My good friend, along with his wife, who is also a good friend of mine, and my girlfriend (we're friends too) got into a discussion about religion last weekend. He brought up a few good points about why faith is so "sticky," or why people cling to it so tightly. He listed three factors, which I'd like to address here: 1) they've lived with it forever; or, 2) they experienced some sort of tragedy; or, 3) they have so much to lose if they give it up.
1. Most people of faith have lived with it forever. Most religious believers acquired their faith some time in childhood. They were taught their faith before they had developed the cognitive faculties to examine or question it. By the time they reach adulthood, their faith is so ingrained in their psyches and their lives that they don't know any other way to think about and react to life, the universe, and everything. For reasons best addressed by more qualified thinkers than me, humans are prone to egocentrism, inclined to see different or unfamiliar as equivalent to wrong or ridiculous. Many people of faith react to atheism the same way a typical United States citizen reacts to the idea of eating a German Shepherd.
The dog, not this guy. Although eating him would be pretty weird, too.
2. Experiencing tragedy causes many people to seek out a source of comfort, resolution, and understanding - or at least the feeling or appearance of understanding. Faith offers answers, as long as you're willing to only ask certain questions, and not too many of them. Faith can be a comfortable pillow as long as you don't ask what the pillow is stuffed with. When my best friend died in 2008, I had a religious relapse. I even considered applying to seminary. I understand how powerful the pull of faith is, especially to people like me who had come to faith at an early age. Considering other points of view is difficult when you're being told everything you want to hear. Simon and Garfunkel said it best:
All lies and jests
Still a man hears
What he wants to hear
And disregards the rest
3. Many believers have so much to lose if they give up their faith. Religion is designed to impose itself on people. A "faithful" person is one who allows faith to saturate one's life, penetrating and altering every aspect of a person's existence. Decisions concerning one's schooling, career, marriage, social network, family relations, financial investments, et cetera, are all influenced by one's faith. To separate oneself from faith, then, would be to disrupt every aspect of one's life. I know people who are so ensconced in their religion, they would lose everything if they changed their mind about it: spouse, job, friends. Humans have a hard enough time even considering the possibility that they're wrong about something. Add the strong influence of faith and, for many, it becomes a seemingly impossible task. How can such people ever hope to think objectively about reality, or challenge their own views? Fortunately, though rarely, a person will risk everything for the sake of truth. For many, the severity of the consequences forces them to keep their true thoughts and feelings secret. Unfortunately, this is why many people feel the need to hide who they really are, and I'm not just talking about atheists. We'll always have the proverbial closet until we as a people and a society are dominated by understanding and compassion rather than prejudice and hate.