How Does Religion Inspire such Tenacious Dedication?

Recently I spoke with a theologian who holds a young-earth creationist viewpoint, and I was struck by his illogical dedication to his beliefs. It was apparent that he was not unintelligent: our conversation touched on a great variety of topics, including quantum physics, the origin of the universe, and modern astrophysical theories. He was clearly knowledgeable and scientifically aware -- apparently he doesn't spend all his time on modernized questions about angels dancing on pins. Certainly a YEC position is not new to me; I held to it myself only a few years ago. But this man's comfort dismissing evidence was so profound, so childlike, that I began to wonder what really kept him holding to his positions. Rationality clearly wasn't the cause.

So I decided to try to identify some of the most common causes of the strength of religious dedication. While my interest in this began in a specific encounter with a YEC, I'm trying to keep these ideas much broader, much more applicable to the religious in general. Much of what I consider is applicable to all or nearly all religions, though some is specifically aimed at Christianity, the religion I am by far the most familiar with.

I chose my title carefully, though it may at first appear redundant. (Doesn't "dedication" imply "tenacious"?) But we've all given up dedications in the past, whether it's a childish belief in Santa Claus or losing a loving, valued relationship. People can and do give up all kinds of dedications, but in many cases religious dedication seems surprisingly strong, and I wondered why. These are some of my thoughts on the matter.

I do not mean this list to be exhaustive, and although these causes seem the most significant to me, others may in fact be more influential. Obviously many of these overlap -- we humans are incredibly complex, and our psychologies do not fit neatly into an outline. Also, bear in mind that very few religious people are conscious of these influences, just as most people in the world are unaware of the cognitive influences leading to their decisions and beliefs on any issue. We should maintain humility here: even if I am right in my thoughts about religious dedication, unconscious influences are present in all of us, influencing our own beliefs, decisions, actions, and thoughts. Striving for objectivity is commendable and the surest way we can know ourselves and understand reality, but pure objectivity is impossible for anyone. Hopefully, however, this is a step in the right direction.


Youth Indoctrination

I say "youth indoctrination" for succinctness. Frankly, a more direct description is this: "Taking advantage of the naivete of children."

This approach is doubtless the most pernicious, vile influence I will discuss. For one thing, it is chosen deliberately, rather than being essentially a by-product in the case of many other influences. Parents who raise children to follow religion are choosing to indoctrinate them into belief systems that children cannot fully comprehend and cannot evaluate in context. To reject the religion outright is unthinkable for a child -- trusting authority figures is innate in children, and they naturally follow their parents' beliefs and teachings in nearly all cases. Additionally, children lack the intellect or experience to refute religious claims. They will follow like sheep, an apt and bizarrely fond term within Christianity.

Consider the outrageous claims that Christianity in particular espouses. Some of these are nearly universally believed; others are taught in fringe groups.

  • Bread under certain circumstances can become the flesh of a first-century Jew (and Christians should eat it)
  • Wine under certain circumstances can become the blood of a first-century Jew (and Christians should drink it)
  • A flood one time encompassed the entire globe
  • Invisible monsters flit about the planet affecting the minds and actions of humans
  • A book several thousand years old was written/inspired by a supernatural being
  • The observable universe was spoken into existence by a supernatural being
  • Consciousness persists beyond death and ultimately will reside in a place of eternal comfort or eternal torment
  • A virgin woman birthed a child

And so on.

How do you make someone, perhaps otherwise rational, believe an entirely irrational claim? The answer is simple. Profoundly evil, but simple. Take, for instance, the belief in the literal virgin birth of Christ. How do you make a person believe such drivel? Simplicity itself: have an authority figure say it's true -- before the person even knows what sex is. He or she will happily parrot this information and possibly end up believing it for life. Similar approaches are effective in perpetrating practically any claim.

Once you convince a child to believe something, anything, then that child will very often carry that belief into adulthood. Convince a child that a religion is true, and you've almost certainly convinced the adult that the child will grow into. This is heinous.

Social pressure

We are social creatures. We need each other. We need to live with people, love people, agree with them and debate them. We need to make war and make love -- sometimes in quick succession. The importance of society, of all types of relationships, cannot be overstated.

Family and friends exert enormous pressure on individuals to remain religious. These pressures are seen in the form of active influences and perceived future consequences. Religious people are generally comfortable around other similarly religious people. Typically they have the same beliefs, goals, ethics, political affiliations, and so on. From picnics to mission trips to church bowling teams, people have friends and family whom they can rely on and whose company they can enjoy. Pulling away from them, as necessitated to some extent by the act of leaving religion, is nearly unthinkable. The status quo is far more appealing, and the future consequences would lead to losing some or perhaps all of those relationships. Leaving a religion, whether for another religion or for atheism, entails likely irreparable damage to very important relationships. I'm not discussing whether or not this is truly necessary or right: this is simply a practicality in most situations.

Like most antitheists, I can attest to this personally. When I left religion several years ago, I lost all of my friends. These were people I'd gone on mission trips with, we'd preached in jails and churches, we'd spent hours in prayer together and plied each other with theological questions. But when I stopped following religion, they no longer cared about me. I've often put it this way: I found out that all my friends were fake. When I no longer met the prerequisite of being a good Christian, they no longer had anything to do with me. There was no dramatic gesture on my part; I simply withdrew from Christianity, and they simply let me, often pointedly ignoring me when our paths happened to cross. Had I known the relational ramifications of leaving Christianity, I must admit I might not have had the courage to leave at all. Later, finding new friends who actually cared about me as a person independent of my religious beliefs (or lack thereof), was a profoundly new experience. Many religious people would never consider leaving their religion because of their existing relationships and the future damage to them if they did leave. This is an enormous and understandable obstacle.

Fear of the alternative

This encompasses many issues, but I will focus on two in particular: the concession of an afterlife and the demonized image of atheists, especially in America. (I'm aware that some atheists believe in an afterlife or suspect one may exist, but most do not, and religious people typically assume that atheism necessitates disbelief in an afterlife.)

Believing that consciousness persists beyond death is a highly attractive concept to nearly everyone. Death is not a pleasant thought, even for Christians, though one would think that belief in eternal bliss after death would nullify this, though this is apparently not the case. (How many people have you heard of who committed suicide purely for the reason of getting to heaven sooner?) Admitting that death is a full stop, the end of existence, the end of consciousness, is uncomfortable. The very thought of the falsity of eternal life, or reincarnation, or whatever post-death opportunity a religion may proffer, is repulsive to religious people. Accepting it leads to a sense of loss. Although you can't "lose" something you never had, moving from the expectation of a joyful afterlife to the knowledge that literally nothing awaits you beyond death is a tremendously difficult shift. Additionally, this requires the acceptance that others who have died are not in fact enjoying an afterlife: those people are heartbreakingly and irreversibly absent. For many who have lost loved ones, nothing could be harder to accept. The gentle hand-patting of religion is preferable to the harsh facts of reality.

Additionally, the impression that many have of atheism, at least in America, is a significant obstacle. The term "atheist" is horrifying nomenclature, apparently on par with people's feelings regarding rapists, if recent polls can be believed. Richard Dawkins has frequently mentioned the humorous story of an actress who admitted being an atheist, and later her mother reacted by saying she could accept that she didn't believe in God -- but being an atheist was unthinkable. The very idea of denying the existence of God is so repulsive, so taboo, so wicked, that few religious people even consider it.


My focus here is primarily on the more fundamentalist religious movements, particularly within Christianity but of course present elsewhere. Many Christians are convinced that the scientific objections to their literal interpretation of the Bible are not credible. Evolution is a farce, arguments against the flood are extremely poor, and the idea that the universe is nearly 14 billion years old is laughable. Say something loud enough and long enough, and people will believe it.

Frequently these misunderstandings are born of misrepresentations and highly biased information. I recall being taught that radiometric dating methods had been demonstrated to be entirely untrustworthy, though there is actually no reliable evidence to support this. Past and current misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and mistakes in this or any field are not disqualifying elements. If occasional concessions of inaccuracies truly disqualified claims, no area of study could be trusted -- ironically, theology least of all.

Also, many people understand atheism to be the polar opposite of theism, complete with its own version of universal claims and dismissals. Holding to the idea that unequivocally, universally, no deity exists or ever has existed is impossible to prove, and very few atheists hold that position. Those that believe this typically do so because of ignorance, stupidity, or emotions (anger, bitterness, and so on), though a few exceptions exist. This causes many people to dismiss atheism as untenable and fundamentally fallacious, when in fact most atheists state that their disbelief in God or gods is because their existence is highly, highly unlikely, on par with teapots orbiting Jupiter and pasta-based divinities.

Sunk costs

Those experiencing the psychological effects of sunk costs (sometimes called "the Concorde Effect") are rarely aware of it, but I believe this has a profound impact on why people cling to religion.

Imagine that you have spent the better part of your life furthering a cause or effort that turns out to be entirely invalid. (For many, no imagination is needed.) Imagine discovering you're Truman in The Truman Show, and your perception of reality has been fundamentally inaccurate. In many, maybe all areas your efforts have been wasted. Accepting such a proposition is highly difficult and highly unpleasant. In the area of religion, even nominal followers have invested a great deal of time, thought, money, and effort. Admitting that was largely or all wasted is tremendously difficult.

I am not a father, but I suspect that for parents this is an exceptionally difficult hurdle. To think that you have brought up your children in ignorance, to think that you have misled them in such a fundamental way, would surely be a horribly painful thought. Very few parents can even consider such a possibility.


I know that many additional motives exist, and perhaps others are more influential than the five I have listed, but these seem to be the most significant to me. Briefly, other influences that quickly come to mind are emotions, the "value" of faith, and the supposed personal relationship with God, at least in the case of Christianity.

Most religious followers do experience happiness from their religion through relationships, singing, theological study, and so on. To them, religion is a significant source of joy, and the idea of leaving religion behind seems to imply losing that joy. Also, many religious followers value faith very highly and seem to revel in their acceptance of religious teachings regardless and often in spite of scientific findings. And for those who believe they have a personal relationship with God, even considering leaving religion is seen as a horrific offense to God. If God is a being who knows your very thoughts, then considering atheism, questioning the Bible, or mentally pursuing anything that goes against the teachings of God is thus sinful and immediately offensive to God on a personal level -- highly odious to Christians. As Hitchens pointed out, the Bible and even one of the Ten Commandments condemns thought crime. Considering the viability of atheism is difficult to maintain if you think God himself may be spying on your thoughts and disapproving of them.


Youth indoctrination, social pressure, fear of the alternative, ignorance, and sunk costs. I think these are the most influential elements keeping people within religion. Looking into this has been helpful to me, and hopefully others here will benefit as well.

People who finally set aside religion and embrace reality typically do so after extended experiences of religious doubt. I hope that thinking about the specific influences holding people within religion will help us be more effective when speaking to someone who is finally beginning to think freely.

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Comment by Alan Perlman on May 2, 2013 at 11:21am

This is an absolutely excellent summary, and I wish it, or something similar, were part of everyone's education - by the end of grade school, preferably.  People could accept or reject it, but at least they'd have to deal with it.

The power of early programming has been recognized by thinkers as diverse as Schopenhauer and B.F. Skinner ("Society attacks early, when the child is helpless.").  Dawkins goes so far as to call it a form of child abuse. 

The power of sunk costs is not to be underestimated.  It goes a long way towards explaining why, e.g., even lukewarm Jews will hold their Seders year after year (their Exodus story is a complete fiction)...or troop obediently to synagogue every time the High Holidays roll around, so God can judge them.

I have a simpler explanation for the prayerful parents who let their kids die for lack of medical care: they're f'ing crazy.



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