July 14, 2008

Why religions expect you to believe preposterous things

On a recent trip to Sri Lanka, I visited the mother of an old friend of mine, and the conversation turned to religion. She was a Protestant who had married a Catholic. She had thought about converting to Catholicism but in the end found it impossible to do so. She said that she found she could not accept three things that the Catholic Church required you to believe: transubstantiation, the infallibility of the Pope, and the assumption of Jesus' mother Mary (i.e., the belief that Mary did not die but was 'assumed' directly into heaven).

These things are pretty tough to believe. Transubstantiation alone is enough to give anyone pause. This doctrine asserts that when the priest during the communion service consecrates the bread and wine, the bread becomes the actual body of Jesus and the wine becomes his actual blood.

I have often wondered if, in their heart of hearts, Catholics actually believe this. It seems to me that if they did, it would be hard to avoid having the gag reflex that accompanies the thought of engaging in what are essentially cannibalistic practices. Yet millions of Catholics go through this ritual every week with seeming equanimity. Perhaps they don't really believe but convince themselves that they kinda, sorta do in order to not seem like heretics. Or maybe they just don't think about it.

But although this is a particularly striking example of the kinds of extraordinary things that religious people are expected to believe, it is not by itself more preposterous than believing that Jesus rose from the dead or that god ordered the sun to stand still during the battle of Jericho or that the angel Gabriel dictated the Koran to Mohammed.

In fact, organized god-based religions sometimes seem to go out of their way to create difficult things to believe in. It seems like if you are a member of any organized god-based religion, you are expected to believe preposterous things. Abandoning reason and logic and evidence and science and accepting preposterous things purely on faith is deemed to be a virtuous act.

In Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, the White Queen tells Alice that it is easy to believe impossible things. "Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." She says her trick to believing in something that is wildly improbable is to simply draw a long breath and shut her eyes. Sounds a lot like praying.

Of course, many people find it hard to abandon reason and believe impossible things, and thus leave religion and become atheists or at least agnostics. Some modernist theologians have tried to counter this problem by stripping as much of the extreme forms of the supernatural as possible from religions to make it more acceptable intellectually. They argue that god is some mysterious essence, some life force that gives 'meaning' to our lives, a 'ground of our being', and so on, but is not a physical human-like entity that we communicate with or can expect to intervene in our lives. In this approach, it is attempted to free religion from all those difficult beliefs that are hard to accept.

Would such a trend make religion more acceptable to more people, largely freeing them from having to choose between religion and common sense? Superficially, one would think so but some research suggests otherwise. The success of religions seems to depend on having people believe difficult or impossible things. Paradoxically, the more difficult the belief is to accept intellectually and the more rigid rules with which it binds believers, the more successful the religion is in holding onto its adherents. "[T]he most successful religions, in terms of growth and maintenance of membership, are those with absolute, unwavering, strict, and enforced normative standards of behavior." (Study cited by Peggy Catron, Encountering Faith in the Classroom, Miriam Diamond (Ed.), 2008, p. 70.)

This may be why those religious doctrines that are really hard for a rational person to accept (fundamentalist Christianity and Islam, Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism) don't seem to be in any danger of going extinct in the face of modern science that undermines their doctrines. They may even be experiencing growth, while it is the more open-minded liberal religious traditions that are in decline. It is as if people want their thinking to be bound and confined and that they fear intellectual freedom. It seems like a form of intellectual masochism.

Why is this? I don't really know. Perhaps it is because once you have convinced someone to believe an impossible idea as an entry point to membership in an organization, they have crossed a threshold that makes them accepting of all the other impossible ideas that come as part of that religious package. Since people pride themselves on being rational, getting them to accept something bizarre at an early age, like a virgin birth, means that they will then try to construct reasons why such a belief makes sense or suppress any questions and doubts. I find it interesting that believers in a god, instead of frankly saying, "Yes, it is irrational but I believe anyway", will go to great lengths to try and use reason and logic to convince others that their beliefs are rational when they are manifestly not.

Once you have got people to suspend their rational thinking in at least one part of their life, all the other seemingly small, but equally preposterous, beliefs that are required don't seem so hard to swallow. This may be why religious organizations carry out induction ceremonies for new members mostly when they are children, before their skepticism is fully developed and when the desire of children to join the organization of their parents is still strong.

It is also perhaps similar to how brutal hazing is sometimes used to bond people to a fraternities or secret societies. Once you have overcome that kind of hurdle, it is emotionally harder to back out, to admit that one must have been crazy to ever do or believe such a thing.

Note: I wrote this post some time ago but never got around to posting it since there seemed to be no urgency. To my amazement, transubstantiation, of all things, suddenly burst into the news late last week down in Florida. I will write about that tomorrow.

POST SCRIPT: The propaganda machine at work

In my series on the propaganda machine, I spoke about how publishing houses like Regnery seem to exist largely for the purpose of subsidizing and promoting authors who promote their specific agenda, irrespective of the quality of the work or even that of the author. Here is another example.


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Hi Mano,

I suspect religions use preposterous things to believe in because they realize that it’s what many people crave. They want to believe in something fantastic that will give them joy, comfort and most of all hope. There is also an instant gratification to accepting ridiculous stories without any logical explanation.

The things religions expect you to believe are also very simple making them easy to fall victim to early on. Once trapped in a religion it seems to become phenomenally difficult to let go.

Posted by Greg on July 14, 2008 11:59 AM

Did you hear the hubbub about the fellow who "stole" the Eucharist from Church? Some people thought it was tantamount to kidnapping Christ--because of the transubstantiation issue.

Posted by Heidi Cool on July 14, 2008 02:56 PM

Yes, I will be writing about the Florida incident tomorrow.

Posted by Mano on July 14, 2008 03:18 PM

I agree, it is emotionally difficult to back out of something you have committed yourself to. From personal experience, when you have belonged to a religion for quite a while, you bond with family, form friendships, participate in religious funcitons, and spend time and energy being 'religious', all of which form a significant part of your identity. I would imagine that religion is THE most important thing in many religious people's lives since most people were raised to think that. Afterall, they do believe that life on Earth is simply a stepping stone to the greatest of all greats, heaven. So it is reasonable to think that religion makes up a very large part of a person's identity. So when an individual is confronted with a question like "Why do you beleive in such preposterous claims?", it is no wonder that a person will be reluctant to admit "Yes, that is irrational", since it is one of many tiny steps that leaves them vulnerable to possibly losing their identity and their social structure around them. It's hard to admit that perhaps you may have been wrong all of this time and all of that effort spent was for naught.

Posted by Tadas on July 14, 2008 03:34 PM

Hm, I never had any problem saying, "It's irrational but I believe it anyway," at least once I hit about age 30. Before that, I would argue about it -- **because that's how I was trained.**

We were trained to be missionaries and to be able to answer "objections" rationally (a la St Paul, who encouraged people to be able to "give an answer"). It wasn't until I was quite an adult that I realized that very VERY few people ever get talked into a religion; under the best of circumstances you get *loved* into a religion for the excellent reasons that Tadas mentions above -- people love you despite all sorts of reasons not to.

My experience with Xtianity was entirely positive. The churches I went to were, without exception, full of warm, kind, intelligent, thoughtful people who welcomed conversation about all sorts of things as long as it was honest, ie you weren't trying to put them on the spot for the sake of doing so. The priests I have known have been mature, careful listeners and thinkers who know what they believe and the history behind it. If there were abuses, I sure never knew about them.

Yes, they "believe" those preposterous things and I had plenty of lectures about apologetics which I have now come to think is a waste of time, although I still enjoy CS Lewis's thought processes. I think it's better to admit that some things seem nuts, but then carefully try to understand WHY those things are doctrinally important.

So I'm thinking that the real question needs to be a bit different -- What does it mean to BELIEVE something? For me, it doesn't mean cramming an impossibility into my mind, like stuffing a sofa pillow into a jewelry box.

If for others it does, why, then I would say that religion has indeed failed; but that is not my experience of it. My problems with my religion are very much my own. ;-)

Posted by Azulao on July 14, 2008 06:28 PM

It has the flavor of an initiation rite: "Pass this test and you get all the benefits of club membership! -- Just don't try explaining the test to any non-member, they'll think you're insane."

Posted by weemaryanne on July 14, 2008 08:23 PM

John Wilkins has some remarks on why religions require people to believe incredible things enb passant here:

What in the hell is going on?

To answer this, one needs, I think, to see what the benefits of being a member of a religion are, in order to see what is at stake. A religious adherent can appeal to coreligionists for aid and succor as it used to be called. This is a classic case of reciprocal altruism, in which the religion acts as an honest advertisement of commitment, or "costly signaling", which is why religions require acceptance by their adherents of absurd ideas, like the "fact" that the communion wafer is literally the flesh of Jesus [see this pdf].

So when these costly signals are challenged, the reactions get heated. There's a lot at stake here - the unity of the entire community and the reciprocal altruism that it provides (not to mention the return on investment that each individual hopes to get on the effort already made - losing status by defecting from your community is not helpful, and so a kind of gambler's ruin occurs). Obviously one must forcibly protect this. Appropriate links are in the original post.

Posted by RBH on July 15, 2008 02:24 AM

I have a question about belief.

Do people actually truely believe in these absurd things or do they really really want to believe it? So much so that they will never admit to wanting to believe. Is there something else to this?

All the religious people I've spoken to always state that they truely believe it but then none of them actually live their lives if they had absolute proof of god/heaven.

Posted by Greg on July 15, 2008 03:56 AM


Thanks for that link. I have been reading about reciprocal altruism and how the cost-benefit calculations work but had not thought to connect it to this particular situation. You have given me further food for thought.

Posted by Mano on July 15, 2008 08:37 AM


I am becoming increasingly aware that I don't know what people believe in any detail. The broad questions that surveys ask like "Do you believe in god?" do not come even close to examining all the many ways that belief is interpreted.

I have even toyed with the idea of doing an actual research project to find out what in detail people believe, based on interviews. I think it may produce surprising results

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