Why Do We Have Beliefs?
Created | Updated Jun 29, 2010
Defining Terms of Belief
A Critique of Belief | Neurotheology - is God in our Heads?
The Evolutionary Advantages of Faith | The Biological Basis of Belief
Why do we have Beliefs? | Why are Beliefs held so Dearly? | The Stages of Belief
Will Social Sciences sell its Soul or Lose its Balls? | Science as Religion
Joining and Leaving a Minority Religion
Why Someone Might Choose Neo-Paganism Over Mainstream Religion
On Medieval Heresy | The Percieved Dichotomy Between Sexuality and Spirituality
Religion as a Tool for Social Control
Beliefs are complicated things. You can theoretically look at them and say 'These beliefs cause wars and manage billions of people's lives. But why?'
Why do people have these beliefs? Why do these beliefs even exist? This entry will put forward some theories on why we have beliefs and also why many people feel the need for a god or other religious beliefs.
Thousands of years ago, beliefs started emerging. Ever since humans have been developing culture they have been developing religions and beliefs. Humans feel the need for a point to it all - a reason for being alive. Nowadays some of us just accept that we exist and will die and well, that's life, to use a cliché. But more than half of the population of the globe believe in gods and religions.
For the sake of argument we can assume that all these religions are wrong. Thus we have to try and work out why people made these ideas up.
Those thousands of years ago, as beliefs began to emerge, there must have been thinkers who thought these ideas up. How did their ideas appear and why did they bother? Members of these thinkers' communities must have begun the process. Without a demand for theories as to why they existed these thinkers would never have even begun to develop them. Everyday people began to say 'Why?', 'What are we meant to be doing?', 'Why did Grandma die?'
At first, most people would have said 'Don't be silly. We're just here. We live, we die.' But some people sat down and reasoned:
Well we can't have been going on like this forever. There must have been something before us.
'More of us?'
Yes, but even before that, something must have made us. Just like our houses, before they existed we built them. What could have made us?
'We make us, that's natural.'
So, there must have been a huge one of us that made us.
'What!? Don't be crazy. We'd see such a huge man1.'
Of course you wouldn't. Why would such a powerful person bother being seen by us? No, this man is sitting in his magic place controlling the world.
'Yeah, yeah. Go and write a fairy tale.'
No, No. You must listen. So, if he has control over the world, then we should make him happy and he'll make things easy for us.
'Let me get this straight. We worship someone we don't know exists so that he might make things better for us.'
Yes, trust me. Without him there'd be no sun, no crops, no us. We'd all die!
'OK. When do we start?'
OK, so it probably wasn't quite like that conversation, but the basis is there. So how come this attitude survived? There are so many arguments against a god or religion. Especially when there hadn't been one before. People might say 'Well we haven't worshipped this person before and we've been fine.' Over another few hundred years the religion would develop and secure itself in a community. Perhaps people would even travel and persuade others of the religion.
Another reason for the concept of a god, as explained before, is a need for a reason. The human mind is very small and eternity is unimaginable. The idea that things had been going on forever is a thought that even now is hard to get to grips with. So why not invent a beginning (and even an end)? Let's make sure it's not too long ago, 800 years at most - æons is fine for stories but religions have to be believable. OK, so 800 years ago this man made the earth, all the creatures and us. This man created everything and controls everything. Now there's a point to life and no more infinite eternity. Everyone was happy.
That sufficed for a while but then people began to expand and think for themselves. Other ideas came up to challenge the more secure ones. Through this evolution each religion slowly built up into a plausible idea that was difficult to argue against. If today you say to a creationist2 that the 'Big Bang' started our solar system/earth etc and that we evolved from invisible little bacteria it will be difficult to persuade them of your belief:
Well if God created everything what created God?
Nothing, he's been there for eternity. What caused the Big Bang?
The two questions are fundamentally the same in that the only thing that will back up an answer to them is belief. People believe in the Big Bang because of 'scientific evidence' - they believe in empiricism. People believe in creationism because they believe the bible's text, and not the evidence for the Big Bang.
Indeed, a belief can be other than a religion. Atheism is a belief that there is no God, simple.
René Descartes' famous philosophy, 'I think therefore I am', compounds beliefs. It shows that knowledge is almost non-existent. The only thing I know for sure is that I exist because I'm thinking this. I believe I'm writing this for you, but I have no knowledge as to if you actually exist3 or if I'm actually writing this.
All thinking beings have beliefs. Not religion per se, however everyday things that seem normal are only normal because of our belief that they are. Of course, many of these beliefs are really instincts. You couldn't just stop believing that you had, say, a hand; it doesn't work. Why do we have religious beliefs? Just because we need beliefs. Even if not for very long, they drive our lives. From deep-rooted religious beliefs to phases such as believing that there's a monster under the bed.
If 'What?' is the first question about belief and 'Why?' is the second, 'How?' is probably the third. The next Entry looks at how beliefs and believers change and mature through one - or possibly several - lifetimes and provides a couple of definitions of The Stages of Belief