Formation and Reinforcement of Religious Belief + My Backstory

Many of our beliefs are products of our peers, parents, culture, and education. Generally, we'd like to think that many of our important beliefs are justified with good support and evidence, but that's probably not the case. Advertising is muddled with "sales" and statistics often mislead us. Experienced marketers with a solid background in advertising know exactly what they are doing. News commentators tell us about how terrible the political party they don't belong to us. Sports networks tout about how great certain teams are and how certain teams have the greatest fans in the world...but so does every other team. We often might not think twice (or even once) until someone, if ever, points out errors in our thinking. Figures who have some sort of authority or perceived authority make claims that we often accept just because.

Imagine if I were to teach you a card game, you'd probably accept what I have to say regarding the rules of the game and probably have all reasons to do so. You don't know how to play the game and you think I do...but I could have just presented you incorrect information and you would not have known it. If you find inconsistencies in my presentation of the information or it appears that I'm making up rules as I go along, you might question, but you'll accept everything else.

Imagine that you hear a speech regarding research on autism from a professor at a university. When you return home are you going to check the information presented and see if it is widely accepted by scientists? Are you going to look for the studies that were referenced? If you know much about the topic and care about the topic, you might, but if you don't really know much and don't care, you probably won't. If a conversation with friends on autism happens in the future, you'll probably present this information and say "an expert told me this" ... and you might even communicate incorrect information do to a faulty memory, confusion of ideas, and your own possible related ideas that really have nothing to do with the topic at hand. Children playing the "telephone game" can demonstrate this quite easily. (Tell someone a story and over time the original story can change quite easily and quite drastically.)

Watch this Short Change Scam...the shopkeeper here has no idea that she got scammed and probably would not realize she was scammed until the end of her shift when she counts her drawer.

It's very easy to be confused when you are multitasking and dealing with numbers.

We often don't take the time (and really can't) to verify every claim we hear. It's impossible to demand tremendous evidence for all claims we hear, so we simply accept information as being credible. Combine claims with environmental distractions, you thinking about what is going to happen later in the day, cognitive errors...

Let's make it more difficult and consider children. Children listen to their parents because they believe that their parents are very smart, right about most things, and for evolutionary reasons. Children look up to their parents and other role-models...they listen to teachers, are told that people in uniforms (especially policemen) are trustworthy, and generally accept most of what they hear unless it contradicts earlier learned information. Children readily believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the boogeyman. Sure, over time these beliefs fade because children realize that these are fairy tales and other children or adults "spoil" them. Many other beliefs that adults continue to believe in and reinforce such as the ideas that minority groups are inferior, homosexuals are "wrong and disordered," homeless people are homeless because they are failures at life, Mother Theresa is a paragon for charity and goodness, priests and clergy are exemplary moral individuals who know more about morality and ethics than laypeople, etc.

Children will believe in most beliefs that adults constantly reinforce and present as fact. When the general population also reinforces these ideas and presents ideas as fact, the reinforcement is strengthened. As you might have guessed, a particularly reinforced and shielded belief in America is Christianity. Churches in small town Pennsylvania are often "on every street corner next to bars" as the common joke and reality suggests. There's no shortage of churches and adults professing their faith. There's no shortage of schoolchildren believing in the Christian god. There is no shortage of children attending religious classes such as CCD, summer camps, etc. At a very early age, children are told that Jesus died for their sins, that Hell is real (and Christians think that teaching Hell is justified), and that when they die they'll see all of their family in Heaven. Yup, children around the age of five are learning about death, are guilt-ridden, and placed in a state of fear for what they do because a loving god who is watching them can send them to burn for eternity...but that's a post for another day.

I can recall learning about the idea of reconciliation and sin at a very early age and having to go to confession. I was told that I had to pray away my wrongdoings, talk with a priest about my sins, and felt really bad about not attending church, not listening to my parents, etc. I worried about my great grandmother after she died and I went to her funeral and cried because there was a chance she wasn't going to Heaven. I honestly thought that I had to pray to her because she was in purgatory. When I sinned I felt really bad...especially after getting out of confession.

I had no choice in this matter. My parents never said anything like "Well, here is what we believe and here is the reason for believing it. What do you think?" or "You can choose whether you believe in it or not." Even today my mother says, "You can't not believe in God, you're raised Roman Catholic." When I ask why she believes (which often doesn't happen because she gets very angry), I get appeals to tradition, emotive arguments, arguments from ignorance/complexity, and stupid arguments like Pascal's Wager or "you have to believe in something." With her, there is no rational discussion about God because she is convinced for "personal reasons."

"Arguments" from ignorant believers (not all of them are, of course because many wouldn't say these really stupid things) consist of similar patterns and these people never even met each other!

  • I have a right to my own beliefs!
  • Don't tell me what to believe!
  • It's better to believe in something than nothing!
  • Who are you to question God!
  • How could the universe have arisen from nothing without God?
  • If you believe in God and you're wrong you've lost nothing, but if you don't believe in God and you're wrong, it's all suffering.
  • The eye/universe/this giraffe is too complex to exist without God!
  • I have faith! I don't need evidence, reason, and argument!
  • I believe because it's right for me!
  • Everything happens for a [hidden/mystical] reason! OMG!!1one (my most hated assertion)

As mentioned in other posts, no one really challenged my ideas about religion until around my second year in college. I went on in my life as a "true believer" and used programmed responses (where did I get them from anyway, church and CCD, of course.) like "that's why it's faith." I enjoyed going to church, singing the music, seeing all of the art, narrarating and reading the readings, etc. Church is a place where you really do feel good and feel part of a team (despite all the mixed messages about God's love...but yet he may torture you and others for all eternity). Christianity tells you about how bad you are...and offers you ways to deal with the bad (although the bad often is an idea of bad exclusive to Christianity). Sure, not all forms of Christianity or individual Christians accept everything the church or the Bible says, but the general idea of sin is widely accepted - we're inherently "fallen" and the way to deal with it is to accept Jesus, repent, and feel sorry for our wrongdoings after "getting right with God." The real problem here is that humans do make mistakes and we don't always do the right thing, so we get a constant loop looking with this:

Christianity tells us that certain actions and thoughts are wrong
We do something wrong
We feel guilty
We're told that doing "x" will make it better
We repent and confess our sins
We do something wrong
We feel more guilty
We repent.....

Couple this with the existence of Hell, the idea that God is always watching us, and the idea that only the righteous and true believers go to Heaven and you're quite easily "hooked." Again, not all believers think of sin and exemplify this loop, but many do. Some children are told that it's wrong to question about God ("The blasphemy of the Spirit today, which is the same as the unpardonable sin, is the state of continued unbelief. There is no pardon for a person who dies in unbelief.") and that people who don't believe in him are immoral devil-worshipers who worship science. What's even worse is that the non-believers are not visible and vocal so the myths can perpetuate. Only if more atheists were out and active... Children might say "Hey, daddy, Uncle Jim told me he doesn't believe in any gods and talked to me about it. I asked him some questions and you know, non-believers aren't bad like Pastor Tim said they were." The myths of atheists being bad people even continues with adults...I recently heard this from someone in a classroom. Unfortunately, I didn't have the time to respond, "I know you're an atheist and everything, BUT you're pretty nice and respectful." Why the but......???!?

Beliefs about the nature of the universe and the supernatural should not be justified because of emotion or personal experiences. They should be justified because of good reason, argument, and evidence...not fear, comfort, and appeals to tradition.

It is often the case with Christianity that children are labeled as religious because they can properly make a choice about the ideas and fully read their religious texts. Imagine calling children republicans or democrats...but we often call children religious. What is this madness? Can you ever possibly think of a child ever saying, "You know what? I think that the government should stay out of our lives as much as possible, everyone should own whatever guns they want, and the rich should not be taxed at a high rate." Never... but we will hear children saying they love Jesus and Jesus loves them. There's clearly something wrong with this picture.

It's odd that religious belief often doesn't start with "Here's the idea and here is the reason that it is true" but rather infantile belief followed by later "justifications" and excuses. We're doing things in the reverse order here. Read the Bible, think about the ideas, and then make a decision...we shouldn't make a decision before the reasons for the decision. Children could easily be presented with the ideas of Scientology, Jainism, Islam, Christianity, or Pastafarianism and wholly believe it. As Richard Dawkins says and I'll slightly modify, religious belief is often an accident of birth: you're born into a family with religious parents and you believe what they do because you're told that it's true. Later in life you might investigate, but chances are that you won't or will just accept your version of the truth modifying what others believe and maybe some of your beliefs. Fundamentalists might turn into moderates and moderates might just be content with "what I believe is what I believe and I believe it." Fundamentalists might turn to non-belief and non-believers might turn out to be fundamentalists...although I do doubt many who say that they used to be atheists but then present "arguments" like Pascal's Wager :)

Even amongst theists, I hardly, if ever, get "real reasons" for belief. I generally get nonsense as bulleted above and a good conversation hardly ever happens. It shouldn't be hard to say something like, "This is what I believe and why I believe it" without falling victim to logical fallacies. Even if I don't agree with your worldview or ideas, you should be able to present arguments and reasons. Laziness, ignorance, and simply not thinking about issues deeply can be to blame...this can apply to all issues and all people. Can many theists often list the arguments from atheists and give responses that are coherent? I think not. I'm not trying to make theists look unintelligent or stupid, but many people do give the "group" a bad name quite often (and I'm sure atheists can do the same because atheism doesn't always entail awesome clarity of thought).

So, are we now to be disillusioned and give up all our beliefs, never trust people, and not accept new information? No, the proper course is to really think about what matters, go out and investigate, ask proper questions, make up your own mind, and have good reasons for your important beliefs. When I first wanted to think about the possibility of Christian claims being false and I was still a theist, I thought "It's pretty important whether or not God exists. I should really seek some answers" and now I'm here from a "true believer" who was told that cursing was a "strike" for me against God to a person who freely says fuck on any given opportunity. What a change... I've learned so, so much from the past year or so and still have much more to learn and explore.

Whatever your decisions are, understand that important ideas should be based on good reason that you can dictate, understand, and present to detractors and, as always, you might be entitled to your own beliefs, but you aren't entitled to your own facts.