So why do so many people, billions really, believe untruths about God, heaven, spirit, soul, angels, devils, and other unseen entities of which there is zero proof of their existence?
Because of the Cognitive Revolution, according to Yuval Noah Harari, a historian who has written three compelling books, Sapiens, Homo Deus, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (I've read all of them).
The February 17/24 issue of The New Yorker has a lengthy story by Ian Parker about Harari. Here's an excerpt from "The Really Big Picture."
I think Harari is absolutely correct about religious belief being an example of how the evolved brains of humans enabled us to begin communicating untruths, which helped people to cooperate by binding them together in a shared fantasy.
in Chapter 2 of "Sapiens," Harari describes how, about seventy thousand years ago, Homo sapiens began to develop nuanced language, and thereby began to dominate other Homo species, and the world.
Harari's discussion reflects standard scholarly arguments, but he adds this gloss: during what he calls the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens became uniquely able to communicate untruths.
"As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched, or smelled," he writes, referring to myths and gods.
"Many animals and human species could previously say 'Careful! A lion!' Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, 'The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.'"
This mental leap enabled cooperation among strangers: "Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins."
Here's another passage from The New Yorker story that I liked. Harari is a big believer in meditation of the Buddhist Vipassana variety. He frequently goes on retreats that last from 10 days to as much as a month.
Harari is correct: there's no such thing as an eternal essence. Belief in such a thing is another example of a mental concept that religious believers embrace because it makes them feel good. But truth is something different from feeling good.
"21 Lessons" includes extended commentary on the life of the Buddha, who "taught that the three basic realities of the universe are that everything is constantly changing, nothing has any enduring essence, and nothing is completely satisfying."
Harari continues, "You can explore the furthest reaches of the galaxy, of your body, or of your mind, but you will never encounter something that does not change, that has an eternal essence, and that completely satisfied you... 'What should I do' ask people, and the Buddha advises, 'Do nothing. Absolutely nothing.'"