It’s just how you were raised

Picture of a family prayingI’m always surprised at how easy it is to steer a conversation with a religious person to a point where they’ll openly tell you, “Yeah, to some extent the reason why I’m [whatever religion] is that that’s just how I was brought up.” My go-to question when discussing beliefs with a religious person is, “Why do you believe what you do, as opposed to some other religion or no religion at all?” and I’ve literally heard this answer dozens of times. Pastors have even told me this to my face. I mean, it feels like a “gotcha” moment, as an atheist. We often feel like, at that point, the rest of the thought process should become clear — if you’re the religion that you are because of the circumstances of your birth, and other people are other religions because of the circumstances of their birth, then it isn’t about reality or facts at all. It’s just another cultural tradition, a habit without any deep claim to some sort of truth. And therefore it’s not worth regarding as true, it’s not worth “believing in.”

But somehow, moving from this admission to that greater understanding is much harder. I don’t know why we always get stuck at that point. This seems like yet another special kind of thinking reserved for religion alone, and people have compartmentalized so securely that it’s hard to open their minds even a crack. Seriously — there are a lot of particular things about how you were brought up, but which you don’t consider to be supernaturally accurate descriptions of the nature of reality. They’re just preferences and tendencies.

When I was little, my dad took us to bluegrass festivals and played banjo in a band with his friends. He thought that bluegrass music was super. Yet somehow, today, I am not an evangelist for bluegrass as the One True Music Genre. I have an appreciation for the sound and the harmonies, and there are a couple particular songs I have fond memories of, but my taste in music is pretty ridiculously diverse. I don’t think that my father’s musical preferences are some cosmic determinant of mine.

When I learned to fold laundry, my parents taught me how to do the towels: fold in half along the long direction, then in half along the short direction, and then in thirds along the long direction. That’s how we always folded towels in my house. It still seems obviously optimal to me, but I realize there isn’t actually anything magically necessary about it. I jokingly chide my husband when he folds towels the way he was raised to (“You did it wrong again!”), but as long as they get into the linen closet it isn’t a big deal one way or the other.

Maybe, in your family, you always scooped your Neapolitan ice cream all the way across, getting a bit of each flavor into every spoonful — or maybe you always scooped carefully to keep the chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry sections separate. Maybe your family members turned up the radio in the car and rolled the windows down — or maybe while driving you mostly listened to news radio at a low volume, if anything. These things, or how you fold your towels, or what sort of music you like best … these are things you might do or not do as an adult based on “how you were raised.” It’s just about what you’re used to and what your preferences are. There’s nothing greater at stake.

The thing about religious belief is that it isn’t actually just about your personal preference. Religion isn’t a hobby, an acquired taste, or a habit. (Well, for some people it obviously is. But my point is that this attitude doesn’t make sense.) It’s a set of claims about how the universe actually works. Those claims are either true or not true. If you “believe in” your religion, you’re saying you consider those claims to be true. You’re not saying you find them pleasant, comfortable, or reminiscent of happy times in your childhood. You’re aligning yourself with a particular characterization of the facts of reality. That’s not something we should be deciding based on what we’re merely in the habit of. That’s something that deserves careful thought and consideration, something that others’ assertions might be wrong about (yes, even your parents’ assertions).

If you tell me that you’re the religion that you are because that’s how you were raised, what you’re really telling me is that you don’t think reality is worth your independent investigation. You’re telling me you’d rather base your beliefs on tradition than on actual truth.

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  1. While “because that’s how I was raised” is admittedly a very face-palmingly common, and very poor answer, it does not falsify the belief. There are plenty of things you and I were raised to believe that are true. Why you hold a belief is virtually irrelevant to whether the belief is true.

    However, I am completely with you about the gravity of religious beliefs. When I hear a Christian say they are Christian due to up bringing, I wince. I have the urge to berate them. Whether and which God exists is urgently important, and it bothers me when people treat the subject of religious belief glibly.

  2. It’s just another cultural tradition, a habit without any deep claim to some sort of truth. And therefore it’s not worth regarding as true, it’s not worth “believing in.”

    That’s a pretty dubious claim. Quite a few people cling to their non-religious cultural traditions and think they’re worth “believing in.” In fact, there is no such thing as a person who doesn’t have a culture. So why should I adopt someone else’s cultural assumptions, values, and beliefs over my own?

  3. @Eric: I’m not sure people “believe in” those other cultural traditions in the same way they “believe in” their religions. Maybe it’s your cultural practice to eat pancakes on Saturday mornings, or to wear big floppy hats when you go out in the sun, or to pass out candy to children in costumes every October 31st. But these are statements about your preferences, not claims about the nature of reality. I suppose you could construct the sentence, “I believe that I eat pancakes on Saturday mornings,” but I think that’s pretty plainly different from, “I believe that the prophet Muhammad received the final, perfect revelation from Allah and recorded it in the Qur’an.” Maybe you could give me an example of the sort of thing you’re thinking of?

  4. I love the folding towels bit. When my wife and I started living together many years ago, I was startled by the many ways she did things “wrong.” At least they felt that way to me. Like preparing salad in the individual bowls it was to be served in, rather than in one big bowl, then transferring the finished product into the smaller bowls. What was she thinking!
    More seriously, the whole, “It’s how I was raised thing,” brought to mind the Michael Vick dog abuse case from a few years ago. Many people tried to make the case that it was just how he was raised, that it was a part of his culture. Sorry, that argument didn’t fly. To jail he went. People have progressed beyond a worldview that views dogfighting as an okay form of entertainment. Many still haven’t, however. Left completely to their own culture, few would change. Sometimes change must come from without.

  5. kind of gil

     /  August 13, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    NFQ, I’ve really enjoyed perusing through your blog – I really appreciate how thoughtful you are in your posts.

    This one rubbed me the wrong way a bit – not because of your criticism of people who put no thought into their worldview – but because of the trivial illustrations you used. It struck me similar to Glenn Beck’s trademark communication style of drawing loosely-related, over-simplified comparisons to support his (and FOX News’) narrative.

    We can’t escape our paradigm. We also can’t compare the moral and religious standard that we were raised with to our music preference. I imagine your atheist standard is, to some extent, related to your childhood upbringing. Maybe your parents were humanists, or maybe religious, but I’ll bet they were formative to your current views.

    Most of us have the need to feel like we have it all figured out. Some are sure God exsists. Some think those people have it all wrong, but that’s just as much of a belief system as what the religious people have.

    I’m with you in being repelled by the idea that someone would make such a major decision simply because that’s how they were raised. However I would not trivialize the power of worldview as it applies to their religious (or anti-religious) beliefs. And I certainly would not make that an argument against any belief system – all that proves is that lots of people are unthoughtful.

  6. Well, being Jewish I don’t really see that sharp a difference between my religion and my culture. Even if I decided against belief in God, I don’t think much of my worldview or practical approach to Judaism would change. No God belief, and I would still be a Jew.

    So given this viewpoint, what you’re doing would be more the equivalent of you walking up to a Chinese person or Hispanic person or Caribbean or whomever and saying, “Hey, do you realize you’re the culture you are because of the circumstances of your birth and if you hadn’t been born into that culture you would have been raised totally differently.” Well, duh. That’s not a gotcha moment, you’re just stating an obvious fact about an inherent part of culture, and I doubt you’d see too many of them dropping their culture. In fact, I would suggest it actually is impossible to drop all aspects of our cultural backgrounds, even if we wanted to.

    The next problem is you don’t bother to define culture. You’re implying all culture is really just a matter of personal preferences. Would any anthropologist accept that as a viable definition of culture? Wouldn’t something like, “culture is the full range of learned human behaviors” or “the distinct ways that people living in different parts of the world make sense of their reality and experiences” or “The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group” be a more accurate definition?

    Last, you select superficial aspects of culture like what ice cream flavor we might prefer, and then compare these superficial aspects to deeper aspects of culture. Even worse, you’re comparing superficial aspects that are cross-cultural (thousands of cultures in the world have ice cream so it’s not really unique to any specific culture and therefore not going to be contentious), while comparing it to religion, which are often part of specific cultures and their practices.

  7. Aristarchus

     /  August 13, 2011 at 11:34 pm

    Eric, I think you’re maybe confused about what NFQ is talking about (though she’s welcome to clarify). I was born Jewish, raised Jewish, bar mitzvahed, etc. Yes, the word “Jewish” refers to both a religion and a more general culture, but that doesn’t make them the same thing. I no longer believe in God, don’t believe the ancient Israelites were ever led out of Egypt through magical plagues, etc. My extended family still gets together on Passover and Yom Kipur, and we give each other gifts on Chanukah. Some of us are still religious, some aren’t. I still value the cultural heritage and the values that I was taught, along with some of the more frivolous traditions (particular foods, etc.). If someone asks me why I my family gathers at certain times, or eats certain foods, I might answer that it’s “just how I was raised” or something like that. But those things aren’t a religion. The things NFQ is objecting to are the statements of fact. “It’s how I was raised” should never be used as a reason to believe a statement that is making an objective claim about reality. Those statements should always be evaluated by using the best logic you can muster to determine if it’s true or not.

    Atheists all still have tons of traditions relating to their particular cultures. Some (wearing kilts, for example, or eating pasta) do not have religious roots. Others (like having Saturday-Sunday as the weekend) do. But we can easily maintain those traditions without believe in religion. No problem there.

    Some cultural traditions have clear and distinct names. They’re called things like “Irish” or “xxx”. They tend to be associated with particular religions, but everyone sees them as separate abstract entities. With Jews, the religion has been practiced by the entire cultural group and no one else for a long time, so we don’t have separate words for the cultural group and the religion. That’s confusing, but it doesn’t mean they’re somehow more inseparable. It’s why you hear people refer to themselves as “atheist Jews” but never “atheist Catholics”. They’re trying to say “I’m culturally Jewish, but not religiously Jewish”. You can still value the culture and consider yourself part of it. And it makes perfect sense to do that just because it’s how you grew up. But that’s not true of objective fact claims, even when people in your culture have traditionally believed them.

  8. Okay, you do have a point.

  9. @kind of gil: I’m glad to hear you’ve been enjoying my blog. I hope you stick around! As for your comment about the examples that I used … I see why it could sound like I was trivializing the issue. Here’s where I was coming from: often, Americans say things like, “I have no culture,” because we tend to assume that ours is the default, blank slate and that culture is something that other, exotic people have. (A lot like accents.) In those situations, the refrain I am always hearing is that everything we do is part of our culture — that turkey sandwiches might not feel like “cuisine,” and t-shirts with jeans might not feel like “native dress,” but they are both aspects of American culture. I wanted to pick examples of learned traditions that we’d all be familiar with, but in order to simplify the conversation I wanted to steer away from the more obviously religious ones (exchanging presents on December 25, etc.). It absolutely wasn’t my intention to be misleading with that simplicity.

    @Eric: I think you’re right about the sort of stuff that culture includes. I wasn’t trying to define any of that away by talking about it in terms of preferences. And it certainly is the case in the real world that religious beliefs are transmitted through culture (rather that through rational examination of the evidence). My goal was to argue that religious beliefs put forward factual claims about the nature of reality, and therefore shouldn’t be treated in the same way as other cultural traditions (food, clothing style, humor, mannerisms, music, celebrations, etc.). This latter group could be described as something like, “things that my people do,” whereas religion is something like, “things that are true.” Truth doesn’t depend on who your parents were or what country you grew up in.

    On a somewhat related note — what branch of Judaism do you identify with? I was surprised to see you say, “Even if I decided against belief in God, I don’t think much of my worldview or practical approach to Judaism would change.” I suppose that means you already don’t keep kosher or follow a lot of the other strict behavioral rules…? I’m curious what your worldview and approach to Judaism are like, if whether or not God exists doesn’t really affect them.

    @ The thread in general: I think one aspect of this post has been sort of misunderstood and is worth clarifying. I’m not saying that, in any case where your parents’ teachings might have influenced your conclusions, those conclusions should be assumed to be incorrect. 😛 I wouldn’t reject a person’s religious reasoning solely because their parents were also the same religion. I’m talking about people who say things like, “Well, I guess I believe [my religion] mostly because I was raised that way. And I’ve always liked it, and it really resonates with me, so I don’t see any reason to give it up.” If the central reason for belief in a set of factual claims is that you grew up being taught those factual claims — and nothing more — then there is serious cause for concern. It surprises me that so many people I talk to can affirm the “if” clause, but don’t move on to the “then.”

  10. kind of gil

     /  August 14, 2011 at 9:23 am

    NFQ, thanks for clarifying – I completely agree with the point that people need to really think about what they believe in instead of simply subscribing to a religion ‘just because’. I think many Christians are afraid to really dissect their beliefs for fear of what they might find. For the record, I am a Christian who has dissected his beliefs and that process is like jumping off a ledge – but it must be done!

    BTW, in response to your post about remaining anonymous – I’m guessing you don’t live in New England – your beliefs would serve you very well here!

  11. I realize this is a little late to respond. I’m also going to respond under a different handle/name.

    @ Aristarchus

    When I wrote, “being Jewish I don’t really see that sharp a difference between my religion and my culture. Even if I decided against belief in God, I don’t think much of my worldview or practical approach to Judaism would change. No God belief, and I would still be a Jew,” my point was that religion and culture are intimately related to each other. Your post doesn’t challenge my point, but confirms it.

    All your examples of Jewish culture are merely just you practicing Jewish religion in a secular way (basically Jewish religion minus God belief and belief in miracles).

    To use other examples, we could look at Ancient Egypt or novels like Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe or countless anthropology books or really any society, and you’d notice that religion, culture, environment, political structures, etc. are intimately entangled together.

    You’ll notice I used the phrase “I don’t really see a sharp difference,” rather than “inseparable.” I don’t see a difference between me practicing Jewish religion by celebrating Passover and Hanukah between me practicing Jewish culture by celebrating Passover and Hanukah.

  12. @Drkshadow03: I’m not sure if Aristarchus is still following this comment thread, but I’ll throw my two cents in. I don’t think anyone’s disputing the idea that “religion, culture, environment, political structures, etc. are intimately entangled together.” Often, the environment in which someone grows up colors their ideas about justice, morality, and the supernatural. However, my point (and I think Aristarchus’ too) was that cultural tendencies do not equate to factual truth claims. While Aristarchus may get together with relatives to eat brisket in April or thereabouts, he does not actually believe the Exodus story that is commonly told along with that meal. Maybe when you use the word “religious” (referring to Jews) you merely mean “someone who tends to eat brisket around early April” — but I think the vast majority of people talking about “religion” understand it to include some supernatural truth claims. “Practicing Jewish religion in a secular way” just doesn’t parse for me.

  13. I would say that your upbringing is a factor of your beliefs, but not the only factor. It can be a very big factor depending on the individual.

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