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Posted by on Feb 12, 2009 in intellectual black holes | 29 comments

An odd thought

Here is a website I just stumbled across. It sets out, in a few paragraphs, exactly what many millions of Evangelical Christians believe. Many of them are smart. Many are at least reasonably well-educated. Yet what they believe is, in truth, at least as insane as any of the beliefs you are likely to find down your local mental asylum.

How are such utterly ridiculous beliefs able to install themselves so successfully in the heads of so many smart, educated people?

Consider just how potent the mechanisms involved must be!

Surely we should all acknowledge religion has this extraordinary power, and, once we’ve properly acknowledged it, shouldn’t every religious person then be asking themselves: “Isn’t it entirely possible that I too believe some pretty nutty things, and that the reason I struggle to recognize that they are nutty is that these same mechanisms are operating on me?”

Or do you find this thought is one your mind seems strangely unwilling to entertain for very long?

POSTSCRIPT: I imagine many religious folk will respond: “But many atheists believe in the powers of psychics and astrologers to foretell the future, etc. Which is also ridiculous.” Which is true. But does it undermine the moral I’m drawing above?


  1. Look, I’m not an academic, but I do have some questions here;In Gods perfect Garden of Eden, he warned Adam & Eve of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and then he gave them free will – and as a result, curiosity. Did he really expect us to not exercise that? He must have known that we would. Why didn’t he stop it? Why was Lucifers rebellion allowed to succeed – God is omnipotent, so he must have known what was going to happen, and who would be involved? Why didn’t he do something to stop it? Doesn’t that make him complicit in our downfall, and as guilty of sin as the rest of us? Why did he allow this to happen? It makes it all seem like a massive experiment – a bit insulting really.

  2. Ah yes, the whole “Our story is just so much nicer than theirs” argument.So scared of death yet so desperate to get into heaven with a healthy dose of guilt thrown in because hey, people are easier to manipulate if you fill them with guilt.

  3. Both humans and animals were vegetarians at the time of creation. In Genesis 1:29–30 the Lord said, “See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food. Also, to every beast of the earth, to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food.”Certainly. Spiders, for instance, wove their webs to catch falling grapes, which they then sucked the juice out of, leaving raisins for Adame and Eve to eat …

  4. Anonymous,There are plenty of rationalizations that believers bring up to counter that argument. For example, a friend of mine would say something along the lines of, “God can only know that which it’s possible to know – therefore, he doesn’t know what agents with free will will do at any point in time. So he did not know what Adam and Eve would do.” However, this then puts “god” into time relevance – otherwise, he could have just looked at the future, saw that they made an error (in his opinion), then gone back and created better ones. It’s all a big ball of rationalizations that teeter precariously. Keep in mind, too, that this guy is a doctor of theoretical chemistry, so he’s a very smart guy. It actually makes it easier for him to rationalize things, because he can reason his way through almost anything.That’s one thing I’ve noticed about the smart people in cults and religious that you mentioned, Stephen. They may be very, very intelligent, but they lack critical thinking skills. They can be given a set of axioms and reason from those, but to then question those axioms is impossible. I would argue that this is Sye’s problem: He lacks the ability to think critically about his presuppositions, and so loses out with just about every argument he’s ever had with anyone on this site – we all happen to be at least “okay” at reasoning from A to B, but very good at questioning, “Why A?”

  5. The fact that some atheists believe in psychics and astrologers is, to my mind, a red herring. It doesn’t matter who believes in crackpot ideas, these are still crackpot. The fact that Jane believes in fairies does not legitimize – or excuse – Harry’s belief in ghosts.Two thoughts come to mind about this post. The first is that believers do not hold their beliefs for rational reasons but, rather, in defiance of reason. Thus, religious belief systems have high survival value because they are not refutable as far as the believer is concerned. Someone who believes the earth is only 6,000 years old will not budge on being told that geologists know that the earth is much older. By rejecting the evidence and conclusions presented by geologists, he is acquiring merit through faith. Religion thus confers a reward.Most people on the planet in fact know very little about the world, even educated people. For example, ask your bank manager or your MP to explain why we think the world is older than 6,000 years and you are likely to get a very fuzzy answer even if these two worthies believe the theory absolutely. What chance, then, is there of convincing other similarly educated but ignorant folk who, moreover, do not want to be convinced?The second thought is this. If religion is so persuasive, why are there so many atheists? Some atheists had the benefit of an atheistic upbringing but others, such as myself, were brought up as believers. How does it come about that we “escape”? It is not necessarily because we are deeply rational and clued up about science. (In any case, for the reasons given, that wouldn’t be enough.) In fact, collating reasons why people are atheists might turn out almost as interesting as collating reasons why people are believers.

  6. “we all deserve to die and suffer eternal punishment in hell”Meeeeerry Christmas :-)Well, look, this is all rather silly isn’t it. I mean, according to the article, God created Adam and Eve. And we deserve the same punishment as them because we have their “sin-prone” genes. The only explanation seems to be that the sin-genes are the free-will ones: why else would god give them to Adam and Eve, and not remove them from their offspring? But how can free will make sin inevitable? How free is that?! *sigh”The sad things (e.g., the death of a loved one, tsunamis that kill thousands, hurricanes that leave many dead or homeless, etc.) that happen around us and to us are reminders that sin has consequences and that the world needs a Savior.”So don’t fuss about all that crap stuff. You’ll only make things worse. Just sit tight and be humble and God’ll send someone else to deal with it, OK? Hands off. So much for active global citizenship…”He uses the deterioration of the created universe to show us the consequences of our sin.”It would be helpful if He made the link between the two a little clearer, rather than sending tsunamis to SE Asia on Boxing Day, while letting Pol Pot die a natural death decades after managing genocide.”we must all die physically and then face a punishment much more horrible than anything we have ever known”Where’d I leave that party popper?…”Jesus Christ, who is God, came to earth as a man, lived a sinless life, and then died to pay the penalty for sin”But we also still have to pay it while we’re on earth. But it’s OK, because “Compared to eternity, the time we spend here in a cursed world is insignificant”. So, did Jesus or did He not save us from suffering? The world still looks the same now as it did before Jesus, in terms of suffering? What exactly did He explain? And why did it take so long for God to decide to send Him? And… aaaaargh I hate ad hoc logic…

  7. “Compared to eternity, the time we spend here in a cursed world is insignificant”This does, in fact, seem to be the article’s ultimate answer for why we (still) have suffering on earth. “Hey, I know all the abuse, neglect, torture, depression, anxiety, poverty, pain, hopelessness.. yada yada yada… looks bad from where you’re standing. But compare that with an eternity spent boiling in Hell and it won’t look so bad.” Basically: it’s not THAT bad. Don’t cry over spilt milk.

  8. Stephen,Do you really think that there is something special going on when people believe religious nonsense, rather than non-religious nonsense.People believe ridiculous things all the time.Also, how are you defining ridiculous because it often seems that you are implicitly defining as anything that you consider ridiculous.

  9. Sorry to keep posting, but when you find little gems like this…”God’s account of a perfect world ruined by sin and destroyed by a watery judgment (Genesis 6–9) is consistent with the fossil evidence in the world.”Yes. All the animals lined up patiently to be buried in order of biological sophistication for the amusement of later scientists (/devilish ones).

  10. “Compared to eternity, the time we spend here in a cursed world is insignificant”So really the time spent sinning is also pretty insignificant.And some of the sins like say sending other people to heaven a bit early are really not so high impact either are they?

  11. Sally – the bit I liked about the “watery judgement” is it seems to have nailed an awful lot of fish and seabirds as well.

  12. Stephen,Are you suggesting that religious belief might be a legitimate source of renewable energy? Because if you are, I think you might be onto something.

  13. The only reason religious and culturally sanctioned beliefs that are irrational are excluded from modern day psychiatric classification systems is because, well, the psychiatrists said so! Delusions in the American Psychiatric Association’s classification handbook, the ‘DSM-IV’, are defined as “A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everybody else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture.” reason is ever given for the exclusion of culturally acceptable illogical ideas. In working with people classified as psychotic I find this very useful to draw attention to. For instance, someone may be reluctant to shift from a ‘delusional’ explanation of unusual experiences because to do so would cause them to feel ashamed. The shame can be reduced by drawing attention to the sorts of things loads of people believe which are not necessarily rational. Knowing that many people can get it wrong can help those classified as mentally ill to become more flexible in the beliefs they hold, thus reducing their distress and increasing their decision-making capacity.

  14. SilverTiger raises an interesting question: how does someone become atheist after being raised otherwise?I think that imagination has something to do with it. That is, a person actually imagines the alternative viewpoint in a serious way, and discovers that the alternative possibility is not so bad. Without this exercise in imagination, the back and forth trading of argument and counterargument might just be a sort of game, played more or less well. In other words, it is important for the religious person to realize that, if they found that they did not believe (some set of fantastic religious claims) and so were atheist, that life could still have meaning, action could still be moral or immoral, society would not inevitably collapse, and that they would not be appreciably worse with regard to “big questions” generally (why is there something rather than nothing? how did humans come to exist? does anything make humans special? how is knowledge possible? how is free will possible? how is value and meaning possible? etc., etc.). To put it another way: I think it’s the very personal fear of losing a grip on one’s place in the universe that accounts for (some) of the powerful psychological resistance to abandoning religion.

  15. wombat… ha ha ha ha ha good one ;-D

  16. Paul – Perhaps the reason that “culturally acceptable illogical ideas.” are excused recognizes the almost unbearable pressure we feel to conform, whether that be to the group we find ourselves in at any one moment or to the norms of the culture we have been brought up in.

  17. Wombat, yes I think that’s exactly the reason. Normative judgements start to look like factual observations the larger the size of the group making the judgements!

  18. michael youngI agree its important to be able to recognize that the theist fears are real and to offer an alternative way of allaying them, but I would also comment that it is most often religions which establish these fears in the first place. A vague existential angst is encouraged to blossom into a full blown anxiety and then a solution is proposed. “You have been searching for meaning in your life. Surely there must be something more. Well there is – GOD! (fill in alternate name of deity if applicable)”This is a classic sales technique. Find out what the customer fears, play on the fears, offer him a solution that will make the fear go away. Sally – dont even get me started on trilobites…

  19. @ KyleDo you consider a lack of belief in God to be ridiculous or am I reading too much into what you said?If that is what you were implying, then outline what you believe to ridiculous about it, if you would.CheersSarah

  20. I’m not going to get into a theist atheist argument because not all theists are fundamentalists. New Scientist had an article on the persistence of religion throughout human cultures. Refer link: regard to the site that Stephen tagged, I just thought: how perverse?In arguments I’ve had with biblical fundamentalists, they always site prophecy as the defining criterion of the Bible’s ‘absolute truth’, as opposed to the truths that we mere mortals find. My response is that prophecy of mythology is not prophecy, but when you believe mythology is fact it’s a hard argument to sell.Returning to the site in question, it’s not that surprising that so many atrocities have been performed in the name of God, when you employ such perverse logic to justify your beliefs: God creates suffering (for eternity) because Adam and Eve were naughty children in the Garden of Eden – God’s perfect place. Well eating fruit from the tree of good and evil, after being seduced by a snake, is naughty isn’t it? To follow this logic backwards instead of forwards, God created the tree of good and evil to tempt ‘Man’ – why else would he have put it there? Then after ‘Man’ satisfied his natural curiosity as ‘Man’ tends to do, God punishes hime for all eternity. That’s what I call a perverse God.Regards, Paul.

  21. Hi Codewordconduit,I actually don’t think that ridiculous is a very useful term to use in philosophical discussion because it seems to only represent mere opinion or feeling. It’s like when I say ‘Coffee is nice’, it tells you more about me than about coffee.I do think that some people have a ridiculous belief that there is no God, but others have a more reasoned and measured belief. However, I don’t see how it is useful to point that out because such things are just value judgements.Of course, philosophers are free to use whatever terms they like, as long as define them clearly.

  22. I don’t “believe” there is no god. But I consider that the weight of historical and contemporary evidence makes it highly unlikely that any such supernatural, human-interested entity as the ‘God’ postulated by the three Abrahamic religions exists outside the minds of those who believe in it.Man created God in his own idealised image.

  23. If you want, real frightening beliefs? Read this.Do a word search on that page for “billions”. Look at the context that word is in.Or this guy who I got into a fight with…If the applications are so different, then what right does he have to judge us, other than “might makes right”?With God, might makes right is right. So what?Yeah, so “depraved” that the idea of billions of people dying for the sake of the “glory” of some “sky-daddy” sickens me. Yeah, I’m “depraved” alright…Correct.What you’ve described is an amoral being, not a moral one. If you assert, with no proof, that “god” has the “right” to impose his rules on us without himself having to obey any rules himself then he’s not moral, he just does whatever he wants.Yes, God doing whatever he wants is moral.Can anyone think of anything more messed up?

  24. I think Anticant makes a good point. God is a projection, as Feuerbach once famously said: ‘God is the outward projection of man’s inner nature.’To quote Xenophanes: ‘The Ethiopians make their gods black-skinned and snub-nosed; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair. If oxen and horses had hands and could draw and make works of art as men do, then horses would draw their gods to look like horses, and oxen like oxen – each would make their bodies in the image of their own.’Regards, Paul.

  25. I realise that my previous post concerning a ‘perverse god’ actually makes the same point as Anonymous’s opening comment. I should have acknowledged that.Regards, Paul.

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