We have to presume they really do. There are, of course, the hypocrites, the wolves in sheep’s clothing, the unbelievers disguised sometimes even in the chasubles they wear to celebrate Mass, the false prophets and the religious conmen. We are not talking about them but about genuine believers, people who really do believe in God, in the existence of immortal souls, in an after-life and in the divine inspiration of Scripture and assorted other unfounded myths.
I suppose I should know the answer to the title’s question, having spent a full half of my life as a believer. Different from some others, I owed my belief not to some mystic personal experience ( heavenly visions and voices, a Near-Death experience, or eye-contact with the Pope – I actually heard this one recently on Australian television) or as the result of an intellectual, philosophical search for meaning, but to the banal fact of being “born Catholic”. No one, of course, is born Catholic, nor chooses as a baby to be baptized, or as an infant, child and adolescent, to be educated by his/her family of believing, practising Catholics and by the Church’s religious teachers. I never made a Billy Graham-type declaration of faith in Jesus as my personal Savior, but I must have given a more or less free and conscious acquiesence to the beliefs I had inherited. In my early years there was no crisis of faith, no moment or period of profound doubt and questioning, resolved by an explicit reaffirmation of adherence to Church doctrine. That doubt came later, much later, and the decision was radically different. For some people it apparently never comes. Mine did, long after my ordination to the priesthood and several years as a lay professional religious educator. Some people never abandon their faith, others just drift away from it. Some, like me, finally get around to realizing how credulous they had been, and end up denying their faith and even, like me, crusading against it.
I know why at present I do NOT believe. Many people do not know why they do. They just do. If challenged they may give Alan the attorney’s answer (see “From Illusions to Illumination”, page 70) : “When I look around at the wonderful things in the world – the trees, the birds, the animals etc. – I have not found anything to shake my belief in a God.” Others say that believing is part of their identity (“like being male or female”, I heard somone once say), or that it is self-evident that God made the universe, gave it and us laws to follow, and sent His Son Jesus, as the Gospels prove (!), to redeem us so that we could all go to Heaven. The gullibility and blindness of the credulous would be incredible, had we not such universal evidence of both. The good news is that some people have already recognized that many religious beliefs, rules and rituals are so silly that they have become Believers on the Brink. They are the ones we should challenge to answer the question “But why do you still believe ANY of the nonsense ?” Well, perhaps we should find a less aggressive and more diplomatic way of asking the question. But ask it we must.