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

 

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In sum, being female and raised by religious parents in a large family appears to make one more religious, whereas being male, educated, in conflict with one’s parents, and older appears to make one less religious. As people become older and more educated, they encounter other belief systems that lead them to see the connection between various personal and social influences and religious beliefs. This helps explain the differences we observed in reasons people give for their own beliefs versus the reasons they attribute to other people’s beliefs.


From the responses we received in a preliminary survey, we created a taxonomy of eleven categories of reasons people give for their own and others’ beliefs. The five most common answers given to the question

Why do you believe in God?:

1. The good design / natural beauty / perfection / complexity of the world or universe (28.6%)
2. The experience of God in everyday life (20.6%)
3. Belief in God is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life (10.3%)
4. The Bible says so (9.8%)
5. Just because / faith / the need to believe in something (8.2%)

And the six most common answers given to the question Why do you think other people believe in God?:

1. Belief in God is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life (26.3%)
2. Religious people have been raised to believe in God (22.4%)
3. The experience of God in everyday life (16.2%)
4. Just because / faith / the need to believe in something (13.0%)
5. Fear death and the unknown (9.1%)
6. The good design / natural beauty / perfection / complexity of the world or universe (6.0%)

Notice that the intellectually based reasons offered for belief in God—”the good design of the universe” and “the experience of God in everyday life”—which occupied first and second place when people were describing their own beliefs dropped to sixth and third place, respectively, when they were describing the beliefs of others. Indeed, when reflecting on others’ beliefs, the two most common reasons cited were emotion-based (and fear-averse!): personal comfort (“comforting, relieving, consoling”) and social comfort (“raised to believe”).

Sulloway and I believe that these results are evidence of an intellectual attribution bias, in which people consider their own beliefs as being rationally motivated, whereas they see the beliefs of others as being emotionally driven. By analogy, one’s commitment to a political belief is generally attributed to a rational decision (“I am for gun control because statistics show that crime decreases when gun ownership decreases”), whereas another person’s opinion on the same subject is attributed to need or emotional reasons (“he is for gun control because he is a bleeding-heart liberal”). This intellectual attribution bias appears to be equal opportunity on the subject of God. The apparent good design of the universe, and the perceived action of a higher intelligence in daily activities, are powerful intellectual justifications for belief. But we readily attribute other people’s belief in God to their emotional needs and how they were raised.

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