Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), in Through the Looking Glass

*   *   *   *   *

There's a phenomenon I caught onto during a period, a decade ago, when I spent a lot of time on AOL message boards, trying fruitlessly to talk some sense into people with bizarre, unsupportable notions. The phenomenon is that, in general, humans believe what they want to believe.

For an extreme example, you can look at the real conspiracy nuts, who see dark, conscious, evil intent behind every unfortunate occurrence. When such people claim, say, that an American commercial plane crash was caused by the evil U.S. government shooting the plane down (for whatever reason), they are immune to wondering how the hundreds of NTSB investigators sent to the scene to try to "hide" the causes of the crash (while "pretending" to determine them), or radar operators assigned to "cover up" electronic proof of the shootdown, people whose political views are spread across the entire spectrum, certainly in many cases opposed to the political party in power in the government, along with all of their family members and anyone else they would naturally confide in, ALL of these people are willing and able somehow to keep the nasty secret, even though few of them personally have anything to gain by keeping that secret -- and in spite of that, the conspiracy theorist himself somehow knows the secret. There is no logical argument you can make that will cause the slightest dent in the absolute assurance these people have that they know the truth and nobody else does. They want to believe their theory, because it would be SO exciting and satisfying to them if it were true and they were privileged to be among the few who knew.

If you are thinking (reasonably enough) that the above example applies only to a small percentage of the population, then consider the following: "Humans only make use of ten percent of their brains." Do you believe that? According to one poll, 65% of Americans do. My source on that poll is The Guardian: "The Greatest Brain Myth There Ever Was?"

Yet it isn't true. As the above article says in its title, it's a myth. As far as neuroscientists have been able to determine, there is no significant part of our brain that doesn't perform some function. For another source on the myth (in addition to the article in The Guardian, above), here is one from Scientific American: "Do People Only Use 10 Percent of Their Brains?" (Note that this latter article is from 2008, long before the release of the motion picture "Lucy" that inspired the Guardian article.)

There are a lot of false beliefs about science in the general population, but it's rare that one achieves quite the degree of penetration that this one has. Why do so many people believe something that all experts in neurophysiology know is untrue? Well, each of the above articles contains a hint. The Scientific American article includes the following comment: "Though an alluring idea, the '10 percent myth' is so wrong it is almost laughable, says neurologist Barry Gordon at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore." To me, the key word in that statement is "alluring." The Guardian makes the point even more clearly: "The 10% myth is appealing because it's exciting to think that we have so much untapped potential." Both of these quotes are identifying what it is about the "ten percent" myth that accounts for so many people believing it: there is something intrinsically attractive about it. That is, people believe it because they want to believe it.

I am claiming that that is the way it is with everybody's beliefs. They aren't arrived at by any intellectual thought process; people believe the things they believe because they want to believe them. There may be a thousand reasons why they want to believe them -- perhaps their beliefs reassure them, perhaps their beliefs justify their feelings of inadequacy or incompetence, perhaps their beliefs mirror those of their parents, perhaps their beliefs are in intentional contradiction to those of their parents, and on and on. Sometimes we use logic to shore up our beliefs (and in that case we believe in the power of the logic because it supports our beliefs), but the beliefs precede the logic.

If you are reading this, having seen what this book was going to be about, you may well be an atheist or agnostic, and there's a good chance you're thinking, "I take pride in basing my beliefs on the testimony of my own senses." That's not really what I'm talking about. Thoughts based on the testimony of the senses are observations, not beliefs. I'm talking about what's left, outside of observations: the mental constructs you've made about how the world works, or the conclusions you've reached about things you've heard, that aren't purely based on anything your senses have told you directly. And yes, everyone has those. Don't try telling me you've never formed an opinion of any kind about anything anyone has ever said to you. You believe those things, or you don't. As you choose.

I'm not immune to the phenomenon, of course -- I'm as human as any of the people I'm discussing, and this is simply part of what we are as humans. I once stated this proposition, about people believing what they want to believe, in an online discussion, and a woman responded dismissively, "Oh, right, so everybody but you just believes what they want, and you're the only exception. I don't care much for double standards." This despite the fact I had never, at any point in my own comment, claimed or even slightly hinted that the comment didn't apply to me, nor did I have any reason to say it didn't. The woman making the response had simply chosen to believe that I was trying to claim I was special somehow, though that perception of my intent wasn't supported in any way in anything I'd written. So I posted a response to thank her for helping illustrate my point.

Now, on to religion. Religious beliefs are a perfect example of belief caused by wanting to believe. I will explore more deeply into what it is in the human mind that leads to widespread belief in God in chapter 3, but for the present I just want to introduce the general phenomenon of believing what you do about religion because of wanting to.

Religious beliefs, more than any other kind, are almost completely closed off from outside argument. Think about your own religious orientation. Let's say you're a Christian. Can you formulate a logical argument, or point to any concrete evidence, that proves you're right and that Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, animists, atheists, and so on, are all wrong? Do you even feel a need to?

(If you are an atheist, you're not off the hook. Re-read the last three sentences in the previous paragraph starting from "Let's say..." and switch the two words "Christian" and "atheist.")

Why do you believe the things you believe, relative to religion? In the end, it comes down to the fact that you want to. It may be that you want to believe certain things due to being afraid not to believe them (God might strike you dead or afflict you with warts, perhaps, or your parents might have soundly thrashed you when you were a child if you didn't believe), because duress can be a real motivator. But whether you hold beliefs about religion because they make you feel peaceful, or they will earn you an eternal reward, or they mesh with your conscious values involving being nice to people, or they will prevent inflicted (temporary or eternal) pain, or you are defying all those around you who believe differently, or you had a traumatic experience that pushed you in one direction or another, or you had a mind-bending insight, or for any number of other possible reasons, those considerations have led you to want to believe as you do.

At any rate, that's what I believe.