Sunday, September 16, 2007

Religion as an Accident of Geography

Today, just a quick thought, directed mainly at any Christians (or other theists, really) who might be visiting my slice of the internet. It is a sad fact that most people remain in the religion into which they were born. That is, most children inculcated into Catholicism remain Catholics, most children indoctrinated into Islam remain Muslims, most children raised as Hindus remain so, etc. A relatively small percentage of the indoctrinated eventually becomes “agnostic” or atheistic; I count myself among this percentage, because I abandoned Roman Catholicism roughly six years ago, as I became more educated and knowledgeable about Darwinian evolution, anthropology, philosophy and other subjects. Another small percentage of people switches from one superstition to another. For example, Cat Stevens, an entertainer from the ’60s and ’70s, changed his name to Yusuf Islam when he converted from Christianity to Islam. Again, though, Stevens is the exception to the rule: Most people, once inculcated, remain so.

Therefore, I pose a question to my theist friends who still follow the religion into which their parents indoctrinated them: Do you feel lucky to have been born into the correct religion? Researchers have concluded 19 major world religious groupings exist on this planet. Those groupings are subdivided into roughly 10,000 distinct religions (which is not to mention all the religions that have gone extinct over the millennia). Scroll through this list of religions, and ponder just how different your life would have been had you been born into a different superstition.

Please consider the following suggestion: If a devout Christian, who was born in Topeka, Kansas, had instead been born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, he would have been a devout Muslim. If Osama bin Laden, who is a devout Muslim, had instead been born in Athens, Alabama, he would have been a devout Christian. I have said it before, but it warrants repetition: Religion spreads, passively, by the coincidental geography of one's place of birth and, actively, by parents’ talent for inculcating their defenseless, trusting young. Some people seemingly have a genetic predisposition to religious zeal; the religion to which they wed themselves has nothing to do with evidence and everything to do with inculcative history. The Christian apologetics that is utterly convincing to a person born in Hendersonville, Tennessee, would be infidelic venom to that same person, had he instead been born in Tehran, Iran.

Perhaps religion finally shall go extinct once more people realize that one’s piety, at least with regard to a particular superstition, is a mere accident of geography. A fundamentalist Christian, in other words, in an alternate reality, would be just another mujahid.


Blogger Tommy said...

Excellent point Jolly.

To take it even further, the power of god to make its truth known to humanity seems curtailed by the ability of this god's believers to spread the message by human means.

In other words, until the Spanish Conquistadores went rampaging across the Americas with Catholic priests in tow, none of the tens of millions of native Americans had ever heard of the Bible or Jesus Christ.

Likewise, these same native Americans knew nothing of Allah and the Quran or of Buddhism or Hinduism.

Conversely, until the European voyages of discovery and conquest, the followers of Christianity, Islam or any other major religion based in Europe, Africa and Asia had no inkling of the existence of the Americas or of the tens of millions of people who lived there.

Imagine if Cortez encountered an Aztec civilization that was Christian because the same vision allegedly visited upon Paul was visited upon an Aztec priest in the early 15th century. In a series of visions, this priest was able to pass on the doctrines of Christianity to the Aztec people, and the Aztecs being the most advanced people in Central America, were able to convert their neighbors to Christianity. Think of what stunning evidence that would have been for the divine origins of Christianity, and how less bloody the history of the Americas would have turned out.

3:55 PM EDT  
Blogger Hamza Isa said...

to believe in God is not a matter of geography. Whilst i agree that many people remain in the religion of their parents and society belief in God in a innate feature of ones nature. To deny it is to den the obvious.

Man has always believed in God and despite the recent trend towards belief in science as the ultimate reality there is only one answer to how all this came about. God.

6:03 PM EDT  
Blogger Martin Cothran said...

Perhaps the best answer to your question, "Do you feel lucky to have been born into the correct religion?" is another question: "Do you feel rationally justified in having articulated a textbook example of the genetic fallacy?"

What you are doing is ignoring the rational merits of the religious positions you disagree with and judging them solely on the basis of how they originated. But the circumstance of something's origin has little to do with its current rational merit.

That, say, a person was born into a family of Christians--or into a largely Christian society, and consequently comes to a belief in Christianity has nothing with the actual rational merits of Christianity itself.

And if you say the genetic fallacy is legitimate, then you're going to have to explain why your modern rationalistic atheism (or agnosticism, as the case may be) is not the result of having been born into a post-Enlightenment Western society in which rationalist materialism holds great sway.

The fact is any position can be criticized for having been the causal effect of the person's geography--including your own.

The genetic fallacy, you see, is a two-edged sword.

7:36 PM EDT  
Blogger Tommy said...

Martin, it is the belief of Christians that the god they worship is THE one true god who created this entire vast universe filled with countless galaxies. Such a being of almost limitless power certainly should have the capability of making its divine truth known to all people on the planet simultaneously.

But, as I pointed out in my comments above, people who did not know about Christianity or the Bible only found out about it from other people. It took almost 1,500 years for Christianity to be made known to the peoples of the Americas.

As a Christian, you must believe that the god you worship could have made its teachings known to the Aztecs. But history tells us that no such thing happened.

That a religion that claims to be represent the truth of an all powerful and loving god in fact relies on flawed human beings to spread its message. This I submit is evidence that Christianity, like any other religion, is a human creation and not a divine truth.

As for whether the teachings of Christianity in and of themselves are meritorious, that is a separate issue.

Hamza, for most of human history, people believed that comets were harbingers of doom. Thanks to science, we now know that they are natural phenomena and the appearance of many comets can be predicted to the day because scientists studied their orbits.

So that most people believed in a god or gods for most of human history is not evidence for the existence of god.

8:56 PM EDT  
Blogger The Jolly Nihilist said...

The time in which I live certainly has had a great effect on my philosophical and theological views. After all, I live in a time in which Darwin's theory of evolution is understood and accepted (because it is the truth). I live in a time in which apostates, such as I, generally do not suffer persecution, torture and murder at the hands of the pious. I live in a time during which our species enjoys quite a bit of knowledge about the natural order, including a detailed germ theory of disease, the ability to vaccinate against once-dreaded afflictions, the capacity to build airplanes and spacecraft, etc. Compared to centuries ago, we live in a time of great knowledge and scholarship; that knowledge profoundly affects my views, including my atheism (which is defined as "a lack of belief in god or gods").

I object to indoctrinating children into religions--any of them--because it plants a seed of irrationalism from defenseless childhood. I, for one, was inculcated into Roman Catholicism. I was taught, from a depressingly early age, that Jesus was crucified and then his corpse came back to life; that a donkey and a serpent once spoke human language; that Mary experienced parthenogenesis and birthed a male; that Adam and Noah lived to be older than 900; that Lot's wife turned into a pillar of salt; and other such obnoxious absurdities.

I would object to religion much less if only parents refrained from inculcating children while they are too young to defend themselves. Let them get a college-level education and then spring your religion of choice on them. See if, once intellectually endowed, they buy into it. I suspect, once a person has a thorough knowledge of biology, chemistry, physics, anthropology, history, geography, literature, etc., he will be less inclined to buy into primitive, first century mysticism (especially if no groundwork had been laid during trusting childhood). Religionists know this, which is why they must "plant the seed" young, paving the way for a tree of irrationalism to bloom.

By the way, this website has nearly 75 unique posts on it. People might accuse me of unrestrained verbosity, but they cannot accuse me of refusing to attack religionist positions head-on.


9:17 PM EDT  
Blogger John Morales said...

The Christian message, it seems, is not very clear.

8:29 PM EDT  
Blogger John Morales said...

JN, the greater your corpus, the easier for miners and quibblers.

So it goes.

8:36 PM EDT  
Blogger John Morales said...

I've been too terse.

To relate my earlier comment of the de-facto status of "Christianity" as a collective for many faiths to the post's subject, it's evident Rhology would've been Catholic had he been born in Spain, as I was in 1960 (all other religions and denominations were banned by the state).

He'd've been a good Jesuit.

8:43 PM EDT  
Blogger John Morales said...

@Martin Cothran:

1. I disagree it's an example of a genetic fallacy.

2. The "actual rational merits of Christianity itself", as you put it, are no greater than and less than those of many other religions.
I infer you either therefore mean "religion" rather than "Christianity" or are making a null point.

3. "What you are doing is ignoring the rational merits of the religious positions you disagree with and judging them solely on the basis of how they originated"
That is a clear misrepresentation of JN's position. He speaks of the (fact) that children generally have the religion in which they are inculcated. He is not attributing merit, merely observing and adducing therefrom.

8:56 PM EDT  
Anonymous Billy said...

"And if you say the genetic fallacy is legitimate, then you're going to have to explain why your modern rationalistic atheism (or agnosticism, as the case may be) is not the result of having been born into a post-Enlightenment Western society in which rationalist materialism holds great sway."

Well, not really. If we forget about "modern rationalistic" part (which seems to be a colossal straw man) and focus on the atheism/agnosticism, we can see that it is a position that people have spontaneously arrived at throughout history and across cultures.

For example, atheist thought can be found in Indic and Greek cultures. Clearly these positions were the product of their culture, but equally clearly those cultures were not "post-Enlightenment Western society". It is telling we seem to find atheism in most (if not all) religious traditions. This seems to suggest that the "genetic fallacy" you suggest doesn't apply to atheism in the same way.

This would make sense, since atheism is not a religion. As Tommy pointed out, nobody spontaneously arrives at a religious faith - they have to be exposed to it first. However it seems that atheism/agnosticism can and is spontaneously arrived at - I was certainly agnostic before I was even aware of the existence of "agnosticism" as a concept.

Short version: it's only possible to be a Christian if you're exposed to Christianity. It's possible to be an atheist just by thinking for yourself.

6:40 AM EDT  
Blogger BEAJ said...

I don't let theists off that easy. I like to add extra pain when I give them the question.
I asked a Baptist recently, if your parents died in a car crash when you were one month old, and you wound up being adopted by a devout Muslim family, do you think you'd be a devout Muslim today.
The answer I got was a stone cold sober yes, probably.

7:25 PM EDT  
Blogger Lui said...

"Man has always believed in God and despite the recent trend towards belief in science as the ultimate reality there is only one answer to how all this came about. God."

Both things you said there were wrong. First of all, Homo sapiens has existed for some 150,000 years or so. In only the last few millenia has belief in God - as currently believed by millions - appeared.

As for your assertion that God is only answer for how all this came about: he isn't. We know enough about the history of Earth and life to know that no supernatural entities were required for the appearance of either. Religious belief is predominantly a matter of two things: geography and childhood indoctrination.

11:22 PM EST  
Blogger Lvka said...

Do you feel lucky to have been born into the correct religion?

Yes, I do. (Grateful would be a more appropriate word for it, I think). :-)

But to who much has been given, much is asked, so ... :-(

5:03 PM EST  
Blogger tumbleweed said...

"Short version: it's only possible to be a Christian if you're exposed to Christianity. It's possible to be an atheist just by thinking for yourself."

A Christian yes, a theist no.

Is it not possible then to also be a theist without having any indoctrination? Christianity, for example, is a title given to a vast amount of beliefs, each persons beliefs varying from the next. They only have to believe in certain principles to be labeled as a "Christian". Even so as a theist, or a spiritualist. I don't think you can truly come to any conclusion without an experiment. Me being an agnostic could well be an accident of geography (it is probably the case). So how can you change that? By researching the various spiritiaul and non spiritual points of view, which I might add are as numerous as there are people? How do you get rid of the foundation on which you are building this house? Is it impervious to innate truth? Can anyone claim to come to a true understanding of how the world works on their own? I think not. Do you think if you bring your children up without being indoctrinated with any "religion" that you are not indoctrinating them with something else, i.e. your belief that there isn't a God? Can they truly be free from any perception that surrounds them? How can you be anything but an agnostic? Evolutionary theory only goes so far, as do the theories describing the formation of the universe. There are still many unanswered questions which people just ignore when they choose what to believe. How can anyone claim to be fully aware of all that is out there. We've come a long way in a hundred years, do you think there is a plateau to our understanding? Do you think we have reached it. Is this not the arrogance of our time and the times before?

4:20 AM EST  
Blogger Angie Max said...

Religious experience is seen to occur in the most primitive part of the brain - the amygdala - which is also where we get our superstitious behavior (they're actually one and the same). Yes, we are "wired" for it, but that doesn't give credibility to any superstition or belief. It merely shows it is common as a result of a fear-based impulse. We are also wired for many other things, (violence, fight or flight), which we have learned to overcome on order to be more civilized. The argument that being "wired" for something makes it valid or divine in nature is laughable.

11:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Stefan said...

The geographic argument is probably the best argument against god and religion, and I found this article by searching for an eloquent explanation of such argument.

8:48 AM EST  

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