This is part 4 of my series on doubt. You can see the whole series here.
Belief in God is delusional. Religion does more harm than good in our world. Following Christ is crazy.
How do those statements make you feel? Do you agree with them? Do they anger you? Do they make you feel sad, defeated, or defiant? Such statements are a litmus test, and a sign of our times. These three ideas have gained a lot of strength in public thought–even though most Americans believe in God.
There have always been people who doubted the popular notions of God, and for the last few centuries many of our intellectual giants haven't believed in God at all. Atheism is arguably more widespread today than at any point in our history. We should note that atheism is simply the lack of belief in any God or gods, and as such can't be considered a philosophy or ideology.
But, a new type of atheism emerged. The media dubbed it "New Atheism." Unlike traditional atheism, New Atheism asserts that religious belief is delusional, and that human society would be better off without religion. It is a belief system on the move, playing an aggressive offense in the media.
The most famous of the New Atheists is Richard Dawkins. His book, The God Delusion, put New Atheism on the map. Dawkins is an accomplished biologist, and fiercely intelligent–a feature common among prominent New Atheists. Throw in neuroscientists like Sam Harris, philosophers like Daniel Dennet, and physicists like Laurence Krauss and the faithful have reason to fear. Minds like these are responsible for modern scientific progress–and they're fed up with religion.
Atheism has become a movement around leaders like these. For many, atheism is every bit as fundamental to their identities as is Jesus to a devout Christian. They self-assign different labels: skeptics, freethinkers, or even anti-theists. Their mantra is, "Life is better without religion."
A lot of people believe this. Even religious people seem to find this argument convincing on some level. I've noticed that Christians specifically can be either a bit self-conscious about their beliefs, or so over-the-top with defiance that their bluster seems to mask insecurity. Faith has been profoundly altered by the rise of New Atheism.
Research validates this notion. In some brain scans, modern believers use similar parts of their brain to explain their faith that they use to lie or sell something. Tanya Luhmann's work also found that Christians often say things like "I know this sounds crazy, but..." or, "I know you won't believe this, but..." Believers tend to apologize for their belief, even as those beliefs define how they see the world.
Christians today are fully aware how out of step their faith is with the modern scientific view of reality. Many believers harbor a secret (or not so secret) fear that they're wrong about God. I get emails from hundreds of people telling me they are afraid their relationship with God is nothing more than a security blanket, or that God is a benevolent imaginary friend that helps them cope with the world.
Is belief delusional? Is that what science tells us? Is there evidence to support such a claim? Every psychologist I've asked this question has said "no" and many have rolled their eyes. When people describe faith as delusional, they are abusing the term. Think of it this way: at one time most people believed that the Earth was the center of the Universe. Were those people delusional?
Of course not. If someone today believed the earth was the center of the Universe, that may be grounds for delusion. They would certainly be delusional if they believed themselves to be the center of the Universe. Delusion is mainly associated with mental illness, and there is no justification to say that all people of faith are mentally ill. Belief in God is a perfectly normal, widely held belief–and that's enough to make it clinically distinct from delusion. You can safely dismiss anyone who calls belief delusional–they're engaging in hyperbolic jousting for the sake of shock value.
Let me say this very plainly: it is not crazy to believe in God. In fact, believing in God is a very natural thing for humans to do.
A massive study at the University of Oxford shows that humans have an innate bias towards belief that spans cultures. In a multiyear set of experiments coordinated across continents and cultures, researchers found several threads that weave the tapestry that religious belief is painted upon.
First, very small children ascribe superhuman abilities to their caregivers (typically their mother). When a ball or toy is hidden where the child can see it, but out-of-view of the caregiver, children assume their caregiver knows where the object is. By the age of four, children realize that their caregivers are not all knowing, but children who have been introduced to the concept of an all-knowing God tend to hold on to that belief.
Second, humans are predisposed toward accepting "purpose-based" explanations for anything they observe–and this includes people who self identify as non-religious or atheists. Statements like "Trees produce oxygen so that animals can breathe," or "the Earth has an ozone layer to protect life" are easily accepted–even among trained scientists.
Third, people across cultures widely believe in some form of afterlife–including people living in the most secularized nations on Earth. Despite declining participation in organized religion, most Westerners still believe in some form of deity and some persistence of life beyond physical death.
When you combine these biases with possible genetic predispositions, and the degree to which our beliefs are a function of social identity, it becomes very difficult to argue that belief in God is anything other than a natural part of the human experience–and one of the traits that most separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.
Belief in God is not delusional, and is even quite natural. Humans are born dualists, and most humans believe in a God of some kind. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
Up next: is religion bad for you?