Who Believes in God--and Why?

Many say their own faith is based in reason, but others' beliefs are grounded in emotion.

BY: Michael Shermer

 

Why do you believe in God? I have been asking people this question for most of my adult life. In 1998, Frank Sulloway and I presented the query in a more official format—along with the question “Why do you think

other people

believe in God?”—in a survey given to ten thousand Americans. Just a few of the answers we received:


A 22-year-old male law student with moderate religious convictions (a self-rated five on a nine-point scale), who was raised by very religious parents and who today calls himself a deist, writes, “I believe in a creator because there seems to be no other possible explanation for the existence of the universe,” yet other “people believe in God to give their lives purpose and meaning.”
A 43-year-old male computer scientist and Catholic with very strong religious convictions (a nine on the nine-point scale) “had a personal conversion experience, where I had direct contact with God. This conversion experience, and ongoing contacts in prayer, form the only basis for my faith.” Other people believe in God, however “because of (a) their upbringing, (b) the comfort of the church, and (c) a hope for this contact.”
A 36-year-old male journalist and evangelical Christian with a self-rated eight in religious conviction writes: “I believe in God because to me there is ample evidence for the existence of an intelligent designer of the universe.” Yet, “others accept God out of a purely emotional need for comfort throughout their life and use little of their intellectual capacity to examine the faith to which they adhere.”
A 40-year-old female Catholic nurse with very strong religious convictions (a nine on the nine-point scale) says that “I believe in God because of the example of my spiritual teacher who believes in God and has unconditional love for people and gives so completely of himself for the good of others. And since I have followed this path, I now treat others so much better.” On the other hand, she writes that “I think people initially believe in God because of their parents and unless they start on their own path— where they put a lot of effort into their spiritual part of their life—they continue to believe out of fear.”

When Sulloway and I noticed the difference between why people believe in God and why they think

other

people believe in God, we decided to undertake an extensive analysis of all the written answers people provided in our survey. In addition, we inquired about family demographics, religious background, personality characteristics, and other factors that contribute to religious belief and skepticism. We discovered that the seven strongest predictors of belief in God are:



1. being raised in a religious manner


2. parents’ religiosity


3. lower levels of education


4. being female


5. a large family


6. lack of conflict with parents


7. being younger



Continued on page 2: The five reasons people believe in God... »

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