Why people turn to religion and cults.

by Miriam English

I've often wondered why people are attracted to religion or other wacko beliefs. Often the weirder and more impossible something is, the more attractive it is. It is difficult to understand what drives that. It seems to me that if such insane, faith-driven beliefs were eliminated the world would be a much better place.

Recently I was listening to a series of interviews with people who became drawn into cults and it brought up that old puzzle again. Why would people believe in such delusional things as a guy professing to be god incarnate? Why would people believe that chanting prayers opens a path to heaven? Why would people believe mystical waters would cure them of anything that ails them? Why would people idolise a 2,000 year old book of superstitious ravings?

I think I now understand part of the answer to the puzzle.

These people want desperately to believe that they are special or their immediate world is amazing. They have lost the sense of wonder they had when they were children and things now look dull and ordinary to them.

Many TV shows and movies and books offer the excitement of something special -- the main character is a king or a princess or some other person out of the ordinary and often they hold the key to saving the world or several people's lives. They have a mission, an important purpose. Often the story begins with the main character appearing to be a normal person.

Religious people want these things for more than just an escapist story -- they want to be special. So their god watches over them, or they are part of a small group of special people who are the chosen ones, or they are close to a mystical person with a revelatory message for the world, or they take part in secret rituals that give them impossible powers.

So why do they have this need? A child learns at an incredible pace and the world is full of amazing things at every turn. But, for reasons I don't entirely understand, most people gradually stop learning and this causes them to become bored with the world and their place in it. They long for the excitement they had as children when they could drop a ball and find to their utter astonishment that it bounced back up again! They want to feel again that their world is special and that they have a central part to play in it. But that has gone, leaving a drab, boring world of disappointment.

Why have they lost their sense of wonder? It may be partly due to the change in some neural receptors that happens as we get older. The receptors change in structure so that learning happens more slowly. (See Scientific American "Building A Brainier Mouse" April 2000.) Or it may have something to do with the way a bored demeanour is fashionably cool in most societies. Or it may be that school often teaches kids that learning is not fun, but boring. (I'll never forget one teacher saying "You're not here to have fun. You're here to learn." That was so stupid -- fun is the brain's way to entice us to learn.) Whatever the reason, most people actively resist learning as they grow older and this produces dreadful boredom. To compensate many turn to some kind of harebrained notion (oftentimes the weirder the better) to make them feel special and bring back the excitement they once felt. (I wonder if this may be part of the reason behind the mind-deadening chants and rituals, and the importance of giving over your thought processes and critical powers to your leader: it makes the world even more boring, and paradoxically makes the cult or organisation seem even more special and exciting in contrast.)

The sad thing is that such delusions are not necessary. All that's needed is to continue learning. The real world is even more astonishing and exciting than it was when you were young. We all live in the most extraordinary, scary, wonderful, exciting time in history. There are more geniuses than ever before; more knowledge, more music, more art, more literature than ever before.

Want amazing? You are the end result of an unbroken line of creatures evolving in unpredictable ways over hundreds of millions of years, and these other animals around you (crows, chickens, dogs, horses, pigs, dolphins, lizards, snakes, fish, and probably the ants, butterflies, and amoebas too) come from the same ancestor. They are in a very real sense your brothers and sisters.

Want weird? You are a walking city of single-celled animals, and the ones that comprise your brain connect together to form a slow, but massively parallel computer where some of its output signals feedback into itself in such a way as to produce conscious thought.

Want special? We are all made of chemical elements which were created by fusion reactions inside stars then dispersed through space when those stars exploded, and now these clumps of stardust have evolved into us, these tiny fragile bits of the universe, who are the universe understanding itself.

Want cool? The computer on your desktop is made up of billions of switches, each having only two positions: on or off. All the wonderful things that this device can do are accomplished by cascading series of switches in complex arrangements.

Want wonderful? The brains of the people who design desktop computers are basically the same as yours. You and I -- any normal person -- can understand how a computer works. You and I and all the humans on this planet, have extraordinary minds... if we decide to use them.

The real world is a truly astonishing place. There is no need to construct delusional religions and superstitious nonsense. There is more than enough wonder right here.