There can be no doubt that religion is popular, it has dominated humans through the ages and inspired and moved many. What is also rather odd is that it consists of a belief in things for which there is exactly zero evidence, and yet the belief is still embraced with passion and a degree of devotion that little else can inspire. The core devotees will explain in no uncertain terms that their specific variation of “truth” is the right one, that all other shades of belief are wrong and that the others are not the “true” believers. While the others simply have dogma, they have the living spirit of god/allah etc.
If you dare to doubt you might be chastised with the observation that clearly the truth is to be found because “insert random name of famous historical religious person or people here” would not have given their lives for nothing, so it must be true, only “truth” can inspire such passion.
If you point out that there is no evidence for any god, you will be told that you are being daft because quite obviously there is and the proof is “insert random bit of meaningless philosophical babbling that involves some rather impressive logical contortions”.
So you simply roll your eyes and leave them to it, little things such as a complete lack of evidence does not deter in any way because they are quite happy living in Oz and have no intent of ever peeking behind the curtain.
OK, yes, I’m being a tad simplistic, because obviously belief is not binary, there is not on and off switch where in one state you are a religious fanatic and in the other you hold no delusions (oops, did I betray a slight bias there). The reality in one in which you will find that the membership within any religious tribe are in fact unique individuals that hold quite distinctly different views, and there you will find many different shades of acceptance for the prevailing views that hold sway.
A classical and well-known example is that within Catholicism the use of contraception is banned and preached against, yet most Catholics, even the truly devoted ones, will quite happily ignore that bit, and yet still embrace a lot of other weird thoughts. That generally is the way it is, as humans we adhere to the things we think might be correct, and ignore the bits that are clearly wrong. For the sake of the tribe we also will officially stick to the party line, but in our heart of hearts, we simply put the things we have no true belief in to one side as a quaint and perhaps eccentric view. And so each individual will maintain different degrees of confidence for each of the prevailing views internally, and that combination of shades of confidence within each individual will be quite unique.
I recall as a teen, a time when I was quite religious, or to be more precise, evangelical, and was out hiking with a group of fellow Christians. As we rambled along I was explaining how the book of Genesis was symbolic and each of the days was simply a metaphor that mapped to millions or billions of years of geological time. In reply one chap asked, “but why not seven literal days”, and as he expanded upon that, it became abundantly clear to me that he was a young earth creationist. At that time I had not encountered this species of believer before so it was a bit of a shock to me to find that there were people that actually thought like this. I had no desire for any contentious argument, so I maintained a polite silence which he choose to interpret as approval. Internally I was actually thinking to myself, “You are nuts”.
Did such a conclusion shatter my own personal delusion? No not at all, in my own mind Creationism was obviously wrong and quite clearly a batty idea, so I quite happily compartmentalized all that in what could be best categorised as “quaint, crazy, but harmless” and happily ignored it, yet at the same time embraced other equally insane thoughts.
As for why I no longer hold such thoughts, well the details of that story is for another day, but as a quick summary it is a process in which I could best describe as a deep-sea diver slowly rising to the surface and pausing to de-pressurize. As time passes you let go of more and more until one day you break surface and bask in the sunlight of a more reasoned world. It can indeed be done, you can break free and think you way out of the psychological trap.
OK, so why is belief popular?
Almost every society throughout history has held some variation of belief in supernatural deity figures, it appears to be a natural product of the human mind and it has been naturally selected to be like that. For a variety of reasons belief in external agents has given us a distinct survival advantage, and so while we thrive by thinking like that, the price we pay is an acceptance that external agents are real, ghosts, spirits, gods, aliens etc…
The dominance of a specific set of beliefs is easily explained by the old saying, ‘the neurons that fire together wire together,’, When your culture basks in a specific belief and everybody around you tells you it is true, then the more you believe in it, the more that belief becomes your reality. What also happens is that reinforcement of a set of beliefs modifies the brain to accept information supportive of that system and reject information that goes against it.
Living In “Interesting” times
What makes today rather interesting is that something rather disruptive has arisen, the Internet. It has opened up as a marketplace for competing ideas. No longer are we all isolated and forced to drink from just one flow of information that would ensure the reinforcement of our inherited beliefs, but instead we are exposed to a vastly diverse and competing set of thoughts. The result is change.
Traditional beliefs that used to dominate are now being successfully challenged, and as individuals we are starting to let go of some of the crazy things past generations would have accepted as “truth”.
Some maintain core beliefs, but put aside and let go of the more bizarre crazy thoughts, others have broken surface and have managed to break free completely, there is a rising tide of more rational people who refuse to accept the past superstitions and are more critical of all ideas, they no longer accept every crazy idea that pops up but instead seek evidence and want to know the things that are actually true.
The enlightenment is not something that happened a few hundred years ago, it is happening now on an industrial scale … we are evolving and changing for the better, the future will be a far better more rational place, it will be a far better world. We still have a very long way to go, but the rising tide of nones (the folks who dare to doubt) ensure that there is no turning back.