Quite recently I received a letter from a very religious and clearly very intelligent and well-educated young person from Pakistan asking about my personal religious views. This was my reply:
I am not going to speak here about my own religious views but about yours. It seems from what you have written that you are somewhat troubled that I might not share your own beliefs. What I want to do is recommend to you a reasonable, scientific, logical, and quite surefire method by which you may strengthen your own faith.
It doesn't really matter which sect of which religion you belong to, this is what you need to do: pick two or three well-known religions with large numbers of adherents which are as different as possible from your own. From your perspective, the people who believe in these religions are quite wrong about a great number of things, even though you may agree with them about some aspects of their faith. Forget about the things you agree on. Focus instead on their wrong beliefs. The more ridiculous they seem to you, the better. And now ask yourself why such a large number of people find these beliefs to be not only reasonable but often quite self-evident. You must make finding the answer to this question your project for some time. You will essentially be compiling a list of bad reasons for holding a religious belief.
If you think about it (and look into the matter) you will find that there is generally no great difference in the average intelligence of those people who believe in religions very different from yours and the people of your own religion. After all, one can find accomplished and very smart artists, scientists, musicians, mathematicians, writers, philosophers, and so on, from all major religions. (One can, of course, also find imbeciles in every religion, but that is neither here nor there.) Similarly, one can find morally decent people as well as cheats and liars and evil psychopaths from all sorts of religious backgrounds.
When people of very different religions are put in similar circumstances, they tend to succeed in intellectual and other ways quite equally. I first happened to notice this when I went to university in America and saw that there were students from all over the world, belonging to all kinds of faiths: Mormons, Buddhist, Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Hindus, Atheists, etc., but in classes I was taking, like Partial Differential Equations, for example, there was no difference in their performance as groups. Of course I didn't do a statistical study to confirm this, but others actually have. So it can't just be that the people who hold ridiculously wrong beliefs by your lights are all just very stupid. They are only stupid about religion; otherwise, they are just as good as anyone else. So what is it, then? Why do they believe such clearly false things?
One glaring fact will no doubt leap out at you immediately at this point: most of these deluded people (almost all of them, in fact) believe in the same religion as their parents, so that probably has something to do with it. Children trust their parents, after all, and seek their approval and look to them for guidance. And most of the time what parents tell their children turns out to be true. But not always. Once a ridiculously false belief takes hold (for some reason or other), it is quite easy to imagine how it could get transmitted down generation after generation. Maybe this is why they believe in what seems quite silly to you. Then there is also the fear of abandoning a belief out of concern that it may hurt one's parents' feelings and also there is often fear of ostracism from the family and even the larger community to which one belongs. This, then, is our first very good example of a very bad reason for holding a religious belief: because your parents hold it. At least if you care about having true beliefs. So, go ahead, start your list of bad reasons for having religious beliefs now and add this as your first item. Note that I am not saying that if you believe in the same religion as your parents you are necessarily wrong, I am just saying that you must be careful that your parents' belief in a given religion is not one of your reasons for also believing in that religion. You must decide whether your parents' religion is true on independent grounds.
But not all people believe in the religion of their parents. Some people convert into a religion. Sometimes they are forced to do this by circumstances. For example, in some countries, it is not easy belonging to a religion different from that which the majority of people hold to be true. I am sure you can think of many examples of such places for yourself. The people who are coerced in such circumstances to convert to a religion to escape persecution or oppression are not doing it for a good reason. That belonging to a given religion might make your life easier doesn't make that religion true, obviously. So that's another bad reason for your list. By the way, historically speaking, such conversions are not uncommon and have happened on a large scale in the past.
Another reason people hold certain beliefs might be that holding those beliefs makes them feel better about something or other. For example, it might make them anxious to think that they will be permanently separated from their parents or other loved ones by death and so if their religion offers them a belief in an eternal afterlife, as many religions do, where they will be reunited with friends and family, it may make them feel calmer. Or belonging to a religious faith might provide some people with a feeling of solidarity and community and a pleasurable method of occasional social interaction with others. But just because something makes you feel good is not a good reason to believe it is true. It would make me feel very good to believe that I am about to inherit a large sum of money from an unknown relative in the near future but that doesn't make it true and it would be quite foolish of me to have such a belief without strong evidence that it actually is true.
Your job is to keep thinking about those people who hold obviously wrong, even ridiculous beliefs by your lights and compiling your list of the reasons why they do so. You can teach yourself much more about this by reading books about the origins of religious beliefs and what weakness there are in human psychology and emotional makeup that allow such wrong notions to be held true by so many otherwise intelligent people. You might be surprised to know how many of the religious ideas which seem crazy to you take advantage of well-known problems in human cognition to perpetuate themselves from one generation to the next. Humans everywhere seem to share the same mental flaws, just as they do physical ones, like having a useless appendix, and psychologists have made a lot of progress studying these phenomena. I have appended a very short list of books to this note to get you started.
And now we come to the last and very easy step. Once you feel that you have a fairly solid understanding of the many reasons why those people in other religions manage to believe such wrong things, and you are no longer puzzled by the strangeness of their convictions, all you have to do to strengthen your own faith is to just make sure that none of those bad reasons overlap with your reasons for holding your religious faith. That's it. After you have completed this exercise, your faith in your own religion will be stronger than ever because you will know that you believe what you believe for good reasons.
Some books to read:
Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought by Pascal Boyer
In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion by Scott Atran
Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel C. Dennett
S. Abbas Raza is the founding editor of 3QuarksDaily.com
Written By: S. Abbas Raza