The principal cause of an individual's religion is the inheriting of identity from parents and local culture1 and most conversions are to another religion that is active locally2. Religion is primarily a result of where you are raised. But what other secular, sociological and psychological factors cause religion to prosper? What about new religious movements and spiritualities that are exotic, superstitious, anti-intellectual and counter-cultural? They all share in common a certain irrational and illogical character. What causes such beliefs? There have been many studies on these topics, and here the examination covers both arbitrary exterior circumstances and internal neuronal causes. Sociologists warn us that fixation on "the" cause of religion hampers research3. There are many causes of religion and superstition because the word "religion" covers such a variety of beliefs and practices, from dry academic ideas through to rituals and cultural behaviours. Of all the causes examined here it is easy to see that one of the least motivating factors is a conscientious deliberation over what claims are true4,5. Guy Harrison states with disdain that "a typical home purchase is given far more thoughtful analysis than the selection of a god to worship"6.
In most countries on Earth, most people are religious. But why? The main reason is that children assume the religion of their parents7 and they are unlikely to ever switch1, or, if they do convert, it will be to become a member of a different religion that is also popular where they live2. In "Social Psychology" by David Myers (1999)8 the word "religion" enters the index from the chapters on "conformity" and "indoctrination"9. Other researchers have found that "fewer than 1% [of Americans] convert to an entirely new religion"10 and in some places children are not exposed to non-belief until college11 and it is easy to imagine that in the current-day Middle East and in historical times, the only comments ever heard about non-believers are intensely negative.
Coupled with this is that the most religious countries are still growing their populations at staggering rates compared to less religious ones12,13 and the largest organized religions today are all anti-birth-control14, using their weighty influence and resources to oppose family planning15.
On a large scale, most people's religion is arbitrary and it is clear that most religious people did not choose their religion, nor have they seriously compared religions to ascertain which one(s) were most likely to be true. Most people confuse their heritage for their religion.
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Individuals will often adopt a religious position for reasons of identity and community17,18 rather than because they have examined the doctrine of a religious group. Associating with like-minded folk feels good, and can engender a feeling of empowerment and self-worth19. Examples of this abound, and include the sectarian strife in Northern Ireland, the attraction of alternative religions for teenagers and young adults, the embrace of Eastern mysticism by intellectuals and students at the turn of the twentieth century, and the reaction against Western materialism through the embrace of anti-commercialist religions. Many people join a religious community because it helps combat loneliness20. Religion thus serves a functional purpose quite separate from its actual religious content.
Many call themselves religious because they see it as a part of their collective communal or racial identity21. They wrongly feel that to be a proper member of an ethnic group means they must adopt a certain religion. Or the opposite - some people join a symbolic opposition religion to signal rebellion and dissatisfaction with their own community22. Studies have found that many people join a religion not because they agree with its theological arguments but because religion endows them with "an enhanced sense of solidarity" with others23.
Migration and globalisation is often a trigger for this kind of identity-based adoption. This works in two ways, together called "cultural transition and defence" by sociologist Steve Bruce24: (1) Once removed from a community that they come to miss, some adopt a religion that they associate with that community as a way of boosting their identification with it, regardless of what their beliefs are. (2) When faced with immigration, some take up more extreme forms of what they perceive to be the 'proper' religion of their own culture.
None of these social-identity factors bode well for our appreciation of what is true or correct. As a result, where religion is tied in with communal identity, it becomes very difficult to count how many believers there are in the actual doctrine25. The prevalence of social religion is an indicator of secularism, in that religious beliefs themselves are losing depth and meaning.
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Religion is often used as a collective political identity regardless of whether people agree with the actual tenets of a religion21. Studies have found that many people join a religion not because they agree with its theological arguments, but because aids their political intentions23. Although rare in modern times, historically when mass conversions saw entire countries convert to a new religion, it nearly always coincided with the faith of a powerful conquering neighbour26,27. This bodes well for the material wellbeing of newly captured colonies but doesn't give us any positive evidence about whether or not the new religion has a healthy handle on the truth. The modern equivalent sees states like Russia push the Russian Orthodox Church on its people, and China push Taoism. In both cases, as luck would have it, the people en masse find that these organs of the state also happen to represent divine truth. Where those states are influential, there are many believers and where their power is remote, the believers melt away. It's not evidence driving belief, it is politics.
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Religions are often associated with particular stances on particular subjects. From the late nineteenth century a few generations of women seeking equality and empowerment found that some alternative religions were strongly appealing for their stance on gender equality; such religions naturally became magnets for feminists and activists. The membership of Greenpeace is, likewise, notably skewed away from traditional patriarchal religions and towards pagan ones. "Among the Airo-Pai, a small group of Amazonian people on the borders of Peru, Ecuador and Columbia, [Christian evangelicalism and Pentecostalism] has served to prevent alcoholism and drug abuse" because it is embraced as a statement of abstinence rather than strictly for its religious ideas28.
By far the major example of religion-as-activism was the Protestant reformation that swept away Catholicism in much of Europe. The masses were utterly despondent with the immoral, power-abusing, money-centered activities of the Roman Catholic Church, and they were aided by early governments who could no longer stand seeing such huge volumes of religious taxes being sent to Rome. Although there were also theological concerns, the mass of the movement was clearly socio-political in nature; the appeal of Protestantism was mostly its social-activist function and not the specific theology of Martin Luther, its founder.
Some sociologists explain religion - especially new religion, as a form of reactionism against the modern world. So, religious argumentation appeals because it helps justify a rejection of features of the modern world. Main (2002) describes one set of such reactions as "romanticism", where intuition, imagination and holistic-sounding ideas are espoused in opposition to the cold sciences and practicalities of life29.
Some of these features of religious growth appear in a subtle form: As people age, they tend to become more conservative, and also slightly more religious30, which can be seen to have an element of reaction against newer societal changes, and also stimulate the embrace of solid, older, symbols of identity.
Pascal Boyer in "Religion Explained" (2001)17 listed many of the commonly theorized explanations for the success of religion, and, most of the list consisted of items that described functional roles of religion such as "religion holds society together" and "religion allays anxiety and makes for a comfortable world"31. Many people adhere to a religious life because it helps combat loneliness, helps them stay off of alcohol, helps them oppress sexual urges, or helps them cope with anxiety or depression20. But what the functional influences lack is a genuine appraisal of the pros or cons of the theological dogmas of the religion in terms of their truth or falsity. I.e., functional elements of religion can remain fully operational even if the underlying belief system contains serious flaws.
Some people join religions because "a cohesive, supportive church plays a central role [in] providing social network[s]"32. In analysing the growth of evangelical Christianity from 1940 in South Korea, for example, the sociologist D. Martin notes that the basis for the spectacular growth is partially the same as in South America and Asia in general; 'success can be attributed to a combination of vibrant Pentecostal worship ... and personal support' and 'the chief pastor/executive combines many secular roles, as, indeed he does in Brazil. He is a social worker and employment exchange official, a kind of store manager and a broker, an educator and a fixer". I.e., such motivated people attract flocks of followers for their general function in society.33
The same purely pragmatic approach to religion can be found amongst Cantonese coverts to Mormonism (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) in Hong Kong. Caroline Plüss studied this and in 1999 reported the following:
“Chinese residents in Hong Kong joined this church despite [a] negative perception of the church ... because [it] offered potential recruits help with learning English by, for example, operating a tutorial college. It also helped Chinese converts gain financial support for studying in the universities it operates in the United States.”
"Migration and the Globalization of Religion" by Caroline Plüss (2011)34
Religion attracts some people because of the usefulness of the organization and not because of the underlying truth of the religion. Religious leaders know this and their hope is, of course, that some people caught in this way will develop a genuine interest at some later date.
Religions almost universally emphasize the moral duty of the individual. "God knows all" as the Qur'an and Bible repeat: examples in the Christian Bible include Job 28:24, 37:16; 1 John 3:19-20; and very frequently in the Qur'an: the first chapter (after the introduction) iterates God's omniscience ten times, for example Sura 2:29,77,85,115,137. We all answer to God eventually. Buddhism and Hinduism likewise teach that we pay the consequences of this life throughout our next. So many people come to think of religions as being a bastion of moral thinking, because, religions tend to dramatize and exaggerate the rewards and punishments of good and bad behaviour. Don't forget that when Psalms 14:1 says "the fool saith in his heart that there is no God", the word it uses in Hebrew also means immoral people: immoral people say 'there is no god'. This emphasis is strong amongst laypeople: despite their record against human rights on an institutional and national level, locally popular religions are often seen as a force for good and there is a general belief that religion supports morality31. A 2002 poll in the USA, an unusually religious country for its state of development, found that on average 44.5% of the adults believed that "It is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values"35. This included both church-goers and laypeople. 65% of regular churchgoers believed it, thinking therefore that the vast majority of the members of "wrong" religions therefore could not be moral people. This ridiculous belief is still held by 25.7% of those who never attend church. Although it is hard to believe that this level of ignorance can exist in the rest of the world, the underlying belief was more popular in pre-modern times throughout the world. Academics have also toed this line; Talcott Parsons in 1966 said the same thing, merely using bigger words. After saying that what makes moral rules valid is a 'legitimation system', he adds that 'a legitimation system is always related to, and meaningfully dependent on, a grounding in ordered relations to ultimate reality. That is, its grounding is always in some sense religious. [...] The process of secularization, then, undermines the system of legitimation by which a society's rules seem to be grounded in ultimate reality.'36
Bryan Wilson is an insightful and respected sociologist of religion. Even he, in 1982, warned of mass breakdown in morality in the West if the religious underpinnings of moral propriety were forgotten.
“As Wilson (1982: 52) concludes, 'Unless the basic virtues are serviced, unless men are given a sense of psychic reassurance that transcends the confines of the social system, we may see a time when, for one reason or another, the system itself fails to work...' [...] Wilson (1982: 86) describes how secularization resulted in the breakdown of morality in Western societies: 'When in the West, religion waned, when the rationalistic forces inherent in Puritanism acquired autonomy of their religious origins, so the sense of moral propriety also waned - albeit somewhat later, as a cultural lag. Following the decline of religion [... and the resultant] process of moral breakdown [... we should have] genuine concern about the role of morality in contemporary culture' (Wilson 1982: 87)”
After Parsons in 1966 and Wilson in 1982, Karen Armstrong repeats the same story in "A Short History of Myth: Volume 1-4" (2005)39, arguing that myth is essential for good ethics and meaningful living. How do all of these thinkers rationalize the fact that many god-believers, myth-believers and suchlike, appear to commit the same atrocities and immoralities as unbelievers? From the Dark Ages presided over by Christianity, to the spectre of Islamist brutality against (for example) women and gays in Islamic countries, it seems that religious morals are hardly a panacea. Karen Armstrong dismisses these problems with the odd concept that they are caused by "failed myths"40. An element of double-think appears to be in place: if religious people do good, it is because they are religious, whereas if they do wrong, it is because they are fallible human beings. Such circular logic ought to be challenged wherever it is heard.
So there are numbers of people who, if they want to be good or, wants to be seen as good, will gravitate towards religion simply because they think it is what required. These people, who have come to actively choosing to be a better person, will find that their efforts are rewarded whether or not they choose to do it within a religious framework.
There is plenty of evidence that religion is not required. Parson in 1966 and Wilson in 1982 both warned of systematic collapse in morality if secularisation continued. It not only continued, but has accelerated. There has been no mass failure. Crime is down, wars are shorter, violence is down. It happens that people can also adopt non-religious and secular philosophies in order to promote good moralizing. Secular movements such as the British Humanist Association and IHEU (International Humanist and Ethical Union) are devoted to encouraging moral behavior, moral thinking, overall conscientiousness and rationality. The main difference between these and religious groups who do the same, is that the religious groups often teach that they are the only valid source of morals.
If I am threatened into behaving in a good manner then I am at best amoral, because I am not acting with free will. If you believe that a supreme god is going to punish you (in hell) or deny you life (annihilation) if you misbehave, it is like being permanently threatened into behaving well. In addition, if you believe there is some great reward for behaving well, then your motives for good behavior are more selfish. An atheist who does not believe in heaven and hell is potentially more moral, for (s)he acts without these added factors. Most atheists who do not believe in divine judgement, and most theists who do, both act morally. Some of both groups act consistently immorally. The claim that belief in God is essential or aids moral behavior is wrong, and any amusing theistic claim that they have "better" morals, despite acting under a reward and punishment system, is deeply questionable. Who is more moral? Those who act for the sake of goodness itself, or those who do good acts under the belief that failure to do so results in hell?
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In conclusion, the simplicity and drama of religious stick-and-carrot approaches to morality often make religions appealing, and, to be seen as good in society - or to try to reform themselves - many people find themselves attracted to a religion. Unfortunately, all of this psychology functions just as well no matter if the tenets of the religion are actually true, or not.
It is only in modern literate times that myth and religion have become individual areas of study: they were previously and universally tied up with human culture. So, agricultural communities had agricultural religions as part of that culture. A 1915 study of ancient Mesopotamian religion found that it was apparent that although many cultures shared beliefs and myths, "striking differences remain to be accounted for. Human experiences varied in localities because all sections of humanity were not confronted in ancient times by the same problems in their everyday lives"41. Agricultural people had gods that waxed and waned, lived and died, with the seasons. Native hunting tribes had gods and rituals that would secure them luck in the hunt42. Those gods are clearly products of the people's environment, and the personal stories and dramas told about them are products of the imagination in an attempt to explain facets of the natural environment. In retrospect it is hard to tell what elements of ancient cultures were actually believed, what was known to be mythical, and what was therefore religious (i.e., thought to be true but basically mythological). In "A Short History of Myth: Volume 1-4" by Karen Armstrong (2005)39 we see this confusion as a central theme43. It continues today: Buddhism and Hinduism are very hard to separate out into culture and religion and no-one knows whether "Jew" means the religious, dietary-observing Synagogue-attending type, or the atheist secular type. For that reason, there are many sociologists who deny that Hinduism is a distinct religion, although in recent decades, Hindu nationalists have been building a much clearer and more forceful definition of Hindutva ('Hindu-ness').
In general, it must be acknowledged that a lot of what we call religion is in fact a mixture of semi-believed mythology and cultural practices; a 'cause' of religion is therefore our want of simple categorisation.
Anthony Layng (2010) studied the prevalence of superstitions and witchcraft-accusations amongst the Caribs of Dominica44. The general idea, held by "many tribal and peasant communities all over the world" is that witches are responsible for many social maladies from disease to failed crops, and they are simply evil and sneaky. Often so-called witches are murdered, tortured, expelled or at least shunned; the Dark Ages of Christian history and the heresy-accusations of Islam today both follow(ed) the same psychology. The features of witchcraft highlight the functionalism of religion in wider ways. "Believing that there are witches inclined to harm others with their malevolent power can have numerous social and psychological consequences for a community" says Prof. Layng. Witness how many of the effects serve to reinforce people's already-existing beliefs and to maintain social structure even when the religious dogmas suffer from counter-evidence:
Maintaining mental health (gaining sympathy and compensation for low status, displacing antagonism and jealousy, achieving a sense of control). Victims of witchcraft, often persons who otherwise attract little attention, receive intense sympathetic concern from their neighbours. Those accused of using witchcraft are frequently very unpopular and, therefore, are ideal scapegoats. Blaming misfortune on gods, demons, or bad luck gives the believer very little sense of control; witches, being here among the living, may be identified and dealt with.
Providing Explanations (explaining death, illness, misfortune, and why magical cures sometimes fail). Where witchcraft is presumed, bad luck, accident, or infection are not considered satisfactory explanations. When misfortune is especially persistent, witchcraft is readily assumed to be the cause. When magical cures fail, witchcraft may be blamed for the failure, thus preserving faith in such good magic.
Encouraging proper conduct (reinforcing and clarifying correct behaviour and providing negative role models to discourage bad behaviour). Nonconformists are the most likely to be accused of practicing witchcraft; their strange behaviour provides 'evidence' of their evil nature. [...]
Encouraging generosity and sharing (ensuring an equitable distribution of material resources). In egalitarian societies and communities plagued by persistent poverty, individuals and households adapt by sharing with others. Those who refuse [can be accused of being a witch, or conversely might attract the attention of a jealous witch].
Conserving tradition (defending the social order and community cohesion). Those who openly challenge accepted norms are especially likely to be accused of witchcraft. [...]
Providing entertainment (creating drama and stimulating imagination). Dramatic folktales about witches and gossip concerning an unpopular neighbour suspected of inflicting illness or bad luck on a household are listened to with great interest, especially by children. Consequently, lessons to be learned from these accounts fall on fertile ground and help perpetuate the beliefs.
Coping with rapid social change (attempting to reinstate social order). Under conditions of rapid cultural change and prolonged stress, witchcraft accusations may increase dramatically. Tolerance for deviant behaviour decreases under these conditions, inviting witch hunts and creating incentive to abide by traditional cultural norms. [...]
One hears less about witches once a certain level of economic development has been achieved, but when hard times return, accusations of witchcraft may become common again. For example, there has been a resurgence of this belief in sub-Saharan Africa in recent years. [...]
Some of the methods used subconsciously by believers to defend their beliefs are typical. When traditional remedies fail (or in modern monotheistic religions, when prayer fails) it is often said that lack-of-genuine-belief is the cause. The ironic solution to failure of traditional solutions is therefore is to believe more strongly!
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Many psychologists, scientists and researchers have come to the conclusion that religion is a by-product of otherwise-normal processes in the brain. A theory of religion developed by Stark and Bainbridge (1987) "is both cognitive in nature and fundamentally atheistic", being rooted in the idea that the information-processing and language-producing functions of our brain are not perfect as they evolved for practical purposes only, and when they are applied to theoretical issues they result in faulty conclusions and perceptions. Lawrence Krauss45 notes that "we are hardwired to think that everything that happens to us is significant and meaningful"46. Certain types of stimulus are misunderstood and some of these processes cause us to hold religious beliefs.47
Pascal Boyer throughout "Religion Explained" (2001)17 argues that a panoply of psychological factors explains religion, explains why religion is successful and why we are inclined to believe in it and find religious arguments plausible, and also explains why it does not appeal universally, and explains why it is partially persistent even in the face of science48.
Other human behaviours also result from misapplied cognitive functions. Our enjoyment of music is the result of a side-effect of our complicated auditory systems in the brain and a lot of other behaviours are of a similar ilk: an over-stimulation or a misuse of a built-in system. Figurative art is another area Boyer uses as an example of our embrace of artificial stimulation of parts of our brain (object and face recognition, etc). These parts of the brain would normally have a purely practical function. According to Boyer religion isn't a case of 'neuronal dysfunction' as I say, but more like a case of misdirected, overstimulated, or inappropriately applied cognitive functions49.
Scott Atran (2002) and Justin Barrett (discussed in the next section) offer "a compatible evolutionary argument about why humans tend to imagine supernatural beings that have feelings, thoughts, and desires. [...] in an environment where we were both hunters and hunted"47, centering on the way we attribute conscious intent to events. Prof. Richard Dawkins summarizes some more of the contributors towards the biological psychology of religion:
“The ethnologist Robert Hinde, in Why Gods Persist, and the anthropologists Pascal Boyer, in Religion Explained, and Scott Atran, in In Gods We Trust, have independently promoted the general idea of religion as a by-product of normal psychological dispositions. [...] The psychologist Paul Bloom, another advocate of the 'religion is a by-product' view, points out that children have a natural tendency towards a dualistic theory of mind. Religion, for him, is a by-product of such instinctive dualism. We humans, he suggest, and especially children, are natural born dualists. [...] Other by-product explanations of religion have been proposed by Hinde, Shermer, Boyer, Atran, Bloom, Dennett, Keleman and others.”
We are biologically programmed to detect signs of predators (and prey) wherever they may be. This often means being distracted on occasions where slight movements or patterns make us think something ('an agent') is there watching us - possibly even hunting us! "It is far more advantageous to over-detect agency than to under-detect it"51. Hence, the hyperactive agent detection device (HADD). As a highly social species, we are always looking in the shadows for signs of plots, for possible indirect effects of "behind the scenes" actors who are organizing against us - or who are potential allies. Certain circumstances (dim lighting!) heighten our instincts to watch out for secret danger. The evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins says that "we are biologically programmed to impute intentions to entities whose behaviour matters to us"52 and unfortunately, this now includes inanimate forces from "the weather, to waves and currents, to falling rocks"52. Psychologist Justin Barrett originally conceived of HADD and says it is "fundamental to understanding concepts of gods and spirits"51. We Humans excel at abstract thinking and telling imaginative stories to fledge out our feelings. Hence, there are local tribal spirits, sky gods, evil and wild spirits, ghosts in certain buildings, and when most of them are no longer found to exist there is always the eternal creator-God who never really does anything but secretly influences subtle events in the world, seemingly in a manner that makes it an expert at stimulating our HADD while not being detected by any other means. Even in the modern world the attribution of natural events to 'magical' and 'spiritual' causes is an easier way to understand the world than to study it critically.
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There is much evidence in history that the more profound religious insights occur alongside mental dysfunction. The psychologist William James, in his survey of religious experience, comments that there are a massive proportion of prominent religious people in history that have shown signs of now-recognized long-term neurological complaints.
“Religious geniuses have often shown symptoms of nervous instability. Even more perhaps than other kinds of genius, religious leaders have been subject to abnormal psychical visitations. [...] They have led a discordant inner life, and had melancholy during a part of their career. They have [...] been liable to obsessions and fixed ideas; and frequently they have fallen into trances, heard voices, seen visions, and presented all sorts of peculiarities which are ordinarily classed as pathological. Often [...] these pathological features in their career have helped to give them their religious authority and influence.”
The average believer does not suffer from such severe cataclysms, however, and merely believes in the irrational results of others' experiences that have become codified as part of a religion. In normal believers, it may be a long-term background dysfunction of the prefrontal cortex that leads to illogical beliefs:
“People with greater paranormal beliefs showed lower levels of executive function. Particularly, they had less impulse control and greater disorganization, independent of age, sex, or level of education. In contrast, people with greater moral attitudes showed greater executive functioning in all areas measured (motivation, impulse control, empathy, planning, and organization). These findings support studies suggesting that superstitious thinking involves some degree of dysfunction in the prefrontal cortex, even in the general population, while moral attitudes involve better prefrontal functioning. [...] People with religious beliefs showed a minute increase in both empathy and impulse control, characteristics encouraged by most orthodox religions.”
M. Spinella and O. Wain, Skeptical Inquirer (2006)54
It is not only chronic neurological dysfunction that can cause religious and supernatural beliefs. Some of the founding experiences can be based on single neurological events such as isolated strokes or seizures. Many types of fit do not involve the motor area of the brain, so do not result in obvious, physical signs of fitting. They can be purely sensory in nature, involving sights, sounds and feelings that range from subtle through to overwhelming.
“Partial seizures can [...] cause clonic movement of part of a limb [, ... or] may trigger an abnormal sensation, or aura, such as an odd smell or sparkling lights. Most bizarre are the partial seizures that elicit more well-formed auras such as déjá vu (the feeling that something has happened before) or hallucinations.”
William James is not alone in being convinced that St. Paul was converted to Christianity by a vision that was the result of a seizure. Other neurological complaints such as schizoid events can also be recurrent and form part of a person's normal life experience; many such people never develop complete schizophrenia but sit half way on the spectrum between normality and delusion.
“It is best to see 'schizophrenia' and 'normality' as two overlapping distributions, not two distinct states. Given this view, it may be that we have already found many of the key biological mechanisms [...]. Many of the most creative and spiritual individuals show certain apparently schizotaxic traits - unusual patterns of thought and behaviour, unorthodox beliefs, a tendency to have visions and hear voices. Where this does not become disorganizing, and where it can be expressed in a socially accepted form such as art or religion, this kind of thing is usually seen as one of humanity's great psychological assets, rather than as an impairment.”
"Emotions and Mind" by Toates, Mackintosh and Nettle (2004)56
A final note from William James' psychological exploration of religion is that mystical and religious experiences can support any religion57. It depends on culture and phenotype of the person. It can cause, or support, any form of a religion including asceticism, gnosticism, theism and such experiences can also cause insanity, genius or works of art. It would be truly enlightening if we could perform some neurological tests on some of the great religious figures in history.
For more on this topic, see "The False and Conflicting Experiences of Mankind: How Other Peoples' Experience Contradict Our Own Beliefs" by Vexen Crabtree (2008):
There are some physiological and neurological causes of religious and mystical experiences. These causes are purely physical, and are (now) understood scientifically - we know how they affect the brain, but in history our lack of understanding has resulted in a wide range of religious customs and beliefs58. Some are the effects of disease or dysfunction, whilst others are the result of human behaviour: (1) Diseases effecting the brain, eyes or our nervous system, (2) neurochemical imbalances, (3) fasting58, (4) exhaustion, (5) sleep and sensory deprivation59,60, (6) chanting, (7) practices of extreme austerity and (8) ritualistic behaviour and (9) ritualistic drug use61, can all induce hallucinations and other strange states of mind58.
For example, hallucinations caused by eye problems can result in surprisingly specific visions of grotesque faces with large eyes and teeth, blood running upwards, and costumed figures62 as our brain tries to interpret errant inputs63. But most hallucinations start directly in the brain and most of them are subtle and not just a matter of visual phenomenon. The same experiences can be triggered artificially by neurosurgeons, producing varied visions from mundane events such as smelling something to out of body experiences. Experimenters can consistently generate deeply meaningful religious experiences which would be utterly convincing if participants didn't know it was being generated artificially.
People interpret these episodes in terms of their local culture - Western Christians don't receive revelations of Buddhist enlightenment nor witness their previous lives, and conversely Eastern Daoists don't receive images of the Virgin Mary64. This makes it clear that mystical experiences are a result of culture and psychology, and not conduits to fundamental truths.
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Not many people would say that subconscious cognitive processes are responsible for their beliefs and actions. We construct rational-sounding reasons to back up the beliefs we have, and we simply don't - and frequently can't - get any insight into our true inner workings. Sociologists have found that people deny subconscious causes of their actions or beliefs. The formidable thinker Paul Kurtz explains that people frequently let themselves blindly believe certain things:
“I surely do not wish to suggest that conscious deception is the primary explanation for all or even most paranormal beliefs. Rather, it is self-deception that accounts for so much credulity. There is a powerful willingness in all too many people to believe in the unbelievable in spite of a lack of evidence or even evidence to the contrary. This propensity was due in part to what I have called the transcendental temptation, the tendency to resort to magical thinking, the attribution of occult causes for natural phenomena. The best antidote for this, I submit, is critical thinking.”
People often do not know how strong subconscious misdirection is and it often feels very awkward when one attempts to deconstruct one's own thought processes. It may be that such psychological investigation is best done by outside sociologists. William James, the psychologist of religion famous for his work at the turn of the twentieth century, examines the difficulty of such self-examination through a metaphor based on drunkenness:
“Knowledge about a thing is not the thing in itself. You remember what Al-Ghazzali told us in the Lecture on Mysticism - that to understand the cause of drunkenness, as a physician understands them, is not to be drunk. A science might come to understand everything about the causes and elements of religion, and might even decide which elements were qualified, by their general harmony with other branches of knowledge, to be considered true: and yet the best man at this science might be the man who found it hardest to be personally devout.”
In "Errors in Thinking: Cognitive Errors, Wishful Thinking and Sacred Truths" (2022) I write about the subconscious causes of our behaviour and thought:
“We all suffer from systematic thinking errors67,68 which fall into three main types: (1) internal cognitive errors; (2) errors of emotion69, perception and memory; and (3) social errors that result from the way we communicate ideas and the effects of traditions and dogmas. Some of the most common errors are the misperception of random events as evidence that backs up our beliefs, the habitual overlooking of contradictory data, our expectations and current beliefs actively changing our memories and our perceptions and using assumptions to fill-in unknown information. These occur naturally and subconsciously even when we are trying to be truthful and honest. Many of these errors arise because our brains are highly efficient (rather than accurate) and we are applying evolutionarily developed cognitive rules of thumb to the complexities of life70,71. We will fly into defensive and heated arguments at the mere suggestion that our memory is faulty, and yet memory is infamously unreliable and prone to subconscious inventions. They say "few things are more dangerous to critical thinking than to take perception and memory at face value"72.
We were never meant to be the cool, rational and logical computers that we pretend to be. Unfortunately, and we find it hard to admit this to ourselves, many of our beliefs are held because they're comforting or simple73. In an overwhelming world, simplicity lets us get a grip. Human thinking errors can lead individuals, or whole communities, to come to explain types of events and experiences in fantastical ways. Before we can guard comprehensively against such cumulative errors, we need to learn the ways in which our brains can misguide us - lack of knowledge of these sources of confusion lead many astray74.
Learning to think skeptically and carefully and to recognize that our very experiences and perceptions can be coloured by societal and subconscious factors should help us to maintain impartiality. Beliefs should not be taken lightly, and evidence should be cross-checked. This especially applies to "common-sense" facts that we learn from others by word of mouth and to traditional knowledge. Above all, however, our most important tool is knowing what types of cognitive errors we, as a species, are prone to making.”
Keeping the power of the subconscious in our minds, let us look at the causes of religion in particular, aside from the causes of general error.
Two of William James lectures on religion from 1901-02 were devoted to tracing the psychology of 'conversion' into a religion. He introduces Dr Starbuck:
“Conversion is in its essence a normal adolescent phenomenon, incidental to the passage from the child's small universe to the wider intellectual and spiritual life of maturity. [...] In his recent work on the Psychology of Religion, Professor Starbuck of California [says] "Theology takes the adolescent tendencies and builds upon them; it sees that the essential thing in adolescent growth is bringing the person out of childhood into the new life of maturity and personal insight.”
This compares well with the notes of many psychologists on god and religion, including Sigmund Freud: that religious feelings, and adult ideas about religion, are actually childhood fantasies in disguise. Luhrmann describes it in terms of "recreating a childhood world", in order to re-enchant adulthood76. This is not directly what Dr Starbuck and William James were implying, but it is true that many aspects of religion are drawn-out ideas of childhood such as the idea of an ever-present all-loving parent, the feeling of guilt when no-one is looking, the lack of death, etc. In the Christian Bible, in the first letter of St Paul to Corinth, Paul says "when I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me" (1 Corinthians 13:11). Although this may be the conscious and intellectualized testimony, religion is largely the subconscious survival of childhood fantasy into adulthood. Childish seeming ideas may have been tidied away into the closet, but from the dark corners of the mind they continue to exert much pressure on the religious mind. Giving childish ideas adult terminology no longer hides the route of wishful thinking from psychologists.
Many people believe that one of the greatest appeals of religion is that it provides reassurance against the spectre of death31,77. The very thought of the permanent cessation of our consciousness can be terrifying, confusing and difficult to accept. Any theory that posits our ultimate survival can have a lot of appeal. This isn't a new revelation; Roman philosopher Lucretius (99-55BCE) famously said "fear was the first thing on Earth to make gods"78 and the 19th century anthropologist Bronishaw Malinowski argued that religion gives us a sense of power over death79. At the turn of the century William James, devoted to the study of comparative religion and psychology, says that "the ancient saying that the first maker of the Gods was fear receives voluminous corroboration from every age of religious history"80. Later the astute Albert Einstein wrote "with primitive man it is above all fear that evokes religious notions - fear of... death"81. Biologist E. O. Wilson studies the neurobiological basis of human behaviour, and states that the "foremost" religious drive is the one that "hunger[s] for a permanent existence"78. Aside from theory, modern sociological and psychological research has supported this position. A review of studies by Soenke et al. (2013) found that "one variable showing particular importance in protecting individuals from anxiety about death is the belief in an afterlife" which was bolstered by "active commitment and practice" of their religion. The stronger the belief, the less the anxiety about death.
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“The idea of avoiding death through some kind of belief in the afterlife is one of the most powerful driving forces behind religious belief82. For many people, (1) the personal desire to survive death and (2) the personal desire for social justice both conspire to make belief in the afterlife feel right. Some historians say that belief in an afterlife is one of the universal traits of primitive Human culture that led to the founding of our religions83, and it continues to fuel the appeal of faith even today, in the 21st century. Actual beliefs have differed from culture to culture, based mostly on geographic location. Historically many cultures believed that all dead folk (good and bad) go to a single underworld, but Christianity and Islam developed their ideas of heaven and hell into a very black-and-white moralistic affair. Now, many people say their fear of hell is one of the reasons they follow their religion84. Most spiritual experiences throughout the rest of the world rest on the idea of continual reincarnation rather than on heaven. The concept of an ultimate scheme which redresses the moral imbalances of the world is common to religion both in the West and in the East. God, or Karma, works to make sure that good people are rewarded, and bad people taught a lesson. It teaches us that we have a powerful social instinct towards justice, and when we don't find it in this life, it is very soothing for us to believe that it is found in the next85. There is no actual evidence for any kind of afterlife86 and in many countries where scientific knowledge is high, belief in the afterlife has heavily declined.”
Human beings have a natural tendency to enjoy myths, stories, epic tales, supernatural wonder and other fascinating elements from the worlds of our imaginations. Karen Armstrong writes that "Human beings have always been mythmakers"87. We love creating, and telling these stories. Over time they are altered, embellished, made more amazing and told with greater confidence88. Every culture has a central creation myth89. Such epic stories are exciting, they give life meaning, and feed our egos by making us think we're the concern of the creator of billions of galaxies. For some people it goes further; the stories become the basis for ceremonial retellings, ritualistic behaviour and strict dogmatic beliefs. And they find themselves compelling other people to adhere to the same principles in order to respect the great story.
Classic sociologists such as Weber and Geertz taught us that religions allow people to deal with existential anxieties "about how to understand the natural and social environment" by developing world-view cosmologies; modern sociologists have not found reason to disagree90. Although modern science and knowledge have eroded most of the influence of religion in many countries, mythic answers are simpler and make it easier to understand the universe (and are easier to tell) than the dry and complicated evidence-based stories that come from science.
“Myths can be debased and uprooted. All that happens is that modern myths and rituals replace the traditional ones, for myths and archetypes are an inherent part of the human psyche. Human beings appear to need a religious underpinning both to their personal and to their social lives. At the personal level, human beings need a mythology within which to frame their identities and the meaning of their lives.”
As traditional Abrahamic religions are fading away in the modern world, a suite of new movements have arisen to (partially) take their place including the New Age and Pagan religions. New stories are replacing old ones.
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Simple faith-based answers to fundamental questions are very appealing, because the world is very complicated92,93. Human knowledge is broken up into so many deep specialities that it is no longer possible for anyone to attain an accurate overall picture of reality94. Least of all is it possible to grasp what it all means for us personally. Instability and uncertainty make people search for ideas which give a sense of personal control over destiny95.
Psychologist Carl Jung wrote that "man positively needs general ideas and convictions that will give meaning to his life and enable him to find a place for himself in the universe"96 and many say it provides them a sense of meaning and destiny97,98,99. The same psychological factor can be explained from a cynical point of view: "the contemporary persistence of religion indicates an inability or refusal on the part of many people to take on board the implications of science and rationality"100. This would appear to be a factor both amongst science-denying American Christian fundamentalism, and in Western New Religious Movements epitomized by the New Age which embraces a wide range of zany, and very unlikely, beliefs about reality. Unfortunately, and we find it hard to admit this to ourselves, many of our beliefs are held because they're comforting and simple73.
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The phrase 'anthropic coincidences' refers to the theory that the Universe is so delicately fine-tuned for life that it must have been designed with that purpose in mind, by an intelligent creator-god101. The main argument is that if you fiddle with the universal constants of physics (such as the strengths of the weak and strong nuclear forces) and change their values even by a little bit, then the Universe would be completely unsuitable for life as we know it. Therefore, God created the Universe for life, and in particular, created it for mankind here on Earth. Some scientists subscribe to this idea, and use it to justify (and promote) belief in God102. But there are a number of convincing logical and evidential arguments against this idea. Mainly: the unimaginably vast Universe is almost everywhere completely unsuitable for life, and even here on planet Earth we can exist only on in a thin crust of a planet that is two-thirds made of water (yet we have no gills). Also, it took nine billion years to make the Earth, and then another four billion before Humankind appeared103. The timetable makes no sense: If the Universe was designed for life, it ought to have simply started with life. When it comes to the sun, which religionists are sure was created to warm us, "of all the energy [it emits], only two photos in a billion are used to warm Earth, the rest radiating uselessly into space"103. The theory that God done it this way on purpose simply doesn't make sense. Evolution does a much better job of explaining why and how life evolved, and is a theory based on evidence, unlike the "God designed life" theory, which is based on pure speculation. Not only that, but it simply reeks of egotistical and prideful wishful-thinking to imagine that the creator of a billion galaxies made all of it with our particular species in mind. If we did change the Universal constants, then, for all we know, even more intelligent life could have evolved in even more different ways. In other words we have no knowledge at all to indicate that the current set-up is optimal for life. For these reasons, the anthropic coincidences argument has been abandoned philosophically and even used to argue against the idea of a God, although in its simpler forms it is still vocalized by many laypeople as being a reason for their belief in God104.
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Dreams often feel ominous, personal and auspicious. Before we had modern understandings of the neuronal basis of mind, they were often given spiritual and religious significance105,106. But, between cultures and communities, there have been too many contradictory results for dreams to unify religion or provide a useful basis for understanding reality. Native Americans were sure of the meanings of their dreams107, and yet, the Chinese were sure of completely different meanings; likewise Christians and Hindus have dreams that affirm their own outlooks. Instead of religious interpretations, it is the biological 'random' model that has been proven to be correct. The meaning of dreams is personally and culturally subjective, without a specific applicability to religion, and without any real link to supernaturalism.
Dreams are given most attention in historical primal religions and popular religion108 but stable and established doctrinal religions come to disregard dreams because their unpredictability too often contradicts official scripture, causing unregulated outbursts of charismatic leadership and rebellion, that make religion difficult to control. Supernatural interpretations of dreams can still be embraced by smaller supernaturalist groups and new religious movements, who are more adaptable in what direction they take.
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My Experiences of God are Illusions, Derived from Malfunctioning Psychological Processes examines many of the psychological factors that lead people to 'experience' the presence of various Gods, and the summary conclusion lists the main points:
The psychological wish for an ever-present loving parent looking over us, combined with our ability for abstract ideas to become the basis for our emotions, especially love, form the concept of God as a subconscious parent-substitute and ideal carer. The childhood memory of our seemingly all-knowing and all-capable parents, whom we continuously miss in adult life, causes some people to desire a parental god to exist.
Pride and ego incline us toward god-belief: It is more prideful to think that the creator of the billions of galaxies cares deeply about oneself, and it is a function of the ego that we want such an all-powerful eternal being to be watching and judging us. The opposite: That no-one is watching, and no-one keeps measure of our actions, is cold in comparison, so that some peoples' ego's and pride wish for there to be a god. See: Homocentricity or Anthropocentrism: Why Do Religions Think Humanity Is Central to God and Creation?.
As we can see from the different ways people experience the same event, peoples' expectations influence their reality. Examples of this include, as discussed, sleep apnea: Experienced by some as UFO abductions, and others as attempted demon possession. Of all the experiences and messages given by God, many contradict each other. From this mess of contradictory experiences, combined with the lack of any logical reason why gods would exist, I conclude that there is no God. There are human beings, our wishes, our projections and our experiences led by our own abstractions and expectations, but there is no objective, real God external to the self. See: The False and Conflicting Experiences of Mankind: How Other Peoples' Experience Contradict Our Own Beliefs.
That we can stimulate parts of the brain and induce mystical and spiritual experiences in people means that such experiences are explained by the neurological sciences whether or not there is actually a 'spiritual realm'. See: Souls do not Exist: Evidence from Science & Philosophy Against Mind-Body Dualism.
Hallucinations are easily interpreted in religious terms, and, the religious instinct towards fasting and sensory deprivation are both sought after as routes towards gaining 'divine' or 'spiritual' messages - when in reality, it is the starved brain misfiring. See: Hallucinations, Sensory Deprivation and Fasting: The Physiological Causes of Religious and Mystical Experiences: 2. Hallucinations.
The burden of proof remains firmly with the spiritualists: Experience of these types of mystical events is not proof of the reality of them, therefore different (logical or experimental) proof needs to be found. Until such proof arrives, it is not sensible to believe in god.
For the full page, see: "Experiences of God are Illusions, Derived from Malfunctioning Psychological Processes" by Vexen Crabtree (2002).
That religion is ultimately all based on worship of the sun, and of the stars and other visible stellar bodies (such as Mercury, Venus and Mars), has been a very common observation. The sun has obvious life-giving properties; its waning during autumn and winter gives rise to natural decay, loss of vegetation and eventually, to human difficulties in obtaining food. But the powers of darkness are eventually defeated, and the sun's power starts to rise on the winter equinox. The celebration of the solstices, equinoxes and seasons has often been done via the apotheosis of natural forces: in the history of mankind, more gods are attributed to the cycles of nature than from any other source.
“Prodicus of Ceos [5th century BCE), also one of the most famous sophists, advanced the idea that the conceptions of the gods were originally associated with those things which were of use to humanity: sun and moon, rivers and springs, the products of the earth and the elements; therefore bread was identified with Demeter, wine with Dionysus, water with Poseidon, fire with Hephaestus. As a special instance he mentioned the worship of the Nile by the Egyptians.”
"Atheism in Pagan Antiquity" by Anders Björn Drachmann (1922)109
“... as late as the days of the French Revolution, Dupuis, in a voluminous work, tried to trace the whole of ancient religion and mythology back to astronomy.”
"Atheism in Pagan Antiquity" by Anders Björn Drachmann (1922)110
In the Northern Hemisphere, the spring equinox occurs when the length of the day increases until it is equal with the length of the night, which occurs on the 21st of March each year111. The sun, growing in power, finally overtakes darkness, and its rebirth is celebrated. This was an especially important event for early human civilisations that relied upon agriculture. This is why so many ancient religions and cultures celebrate renewal and rebirth at and after the spring equinox, and is why Easter is tied up with the ideas of fertility and growth, hence, the symbols of the egg and the rabbit. Ancient pagans anthropomorphized the forces of nature, and told stories to explain why the sun was resurgent. Adonis, Attis, Dionysus, Osiris and many other Greek and Roman cults incorporated the death and rebirth of their gods at this time, with the principal dying-and-resurrection god returning to Earth for the sake of humankind112. When Christianity arose, Christians also told stories of Jesus dying and resurrecting at Easter, and since the very first centuries of Christianity, Christian apologists have had to defend themselves against accusations that the whole Jesus story was a retelling of pagan myths but without understanding of the underlying solar symbolism112.
The regression fallacy occurs when people extract too much meaning from chance events under specific circumstances. Disease and fortune come and go: because of the law of regression when things are at their worst they are likely to simply get better on their own no matter what we do. But when things are bad, some will "try" all manner of superstitious, meaningless and misguided practices - including all kinds of alternative therapies113. Social psychologist David Myers agrees: "when things reach a low point... whatever we try - going to a psychotherapist, starting a new diet-exercise plan, reading a self-help book - is more likely to be followed by improvement than by further deterioration"114. Because we rarely employ controls and statistical analysis in our personal lives, it seems that any attempted solution, from the zany to the insane, has actually worked. This is the cause of untold numbers of superstitions, magical practices, religious beliefs and pseudoscience, and can sometimes lead large numbers of people astray, especially when stories and anecdotes are published by the press.115,116,117,118,119
This is why many cults, religions and pseudo-therapeutic fads prey on the weak, depressed, down-and-outs and those who have recently experienced catastrophe. Such people are more likely to try new religions120.
The solution is to be more cognizant of Human thinking errors. Cause and effect must be analyzed statistically, carefully, and by (social) scientists who know how to discount confounding factors. Simply put: do not assume that some action or event causes a change in the frequency of another event without investigating it properly; no matter how much it goes against common-sense to deny the correlation, cognitive thinking errors such as the regression fallacy can easily lead us to false conclusions based on limited data.
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Other desperate measures are connected with the frailty of being human. Among the Mossi people of Burkina Faso, for example, "barrenness among non-Muslim women may be treated by the divinatory diagnosis that the would-be children are refusing to be born except as Muslims. The obvious remedy is conversion to Islam". This abuse is effective - people during desperate times are open to wilder influences. The same author who described the Mossi above provides a similar cultural illustration of this in action:
Translatabiliity in Islam and in Christianity in Africa by Lamin Sanneh (2002)121
It might seem ridiculous to outsiders and educated people in modern countries that this can truly result in conversion, but, in the West, many convert to Scientology on the basis of its pseudoscientific Dianetics practices, many converted to EST, and take up Edward Bach´s flower remedies, all kinds of New Age healing methods, aromatherapy and a large number of highly suspicious and ineffective "cures" because they think they might work. In Hong Kong, anthropologist Daniel Métraux documents how 10 members of a family all converted to Soka Gakkai on the basis that when the wife converted, the husband recovered from a serious illness122. Did they stop to think: why join this religion? Given that thousands of different religious movements claim thousands of healing events, why should we trust that this one in particular embodies otherworldly truth? The answer is that conversions are based on interpersonal relationships and social factors, rather than on a serious attempt to understand the world.
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The idea of heaven is one of the most attractive features of religion. The ends to which people will go in order to foster the required spiritual brownie points to get to heaven is seemingly endless - from lives spent in prayer, meditation and repentance, to lives wasted in suicide attacks and isolation: if there is potential reward at the end, people will believe in it, and then act on those beliefs.
The following things make the concept of heaven compelling and mentally addictive:
The attainment of a personal state of eternal happiness and bliss.
The idea that friends and family, alive and dead, have found peace and happiness in an afterlife.
The idea that all the wrongs of life are righted because good people go to heaven, and the bad people we've encountered are tortured in hell even if they got away with their wrongful attitudes during our own lives. Across the world, rates of religion are correlated with economic inequality - the less fair the social system, the more people believe "while those who live in relatively egalitarian societies say religion is less important"128.
The worse one's own life in this world, the stronger is the compulsion to believe in a better life after this one. The statistical correlation between social inequality and religion, and, social instability and religion, has been reported on thoroughly by Barber (2011). People yearn for, and then believe in, an ultimate and absolute justice that will rectify all the wrongs of this life. There is certainly a strong element of condolence in believing that those who do wrong against us will be punished for each and every deed.
“Because the distribution of wealth and power inhibits them, the resentful cannot act out of their desire for vengeance against the wealthy and the noble; as compensation, therefore, they seek to score moral victories that in the end will enable them to turn the tables on those who have previously lorded it over them. Thus, as Weber (1964: 110-11) put it, 'suffering may take on the quality of the religiously meritorious, in view of the belief that it brings in its wake great hopes for future compensation.' The notion that unconscious drives for salvation, motivated by suffering, take on the form of religious claims to eventual privilege, was shared by Freud, perhaps in a common debt to Nietzsche.”
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Taken from "Religion and Intelligence" by Vexen Crabtree (2007)
General intelligence is negatively correlated with strength of religious belief from national to individual average: The historical battles between religious institutions and science, such as those in physics, astronomy and biology, indicate there is something wrong with the religious approach to the study of reality. The underlying problem extends to negative effects on the individual intelligence of believers, and a related negative effect on educational achievements. Hardly any of the several-hundred Nobel Prize winning scientists have been Christians. Only 3.3% of the Members of the Royal Society in the UK and 7% the National Academy of Sciences in the USA, believe in a personal God. The more senior and learnéd the scientist, the less likely they are to believe in God. The children of highly religious parents suffer diminished IQs - averaging 7 to 10 points lower compared to their non-religious counterparts in similar socio-economic groups. As you would expect from these results, multiple studies have also shown that IQ is opposed to the strength of religious belief. 39 studies since 1927 (out of 43) have found that the higher one's intelligence, the less likely to hold religious beliefs.
The effect extends beyond individual countries and is visible inter-nationally. In countries where education is improving, younger people's uptake of religion is lower30,124, causing long-term trends towards secularisation. Countries with a higher rate of belief in God have lower average intelligence. All countries with high average intelligence have low national levels of belief in God. For countries where belief in God is over 80%, the average national IQ is 83 points. For those countries where stated disbelief in God (atheism) is greater than 20%, the national average IQ is 98 points. Instead of belief in God, countries with the highest IQs adhere to Far-Eastern atheist religions such as Buddhism, Taoism and Shinto.
Suggestibility: In The Origins of Psychic Phenomena: Poltergeists, Incubi, Succubi, and the Unconscious Mind130 Stan Gooch examines many aspects of supernatural experience, and finds that those who experience such things score highly on suggestibility indexes, are better hypnosis subjects, and are more religious and spiritual.
There has been an explosion of interest in unusual, novel, untraditional, magical, counter-cultural and Earth-centered religious movements. They have some common features136 and share a number of common pull-factors attract people to new religious movements136.
Anti-consumerism and anti-materialism.140
Golden-age romanticism. Some groups promote pre-industrial or historical moral eras and attract others who think that the modern world is "lost".141
The rise of individualism145 and protections for freedom of belief means people are free to pick-and-choose which religion to embrace.
Religious groups that arise from a particular cause will attract those interested in that cause. Two of the most popular amongst NRMs are:
Environmentalism is commonly proclaimed by all kinds of pagan, Celt, pseudo-Native and New-Age groups, and they attract many people who are similarly passionate about protecting the planet.145,146,147,148,149
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While religious beliefs are mostly the result of parental instruction and geographic incidence, there are many subconscious, psychological, sociological and neurobiological factors that cause religious and superstitious beliefs to prosper. This includes the idea of functionalism, where traditionalism and rebellion are achieved by adopting religious labels and following or rejecting typical cultural-religious behaviour. Likewise, many activists are drawn to particular religious groups on account of their association with their stance on worldly issues. Culture and religion are also mixed up, so that many times (for example in Northern Ireland) conversion is a political act; and beliefs are secondary to labels. This is also apparent in the way that the amount of Christians in countries like the UK (72%) somehow outnumber the number of actual god-believers (~50%). Religion is mostly caused by social and psychological factors and not by any examining of the evidence or logic behind the beliefs involved. This is why skeptics often find it so hard to bring their scientific knowledge to productive use in arguments with religionists.
Psychologists, sociologists, ethnographers and scientists tend to view religious beliefs as the result of mostly normal psychological systems being applied in the wrong context. A prime example is the way we get angry with cars and computers, and shout insults at them, or the way we tend to see patterns in random behaviour such as brownian motion (our 'hyperactive agent detection device'). Historical investigators such as William James have found that outstanding religious innovators and leaders have frequently been epileptic, psychotic, suffered from strokes and various mental problems and nervous instability and that this often give them more command in areas of spirituality. Experiments on the Human brain have allowed us to discover many of the specific neuronal networks that can misfire to cause us to have 'religious' feelings and experiences. Childhood fantasies, including an absence of death and the seemingly all-present, ever-caring and all-knowing parental figures who give us comfort, often become the basis for religious beliefs in adults. This hidden wishful-thinking mechanism feeds our ego (that "someone" cares about everything we do) and gives us consolation from death in the idea of an afterlife. Many strange things we 'experience' are cultural (therefore an aspect of upbringing), and once a scientific and critical understanding of them is attained, the beauty of the natural world displaces the appeal of the supernatural. Religion, when not considered a byproduct of misapplied cognitive psychology and social factors, is self-inflicted delusion, illusion, smoke and mirrors.