Why we believe

David Shariatmadari has an interesting essay in the Guardian about Dorthy Rowe’s new book What Should I Believe about purports to explain why we hold our religious beliefs:

She starts from the premise that our greatest fear is annihilation, not physical death, necessarily, but annihilation as a person. It is the desire to avoid this that motivates us throughout our lives. For some, religion is the answer, because it tends to suggest quite straightforwardly that life carries on after death.

But a continuation of our existence is what we all clamour for, religious or not; parents hope their worldview will shape the lives of their children; some take comfort from the fact that their “blood” or “genes” will be around after they’ve gone. Artists imagine the work will stand as a monument to them. Humbler people hope they’ll live on, at least, in their friends’ memories or through the effects of the good things they’ve done. To live without any hope of projecting one’s soul is, Rowe argues, impossible. Test yourself, if you believe you do.

So why be the Pope rather than Picasso? Why choose religion as your balm, rather than some other route to eternal life? According to Rowe’s model, that decision is the result of a kind of cost-benefit analysis for the individual – and those costs and benefits can come from absolutely anywhere within the arena of personal experience. And into the mix goes the cast of your personality – introvert or extrovert. Will my father beat me if I’m not devout? Well I had better believe then. Or not, depending on which is worse, giving in to dad or getting hit. Is it easier for me to believe that despite the dead-end job that absorbs all my time I will receive a reward in heaven, or to take the huge material risks involved in pursuing self-expression? Again, it depends.

All this presents a bit of an obstacle for those who think that the problem of religion can be “solved”. When the explanation for religious belief is a question of individual psychology, there’s little room for the argument that it can be educated away. There are always going to be situations where it makes (personal) sense to be a Muslim, Catholic or Hindu.

Read it all here.

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