Leaving Islam



Why Rational People Have Irrational Beliefs.

The Origin of Faith

Is human brain programmed to believe? 

Why so many people cling to religion despite the fact that they are unable to produce any evidence for what they believe? This is indeed a fascinating subject. Is religious thinking genetic?  Some believe that just as there is a language center in human brain enabling children to instinctively learn a language, there is a religion center in the brain making us believers. Apparently this view is gaining popularity among some neurobiologists as was reported in a recent FrontPage feature on Newsweek (God and the Brain, May 7, 2001) 

Could this be possibly true? If so then there is little hope for our species to get rid of religion ever! If we are genetically programmed to be religious then that is what we shall be. 

What is religion? If we define religion as faith (putting aside its sociopolitical aspects) then it is belief without evidence. We do not believe nor we have faith in things for which we have evidence.  Things for which we have evidence are things that we KNOW. Take the example of the Bigfoot! Some believe that there is a humanoid living in the woods in Saskatoon that has successfully avoided contact with humans. There is nothing unscientific about this belief. Neanderthals were separated from humans, they evolved into a distinct species, and they are assumed to be extinct for at least 30,000 years. Could it be that a small group of them has survived? Is it possible that another ramification of the humanoids has evolved distinctly from humans and has survived up until now? This is all possible. As very close relatives of us, if these creatures exist, they must have huge brains and know the art of survival. They know that humans have tools and can be (in fact are) very dangerous. So it is logical to believe that they hide from us and that is why we have not been able to capture anyone of them yet. However, the evidence of the existence of the Bigfoot is scant. You are free to believe or not to believe in the existence of such creature. But what happens if someone captures a Bigfoot? At that time the evidence become overwhelming and we no more “believe” but “know” that Bigfoot exist. Here is the difference between knowing and believing. Things for which we can produce evidence and are demonstrable by facts become part of our knowledge. Things for which there is little evidence pertain to the realm of the beliefs. 

Faith is intense belief. It is the state of being absolutely certain of things for which one has absolutely no evidence. Is this engrained in our brain? Are we genetically wired to believe in  things without evidence? I do not believe that is the case. I do not believe that faith or irrational thinking is programmed into our brain. Then the question arises why so many people believe despite having no evidence of what they believe? 

The answer could lie in the way we evolve. The growth and development of humanity can be likened to the growth of a single individual comprising it. In the early stages of a child’s growth the rational thinking is all but absent. Children are not rational thinkers, they are magic thinkers. For a child logic has no meaning and he has no need for it. Children believe in the omnipotence of their parents and they need to believe that they are loved and taken care of. This belief in the absolute power of the parent is essential for the child’s sense of security. Through this belief he feels protected and safe. He can rely on his all powerful and infallible genitors who watch over him, provide for him, protect him and come to his rescue in the moment of his needs. In this stage of evolution, there is no need for reason. In fact reason could be even counterproductive. Beliefs are more crucial than reason for the child’s survival. The child needs to have absolute certainty that he will not be abandoned and left to his own means. Only faith, and indeed blind faith in the parent can provide such an absolute sense of security. 

A child also needs to expand his imagination and he needs to dream. He needs fairytales, myths and legends. Children are magic thinkers. Magic thinking is necessary for the child’s emotional well-being. The child has no difficulty to envision the animals with human personalities and even inanimate objects like his toys, as living sentient beings. He converses with his imaginary friends as if they were real and is scared of the monster, the figment of his own fantasy, who is hiding beneath his bed. In the moment that he feels weak, beaten and defeated, when he is lonely, scared and vulnerable, he can pretend to be a superman with unlimited powers. In his mind he can overcome his oppressors, take revenge, beat them up and always win. He can be a hero, fly and do other miracles all in his mind. His mind will compensate for all his physical weaknesses by supplying him imaginary supernatural powers. That is why when a child is still helpless and weak, magic thinking is so crucial to his survival.    

Children are very cruel to each other, just as our ancestors were to each other. A child who is bullied by bigger boys can take comfort by imagining that one day a powerful imaginary friend would come to punish his oppressors. In his  mind he would see his enemies crushed. Our ancestors thought the same way. When the enemy dealt with them cruelly and they had no one to come to their rescue, when they were  persecuted and aggrieved, they would plead to God to come to their aid. They would  imagine a Messiah who would come to rescue them, who would take vengeance from their enemies and who would rule with justice. The Psalms 35 is such desperate call for help. 

      1 A psalm of David. O LORD, oppose those who oppose me. Declare war on those who are attacking me. 2 Put on your armor, and take up your shield. Prepare for battle, and come to my aid. 3 Lift up your spear and javelin and block the way of my enemies. Let me hear you say, "I am your salvation!" 4 Humiliate and disgrace those trying to kill me; turn them back in confusion. 5 Blow them away like chaff in the wind – a wind sent by the angel of the LORD. 6 Make their path dark and slippery, with the angel of the LORD pursuing them. 7 Although I did them no wrong, they laid a trap for me. Although I did them no wrong, they dug a pit for me. 8 So let sudden ruin overtake them! Let them be caught in the snare they set for me! Let them fall to destruction in the pit they dug for me. 9 Then I will rejoice in the LORD. I will be glad because he rescues me. 10 I will praise him from the bottom of my heart: "LORD, who can compare with you? Who else rescues the weak and helpless from the strong? Who else protects the poor and needy from those who want to rob them?"

As the species, we humans pass the same stages of growth of a single individual. In the early stages of our evolution we needed to think magically. We needed fairytales. We needed to believe in a powerful, omnipotent, omniscient heavenly father who looked over us, who provided for us, who loved us and even sometimes punished us if we were not good enough. We needed to believe in the power of prayers. In our moments of loneliness, despair and troubles, we needed to believe that we are not alone; that there is an amorous father somewhere in the Heaven who loves us and who cares for us. We needed to believe that he would never let us down. When we could no more rely on our own resources, we still could rely on God. When we were oppressed and could not reclaim our rights, we  could believe that there is going to be a Day of Reckoning  when the wronged ones would be rewarded and the oppressors would be punished. Even if this God was not real, its effect on our psyche and emotional well-being was very real and indispensable. 

When as a species we ate the fruit of the forbidden tree of knowledge, when we  were cast out of the paradise of ignorance where all other animals live, when we became aware of our nakedness, our helplessness and our loneliness,  we looked first for a mother god with unconditional love and later a father god with conditional love to protect us and be our refuge.  

Not all cultures believed in God, but they all believed in some kind of superpowers, spirits or demigods that served the same purpose of coming to the rescue of the believers in the moment of their need. 

So beliefs are primitive but they were essential to our psychological and emotional well-being. When humanity was passing through the stage of its childhood, beliefs helped her to survive, to overcome the difficulties and face the problems. But as we collectively grow out of our childhood, the need to believe in an external power diminishes. We no more need to believe in a god to provide for us, for we can now rely on our own resources. We no more need to supplicate to a god to save us from sickness, calamities and disasters, for we have learned to take care of ourselves through science and our newfound knowledge.  We can rely more on our own efforts than on the praying and supplicating  a god.

However, although the need to believe in an external power is becoming superfluous as we mature, our need to believe has not disappeared altogether. We still need to believe in our own potentials, that we can do it, that we can pull it out. The belief is still there, although the object of the belief has changed. Once upon a time we believed in an all-knowing God who would come to our rescue if we prayed enough. But now we believe that science and logic hold the answers to most if not all of our problems. 

This process of maturity of human race is not complete. We are still evolving and maturing. An elite of humanity has reached this maturity. They are the ones who set the standard. They are the ones who lead the way and define the direction. But the majority of us are not there yet. The majority of us are still emotionally in the stage of our childhood. We still need to believe. A few of us have broken away from beliefs in supernatural, gods, angles and other “adult” fairytales. But most of us are still tied to the manacles of faith. 

This majority of the humanity is more emotional than intellectual. That is why you can find people who are highly educated, intellectuals, with many degrees and academic qualifications who are still childish in their emotional maturity. There are still many academicians, scientists and men and women of high intelligence, who cannot get themselves rid of god, religion and faith. As intellectuals, these people would never accept anything without evidence in their area of expertise. Yet they are willing to forego their intelligence and accept religious beliefs solely by faith. This might seem a paradox but in reality it isn’t. Intellectual maturity and emotional maturity are two separate things. One may be a highly intelligent person yet emotionally immature. And because emotional needs always take precedence over intellectual needs, when there is a conflict between the two the person invariably seeks to fulfill his emotional needs rather than his intellectual quest. Upon our emotional satisfaction rests our sense of security. Surely if the notion of God as a being does not make sense intellectually it may be a nuisance but it is not as nearly frightening as the feeling of being left alone without the all-knowing, the caring and the loving parent whom we have learned to rely upon in the darkest moments of our solitude.  The thought of being left alone is unbearable. We might be grownup adults and even aging senor citizens, but emotionally we could be still children, needing to cling to our loving parent, needing to believe in God. 

There is one point worth mentioning here. We are all believers at times and freethinkers at other times. Just as I spoke of intellectuals who are freethinkers in all aspects of their lives except when it come to religion, there are those who would not accept the idea of God because they find little evidence to support it, yet have no difficulty accepting astrology, for example, (or some New Age mumbo jumbo) as real science. On the other hand there are those who are very religious and would never question the existence of God despite the lack of evidence supporting it, yet do discard astrology as hocus-pocus. There are those who are freethinkers in all areas of their lives yet believe both in God and in astrology and others who spurn all of it. So we are all skeptics in some areas and believers in others.  

Belief in materialism is also a belief. Many people have experienced phenomena like near death experience NDE, telepathy, psychic visions and other unexplainable singularities. These experiences are unexplainable. A rational person would pass no judgments until the facts become more clear. Yet the there are those who would deny the occurrence of  such phenomena altogether and try to explain them off with arguments that is no more plausible than the jabber of religionists. This absolute or rather blind faith that all phenomena must be explained by human's limited science is also a form of belief that affect many in scientific community, people whom I call pseudo scientists.   

The good news is that beliefs though very stubborn are not invincible. There is a point that even the most fanatical and zealot believer finds hard to accept. This is what could be defined as the critical point of the faith of the believer. All faiths are based on beliefs without evidence. But the believer can find something in his belief system that does not make sense to him. This point is different for each person and it depends on the sensibility and the fair mindedness of that individual. It could be ephemeral yet it is the straw that will break the back of the camel and it will start a domino effect that will breakdown his entire belief system. Once the believer finds one point in the doctrine in which he  believes that he has difficulty to surmount,  soon he will find other points that makes no sense to him. He will start to doubt even those points were he had no difficulty to believe prior to that and the whole sand castle of his faith will come down. Depending on the nature of the belief and its intensity, the believer goes through different phases of denial, confusion, shock, dismay, anger and finally the last phase, which is enlightenment.  The process is painful, yet the reward is immense.   

However, most people do not make it through the first stage. A great number of the believers will not go beyond the stage of denial. The fear of exploring new territories, the fear of separation, the fear of losing the reliable god of their imagination,  the fear of being left with nothing but their own means is too great for some to bear. We all have comfort zones and change means going out of our comfort zone. This is not an easy step. This is like leaving the comfort of home and venturing out in the world with no one to turn to. At home we are being taken care of. At home our emotional needs are being fulfilled. We have someone to turn to, even if in the case of religion that someone is in our imagination. But whom we shall turn to if we venture out? Who will come to our rescue if we feel lonely? The pain of separation is too big. Some prison inmates feel that pain when they are released after decades of staying in the Jail. A great depression overcomes them. The prison was the prison, but it was home. That was the only home they had known for most of their lives. Now that they are free, what can they do? How they can face the world on their own? The pain of separation is so great that many of them are overtaken by a melancholic sense of nostalgia. They go through depression. This pain is what we feel when we think of severing our ties with our imaginary God. We know that if we leave his prison we cannot come back. We have grown so much used to him. He has been our best friend and companion in all the moments of our solitude and despair. Sure he never lift a finger to help us, but he was there to listen to our lamentations, he heard our cries, he wiped our tears.    

It is always small incidents that trigger the spark of doubt in the believer’s mind, something that she may find illogical or unjust. But once the seed of doubt is sown, it will eventually grow, sometimes inconspicuous to the believer and the arduous and painful journey to freethinking begins. From the time that the seed of doubt is sown to the moment that it actually comes to fruition in some people could take many years. It depends on our emotional maturity and the level of risk we are willing to take to get out of our comfort zone and leave home. Eventually we will all mature; we will all come to our senses and we will all spurn faith and beliefs but this is a slow process. 

Of course just like any seed, the seed of doubt needs proper environment to grow. Where thoughts are suppressed and speeches are censored, rational thinking does not flourish, doubts are uprooted and faith will cast its shadow of ignorance upon the believers. However, that is going to change. As the Internet brings the people of the world together, it becomes harder and harder for the forces of darkness to keep their lid over the truth and harness the freedom of thought and freedom of expression. Ere long the entire humanity will start questioning their time-honored and cherished dogmas and when they find no answer the seed of doubt is sown and the process of enlightenment is already set in motion.

Ali Sina


June 2001






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