Bible Open

Religious Confidence Games

Excerpts from: Essays on Religion, by Albert D. Warshauer, M.D., 1991

Individual confidence games

Individual people, called con men, sometimes take advantage of other people. The con men utilize fraud and confidence games to obtain money and resources from the gullible victims (marks).

The con men first obtain the confidence of their victims.

The con men describe a great bargain which the victims can share. By their participation and desire to win big, the marks hand over their assets to the con men. When the bargain does not later materialize, the marks have lost their money and resources.

1. Various fraud and confidence games

An example is the "bait and switch" tactics used to entice customers into a store and then sell them a high priced item instead of the inexpensive advertised one.

Another fraud is the fake contest. Everyone who enters the contest is declared a winner. The intended victims are congratulated on winning credit on a purchase. The credit is towards the purchase of merchandise, land, or service. But what they actually have won is a chance to be defrauded by buying a greatly overpriced item.

When someone informs me that I, without any prior effort on my part, have won a big prize, I suspect a confidence game resides in the background and that I am being played as a mark.

A few charity drives are largely confidence games. Money is collected from donors, supposedly for a worthy purpose. However, most of the money stays in the pockets of the collectors with only a small fraction going for the claimed purpose.

For discussion of individual confidence games, the reader is referred to the interesting book The American Confidence Man by Maurer (M1)

2. Disadvantages of individual confidence games

Individual confidence games have a glaring weakness: the victim can become aware of the deception. For individual con games, no one has found a way to eliminate the later resentment by disappointed marks. It can happen with most confidence games played by individual con artists.

After the victim parts with his money, he often realizes he has been swindled and turns against the con men. As a result, the victim may:

  1. refuse to play the game again,
  2. warn his friends about the deceit, and
  3. complain to the police.

From the standpoint of the con men, these outcomes are undesirable.

Another disadvantage is that the community at large does not appreciate the confidence games. Society regards the con man more as a criminal and swindler than as an inventive teacher giving greedy people a lesson on honesty.

The con man may be an artist and salesman of make-believe. Were he a television or movie actor of comparable talent, he might be applauded and his autograph sought. Instead, he risks going to jail. There is much room for improving these games.

3. Persistence of property of confidence games to next higher level

The same kinds of interactions can happen between institutions and members as between individual people. Since confidence games are commonly played by individual people, it would be surprising if some institutions had not developed confidence games to obtain money and resources from their members.

Resources are needed by institutions as well as by individual people. Just as hungry people want food, so do financially distressed institutions have a drive for resources and monetary funds. Without a continuing supply of resources, institutions may wither away.

To survive and flourish, institutions must acquire resources, preferably by fair means, but, if need be, by whatever means are available. If an institution does not have enough actual services and products, perhaps it can sell some imaginary benefits. The supposed benefits, such as miracles and posthumous rewards, are especially likely to be promoted if many people can be persuaded to pay for them.

Institutions are at a higher level than individual people; they often seem to possess more experience and knowledge. By claiming to have superior knowledge, some institutions can take advantage of individual people.

Ideal confidence game

For a confidence game to be ideal, it is essential that the victim not realize that he has been swindled. This can be accomplished by delaying the expected payoff until the mark can no longer return and complain. The promise of a posthumous payoff is nearly ideal since no deceased person has been known to come back and protest about anything. But suppose the victim wants help with an urgent problem. The con men can keep the details of the payoff vague and tell the mark in advance that he must have patience and hope the payoff will occur.

How can the mark be persuaded to wait for a posthumous reward? A number of convincers can be used. First, the expected payoff, such as everlasting life in Heaven or Paradise, can be huge since there is no risk of later complaints. Second, an inerrant Sacred Book can guarantee the payoff. Third, many people can play the game simultaneously. People tend to join the group; they want to share in the expected great bargain. The more they pay now, the more they anticipate a later wonderful reward.

Obviously, an institution has a big advantage over individual con men when it comes to having a sacred book and a congregation of members who fervently believe in this book.

An ideal con game would have the following attributes:

  1. The confidence game, in return for payments (contributions) now, promises a huge payoff (reward) later.
    Disbelievers who do not support the confidence game will not receive this reward and instead may be punished later.
  2. Details which might expose the confidence game are avoided or not mentioned.
  3. The victims advertise the con game to attract other marks.
    The victims freely provide testimonials to the value of the game.
  4. The mark can rationalize that the activity, although highly tilted in his favor, is basically honest, since other people have an equal opportunity to join the game and win.
  5. The mark is not bothered by a sense of guilt since, to the best of his knowledge, his own participation does not harm anyone.
  6. The victims cooperate in their own fleecing and support the game again and again.
  7. The victims never realize that they have been swindled and therefore lodge no complaints.
    If an occasional victim does realize that his money and resources are lost with no likely return, he can rationalize by believing he contributed to a worthy cause.
  8. The underlying confidence game blends in with other activities. It is hidden by various personal and social benefits.
  9. The remainder of society thinks that the activity is entirely legitimate and respectable.
    The victim can acquire self-esteem, a feeling of importance, by believing he has joined an admired group. The community may give him more recognition.
  10. The people who run the confidence games are not only well-paid for their efforts, but are respected in the community. Their control of the group of participants gives them power and influence in the society.
  11. The confidence games can be valuable to the rich and powerful people in the society by helping maintain the status quo and their privileges. The political and religious leaders do not object to the confidence games and may even promote them.

Some religious institutions have developed confidence games which, while eliminating some disadvantages of the individual confidence games, possess many advantages of an ideal confidence game.

A confidence game with the foregoing attributes could be employed continuously and successfully for centuries. It might remain popular until educated people gradually realized that the promised huge rewards were only part of a confidence game.

Starting the religious confidence games

Ordinarily, the first task in any confidence game is to win the confidence of the participants. In religious confidence games, this means that the religious leaders must convince the prospects that they (leaders and present members) have a special relationship to a personal God. As proof, the religious leaders claim:

(a) their religion possesses a Sacred Book from God, and
(b) many members believe in this relationship.

From the standpoint of a scientist, the claims are flawed because, first, there are no sacred books, and, second, although many members do believe in this special relationship, beliefs alone do not make something true.

Before Columbus sailed west and reached America, many people believed that the world was flat, but it was round nevertheless. Facts and evidence are more important than the number of believers. There are no reliable facts and evidence which support the claimed special relationship with God.

Religious confidence games

By persuading the members that their leaders can personally communicate with a supernatural God, the religious institution has laid the foundation for a nearly ideal confidence game. An excellent method of persuading the members that past leaders have had this ability is by praising a Sacred Book, which can be shown as convincing evidence of communication with God. Even better, the Sacred Book itself can present the proposed benefits of the confidence game. The benefits can consist of miracles in the past and rewards after death.

Briefly, the doctrine of a personal God supports: (a) perfect (infallible) leaders, (b) perfect (inerrant) sacred books, (c) perfect (marvelous) miracles, and (d) perfect (eternal happiness) posthumous rewards. The first two beliefs link God to the particular religious institution. God employs the leaders to transmit the sacred writings to the religious group. The last two beliefs show interventions by God on behalf of the members during life and posthumously. Together, the four beliefs can be called the "religious confidence quad." From the standpoint of a scientist, the confidence quad resembles pure bunk.

Religious institutions which have Sacred Books can claim that their members will receive posthumous rewards in Paradise or by Reincarnation. The religious leaders preach to the members:
"Contribute money and resources to the religious institution now and you later will receive eternal happiness and joy. God commands us to give generously. Sinners who fail to contribute will burn in everlasting Hell!"

Incorrect details can expose a con game. Accordingly, details such as the location of Heaven and means of transportation thereto are not mentioned. The posthumous rewards are claimed to be wonderful, but no details are given which can be checked in the present.

Since the rewards are not promised until after the person dies, there is no risk that the person will return and say: "The religious leaders are rascals. I trusted them and they swindled me."

Of course, no deceased person later complains. Natural information is what makes a person alive and conscious. Natural information is not a conserved property and is lost when he dies. When the brain cells die, the information which was learned during the person's life is lost. When someone's natural information is lost, there no longer is a person but only a collection of lower level molecules.

Examination shows that the religious confidence game of posthumous rewards comes remarkably close to being an ideal confidence game. A major flaw is that this confidence game, if true, would violate the law of non-conservation of natural information.

Scientists who are familiar with thermodynamics, physics and chemistry are unlikely to give credence to the stories of resurrection of dead people and other miracles which violate established physicochemical laws. However, for children and adults unfamiliar with science, the posthumous reward game has had enduring success over many centuries, including the present era.

There are various religious confidence games, such as posthumous rewards and punishments, the answering of prayers, the members being chosen by God, and the religious leader's intercessions with God on behalf of the members. Once the members believe in a personal God, they may request the religious leaders to ask for God's help. Among their requests might be: forgiving sins, healing disease, providing a safe journey for a traveller, aiding victory in battle, jobs for the unemployed, food for the hungry, rest for the weary, rain in times of drought, and so on.

All of these games have shifted money and resources from the members to the religious institution, its leaders, and perhaps to some needy members. The members by and large do not suspect that some of their cherished beliefs are part of a confidence game. So long as there are many gullible people who are ignorant of science, we can expect that the supernatural confidence games will continue to flourish. The supernatural games are by far the most effective confidence games invented by people.

Examination of proposed benefits

Some proposed benefits from the religious confidence games border on the fantastic. The more one examines them, the less substance one finds.

1. Communication with God; supplying food and other needs

The religious leaders claim they can intercede with God. God can do miracles and provide unlimited resources. But when a famine occurs and children are starving in Africa, Asia and other places, the religious leaders seem unable to call upon God and obtain food from Heaven to feed them. There is no manna, nor multiplication of loaves of bread and fish. Perhaps, the personal God was busy elsewhere, listening to the praise and prayers from the well-fed faithful.

The miracles seem confined to stories in the Sacred Books and do not help the hungry, starving children with their bloated bellies, sunken faces, and pneumonia. Apparently, the miracles are more useful for promoting the faith and religious confidence games than in actually helping people.

2. Overcoming natural laws

The miracle of "people walking on the water" has been reported in a Sacred Book. Let us analyze this report. A few insects (water striders, Gerris remigis) actually can walk on water. Water striders weigh much less than a little mouse. They are so light that they can be supported by the surface tension of water. A person is much heavier than these insects and cannot be supported by this surface tension. For a person to walk on water would require a violation of the law of gravity or Archimedes' principle or both. People can swim in water, but not on top of it, Counsilman (C1).

The sacred text suggests the walking on water was accomplished by "faith." But since that time, thousands of people have drowned. Not one instance has been reported where a person was saved from drowning by his or her walking on the water. No one, not even religious fundamentalists who claim to have "faith," has been able to demonstrate this miracle again when it was needed. It does not rescue drowning people.

This supposed miracle was presented in a Sacred Book. The story can amaze children, but otherwise its value seems confined to promoting the faith and religious confidence games.

3. Creation of plant and animal species

Some religious fundamentalists do not accept the theory of evolution. This theory claims that different species were produced by the natural variation of offspring and gradual selection of the fittest.

Instead they claim that God created all of the species of plants and animals during a few days. God, if He so desired, could create a species, such as elephants and giraffes, almost at the snap of a person's finger.

The passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet were abundant in the U.S.A. two centuries ago, but are now extinct. If the religious fundamentalists can communicate with God as some indicate, why do they not request God to recreate these species? Such a demonstration might provide a reason to include their religious ideas in school textbooks. In the absence of this demonstration, it would be helpful if the religious fundamentalists would stop interfering with the education of children in science.

Incidentally, the same religious institutions which oppose the teaching of evolution are themselves examples of evolving systems.

4. Conquering death of people

Some religious leaders tell their members that people can live forever in Heaven. For some members, the prospect of eternal happiness can be an irresistible lure. They can be caught almost as easily as fish which has swallowed a baited fishhook.

Let us examine the subject of longevity. Studies by actuaries indicate that the odds are more than one billion to one against a person surviving to the age of 140 years. No human has been known to live to the age of two hundred years.

We sometimes can retard, but not stop the aging process. Our hair eventually turns white or is lost. In old age, our skin acquires wrinkles. Visual and auditory acuity are gradually diminished.

We can lessen the incidence and treat some forms of cancer, and we can sometimes slow the development of arteriosclerosis by anti-hypertensive drugs, but we cannot stop these processes. Nor can we stop endocrine deficiencies, such as diabetes mellitus, from becoming more common with advancing age.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the religious leaders talk of everlasting life and eternal happiness in Heaven. The promise of eternal life is a swindle which no one comes back to debunk.

5. Heaven

The religious leaders tell us that posthumous rewards are obtained in Heaven or Paradise. We ask the religious leaders for the location of these marvelous places. They do not know where Heaven is - is it inside the solar system or outside, inside the Milky Way or outside?

The members are supposed to believe that they posthumously are going to a place without a known location. If the religious leaders can communicate with God, why don't they ask God for the location of Heaven so they can tell the curious members?

One religious leader when questioned said that Heaven was not a place, but a state of existence, a relationship between God and the person. He did not elaborate or give details on this state of existence. It seems the religious leader substituted an imaginary state for an imaginary place. We actually know nothing about either of these hypothetical ideas.

The advantage of the confidence games with posthumous promises, of course, is that no deceased person is going to return and ask why he did not receive his reward. No dead member is going to complain that death was not conquered, or he did not go to Heaven, or did not enter into a state of existence with God.

Details of Heaven:

Curiosity about the details can bring the whole idea of posthumous rewards into doubt. What happens after resurrection? Does a baby who goes to Heaven grow up, or remain an infant forever? Does a child in Heaven continue schooling? If so, what subjects does he study? Does Heaven contain books and libraries? Do the "souls" continue to learn there?

Let us examine other systems. Do trees and birds go to Heaven? If present in Heaven, how did they get there? Do institutions go to Heaven? Do religious leaders continue to hold positions of authority, or do they become ordinary members of the heavenly congregation?

Can clocks run backwards in Heaven? Suppose a man was married three times and eventually died at age 70 from cancer and Alzheimer's disease. After resurrection, would he still be ill with cancer? If miraculously restored to good health, would he be returned to age 20, or 40, or 60 years old? How much of his memory would be restored? To which wife, if any, would he be married? The more details we examine, the more problems arise from the idea of deceased people being resurrected; eventually the whole idea seems ridiculous.

The success of religious confidence games can depend on avoiding too much curiosity by the members. Religious leaders can use Sacred Books to support the existence of posthumous rewards and stop unwanted questioning.

6. The posthumous reward parlay

People at horse races sometimes wager on the combined outcome of several races. This type of bet is called a parlay. The odds against winning a parlay usually are much worse than picking the winner of a single race. For instance, if the odds against the selected horse in each of three races are 3 to 1, 20 to 1, and 8 to 1, the odds against all three horses winning is 480 to 1. Accordingly, the anticipated payoff must be much greater if the players are to be persuaded to bet on a parlay.

Suppose people are interested in receiving a posthumous reward. This reward depends on a several step parlay:

  1. The restoration of a deceased person or the continuation of his "soul" (whatever that is).
    God is presumed to have instilled a "soul" into the person. This "soul" has no known properties which can be tested by science. Since the natural information of a person is lost by dying, one wonders what information the "soul" has.
  2. The "soul" goes to Heaven, a place without a known location.
  3. The "soul" is transported to Heaven by unknown means.
  4. Unlike people on earth, the inhabitants of Heaven do not age and die.
  5. Unlike the situation on earth where some people are hungry and ill, everyone in Heaven is happy and receives abundant food and drink.
  6. The religious leaders think an omnipotent God so desires their praise and prayers that He favors their members over disbelievers.
    Believers are eligible to enter Heaven whereas disbelievers may be denied entry or sent to Hell.
  7. The religious members think they are worth being eternally rewarded by God.

The religious leaders want the members to contribute time and money to the religious institution. So they encourage the members to bet on receiving a posthumous reward. However, the odds against winning a parlay with several improbable steps seems huge.

Can the odds be made to appear more favorable? One way of hiding the several steps of the parlay is by employing the single step of a Sacred Book. This substitution seems to reduce the odds of the several step parlay to that of a single step.

Once the members accept the idea of an inerrant Sacred Book, the religious leaders can use this book to deflect the members' doubts and curiosity. The improbability of the several step parlay can be ignored. The religious leaders can claim that the Sacred Book is more reliable than science. If the Sacred Book says the members are favored over outsiders in receiving the marvelous posthumous reward of Heaven, it must be so. That ends the discussion.

Religious leaders have been remarkably successful in using Sacred Books to support the idea of posthumous rewards. Millions of people believe in Sacred Books and posthumous rewards.

7. The religious confidence game parlay

Posthumous rewards are not the only religious confidence games. The other games likewise involve a several step parlay. A view of the early steps follows:

  1. A personal God communicates with people. God has the supernatural ability to simultaneously listen to prayers and requests from thousands of people in many different places on the globe.
  2. God favors humans over other species of plants and animals. If elephants or dolphins had invented the idea of God, their God might prefer elephants or dolphins over humans.
  3. God favors some religious institutions over others. Religious institutions which utilize the idea of a personal God typically believe that God favors their own religion. The opposite, of course, would be a big surprise. Would it not be amazing if a religious institution said God preferred other religions over its own? In the absence of force and torture of the members of persecuted religions, no such instance is known to have happened.
  4. God wants members to generously support the religious institution. The clergy can claim that everything we have comes from God. In return for God's bountiful gifts, the members are asked to contribute money and resources to the religious institution. The religious leaders can use these funds.
  5. God likes prayers and praise. Despite claims by Sacred Books, there is no specific proof that God desires prayers and praise. (We ourselves, of course, might like praise from other people, but would we want to be exalted by grasshoppers, ants, or other animals on the other side of this world?)
  6. God can suspend or violate physicochemical laws for the benefit of believers. God can and sometimes does fulfill one's prayers and requests.

Apparently, all of the religious confidence games involve a parlay, although most do not have as many steps as the posthumous reward parlay. The several step parlays can be condensed into a single step by having the members believe in a Sacred Book. This condensation of steps explains why Sacred Books are more valuable than physical idols in convincing members to believe in the religious confidence games. Members in good standing with the religious leaders are assured of receiving a variety of benefits from God.


The preceding view of religious confidence games is not new. Honest, thoughtful people have long held similar opinions. In the last century, R.G.Ingersoll (I1 p308) said: "I don't wish to go to Heaven on the virtues of somebody else. If I can't settle by the books and go, I don't wish to go."

1. Sincere beliefs

Many religious leaders and members sincerely believe in a personal God and Sacred Books. Some of these people are convinced that their faith will enable them to receive a wonderful posthumous reward.

The problem is that belief in a future reward is not evidence of its existence. We might sincerely believe that a Martian is going to visit Earth and give us a million dollars next year, but there is not a banker around who will advance us funds today on that security.

People can sincerely believe false things. In prior centuries, people sincerely believed that the Earth was flat and the sun rotated daily around the Earth.

What about the argument that martyrs have died for their religious beliefs? Do their deaths and suffering not prove the truth of the religious beliefs? As Oscar Wilde, 1856-1900, (W2) remarked: "A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it." A person might die to defend the belief that the Earth is flat; nevertheless, the Earth is round.

To quote Ingersoll (I3 p315): "Martyrdom as a rule establishes the sincerity of the martyr, not the correctness of his thought. Things are true or false independently of the man who entertains them. Truth cannot be affected by opinion; an error cannot be believed sincerely enough to make it a truth."

2. Religious leaders

Suppose the religious leader suspects that beliefs in posthumous rewards are largely confidence games. How can the doubting leader maintain his self-respect?

The doubting leader can reason, first, that these religious beliefs were already present. He inherited them. During childhood, he learned the beliefs from teachers and Sacred Books. He did not invent these beliefs; so, if wrong, they are not his fault. Second, he cannot be sure the beliefs are actually wrong and part of confidence games. He does not know what might happen to people posthumously. Third, the religious institution has many social benefits and the confidence games constitute only a small part of its activities. Fourth, the confidence games are needed for group cohesion. If he publicly challenges the religious beliefs, he probably will lose his position as a leader and might be replaced by someone less tolerant than himself. Finally, the members who accept these beliefs are willing to receive magnificent eternal rewards from small payments now. In this sense, some members may be greedy and perhaps deserve to be victims of a confidence game.

Few religious leaders, once committed to the religious confidence games, can afford to change their minds and publicly reject them.

3. Sacred Books

Religious leaders claim that the religious confidence games are supported by Sacred Books. Do the Sacred Books not furnish convincing proof?

Regarding Sacred Books, Thomas Paine (P1 v6p292, v7p115, v7p157) remarked:

"You believe in the Bible from the accident of birth, and the Turks believe in the Koran from the same accident, and each calls the other infidel." (2) "Books, whether Bibles or Korans, carry no evidence of being the work of any other power than man." (3) "You have no more evidence that your Gospel is revelation than the Turks have that their Koran is revelation, and the only difference between them and you is, that they preach their delusion and you preach yours."

The Sacred Books are no more the Word of God than physical idols are the body of God. Instead, both the books and the idols are works of people.

4. Miracles, including the Resurrection

The argument has been made that the miracles are proof of a personal God who is interested in people.

Thomas Paine (P1 v6p92-3) answered this argument well: "We have never seen, in our time, nature go out of her course; but we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time; it is, therefore, at least millions to one, that the reporter of a miracle tells a lie."

P.W.Atkins (A1) describes the present attitude of scientists. "The greater probability is that the reports of miracles are exaggerations, falsely reported rumors, hallucinations, deceptions, misunderstandings, or simply tricks. To paraphrase David Hume: it is always more probable that the reporter is a deceiver than that the miracle in fact occurred."

Imagine a worn-out automobile taken to a junkyard. The tires, battery, gas tank, and salvageable parts are removed. Then the top of the vehicle is forcibly crushed against the bottom. The broken metal frame loses its shape and integrity. A few screws and other small items might remain intact, but the automobile has changed from being a car into flattened scrap. The idea of the resurrection of a person deceased for several hours is akin to this block of scrap spontaneously restoring and rearranging its crushed parts into the frame of a functioning, running automobile. It is not known to happen.

5. Religious confidence games compared to car salesmen

Many salesmen of new and used cars deal honestly with their customers, but some occasionally make extravagant claims for their automobiles. The customers do receive a car. If the car does not meet the expectations, the customers can complain or, in some cases, take legal action against the sellers.

With the confidence games of posthumous rewards, the religious leaders can promise almost anything. Regardless of what rewards are promised, the deceased members do not return and complain about being swindled.

The religious leaders have another advantage. They carry little inventory and have small expense, except for maintaining a large, tax-free building. They do not have to invest in cars which depreciate each year.

If the customer did not expect to receive his car until he is deceased, the salesmen could claim to provide a perfect car. They could picture a car which goes any desired speed, runs without needing fuel, has tires which do not wear, does not get in accidents, and lasts forever. Furthermore, the salesmen would not have to worry about misleading the customers, since none would return to complain that they did not even receive a car.

Prevalence of religious beliefs

If the religious teachings contain a confidence game, why do so many people believe them? There are several reasons:

  1. impressive religious ceremonies and sermons,
  2. peer pressure,
  3. need to conform and be accepted in the society,
  4. ignorance of science,
  5. avoidance of comparative religion,
  6. mental fatigue and passivity; lack of curiosity,
  7. gullibility and habit,
  8. anxiety from doubting one's customary beliefs; people do not like having their beliefs challenged,
  9. need for optimism and hope,
  10. need of members to feel useful and worthy,
  11. low self-esteem,
  12. community respect for the religious leaders, members and their beliefs,
  13. impression that religion is necessary for societies,
  14. power and influence of the religious institution,
  15. coercion; force and fear, and
  16. personal benefits from the institution.


Origin of religious institutions

In the early history of humanity there was little science. There was little knowledge of disease and no hospitals. There were no educational institutions, such as schools, universities, and libraries. Altogether there were few institutions of any kind.

Nevertheless, people did have imagination and curious children asked questions. How did the stars get there? Why do people become sick? What can be done to help them? What happens to animals and people who die? The adults perhaps enjoyed inventing stories to explain natural phenomena and instruct the children. That the stories were fanciful did not detract from their entertainment value, and some stories persisted as an oral tradition.

People, both young and old, also had some fear of disease, injury and dying. Stories and myths were invented which reassured the people, lessened anxieties, and provided hope. A primitive form of religion was born.

It was not long before the tellers of myths and the witch-doctors realized that they could obtain gifts and resources from the people. The story-tellers and witch-doctors were the religious leaders of their era.

The religious leaders soon found that they could prosper even better if they pretended to have magical powers which could cure illnesses. Since young people naturally recover from some illnesses, the religious leaders could take credit for the cures and ignore the failures.

The religious leaders found that their authority could be reinforced by having physical objects which were assumed to possess magical powers. When tools were developed, the religious leaders employed sculptures or physical idols, usually made of wood, stone, or metal. The idols could be worshiped and receive gifts and sacrifices which the religious leaders could use.

After writing was developed, the religious leaders could employ Sacred Books or mental idols. The Sacred Books contained numerous stories which could be used in sermons. To avoid debate on which type of idol, physical or mental, was more powerful, the religious leaders usually gave precedence to the mental idols. The Sacred Books were deemed more essential than the sculptures and figures representing Gods.

The partial restraints produced by speech are rather variable. But the partial restraints fixed in writing were reliable enough to allow the development of large institutions. Soon religion became a dominant institution in the society.

The most magical power after all, of course, was to communicate with a supernatural God and have this God intervene on one's behalf. Thus, it came about that religious confidence games were developed which have persisted to the present day. The religious confidence games of our civilization are analogous to the magic and witchcraft of primitive tribes.

Depending on circumstances, the religious institution tended to develop tolerance or, conversely, bigotry towards outsiders. Mutually helpful trade with outsiders tends to promote tolerance; severe competition for limited resources, to promote bigotry.

Competing societies sometimes came into conflict with one another. All else being equal, the society which had more cohesion and whose individuals were more willing to sacrifice themselves for the group had an advantage. Thus, the societies whose religions taught their own superiority, that fallen members would receive a posthumous reward, and which enforced uniform beliefs and discipline had an advantage over less organized societies. The rise of bigoted religions is an expected development.

A bigoted religion typically tells its members that they are superior in some important way (such as being favored by God) and outsiders are inferior. The nonbelievers, by obstinately rejecting the "true faith," deserve to be punished. Thereby the bigoted religion provides reasons (excuses) for forcibly spreading the faith and taking the resources of outsiders. Consequently, bigoted religions have spread over much of the world.

On the other hand, religious tolerance also has advantages, especially in sharing resources and resolving disputes peacefully. In cooperating and working together with others, tolerant religions are better than bigotry.

The religion was affected by its traditions and myths, by the available resources, by the power or submissiveness of likely adversaries, by trade, cultural exchanges, and intermarriages with outsiders, by education and advances in science, and eventually by the need for social stability. As a result, present religions range all the way from highly bigoted to very tolerant.

Opposing religious bigotry

The knowledgeable reader perhaps has noticed that many ideas in this chapter were expressed simply and convincingly two centuries ago by Paine (P1) and later by Ingersoll (I1-I4). Despite their splendid writings, religious bigotry continues about as strong as ever.

A. Difficulty of correcting misconceptions

How do we account for the persistence of religious bigotry? In general, the same reasons why people initially accept bigoted religious beliefs act to continue their reliance on these beliefs. Other reasons also sustain these beliefs.

First, traditional beliefs have inertia and resist change unless better ideas are available. Many people see no compelling reason to reject their customary religious beliefs; they do not feel a sense of urgency. They see no connection between (a) their religious beliefs and (b) social conflicts, widespread poverty, and the deteriorating environment. Members who fully believe their Sacred Books often are unaware of their own religious bigotry.

Another reason is the deference that scientists give to religion. The impression that religion is on an equal footing with science is widely held. A gentleman's agreement suggests that neither scientists nor religious leaders criticize the other's field. This agreement allows religious leaders to perpetuate their bigotry without much opposition by scientists.

Religious institutions ordinarily have social benefits. Religious leaders often have been active in obtaining civil rights, jobs, and economic and social opportunities for their members. The congregation can contribute shelter, meals and clothing for needy people. The congregation acts as a support group for the members. The companionship of the congregation sometimes can more than make up for the expense of being a member. The members may accept religious bigotry in the context that it is only a small part of what the religious institution has to offer.

Large religious institutions ordinarily have more power than do a few individuals. These institutions can influence the society and government. Political and economic power can prevent some criticism of religious bigotry from reaching the public.

Economic incentives can favor the religious institution. Religious leaders who promote the confidence games and bigotry have strong incentives; their organization stands to gain by perpetuating the religious beliefs. Each of the many members need pay only a small amount for the organization to receive a large sum.

In the education of youth, the advantage often goes to the religious institution. The religious confidence games and bigotry are taught weekly or daily in their schools. The religious beliefs are drummed into the students by frequent and enthusiastic repetition.

By comparison, the lucid explanations of Paine and Ingersoll receive little attention in schools or outside. No confidence games are based on their reasoning. Monetary rewards are seldom obtained from promoting their ideas. Science is taught by study and reasoning. There is no counterbalancing teaching of science with the fervor shown by religious fanatics.

B. Advantage of numbers

Religious institutions have much power and influence. The numbers favor the continuation of religious bigotry. Worldwide there are about two billion members of the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Islamic, fundamentalist Protestant, and other sects who believe that God favors their own members over outsiders.

In the USA, there are approximately 350,000 churches (or buildings where congregations meet). About 330,000 pastors lead 140,000,000 members. The Sunday school enrollment is 27,000,000. The churches receive yearly a total income of about 45 billion dollars, which averages about $120,000 to $130,000 for each church. A typical weekly income is $2,300 to 2,400, or about $5 to $6 from each member.

The 1990 census shows the population of the USA to be about 250,000,000. There is about one church for every 700 to 750 people, or one for every 400 people who attend church. The USA has about 83,000 public (elementary or secondary) schools, or roughly 4 churches for each public school. The USA has about 30,000 libraries, or 10 churches for each library.

The preceding figures indicate the size of the problem faced by people who oppose religious bigotry. If individual churches average at least 5 members who firmly believe in Sacred Books, more than a million people in the USA will resist any questioning of their religious beliefs. More than 350,000 people receive income from these churches and have a direct interest in promoting their religious beliefs.

By comparison, almost no one makes a living by opposing the idea of sacred books. Few people are actively involved in challenging the validity of the religious confidence games and in countering the spread of bigoted religious beliefs. The chances would seem slim to accomplish any significant reduction in the public's belief in Sacred Books and the accompanying religious bigotry.


Religious institutions which believe in personal Gods and Sacred Books sometimes have effective confidence games related to posthumous rewards, answering of prayers, and intercessions by religious leaders with God. The religious confidence games are useful in obtaining money and resources from the members.

For various reasons, including forced conversions and indoctrination of children, the religious confidence games have been successful for centuries. The games provide power as well as money and resources to the religious leaders. Nevertheless, there is no scientific evidence and reasoning to support the validity of these confidence games.


Atkins, PW: The Second Law. New York. Scientific American Inc. c1984.
Counsilman JE: The Science of Swimming. Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Prentice-Hall, Inc. c1968.
Ingersoll RG: Famous Speeches Complete. New York. L.Lipkind. c1906.
Wakefield EI: The letters of Robert G. Ingersoll. Edited with a Biographical Introduction by Eva Ingersoll Wakefield. New York. Philosophical Library c1951.
Complete Lectures of Col. R.G.Ingersoll. Chicago. Regan Publishing Corporation.
Ingersoll's Greatest Lectures. Containing Speeches and Addresses Never Before Printed Outside of the Complete Works. Authorized Edition. Hackensack, N.J. Wehman Bros. Publishers 1964
Maurer DW: The American Confidence Man. Springfield, Il. Thomas c1974.
Paine T: Life and Writings of Thomas Paine. ed. DE Wheeler. 10 Vols. New York. Vincent Parke and Co. c1908.
Redman A ed: The Wit and Humor of Oscar Wilde. New York. Dover 1959.


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