Reasons for my de-conversion (2 of 4)
In Part I, I discussed the fragility of human cognition, and the myth of the virtue of faith. There remains one more important question. Why do so many people believe in a personal god?
Nearly all religions posit a “god-size” hole of the psyche that only their respective god can fill. However, a careful examination of this hole reveals it to be merely a natural human disposition to have certain emotions that scream for attention and resolution. I’ll try to address the most important.
An aversion to not knowing.
We have an intense drive to explain our world. This emotional intensity causes many to assume that there are answers and that they deserve access to those answers. These conclusions do not follow. Simply having the ability to ask a question does not in any way require that there is an answer and that you have the ability to discover and comprehend the answer. However, religionists assume that they must have access to any question that appears meaningful to them. This does not follow. It may be that we may never have answers to questions that disturb us. This is anathema to many religionists.
Need for significance.
We are all born with the need for significance. This is, however, an emotion, and it does not follow that personal significance exists simply because we feel it must. Successful religions offer significance by typically positioning the believer in a privileged relationship with a god. This emotion, however, does not in anyway validate the existence of a god that bestows significance. The truth may be that we have no significance. We must start our inquiry into truth without the assumption of an objective personal significance. As an added note, this sense of a grand cosmological significance is exhibited as arrogance equally among faiths. If you suppose you are in constant communion with god, it is not at all difficult to become condescending to infidels whom you know must be in rebellion against god.
Need for justice.
We emotionally react to what we perceive as inequalities and injustices in the world around us. This makes the notion of a vengeful god very attractive to us. We do not want to live in an unjust world, and are often willing to accept the notion of god simply to mitigate this emotion. But the emotion lends no weight to the truth of such a god’s existence and of justice. Emotion contributes nothing to a rational and objective approach to these questions. It may well be that there exists no justice. It would be intellectually dishonest to start with an assumption that there is.
Need for affection.
Though this emotional need can often be met though social relations, the concept of an unconditional love from an omnipotent god carries enough emotional clout to cause many humans to accept the gods of various faiths without sufficient evidence. There is also the attractive notion of a divine love that transcends all human type of love. This adds to the emotional drive to affirm the existence of a god without sufficient evidence. This emotion adds nothing to the argument for god. There is no reason why the yearning for a god’s love makes that god real.
Need for identity.
A religious community can provide a powerful sense of identity that is reason enough for some to accept the notion of a god. It is unbearable to many to legitimately doubt the existence of their particular god since severing ties with the community of believers would be too alienating. Though this type of isolation is undesirable, it does not legitimate blind faith in the god of that community.
Humans have a well-developed sense of guilt. This emotion has been co-opted by many religions to correspond to their particular mores. Islamic women feel guilty when they have no head covering in public. Some Christians feel guilty drinking wine. Guilt has no single standard to which it corresponds. There is no evidence that the notion of “sin” is any thing more than a fabrication employed by religionists to control behavior. Their scriptures are full of proclamations of commandments that must be followed as well as verses designed to make the rule-breaker feel exceedingly sinful. “Sin” is then declared to be worthy of damnation, all without evidence. But evidence is not needed if the psychological weight of one’s emotions, co-opted by religion, makes the rejection of that religion unbearable.
These are some of the major emotions that all successful religions co-opt to their advantage. The average human assumes that the emotion has a real correlate; guilt means you are guilty, a yearning for justice means there is justice, and so on. Emotions in no way demonstrate the existence of their correlates.
So we can see that there is first an enormous deficiency in human cognition coupled with a propensity to rely on emotions to construct our belief system. This is demonstrated by the ubiquity in religious belief around the world and the diversity of belief. I hope I have also established that faith holds no intrinsic virtue.
– Phil Stilwell