How do we know that religion is a self-deception?

I posted a message a week ago under Codie’s discussion topic “Do We Really Need to Respect Religions?”. Kir picked up on one of my comments – “Everything we know of the psychology of religion shows that religiosity is a self-deception, founded on the satisfaction of emotional and spiritual needs of individuals within faith communities” – and said, “I'm wondering if you might expand on this for the reader. I don't think most atheists are all that knowledgeable of this area and I think you're touching on a key point here.” 

Natasha opened up another interesting discussion a few days ago – ‘How to argue against a particular delusion’ – which is obviously very close to this topic. But it may be better to create a separate string for this one, more focused on the psychology of religion, and open up the forum after kicking it off with my own comments. 

I should first say that my comment of a week ago was probably misleading. Although I think it states an obvious and arguable truth, and although there is certainly a mountain of evidence within psychology (as well as other disciplines – notably sociology, religious studies, and history) which, taken all together, establishes an overwhelming probability that religion is a self-deception, what’s ‘obvious’ to one person is not so to another. If I was implying that there is some evidence that can be presented to the believer and which will force her to realize that she is in the grip of a psychological condition, I’m sorry. Precisely because religion is a self-deception, it is a loop. Negative feedback systems (like thermostats, toilet cisterns, cruise control systems) have mechanisms that maintain desired conditions. Minds have similar control mechanisms, which work to manage perception and thought so as to preserve beliefs and behaviours that matter to us. They operate in all of us, even if religion presents the most dramatic illustrations of these control mechanisms. 

Suppose someone is hypnotized to believe they’re a chicken, with commands included for them to ignore all evidence to the contrary. There is obviously nothing you can to to disabuse them. Present them with filmed evidence of the hypnotist putting them under a trance; roll a long mirror in front of them and say: “Look, you can see you’re a human being. Now wake up to reality!” – nothing will make any difference until the ‘controlling suggestion’ is removed. Believers find such analogies insulting as well as false, and perhaps ridiculous to boot. In fact, the literature on religious indoctrination shows that it is not very far off the mark at all. The ‘hypnotist’ is the religious community with which the subject makes contact, either during childhood (the most impressionable period) or later, and the effect is one of social contagion. Swarms of bees, schools of fish, flocks of birds are examples in nature that evince what seems to be a ‘group mind’. The same behaviour is found among human beings, one of the most social of species. All gifted speakers know instinctively how to whip a suggestive crowd into a state of “collective effervescence” (Durkheim’s phrase), something individuals cannot achieve in isolation. Researchers recognize that this is what is happening in episodes of group religious excitement involving altered states of consciousness, such as in the ceremonies of the shamans, in Haitian Vodou temples, among Hindi Gurus and Fakirs or in Pentecostal and Charismatic churches.   

Religion is unlike hypnosis in that, whereas the hypnotist’s suggestions, commands, etc., run counter to the subject’s current beliefs (and can thwart the subject’s will significantly), in religion the believer is complicit in the process: indoctrination is a mix of hypnosis and self-hypnosis because religion satisfies certain emotional needs in the individual (for transcendence, for a sense of purpose, for a sense of meaning, order, control, and so on). But the result is the same: religious beliefs function like implanted suggestions. And so they’re very difficult to override merely by presenting the believer with evidence to show that the beliefs are false or that the reasons the believer advances in support of her beliefs are deplorably bad. 

Does that mean nothing can be said to convince religious believers that their beliefs are delusions?  Of course not. Like everything else, religious belief and commitment are a matter of degree.  All false beliefs can in principle be overturned by contrary evidence. But as a rule, so long as the benefits of religious faith outweigh the disadvantages for the believer, she will hold fast to it. Showing the adherent a more viable and more attractive option is another possibility, but where world views and ideologies are concerned, fear of change and loss aversion are powerful influencers of behaviour and people tend to be like monkeys that will not let go of one branch until they’ve got a firm grip on the next one.

Nevertheless, thousands of people deconvert every day.  16.5 million people leave Christianity globally every year. Even in the United States – by far the most devout nation in the developed world – Christianity continues to decline, at the rate of 6,000 a day. Increased standards of education throughout the modern era are a key factor in the decline of religion. Accordingly the most articulate testimony concerning the nature of religion comes from educated former believers. In parallel with the rise of New Atheism, the past decade has seen a spate of books appear by former believers (e.g., Dan Barker, John Loftus, Michael Shermer, Darrel Ray, Jason Long, Valerie Tarico, Marlene Winell), and websites like, and carry scores of deconversion stories, detailing how deconverts realized that the claims of religion are false and that religion is a psychological condition. So, clearly, believers are susceptible to evidence and reasons that expose the doctrines of their inherited religion for the man-made nonsense that they are. They merely need to be psychologically ready. For some, the process of deconversion occurs imperceptibly over many years; for others, a couple of frank discussions with an informed critic of religion are enough to cause the whole structure to unravel very quickly.

I don’t actually think that citing from the “data” in the psychology of religion is necessarily the best way to demonstrate that religion is a self-deception. Simple common-sense arguments probably do that better, even if the literature of more academic approaches greatly supports common-sense conclusions. The simplest observation and reasoning are enough to establish what should be exquisitely obvious to everyone: that religion is a psychological condition.

Here’s just one thought along those lines:

Consider that no society, tribe, or group of any kind, in ancient or modern times, is known to us that is without religious beliefs. Religion is an utterly ubiquitous activity in human societies, from the most primitive to the most civilized. In the modern world, there are about 22 major religions (if we’re defining a major religion as one that has at least 500,000 adherents), but there are collectively thousands of factions within these (Christianity itself has no fewer than 30,000 groups). The total number of religious belief-systems, large or small, living or extinct, numbers at least in the tens of thousands

If we could ask every human being on earth how many of these belief-systems they consider to be factually untrue, their answers, for all intents and purposes, would all be identical.  They would all say “100%” or, in the case of believers, “99.99999…..%”. Obviously the difference between the two figures is utterly negligible. The answers reflect universal agreement on the most fundamental question one can ask about a field that makes pronouncements about reality: ‘Does it have a good record of yielding genuine knowledge? And that answer is ‘No’. The answer is: ‘No. Religion has an utterly deplorable record when it comes to yielding genuine knowledge about reality.’

I realize of course that every religious believer indulges in special pleading by making a unique exception of her own pet religion. Nevertheless this universal verdict so discredits religion, and so devastatingly, that it’s hard to see how any attempts to mitigate it could be of any worth.

But the point is what this tells us about religious believers themselves – all the religious believers that have ever existed since our species began to create religions. It tells us that, despite the characteristic conviction and confidence with which, as believers, they have all believed the tenets and teachings of their religion, they have all in fact believed falsehoods. In other words, they were victims of self-deception. 

And think about what this means. It means that this is true of virtually the entire human population since civilization began (for widespread nonbelief is an entirely recent phenomenon)!

Given the manner in which religion is acquired, given that it is acquired culturally from parents and the community in which the believer grows up, given that it is believed automatically and ‘on authority’ and with a certainty completely unrelated to evidence, and is impervious to criticism, it is obvious that religion is a set of behavioural attitudes, a socio-psychological condition with its own symptomatology, with deep roots in basic human urges, needs, predispositions, fears, aspirations, and so on.

This conclusion is a statement of the obvious for most of us members on this forum, nonbelievers as most of us are. We know that religion is a psychological condition.  But it is curious how the religious seem oblivious of this fact or seem to ignore it completely.  But if religion is not a psychological condition, what else could it possibly be?

Of course, believers who are also scholars of religion fully acknowledge that this is what it is – it’s only the average believer who shows complete obliviousness of the real nature of religion. Yet even scholars are capable of the mental schism that is characteristic of religion. The whole point in recognizing that religiosity is a psychological condition is that it is a causative explanation of religious belief and behaviour – otherwise a religious believer would be nothing other than a clearsighted person who just happens to recognize, impartially, that the teachings of his religion are true. Once you’ve acknowledged the nature of religion, its roots in human drives and needs and its derivation from an existing religious community to which the believer’s behaviour conforms, and the origins of its beliefs, symbols and practices in identifiable human traditions that go back in most cases to obscure beginnings in the ancient world, the inevitable necessity to accept the traditions on faith and to submit to the authority of religious leaders, the completely automatic acceptance of religion by believers and their imperviousness to criticism and contrary evidence – once you've acknowledged all this you’ve pretty much destroyed all probability that the doctrines of your religion might just happen to be true.  You can’t have it both ways. Either religion is a set of behavioural activities originating in human groups and which helps human beings to cope with life, or it has nothing to do with that, and your religion just dropped fully formed from Heaven at a particular point in history. Yet we have people like Michael Argyle, one of the leading authorities in the psychology of religion (co-author with Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi of The Psychology of Religious Belief, Behaviour and Experience, one of my favourite books on religion and a truly outstanding source of insight into the subject), who also wants to be a Christian and somehow manages to partition his mind to achieve this. And people like Joanna Collicutt-McGrath (wife of Alistair McGrath), a lecturer in the Psychology of Religion at the University of Oxford, yet also an Anglican priest (as is her husband – what a coincidence!). And if scholars of religion are prone to this partitioning of the mind and cannot draw the appropriate practical conclusions from their better knowledge, and are still able to practice religious faith, think how much greater and more insurmountable the blindness and cognitive split must be among ordinary believers.

Is there any point in making such observations as the above to religious believers? Probably not. Such observations may reach and start to sway the minds of ‘fence-sitters’, those already far advanced on the path to deconversion, already near the threshold of nonbelief, but not those with a deeper religious commitment. You can take the latter through the appropriate analysis and arguments and evidence, but the ‘commanding suggestions’ of their religion are too deeply entrenched in their minds and will prevent them from drawing the appropriate practical conclusions, which they will evade by any means available to them (hence the subject-changing and evasions which are by far and away the main response of believers when engaged in discussion with a critic who is trying to face them with the real nature of their religion). On the other hand, it’s hard to know in advance how susceptible the mind of your believer may prove to rational argument, despite initial signs of intransigence and resistance, and if a subject comes up one has to try.

There are many other features of religious behaviour that suggest religion is a self-deception, if they don’t demonstrate it outright. Another one is the very motivation that is the basis for the embrace and practice of religion. 

Believers themselves have provided abundant testimony of the experiential benefits of religion.  Adult converts in particular have attested profusely to the promised benefits of religion in their lives as being what led them to embrace religion – the need for spirituality, for self-transcendence, the need to believe in and regulate their lives according to something outside themselves, the yearning to rise above what they experienced as the disorder, the meaninglessness and the dissolution of mundane everyday life – and they have attested to having found these life-transforming benefits in religion. The special attraction to evangelical and other fundamentalist forms of Christianity among the more dysfunctional elements of society – those who previously led unruly lives, often marked by violence, crime, drug or alcohol abuse, emotional and financial instability, often leading to crises of despair – has been well documented and is significant. Evangelical styles of Christianity offer such people a source of order and direction and set of principles to live by which indeed has transforming effects on their lives. Prison inmates who ‘found Jesus’ while serving time have become something of a cliché. Even William Lane-Craig, considered the leading Christian apologist, during what was supposed to be a strictly scientific debate about the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus (with Bart Ehrman), could not help digressing into a rhapsody about the life-transforming effects of Christianity. “For me”, he said, “Christianity ceased to be just a religion or a code to live by when I gave my life to Christ and experienced a spiritual rebirth in my own life. (…) The light went on where before there was only darkness, and God became an experiential reality, along with an overwhelming joy and peace and meaning that He imparted to my life. (…) I believe that it can change your life in the same way that it has changed mine.” 

It is obvious from all this that religion is essentially a devotional activity that yields experiential benefits for those who practise it – that this is what believers are ‘in it’ for. The primary object of religion is experience – of such things as transcendence, inspiration, a sense of purpose and meaning, a sense of order and control, a sense of identity, of community and belonging, and so on.

But the fact that religion is driven by and founded on certain emotional and spiritual needs is the problem, because the concern for objective truth is being bypassed and overruled by a powerful need for a certain kind of experience. Were it not for this fact, the human race would not have produced tens of thousands of religions, all breathtakingly diverse and mutually incompatible. An impartial survey of all the data we have on religion makes it obvious that religion has not the slightest interest in truth, and religious adherents who claim to be ‘truth-seekers’ are indulging in the most grotesque kind of posturing, as anyone can see that they’re actually the passive recipients of a package of doctrines and traditions passed on to them from whatever religious community they happen to belong to.

I've alluded here to another key point: the a priori nature of religious belief, which must be one of the strongest indications that religion is a self-deception. It is obvious that believers across all religions, sects, churches and denominations hold their beliefs, not because they were derived from evidence, but because they constitute the official doctrine of the religious community to which the believers belong, and the beliefs are affirmed ‘on authority’, showing a remarkable immunity from disconfirmation even when overwhelming counter-evidence is brought to the believers’ attention.  Although believers often claim to care about evidence and maintain that their beliefs are well supported by it, it is obvious that they say this only because they feel they must, and it is really just another pretence. Just as often there are slips in their remarks which reveal the true nature of their religion as loyalty to received dogma, and occasionally they state this loyalty to dogma outright.

Richard Dawkins provides one of the clearest examples of this in The God Delusion when he cites the example of the geologist Kurt Wise, also a fundamentalist Christian and young-Earth creationist. After suffering harrowing inner conflict during his youth because of the clash between scientific evidence and the creation account in Genesis, Wise relates how he eventually decided to reject all that would ever counter Scripture, including evolution, and said; “With that, in great sorrow, I tossed into the fire all my dreams and hopes in science.” He then delivers the real bomb: “I am a young-age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture”, and “if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist.”

This is a truly extraordinary statement, but only because it is a clear and explicit articulation of the religious contempt for evidence and of a priori religious commitment by a highly educated geologist.  But otherwise his position is no different from that of any religious believer, and this must be one of the clearest demonstrations that religion is a psychological condition founded on self-deception.

There are obviously many other features of religious behaviour suggesting that religion is a self-deception that I can’t touch on in this already overlong post, but I'd like to invite other people's thoughts now on the question, “How do we know that religion is a self-deception?” and see what people think are the most suggestive signs and suggestions - if not proofs - that religion is a self-deception.

Views: 225

Comment by _Robert_ on November 26, 2012 at 2:32pm

What you do is of no consequence, It's what you believe that matters. That's self-deception defined.

Comment by Ward Cressin on November 26, 2012 at 10:32pm

I was always puzzled and amazed that religious people were so against rock music, D&D, Harry Potter and witchcraft. I had not thought of religion as self-deception and mainly experiential but it explains their problems with those things.

Rock concerts provide a unifying and exhilerating experience that is likely seen as something that can seduce people away from religion.

D&D and Harry Potter present fictional magic in an interesting way that is again likely seen as seductive.

Witchcraft is superstition - utter fiction - but it offers 'power' that rivals what people can access of God's power. Because they delude themselves into thinking one type of magic (god's) is real then witchcraft must also be real. And by extension - even though they are clearly presented as fiction - so are the magics presented in D&D and Harry Potter.

I could see that religious people being against the above things (as well as some others) was daft but until your explanation it didn't click for me as to why they believed those things were "dangerous". Thank you.

Comment by Kir Komrik on November 26, 2012 at 11:31pm

Hey Mark,

This is a posting worthy of a full response and is an outstanding job. Thank you. I'm going to work up something tonight and reply. Thank you.

- kk

Comment by Mark Dupont on November 27, 2012 at 6:59pm


I agree, religious believers (especially those of a fundamentalist or orthodox stripe) are opposed by definition to any and all belief systems and value systems other than their own because these are rival systems that represent a threat. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here in pointing up another basic feature of religion: ‘in-group’ identification, and the fear and hostility the in-group feels with respect to the ‘out-group’. 

Basic elements of the ‘social identity cluster’ include age, sex, religion, class status, nation, and political ideology. That is, these categories organize us into social groups that give us a sense of identity and meaning, and they’re powerful drivers of our social lives. (As political scientist S.P. Huntington said: ‘Faith and family, blood and belief, are what people identify with and what they will fight and die for.’) And membership of a social group always involves a dichotomization into ‘we’ and ‘they’. The in-group is always defined  in relation to the out-group – and in-group solidarity is strengthened by rejection or denigration of or discrimination against the out-group.  Religion has always been one of the main markers of social identity, and religious groups that place special emphasis on their exclusive rightness and superiority and ‘chosenness’ have always shown the greatest ethnocentrism and bigotry towards rival cultures, which represent a threat to their collective identity (upon which the identity, self-esteem and security of the individual members depend).

But all such behaviour is at an instinctive level. Catholics or evangelical Christians railing against Harry Potter, Dungeons & Dragons, Wicca, or whatever it may be, are sincere in their belief that what they are denouncing is pernicious and dangerous. In fact, their aversion and repugnance is rooted in Christian history and centuries of tension between the Church and its main out-group, the pagans cultures of the West, which have always persisted, underground, until their re-emergence in modern times. But since the out-group is always devalued, stereotyped, caricatured, misrepresented, even demonized, the symbols and iconography of paganism have been defiled by the Christian churches and associated with Satanism (whatever that means, since Satanism is actually a development within Christianity, representing a revolt or backlash against Christian values by those already steeped in its culture and mythology) and depicted as evil. This is entirely the product of religious bigotry and even we nonbelievers are inevitably influenced by it, as we are all more or less the products of Christian culture. Wicca is still somehow associated with black magic and Devil worship, although it has nothing to do with that.

When a group starts engaging in book burnings, you know you’re dealing with a defensive authoritarian ideology anxious to preserve itself from the threat of dissenting views and values.  Book burnings have taken place in all cultures and all times – Jehoiakim, the King of Judah, burned part of the prophet Jeremiah’s scroll in the 7th century BC.  But the Harry Potter novels – children’s fantasy literature, after all! – have been the subject of at least three book burnings by reactionary Christian groups, because of their pagan elements. This seems desperate and pathetic, especially in the age of Kindle and YouTube.

Comment by Ward Cressin on November 30, 2012 at 11:47pm

But accurately protraying Wicca or realizing that the Harry Potter books aren't really about magic but about growing up and standing up and doing what's right, well, that would be rational. As you point out, these people are steeped in self-delusion so rationality never enters the picture.

A book that really helped me understand things - that I think you might really like - is Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought by Pascal Boyer.


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