Religion claims to tell us about how the universe works, but most religious belief comes from a time of superstition, ignorance and fear we can only catch a glimpse of when we read stories about fundamentalist cults in undeveloped countries like Nigeria.
People believe religion because that is what they have been always taught. They also believe that the Earth is one of eight planets that go around the Sun for the same reason. Nothing in their day to day experience indicates if those things or correct or not. People can learn for themselves the nature of the solar system by carefully plotting the motion of the Sun and planets and applying some serious mathematics. (I wonder how long it would have taken us to figure this if we weren’t already obsessed with the position of the planets because of astrology.) Of course, there is no reliable evidence that God exists.
Religion can’t help you understand the Universe, but it can help you understand something at least as mysterious, the human mind. The mind is the true domain of religion. It fits into its nooks and cranies, filling up space left unfilled by family, friends, society, knowledge and wisdom. Its shape and size changes from person to person and era to era, growing or shrinking as needed.
People who are in jail for life sometimes become born-again Christians. Religion creates a social network that accepts them for who they are, gives them a mission in life, fullfilling things to learn and forgiveness. Studies show the those who have done wrong and asked their God for forgiveness feel more relief from guilt then any other method, including admitting your wrongdoing. That’s why religious leaders are often found out to have repeatedly done immoral things.
In contrast, middle class people who live comfortable lives often only go to church on Easter and Christmas, giving religion less thought then than atheists for the rest of the year. They have no need for what religion provides, beyond a sense of tradition.
Religion is a story that provides spiritual fulfillment, just as Romeo and Juliet fulfills our desire for drama and Monty Python can reliably make us laugh.
Life of Pi really summaries why people believe in religion. Pi is found after being shipwrecked and spending months on a life boat. He tells two version of his tale to investigators, a fantastical story about a hyena, zebra, orangutan and tiger where only he and the tiger survive. Then he tells a tragic story about a sailor, a cook, his mother and him in the lifeboat in which the sailor kills the cook and his mother and he kills the sailor in revenge.
Pi doesn’t tell the investigators which is true, but asks them which they prefer. They don’t really know either way, so they choose the one with the animals. Pi says, “and so it goes with God.”