By | 8 Apr 2014

Portrait of David Hume (Scottish Enlightenment philosopher 7 May 1711 - 25 Aug 1776) by artist Allan RamsayTo ask a ‘true believer’ why they hold the beliefs they do would probably elicit responses which range from:

  • It’s a personal matter.
  • I have a strong conviction that God is real, dwells within me, and gives me comfort, strength and reassurance both in this life and the next.
  • It’s none of your business.

Closer investigation of the psychological forces at play may be quite surprising. I list here some of the more obvious ones.


A real and morbid fear of hell and its alleged eternal torments.


An immature form of wishful thinking about the alleged delights and rewards of heaven, e.g. being at one with God and re-united with deceased loved ones.


The established church has a ponderously huge inertia of centuries of tradition (unthinking adherence to the status quo). There is almost a form of bullying in that the church appears to say to the layperson, ‘how dare you question this established doctrine?’ In earlier centuries the coercion to believe took the form of the Inquisition with its cruelties and abominable tortures. Believe or else! You refuse to believe? Obviously you deserve to be burnt at the stake.


A person, often of senior years, is appointed to a position of control and influence. A dignified stance and demeanour complete with a slow, solemn and dramatic voice can be quite awe inspiring, especially if this figure is kitted out in resplendent robes, a peculiar hat and various adornments peculiar to the denomination. He will often take up an elevated (literally superior) position on a rostrum or pulpit. From this high ‘moral ground’ he can be a dominating influence in shaping the mindset of the listener.

The message he delivers will be strictly the ‘party line’, i.e., conventionally orthodox, and biased to the extent that only those aspects that bolster or reinforce the doctrine are mentioned, evidence or examples to the contrary being studiously omitted. The speaker is usually taken, by virtue of his rhetorical oratory, fluency and ‘showmanship’, to be an inspired teacher, who so fashions his discourse that the true believer reacts as if the speaker were a direct channel to God, giving his listeners the benefit of his unique insight.


The believer may be a member of a lively and active local church with hundreds of members. How does this equate with isolation? The isolation consists of a segregation of this coherent group from contact with other people with broader, but still ethical outlooks and life styles. A closely knit church is the ultimate answer. ‘We invite you to join us but you must relinquish the right to be a free thinker, or use reason as your primary guide. You must abandon your godlessness. We offer acceptance into our fellowship.’ (But it is conditional acceptance. Believe in our supernatural mysticism and fall in love with our figurehead.)

Another aspect of ‘isolation’ lies in the format of a typical service. There will be hymns whose words, in many cases, were written over a hundred years ago. There will be prayers, spoken aloud, and addressed to God. The sermon is one-way traffic, with a vengeance. Examples and illustrations of doctrine and dogma are force-fed to a captive audience. There is no opportunity for congregational members to question statements made in the sermon, or to ask for clarification or evidence in support of these statements. This is of course pure indoctrination if not brain washing. Contrast this with the question time included in the scheduling of lectures, talks, seminars and workshops held by professional societies.


Because of the quite small data-base of information upon which most religions are founded, the weekly sermons must, over the course of a few months, be simply reiterations of a few simple themes artfully decorated. If it were recognised that a statement (however doubtful its veracity may be), if repeated often enough, starts to become accepted as fact.


We tend to fall into patterns of behaviour. Weekly attendance at church may well be driven simply by habit rather than belief.


Most, if not all, of a believer’s friends tend to have the same faith-based foundation. There will therefore be a very ready acceptance and bonding between such folk. The church becomes the focus of the believer’s social life.

Faith healing

Some churches are involved in this practice and attract attenders hoping to be the recipient of a medical miracle. The sick, infirm or disabled are invited to ask God to provide healing. If this comes about, the effect is attributed to God’s response, not the placebo effect. If no healing or restoration of function occurs we get the standard defenses, e.g.:

  • God is testing us.
  • We can’t hustle God with our impatient timetable.
  • God knows best.

How’s that for a cop out?


This is normally seen as a virtue. If, however, loyalty consists merely in continuing adherence to doctrine or dogma, willfully ignoring evidence to the contrary, then it is misplaced loyalty. A more admirable loyalty would be to the truth obtained by application of reason using all available evidence.


This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but it includes factors which, it would seem largely determine one’s position on the belief/doubt spectrum. I have listed mainly those factors which influence folk towards belief (or at least to regular church attendance). There are many other factors which push in the opposite direction. Based on recognition of these clearly relevant psychological forces, how logically justifiable is the stance adopted by the believer?

Copyright © 2014 Don Allison