Why do some people believe in God while others disbelieve? Do they have different evidences? Are atheists simply rebelling against God? Are christians unable to think rationally?
Does the answer lie in human psychology? Or does one viewpoint see truths that the other is blind to?
On this page I examine what the psychologists have concluded, and how believers and non-believers see it.
- About 84% of the world believes in God or gods (Pew Research Center). The remaining are “unaffiliated” with any religion, but many believe in some “higher power” or spiritual force.
- The world’s largest religion is Christianity, with 32% of the world’s population.
- Many people change their religious belief sometime in their lives. In the US, about a third no longer believe in what the were brought up to believe (not including those who change denominations). My calculations show that globally about a third to a half of all christians are converts.
- There isn’t a clear trend in the atheist population. While the number of atheists is growing worldwide, it seems likely that they may decline as a percentage in the future due to a lower birthrate. (Pew Research Center)
Why do people believe in God?
Psychologists will give you one answer, based on evolution and human needs. But believers will tell you something quite different, based on what they see as the truth. Of course it could be that both explanations are true, i.e. that God may have used human psychology to encourage belief.
So let’s look at both.
What the psychologists say
Psychologists generally have an evolutionary explanation for why religion arose and flourished, and psychological reasons why people believe and disbelieve today.
In the past
It seems that people have an innate predisposition to believe in God. Young children experience their parents’ love and care, and tend to see agency (i.e. a human cause) behind events. So it isn’t surprising that they find it easy to believe God is the agent behind the world. In less scientifically aware times, it is easy to see how God was a plausible explanation for many phenomena we would now regard as natural.
Added to this, religious belief and practices tend to improve our brain chemistry and brain function. Most (not all) types of religious belief therefore tend to help people maintain good physical and emotional health.
Anthropologists believe that as human tribal groups started to develop agriculture, and so moved from small hunter-gatherer groups to larger more settled groupings, there was a need to regulate societies. So, they theorise, religions developed to provide a motivation for people to be willing to submit to the greater good and so control behaviour.
So psychologists and others believe that religion has been beneficial to both the individual and to society – otherwise natural selection would have weeded it out.
Typically psychologists see four different types of religious belief:
- Cognitive: people have reasons to believe. People who have analytical beliefs are typically less likely to believe in God, whereas people with more intuitive beliefs are more likely to believe. Some neurological conditions may predispose a person to believe (or not). Nevertheless, there are both intuitive and analytical believers who can express their faith in cognitive terms.
- Motivational: if people believe God has helped them in the past, or will help them in the future, or if they feel uncertain or anxious, they are more likely to continue to believe.
- Societal: people in poorer, less developed and less safe countries are more likely to believe in a religion. Even in wealthier countries there can be community impetus to believe, and belief is much more likely if a person observes credible displays of religion in their childhood, or later.
- Evolutionary: “religiosity confers multiple beneficial outcomes, ranging from coping with stress, increasing social relatedness and facilitating social coordination, reducing death anxiety, and increasing psychological well-being and meaning in life” (Reference 11), so religious belief appears to confer a natural selection advantage.
Unlike some atheists, most psychologists don’t see religious belief as being pathological or detrimental, but in most cases being helpful.
How believers see it
It seems to me that people believe in God for one or more of four basic reasons.
Authority or tradition
Someone who knows more than them told them to believe, and they trusted them, so they did. The authority may be a parent, a culture, a religious tradition, a church, or someone else. The authority may be imposed by fear, by love or even by habit. Studies show that people who see a credible display of faith (e.g. from parents) are much more likely to believe themselves.
Most of our knowledge and beliefs come to us this way – via experts such as doctors or scientists, via textbooks and news media. Most of our knowledge about christian belief (whether we are christians or atheists or something else) comes this way too – from books, historians, philosophers, etc. But we may feel that basing our beliefs (as opposed to our knowledge) on experts isn’t responsible.
Trust in eye-witnesses and scriptures
This is similar to believing authority, but is a more direct conviction that the Bible (especially the New Testament) is what it seems to be, and trusting that the eye-witnesses, authors and teachers in the New Testament are accurately teaching what they know and have experienced.
Experts and non-experts alike have a wide range of views about the trustworthiness of the New Testament, although almost all experts accept that the gospels are useful historical documents that give some useful factual information (and maybe a lot) about Jesus.
So belief in the New Testament will be based on trust in our own judgment, in all who have gone before us, and in some experts over others. This is understandable (we mostly tend to trust our own “tribe”), but some may feel this, on its own, isn’t a good objective reason to believe.
An experience of God
Those people who have good reason to believe God has healed them, appeared to them, spoken to them or helped them, are likely to feel that experience is a strong reason to keep on believing in God. After all, everything in life, even the strongest scientific facts, come to us through our senses and experience.
Psychologists and neuroscientists have investigated these experiences, and generally found that they don’t appear to be pathological, and generally have beneficial effects on those who receive them, which of course you’d expect if they were genuine. So those fortunate enough to have a confirming experience can hardly be criticised, though those who lack such and experience may not be willing to accept the testimony of those who have (though some of the evidence is very good).
We can also include here people who observe how christians live. They decide it makes more sense than any other worldview and they give it a try. They may never have a direct “experience of God”, but as they explore living as a believer, they find it makes more and more sense.
Proofs and evidence
For some more analytical people, philosophical proofs based on scientific and historical evidence will form a significant part of the reasons why they believe. And a significant bulwark against doubts raised by negative experiences. These arguments seem to me to be very strong and very fundamental to human existence, for they address such questions as the existence of a universe whose physics is orderly and that supports life, and the fundamentals of human existence such as rationality, ethics, free will and consciousness.
Are these reasons reliable?
A person may strongly believe in something that isn’t actually true. Alternatively, their belief may be true even if their reasons are not be very sensible. So what would make any of these reasons sufficient justification to believe?
We need to consider the cumulative power of these different evidences. Together, are they stronger than the evidence against belief? So let’s look at the other side of the question.
Why do people disbelieve in God?
Again, let’s look at what psychologists say, and what unbelievers themselves say.
What the psychologists say
Atheism hasn’t been studied by psychologists as much as religious belief has, and the conclusions are not yet as clear. Here is what I have been able to find about psychological reasons for disbelief:
- Analytical and reflective thinking (Refs 1, 6, 7, 10).
It is generally believed that intuitive thinkers are more likely to be credulous and religious, while analytical and reflective people are more likely to be non-believers. Some studies suggest this isn’t true, and it seems that it is less important than once thought. But it seems it is still a factor in rich western countries at least.
- Lack of moral concern (Ref 9).
Moral concern is linked with religious belief and some studies suggest that a lack of moral concern is associated with analytical thinking. This may partly explain why analytical thinking and disbelief are associated.
- Security and wealth (Ref 6a).
As people feel more secure via wealth or stable societies, and as secular institutions take over roles once performed by the church, atheism becomes more likely.
- Emotional deficit (Ref 1, 9, 12, 13).
People who are less emotionally expressive and poorer at “mentalizing” (being sensitive to the mental and emotional states of others) may be more likely to be atheists (although some studies don’t show this).
- Lack of credible displays of faith (Ref 6, 13).
People who grow up observing credible and consistent displays of religious faith (e.g. in their parents) are more likely to be religious themselves. This those who don’t experience these displays are more likely to be atheists. This is considered one of the strongest causes of religious disbelief.
- Evolutionary. (Ref 11).
As noted above, religiosity leads to many positive individual and societal outcomes, and so are favoured by natural selection. Some psychologists argue that in secular societies various secular institutions can provide the same benefits and so also be advantageous evolutionarily.
It seems that psychologists are still a long way from reaching agreement on all these sources of religious disbelief, and it may be that all play a part. But it is important to see that psychological explanations are available for both belief and unbelief. Neither “side” can take the high ground by assuming they have truth on their side while the other view can be explained psychologically.
How unbelievers see it
We can summarise most reasons atheists give for not believing into four categories:
Science & history
Faith is unreliable as a means of knowing, and religion is a way that human beings and societies have learned to cope with difficulty and loss, to feel like events are not out of control, a way to find meaning and a feeling of security from a divine father figure and a way to encourage ethical behaviour.
But science has eroded the old religious worldviews and explanations. The big bang and evolution explain our origins. The universe is governed by natural laws so we can’t believe in miracles. And, they say, we now know through science that the miraculous stories in the Bible and the Koran, etc, aren’t really possible.
According to this view, religious belief lingers through indoctrination by family and society, but knowledge of the world through science and history inevitably leads to atheism.
Philosophy & logic
Logic suggests we need good evidential reasons for believing in God. But to atheists, God is hidden to us and we have no reliable means to test his (or her) existence. The burden of proof is on believers, and atheists think they cannot satisfy it.
The well-known arguments for God existence have equally well-known answers, and so are not convincing to them. And they find many ideas about God to be incoherent.
The evil and suffering in the world are surely signs, they say, that there is no God, certainly no good God.
Atheists feel they have no alternative but to withhold belief.
Social & personal
Some atheists say they are incapable of belief in God – they have no sense of God’s presence, no experience of him answering their prayers and no reason to believe.
Further, they believe religion has been harmful, promoting inequality and exclusion, war and terrorism, and discrimination based on gender, race and sexuality. (Some of these have been shown not to be generally true, but they are still believed by many atheists.) Religion is often seen as restricting personal freedoms.
There are so many religions, and they all contradict each other. It is reasonable to ask how can we know which one, if any, is true?
Some beliefs (e.g. the Genesis creation stories) are impossible to believe in this modern day. Some teachings seem barbaric (e.g. hell and the command to kill all the Canaanites) or unjust (e.g the christian view that a person can live an evil life yet be saved by faith if they have a death-bed conversion). And many atheists say some doctrines, such as the Trinity, are incomprehensible and make christianity unbelievable.
And then, of course, there is the bad behaviour by priests, clergy and christian leaders, such as pedophilia, greed, persecution of gays, patriarchy, etc.
Are these reasons reliable?
Are these reasons stronger than the reasons to believe? That is a personal question, and while my own answer is clear, I cannot answer the question for anyone else.
But why do I think the reasons for belief are stronger than the reasons to disbelieve?
Personal experience trumps lack of personal experience
Some people have very strong experiences of God, and no-one can really gainsay another person’s experience. On the other hand, the disappointing or negative experiences of atheists don’t disprove God, they only illustrate an unfortunate turn of events.
The theistic philosophical arguments are more fundamental
The existence of evil and suffering is a very strong argument against a good God. But it can be seen as something we can’t understand rather than something fundamental, and it depends on the world and suffering being objectively evil, which atheism cannot demonstrate
On the other hand, some of the theistic arguments touch on fundamental aspects of life (e.g. the origin of the universe, ethics and rationality) and scientific facts (e.g. the design of the universe, freewill). This to me gives these arguments far greater force than the counter arguments of atheists.
Christian belief is consistent and livable
Atheism (as I see it) entails there is no freewill, no objective ethics, and no inherent value in human life. I don’t believe anyone can live consistently with those beliefs (fortunately, otherwise they would be “inhuman”). In particular, the general view of naturalistic neuroscientists that humans don’t have freewill makes a mockery of discussions about which view is true.
Christian theism leaves many questions unanswered, but it can (I believe) be lived consistently. And studies show it tends to assist people to be prosocial, moral and healthy, so it works. I don’t think I could ever accept a belief that involves so many inconsistencies as atheism does.
Different forms of christian belief
I agree that some forms of christian belief are difficult to believe. But I believe the form of christianity outlined on this website is true to modern science and history as well as to Jesus and the Bible.
Decide for yourself
On this page I’ve tried to outline fairly the reasons psychologists give why people believe and disbelieve, and the reasons believers and disbelievers give. There are plenty of references below.
I hope this stimulates you to think further.
Read more on this site
Many of the ideas on this page have been written up in more detail. Check them out.
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