Why Men Believe (in religion)
Humanists of Utah
By Craig Wilkinson, M.D.
E. Haldeman-Julius was born in Philadelphia in 1889 and died in 1951. He owned a publishing company which published more than 2,200 “Little Blue Books.” The topics of these books included history, philosophy, sex, home economics, poetry, and free thought works by Paine, Ingersoll, and Voltaire, among others. He was not afraid of controversy and one series of books was entitled Appeal to Reason Series. There goal was to bring education to the masses. He was the first to use the postal service to distribute his fifteen cent paper back “Little Blue Books”.
“Why Men Believe,” is taken from his book, The Outline of Bunk circa 1929, page 24. In this essay he reviews what he feels was the essential history of religion. Men originally believed in religion because “they did not know better.” There was no scientific explanation of life. The fantastic dogmas of religion, though puzzling to them, could not be questioned by the stupid masses of men. There was in the first place, the activity of superstitious curiosity and wonder, in the absence of science, trying to explain somehow the mystery of the universe. These explanations would be of the sort that we find in religion: a queer patchwork of supernatural imaginings, myths and marvels. The element of ignorant wonder would sufficiently account for religion. In a word, once his mind got busy, man would awkwardly try to figure out what life meant. And untrained, unguided reflections would result in a religious mess. Religions would produce confusion, and, not least, would evolve into a scheme of power (with rival cults and deities) to be intolerantly maintained.
As for the masses, they were influenced by fear and hope–and susceptible in the first place, through their ignorance. Today hope and fear, while not so intense, still have their part in support of religion. A personal, sentimental hope also induces many to believe, or try to believe, in the promises of religion concerning a future life. Man egotistically rebels against the thought of dying. They surrender a great deal of knowledge and pleasure that is certain for the sake of an extremely dubious, shadowy reward and a hope of living in heaven with their departed loved ones. A belief in religion is only possible, with any degree of satisfying faith, to the simplest type of mind, and even then there is a doubt that is irrepressible, a doubt that is repeatedly awakened by the spectacle of death.
From another viewpoint, to some people, an acceptance of religion is the easiest escape from the wearying necessity of thought. Here is a man who is not equal to reasoning himself to a realistic view of life. Nor is he strong enough to bear what is to him the burden of skepticism. He wants comforting illusion. And without making any intellectual difficulties for himself, without really thinking much about the question, he leans upon a simple, vague, but pleasant faith in religion. Its unpleasant doctrines he forgets and its more attractive promises he choose to believe as a desirous and uncritical act of faith. Perhaps he is not zealous in religious devotion. He is not strong on doctrine; he is not interested in discussion. He has not so much been saved or converted as he has rid himself, in what seems to him the easiest way, of a troublesome problem.
I think E. Haldeman-Julius was as accurate in 1929 as he is in 2008. Faith is really intellectual laziness. Take for example, evolution. When asked how life began, to answer “God did it,” is a cop out. The true story of life was discovered by Charles Darwin. It took him an entire lifetime of study and work. Many other dedicated scientists spent many years of hard work in the trenches, digging fossils and interpreting them, studying the molecules of life including the molecule of heredity that is DNA to find the truth. It was evolution by natural selection on a background of inheritable characteristics and random mutations that, over millions of years, in slow small steps created life on this planet as we know it today.
The religious mindset is characterized by intellectual laziness. On the other hand, it isn’t easy to be a skeptic. Trying to find the truth is a rigorous intellectual exercise. The intellectually honest person must face the truth even when it hurts. The skeptic has a difficult, often thankless, and sometimes painful job. He has the job of bringing reason, knowledge, facts, and most importantly, intellectual honesty to the discussion of the great questions and problems that face mankind. What other choice do we have? Rational thinking based on knowledge and facts must trump a hope or belief without knowledge, “faith.” Vice a versa is just too scary to think about.
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