Reasons Given For Believing in God

I was reading The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer the other evening and came across a study that Shermer did that pretty much sums up belief in God. But it's really even more telling than that. I'll let him explain in his own words:

Page 264, kindle location ~5280)
My colleague Frank Sulloway and I discovered another form of attribution bias 1 in a research project that we conducted several years ago. Frank and I wanted to know why people believe in God, so we polled ten thousand random Americans. In addition to exploring various demographic and sociological variables, we also directly asked subjects in an essay question why they believed in God.

The top two reasons that people gave for why they believed in God were "the good design of the universe" and "the experience of God in everyday life." Interestingly and tellingly, when subjects were asked why they thought other people believed in God, these two answers dropped to sixth and third place, respectively, and the two most common reasons given were that belief is "comforting" and "fear of death".

These answers revealed a sharp distinction between an intellectual attribution bias, in which people consider their own beliefs as being rationally motivated, and an emotional attribution bias, in which people see the beliefs of others as being emotionally driven.

... The attribution bias of perceiving intellectual reasons for belief as superior to emotional reasons appears to be a manifestation of a broader form of self-serving bias through which people slant their perceptions of the world, especially the social world, in their favor.

That is very telling, isn't it? What does it mean? Do people overestimate their own reasons, by making them out to be rational? Or do they accurately portray their reasons and view others less favorably as having beliefs for less practical reasons?

How would you even tease that out? I can't think of how you would, since you can only find out why people believe anything by asking them. So we just have to go on their word.

In my experience talking with religious people, I've heard quite a few say they just can't imagine or bear to think that we just end when we die. That's the one I've heard the most, personally. I've also heard the one along the lines of that they can't believe everything just evolved and came from nothing, etc.

But now I want to ask people why they think others believe in God.

1. attribution bias: the tendency to attribute different causes for our own beliefs and actions than that of others.


  1. The two I hear most often are very similar to yours.
    The one I hear most boils down to, "there are things that are just so incredibly amazing and difficult to explain that it must be magic and there must be a guy that does the magic and he's god."

    The second one is not so much about that things can't end when we die, but more about the "meaning of life". Some people find it difficult to believe that the universe doesn't care when they die. Their psychology literally does not allow them to believe that humanity will go extinct and the universe will end in heat-death and not only will they not be around, but no one will be around to remember them. Therefore, they need to believe in an ultimate plan and meaning and this need is easily serviced by religion.

    But since we're talking about attribution bias, my opinion of why people really believe is that belief is part of the culture they live in and they were raised to believe - nothing more.

  2. In my experience, most "believers" are neither willing nor able to examine their own reasons for belief. Most of them have either never questioned themselves or have been inculcated with the idea that wanting to question is somehow "sinful". It follows then, that their opinions as to why others may believe as they do are so colored with this same fear and/or automatic "we're better than anyone else" ideas that it is impossible to tease out any useful data with questions like the one posed here.
    Since belief in any of the major religions (especially the Abrahamic ones), requires ignoring or "explaining away" many of the scientifically recognized realities of our Universe, it should not be surprising that "believers" are verey good at rationalizing their own "reasons" for belief.

  3. I think Harvey has it right. Most people don't examine the reason they believe, and interpret social pressure/conformity as the will of God.

    And if you haven't done so previously, you should Google "Terror Management Theory".

  4. Thanks, MJ. I am always interested in what people say their reasons are for believing in God. I've heard the reasons you listed too.

  5. Hi Harvey. While I agree with you, I just think that those of us who don't believe should also pay attention to which biases we are using to judge others.

  6. Yes, I agree.
    And yes, Terror Management Theory is very interesting. I've blogged about it before. I'd like to learn more about it.