Why are so many seemingly intelligent, rational people caught in the grip of the irrational beliefs of religion?
The answer to this question has little to do with intelligence. It has far more to do with emotions than I.Q. It is possible that a person can scrutinize facts for a living, perform complicated equations, think critically about complex issues, and yet when it comes to the subject of religion, the critical powers of scrutiny are reigned in, steered clear, and are robbed of their ability to perform. The claims of religion are considered "hands-off", and are placed safely behind a wall of faith, hidden in some part of the brain into which scrutiny cannot tread. This process is called Compartmentalization-- sectioning off parts of the brain so that certain subjects, like religion, can be protected from rational, critical thinking.
Why is this? Why does someone with a sharp mind, capable of so much, allow themselves to believe things that they would disbelieve if spoken by someone of any other faith? Why would someone willfully deprive themselves of reason?
All adults know that animals do not speak, that there is no such thing as magic, that people cannot turn into other things (like pillars of salt), that people cannot live for days in the bellies of big fish or in burning funaces, that it is not possible for everyone on earth to be irreparably wicked, that men cannot turn sticks of wood into living snakes, that there can be nothing virtuous about the murder of a child-- but all these things and more are in the so-called "Good Book": the holy bible.
People will gladly believe absurdities - sticks into snakes, walking on water, talking snakes and donkeys, living in the belly of a whale for 3 days, living for several days in a burning furnace, causing the sun to stand still, turning water into wine, creating humans from dirt, a great flood covering the whole planet and all the animals of the world gathered by twos into a big boat… all absolutely absurd in the highest degree. Even more disturbingly, people will believe that which is patently immoral - wars of extermination, the killing of children and defenseless women by the thousands, salvation by faith regardless of the atrocities committed, the use of human beings as slaves, the oppression of women, intolerance of other religions, human sacrifice, the cruelty of Armageddon, and a place called Hell - a place of infinite torture, infinite revenge, for the vast majority of all humans that have ever been born… all of this and more, immoral as any on earth, and all within the pages of the holy bible.
Why should not such issues be subject to rational scrutiny? In the words of Robert G. Ingersoll:
I do not regard religious opinions… as exotics that have to be kept under glass, protected from the frosts of common sense or the tyrannous north wind of logic. Such plants are hardly worth preserving. They certainly ought to be hardy enough to stand the climate of free discussion, and if they cannot, the sooner they die the better.
So, why would anyone believe this ridiculous nonsense, this filthy trash? It is not because they are stupid. No adult person is so unintelligent as to believe that animals can speak human language. The root of Compartmentalization, I believe, is the fear of death, and the inability to conceive of their own non-existence. People are so afraid of dying, of leaving everything they know and love, that they are willing to believe a lie, a fairy-tale, in order to comfort themselves. So great is the desire to meet again those we love in some heavenly afterlife, that we are willing to compartmentalize our brains, using critical thinking in some areas of life, but not in others. It is a selfish reason, having nothing to do with the welfare of others. It is clear that compassion and charity can exist without religion.
Those who first constructed the Christian religion were at least clever enough to build in a self-protection against skeptical scrutiny: to doubt is to endanger your immortal soul. The phrase "Doubting Thomas" finds its source in Thomas the Apostle, and his doubt is never favorably spoken of. Uncritical, blind faith is commended and rewarded, rational thought is not.
I would ask the believer to re-examine his or her beliefs, and ask themselves if they would believe the kinds of claims made in the bible if they read them in a book about Hinduism, or Native American folklore, or in the National Enquirer.
There is something feeble and a little contemptible about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths. Almost inevitably, some part of him is aware that they are myths and that he believes them only because they are comforting. But he does not dare face this thought! Moreover, since he is aware, however dimly, that his opinions are not real, he becomes furious when they are disputed.
-Bertrand Russell, Human Society in Ethics and Politics
Better the hard truth, than a comforting fable. -Carl Sagan