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Chapter Four: Why people believe

Section 4: Peer pressure

Many of us believe in God because our friends and family do so. We are afraid to contradict them and find out the truth for ourselves.

pic: New York Times

A high school student somewhere in the Bible Belt once wrote to
God would be an atheist asking why atheists weren’t athletes. The atheists at his school all seemed to be drop-outs and Goths who wouldn’t be seen dead near the track, while all the jocks, like himself, were Christian.

That high school is probably typical of middle America - and there are several reasons why it is so.

Start with the nature of athletics. Footballers, basketball players, track heroes and the like are chosen for their physical, not mental, abilities. Religion flourishes where critical thinking is absent. Because they don't have the intellectual tools to question their faith, athletes are more likely to believe.

But let's be fair: most people, on and off the sports field, are unaccustomed to exercising their minds. It’s easier to accept other people’s opinions than to generate your own. When it comes to religion, jocks are no different from the rest of us. If everyone around me believes in God, then heck, I should believe in God too.

While young Americans are into Christianity, many of their African and Asian counterparts are embracing Islam. From Morocco to Pakistan more and more young women are wearing headscarves while their brothers boost attendance at the local mosque.

How strong is this faith? It may be sincerely held, but it's probably not very deep. Apart from the rhetoric of "Jesus saves" and the idea that theft, murder and sex outside marriage are wrong, many young Americans have only the vaguest idea of Christian dogma, or Christian hypocrisy. And although Muslim terrorists appear to know their Quran inside out, less radical believers are much less familiar with the holy text.

4.4a Faith as fashion

Young people's faith may come from both inside and outside the family. While some

The deep roots of belief

Despite reason and evidence indicating that God does not and cannot exist, billions of people across the world continue to worship him in one of his many forms.

Belief in God draws its strength from a wide range of sources and provides a sense of security and wellbeing for many. Transforming that belief into an understanding and respect for rationality takes time and much effort.

4.1: The origins of religion
Where did faith come from?

4.2: In the genes?
Are we programmed to believe?

4.3: Community and identity
Defining ourselves through faith

4.4: Peer pressure
Faith as fashion

4.5: Death and despair
There must be a better world

4.6: A sense of justice
Evildoers must be punished

4.7: God and meaning
Religion gives us a purpose

4.8: The power and the glory
They reflect on us too

4.9: Against the tide
Converts and natural-born rebels

4.10: Nature calling
A glimpse of God?

4.11: Pick 'n' mix
What are your reasons?

4.12: Summary

Finished this chapter? Move on to

Chapter 5
Faith in action

People create God in their own image. What happens when they not only believe in God but put their faith into action?

The results are predictable: good people do good things in the name of religion and bad people do bad things. They act in God's name but God is irrelevant.

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rebel, many brought up in a strongly religious household are unwilling or unable to question their parents' beliefs. It becomes even more difficult when their friends and acquaintances profess the same faith.

We are all influenced by peer pressure - the need to be accepted by friends and our peers - but never more so than in our teens and early twenties. Growing up and seeking an identity separate from that of our parents, we take others of our generation as models. Whether we follow the majority - the high school jocks - or the minority - the Goths - we find ourselves wearing the same clothes, using the same language and picking up the same habits and adopting the same beliefs.

That means that when religion is out of fashion, most young people ignore it. When it is in fashion, they take it seriously. Fifty years ago religion was almost irrelevant; fifty years from now, if we are lucky, it will be again. And of course the fashion may change. If it becomes cool to be Muslim in America, high school football teams will pray to Mecca five times a day and Spring Break in Cancun will see diet soda sprayed over girls in burqas. And if Christianity takes hold in Baghdad, every Easter will see fanatics crucifying themselves on the banks of the Tigris.

The influences we are subject to when we are young may last throughout our lives. We believe in God because our friends and family do so. Consciously or subconsciously, we are afraid to contradict them and find out the truth for ourselves.

Filipino fashion:
Easter crucifixion

Chapter Four: Section 5 Death and despair

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If God existed, he would...

admire the beauty of a universe that he did not create

recognize that eternity is meaningless

deny both heaven and hell

disown all men and women who speak in his name

denounce the harm caused by religious "morality"

help the human race to thrive without him

If God existed, he would be an atheist.

What is the difference between science and faith?

science is certain of nothing and requires proof of everything

faith is certain of everything and requires proof of nothing

Which do you trust?

"I know there is no God"
"I believe there is no God"

Check the answer

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