Bringing up the subject of the Powerball Lottery doesn't sound out of place in a blog about God and religion, but I will take the subject in a direction probably different from expected.
In my book, The Book of Daniel: Testimony of an Atheist, I start with a chapter on Belief, in an effort to work towards an answer to the question, "Why do so many people believe in God?" (I get to that specific question in chapter 3.) My basic assertion is that people believe what they want to believe, and will stand by those beliefs for as long as they want to believe them, regardless of any amount of pressure or evidence to the contrary.
Recently Chris Cuomo, one of the anchors on CNN New Day, provided an absolutely perfect example of that: He believed something he wanted to believe, and passed it along to viewers so that they would be amazed by it (in the belief that viewers would attach just as much credence to his belief as he did himself), and he held onto his belief despite being corrected, on the air, by his incredulous co-anchor, Michaela Pereira.
The story is here, on the website of Esquire Magazine. To summarize:
The Powerball Lottery jackpot prize, at the time of the broadcast, had risen to $1.3 billion: that amount of prize money would be awarded to the lucky persons (perhaps a single person) with the winning numbers. At that point, a meme appeared on Facebook, and was immediately passed around from user to user, whose creator claimed (through spectacularly faulty math) that if that $1.3 billion were divided up among the entire population of men, women, and children in the United States, each would receive $4,333,000. The meme's author proclaimed "Poverty solved!!"
In reality, the amount would be $4.33.
Now, it is worth noting that there is no reason to suspect Chris Cuomo is an idiot. (Though I know there are many people who would disagree with me on that.) He is the son of a former governor of New York and brother of the current governor, and his own academic accomplishments include a Juris Doctor degree from Fordham University.
Yet Cuomo wanted to believe the meme. It would be so wonderful if it were true! And so he accomodated it within his personal belief system, and resolved to spread the great news. Said Cuomo, to a worldwide CNN audience: "I saw somebody do a little bit of math, and if you were to take that amount of money and divide it among all the American people, let alone families, each would have a few million dollars and it would completely correct the course of history."
Cuomo's efforts to retain this belief go beyond just Pereira's attempt to straighten him out (see the video on the Esquire webpage); he even resisted, or tuned out, any internal cognitive dissonance that should have led him to question it. Cuomo knows that the U.S. government throws around money in the billions of dollars as if it were confetti -- to the government, an amount such as $1.3 billion is so small as to pale into insignificance in line after line in the federal budget. Amounts like that are kept in the petty cash drawer. So why, Cuomo should have wondered, doesn't the government take some of that petty cash and distribute it among the American people and make them all millionaires? Why hasn't some presidential candidate promised to do exactly that? And indeed, where did that money all come from? How did the government get it, given that we haven't all paid millions upon millions of dollars each in taxes?
So there are millions of ways Cuomo could have stopped himself and said, Wait, these numbers aren't making sense. Yet he never did. So powerful was his will to believe the erroneous mathematics of a numerically-challenged Facebook user that his belief was never shaken by any rational thoughts about it.
Is there any need to wonder any longer why the grip of religion on human minds is so powerful, despite any number of lines of inquiry that could lead a believer to think, "Wait, this doesn't make sense"?