Humanist Perspectives: issue 211: The Need to Believe

The Need to Believe
by James E. Alcock

The Need to Believe
Photo via Wikipedia
Happiness and Science dawn though late upon the earth;
Peace cheers the mind, health renovates the frame;
Disease and pleasure cease to mingle here,
Reason and passion cease to combat there,
Whilst mind unfettered o’er the earth extends
Its all-subduing energies, and wields
The sceptre of a vast dominion there.

hese lines penned by Percy Bysshe Shelley two centuries ago reflect the optimistic belief of nineteenth-century intellectuals that the rise of science combined with universal education would bring a new age in which superstition would wither, reason would triumph, and disease would be vanquished. And now, two centuries later, does mind “unfettered o’er the earth” extend? Although rich in scientific knowledge unimaginable in Shelley’s day, the world still roils with beliefs steeped in superstition, magical thinking, pseudoscience and anti-science. Such ideas dominate the tabloids, enliven talk shows and crowd out science and reason in bookstores. No belief seems so irrational that it cannot find a receptive audience. Shelley would be shocked by the vast legions who believe in ghosts, astral projection and ESP; who guide their lives by ancient texts of supposedly divine origin; or who put themselves and their children at risk from diseases and ailments long since conquered by medical science by refusing vaccination or embracing homeopathy, a pseudoscience that originated during Shelley’s lifetime.

How is it that demonstrably false beliefs continue to flourish in these modern times? At the same time as we wonder why so many people believe in strange things, ridiculous things, untrue things, we need to recognize that those beliefs are not strange, ridiculous or untrue to them. No one deliberately seeks false information; no one wants to be deceived; no one knowingly worships a fictitious god or chooses treatment known to be worthless.

In response to our criticism, such believers might ask how can we be so sure that we are right and they are wrong? Who is to say what is true or untrue? That is a fair point. While we can readily point out the absurdity of other people’s beliefs, how can we be so sure of the wisdom of our own, for we are all vulnerable to bias and misunderstanding, and we too can confuse opinion with fact.

Until relatively recently in human history, authoritative dogma served as the arbiter of truth. For example, the great astronomer Ptolemy and the Roman Catholic Church likewise declared that the sun revolves around the earth, and in light of their authority, both secular and sacred, this was generally considered “fact.” Astronomers accepted this “obvious” truth, even though putting the earth at the centre meant that the planets must follow strange and complicated orbits around it. And then civilization reached a turning point: Copernicus and Galileo both rose above dogma and anchored their astronomical beliefs on empirical data. This was a momentous change in outlook that propelled humanity towards one of its greatest achievements, the development of the scientific method as a means of minimizing error, bias and self-deception in the search for understanding. Key to the power of science is its insistence on the testing of ideas against data. Following the development of the scientific method, neither an authority’s insistence that the earth moves around the sun, nor the conviction of many that it is the other way around, was an acceptable basis for understanding.

Nevertheless, many people remain ignorant or distrustful of scientific thinking or, worse, mistake pseudoscience for the real thing. However, even for those who appreciate its power, it is infeasible or even impossible for an individual to subject all personal beliefs to scientific scrutiny.

Genesis of beliefs

Most of our personal beliefs are acquired automatically, some based on culturally shared understandings taught to everyone in childhood, some the product of our interpretation of personal experiences, some developed through reasoning and some shaped by group pressures:

Cultural heritage :

Our ability to communicate complex ideas to one another is unique in the animal kingdom. Because of it, each new generation does not have to reinvent the wheel or redevelop the periodic table of elements or rediscover penicillin. We only need to learn from trusted elders and from the texts that they leave us. But what do the elders teach? That the ghosts of our ancestors roam the earth, or that our minds perish with the death of our bodies? That gods or the stars determine our fates, or that such notions are mythological? That homeopathy and other “alternative” medicines provide risk-free effective treatment for our ailments, or that such preparations are worthless?

Even as we grow and develop the ability to think more and more independently, we nonetheless must continue to rely upon authorities – teachers, encyclopedias, textbooks, the Internet – for much of what we believe. But which authorities do we choose to guide us? The naturopathic “doctor” or the physician? The UFO “expert” or a skeptical naysayer? The (rare) climate scientist who denies that human activity contributes to global warming, or the climate scientist who warns of incipient global disaster?

Sea devil : the type of monster rumoured to live on the edges of a flat Earth
Photo via Wikimedia commons

While the choice of authority is often made on the basis of what we already believe to be true, at other times it occurs by happenstance. When I was a child, I was fascinated by the notion that aliens were visiting our planet, and so I was delighted to encounter a book on the subject written by some expert or other. As it turned out, this expert explained UFO sightings in terms of natural phenomena and made short shrift of extraterrestrial claims. Later on, I read another book on the subject that took the opposite view, insisting that aliens were indeed visiting the earth. Yet, because of the first book, I was completely unimpressed by the claims of the second. The question is, what might have been the effect on my belief about UFOs had I read these books in the opposite order?

Important beliefs are resistant to change and that is not necessarily a bad thing. We would be on a belief merry-go-round if important beliefs were to change each time seemingly incompatible information is encountered. Some beliefs, especially those shared universally within a community, are held with such confidence that they are very resistant to any disconfirming evidence. For example, none of us would easily be persuaded that the world is flat regardless of the information that flat-earthers might present. On the other hand, some beliefs are not particularly important to us and do not carry any emotional charge. Suppose that you confidently believe that New York City is the capital of New York State. When a friend insists that Albany is the capital, you may strongly disagree at first but then you consult an atlas and find to your surprise that your friend is correct. In this case, your belief is likely to change immediately. You accept the authority of the atlas.

Even after being informed that he had been fooled by a conjurer, the experience had been so impressive that he continued to insist that he had witnessed something truly paranormal.

Would that there were only such unambiguous information available against which to vet all our beliefs! However, there is no single, reliable “atlas” to consult with regard to beliefs about God, alien spaceships, extrasensory perception, or the subject matter of conspiracy theories. Instead, there are various “authoritative” sources of information that contradict one another, and this makes it very difficult to dissuade people by gainsaying their erroneous beliefs. (This would be analogous to your friend’s atlas identifying Albany as the capital of New York State, while your encyclopedia names New York City. In this case, you would be unlikely to change your belief).


Because we rarely have the knowledge, skill or means to put important beliefs to an appropriate test, we must rely on expert opinion in evaluating them. The choice of “expert” is crucial and can make the difference between believing sense or nonsense.
Experience :

While the authority of elders and experts is the primary source of many of our beliefs, others are created and reinforced by personal experience or, rather, by the interpretation we give to those experiences. Mistaken interpretations give rise to false beliefs. Our interpretations of experience can strengthen our beliefs regardless of whether they are accurate or false. For example, if while suffering an illness one prays to one’s god or relies on a homeopathic preparation, any improvement in symptoms will be credited to the divinity or the potion, reinforcing the belief in their power. Failure to improve can also be accommodated through one’s interpretation. For example, “Sometimes God says no.”

Personal experience is a powerful influence on beliefs to the extent that it often triumphs over reason. Remember Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the hyper-rational Sherlock Holmes? Doyle was also an ardent believer in psychic phenomena. After having witnessed a supposed demonstration of psychic powers, he declared it to be genuine. Even after being informed that he had been fooled by a conjurer, the experience had been so impressive that he continued to insist that he had witnessed something truly paranormal. He declared, “When I talk on this subject I’m not talking about what I believe. I’m not talking about what I think. I’m talking about what I know. There’s an enormous difference, believe me, between believing a thing and knowing a thing, and talking about things that I’ve handled, that I’ve seen, that I’ve heard with my own ears.”


Personal experience – “I’ve seen with my own eyes,” or “I’ve heard with my own ears” – can be a very poor guide to reality. When we feel as though we really “know” something, it is hard to let go of it, even in the face of disconfirming evidence. We need to take care, for there is at least a little Conan Doyle hubris in us all.
Reason :

Some of our beliefs are of course the products of reason. Yet, we often are overly confident in our ability to apply logic. Research abundantly demonstrates that the products of our reasoning are often tainted by cognitive biases and by our emotional wants and needs. Without being conscious of it, we tend to seek out information that supports our important beliefs while ignoring contradictory information. When faced with ambiguous evidence, we typically tend towards interpretations that are in line with what we wish to be true. Even more problematic, we often screen out and ignore information that contradicts our fundamental beliefs, protecting them from challenge. (Admit it, how likely is it that you will give any serious consideration to the arguments of flat-earthers or racists?)


Misplaced confidence in our own reasoning ability adds to our vulnerability to error in our beliefs.
Conformity to group beliefs :
Social relationships are vital to almost everyone, and they can become very strained when key beliefs are not shared.

Each of us is raised in a community of belief. Our perceptions and interpretations of reality are socially influenced, and we often rely on others’ perceptions and reactions to vet our own. If one grew up in an era in which belief in fairies and demons is commonplace, then some personal experiences would likely be interpreted as evidence of their activity.

Social relationships are vital to almost everyone, and they can become very strained when key beliefs are not shared. As result, it is often difficult to overcome commitment to beliefs that are important to one’s group. If there is too much distance between personal beliefs and the beliefs of the group, the individual may risk being ostracized. That outcome can be avoided by believing as the group does.


To paraphrase John Donne, important beliefs are not islands onto themselves; they are part of a belief mainland held in common with others.
Belief in service of needs

Beliefs serve important functions and needs. Whether accurate or not, they organize and simplify our world: Rottweilers are aggressive; poodles are not. They guide and motivate our actions: If I get on this airplane, I will get off in Paris. They help make sense of the world: Why did Harry become an alcoholic? Because he is weak-willed. Some beliefs serve important emotional needs as well, providing meaning in life or assuaging anxiety. Other beliefs help protect and bolster self-esteem, a good part of which is drawn from membership in the groups to which we belong. When something threatens the reputation of the group, it may also threaten our self-esteem to a degree. For example, many Canadians are proud of being stereotyped as a people concerned about the collective good, seeking “peace, order and good government,” rather than the self-aggrandizing “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” pursued in the United States. We may feel superior when considering the 19th-century genocide directed at indigenous peoples south of our border while viewing our own corresponding history in terms of the respectful relationship between the North West Mounted Police and the natives of Western Canada. That belief may produce a warm glow, but what happens upon reading that Sir John A. Macdonald, our first prime minister, explicitly instructed his Indian agents to withhold food from starving native bands with the goal of forcing them onto reserves and away from the lands needed for the building of the transcontinental railroad? If true, this diminishes our collective self-esteem, and so some will refuse to believe that account while others will look for a less ego-threatening interpretation.


Beliefs that provide meaning in life, or reduce anxiety, or contribute to self-esteem are resistant to change when confronted by contrary information.
Some examples

While misinformation and shoddy thinking make major contributions to irrational beliefs, the important influence of need satisfaction should never be overlooked. Consider these examples of the role it plays:

Astrology :
A substantial majority of the population believes in the reality of extrasensory perception and precognition.

Astrology, an ancient belief system based on the notion that positions of heavenly bodies at the time of birth influence an individual’s personality and future, continues to hold considerable appeal to many people, and this is particularly so in some Asian countries where it remains an important basis for decision-making for many people. What needs are being served? Reduction in uncertainty is one. Astrological readings can reduce anxiety by the apparent prediction of events yet to come. This can provide hope for a better future and furnish an apparent opportunity for taking action to avoid undesired outcomes. In addition, astrological personality descriptions based on sun signs provide a putative basis for understanding other people and predicting how they will behave.

Religion :

Religious beliefs serve a number of important needs. They provide a framework for understanding how the world works and provide assurance that events, both terrible and good, are not random expressions of an uncaring universe, but instead are part of the plan of a benign deity. Grief over the loss of a loved one and anxiety in anticipation of one’s own demise are eased when religion promises both a continuance of life after death and reunion with departed loved ones. And belief in a personal god who watches over you and listens to you means that you are never completely alone. The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune may wear you down, but God travels with you and is on your side.

Parapsychology :

A substantial majority of the population believes in the reality of extrasensory perception and precognition. For most, this belief is based either on exposure to misinformation or on a supernatural interpretation of their own strange experiences. Yet, such belief also serves important needs for some people. It carries assurance that there is more to our existence than flesh and blood, that our personality functions independently of the body and that we are not extinguished when our body dies. Indeed, a number of prominent figures in the history of parapsychology have described parapsychology as providing a bridge between science and religion, allowing for a sort of secular soul that survives death. Joseph Banks Rhine, the father of American parapsychology, explicitly sought to establish the existence of the soul scientifically and argued that the first step towards doing so was to prove the reality of extrasensory perception.

Alternative medicine :

We are fortunate to live in a time when polio, measles, mumps, typhoid and a number of other serious diseases are easily preventable through vaccination. And yet, some modern parents refuse to vaccinate their children. Why should this be so? No parent wants a child to come to harm, but some parents have come to believe that vaccinations, rather than offering protection, bring terrible consequences. This is in large part due to misinformation, but the need to reduce anxiety also plays a substantial role. This anxiety is reduced by the belief that “natural” homeopathic and other “alternative” interventions offer real protection but without risk.

Conspiracy theories :

Conspiracy theories are enjoying a heyday, particularly in the United States. For example, while most people believe that Neil Armstrong and other Americans have walked on the moon, some people insist that the moon landings never occurred, but were the cinematic product of a conspiracy aimed at boosting American pride.

As discussed earlier, many of our beliefs are based on information from sources we judge to be reliable. Distrust of authority is at the root of conspiracy theories, and this distrust often extends even to the rejection of well-established scientific findings. Conspiracy theories also satisfy certain needs. They appeal to some people because they provide clear (even though incorrect) answers to pressing questions. For example, if one cannot understand why one has not progressed in a career while others do so, a conspiracy theory that assigns blame to some target group – for example, immigrants – offers what seems to be a plausible explanation. Conspiracy theories also generate feelings of group belongingness and cohesion, as adherents coalesce both intellectually and emotionally around a common, although often bizarre, interpretation of events.

* * *

Erroneous and irrational beliefs are all too often approached as though they are simply the consequence of lack of knowledge or misinformation. Frustration then ensues when such beliefs do not yield to accurate information or logic. Yet beliefs, even if baseless and irrational, often serve important needs, and to surrender them when confronted by contradictory and disconfirming evidence would expose those needs and leave them unfulfilled. In light of this, such beliefs are often resistant to change, and the more important the associated need, the greater this resistance will be. It is not such a surprise, then, that the rise of science combined with universal education has not succeeded in expunging irrational beliefs. Attaining the future that Shelley dreamed of, where “reason and passion cease to combat,” requires more than corrective information. Any such effort will be in vain unless the underlying needs are also successfully addressed.

James Alcock is Professor of Psychology at Glendon College, York University. He is a Member of the College of Psychologists of Ontario, a Fellow of the Canadian Psychological Association, and is a long-serving member of the Executive Committee of the international Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.


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