Why Do Most People Believe What Is Not True?

This is an unplanned article addressing those things most people believe that are not true introduced in the article, "Most Of What You Believe Is Not True." To see all the articles, or any other one, please see the Index.

I think the most quoted words about, "rights," at least in The United States, are these from The Declaration of Independence:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

While I've heard these words hundreds of times, I've never heard the words, "How did Thomas Jefferson know that?"

Most people in this country believe they have certain rights that are God-given, and they base that belief on the words of Thomas Jefferson, if not directly, than at least from their teachers who learned it from Thomas Jefferson.

Not everyone who believes in rights bases their belief on the notion of God-given rights, though probably the majority of Americans do. It might be an interesting study for someone to undertake, but it is not important to the question here and I've already addressed what is wrong with the idea of rights.

[NOTE: It is not difficult to discover where Thomas Jefferson got his views of rights, he learned about them from John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, although neither one of them ever wrote what Jefferson wrote. I think Jefferson was wrong, but I admire him very much. He was a true polymath and entrepreneur, and if Sally Hemmings were really his mistress, I would admire him even more.]

The question I'm interested in is why most people never ask the kind of question I suggested above? Why do most people never question where their ideas came from, or how they know what they believe is true? It's not the trivial things people believe, like their team being the best or their children being the best looking and best behaved children. (Although I've always wondered, since everyone believes this, where all the bad teams and ugly brats come from?)

Why do Muslims believe what they believe, or Catholics believe what they believe, or Hindus believe what they believe? It isn't reason that convinces them the fantastic things they believe are true? Now every Muslim believes what Catholics believe is nonsense, and what Hindus believe is nonsense, while every Hindu believes what Muslims believe is nonsense and what Catholics believe is nonsense, and every Catholic the same about Hindus and Muslims. Since they all believe different things that contradict what the others believe, two out of the three must be wrong. Each is absolutely certain they are right, or certain enough to bet their lives on it and never question it?

It does not matter what religion an individual embraces, it seems strange to me none of them notice the fact that many more individuals believe in other religions than believe in one's own, and the propensity to believe what is not true is very widespread, since one must believe all the other religions are not true. How is it that every religious person believes he and his fellow-travelers have escaped this proclivity for believing the untrue, when the rest of the world has not?

Believing What Is Not True

Believing what is not true is nearly universal.

In a letter to Upton Sinclair, H.L. Mencken wrote, "So long as there are men in the world, 99 percent of them will be idiots, and so long as 99 percent of them are idiots they will thirst for religion, and so long as they thirst for religion, it will remain a weapon over them. I see no way out. If you blow up one specific faith, they will embrace another. [October 14, 1917, The New Mencken Letters (1977)]

Mencken was right. With rare exception (perhaps a couple of South Sea Islands) wherever there are people there is religion, and the religions are used by the authorities of those religions to control the beliefs and lives of those who embrace them, mostly as a means of extorting their wealth. As Mencken said, "The costliest of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind." [A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949)]

I have used religion as the example of the human insatiability for the false and the untrue because it is universal and easily observed. I have no desire to cure anyone of their superstitions, particularly if they are emotionally attached to them, which most are. In my experience, with one exception, the religious are no threat to me, and since I enjoy most people and most people are religious, my only concern, though I consider it none of my business, is the harm believing what is not true does to the believer.

I have no desire for or intention of changing anyone else's thinking or beliefs. My interest is not so much in what untrue things people believe as why human gullibility and credulity are universal. I do not think Mencken's simple explanation, that most men are idiots is the answer, or at least not a complete one. I do not believe men are born idiots but become idiots by embracing things which cannot possibly be true.

Why People Believe What Is Not True

I think Mencken's two part explanation of why most people believe what is not true is close to the truth:

"[1] The majority of men prefer delusion to truth. It soothes. It is easy to grasp. Above all, it fits more snugly than the truth into a universe of false appearances—of complex and irrational phenomena, defectively grasped. [2] But though an idea that is true is thus not likely to prevail, an idea that is attacked enjoys a great advantage. The evidence behind it is now supported by sympathy, the sporting instinct, sentimentality—and sentimentality is as powerful as an army with banners." [The Anti-Christ, F. W. Nietzsche, from the "Introduction" by H. L. Mencken]

The first part of the explanation I think is correct. People are eager to embrace answers and explanations about the world and life that are easy to grasp, that do not require a lot of difficult thinking, and that flatter and comfort them. Real knowledge of the truth is not easy. As I wrote in the Justice chapter:

"Nobody really wants to know what reality is, because reality is not nice:

  • The real world is a very difficult place to live.
  • There are no shortcuts to life, success or happiness.
  • You must earn everything by your own effort.
  • Anything less than your best is failure.
  • You cannot do wrong and get away with it.
  • There is no forgiveness.
  • There is no mercy.
  • Neither your feelings nor your desires matter."
Since that is the reality the truth describes, most people do not want to know the truth. What they want is a world that is easy to understand, that is not too demanding, that will forgive their faults, and that they do not have to be too good in to be worthy of honor and love; but that is not the world the truth describes.

It is religion and politicians who promise the things people want to believe. Religion promises them forgiveness and a second chance and a God who loves them. The politicians promise them a world that is safe, secure, where nothing will ever be too difficult or threatening, and in which they will be looked after no matter how worthless they are or how much they waste their life.

That is the first half of the reason why people believe what is not true; because it is easy to believe and, "understand," and it is what they would like to be true. But it is not the whole reason.

The second part of Mencken's explanation is close to the other reason people believe what is not true and contains part of it. Reason alone could never convince people that the untrue things they believe are true, but the basis of most people's beliefs and convictions is not reason. Mencken mentions three examples of the things that are the basis of people's false beliefs: sympathy, sports enthusiasm, and sentimentality. What all these things have in common is the second reason why people embrace the untrue.

The second reason people believe what is not true is because they base their beliefs on their feelings and emotions instead of reason. People want to believe reality is what they would like it to be and are, therefore, emotionally primed to accept and believe anything that claims the world is what they hope it is. When they hear that reality will forgive their sins, that they have a right to things simply because they were born without having to earn them, and that the world can be made safe and pleasant if there are just enough laws passed and government agencies created, their feelings (not their reason) responds to them positively. They "just know they are right," because, "they can feel it." In some cases, they are quite aware that what they have accepted is not based on reason, but on their emotions, their sentiments, their feelings, and passions—the name they give to that kind of belief is "faith."

Because feelings, not reason, are the basis for the untrue things people believe, reason becomes their enemy, and anyone who attempts to reason with them is seen as an enemy and, "a danger to all they know is true." Their beliefs, for which there is no rational basis, convince them they hold the moral high ground and they label anyone who does not believe what they believe a heretic, immoral, or evil.

In spite of the intensity of their belief [beliefs based entirely on feelings are the most emotionally intense] they cannot escape the fact that what they believe is not rational, and will resort to endless absurd rationalizations to hide the nagging doubts which their own consciousness plagues them with.

My Difference With Mencken

I believe the two points I have made, 1. that most people want easy answers that can be accepted without much trouble and that describe a world that they would like, and 2. that most people base their beliefs on their feelings rather then reason are the only plausible explanation for why most people believe so many thing which are not true. I do not believe any genetic defect, environmental influence, or any other internal or external influence causes people to make any choices they make, including what they choose to believe. Every individual is a volitional being, and what they choose to believe is not "caused" by anything.

I also believe that once an individual has chosen to believe what is not true, having surrendered their reason and volitional ability to their wishes (what they would like to be true) feelings (their desires, sentiments, and emotions), it makes them idiotic, because the things they believe fly in the face of reality and its nature.

As far as I am concerned all this is only an explanation of a fact. I do not see this as some kind of problem that needs to be solved, except that gullibility, for the vast majority of individuals who have surrendered to it, will be a problem for them. It is their problem and only they will pay the consequences for it.

I might note that H.L. Mencken also found the prevalence of human beings embracing all sorts of absurd nonsense a mystery.

"By what route do otherwise sane men come to believe such palpable nonsense? How is it possible for a human brain to be divided into two insulated halves, one functioning normally, naturally and even brilliantly, and the other capable only of such ghastly balderdash which issues from the minds of Baptist evangelists? [or any other religion? or politicians? or academics? I might add.] Such balderdash takes various forms, but it is at its worst when it is religious. Why should this be so? What is there in religion that completely flabbergasts the wits of those who believe in it? I see no logical necessity for that flabbergasting. Religion, after all, is nothing but an hypothesis framed to account for what is evidentially unaccounted for. In other fields such hypotheses are common, and yet they do no apparent damage to those who incline to them. But in the religious field they quickly rush the believer to the intellectual Bad Lands. He not only becomes anaesthetic to objective fact; he becomes a violent enemy of objective fact. It annoys and irritates him. He sweeps it away as something somehow evil." [The American Mercury (February 1926)]

Perhaps others who have been bewildered by this strange human phenomena will find the explanation I have delineated enlightening. That would be a bonus to the main purpose of this little essay which is entirely selfish—to make explicit, for myself, my own understanding of why so many people that I find pleasant, intelligent, and generally lucid, can also entertain so many impossibly absurd ideas.