I’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.