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Why Is Christianity So Popular?

Dr. Thomas Swan has a PhD in psychology from the University of Otago. He specializes in the cognitive and evolutionary study of religion.

All popular religions have a creation story.

All popular religions have a creation story.

The Need for a Creation Story

The Christian creation story is one of many contradictory tales written to explain the unknown method of man’s inception. Successful religions generally employ these unsupported narratives to provide followers with a comforting explanation for why we exist. This is because the uncertainty that prevails when creation stories are absent would have made ancient peoples anxious for answers. Studies show that feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, randomness, and a lack of control motivate people to construct patterns and other illusions of order, including God. It's likely that creation myths perform the same function, making them gratifying to believe.

In proportion as any man’s course of life is governed by accident, we always find that he increases in superstition.

— David Hume

To an outsider, the Biblical creation story is no more plausible than that of other religions, past or present, and only Christians and Jews give it special significance. Unfortunately, the disagreements generated by this global collection of contradictions may be the most prolific prelude to war and genocide to have ever blighted the planet. An atheist might point out that, rather than one account being correct, a hundred mutually exclusive creation stories only demonstrate the human need to invent creators. As will become clear, the characteristics of the Christian creator make it particularly appealing.

Why is God given a human face? Why does he sit on a throne?

Why is God given a human face? Why does he sit on a throne?

Features of the Christian God

The chief purpose of creation myths is to explain our observations; to know why the sun shines, the rain falls, and the night descends. The impact of these natural phenomena on the lives of ancient peoples would have led them to ascribe their god with significant powers. Indeed, there is a natural order that relates ontological categories with their capabilities. A rock is inconsequential, but an animal can provide food, pull a cart, and respond to stimuli. Animals are inferior to the hunting ability and intellectual prowess of humans, while that which dictates night and day must be greater still; a being with the power and perpetuity to match its effect on the world.

Such powerful, eternal beings are typically given a physical form so that our minds can comprehend them. Invariably, it's a human form (anthropomorphism), which seems a bit contradictory of the above discussion. However, if we consider the psychological comfort that such a belief generates, it's not hard to justify. For example:

  1. If God is more perfect than we are, then we share some of his perfection by looking like him. We elevate ourselves towards the perfection we have embodied in him.
  2. We fear and discriminate against races and species that are different. Therefore, we desire the utmost similarity in our God, as greater dissimilarity must lead to greater loathing. If God looked different, our basic tribal instinct would tell us he'd detest us, and vice versa. Cultural selection would banish such religions from our timeline.

In Judaism, this second notion extends to calling themselves God's chosen people. However, it would take a remarkably narrow-minded being to create a whole world of people before discriminating against 99% of them, which may be why Christianity doesn't go this far.

Sometimes the necessary attributes of God clash with the attributes we desire him to have. For example, an omniscient deity would be able to discern our faith without worship. It makes no sense to worship God unless to extract his approval. However, believing you have the approval of God is quite comforting. Therefore, God was given a wholly human ego, and Christians have built magnificent churches, resplendent with gold candlesticks and goblets, to satiate it.

Despite the teachings of Jesus, the hoarding of wealth within the Church is necessary to support the egotistical definition of God that our psychology craves. As with nearly every religion in history, we want gods that are grateful for our worship and offerings.

The riches of the Church reveal our psychological need for a grateful god.

The riches of the Church reveal our psychological need for a grateful god.

The Psychology of Christianity

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.

— Proverbs 1:7

The Psychology of Christianity

The above quote from the Bible is an apposite summary of the Christian message because it describes the three steps of the religious conversion process:

  1. Accepting one's weakness, hopelessness and ignorance with an act of submission (fearing god).
  2. Tearing down the strengths of others and reducing them to one's level. If knowledge begins with faith, then all other knowledge becomes false and irrelevant. All of one's failures are also irrelevant; and all people are equally worthless without faith (much like the `original sin').
  3. Creating a form of strength that puts oneself above others. This is the `wisdom and discipline' that is spoken of. As nonbelievers are fated to despise this wisdom; they are left without it and become `fools'.

In one sentence, the Bible reveals the psychology of Christianity; i.e. the desire to blame weakness on universal, unavoidable defects, to claim the strengths of others are irrelevant and false, and to exchange one's natural pursuit of strength with a supernatural solution that is far easier to achieve. The weak become the strong and, through rejection of the religion, the strong become the weak. It's the antithesis of Darwinism and a psychosis of petulance.

At the height of its power, the Church persecuted scientists and philosophers who derived knowledge through other means (fools certainly do despise wisdom). In a world populated entirely by Christians, the wise would be those who could convince others of their delusion to the greatest degree. Whether by speaking in tongues, elaborating on deep conversations with God, or by prophesying the end of days, a new Dark Ages would ensue, stifling human progress.

The Wise Christian: Becoming The Alpha

What is the Point of Christian Prophecy?

Evolution has left us with a desire to compete with each other, but as all Christians share the same belief, equality within a religious group is difficult to avoid. When immersed in a religious environment, the satisfaction of feeling superior to nonbelievers will be absent, meaning other methods must be used to achieve dominance. In order to become the `religious alpha', Christians will claim special knowledge of God, special communication with God, or they may even claim to be God (see video). This desire to be superior will also produce many false prophets.

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The Bible contains prophecy about the end of the world that, without a date, can never be proven wrong. As a result, Christians are continually making false predictions. The perpetual failure of apocalyptic prophecy suggests many Christians suffer from an unyielding desire for death. Beyond an eagerness to reach heaven, a desire to die conveys a recognition that no more can be gained from this life. Indeed, once one accepts Jesus, heaven is guaranteed, and all good deeds result in the same conclusion.

This abandonment of ambition mirrors the hopelessness that is present before conversion, showing that it isn't cured by religion; it is substituted by an ambition that is too easy to achieve. Indeed, once a prophecy is proven wrong, followers typically refuse to recant, instead seeking other charlatans who can fulfill their apocalyptic fantasies. This metamorphosis of death into a joyous affair makes one thankful for the religious aversion to suicide.

The four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The four horsemen of the apocalypse.

For a few reasons, belief in doomsday prophecy can actually reinforce the delusions mentioned earlier.

  1. As conversion requires giving up on Earthly pursuits, the destruction of the Earth makes these pursuits even more futile. The prophecy provides the satisfying belief that one’s prior failure at Earthly pursuits is of no importance, and other people’s success is all in vain.
  2. It reinforces the idea that one is special (they'll be saved), and that they'll be recognized for being special very soon. Criticism of their barmy beliefs will cease, and critics will be punished.
  3. Belief in doomsday prophecy removes one's most basic responsibility: to survive. This promotes greater trust and reliance on God, and confidence that he will terminate one's existence at the opportune moment. Indeed, one follower of Harold Camping said (see video below): "It's like we have no control over anything, it's all in the Lord's hands".

Essentially though, prophecy is about dispelling uncertainty about the future, making it a great source of comfort to those who have convinced themselves the end of the world is a good thing.

Doomsday Cult Followers

Growth of the Jesus Legend

A rational person would assert that men are incapable of miracles before suggesting the gospels are fictional works. Indeed, we do not read Hansel and Gretel and assume witches exist. Yet, for various reasons, converts to Christianity are motivated to believe the Bible is true, meaning rationality is exchanged for a biased interpretation of the evidence.

Given the lack of primary sources, one may debate the very existence of Jesus in history. Our knowledge of Jesus comes from the four gospels, written around 65-70 A.D. (Mark), 80 A.D. (Matthew and Luke), and 90 A.D. (John). The death of Jesus would have occurred around 30-40 A.D. meaning a gap of approximately 40 years. It's unlikely that the gospels were written by eye-witnesses, although Mark supposedly wrote the account of Saint Peter. The other gospels borrow much from Mark, while the gospel of John appears less historical. Other works, such as Josephus' account, appear to have been edited by early Church leaders to include Jesus.

It's important to note the oral tradition by which information diffused through the ancient world. The growth of the Jesus legend from man to God incarnate is evident in the correlation between the time of the written account, and the mentions of divinity. John's gospel repeatedly refers to a `son of God', whereas Mark talks of Jesus as a man.

Legends grew around the campfire. The gospels chart this growth.

Legends grew around the campfire. The gospels chart this growth.

Most believers claim the Bible was written by God working through men. Thus, even for Mark's gospel, the message must come from God to Jesus to St. Peter, and finally to Mark. This elaborate game of Chinese whispers was finally set upon by Church leaders who produced the first version of the Bible. The gospels could be distorted from the original version or completely fabricated at any point in the process. Indeed, other Biblical events such as the Great Flood are described in earlier works with no reference to the Christian god. The Virgin Birth is also replicated in numerous earlier religions. The Bible may simply be an embellished collection of ancient fables, where all miraculous deeds happen to be attributed to the Christian god instead of Zeus, Horus, or Anu.

Christians were persecuted for many years following the death of Jesus, and Christianity would have remained a marginal cult if it had not converted the Roman Emperor, Constantine, at the beginning of the fourth century. Perhaps this slow emergence was a blessing in disguise as it allowed time for the legend to develop and it ensured the absence of reliable critics.

The Psychological Appeal of Christianity

In general, Christianity appeals to weak, impoverished, vulnerable, and depressed people because it presents them with a way out of their mess. It attributes their misery and failure to unavoidable defects and sins that afflict everyone equally. It relegates the achievements of others into insignificance. It presents people with an easily achievable supernatural goal that puts them on a pedestal relative to others.

However, Christianity augments this simple formula for a religion with other attractions. It makes sure god is anthropomorphic, that creation is explained, and that there is a route for Christians to achieve even greater prestige by prophesying and preaching to their inferiors. Furthermore, the religion includes a ready-made legend; a savior from their misery, built into a god by the exaggerations of peasants, and filtered through the process of cultural selection by the judgments of countless story-tellers. This is what makes Christianity so popular, and it's why understanding the psychology of what makes us tick is so important.

© 2013 Thomas Swan


Rachael Lefler from Illinois on December 14, 2016:

"It attributes their misery and failure to unavoidable defects and sins that afflict everyone equally." But humans are defective and weak by nature and faulty and all of us, no matter how great, get older, get sick, and die. Nature is a tapestry with misery and death woven together with beauty and life. There's no denying that fact. So does it not make sense that humanity would want to come up with reasons why all that suffering exists? That's the source of religion and supernatural beliefs of all kinds. Desire to make meaning out of suffering and death and other sorts of evil.

peachy from Home Sweet Home on December 28, 2014:

no idea, but the bible has been in my hands since I was born.

Ultraman from Maryland on March 18, 2014:

Well sir, we could go on and on and on but I would not want to anger Chronos (myth). For me, I have a history with GOD (Christian) and he has brought me up from when I was a pagan, doing any and everything, I was my own god. When I decided to become a Christian and let all other views go, I began reading the bible and he began reveling himself to me.

You are right not every story in the bible is true, but do not focus on that, the bible uses devices like metaphors, similes and hyperboles. So when the bible calls GOD a rock, it isn't telling us he is a piece of hard gray stone. It is telling us he is strong, solid, and protective. That can get confusing sometimes. You also have to remember the historical and ethnic context of the writings. They were written in a different time by people with different understandings of the world. This does not mean the bible is not GOD's inspired word. It just means we need to try to understand how to apply the bible's cultural and historical context to our own lives in the 21st. century and beyond. Within those stories in the bible they have practical principle that you can apply to your life.

If you call that wishful thinking then it is. My wishful thinking has served me faithfully without fail, but not always as I expected, never the less it has.

If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away.

............. Henry David Thoreau............

Best of luck my friend.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on March 18, 2014:

To me, and anyone who isn't a Christian, the Bible is also a collection of myths and fairy tales. The only reason you think it's something more is because you've put your faith in it.

You are probably right that Jesus was a historical figure, but that doesn't make the stories "about" Jesus any more than myths and fairy tales. I could tell you a story about how my great great Grandad walked on water. He was a historical figure, but that doesn't make the story about walking on water any more than a myth/tale/story/fable.

I provided a good example in this hub. I talked about how the mentions of divinity in the gospels correlate with the date/year the gospel was written. By the time of John's gospel, Jesus is being talked about as the son of God. In the first gospel to be written (Mark) he's talked about as a man. This is a clear example of how legends develop about historical figures over time.

You probably believe that King Gilgamesh existed, but I doubt you believe he slew the Bull of Heaven. Historical figures get completely unhistorical things written about them. From the Greek religion that you criticized, Odysseus was probably a historical figure too, but I doubt you believe he killed a cyclopes. How is the story of the historical Odysseus different from the story of the historical Jesus?

People in insane asylums suffer from illnesses that many of us have to lesser degrees. There aren't two groups... one called "mad" and the other called "sane". The grey areas in between encompass most of the population. Auditory and visual hallucinations are as common as children who have imaginary friends.

When you want something to be true enough, you'll end up convincing yourself. Wouldn't it be great if we could live forever in heaven? Wouldn't it be great if there was a God keeping us safe and acting "as a mother and father to me, nurturing and protecting me" (your words)? Wouldn't it be great if I had a purpose in life and an answer to the meaning of life? Wouldn't it be great if I knew how the universe was created? Wouldn't it be great if there was ultimate justice for those who have done wrong?

It's called wishful thinking!

Ultraman from Maryland on March 17, 2014:

Sir, Zeus, Loki, and Isis with all due respect are mythology/folklore/story/tale. Myths are a set of stories or beliefs about a particular person, institution, or situation especially when exaggerated or fictitious. On the other hand Jesus is a historical figure based on critical analysis of gospel text as the primary source for his biography.

The people that are in the insane asylum belong there because they suffer from metal illness such as schizophrenia, psychotic disorder, severe bipolar disorder etc. The symptom of these disorders are auditory and visual hallucinations.

People who speak in tongues are very subjective and I do not judge them.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on March 17, 2014:

That scripture is just from the Bible though. There are other religions that wrote about female gods. I don't see why their writings are any less valid than the Bible. By saying the only god that exists is male (or genderless) you might be offending one of those female gods. That's a risk I'm not willing to take. I wish to keep an open mind, and if a deity of some sort appears when I die, I'll accept the fact of his or her existence. I think that gives me a chance of heaven within most religions. With your way, you're offending 99% of the gods out there with your scriptural and cultural assumptions. I'm sorry if that lands you in some kind of hell when your time comes.

I've been waiting a long time for the Christian god to give me a sign. It just hasn't happened.

Satan might not have any originality, but my imagination does. So does yours! Not everything that is original in your mind came from God. There's a chance that none of it came from God. Think of all the people in the insane asylums who hear voices in their heads. They will swear to you that the voices are real.

Do you think all the people who stand up in Church and speak in tongues are really communicating with a higher being? Or are they just seeking attention? I'm sure they believe they're a conduit for the Lord but, like I said, if people want to believe something enough, they'll end up convincing themselves it's true.

Ultraman from Maryland on March 16, 2014:

GOD does not have a gender, but linguistically it is clear that masculine theistic terminology dominates the scriptures. John 4:24 Then Jesus declared, " I, the one speaking to you - I am he" Romans 1:20 for since the creation of the world GOD's invisible qualities his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so people are without excuse. Colossians 1:15 The son is the image of the invisible GOD the first born over all creation. 1 Timothy 1:17 Now to the king eternal, immortal, invisible the only GOD, be honor and glory forever and ever.

If gender is an attribute of the body, then spirit does not have a gender. GOD in his essence has no gender, however based on what I have experienced GOD has acted as a mother and father to me, nurturing and protecting me. Luke 15 portrays GOD as having both characters so it is safe to say GOD is androgynous in character, but referred to as male.

Sir, When you ask GOD to reveal himself to you be patient. GOD is sovereign and acts on his own timing. I have experienced that he likes to reveal himself to me in the things I like to do the most (reading). Be open minded and do not focus your attention in one place or you may miss him in the other. And however he reveals himself to you it will be no doubt you are hearing from GOD.

Satan and his minions are very crafty and clever but not wise at all. Satan does imitate he has no originality. Pray and ask God to make his will known to you, then believe and do not doubt because the one that doubts is like a wave in the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. Read the bible and get to know him this is the best advice I can give you in not becoming deceived by Satan and his minions.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on March 15, 2014:

Well I'm sure Zeus, Loki, and Isis would be offended by you saying that. I'd like to know how a goddess would react to being called male. So, best of luck when your time comes.

When I asked God to reveal him/herself to me, nothing happened. I read in Exodus 33 that God can't reveal his face because we'd instantly die! He could at least show me his backside though. Moses got to see the divine posterior, so I think it's only right that he moons me too.

Perhaps you're talking about "signs" though, right? Like if I found a winning lottery ticket tomorrow, or my life was saved by a stray dog that I patted on the head instead of walking into traffic. The problem with that is I'm not going to base the most important decision of my life on a "maybe". Yea, maybe God saved me from the accident, or sent the ticket my way, but there's no way to know.

Maybe God will "speak to me in my heart" too, but there's no way to know if that's the case. What if it's the Devil pretending to be God? What if it's just my imagination? What if I'm going mad? How many people are there in insane asylums who hear voices in their head? Thousands? Millions across the world?

A far greater truth would be that when people want to believe something enough, they end up convincing themselves it's true. They interpret stray dogs, wind-swept lottery tickets, and voices in their head as "signs of the divine" because they're motivated by their desire for it to be true.

Ultraman from Maryland on March 15, 2014:

Yes, there are hundreds of religions, hundreds of perspectives on 1 GOD. You can speculate one which religion we should follow but why do that. Sir, just ask GOD to reveal himself to you with an honest and sincere heart and see what happens.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on March 14, 2014:

There are hundreds of religions. I would want to die with an open mind rather than believing in the wrong `GOD' and angering the real one. Even if the Christian God is the real one, he might despise the religion that follows him for doing so much evil in his name. Did God want us burning witches, killing Muslims, and persecuting homosexuals in his name? Probably not. Did he create a whole universe of science and wonder so that we could use Christian traditionalist philosophy to suppress our naturally curious minds? Probably not. If there's a God that punishes me for keeping an open mind, I don't want to be with that God! If there's a God that rewards me for being a coward and for submitting to the fears outlined in your comment, I don't want to be with that God either! Did God create us to be a slave to our fears? Faith should be based on love, not fear.

Ultraman from Maryland on March 14, 2014:

Sir, sometimes things can not be explained, would you agree? Therefore, I would want to die believing in GOD to find out that there is no GOD rather than die not believing in GOD and find out that there is a GOD.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on May 24, 2013:

Thanks for the comment AmbitiousMarketer. As Carl Sagan said "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", and the Bible certainly fits that description.

Mark Johnson from England on May 24, 2013:

This is more like it... research. Believe those who do the research, the comparisons, the studies etc. Would you rather go out into the field and learn from experience or would you rather learn from a book.

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