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"The Pressure to Believe"
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Here we go again. The presidential candidate notes that unemployed residents of the Rust Belt "become bitter and cling to religion." His opponents leap up to say that he doesn't understand small-town America. Some turn up in the media to assert that they are proud of their religion and are not religious because they're bitter. It seemed to me that the candidate understood the situation quite well, and that these objectors were stating that they were proud to believe what they believe in spite of evidence, that they were proud to believe nonsense. Once again we're left wondering "Where does this inclination to believe things that aren't so come from?"

Here's a hypothesis, stirred up by reading Richard Dawkins' book, THE GOD DELUSION. There is a built-in mechanism in the human brain, which was originally an evolutionary advantage. The young are strongly inclined to believe what older ones tell them. "Wolves and cougars can hurt you badly, if you're not careful. Beware of weak limbs when climbing trees. Beware also of thin ice. Learn this now and you will save much time and avoid much misery later. Learn it well, and live longer." Learning survival tricks this way is a very fine advantage in life's struggle.

Language is obviously part of this built-in mechanism. The basic inclination is to believe, to accept the wisdom of the older ones, to assume that the authority is well-meaning and benign. It will take some unpleasant experiences, and some courage, to conclude later that the story told by the elder, or the authority, is false, and that believing it will actually constitute a disadvantage in the struggle for survival.

So, people are inclined to believe the stories the older ones tell. These stories then coalesce into a system of beliefs, and that system, which could perhaps be called a religion at this stage, is attached to a wider authority than father or older brother. Thus people end up believing nonsense and behaving irrationally. The notion that the Leader [King, or whatever] has been selected and put into his position of authority by a superhuman Entity which made the world and is in charge of it seems preposterous in the face of the historical evidence. Getting people to believe that has been greatly helped by this built-in inclination to believe what authority says, in spite of evidence.

So we have tyrants and their obedient unprotesting subordinates. And we have half the population, i.e. the females, accepting inferior status because Scriptures and priests are prescribing it. People believe nonsense and accept the consequences of that, because of this habit of believing what they've been told.

Schools and teachers are involved in all this, one way or another. Some schools are an extension of parental control, and try to strengthen in children that innate inclination to believe and obey. They don't teach students to think and analyze and doubt and question; instead they fortify the easy way of acceptance and obedience.

Some parents find their role confusing -- should they try to produce obedient and subservient offspring, or should they try to produce thoughtful, independent persons, who are inclined to depend on evidence rather than the dictates of authority? Not all children, even in the same family, handle this the same way. We have observed remarkable contrasts in our household. Some children are more inclined to believe and be obedient than others. Some want to know how it really is and are unsatisfied with the explanations of the older people.

The stories to which the young are subjected range from the silly to the very serious. From some perspectives, e.g., the washing of dishes to make sure they are kosher seems like a colossal waste of time and effort. Yet those who do it refer to tradition and the group that they are part of, and the support and consolation they get from that group. Perhaps it's not quite as silly as outsiders assume.

All the stories about Santa Claus can give insight into these matters. The adults don't believe it, but they encourage little children to believe in the fat guy with the flying reindeer. For a while many of the little ones are believing nonsense, unnecessarily. Gradually they figure it out. It's a myth, with an expiration date. If you meet a 25-year-old who is waiting for Santa Claus to come, you know you have a problem. But what happens to this myth, namely that no adult really believes it, could happen to all the others. Some of us ardently wish it would, and soon.

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Copyright © 2008 Harry Willson

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