Why Are They Religious?

Young Buddhist monks in Tibet.
Young Buddhist monks in Tibet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many atheists occasionally scan their surroundings and wonder how it can be that they are surrounded by religious believers. It seems so difficult to comprehend, at times, how is it that this many people seem to be so deluded about the nature of reality. We invent all sorts of explanations for what we see around us, and most of them draw heavily from pop psychology. Maybe they fear death and cling to religion because it offers them immortality. Maybe they are so narcissistic that the notion of invisible entities looking over them makes sense. Maybe it is just ignorance, a lack of critical thinking, and the shoddy education to which they have been subjected. Maybe they don't really believe it at all and are just trying to conform with what they know is expected of them. As intellectually stimulating as it can be to ponder such explanations, most of us recognize that no single explanation will apply to all religious persons. And even though we find them less interesting, I suspect that most of us recognize that more mundane explanations are likely at work.

You have undoubtedly heard the idea that the primary things that determine which religion someone subscribes to include (1) where they live and (2) the religion of their parents. We tend to accept the role of these factors in explaining why one person might be a Christian and another a Muslim. We know there are exceptions, but we understand that someone raised in a Muslim country by Muslim parents to be a Muslim is more likely to be a Muslim than a Christian. Perhaps we should also consider these factors as candidates for why many people are religious in the first place.

If you were raised in a religious culture, the odds are reasonably good that you are religious. As some of us are reminded on a daily basis, we atheists are the abnormal ones. We are the outliers. The norm is for people to be religious. And if you were raised in a religious culture by religious parents who subjected you to religious indoctrination, the odds are even better that you will be religious. Of course there are exceptions. Some of us are the exceptions. But as boring as these explanations seem, I find them hard to ignore.

For the person who has grown up in a fundamentalist Christian family in a town with a fundamentalist Christian majority, fundamentalist Christianity is normal. Anything other than fundamentalist Christianity is going to be perceived as foreign, perhaps even dangerous. Such a person may have never questioned their religious beliefs because there has never been any reason to do so. As difficult as that may be for us to comprehend, I have known many Christians who claimed this very thing. Doubting the existence of their particular god or gods struck them as odd as not doubting it seems to us.

Does considering such possibilities lead anywhere in particular? For me, it leads to some measure of tolerance and compassion. I don't mean I am going to stop detesting religious belief anytime soon or that I am going to sit back as fundamentalist Christians pursue theocracy. What I mean is that I am better able to channel my frustration toward positive ends when I recognize that many religious believers believe what they believe through no real fault of their own. And I suppose it also means that I hold out some faint hope that something like a religious culture and a religious upbringing can be overcome in the right circumstances.