Why Do We Believe In God?
This is the capacity of a human mind to figure out how another organism thinks or feels. It’s not mind-reading, per se, but a set of accurate assumptions about the cognition of another being. Our mind achieves this by generating a secondary mind and associating it with the person we’re concerned with. And whatever thought processes are carried out by the secondary mind, we assume that they are the thoughts of the person in front of us. This is how we are able to tell if another person is feeling angry, or sad, or bored etc.
The problem is that sometimes, our mind tends to apply the theory of mind on non-living, inanimate objects and forces, and treats them as living beings who can think and feel different things. An example is a guy who’s computer hangs up, and in anger, he strikes the keyboard or starts clicking furiously. The guy knows that doing this won’t make the problem disappear, but his mind has tricked him into temporarily believing that the computer is a living being that is trying to mock or deliberately annoy its user.
Just like that, when we see powerful acts being carried out by insensible forces of nature, like earthquakes, or lethal diseases resolving by themselves, we generate a “mind” for these forces as well. We think that nature is angry at us and that’s why its sending down earthquakes. We think that nature is happy with the way we have behaved and is blessing us by curing our diseases. We call this self-generated secondary mind “God”.
When we see in a movie, say Saw, a man getting killed in an excruciating way, we are able to comprehend clearly how that person may be feeling. It’s because when we see or hear about a person getting hurt in a specific way, parts of our brain “light up” exactly as they do in that of the actual sufferer. But there’s an inhibitory response that keeps us from actually feeling that pain.
This ability to understand what the other person is going through and to feel sorry for him/her is known as empathy. Every religion comes with its own tales of gore, violence, pain and torment. When we hear stories about Christ getting chastised and crucified, or Muhammad getting bombarded by rocks in Taif, a powerful empathetic response is triggered off, which makes us feel drawn closer to the personality. Younger, less mature minds may be easily tricked into believing that the unfortunate occurrence, true or fictional, was somehow their own fault and they “owe” it to the tormented person to follow and believe in him.
Hyperactive Agency Detection (HAAD)
Complex organisms like ourselves have a tendency to believe that any process that we cannot comprehend or understand, has come from an intelligent mind that is not too dissimilar to ours. It is common for a person to mistake his/her own shadow for a burglar. We hear a loud noise coming from the kitchen, the first thought that comes to our mind is that the source of that sound is a human agency.
It is the propensity to believe that every event and object must have a purpose behind it e.g rainbows are there to make the sky look prettier, or a river is there to provide water to people and animals living far away from large water bodies like lakes and seas. This kind of thinking is most prominently seen among children. They are unable to understand that everything does not require reason, but a simple cause is sufficient.
In times of distress, we tend to seek out guardian figures who can help us out. If the real care-givers provide insufficient aid, we turn to an imaginary one for support.
We are, at our most basic level, hardwired to believe in good. If we help a fellow man in need, we feel happy. The reason is that hundreds of thousands of years of evolution through group selection have molded our minds into believing that if we do something good for somebody else, then something good shall come to us in return.
However, our altruism has a tendency to go awry. A person may be tricked into believing that if he buys an expensive goat and sacrifices it, then something good will happen to him in return. A person may believe that if he beats himself up as part of a religious ritual, say a maatam procession, then he’ll get some benefit in return for his suffering. We are all, deep inside, optimistic beings who believe in justice or karma.
Children have an in-built psychological tendency to accept anything told to them by authority. This is an extremely useful evolutionary adaptation. For example, if a parent tells his daughter not to come too close to the kitchen stove, it’s not necessary for the child to have a bad experience with the stove to learn that it’s dangerous territory, she’ll blindly accept her father’s command and in doing so, save herself from harm.
However, this function is prone to “misfiring”. A child cannot differentiate between good or bad advice or command. If the daughter is told by her parent about a God who sends good people to heaven and bad ones to hell, she’ll believe in it just as readily as she’d believe in her father telling her not to go near the stove. If properly reinforced by parents and society, belief in God becomes hard to shake off despite a good deal of reason to do so.
Motivated Reasoning and Conformational Bias
We are more likely to reject vexing information than we are to accept it. If a person A has suffered injustice by the hands of person B, A will find comfort in the belief that B will we punished by God for his crimes. If A is told that there is no heaven or hell and that B will not be punished, he’ll be reluctant to accept that information and will try to consciously block out that idea.
On the other hand, A tends to actively seek out any piece of information that confirms his belief in hell where B would be punished. This is called conformational bias.