the better. All thanks to god's mystical powers.

The fact that so many embrace religion is a strong testament to the fact that man cannot survive without philosophy.

I agree. To add to what has already been said, the "secularism" of the socialist variety is so weak that these socialists have reinvented themselves as a new brand of religious philosophers/politicians/political theorists. So, in other words, the secularism/atheism of people like Marx who said "Religion is the opium of the masses" (where religion is criticized on a "social" basis, not on a religion qua religion basis) is based on flimsy grounds.

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I agree. To add to what has already been said, the "secularism" of the socialist variety is so weak that these socialists have reinvented themselves as a new brand of religious philosophers/politicians/political theorists. So, in other words, the secularism/atheism of people like Marx who said "Religion is the opium of the masses" (where religion is criticized on a "social" basis, not on a religion qua religion basis) is based on flimsy grounds.

Many people in post-communist/socialist countries when in search for a new moral code are becomming religious because they are not familiar with any other alternatives.

Edited by ~Sophia~
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  • 3 months later...

Interestingly, while most of us see religion advancing in assertiveness and perhaps in numbers, some religious folk claim something similar about atheism:

...in less than 12 months atheism's newest champions have sold close to a million books. Some 500,000 hardcover copies are in print of Richard Dawkins's "The God Delusion" (2006); 296,000 copies of Christopher Hitchens's "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" (2007); ....
Edited by softwareNerd
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  • 4 weeks later...

While I think religion is the result of many things: namely fear and ignorance, it is mainly the result of man's quest for a moral code. While much of man's fear and ingnorance have been stripped away by science, man has not made equal strides in the field of morality. Modern day America is a good example. The rise of the religious right is not a reaction to scientific advancement, but to what Christians see as moral decay.

Religion answers Rands 'who decides?' question in the field of morality. It provides an answer to the question 'Who are you to tell me what I am doing is wrong?' God steps in as the great Moral Arbiter. It is He who decides what is right and wrong, not man. In a way, it gives light to the Christian view of the Bible as an 'objective' moral code. God created man and gave him His ten commandments for moral living. A proper moral life is not something left to the subjective whim of man, but is something to be guided by the objective will of God.

Virtually all modern day non-Objectivist atheists view morality as subjective. Christians, perhaps rightly so, feel that without God there would be a moral free-for-all.

Confused about morality? Want to live a moral life? Christianity offers an answer: Follow the example of Christ. Now, Objectivism may offer a far more rational alternative, but most people are not that rational and fewer still are Objectivists. Ayn Rand was so far ahead in her thinking, it might be a thousand years before the rest of mankind catches up. In the meantime, people will contine to look toward religion for their code of morality.

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  • 5 months later...

People believes in god mainly because the universe is so so big and that the world is so complex. When people see that they are so small in the universe, they are awed and overwhelmed by the vastness of life, and the mystery of universe origin.

Most people could not and dare not think about how universe come about and why the world is so big. Its unthinkable. People can think only about their our life, our friends and making money. Without the explansion of knowledge about these scientific issues, its hard to reason about god.

Most people just dun think about origin of universe, or how big it is or whether there is god or not. If being asked, their instinctive answer is that they dun know or that they think there is, because they are too preoccupied in their life to think about god.

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To explain again, I think human believes in god because most humans do not touch philosophy and the topic of reasoning.

People are naturally interested in money, relationship, food, entertainment, and simple pleasures. The mass media knows the human weakness for instant gratificatoin and pleasures and is broadcasting this topics all the times.

The attention given to philosophy, reasoning is so little and its ability to attract audience is difficult. Therefore, god is pretty much a alien topic to most people. They dun really care is becoming a common reply nowadays.

They would not be interested in the reasons given by atheist why they think god does not exist because they dun see how important this things are to their life. Their motto is only to be "happy and have good relationship with people"

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...but then on the other hand it has been pointed out that what we now know about the sheer size, scope and complexity of the universe far surpasses anything the writers of the stone and bronze age myths of the bible could have imagined--and is explicitly *denied* by most fundamentalists (old earth creationists the exception) today with their ptolemaic/4004 BC view of things. The exception being biology where the fundies are more than happy to note the complexity of life, since they perceive it as being a good argument against evolution.

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Religion, in my opinion, has been so persistent because of the fact that man can't live without a philosophy to guide his/her actions. I also think that fear has a lot to do with it; the fear of relying on one's own rational mind, and the fear of being alone in one's beliefs. Yes? / No? :)

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Also the fear of death or any conceivable afterlife. Even the non-religious tend to imagine it as eternity in a dark sensory deprivation state.

It's actually a load off my mind to realize my state after death will be exactly what it was before I was born.

“Being dead will be no different from being unborn—I shall be just as I was in the time of William the Conqueror or the dinosaurs or the trilobites.”

-Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

-Mark Twain

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  • 5 months later...

The answer is this. This is really the true answer. I have been puzzled before why humans believe in this falsehood which seems very clear.

The brain, is filled with beliefs. Most human beliefs are errornous. Despite listening to the correct arguments from atheists,

their beliefs failed to understand and lock in their correct arguments. Those people who become atheists who are religious at first are those minority who managed to have their beliefs system changed and firmly understand the arguments of atheism.

As i have said, the brain and human belief system are rather inefficient, as shown by some of stupid mistakes human make on daily basis, like bad habits that last for very long time. Therefore, faulty belief and weak reasoning system enable religion to survive.

Human being are not that smart after all. In fact, there are quite a handful of doctors and professionals who stood by their religion until the fat lady sings...

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Being dead is state of affair that is none of my business really because i won't not have existed by then.

I dislike the fact that one day i will be dead because being alive is kicking ass experience.

Being dead sucks... really...

It feels sucky only when i am alive though because when i am really dead, I cannot feel sucky anymore...

Well, at least i no need to feel sucky forever...

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How about a simple answer?

Religion provides a "mind trick" to help overcome the fear of (physical) death. Many religions promise a continuation of life.

Secondarily, religion connects an adherent to something greater or more durable than he. Something that existed before he did and will exist after his physical life is over. It may be delusion, but it is something for the fearful to grasp.


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Religion, like Force, is the other blade of the free will sword - it arosed from human intelligence not from human stupidity. Now we've outevolved it with philosophy but - probably - we couldn't have evolved from biological human apes to citizens without using religion at some stage. The rise of religion was a conceptual feat in itself, an evolution from Magic, the first known human mysticism. Magic defined as the act of personally performing a ritual and expect the universe to respond to it without the intervention of supernatural entities. The first magic rites were actually a recognition -however primitive- of man's own capacity to think - if only an infantile form of self affirmation. Religion not just "theology" is simply a proto-philosophy, Philosophy, even Ayn Rand's, owe it a lot.

I have an objection to this point however, in a similar way it is said (notably by leftists) that countries can't turn from an agricultural economy to a service one without passing through industrialization - not the case of Hong Kong and Singapore, incidentally the most somehow capitalist entities in today's world (sort of Hanseatic league à la Chinois). Can I suggest that capitalism and atheism thrives in city skyscrapers while religion and socialism does so near the dirt?

It is important to distinguish magic from fraud. While magic always involves some kind of fraud, this can occur voluntarily to oneself (like gamblers) or exploited by the initiators of force and their herds.

The problem we have with organized religion (which always involve fraud when not force) is that is has been as indispensable for every past civilization as philosophy is for the modern man. Religion played "structurally" major role in the achievement of "great" wonders like the Pyramids or the Spanish Empire. It's might and magic.

We'd like magic submitted to right, just as might was in the foundation of the United States. But the latter is not even turning out so well either - not that I implied that it's still the BEST option.

That been said,

Religion has been so persistent because childs absorb many basic premises from very little, which are likely very hard to change as an adult. I wouldn't know, my parents always told me that when people were still in caves looked around and lacking and answer for the things they saw, they invented a god, a shortcut, cheating, simple answer to explain it.

Now I recognize that it was also a very important conceptual development.

Shalom Shabbat


Edited by volco
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