God (cont.)

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Now, when I first learned about all this history myself, it’s safe to say it totally bowled me over. Granted, by the time I learned about it, I’d already reached a point where I was willing to let my beliefs diverge from the standard doctrines of Christianity – so as shocking as these new insights were, it no longer felt like they posed an existential threat to my own identity; rather, it was starting to feel more like they were an existential threat to a religion, Christianity, which I was coming to recognize was something separate from my own worldview. But even so, learning about these things still felt like a major turning point for me – like one more nail in the coffin for my belief in the unique truth of Christianity – simply because of how much it forced me to realize the extent to which people’s religious beliefs are the result of completely arbitrary contingencies of history and geography.

As Loftus writes:

Philosopher of religion John Hick tells us that “it is evident that in some ninety-nine percent of the cases the religion which an individual professes and to which he or she adheres depends upon the accidents of birth. Someone born to Buddhist parents in Thailand is very likely to be a Buddhist, someone born to Muslim parents in Saudi Arabia to be a Muslim, someone born to Christian parents in Mexico to be a Christian, and so on.”

Richard Dawkins said the same thing in a harsher tone: “Out of all of the sects in the world, we notice an uncanny coincidence: the overwhelming majority just happens to choose the one that their parents belong to. Not the sect that has the best evidence in its favour, the best miracles, the best moral code, the best cathedral, the best stained glass, the best music: when it comes to choosing from the smorgasbord of available religions, their potential virtues seem to count for nothing, compared to the matter of heredity. This is an unmistakable fact; nobody could seriously deny it. Yet people with full knowledge of the arbitrary nature of this heredity, somehow manage to go on believing in their religion, often with such fanaticism that they are prepared to murder people who follow a different one…. The religion we adopt is a matter of an accident of geography.”

Two widely accepted books on persuasive psychology are Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini and Attitudes and Persuasion: Classic and Contemporary Approaches by Richard E. Petty and John T. Cacioppo. Social psychologists refer to these two books to show how people believe and defend their beliefs. Petty and Cacioppo wrote: “Since most of the information that children have about the world comes directly from their parents, it is not surprising that children’s beliefs, and thus their attitudes, are initially very similar to their parents.” They claim that “social psychologists have well documented that children tend to share their parents’ racial prejudices, religious preferences, and political party affiliations.”

If you were born in Saudi Arabia, you would be a Sunni Muslim right now. This is an almost undeniable cold, hard sociological and cultural fact. In today’s world, if you were born in Iran, you’d be a Shi’a Muslim. If you were born in India, you’d be a Hindu right now. If you were born in Japan, you’d be a Shintoist, and if you lived in Mongolia, you’d be a Buddhist. If you were born in the first century BCE in Israel, you’d adhere to the Jewish faith, and if you were born in Europe in 1200 CE, you’d be a Roman Catholic. These things are as close to being undeniable facts as we can get in the sociological world.

But there’s more. Had we lived in ancient Egypt or Babylon, we would have been very superstitious and polytheistic to the core. We would have sought divine guidance through divination and sought to alter our circumstances through magic. If we’d been first-century Christians, we would probably have believed that God sent illnesses and disasters to discipline and punish people for their sins, and we would have believed in what has come to be called the ransom theory of Jesus’ atonement. Had we been Christians in Europe during the Middle Ages, we would probably have seen nothing wrong with killing witches, torturing heretics, and ruthlessly conquering Jerusalem in the Crusades. In short, we are overwhelmingly products of our times.

There is a whole range of issues that admit of diversity in the moral and political areas as well, based to an overwhelming degree on “accidents of birth.” Caucasian American men would’ve believed with President Andrew Jackson in manifest destiny, our God-given mandate to seize Native American territories in westward expansion. Up through the seventeenth century we would have believed that women were intellectually inferior to men, and consequently, we would not even have allowed them to become educated in the same subjects as men. Like Thomas Jefferson and most Americans, we would’ve thought this way about black people as well, that they were intellectually inferior to whites, while if we were born in the South, we would have justified slavery from the Bible.

If we were born black in America and were also football fans, we would probably have believed O. J. Simpson was not guilty of murder because of our distrust of white police officers, who have had a history of arresting us and railroading us in the legal system as scapegoats for crimes they cannot solve. If we were born in the Palestinian Gaza Strip, we would probably hate the Jews and want to kill them all. If we were born in France, we would probably have opposed the war in Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein.

These kinds of moral, political, religious, and cultural beliefs, based upon specific cultural conditions, can be extended into a lengthy list of beliefs we would’ve had if we had been born in a different time and/or place. There is a whole range of issues like these, including how we dress, what foods we like, what music we listen to, and even somewhat the criteria for what kinds of people we consider beautiful. For someone to claim that he or she wouldn’t have shared these same beliefs is what I call chronological snobbery, which runs completely counter to the sociological and cultural facts. According to Voltaire, “Every man is a creature of the age in which he lives, and few are able to raise themselves above the ideas of the time.” These kinds of facts are undeniable.

Just to illustrate the point, take a look at this time-lapse map of how the major world religions spread out over the centuries:

And now consider Dawkins’s thoughts on the subject:

Plumbline Pictures drives the point home:

To reiterate, then, there are literally tens of thousands of religions that have existed throughout history. Each of them has claimed to have the absolute truth about the nature of the divine – and yet, none of them has been able to produce any definitive evidence that they’re right; they all insist that it’s a matter of faith. In other words, you just have to believe that their claims are true, without any kind of confirmation that your belief is correct. You have to trust that out of all the tens of thousands of religions that you might have been born into, you just happen to have been born into the exact right one. What are the odds of that? If you’re looking at things from an outside view, it certainly seems like an awfully convenient coincidence.

Of course, my earlier Christian self would have pushed back against this argument, pointing out that there actually were good reasons to think that Christianity was the right religion – like the fact that I’d personally communed with God directly, or the fact that there had been miracles performed in his name. But by this point, I was starting to recognize that every true believer of every faith thinks that they’ve communed with their gods; every religion claims that their gods have performed miracles. The fact that I really felt like I’d experienced my God’s presence in my life didn’t prove that my religion was true, any more than the fact that a Muslim or a Hindu really felt the same way about their gods proved that their religion was true. At best, all I could say was that we were all connecting with the same divine presence. But what I could no longer say with any confidence was that this deity was the specific one posited by the Bible – because it had become unavoidably clear to me by that point that the Bible just wasn’t a reliable source of information on the subject.

Eventually, I had to come to terms with the fact that although I still believed in God, I no longer believed in the Christian God, any more than I believed in any of the other Christian dogma I’d already rejected. It wasn’t a planned decision – there was never a particular moment when I officially stopped being a Christian once and for all – at some point, I just realized that I could no longer use the word “Christian” to accurately describe my beliefs or state of mind. In other words, I never really chose to reject Christianity; Christianity just stopped making sense. I realized that if there really was a God, it wouldn’t have been the petty, shortsighted, finite God of the Bible; it would have been a grand cosmic God – one that was universal and all-encompassing. It would have been a God of infinite peace and love. That was the God I’d believed in all along – it had just taken me a while to realize that it wasn’t the God of Christianity.

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