Some Reasons for Religiosity

In science, when data show as much scatter about a proposed theory as is shown in the first plot below, it suggests that the theory needs serious revision. After commenting on the first plot, I’ll suggest other possible reasons why people are religious.

The data shown in the first figure are from the latest (2007) results in the Pew Global Attitudes Project. I’ve copied the figure from the Project’s most recent report, which summarizes data from 45,239 interviews (!) in 47 “publics” (46 nations plus the Palestinian territories). For this figure, “Religiosity” was measured as follows: “Respondents were given a ‘1’ if they believe faith in God is necessary for morality; a ‘1’ if they say religion is very important in their lives; and a ‘1’ if they pray at least once a day.”

Legend notes (additional color codes): Green – Mid-Eastern Countries (Israel being the “outlier” with high GDP and low religiosity); Orange – Latin America; Brown – Asia (including Muslim Indonesia down to mostly secular Japan and China); one dark-blue dot (on the trend) is Canada; the other (the “outlier”) is the U.S. (as indicated on the graph).

The following are some obvious features of and questions about the above plot.

• The U.S. data (far right) seem anomalous (compared, e.g., with Canada and West Europe): I expect that during the coming decades, Americans will become either less religious or less wealthy.

• I expect that data for West Europe reflect influences from the Enlightenment and capitalism and that data for East Europe reflect remnants of communism (low religiosity and struggling economies).

• Illustrated especially with Africa but also with most of South America and the Middle East (except Kuwait – and no doubt, Saudi Arabia, if data had been collected), the poorer the people the stronger their religiosity: when reality is harsh, it’s easy to slip into a dream world with a promised paradise. Exceptions for their geographical areas are Israel, Japan, and China.

More generally, with so much scatter in the plot, the question arises: why plot religiosity against wealth?

To illustrate another possibility, the figure below shows religiosity against scores on the most recent (2006) international test for “science literacy” for 15 year olds as given in the left-hand column (“combined scale”) of Table 2 of the report for the Program for International Student Assessment (U.S. Department of Education). I’ve used data only for nations also sampled in the Pew Survey; in the case of China (without distinction from the Pew Survey), I’ve assigned the “three Chinas” (Taipei, Hong-Kong, and Macao) all the same “religiosity” for China as given in the Pew Survey (17%). Also, for illustrative purposes, I’ve first normalized the science-test scores and then plotted their anti-logarithm (on a logarithmic scale); so, the science scores appear as they would on a linear scale. In turn, I chose the logarithmic scale as most convenient to display the range of religiosity given in the Pew Survey. Their measure for religiosity is given in the table on p. 33 of the referenced Pew Report: importantly, it’s the percentage of interviewed people who agree with the statement that a person must believe in God to be moral.

On this plot (click to enlarge it), the U.S. again seems to “buck the trend”, as does S. Korea: people in both countries are apparently more religious than would be expected based on their science-test scores. In contrast, the former Soviet countries Poland, Russia, and Bulgaria seem less religious than one might have expected based on their science-test scores.

But this plot, too, raises a host of obvious questions.

• How much of the better-than-expected science-test scores for the U.S. and S. Korea (“better than expected” based on their religiosity – even though the U.S. test scores are a disgrace!) might be attributed to “teaching to the test” rather than teaching to develop critical-thinking skills of the students?

• How much of the worse-than-expected science-test scores for former communist countries can be attributed to poorly financed and organized school systems?

• How much of the increase in religiosity of American and S. Korean adults is from their childhood indoctrination in religion?

• Correspondingly, how much of the decrease in religiosity of adults in former Soviet nations arises from their lack of religious indoctrination?

And more significant than any of the above questions is the obvious criticism: the plot is silly! That is, the measure used for religiosity (the percentage of people who agreed with the statement that one must believe in God to be moral) is just an inverse measure of a part of scientific literacy: no student who has at least a little competence in biology would agree with such a stupid statement!

Thus, a scientifically literate student would know that moral values (e.g., as recently reviewed by Stephen Pinker, “including a distinction between right and wrong; empathy; fairness; admiration of generosity; rights and obligations; proscription of murder, rape and other forms of violence; redress of wrongs; sanctions for wrongs against the community; shame; and taboos…”) are “an innate part of human nature.” They’re encoded in our DNA, because they promoted our survival – they’re not supplied by some giant Jabberwock in the sky! Like dolphins and monkeys, humans are social animals: dolphins will periodically swim beneath a wounded cousin, lifting it to the surface, so it can get some air; monkeys “scream bloody murder” when they “discern” injustice – and they then proceed to try to punish the “cheaters”. Therefore, the second plot suggests that American students aren’t being exposed to basics about evolution, courtesy science teachers who are incompetent (religiously indoctrinated?), intimidated by the “Religious Reich”, or whatever.

All of which then exposes failures to address the basic question: Why are people religious? Alternatively, revealing my bias better: Why do so many people believe in such clearly invented balderdash? Elsewhere, I’ve commented on a few such possibilities, including (listed alphabetically):
Addiction, Animal-training, (seeking) Answers, (out of) Arrogance, (wanting) Assurance, (feeling) Awe, (feeling) Betrayed, (desiring to) Belittle (others), (seeking) Career-advancement, (seeking) Certainty, Childhood Conditioning, (seeking) Comfort, (seeking) Company, (seeking) Control, Cowardice, Credulity, (seeking) Customers, (fearing) Death, (lost in) Dreams, Egomania, Epilepsy, (seeking) Eternal Life, (out of) Fear, Following (leaders), Foolishness, (seeking) Friends, (out of) Frustration, (desiring) Goals, (out of) Greed, (seeking) Guidance, (out of) Guilt, (to get out of the) Gutter, (seeking) Happiness, Herd instinct, Hero worship, (seeking) Hope, Hypnosis, (unconstrained) Imagination, Ignorance, Indoctrination, (out of) Inquisitiveness, (lacking) Judgment, (seeking) Kinship, (desiring) Kindness, (seeking) Knowledge, (intellectual) Laziness, (out of) Loneliness, (searching for) Love, Megalomania, (seeking a) Mate, (searching for) Meaning, (out of) Misery, Narcissism, (fear of) Ostracism, (an) Opiate, Pack instinct, Parental pressure, (seeking) Peace, Political (purposes), (some other) Psychosis, (seeking) Purpose, (unanswered) Questions, (sheer) Rationalization, Revelation, Savagery, Schizophrenia, (seeking) Security, Selfishness, Selflessness, Socialization, (seeking) Support, (following) Tradition, (simply) Training, Tribalism, (unease caused by) Uncertainty, (to relieve) Unhappiness, (because of) Visions, (marriage or other) Vows, (out of) Weakness, (seeking) Wisdom, (living on) Wishes, Xenophobia, Yearnings (for assurance, brotherhood, comfort, development, empathy, friends, guidance, heaven, insight, justice, kindness, love,…), Zonked out (on drugs).

To determine the relative importance of such reasons (and surely childhood indoctrination and poor training in critical-thinking skills will be found to be two of the most important reasons) will require much more thorough surveys than those conducted in the Pew Global Attitudes Project. Yet, I sincerely congratulate the people associated with the Pew Research Center and their sponsors (The Pew Charitable Trusts and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation) for their good start.



Don’t let theists negate you. Negate them!

Words can be powerful, not only to communicate ideas and emotions but also to confuse and intimidate.

For example, consider the Greek word theo meaning ‘god’. From that root arises ‘theism’, which (like any other ‘ism’) is an ideology – in this case, an ideology based on belief in the existence of some god. [An ideology is a commitment to the ‘truth’ of some idea rather than the idea of ‘truth’.] In turn, someone who adopts a theistic ideology is a ‘theist’.

Similar to all ideologists with an “us-them” (or “on-off”, “black-white”, or “good vs. evil”) mentality, theists identify the “them” (the bad guys) as “atheists”. The word ‘atheist’ is derived by adding the Greek prefix ‘a’, meaning ‘not’, to ‘theist’, i.e., ‘a-theist’ (just as the word ‘atom’ is derived from Greek parts meaning not-divisible). Thereby, if all evidence leads you to conclude that the universe is natural, then theists “negate you”: you’re not one of them (the good guys), living in a fairy tale, drunk on supernatural delusions.

Phooey on them! I refuse to be labeled an atheist. I don’t “not-believe” in god: I’ve estimated the probability of the existence of any god to be astoundingly small (somewhere around 1 chance in 10 to the 500th power) – but it’s not exactly zero. Therefore, I’m not an atheist: I’m a theist who’s concluded that living one’s life based on the possible existence of any god is dumb.

I also refuse the label ‘agnostic’, which with the Greek prefix ‘a’ (not) and the Greek word for knowledge (gnosis) means “not knowing”. I admit that I don’t know the exact value for the probability of the existence of any god, but there is enough evidence (or more accurately, lack thereof) to conclude that one would need to be bonkers to live in a supernatural daydream, making decisions based on assuming that any god exists.

Besides, though, it’s astoundingly inefficient and potentially confusing to try to communicate ideas using negatives. For example, rather than inform you that, when I finish typing this, I plan to go for a walk, how about if I told you that, when I’m no longer typing, I don’t plan to eat, have a shower, or go for a drive? In fact, after typing this, there are billions of things I don’t plan to do!

Similarly, rather than accept the theists’ negative description that I’m an atheist or an agnostic, I adopt a positive attitude and inform them that I’m a scientific humanist. If they want, I can inform them what “scientific humanist” means. But I’ve found that they rarely want to learn anything new – which seems to be typical for “theists”, or more appropriately (negating them), for unscientific antihumans!



The Probability of God

I was recently asked to explain my estimate (or better, my “guesstimate”) for the probability of the existence of any god. As I wrote in a recent post, my guesstimate for the existence of any god is somewhere around 1 chance in 10 to the 500th power; that is, 1 part in 10^500; i.e.,

0.000000…[continue for a total of 499 zeros]…001

which is the smallest probability I’ve ever encountered. That’s why I also wrote that the probability that any god exists (or has ever existed) is “zilch” or “zip” (or “zippo”). Perhaps my explanation (see below), for why I say that the probability of the existence of any god is so miniscule as to be ignorable, would be of interest to others.

It’s not simple to explain briefly. I’ve written two chapters on the topic in my free, online book, namely, Chapter Ih (dealing with “Hypotheses, Probabilities, and Evidence” and introducing Bayes’ method) and Chapter Ii (entitled “Indoctrination in Ignorance”, where I show the method used). To try to cut those two (long!) chapters down to a single (long!) paragraph, I’d try this.

Whereas Bayes’ method can’t be used to estimate the probability of the existence of any god (in spite of Unwin’s silly attempt to do so, in his book The Probability of God) – because there’s no reliable evidence to support the existence of any god – therefore, one is left with estimating the probability that any god COULD exist. In outline, the argument contains the following two steps.

(1) The probability that YOU could ever come into existence is certainly less than 1 part in 10^100 (using a very crude estimate for the probability that a symmetry-breaking fluctuation in the original “total nothingness” could have created the universe). I expect that the probability that any particular person could ever come into existence is the range from 1 part in 10^100 to 1 part in 10^200. Yet, the evidence supporting the proposition that you exist confirms your existence to within about 1 part in 10^25. It’s not “certainty”, as Descartes claimed, because (for example) we all could be simulations in some humongous computer game!

(2) The probability that “the original nothingness” could have proceeded directly to popping a god into existence is very much smaller than the probability that it could have created you – unless, of course, you have the capabilities that a god allegedly has. My “guesstimate” is that the probability that “nothingness” could have popped a god into existence is in the range of 1 part in 10^200 to 1 part in 10^1000, which for discussion purposes, I use 1 part in 10^500. But the evidence supporting the proposition that any god exists (in contrast to the evidence supporting the proposition that you exist) is zip. Therefore, if I’m to base my beliefs on evidence (as I desire), then consistent with Sagan’s “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, I conclude that the probability of the existence any god is the same as the probability that a god could have ever come into existence, i.e., ~1 part in 10^500.

If theists (aka “unscientific antihumans”, aka “god believers”, i.e., those who “wish” that their god exists) would like to find some comfort in such an argument, they might be pleased to know that string theory (or brane theory) suggests the existences of somewhere around 10^500 possible universes (or better, ‘multiverses’, or just plain ‘verses’, meaning ‘turns’). If that’s correct, then such a result plus the above guesstimate for the existence of any god would suggest that, in one of the verses, there might be a god – but then, the chance that there’s a god in ours is back down to the ~1 chance in 10^500.

I’ll add that the counter-argument that “God has always existed” can be dismissed for lack of evidence. In fact, in reality, no data support the contention of the existence of any infinity, such as the proposed infinite lifetime of any god (or for that matter, anyone’s “immortal” soul). Even adding together the numbers for all sand grains at all seashores, stars in the sky, and hydrogen atoms in our universe, all evidence supports the proposition that infinities occur only in games, such as pure mathematics and religions.



How to Stop Suicide Bombers

As much as I appreciate the attempts by people such as Robert Spencer who are doing what they think best to try to stop suicide bombers (e.g., see his Jihad Watch) and as much as I welcome the new initiative by Marvin Hier (the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center) to try to stimulate the UN “to designate suicide bombings as a crime against humanity”, yet it pains me that such intelligent and dedicated people are fighting the good fight with one hand tied behind their backs – or worse and more accurately, each with their two hands locked in prayer.

Spencer’s most recent book is Religion of Peace?: Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t. According to a Reuters’ article this week, the ad to be put out by Hier’s group states:

Suicide terrorists believe they act in God’s name and enter paradise as holy martyrs. Religious leaders must use every sermon and every publication to denounce this belief as nothing less than an abomination of faith and a perversion of all that is godly.

No! Suicide bombing is NOT an “abomination of faith and a perversion of all that is godly”; it’s a product of religious faith and a consequence of “godliness”. As Richard Dawkins wrote in The God Delusion:

However misguided we may think them [the terrorists], they are motivated, like the Christian murderers of abortion doctors, by what they perceive to be righteousness, faithfully pursuing what their religion tells them. They are not psychotic; they are religious idealists who, by their own lights, are rational. They perceive their acts to be good, not because of some warped personal idiosyncrasy, and not because they have been possessed by Satan, but because they have been brought up, from the cradle, to have total and unquestioning faith.

As much as I wish it weren’t so, I doubt that we’ll ever rid the world of the scourge of suicide bombing by the methods advocated by Hier, Spencer, and so many others; their way, more likely, will make matters worse. In essence, the message of such theists is: “You Muslims are wrong; your ‘holy book’ is wrong.” To which, loud and clear – deafeningly loud with each suicide blast – comes the bombers’ answer: “NO! YOU’RE THE ONES WHO ARE WRONG! GOD IS WITH US!”

In contrast to theists, scientific humanists have a simple, clear, rational, and scientifically defensible response to both sets of stupidities: “You’re both wrong; the evidence for the existence of any god is zip; suicide bombing is neither ‘godly’ nor ‘ungodly’; it’s a war tactic used by power mongers to extend their parasitic existence and their power over the people; it’s developed by brainwashing children in religious balderdash, and it’s deployed by maniacs unable to think for themselves.”

The way to stop such madness is to purge all theists of their god delusions. A critical step is to stop indoctrinating children in clearly invented balderdash; it’s another form of child abuse; instead, teach children the scientific method (“guess, test, and reassess”), which is the essence of critical thinking.

That is, the real “crime against humanity” is perpetrating belief and faith in God. Worldwide, spread the word: anyone and everyone who believes in God is bonkers. As Richard Robinson wrote:

We ought to do what we can towards eradicating the evil habit of believing without regard to evidence.

And we must stop such madness, such evil, since the consequences are potentially so serious. As Sam Harris wrote in The End of Faith:

Our technical advances in the art of war have finally rendered our religious differences – and hence our religious beliefs – antithetical to our survival. We can no longer ignore the fact that billions of our neighbors believe in the metaphysics of martyrdom, or in the literal truth of the book of Revelation, or any of the other fantastical notions that have lurked in the minds of the faithful for millennia – because our neighbors are now armed with chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. There is no doubt that these developments mark the terminal phase of our credulity. Words like “God” and “Allah” must go the way of “Apollo” and “Baal,” or they will unmake our world.

So please, Robert and Marvin, stop and think what you’re doing – and then, pause even longer to think about your thoughts, including their origins. Think about what Robert Ingersoll wrote more than a century ago:

For ages, a deadly conflict has been waged between a few brave men and women of thought and genius upon the one side, and the great ignorant religious mass on the other. This is the war between Science and Faith. The few have appealed to reason, to honor, to law, to freedom, to the known, and to happiness here in this world. The many have appealed to prejudice, to fear, to miracle, to slavery, to the unknown, and to misery hereafter. The few have said “Think”; the many have said “Believe!”

As much as I’m sure you’re trying to help, I’m also sure that you can’t help humanity by, in effect, telling the terrorists that your god is better than their god. Think about what Bertrand Russell wrote:

What a man believes upon grossly insufficient evidence is an index into his desires – desires of which he himself is often unconscious. If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way… So long as men are not trained to withhold judgment in the absence of evidence [italics added], they will be led astray by cocksure prophets, and it is likely that their leaders will be either ignorant fanatics or dishonest charlatans. To endure uncertainty is difficult, but so are most of the other virtues.

Think about it: there’s no evidence to support anyone’s “belief” that any god has ever existed. Your faith in your god and your “holy book”, just like the terrorists’ faith in their god and their “holy book”, is a product of your childhood indoctrination and your unconstrained imagination. Instead of having “belief and faith in god”, hold beliefs only as strongly as relevant evidence warrants and, thereby, develop faith in the scientific method.

In reality, theists (aka “unscientific antihumans”) are the disbelievers and infidels: they disbelieve in the value of evidence; in their application of the scientific method, they’re infidels.