This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

On The Need To Believe In Something Greater Than Us

Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael, "The Jewish Cemetery at Odenkirk" (1657)Why does anybody believe in God? I mean, outside of habit, or having been brought up in faith, such that life outside of it is unimaginable? Reasons for religious belief are invariably personal, and none is more interesting me to me than the oft-repeated “I am a person of faith because I need to believe there is something greater than us.” It is a ridiculous justification, for sure — but it reveals something very curious about human nature.

I. A lack of humility masquerading as humility: only people who don’t actually think there is anything greater than us need to believe in God for this reason.

Of course, needing to believe something does not render that belief valid. For example, I really need to believe that eating a tub of Rocky Road ice cream every day would not lead to weight gain. But such a belief would be delusional, and reality would quickly prove me wrong. The need for reassurance (that we are immortal, and the world is just) and the validity of that reassurance (or lack thereof) are two completely different things.

More importantly, however, the idea that the absence of God means there is nothing bigger than us is fundamentally wrong. It’s true that in many situations when we argue about policy, or morality, “man is the measure of all things” — but one must not lose perspective. Humans are pretty insignificant on the grand scheme of things, and that’s without bringing God into it. If you need to believe there is something bigger than us, go read a book on astronomy. Or evolution. Or medicine. Humanity is a tiny fraction of the tiniest speck compared to the vastness of the universe — and that’s true whether you consider reality at the macroscopic or the microscopic level. We live lives so fleeting compared to the age of stars and planets, no analogy could ever convey the chasm; so brief are our lives, we might as well not exist at all. We survive in an infinitesimally thin film covering a rock, a tiny, tiny place set adrift in an environment that would kill us in an instant. We are stuck here and will be for a long, long time, perhaps forever, because this great, vast universe has distances that far outstrip our life expectancies and characteristics that make it completely inhospitable. And here on Earth, our survival as a species is always imperiled by disease, overpopulation and climate change. Science has already established that there are things bigger than us.

Truth is, when people say they want to believe in something that’s “bigger than us”, what they really mean is “I want to believe in something bigger than me, and I want that thing to have human characteristics. Because if this bigger thing is human-like, then maybe I can reason with it. Bargain with it. Plead with it. Make it emphasize with me. Maybe I could hope it has some capacity for benevolence. And maybe if this Bigger Thing created us in its image, then all the bad things that happen to humanity aren’t an indication that we could, one day, completely perish. If this bigger-than-us thing is like a person, then perhaps it has a vision, and there is a point to all this nonsense.”

2. Needing to believe in something greater than us: the evolution edition.

Perhaps I am giving creationists too much credit, but just as I characterize faith as a form of denial of mortality, so I suspect the biggest problem with the theory of evolution for these folks isn’t that we are descended from apes, but the implication that humans too may one day become extinct, just like the dinosaurs or the Neanderthals. That we can just vanish, and weeds and jungles could consume our cities, and life would go on without us. The danger that we are not eternal is what fuels religious belief.

In other words, “I need to believe there is something bigger than us” is basically saying “I can’t face the abyss.”

There is something else, of course. Evolution is all about the “survival of the fittest”, sure, but the true measure of fitness in an evolutionary sense isn’t size, physical strength or desire to bone — it’s adaptibility. Inflexibility in the face of a changing environment leads to decline and extinction; it is the lesson of both evolution and of human history. The entire experience of human existence and civilizations boils down to one simple maxim: CHANGE OR DIE. And that idea is, of course, anathema to those who are deeply invested in maintaining “traditions” set in stone, defending faith-based racial segregation or justifying narrowly defined gender roles. From the perspective of a rational person, the scientific evidence that supports the theory of evolution is irrelevant to the question of social progress, but I know from my interactions with otherwise educated people who angrily deny evolution, that the problem is that it feels icky, it seems to carry a moral that challenges their notions of how society should function.

This is also why deeply religious people who don’t deny evolution tend to anthropomorphise it; they claim that human beings evolved to completion in the Neolithic era, and may not evolve any further, lest we go against evolution’s intent and plan. They believe that evolution, in all its wisdom, has crafted very narrow channels of appropriate behavior for humans, and that any deviation is forbidden. Here we come full circle: for the deeply religious, if evolution cannot be denied, then evolution needs to be merged with God; it must be deemed to have a plan for us, a caring for our existence, and a way to punish us for disobeying.

3. A need to believe is the same as denial.

If you look your lover in the eye and say, “I need to believe that you love me,” it means that (1) you don’t believe that he loves you; and (2) he probably doesn’t.

We “need” to believe a lot of things. I need to believe the world is just — but it isn’t. I need to believe we all have control of our destinies — but we don’t. I need to believe that every dose of bad in life is followed up with something breaking in your favor for balance — but it doesn’t always work out that way. But above all, we need a just world where no one suffers needlessly. This need does not will God into existence, it merely leads people to delude themselves. For nothing is scarier than a cold, random, virtually unknown Universe, that offers not a single guarantee.

And in the minds of most people, we should all face our fears — except the very darkest.


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19 thoughts on “On The Need To Believe In Something Greater Than Us

  1. Excellent post, I am in full agreement. God-believers all too often see themselves as gods.

  2. So I am curious, what do YOU believe?

    Very well written thoughts, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  3. I’m not even sure what people mean by the word “god” anymore. it just doesn’t fit in my lexicon.

  4. Wow! Excellent post. I “believe” there is no “purpose” to things. We are what we are. My goal is to understand as much as I can before I cease to exist and maybe contribute something to the pool of knowledge to give those who come after a little boost on their journeys. I’m sure many aeons down the road, there won’t be humans anymore, but there will be other things that are self-aware and ask the same questions we do. For me, the journey is the point because when the journey ends, so do I.

  5. Reblogged this on Moods and commented:
    A worthwhile read

  6. Reblogged this on Thoughts, Rants, and Prayers of EllieRose and commented:
    This well-written blog adds another dynamic to a previous post I wrote about death.

  7. Great post! And fantastic choice on the painting.

  8. Reblogged this on budhadityabhattacharya and commented:
    Helplessness of mankind & The concept of GOD

  9. cgockley on said:

    I’m glad to have found this most interesting blog. There is a lot to read here, and I’m looking forward to catching up. (Also your Russian food blog has inspired me to make borsh this weekend even though it is spring.)

  10. i believe in GOD who I call JAH , but I love this essay .. and your points are right on.. but.. that does not mean that everyone that has JAH in life isn’t so lame / though most are just what you say they are

  11. givesgoodemail on said:

    I’ve always bought the notion that those who “need” religion need it because they must have a chaser to get through reality.

    To stretch analogies to the breaking point, I also think that one can either bask in the warm fires of faith, or face the cold, bleak truth of reality. But one cannot do both.

  12. Interesting article. However I believe you give perhaps too much credits to those who call themselves atheists and perhaps not enough to the religious. I agree with you that the absurdity of life is what makes a religious create his God and dogma, however this also means that this person has the sensitivity and profoundness to feel and experience the depth of the absurdity of life to the point of fear and necessity of God. As Nietzsche pointed out, most people in his time already, probably more today, call themselves atheist but behave like religious people. And perhaps this people don’t have the profoundness or honesty to face the absurdity that may either push them into being an honest atheist or a religious.
    Also the anthropomorphism of God is an interesting notion. Nietzsche sees it slightly differently as he considers the ancient greek gods the “only satisfying theodicy” as by living life themselves (fighting, stealing, drinking, making love and children…), the Gods are incarnating the proof that life is worth living. On the contrary it seems that our Gods nowadays, so ambiguous and opaque the theologists cant even decide what the trinity stands for, appears much less efficient!

  13. I really enjoyed your post. I have given this topic extensive thought as well, but in a totally different ballpark. Religion was used as a form of government and its’ purpose has evolved with time. Religion is a way to instill morals into a society. Also I believe humans are extremely curious and have to have an explanation of how we came to be, whether scientifically with the Big Bang theory and evolution or philosophically with a form of religion. I have researched different religions at varying levels and I went through an atheist stage in high school, but ultimately I came back to Christianity. It’s not that I need to believe in a higher power or that I want to conform, but I like the idea of it all and I feel most comfortable with Christianity. However, I do believe in evolution, it is a fact to me, and it does not interfere with my religious view for me to think we will continue to evolve. It is arrogant to think of humans as anything more than animals and that we are above evolution. We are not special, we are just dominate for right now.

  14. nadiiacho on said:

    This is pretty funny. I love the sarcasm behind reasons we need to believe in something larger than oneself haha

  15. I have to congratulate you on laying out the roots of belief without getting tangled in prejudice; it’s really nicely done. I found that the second feature of your argument, recognizing God as something greater than humanity, is the fulcrum of much religious discourse in my experience. In particular, prescribing God as a moral authority, as a greatness beneath which all the world turns; I myself have experienced the fear that drives others to this omniscient figment. It is terrifying, a consuming doubt of self-worth that I see juxtaposed with the vastness of the universe. It is the belief in God that gives people the determination to get up each morning and do work with excellence without losing themselves to idle futilitarianism.

  16. Pingback: One of the Two Things You Should Never Discuss | Repressd

  17. I think this is a wonderful blog. You have expressed yourself beautifully and thoughtfully, and I greatly enjoyed reading your perspective. I think that you may have it backwards, however. If God is who religious people believe He is, then He is an entity that exists outside of human belief. In other words, He created humans, humans did not create Him. If that is the case, then He operates outside of human control, and that means that even if you believe in God, there are no guarantees. He will do as He will do, even if you would desire differently. The prophets and the martyrs often met grisly, terrifying ends, and their faith did not affect their fate one way or the other.

    However, as one who does believe in God, I think it is far better to trust in a just moral order than to not (and yes, atheists also can and do trust in this, sometimes far more often than they like to admit). Having faith that it is better to do what is right and face the consequences than to do what is wrong and face your conscience is at the heart of almost all religious belief: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist (and those are just the major ones), and it would seem to me that it is an ennobling instinct and one that should be encouraged, despite the inconclusiveness of the intellectual arguments for or against the existence of God. Please forgive me if I have come off as a know-it-all or as not respecting your beliefs or perspective. You write as someone who seems to sincerely wish to understand other points of view, and I thought you might be interested. Thanks and I look forward to reading more of your beautifully written blog entries.

  18. Great post! I would add to your point about lack of humility masquerading as humility that conservative Christians often not only believe in something larger than themselves, but also that they, as believers, are part of it. Which gives them a sense of superiority over those who think differently.
    The irony is that they believe in a collection of short stories and other writings by Iron-Age men–mostly men–who claimed the earth isn’t older than 6,000 years and that it was made by an all-powerful being who happens to look like us and who loves us more than anything. Which is reducing everything in existence to about as close to nothing as you can get. Blinkers that practically touch the eyeballs.

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