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Chapter Four: Why people believe

Section 9: Against the tide

Belief in God allows some people to assert their independence from those around them.


We saw earlier (Section 4) that peer pressure is a factor in many people's faith - my family, friends and schoolmates all believe, so I should too. Others, however, turn to a belief that those around them have either rejected or do not share.

4.9a Natural-born rebels

Some young people turn to religion as a reaction against the evil they see in the world. Repelled by some aspects of the society they live in - materialism, hypocrisy, sexuality, whatever - they seek refuge in what appears to be the clean, true spirit of their ancestors' religion. Young Muslims have the added incentive of the violence suffered by their fellow believers in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan.

To the astonishment of their parents, their behaviour changes. They pray ostentatiously, go to worship, adopt appropriate dress - some women even adopt headscarves or burqas - and denounce the sins of others.

This is faith as rebellion. This is faith which stands as a beacon of light in a corrupt world. This is faith which makes the believer a hero or heroine, rejecting the sin that weaker beings embrace and representing God in all his glory.

For some people, this aspect of faith lingers all their lives; it sustains the extremist, the men and women who would replace law with the commandments of the Bible or Quran.

For most, however, this fervour dies with youth, when they confront the reality of life, the demands of work and money and the pleasures of friends and family. Their faith may stay with them, but it becomes the faith of the conformist, not the revolutionary.

4.9b Converts

What about those who change their religion?

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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Because religion is so closely associated with community and identity, the number of converts is relatively small - and those who do convert are highly prized. Surf the internet and you will find many examples of Christians, Hindus, Jews and Muslims converting to another religion and of websites which support and encourage them - such as and, run by Yousef Al-Khattab, whom we met in the previous section.

Many converts are convinced that they have discovered the True Faith because they were not forced into their new religion as children, but chose it freely as adults. They promote it more aggressively and are more hostile towards their old religion than those who were born into the convert's adopted faith. This can suggest either joy in the new religion or a need to justify what their subconscious may tell them is a betrayal of their heritage.

Not every convert fits this pattern. Some convert for the sake of marriage or legal reasons. Others convert gradually from one branch of their faith to another, like former Prime Minister Tony Blair's well-documented movement towards Roman Catholicism. They are less likely to be dismissive of their old beliefs.

4.9c Ex-atheists

Converts from atheism often fall into the same pattern, developing a patronising attitude towards the ideas they have abandoned.

Why do some atheists become believers? The author Anne Rice provides a textbook example. She says "Americans like to believe we turn to religion because of an accident or the loss of a loved one, but in my case it was simply the culmination of searching. I wrestled with a lot of theological questions, and then one afternoon, I thought, I love you—I want to come back to you."

What this tells us is that Rice's decision was based on emotion, not reason. She felt a sense of loss in her life - as many of us do - and she decided, on a conscious or subconscious level, to replace that loss with the idea of a loving Christ. Problem solved.

It works for Rice as it works for many people. We create our own reality and Rice has created hers with the mythical Christ. But the fact that Rice and other ex-atheists now believe in a god is not proof that God exists - it proves only that for many people emotion is stronger than reason. And their numbers are small - many more believers become atheists than vice versa.

Chapter Four: Section 10 Nature calling

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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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