Intellectual and Emotional
Reasons to Believe

by Michael Shermer
excerpted from his 1999 book Why We Believe
Copyright ©1999 by Michael Shermer, used with permission

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Why People
Believe in God

1. Arguments based on good design/natural beauty/perfection/ complexity of the world or universe. (28.6%)

2. The experience of God in everyday life/a feeling that God is in us. (20.6%)

3. Belief in God is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life. (10.3%)

4. The Bible says so. (9.8%)

5. Just because/faith/or the need to believe in something. (8.2%)

Why People Think
Other People Believe in God

1. Belief in God is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life. (26.3%)

2. Religious people have been raised to believe in God. (22.4%)

3. The experience of God in everyday life/a feeling that God is in us. (16.2%)

4. Just because/faith/or the need to believe in something. (13.0%)

5. People believe because they fear death and the unknown. (9.1%)

6. Arguments based on good design/natural beauty/perfection/ complexity of the world or universe. (6.0%)

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One of the most interesting results to come out of this study was that the intellectually based reasons for belief of "good design" and "experience of God," which were in first and second place in the first question of Why do you believe in God?, dropped to sixth and third place for the second question of Why do you think other people believe in God? Taking their place as the two most common reasons other people believe in God were the emotionally based categories of "comforting" and "raised to believe."

Why? One possible answer to this question is what psychologists call "biases in attributions." As pattern-seeking animals, we seek causes to which we can attribute our actions and the actions of others. According to attribution theory, we attribute the causes of our own and others' behaviors to either a situation or a disposition. When we make a situational attribution, we identify the cause in the environment ("my depression is caused by a death in the family"); when we make a dispositional attribution, we identify the cause in the person as an enduring trait ("her depression is caused by a melancholy personality"). Problems in attribution may arise in our haste to accept the first cause that comes to mind. But I suspect this is only part of the explanation. Social psychologists Carol Tavris and Carole Wade explain that there is, not surprisingly, a tendency for people "to take credit for their good actions (a dispositional attribution) and let the situation account for their bad ones." In dealing with others, for example, we might attribute our own good fortune to hard work and intelligence, whereas the other person's good fortune is attributed to luck and circumstance.

I would argue that there is an intellectual attribution bias, where we consider our own actions as being rationally motivated, whereas we see those of others as more emotionally driven. Our commitment to a belief is attributed to a rational decision and intellectual choice ("I'm against gun control because statistics show that crime decreases when gun ownership increases"); whereas the other person's is attributed to need and emotion ("he's for gun control because he's a bleeding-heart liberal who needs to identify with the victim"). This intellectual attribution bias applies to religion as a belief system and to God as the subject of belief. As pattern-seeking animals, the matter of the apparent good design of the universe, and the perceived action of a higher intelligence in the day-to-day contingencies of our lives, is a powerful one as an intellectual justification for belief. But we attribute other people's religious beliefs to their emotional needs. Here are just a few examples from the written portion of the surveys:

-- A thirty-year-old male Jewish teacher with strong religious convictions (8 on a scale of 1 to 9), says he believes in God "because I believe in the Big Bang; and when you believe in the B.B., you have to ask yourself -- 'what came before that?' A creation implies a creator." (Aquinas's prime mover argument.... ) Yet, he goes on to explain: "I think that most people believe out of an emotional need, although there is a significant minority of rational (even skeptical!) believers such as myself."

-- A fifty-one-year-old male with very strong religious convictions (9 on a scale of 1 to 9) but no formal religious membership writes that he believes in God based on his "personal experiences," but for others "belief in God provides emotional support and a belief structure that provides meaning, purpose, and rules of conduct for them. Many feel lost without believing something/someone more important than them runs their life rather than believing that they can and do create their reality and the universe."

-- A sixty-five-year-old male Catholic with moderately strong religious convictions (7 on a scale of 1 to 9) gives the standard watchmaker argument: "To say that the universe was created by the Big Bang theory is to say that you can create Webster's Dictionary by throwing a bomb in a printing shop and the resulting explosion results in the dictionary." Nevertheless, other people believe in God because of a "sense of security" and "blind faith."

-- A thirty-seven-year-old female Catholic with strong religious convictions (8 on a scale of 1 to 9) says she believes in God because "how else could you explain our origins? Only God could create a world and universe out of nothing. There are miracles every day that science cannot explain." Others believe, she says, because it "gives hope."

-- A forty-one-year-old male Baptist with very strong religious convictions (9 on a scale of 1 to 9) explains that he believes in God "due to the evidence of his magnificent creation and the extraordinary order of the universe," whereas other people believe because "without God there is no purpose for their lives or the universe."

There are many, many more examples. Morever, these data support Gallup polls taken in 1982 and 1991, where 46 percent of the public believe that "man was created pretty much in his current form at one time within the past 10,000 years," 40 percent believe that "man evolved over millions of years from less developed forms of life, but God guided the process, including the creation of man," but only 9 percent believe that "man evolved over millions of years from less developed forms of life. God had no part in the process." The Gallup polls did not ask why, but it seems obvious from our results that the answer is that people see God in the universe, in the world, and in their lives. Hardly anyone has heard of theologian William Paley and his eighteenth-century watchmaker argument for God, but they know this argument intuitively from their experiences. They also read about it from science popularizers like comet hunter David Levy, who told millions of readers of Parade Magazine that the "miracle of life" was due to the fact that the universe was "designed" for us, and that this is proved by such scientific facts as: (1) ice floats; (2) the night sky is dark; (3) protons and electrons have absolutely identical charges; (4) we have the right kind of Sun. There are perfectly rational, scientific explanations for these facts that have nothing whatsoever to do with life being "designed" or a "miracle" in any supernatural sense. But these counterarguments are also counterintuitive. The "feeling" one gets in studying the world and life is that it seems designed. And this is what people report about their perceptions and experiences.

Interestingly, the primary reasons people gave for not believing in God were also the intellectually based categories of "there is no proof for God's existence," followed by "God is a product of the mind and culture," "the problem of evil," and "science provides all the answers we need." For example, an eighteen-year-old Jewish male who considers himself an atheist, writes: "I don't believe in God because it is impossible for a being to be what God must be in order to be a god without being obvious and undeniable. In short, God is philosophically impossible and scientifically and cosmologically unnecessary." By contrast, and following the tendency to attribute to others emotional reasons for belief, he says other people believe in God because: "It's comforting. Additionally, some people find it easier to deal with problems if they believe it is 'God's will.'"

All's Right with God in His Heaven

In his 1781 classic work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon concluded his discussion of religion with this observation: "The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful." As we have seen, belief in God in the modern world is a function of a complex array of reasons that, while true for some people and false for others, certainly are equally useful. Consistently we find a fascinating distinction in belief attribution between why people think they believe in God and why they think other people believe in God.

This distinction was not lost on the psalmists of the Old Testament. To the choirmaster of Psalm 19:1, the author proclaims: "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork." Yet in the psalm for the sons of Korah, Psalm 46:1-3, it is declared: "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof."

Are these not, in a way, two sides of the same coin? For believers, the heavens declare God's glory; for other believers He provides strength in their time of need. Or, as Robert Browning wrote in Pippa Passes: "God's in His Heaven -- All's right with the world."

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