Excellent article: Inherited Religiosity: What it means for how nost 'Believers' believe
Inherited Religiosity: What It Means For How Most ‘Believers’ Believe
By Yoginder Sikand
03 April, 2012
T hroughout the world, the overwhelming majority of people who believe in, or otherwise feel emotionally linked to, a particular religion are those who have been born into it. This fact has crucial implications for how most ‘believers’ come to develop notions of what they regard as ‘true’ and, conversely, ‘false’, religion.
For almost all people, their religious faith is something they inherit from their immediate families. From infancy itself, they are carefully socialized by their parents and other close relatives into accepting the religious doctrines, beliefs and rituals of their families. At this stage in their lives, children are most susceptible to the influence of their parents. Unable to think for themselves about matters such as religion, they naturally accept whatever is taught to them by their parents, whom they implicitly trust. Being wholly dependent—psychologically, emotionally and materially—on their parents, they automatically imbibe the religious beliefs and prejudices of the latter. This is how blind, unquestioning belief in the religion that they inherit at birth becomes so deeply-rooted in most people as to make it almost impossible for to shake off at a later stage in life. Along with this, in many cases children are also socialized by their parents into believing that their religion alone is true and that all others are false, impure or deviant. Naturally, all these religious prejudices—about the supposed superiority of their own religion and the putative falsity of all other religions—that they inherit at this impressionable age remain with many people deep into adulthood and last till they die.
The fact of the matter, then, is that what almost all ‘believers’ —irrespective of religion—passionately regard as ultimate religious truth is simply the collection of religious beliefs, rituals and prejudices that they unthinkingly inherit from their parents, and which, through very effective indoctrination, they are trained into blindly believing as Absolute Truth. This means that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Sikhs, ‘pagans’ and so on are such only because they happened to have been born into families linked to the particular religion that they grew up to believe in. If almost all ‘believers’ regard their respective religions as the best among all or as the truest or as most fully manifesting the Ultimate Truth, it is almost inevitably only because this is what they have been reared into believing by their parents from a very young age itself. Such faith in the superiority of their inherited religion is rarely, if ever, based on a careful, objective, unbiased and neutral examination of all religious, including their own.
There is more to the reality of the inherited nature of notions of religious truth that most ‘believers’ adhere than this. Every religion is susceptible to multiple interpretations, and this explains the existence of fierce sectarian divisions within each of them. Each sect within a larger religious tradition claims to monopolise religious truth in quite the same way as most religious traditions themselves do. Here, too, membership in a particular religious sect is almost always based on one’s birth in it and consequent socialization into its doctrines from a young age. Almost inevitably, a person is a Sunni or a Shia Muslim, and, then, a Deobandi Sunni or a Barelvi Sunni or an Ithna Ashari Shia or an Ismaili Shia, not on the basis of conscious, informed choice made in adulthood, when alone such a choice can be made, or as a result of a careful comparative study of the competing doctrines of these rival Islamic sects, but simply because he or she was born into a particular sect whose beliefs he or she is then socialized into believing represents the ‘true Islam’—which, in his or her mind, is equated with Absolute Truth. The same principle holds in the case of sectarian divisions in other religious communities, too.
What does all this mean for our understanding of religious truth? Quite simply, it indicates that for the vast majority of us, what we fervently regard as ‘true religion’ (which a very great many of us spend our entire lives ardently believing in, defending, and passionately seeking to convert ‘non-believers’ into accepting, through persuasion or even, sometimes, coercion) is simply the bundle of religious beliefs, rituals, traditions and prejudices of the families we happen to have been born into and which, through no fault of our own, we have been made to believe represents Absolute Truth—even if it really doesn’t!
That most people simply inherit from their families their understandings of what they regard as Ultimate Truth indicates another key aspect of their religiosity: a fundamental inability or unwillingness to search, think and experience the Truth for themselves. Being effectively drilled into accepting the religious beliefs of their families as representing the Ultimate Truth, they see no reason to search for such Truth, for, so they think, they already possess it! So effective is this indoctrination in most cases that to even contemplate such a search and to think of going beyond their inherited religion comes to be regarded as a dangerous lack of faith that supposedly merits Divine wrath. Little wonder, then, that relatively few people are able to escape the totalitarian religious brainwashing that they are subjected to as children, and relatively fewer are courageous enough to even question if their inherited religion is truly the perfect embodiment of Ultimate Truth or the Divine Will that its unthinking votaries insist it is.
Yoginder Sikand is a regular contributor to Countercurrents and the author of several books on Islam-related issues in India.
I can see that. But there is also the tendency for young adults to strike out on their own and explore new ideas. Maybe this tendency is more freely expressed in some cultures. But I find that I did not stay with the denomination of my parent's, and my children believe a little differently than I do. And I've changed quite a bit.
I do see a tendency to accept cultural truths in whatever milieu we find ourselves in. One would stand out as a Buddhist, for instance, in the middle of Bible Belt Alberta. An outlier may keep mum with his neighbours how far his beliefs stray from the "norm".
It's pretty much why - after fading - I kept my young kids away from any church...
jgnat - "...in the middle of Bible Belt Alberta."
You're in the Peace Country area like me, right?
Is that the "Bible Belt Alberta" you're talking about?
If so, ever notice how there seems to be a strong correlation between the number of churches and the number of liquor stores?
Thank you Barbara, interesting article. A lot of good, solid anti-nonsense in it.
I can only speak for my own life.
My parents were NOT religious, but they had a kind of reverence for generic "god" and for Bible.
My family--none of them--was church-going.
My cousin Deb was sent to Sunday School and I was put on a Sunday School bus.
I had a disastrous encounter with the package deal and it really drove me to never want church again.
I was sucked into Jehovah's Witnesses, mainly--trying to defend my best friend Johnny from the nasty things my folks were saying
about his Jehovah's Witness religion.
It was strictly social engineering.
I was accepted, love-bombed, given a chance to learn public speaking, and discovered my natural talents.
But, I have to say this; on balance my nature isn't religious.
I look upon my 20 years as self-delusion, lonely misfit-finds-friends, and comraderie.
I come from a family (on my father's side) which left Finland to avoid the Swedish army.
I myself was a Conscientious Objector (JW, of course) and I can't tell you if heredity had anything at all to do with it.
But--I would say this:
TEMPERAMENT can be heritable, AND I have the temperament of an iconoclast.
JW's have a mean streak of that!
It was just all the other doctrinal nonsense glued to the iconoclast streak that did me in.
Terry - 'I have the temperament of an iconoclast. JW's have a mean streak of that!"
You can thank Rutherford's rabid contrarianism for that legacy.
Indeed, I was just thinking again the other day about what a contrarian b@stard I am and what a good fit the religion was for me, in that one way. I'm not this way because of the religion -- my parents are not contrarian -- but the upbringing probably magnified my tendencies to go against the grain, and I enjoyed standing out as different. It requires a bit more effort to leave the org. when it means actually giving up some of your treasured differentness. I don't want to be normal!
Anyway, it's a good article, and it should make any Christian uncomfortable to ponder why it is that certain peoples are far less inclined to become Christians than others, if they believe that non-believers will be destroyed or judged unworthy in the afterlife. Isn't God the God of all people?
I recall when I was deciding what or if I wanted to believe anything I took my self back to infant stage of not knowing anything! I realized I wasn't born with a single belief. That was liberating!
When I talk to people about this thought their brains pop!
Thanks Ms Barbara! Great post! I linked the article to my blog and social media! It should make folks think.
Thanks Barbara. This ties in with Richard Dawkins pithy observation: "Religious beliefs are virtually always an accident of birth".
jgnat, I agree young people do have a strong tendency to rebel against their religious upbringing. Yet, few of them stray completely beyond their religious orbit, with many of them neither able (and willing) to completely kick their beliefs noor rekindle their earlier zeal. The number of ex-witnesses I have known over the years who would never go back but live aspects of their lives under some kind of fear that any day Armageddon will strike. Or who out of sheer habit still talk about it as "the truth". Hell, man, if you believe it's the truth, get off your b*ckside and do something about it!"
Vidiot, the bible belt I was thinking of is in southern Alberta. I've lived there, too. Case in point, the "Parable Christian Bookstore" warehouse with a prominent location on gasoline alley, or the Prairie Bible Institute in Three Hills.
Steve, I think you are right about rebelling but not too far.
So what does it say about the WTS that tries so strongly to warn it's youth not to stray, not to go to college, limit their access to "worldly" influences, hold the threat of disfellowshipping and shunning yet has a dismal record of keeping them?