Why Belief Is So Powerful

Kendrick Frazier

For scientists and scientific skeptics, the most powerful word is why. Why is nature like it is? Why do people behave they way they do? Wondering why initiates all inquiry and leads to all new knowledge. In the Skeptical Inquirer we have articles that investigate and articles that explain. Investigations may find new answers to mysteries. Explanatory articles help us understand why things are the way they are.

Psychologist James E. Alcock’s cover article in this issue, “The God Engine,” is an exemplary form of explanatory writing. The question he asks, and cogently answers, is: Why is religious belief so pervasive, so powerful, so important, so resistant to criticism? It’s a question all thoughtful people ponder, but to science-minded people and freethinkers it has occupied a big share of our time and energy.

Alcock, who has been associated with the modern skeptical movement from the beginning, here steps back and takes a psychologist’s long view. No single reason accounts for all of belief’s attractions, but they must stem from the natural ways our brains work. As he says, “Belief in the supernatural … is a product of a metaphorical ‘God Engine’ that endows it both with significant power over the lives and people and the groups to which they belong and with strong resistance to change. In other words, a number of automatic processes and cognitive biases combine to make supernatural belief the automatic default.”

We are born magical thinkers; we are born agency detectors. We develop mental processes in childhood that lead to dualism (mind and matter are separate) and to the perception that things happen for a reason, which eventually leads to thinking that some extraordinary intelligence is guiding things. The reality testing we do insulates some concepts from scrutiny. We make wishes (similar to praying). We dream (which seems another plane of reality). We have transcendent emotional experiences. And then our cultures teach and reinforce belief in myriad ways, providing their own appealing explanations for everything from how the world was created to what happens to you after you die. You can see why belief is so powerful and resilient. Alcock’s inquiries go far beyond just god-belief to all forms of belief, which he has just published in a comprehensive book with that simple title, Belief. I heartily recommend it.

Geologist Lorence G. Collins returns to our pages with another take on why one particular religious belief has no support in empirical reality. “Biological Reasons Young-Earth Creationists’ Worldwide Flood Never Happened” is a natural follow-up to his earlier well-received SI article (March/April 2018) on twenty-one geological reasons Noah’s worldwide flood never happened.

Jeanne Goldberg, who wrote our cover article “The Politicization of Science” a year ago, now writes of our fears of radiation. A radiologist herself, she takes a long, cultural view. She describes and laments our many misconceptions about radiation and explains why these fears and superstitions endanger us all.

And we welcome a writer new to our pages, Denise Sutherland, who explains what multi-level marketing schemes are all about and how easy it is, even for smart, skeptical, people, to be taken in by them.

Explaining the world doesn’t always tell us what we wish. But skeptics and science-minded people tend to be realists and usually appreciate that fact. I trust that is so here.

—Kendrick Frazier

Kendrick Frazier

Kendrick Frazier is editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of several anthologies, including Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience.


For scientists and scientific skeptics, the most powerful word is why. Why is nature like it is? Why do people behave they way they do? Wondering why initiates all inquiry and leads to all new knowledge. In the Skeptical Inquirer we have articles that investigate and articles that explain. Investigations may find new answers to …

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