bookmark_borderIf There Is No God, Then Why Do So Many People Believe in God?

A reader recently asked me this question.

I was raised Catholic and even as a child I just couldn’t believe that if there was a God who created the universe and, by extension, us, that He wouldn’t expect us to use our brain to reason and learn was was real and unreal.  My major concern, I guess, is that so very many educated, intelligent, and respected people claim to believe.  Why do they believe when I don’t?? What am I missing?  Or perhaps, what are they missing?  I’m reasonable intelligent but I just cannot reach the same conclusions as believers seem to reach.

I think this is a great question. Atheists throughout history have tried to explain religious belief by appealing to wish fulfillment, the influence of family and culture, the (alleged) irrationality or ignorance of theists, and so forth.

In my opinion, the best explanation comes from the cognitive science of religion: humans evolved a Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device (HADD). Most humans seem to be hard-wired to believe that agents explain various facts; this tendency seems to include all sorts of invisible agents, including God, gods, ghosts, and so forth. The advance of science has systematically reduced the need to invoke invisible agents, by providing naturalistic explanations for things previously explained by invisible agents.

ETA: Fixed a typo in an earlier version that referred to a “Hyperactive,” as opposed to a “Hypersensitive,” Agency Detection Device.

bookmark_border16% nonbelievers?

I was trying out the Center for Inquiry‘s new podcast, Point of Inquiry. Pretty decent programs, actually. Well worth listening to.
One thing, however, rubbed me the wrong way. They used this by now infamous “according to blah blah poll, 16% of Americans are nonreligious” statement, with the implication that this 16% were nonbelievers, almost-humanists, whatever. No. That poll is pretty well known, and it doesn’t show this at all. Most of these 16% have strong supernatural beliefs, either of a quite conventional theistic sort or a more more eclectic New Age variety. They might not go to church regularly, they might think of themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” but they are certainly not godless infidels by any stretch of the imagination. The best information I can find puts the number of Americans truly without supernatural beliefs between 1 and 6%. That’s it. And if I remember right, magazines asociated with the CFI (Free Inquiry, Skeptical Inquirer) have already made this point anyway.
I don’t know what the motivation is here — security in numbers, the “I’m not alone” feeling? Whatever it is, I wish this whole numbers-exaggeration business would stop.