How we convince ourselves through logic and language.

  1. Strength of numbers

  2. At what point do we consider ourselves sufficiently convinced?

  3. Common reasons for accepting dubious or uncertain information
Strength of numbers
People tend to assume that if a topic has been studied intensively by a large number of people, for a long period of time, then there must be something to it- maybe the topic is important, and if the claims made and conclusions reached by different individuals are similar, then they're likely to be true.

This method of gauging the importance of a topic and the reliability of the claims made can be quite effective if the research techniques used are appropriate for the task at hand, the methods are clearly stated and replicable, and the conclusions follow logically from the results of analysis.

It does not work so well under other circumstances- when the questions asked are ill-defined, when research methods are inadequate for the task, when the amount of data gathered is too little or is of poor quality, when conclusions are illogical and cannot be supported by the data, or when the results obtained are not readily verifiable or replicable.

Thus, keep in mind that the popularity of a subject and its associated beliefs does not, in itself, constitute proof that the topic is indeed important, or that the claims made are true. Neither does the fact that prominent, well-respected individuals believe something prove that it is true.

Claims that people make about the doctrines of their religion often address ‘questions’ that, to begin with, cannot be clearly addressed, and assertions are often based on scanty evidence. Such claims often fail to define the scope of the words used, or describe the context to which they are applicable.

Just because many people parrot these claims and perpetuate their existence does not mean that they are true.
At what point do we consider ourselves sufficiently convinced?
We often consider ourselves convinced if some or all of the following criteria have been met:
  • We've received the information from people whom we respect for their authority, intellectual status, or social standing. Its source is thus respected or feared.

  • Replies to our questions are confusing.

  • We've had little reason or opportunity to question the information. The information does not seem particularly wrong or glaringly illogical.

  • The information's ambiguously phrased, open to interpretation, can be easily adapted to suit various situations, and thus is hard to disprove. The information can be true under certain circumstances, when interpreted in particular ways.

  • Evidence presented to the contrary is not convincing or is hard to understand, and the process of understanding it just doesn't seem worth the effort.

  • It seems harmless to maintain one’s belief in the information. Even if the claims are incorrect, no negative repercussions will result.

  • Many other people claim to believe the same thing.

  • Adverse effects would result if one chooses not to believe (e.g. disapproval, disciplinary action, and condemnation from others).

  • By not believing it, one would lose out on the numerous advantages of believing the information.

  • People have been exposed to the information over a substantial period of time, have internalised and rationalised its claims, and have adjusted their perceptions and interpretations of other pieces of information to make the beliefs fit together. The information is then deeply ingrained in one’s mind.

  • People have explored and rejected all other claims to the contrary (or as many as they have had the energy to examine), and these are the claims that are still left standing.

  • Acceptance of these claims allows them to believe other things that they like to think of as true, and thus to behave in ways that suit them.
(For more on the benefits of religion, refer to the sections on Individual Prayer, Prayer for Others, Community, and Forgiveness.)
Common reasons for accepting dubious or uncertain information
Some of the main reasons, in detail:
  1. We lack alternative explanations.

  2. It can't hurt.

  3. Lots of other people believe the same things.

  4. I want to reap the benefits of belief.

  5. I won't fit in otherwise.
We lack alternative explanations.
We've reached the limits of our own understanding, and feel that the main difference between sceptics and non-believers lies in the amount of confidence and conviction they hold in God’s existence. Sceptics may decide to take the plunge and claim allegiance to God, just to see whether it’s possible to magically become convinced once an official declaration of belief is made.

(Read more about states of knowledge and ignorance here.)
It can't hurt.
Typically, when the potential believer contemplates making a commitment to the faith, few obvious negative side effects come to mind, whereas a number of benefits do present themselves.

These include: entry to heaven and escape from a hellish fate if the religious doctrines prove to be correct, a sense of belonging to the religious community, friendship, advice, and support from fellow believers, and support, guidance, and protection from God if God does exist.

The net benefits appear to outweigh the net disadvantages (which, at this point, seem to consist primarily of an expenditure of some time and energy- not too much to ask).
Lots of other people believe the same things.
Many people have made a similar choice- surely they each had a good reason for doing so. The collective conversion of so many individuals couldn’t be wrong? From the non-believer’s point of view, it seems possible that the vast majority of believers made their decision for some real, truly compelling reason (which the potential believer hasn’t yet figured out).

Furthermore, the potential convert may feel that although he or she hasn’t identified this unknown, ‘real’ argument yet, it probably wouldn’t hurt to make a declaration of faith, and then keep working at it. The world contains a huge population of believers who presumably underwent their conversions for convincing reasons.

Thus, the addition of one person who converts for an insubstantial reason should have an insignificant impact on the overall levels of justification for a given religion.

The fact is, it's perfectly possible for large numbers of people to share the same, mistaken beliefs, especially if those beliefs were introduced to them at an early age, before they developed the skills and maturity to address them rigorously and examine their underlying assumptions in detail.
I want to reap the benefits of belief.
Generally speaking, the stronger one’s beliefs, the greater the benefits reaped. For most religious followers, having a firm belief in God (or at least, maintaining fairly high confidence levels about God’s existence) is the strategy that yields maximal benefits from faith.

If one believes only half-heartedly, then one has to expend mental energy by either: trying to reconcile the opposing inclinations to believe and to disbelieve, or: suppressing one’s disbelief while trying to stimulate one’s flagging faith.

This act of juggling scepticism and faith may be so tiring and costly that it becomes more sensible, all things considered, to simply squelch one’s reservations once and for all, and embrace the faith unquestioningly.
I won't fit in otherwise.
Often, people do make a preliminary attempt to question their long-held beliefs, but are deterred from further exploration when told that certain questions are off-limits and such probing will elicit disapproval from religious authorities and fellow believers.

Sometimes people use quotes along the lines of, ‘Those who don’t believe in God are fools.’ In the absence of coherent, convincing arguments, such proponents of faith are forced to fall back on name-calling.

While those who hear themselves being described as having low levels of intelligence may suffer a temporary stab of pain and indignation, and experience a willingness to believe whatever it takes in order to avoid being labelled thus, upon closer examination, one realises that the statement is illogical, and reflects more on the speaker than the recipient.

Unfortunately, the labelling of non-believers as fools is so common within certain religious circles that although there is no logic to justify it, this practice is unlikely to diminish anytime soon, and non-believers just have to avoid taking it personally. Thus, people have multitudes of reasons for maintaining false beliefs, and often these underlying reasons are rational, even if the beliefs are not.

Commonly, the problem is that the underlying reasons, although applicable in a majority of cases, are invalid under certain circumstances, and are applied inappropriately. It can be difficult or tedious to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate contexts.

Even if logical arguments against a claim are supplied, this may not necessarily convince a listener to give up inaccurate beliefs- it all depends on the balance between the listener’s perceived benefits and disadvantages of believing. (For more on the harmful effects of false beliefs, refer to the section on Non-Believers.)
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