Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting a rough draft of my upcoming book (in about 10-15 parts) that should be out early next year. I would appreciate comments, corrections (grammatical and other), and evaluations. I don't have much time to get involved in the discussion of comments on this blog, but I'll definitely read all of them. If it's boring, say so!
AN INTRODUCTION TO THE RELIGIOUS CONDITION (1)
If we thought we knew the ultimate answer to the universe before we learned how to tie our shoelaces, our original assessment certainly requires a reevaluation. This painfully obvious appraisal would seem acceptable if I were talking about something other than religion, but I am not. These childhood beliefs would noticeably differ if we traveled the globe, but for our immediate audience, the eternal existence of the Judeo-Christian God is certainly among those long held positions in dire need of reassessment. That is pretty much the theme of this book. The subtitle, Answering and Explaining Christian Reasoning, summarily states the method of this urgent reconsideration. It is an incomprehensible tragedy that a grounded book like this, which debunks a book of pure fantasy, still has to be written in an age of reason. Why is it that humans have been able to cure disease, travel to the moon, and create nanotechnology in the same era that they worship a creator who allegedly inspired one of the foulest books ever produced?[i] This manuscript is my attempt at an explanation.
After writing Biblical Nonsense, my first critique of the Bible, I thought I had I communicated everything I wanted to say on the subject of the Christian religion. Then the critical letters started rolling in. Those letters inspire the majority of The Religious Condition. As a great deal of these correspondence originate from individuals who, due to their isolated Christian environments,[ii] could never develop reasonable unbiased arguments, I’ll allocate a large portion of the text for explaining what I suspect are the psychological processes that form their arguments and block them from accepting more rational perspectives from objective sources. In other words, we will see why people continue to believe the silly things that they believe despite facts to the contrary.
To support my behavioral observations, I will frequently reference the two most widely accepted books on persuasive psychology: Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini and Attitudes and Persuasion: Classic and Contemporary Approaches by Richard E. Petty and John T. Cacioppo. Social psychologists have long considered these two books to be the cornerstones for explaining the oft-irrational methods through which people acquire and maintain their beliefs. I will cite some additional texts in situations where I could never hope to do the same points justice, relying heavily on the following popular works:
The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan
Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer
Atheist Universe: The Thinking Person’s Answer to Christian Fundamentalism by David Mills
Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smith
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris[iii]
I hope that my latest endeavor will take the best of these efforts and incorporate them into responses provided to those who disparage progressive-thinking disbelievers who do not believe in fairy tales like Noah’s
The operational method of this manuscript is to answer objections raised in my previous work directly while expanding on new topics when the opportunity arises. The italicized portions you see preceding a number of sections are authentic reader statements that they have presented to me in defense of God, Christianity, the Bible, or all of the above. These reader opinions are often condensed or summarized – without destroying the original connotation or stripping it of supporting ideas – and brushed up grammatically; I would otherwise be accused of doctoring a number of them with terrible grammar in order to make the arguments look even shoddier than they sometimes reveal themselves to be. I fully realize that many of these responses are not indicative of the best apologetic works out there, but I believe they are an accurate portrayal of the objections that embolden the minds of intellectually average Christians – whether they are liberal, fundamentalist, or somewhere in between.
AN INTRODUCTION TO THE RELIGIOUS CONDITION (2)
It took several weeks, a bit longer than I originally anticipated, before I received a letter from the first reader who proclaimed that he had left Christianity because of my writings. I previously had a handful of people credit me with assisting in their choice to leave faith for reason, a few who recognized me for moving them out of fundamentalism, and far more than I anticipated who thanked me for telling them what they already knew. However, until that first significant letter, I had never had a person write to tell me that they started with a few honest questions and ended with a complete absence of belief. It was greatly satisfying and made me feel that the long hours of researching, typing, editing, and proofreading were all worthwhile.
In my career as a pharmacist,[vi] I have helped hundreds of people by providing them with medical information (even preventing a couple of potentially fatal decisions committed by physicians), but none of it seems as fulfilling as that first letter. After all, anyone trained in medicine can do what I do – you study, you learn, you memorize, you stay determined, you graduate, and you go to work. However, it takes much more patience, practice, and unique perspective to combat a psychological shortcoming that is often far more dangerous than any physical one.
It was not any of the usual objections – the doctrine of hell, the evidence against literal creationism, or the hatred in the Old Testament – that got the gears rolling in the brain of that first individual. Far more interesting, it was the unethical divine glorification of King Solomon, a man who would later take hundreds of wives and concubines.[vii] What sort of perfect god, he wondered, would ever praise a man who he knew would later treat women like objects? I find it very interesting what often makes people tackle reality, but for those who will inevitably acquire the perspective of this individual, I continue to assist any way I can in the fight against religious conditioning.
In addition to the upcoming excerpts from letters of criticism that range anywhere from pleasantly constructive to feloniously malicious, there have since been a number of subsequent supportive letters thanking me for my work. Many more began crediting me with giving them their freedom from religion. Readers have said that my book has brought to their attention “conflicts that are irreconcilable” and made them “come to terms (almost) with the possibility of the Bible having multiple errors.” Some claim that, after reading my book, they have “been going through some major doubts” or “suffering over [proposed] questions.” One reader states that he is now “convinced at the very least that the God of the Bible does not exist” and another “resigned [his] membership to [his] church.” One further claims that it was “the DEATH of [her] faith and expectation of unanswered prayers [because she] wants to live in reality.” One simply stated, “I am now an atheist,” and another “I have been a Christian for thirty-eight years and have finally seen the light,” and yet another, “I can now, at last, just get on with living my life.”
One sharply comical writer who warned me that I would not sell many books for taking too logical of a stance advised me, “People don’t want logic; it’s too boring. They want big hero-type gods creating the world in a flash and smoting everybody who thinks independently of the established church. A random but rational, scary but understandable reality is just too mundane; people want the
Many Christian readers have taken the time to inform me that they have prayed for my soul in order that I might understand their interpretations of the Bible. Although on some level I appreciate their good intentions, I highly doubt that God is going to appear and defend the seemingly innumerable logistical and ethical problems of the Bible. Instead, God apparently relies on apologetic messengers who utilize bankrupt logic and disagree among themselves to set everything straight for the nonbelievers. For now, I will leave it to the readers to consider the fundamental ramifications of such a curious problem. Other Christian readers have told me that after reading my book, their faith is bigger ever. I am not at all surprised with this, since it has long been said that more faith is required in the presence of growing counterevidence.
Many readers have noticed that while I am enormously concerned with the illegitimacy of the Bible, I never take the time to talk about my own religious perspectives. I originally chose not to do so because they were not relevant to the veracity of the Bible. To put the matter to rest, I will declare that I do not follow any particular religion. Since I do not subscribe to a specific religious belief, I pretty much find myself following the basics of secular humanism as a moral guideline. In other words, I base my decisions and actions upon reason and observation rather than religious convictions and ancient superstitions. I ask myself what is right and what is for the greater good – not what a man said that God said he wanted us to do, which anyone can of course ascertain from a book written during the height of human gullibility. I do what is right because it is right – not because an omnipresent voyeurist is going to reward me for doing so.
Even though I meet the classical definition of an atheist,[viii] I also frequently refer to myself as agnostic because I know of no way to be certain about supernatural existence – I can only eliminate possibilities. Now that is not to say that I am uncertain whether the Judeo-Christian God exists. I am in no more doubt on that issue than the existence of any of the hundreds of other gods invented in the era. I simply will not rule out the (unlikely?) possibility of a higher power that is beyond the scope of human understanding – the Thomas Jeffersonian God, if you will.
More than one reader has suggested that calling oneself a secular humanist is a thinly veiled attempt to avoid the term atheist, but it is not a matter of what term one prefers because the two schools of thought are independent and sometimes even contradictory. Atheism is a religious stance that there is insufficient evidence to declare the existence of a god; humanism is a philosophy that one should do what is for the greater good without the expectation of a supernatural reward. Since there are a number of Christian individuals who belong to humanist groups,[ix] it would not make much to sense to call them Christian atheists. Many Christians (and perhaps a few atheists) use the term interchangeably because they simply do not know the difference. I hope that that practice will soon cease.
AN INTRODUCTION TO THE RELIGIOUS CONDITION (3)
Among the various authors of the Bible, as believed by most Christians, is God himself. There are, of course, a variety of opinions as to exactly how much God participated in the creation of his holy word. These suggestions range anywhere from God ambiguously “inspiring” the authors while they were writing – to God dictating verbatim what he wanted in his manuscript, even straight through to the English King James Version in 1611.[x] Since just about anyone can find and interpret just about anything in the Bible to support a particular viewpoint, I am confident that people in every camp of thought could find textual justification for their respective positions on the subject of divine inspiration. After all, as we will soon see, people are typically not the least bit interested in searching for evidence that disconfirms their beliefs. The majority of unbiased persons who hold the knowledge of a former religious follower turned freethinker, on the other hand, would not dare defend the unsighted belief that an omniscient and omnipotent being inspired the Bible, much less had a direct hand in writing it.
There is an extremely long list of objective reasons why we should not consider the Bible to be of any more value than the hundreds of other ancient texts that came from the Ancient Near East during the early years of recorded history. We should consider, above all, the superstitious age in which it was written, the failure to differentiate itself significantly from other contemporaneous mythological works, and the patently absurd claims of the Bible itself. In my previous work, I offered a long critical treatise against the Bible itself, focusing mainly on its absurd claims. While such a laborious exercise is not the intent of this book, I still feel it is sometimes necessary to refer back to certain points raised in my earlier manuscript in order to assist in making a number of cases. As I hope you will likewise conclude after reading The Religious Condition, the Bible is historically inaccurate, scientifically bankrupt, morally reprehensible, unreasonably absurd, and demonstrably inconsistent.
Despite the objection of many Christians, my writings have never been about enforcing human limitations on the Christian perspective of God. This whole process of argumentation and discovery has been about rendering a verdict on the possibility of the Bible being a divinely inspired representation of such an incredible being. If the Bible is, in fact, the word of the universe’s omnipotent creator, the abilities of this being to alter science and logic would seemingly supersede the legitimate questions posed within my writings. In order to derive an unbiased conclusion on such an important matter, however, it is only fair if I demand that we read the Bible from an impartial perspective and carefully decide if we can truly attribute the book to such a magnificent entity. We cannot simply begin by assuming it is the work of God and molding our explanations around that premise. Tens of millions of Christians maintain their beliefs through this very practice. The intellectual dishonesty in doing so is a topic we will revisit a number of times throughout this book.
If upon the conclusion of our exercise, we can deduce that the possibility of the Bible having a link to this god is exceedingly remote, the veracity of the religion fails. The Bible must then be able to stand on its own merit to maintain the moral credibility that Christians have so freely given it over the centuries. If the Bible cannot be self-sufficient in this manner, we cannot grant it leniencies against breaking multiple rules set by science and reason while we attempt to establish the authors of the book as people of great moral character.
With this balanced paradigm in mind, you should discover two recurring themes while reviewing the upcoming text: 1) the link between divinity and the Bible is simply nonexistent; and 2) there are no reasonable defenses for many biblical complications. The first idea is anything but novel since thousands before me have demonstrated the abundant biblical complications that establish the logical impossibility of a supernatural force ever dictating or influencing it. The second idea is less established, hence my decision to undertake this latest project. The curious biblical positions we will review are just part of an ever-growing number of solid reasons to consider biblical passages twice before recognizing them as absolute truth. Moreover, we should never accept any idea based solely on the fact that we can find it in an ancient book that a minority of the world population claims to have been co-authored by one of ancient society’s many gods.
The Religious Condition considers four major issues. The first, relying heavily upon social psychologists Cialdini, Petty, and Cacioppo, will discuss how (often-ridiculous) external factors influence the shaping of an individual’s core beliefs. The second will deal with the numerous reader opinions on how we should consider science and the Bible mutually exclusive, compatible, or contradictory. The third will cover epistemological methods to draw conclusions on the validity of the Bible and the existence of God. The fourth will focus on questions concerning morality. Whether you are fundamentally religious, slightly spiritual, or devoutly rational, I did my best to ensure that you would find something of interest in this latest effort.
AN INTRODUCTION TO RELIGION AND THE MIND
Human psychology plays such an enormous and indispensable role in religious beliefs that I have dedicated more material to this matter than any other topic in the book. I cannot emphasize enough how people are victim to the persuasions of society and the natural gullibility of human rationale. Conditioning, bias, dissonance, and intelligence are all factors that play enormous roles in our decision-making. We will eventually consider each of these aspects and discover to what extent people shun rational thought in favor of observing their indoctrinated religious beliefs throughout life.
I recall watching a televised version of The Crucible not long ago. If you are unfamiliar with the play or book, it is a story based on the religious community of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 who zealously executed an incredible number of people accused of practicing witchcraft and conspiring with the devil. While watching the movie, I remember thinking primarily about how absurdly hypocritical it is for any modern Christian to think that these people were in any way more foolish than their present counterparts. I am completely unsurprised that a small town of people was fooled into believing that the devil was communicating with the young girls and telling them nasty stories about the townspeople with whom he started associating.
The level of absurdity between the people of the colonial period and the citizens of modern-day
If you can place a young boy within a society that widely believes in the Tooth Fairy and teach him the sacred importance of believing in the Tooth Fairy, he will most likely believe in the Tooth Fairy until the day he dies. If you can place him within a society that widely believes the earth is flat and teach him the sacred importance of believing the earth is flat, he will most likely believe that the earth is flat until the day he dies. In either scenario, he will almost certainly teach his children to believe the same and to pass those beliefs on to his grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc. People believe what they are taught it is important to believe, and they will stick to those beliefs throughout life despite overwhelming evidence and observations to the contrary.
Individuals in the Islamic states were not taught about Tooth Fairies or flat earths, but rather about the final prophet riding a winged horse into heaven and suicide bombers who receive a reward of seventy-two virgins in paradise. Individuals in American Mormon communities were not taught about tooth fairies or flat earths, but rather about an enormous Jewish kingdom in
While God could choose any absurd method of interaction he wanted, we never stop to consider if God would manifest in this way. God could choose to continue his declaration to the world by having a man read it out of a hat, but would he? God could choose to retrieve his final prophet by sending him a winged horse, but would he? God could choose to give salvation to the world by sacrificing and resurrecting himself in bodily form, but would he? Since any of these is physically possible if we assume the existence of an all-powerful deity, and rational evidence for these claims is practically nonexistent, belief boils down to whichever book you were raised to think is reliable. It is not a matter of accepting that one must be true and deciding that your belief sounds the least superstitious (or perhaps just as good as the next), but rather can any suggestion stand on its own as a sensible avenue for God to take. The reasons given for each belief are driven not by rational thought and reasoned arguments, but in response to indoctrination, bias, and cognitive dissonance, which too often yield rationalizations and other superficial answers. So you must excuse me for not joining the crowd who laughs at specks in the Puritans’ eyes when there are planks in just about everyone else’s.[xiii] Harris puts the matter in perspective quite bluntly:
It is merely an accident of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your thoughts, while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window. And so, while religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are. This is not surprising, since most religions have merely canonized a few products of ancient ignorance and derangement and passed them down to us as though they were primordial truths. This leaves billions of us believing what no sane person could believe on his own. In fact, it is difficult to imagine a set of beliefs more suggestive of mental illness than those that lie at the heart of many of our religious traditions.[xiv]
Indeed. The Puritans taught themselves that it was normal to believe that the devil was lurking in the shadows, and they were constantly able to find him. The Muslims taught themselves that it was normal to believe that Allah would provide a paradise for suicide bombers, and they are constantly able to recruit them. The Mormons taught themselves that it was normal to believe in a pre-historic Western Jewish kingdom, and they are constantly able to find scholars who will attest to its existence. The Christians taught themselves that it was normal to pray to an earthly savior who miraculously rose from the dead, and they are constantly finding miraculous evidence of his benevolence. Christians believe this notion because, like the others, they are lifelong members of a society that has continually reinforced the “special” nature of their beliefs. It should go without saying that every religion is “special” in its own isolated environment of observance. Christians believe strange things for what objective outsiders perceive to be very strange reasons. What one society perceives as normal, another perceives as collective insanity.
RELIGION AND THE MIND: TRENDS
Explaining the various thought processes behind why people belong to a certain religion is not intended to serve as proof that the belief system in question is wrong, but rather to demonstrate that the belief system is being observed in a fashion that is completely void of rational and independent thought. In other words, the religious belief was offered, it was accepted, it was practiced, it was justified, and it was passed; but it was not seriously questioned. A particular religion will be a strong presence in surroundings where children are continuously taught that it cannot be seriously questioned, much less possibly proven false. Christian environments, particularly fundamentalist ones, provide such conditions. I would never deny that exceptions to this process exist (as just about everyone claims to be such an exception – the possibility of which we will investigate shortly), but I will indefinitely stand by my position that the overwhelming majority does not join a religion in this fashion. The only major religious study of the twenty-first century dealing with this question reports that eighty-four percent of Americans belong to the exact same religion as their parents.[xv] Coincidence? Hardly.
Does it come as any surprise that the self-proclaimed exceptions who claim to have chosen Christianity through rational deduction just happened to pick the one religion out of hundreds that was already widely practiced and accepted in their environment? Is there any reasonable doubt that if they had been born in
The oversimplification of my position from one apologist, “you believe what your parents taught you,” will apply an overwhelming majority of the time to religious preference and serves as the primary reason that Christianity has flourished to enormous proportions in the West. Followers of Christianity are great in number because their predecessors spread, conquered, and converted in a very efficient manner during an era in which people rarely chose to question Christianity[xvi]. The masses of people following Christianity are not doing so because God wants to ensure that the correct religion has a sizable lead over the others. This would be a ridiculous ad hoc claim, one that any religion in the lead could utilize.
People who purportedly “choose” Christianity do not consider the religion as the first belief for consideration because this large society has studied its history and declared its veracity, but rather because this large society (the product of migration, conquest, and conversion) presented the religious belief as the most, if not the only, viable option. Even in homes where parents raise children without religion, the religious beliefs of a society are vocal enough and widespread enough to suggest constantly to a young child that there might be some sort of legitimacy to the religion. If ninety percent of people in your extended society believe in something you do not, you are likely to soon begin looking for reasons why this is so. Individuals who claim to have made a rational decision free of outside influence to join Christianity seem oblivious to how likely it was that they would walk right into the church. If that society had been propagating an Islamic viewpoint, it would be right into the mosque. If that society had been propagating a Jewish viewpoint, it would be right into the temple. I could continue with a seemingly endless list of buildings for worship, but I hope the point is clear.
A treatise on why a considerable portion of the world’s population, particularly those residing in the
RELIGION AND THE MIND: CHILDHOOD SUSCEPTIBILITY
It is not a shocking discovery that parents pass on their religious beliefs through their children. Muslim parents tend to have Muslim children; Christian parents tend to have Christian children; atheist parents tend to have atheist children. As I mentioned earlier, studies have consistently shown that children will habitually accept their parents’ religious beliefs as their own. This trend remains true, as far as we know, throughout the ten thousand distinct religions in existence.[xvii] I think it would be perfectly fair to say that if the most avid Christian preacher of your hometown had been born in
Since most of the information that children have about the world comes directly from their parents, it is not surprising that children’s beliefs, and thus their attitudes, are initially very similar to their parents. For example, social psychologists have well documented that children tend to share their parents’ racial prejudices, religious preferences, and political party affiliations.[xviii]
Such consistent traditions simply cannot be maintained by chance alone. Because religious beliefs are certainly not in our DNA, a child’s environment must necessarily affect his religious affiliation in some manner. In fact, all children are born without specific religious ideas and remain in a state of impressionability until influenced by the religious convictions of their parents or other similarly motivated individuals. In effect, all children are born classical atheists. Smith rightly points out that some readers will have problems with the observation that children are born atheistic, to which he offers the following reply:
If the religionist is bothered by the moral implications of calling the uninformed child an atheist, the fault lies with these moral implications, not with the definition of atheism. Recognizing this child as an atheist is a major step in removing the moral stigma attached to atheism, because it forces the theist to either abandon his stereotypes of atheism or to extend them where they are patently absurd. If he refuses to discard his favorite myths, if he continues to condemn nonbelievers per se as immoral, consistency demands that he condemn the innocent child as well. And, unless the theist happens to be an ardent follower of Calvin, he will recognize his sweeping moral disapproval of atheism for what it is: nonsense.[xix]
We can safely say that individuals become members of their respective religious groups primarily because their parents were also members. Likewise, the parents are probably members because their parents were also members. This developing pattern should prompt the question of how far back this visionless trend continues – and who knows why that first person decided what he did. Instead of initiating an honest and impartial analysis of the new evidence that science and enlightened thinking have provided, people simply bury their heads in the sand and continue to observe whatever beliefs they were conquered with or whatever religion their ancestors thought they needed thousands of years ago. They believed it as children, and the will continue to believe it. Moreover, this type of reckless behavior goes unnoticed because religious individuals exhibit it throughout almost every culture around the globe.
Psychologists have further linked the increased tendency for children to share such beliefs, rather convincingly, to the level of indoctrination. One important study in social psychology by Frank Sulloway revealed that birth order was the strongest factor in determining intellectual receptivity to innovation in science – stronger than the date of conversion, age, sex, nationality, socio-economic class, number of siblings, degree of previous contact with leaders of the innovation, religious and political attitudes, fields of scientific specialization, previous awards and honors, three independent measures of eminence, religious denomination, conflict with parents, travel, education attainment, physical handicaps, and parents’ ages at birth. In our example, the order of birth correlates to the level of indoctrination because firstborn children receive more attention from their parents than their younger siblings receive. Earlier born children also have more responsibilities to maintain the status quo while their younger counterparts are farther removed from parental authority. For this reason, children farther down in the birth order are less inclined to adopt the beliefs of the parents and are therefore less likely to have their parents indoctrinate them with fantastical beliefs.[xx]
Shermer explains that of the components of the Five Factor model, the most popular trait theory in psychology for the moment, openness to experience is the most significant predictor of an individual’s levels of religiosity and belief in God. However, the results are quite the opposite of what you might initially anticipate. Despite pleas from the religious crowd geared toward the skeptics for open-mindedness, a study by Shermer and Sulloway showed that people with open minds compose the one group less likely to be religious or have a belief in God.[xxi] This conclusion might seem counterintuitive, especially considering how mystical ideas are commonly purported to reveal their veracity to those with open minds, but the results should be obvious upon further reflection. Skeptics are doubtful but willing to consider; the religious are indoctrinated not to seriously question. It does not take a willfully open mind to accept the existence of God. People accept such beliefs during childhood, a stage of development known for its readiness to accept ideas as outrageous as Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. It does take an open mind, however, to consider the possibility that one’s most sacred beliefs might be false.
RELIGION AND THE MIND: CHILDHOOD INDOCTRINATION
Let us take a closer look at this coerced process of indoctrination taking place within religious communities across the globe. When children in the
The influence that such fear messages holds over an audience is two-fold and not to be underestimated. Petty and Cacioppo offer a study to explain how high-fear messages can be so upsetting that the audience engages in defensive avoidance and refuses to think critically about or be motivated by the issue.[xxii] Additionally, high-fear messages are more effective than moderate-fear or low-fear appeals when supporting arguments are reassuring and leave the audience with effective means of protecting themselves. The psychologists summarize the thought process quite nicely, and it is worth quoting at some length:
Let’s look more closely at how fear-arousing messages are constituted. These messages describe: (a) the unfavorableness of the consequences that will occur if the recommended actions are not adopted; (b) the likelihood that these consequences will occur if the recommended actions are not adopted; and (c) the likelihood that these consequences will not occur if the recommended actions are adopted. In other words, the message arouses fear in a person by questioning the adaptiveness of the current state of affairs. In addition, the message arguments motivate a person to accept the recommendations by outlining explicit undesirable consequences of doing otherwise. That is, the message arguments explain the high likelihood that a set of dire consequences will occur if the recommendations are ignored, consequences whose seriousness and unpleasantness are graphically depicted. The better understood and the more reassuring the message arguments, the more attitude change toward the recommended action that should occur…In sum, fear-arousing messages are effective in inducing attitude change particularly when the following conditions are met: (a) the message provides strong arguments for the possibility of the recipient suffering some extremely negative consequence; (b) the arguments explain that these negative consequences are very likely if the recommendations are not accepted; and (c) it provides strong assurances that adoption of the recommendations effectively eliminates these negative consequences. [xxiii]
According to Petty and Cacioppo, as the message bearer more clearly defines the three message points, the speaker will convince a larger portion of the audience to adapt to his position. With respect to these three points regarding our discussion of hell, the unfavorableness of the consequences that will occur if the recommended actions are not adopted is absolute because hell is complete (and often asserted to be eternal) agony;[xxiv] the likelihood that these consequences will occur if the recommended actions are not adopted is absolute because it is decreed as the rule of an all-powerful being;[xxv] and the likelihood that these consequences will not occur if the recommended actions are adopted is absolute because it is likewise decreed as the rule of an all-powerful being.[xxvi]
Hardly any conceivable message can be more motivating, and we have good reason to believe that the nature of the message can be upsetting enough to deter critical thinking, especially when the audience is too young and tender to have developed such a discipline that would rationalize or challenge the validity of such assertions. Just the opposite, children habitually give benefit of the doubt to their parents and other role models. Petty and Cacioppo report that children are “increasingly persuasible until around the age of eight, after which time the child becomes less persuasible until some stable level of persuasibility is reached.”[xxvii] Naturally, religious indoctrination is firmly in place well before the age of eight, making any subsequent attempts to remove the indoctrination quite difficult to say the least. After all, since parents tend to be correct on just about every other testable matter of importance, it is unfortunately reasonable for a child to extend this pattern into the realm of non-falsification. There is obviously good reason why a large number of children do not question the veracity of hell. According to Dawkins:
More than any other species, we survive by the accumulated experience of previous generations, and that experience needs to be passed on to children for their protection and well-being. Theoretically, children might learn from personal experience not to go too near a cliff edge, not to eat untried red berries, not to swim in crocodile-infested waters. But, to say the least, there will be a selective advantage to child brains that possess the rule of thumb: believe, without question, whatever your grown-ups tell you. Obey your parents; obey the tribal elders, especially when they adopt a solemn, minatory tone. Trust your elders without question. This is a generally valuable rule for a child. But, as with the moths [flying into a flame], it can go wrong.[xxviii]
To continue the conditioning process, parents must successfully keep their children free from external contradicting influences by encompassing them within a Christian environment in a Christian country often with weekly Christian refreshment.[xxix] Even the more advanced instructors of a child’s religion, Sunday School teachers, are reasonably consistent with parental beliefs. Do they tell their students that they should impartially study both sides of the religious debate in order to discover the truth, or do they tell them that Christianity is true and give them reaffirming material if they have doubts? If any such teacher fits the former category, I would be very impressed since I have not met anyone who does. They use this method because alternative religious and secular sources would obviously present conflicting information and weaken their bonds with Jesus Christ, the head of the religious support system. The other religions would also illustrate the contradictions and consequential uncertainties shared amongst all faith-based beliefs. A young child fortunate enough to appreciate this contrast would certainly be much more likely to question his beliefs than one who is not.
Just as Paul told his various audiences that there was a sense of urgency in accepting Jesus, many parents graciously tell their children that they believe people who know about Jesus and refuse to worship him might go to hell.[xxx] Since Jesus could possibly return today or tomorrow, time is of the utmost essence. The requirement to accept Jesus is absolute, and it would be beneficial to do so as soon as possible in order for God to save them from the chance of perpetual punishment. If they choose not to accept Jesus before death, that trip to hell may very well be in order.
While we have spent considerable time describing the punishment of refusing Jesus, we must not forget about the ultimate reward for accepting him: an eternal stay in heaven with infinite happiness. How many impressionable young children could possibly refuse this “genuine” offer? By this point, children have heard and hastily accepted the proposal. As time goes by, the vast Christian American environment gently but consistently drives the imperative system into their heads day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year. By their teenage years, most Christians could not possibly consider the presence of a fundamental error in the Bible, much less a completely erroneous foundation, because it is already – unquestionably – the perfect word of God to them.
Any attempt to educate children based solely on the facts (instead of faith) is seen, ironically, as attempted indoctrination. Consider this excerpt from an article that contains the opinion of a Christian mother of two who is speaking out against the refusal to allow Intelligent Design into public schools: “‘If students only have one thing to consider, one option, that’s really more brainwashing,’ said Duckett, who sent her children to Christian schools because of her frustration.”[xxxi] The irony in that line is simply astonishing. Moreover, for the sake of pointing out even further irony, Jesus himself even seems to have appreciated the notion that children are unbelievably gullible and may have been using this observation when he declared, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”[xxxii] Smith elaborates beautifully on the danger of this idea:
To be moral, according to Jesus, man must shackle his reason. He must force himself to believe that which we cannot understand. He must suppress, in the name of morality, any doubts that surface in his mind. He must regard as a mark of excellence and unwillingness to subject religious beliefs to critical examination. Less criticism leads to more faith – and faith, Jesus declares, is the hallmark of virtue…The psychological impact of this doctrine is devastating. To divorce morality from truth is to turn man’s reason against himself. Reason, as the faculty by which man comprehends reality and exercises control over his environment, is the basic requirement of self-esteem. To the extent that a man believes his mind is a potential enemy, that it may lead to the ‘evils’ of question-asking and criticism, he will feel the need for intellectual passivity – to deliberately sabotage his mind in the name of virtue. Reason becomes a vice, something to be feared, and man finds that his worst enemy is his own capacity to think and question. One can scarcely imagine a more effective way to introduce perpetual conflict into man’s consciousness and thereby produce a host of neurotic symptoms.[xxxiii]
RELIGION AND THE MIND: THE LASTING EFFECTS OF CHILDHOOD INDOCTRINATION
Following their childhood indoctrination, individuals exhibit their desire to be in groups by surrounding themselves with those who hold similar interests in order to reinforce the perceived appropriateness of their beliefs and opinions. When I was younger, I also underwent this near-universal conditioning process and tried to recruit/assimilate others into my group because that is what my environment told me that God wanted me to do. I wrote in Biblical Nonsense on how I discovered that this was my reality when I was sitting in church one Sunday and realized that I would believe in the veracity of whatever religion was instilled within me. I understood that I would have believed in Hinduism if I had been born in
If you feel trapped in the religion of your upbringing, it would be worth asking yourself how this came about. The answer is usually some form of childhood indoctrination. If you are religious at all it is overwhelmingly probable that your religion is that of your parents. If you were born in
If you believe in a book with a talking donkey because it is the special exception to the rules of common sense, but realize that you would believe in a different book, perhaps one with a talking giraffe or a flying horse, if you had been born somewhere else, something has obviously gone very wrong with your way of thinking.
That Sunday morning in church, I wondered why the adults did not realize this and reevaluate their own beliefs.[xxxv] In addition to their oblivious decision to follow Christianity, I later came to realize that most adults don’t even know what they really believe because they never take the time to read a considerable amount of the Bible, much less the whole text. Only forty percent can name half of the Ten Commandments.[xxxvi] Because of this shockingly lazy choice exercised by the vast majority of Christians, they are ill equipped to answer challenges to their belief system. As a result, the common response to presented complications usually boils down to “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” When it comes to religion, the mainstream believers exhibit no more in-depth thinking than members of any local cult. Regardless of the actions such religious people take, I could never deem them as evil because I now understand that they are victims of an unfortunate destiny (or more accurately, an unfortunate hardwiring of the brain) misleading them down a path of ignorance and unwitting gullibility.
Many Christian readers who have taken the time to write me will admit that nothing I say will convince them that the Bible is not the word of God. It’s quite pointless to speak to people who admit that they will not change their minds on an issue no matter what evidence is presented and no matter to what extent their arguments for the position are destroyed. The exercise of books like this aren’t an attempt to change the minds of such individuals, but rather to provide a perfect illustration for the more rational audience members that people are conditioned to accept whatever society informs them is critically important to accept. How many Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and Mormons would respond exactly like these Christians had I asked them if they were willing to admit that it is possible that their respective holy books were wrong? I can imagine nothing other than a parallel reflection.
Religion strives with stubborn behavior implemented by years of conditioning. It is not the perceived high quality of evidence apologetically offered in favor of the Bible that makes religious people feel comfortable maintaining their beliefs. After all, they will not change their minds under any circumstances. One could offer perfect evidence of the Bible’s moral and historical bankruptcy if it existed, yet the believers would not accept it because the conditioned indoctrination has made the belief concrete. As Harris brilliantly puts it:
Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever.[xxxvii]
To compound further this obtuse mental fallibility, researchers have shown that people become more confident about their decisions as time progresses, despite a complete lack of evidence to support the veracity of their choices. Cialdini reports that after placing a bet at a racetrack, and with no additional information to consider, individuals are much more confident of their chances of winning than they were just before laying down the bet.[xxxviii] As humans, we simply are not as comfortable considering the notion that we might be wrong. We enjoy being right. As a result, on some inexplicable level, we strive to convince ourselves that we have followed proper revenues of belief rather than consider the possibility that we might have behaved improperly. This nature is highly illogical, intellectually dishonest, and potentially dangerous. In an upcoming section, we will consider the implications of an individual confronted with the notion that his most sacred beliefs have come into question – decades after those beliefs have been set.[xxxix]
To what great extent are people of deep religious faith conditioned to avoid questioning their core beliefs? Consider the following example. Suppose the world witnesses the descent of a great entity from the sky. This being proclaims that its name is God and the time for the world to end has finally arrived. It should go without saying that people are going to want to see proof of its claims. Whatever miracles one requests of God, he is happy to oblige. He has the power to make mountains rise and fall at will. He can set the oceans ablaze at the snap of a finger. He can even return life to those who died thousands of years ago. God can do anything asked of him. Then, someone from the gathered crowd makes an inquiry as to which religion holds the absolute truth. God replies, “The religion of truth is Islam. The Qur’an is my one and only holy word. All other religious texts, including the Bible, are entirely blasphemous. All those who do not acknowledge my word will undergo a lengthy punishment for not following my teachings. Now is your chance to repent.”
What choice does the Christian community make in this situation? This deity has already demonstrated that it possesses the omnipotence and omniscience of a supreme being. Do Christians readily switch over to the side of observable and testable evidence, or do they declare that this being is the Devil tempting their faith in God? Think about it for a minute because it’s an interesting predicament. I believe we all know that a good portion of Christians would denounce this new being in order to please “The One True God, Heavenly Father of Jesus.” As a result of their collective decision, the supernatural entity forces them to undergo unimaginable torment for a few weeks before offering them a final chance to repent. Do the Christians embrace the teachings of this creature after experiencing its capabilities firsthand, or do they still consider it the final test and refuse to denounce their faith in the Bible? We should not be at all surprised to find that a large portion would still maintain their present beliefs. Childhood indoctrination is that strong and that crippling to sensibility.
While many believe that they have arrived at their Christian beliefs through logical deduction and not childhood indoctrination, Shermer demonstrates the existence of an Intellectual Attribution Bias, which will help support my earlier insinuation that people claim far too often to be an exception to the indoctrination process. One of his studies shows that people are nearly nine times more likely to believe that they arrived at their religious positions from critical thinking than any Christian chosen at random. Shermer argues that “problems in attribution may arise in our haste to accept the first cause that comes to mind” and that “there is a tendency for people to take credit for their good actions…and let the situation account for their bad ones.”[xl] He continues:
“Our commitment to a belief is attributed to a rational decision and intellectual choice; whereas the other person’s belief is attributed to need and emotion. This intellectual attribution bias applies to religion as a belief system and to God as the subject of belief. As pattern-seeking animals, the matter of the apparent good design of the universe, and the perceived action of a higher intelligence in the day-to-day contingencies of our lives, is a powerful one as an intellectual justification for belief. But we attribute other people’s religious beliefs to their emotional needs and upbringing.”[xli]
In other words, people are able to recognize that many religious believers are only in the faith because they have been brought up that way, but they are more than willing to pass over such consideration for themselves and will instead seek out a rational explanation for a belief that they never really chose. Finding the gullibility of others is an easy task; finding it in ourselves can be a difficult and discomforting task.
I will indefinitely stand by my observation and the identical observation made by countless other freethinkers who have left organized religion: almost all religious people, Christian or not, have been strongly conditioned as children to believe what society has encouraged them to believe. It is my hope that readers can appreciate that people tend to believe in whatever religion their society believes and that religious believers are typically able to rationalize their beliefs even in the presence of overwhelming evidence that is contrary to those beliefs. This rationalization process, to which we will now turn our attention, is the result of the believer’s favoritism toward his preconceived notions.
[i] Actually, most people who accomplish such feats tend not to believe in the veracity of the Bible, but we’ll get to this issue later.
[ii] Typically, single-family American Christian households located in Christian neighborhoods during the mid-to-late twentieth century. That’s just about everyone, right?
[iii] From top to bottom: the two greatest books of my generation on skepticism, the two greatest primers ever written on disbelief in God, and the two current best-sellers on religious criticism. From this point forward, each work will be referred to simply by author.
[iv] A lesser-known tale in the Bible, found in the twenty-second chapter of Numbers. It’s a new favorite of mine after having watched the movie Shrek. In the tale, a donkey argues with its master after receiving a number of beatings for lying down on the job. I often wonder how many people would leave the faith out of embarrassment if they only knew this story was in the Bible.
[v] And more recently, Christopher Hitchens’ god is not Great and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, both of which I will be able to enjoy now that this book is finished.
[vi] My nine to five – criticizing religion isn’t popular and won’t pay the bills. I have no formal training in biblical study beyond the years of reading arguments from hundreds who do.
[vii] Bible: 1 Kings 11:3.
[viii] One who lacks belief in a god, as opposed to the contemporary connotation of absolute knowledge that one does not exist. A Gallup Poll taken from
[ix] Do a quick search on Google, and you’ll come up with several forums and books on Christian Humanists.
[x] For some reason, the inspiration almost always seems to travel no further. I consistently found humor in the fact that people in my church thought that they were closer to God because they spoke in seventeenth-century King’s English. What a remarkable exhibition of ignorant Western prejudice!
[xi] Angels: May 10-13, 2007
[xii] A survey indicating that one-half of all Americans can’t name any of the four Gospels (or the first book of the Bible) has recently been published by Stephen Prothero, head of
[xiii] This is an allusion to Jesus’ statement found in Matthew 7:5. Matthew is one of the four canonical Gospels for those of you in the previously mentioned majority.
[xiv] Harris, Sam. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.
[xv] American Religious Identification Survey 2001. Kosmin, Barry A., et.al., eds. The
[xvi] Although the current retention rate of Christianity is “only” eighty-four percent, it is quite reasonable to believe that the figure was much higher throughout the vast majority of the religion’s reign.
[xvii] Barrett, D. et.al., eds. World Christian Encyclopedia (2nd Ed.).
[xviii] Petty, Richard E. and John T. Cacioppo. Attitudes and Persuasion: Classic and Contemporary Approaches.
[xix] Smith, George H. Atheism: The Case Against God.
[xx] Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time.
[xxi] Shermer 292.
[xxii] Promises of eternal agony should certainly apply.
[xxiii] Petty and Cacioppo 72-73.
[xxiv] Bible: Matthew 13:47-50, Mark -29, and Revelation 14:9-12.
[xxv] Bible: Matthew 13:41-50, Matthew 25:31-46, and Revelation 20:11-15.
[xxvi] Bible: John 3:16.
[xxvii] Petty and Cacioppo 80.
[xxviii] Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion.
[xxix] This task isn’t as difficult as it may sound, considering how wide of an influence this single religion has over
[xxx] This reminds me of a joke about an Eskimo and a missionary. The missionary shares the typical story of salvation through Jesus Christ and the punishment without, to which the Eskimo inquires if those who have not heard of Jesus would be punished for not accepting him. When the missionary admits he can’t say for certain, the Eskimo asks, “Then why did you even tell me?”
[xxxi] Slevin, Peter. “
[xxxii] Bible: Matthew 18:3, NIV.
[xxxiii] Smith 322.
[xxxiv] Dawkins 3.
[xxxv] Years later, I am still trying to figure that one out.
[xxxvi] It’s interesting to note that a much higher percentage think they should be displayed in public schools and government courtrooms. Grossman, Cathy Lynn. “Americans get an ‘F’ in religion.”
[xxxvii] Harris 19.
[xxxviii] Cialdini, Robert B. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.
[xxxix] Or to reflect Cialdini’s example, decades after those beliefs have been backed with emotional bets.
[xl] Shermer 296.
[xli] Shermer 296.