Religious believers, of whom I used to be one, so I know what I'm talking about, like to view tenets of religiosity as being a higher form of knowledge than ordinary knowledge of this world.
But from my current more enlightened atheist perspective, it's much more likely that the actual situation is reversed: religions make use of how people view things before religion comes along, which helps explain the appeal of religiosity. It feels natural.
Here's a good example. Death. Not the cheeriest topic, but a important one, since death arrives for everybody.
The October 14, 2023 issue of New Scientist has an article called "The legacy paradox: Why do people spend time, effort and money to be remembered after death? And can we use this quirk for good, wonders Conor Feehly [the author]."
The article notes that if you believe in an afterlife, "a desire for a positive legacy makes some sense because, in a way, your soul will be around to see how your legacy unfolds." But what about people who don't believe in life after death, who can be termed extinctivists?
Maybe, Feehly writes, they cultivate their legacy to lessen their death anxiety by creating a sort of symbolic immortality through what they produce in the world that will live on after them. However, the article goes on to say:
But there could be a simpler explanation for why extinctivists are motivated to build a legacy: perhaps, deep down, we all entertain some sort of notion of life after death. After all, nobody can consciously experience the absence of consciousness, making it effectively impossible to imagine your own death without being a conscious spectator.
Indeed, research by [Jesse] Bering and his colleagues suggests that belief in continued existence of the mind following death is a default state for all of us.
In one study, for example, children watched a puppet show where an alligator ate an anthropomorphised mouse. Older children were unlikely to ascribe any psychological functions to the dead mouse.
However, the youngest children, who were 3 or 4 years old, took a different view. While they understood that the dead mouse no longer had biological needs, they stated that it still had emotions, contradicting the notion that afterlife belief is something we learn.
The findings, which have been replicated across both secular and religious schools, suggest that belief in the continuity of consciousness after death is an intuitive position, with religious belief systems taking advantage of this quirk in our thinking. "I think a lot of [legacy motivation] has to do with these cognitive [processes]," says Bering.
So instead of religious founders bringing back the good news that they've experienced the reality of life after death, there's good reason to believe the opposite: from a young age we humans intuitively view consciousness as surviving bodily death, then that view is used in religious teachings.
But this could be just one source of the widespread assumption among people that death isn't the end of our existence, but a transition to another form of life. Wishful thinking probably also plays a role in this.
The November 20, 2023 issue of The New Yorker has a story about deepfakes, videos, photos, or whatever that are skillfully manipulated to fool others into believing they are true. Here's excerpts from "Your lying eyes."
In the midst of writing his Sherlock Holmes stories, Arthur Conan Doyle grew obsessed with photographs of two girls consorting with fairies. The fakes weren't sophisticated -- one of the girls had drawn the fairies, cut them out, an arranged them before the camera with hatpins.
But Conan Doyle, undeterred, leaped upon the express train to Neverland. He published a breathless book in 1922, titled "The Coming of the Fairies," and another edition, in 1928, that further pushed aside doubts.
...The most effective fakes have been the simplest. Vaccines cause autism, Obama isn't American, the election was stolen, climate change is a myth -- these fictions are almost entirely verbal. They're too large to rely on records, and they have proven nearly impervious to evidence.
When it comes to "deep stories," as the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild calls them, facts are almost irrelevant. We accept them because they affirm our fundamental beliefs, not because we've seen convincing evidence.
This is how Arthur Conan Doyle fell for fairies. He'd long been interested in the supernatural, but the First World War -- during which his son and brother-in-law died -- pushed him over the edge. Unwilling to believe that the dead were truly gone, he decided that an invisible world existed; he then found counterevidence easy to bat away.
Were the fairies in the photograph not catching the light in a plausible way? That's because fairies are made of ectoplasm, he offered, which has a "faint luminosity of its own." But why didn't the shots of them dancing show any motion blur? Because fairies dance slowly, of course.
If Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales describe a detective who, from a few stray facts, sees through baffling mysteries, his "Coming of the Fairies" tells the story of a man who, with all the facts in the world, cannot see what is right in front of his face.