Not Saussure

October 5, 2006

Religion — inherited or not?

Filed under: Blogroll, Catholicism, civil liberties, Islam, Philosopy — notsaussure @ 8:58 pm

An interesting point in the comments to a piece on Those Evil Muuuuslems at A Big Stick…

Garry makes the perfectly reasonable point that

Religious belief isn’t the same as race. As I’ve said before, you can choose your religion but not the colour of your skin. But you should be free to choose your religion. Those who follow a particular religion should be able to follow that religion without being smeared, misrepresented, or persecuted for the crimes of the few.

However, in one of the replies Andrew Bartlett expresses something similar to I’ve often thought but never really seen expressed so clearly:

One reason that religion is in many cases very like ‘race’ is that it is largely something that one is born into. Language, for example, is ostensibly ‘chosen’ – it not being a genetic characteristic, it being changeable – but the persecution of speakers of a particular language could not legitimated by reference to choice [but see below].

I would argue that religion is more of a choice than language. But, if I were to construct a scale from the ‘determined’ to the ‘voluntaristic’ I would say that religion, and certainly entho-religious identity, would be much further down the determined end of the scale than something such as ‘membership of a political party’.

Garry objects

Andrew, I do agree that there is a strong relationship between race and religion and it seems clear that much of the anti-Muslim sentiment expressed these days is thinly disguised racism.

But as an liberal atheist, I’m opposed to the promotion of the idea that religion is determined by birth. Free will and all that.

In the real world, the deterministic relationship is strong as you say but in my mind, it shouldn’t be. It’s one of those things which irks me about the promotion of state faith schools – it perpetuates deterministic religious beliefs and damages the ability of individuals to choose their own path.

but I think this misses the point somewhat. I’ve not fully worked this out, but I think Garry’s objection embodies the assumption that there’s some sort of default position of liberal atheism or agnosticism and that religion is something overlaid on it. I don’t think it quite works that way, which is why we find terms like ‘lapsed Catholic’ or ‘non-observant Jew’ meaningful; you’re the product of your upbringing and background — you’re not wholly determined by it, obviously, or even determined by it to a great part, but it’s where you start from.

Your background gives you various values, cultural references and ways of thinking, and even if you abandon your religion it’s very hard to get rid of these altogether. They’re still there and part of your thinking, even if you’re reacting against them; my first wife, for example, (a Ugandan Asian) was quite happy to describe herself as a Hindu atheist — whatever else she was, she certainly wasn’t a Muslim or Christian one — because being born and brought up as a Brahmin was part of who she was, even if she didn’t particularly believe in the Hindu pantheon any more or worry about breaking various caste rules and taboos.

Trivial examples would be eating beef — neutral to me, but breaking a cultural taboo to her — or celebrating vs not celebrating either or both Christmas or Divali. It was no big deal to either of us whether we celebrated either, but if we didn’t, regardless of our personal beliefs, it would be deliberately not celebrating Christmas for me just as she’d be deliberately not celebrating Divali; it wouldn’t have been the same thing as neither of us celebrating Hanukkah or Eid, because neither of those two festivals were anything to do with either of us.

In a way, James Joyce puts his finger on at least part of it in Portrait of the Artist:

–And is that why you will not communicate, Cranly asked, because you are not sure of that too, because you feel that the host, too, may be the body and blood of the son of God and not a wafer of bread? And because you fear that it may be?

–Yes, Stephen said quietly, I feel that and I also fear it.

–I see, Cranly said.

Stephen, struck by his tone of closure, reopened the discussion at once by saying:

–I fear many things: dogs, horses, fire-arms, the sea, thunder-storms, machinery, the country roads at night.

–But why do you fear a bit of bread?

–I imagine, Stephen said, that there is a malevolent reality behind those things I say I fear.

–Do you fear then, Cranly asked, that the God of the Roman catholics would strike you dead and damn you if you made a sacrilegious communion?

–The God of the Roman catholics could do that now, Stephen said. I fear more than that the chemical action which would be set up in my soul by a false homage to a symbol behind which are massed twenty centuries of authority and veneration.

–Would you, Cranly asked, in extreme danger, commit that particular sacrilege? For instance, if you lived in the penal days?

–I cannot answer for the past, Stephen replied. Possibly not.

–Then, said Cranly, you do not intend to become a protestant?

–I said that I had lost the faith, Stephen answered, but not that I had lost self-respect. What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?

Stephen’s feelings and worries will, I think, be familiar to anyone from a Catholic background. And, indeed, only a Catholic — whether believing or not — would, I take it, concur with the final statement.

In some ways, maybe a better analogy than language would be nationality. You can certainly change your nationality — cease to be a British citizen and become a loyal American one, for example — but that wouldn’t stop you from remaining, in many important ways, British.

This has various implications; certainly when I lived in America for a few years I found myself irritated and sometimes offended by Americans attacking what — for example — Britain was doing in Northern Ireland even though I personally tended to agree with what they were saying. I could say such things, but I wasn’t going to hear my country run down by a bunch of foreigners, even though I might agree with general direction of their criticisms though certainly not the tone, particularly when I knew they were desperately oversimplifying a complex situation. And I certainly feel irritated by someone like Dr Paisley when he attacks Catholics, not because it’s an attack on my beliefs, such as they are, but it’s an attack on my background, even the parts of it which I don’t accept any more. I very much wonder if Muslims don’t feel the same way at times.

*As to persecution of speakers of particular languages, see this from Boing Boing:

A 32-year old man was booted from his flight out of Seattle because he was overheard speaking a non-English language — Tamil — on his mobile phone while he waited in line, and again on the aircraft before takeoff. The language is widely spoken around the world, primarily in India, Singapore, and Sri Lanka. Snip from news report: “[The passenger] told officials that he would not speak in a foreign language on his cell phone at an airport in the future.” Link

which prompted several comments, notably this from SepiaMutiny:

This is hardly the first time this something of this sort has happened. A man was detained for several hours for speaking Arabic on the phone at a bus station. Two britasians were kept off a flight for speaking Urdu (although there is some evidence that they may have been trying to provoke an incident). A flight was even diverted because passengers felt threatened by two orthodox jews praying in Hebrew! There are many more cases like this involving Sikhs immediately after 9/11, I’m just showcasing some non-Sikh examples so that the rest of you can relate.

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  1. I feel almost apologetic bringing up The God Delusion again, but I shall.

    In it Dawkins makes several points about the usefulness, as part of evolution, of children believing without question what their parents tell them. In a hostile environment children must believe that their actions will have dire consequences or they will make mistakes that you cannot learn from. In evolutionary terms the children who don’t believe without questioning are less likely to survive to pass on their genes.

    What this means for religion is that children who are fed religion from an early age are pre-programmed (for want of a better term) to believe it without reservation, so while they do not inherit religion itself, they inherit the tendency to believe it because it is evolutionarily useful.

    The difference between religion becoming a choice or not comes when parents decide to tell children “this religious belief is fact” (or they learn it at school) instead of teaching children the basic moral values and leaving the question of religion till later life so they realise that it is not fact, but opinion / belief.

    I was raised by a teacher and a scientist who taught me what was in the Bible, but told me this is what Christians believe. They taught me to think it through and decide myself, and I did.

    What I don’t know is how many people, having been given no religious upbringing decide to choose religion in future, and how that relates to the number of people who, having been brought up to consider themselves of a particular faith opt out. I should think it is somewhat lopsided.

    Your nationality example is particularly apt, I am Scottish. I think of myself as Scottish. I have been brought up to believe that a) that is what I am, and b) that it is a good thing.

    I have never, knowingly, lived in Scotland, was brought up in Wales and England, and while I admit to being more English than Scottish the Scots label will never come off. Had my parents never mentioned Scotland to me, then would I consider myself Welsh? or English? Would I still have an affinity for Scotland? Would I even be Scottish if I didn’t know?

    Comment by Andrew — October 6, 2006 @ 5:56 pm

  2. […] Sunny is apparently going to write something on the matter, but, since the matter’s one that interests me, too, I thought I’d stick in my €0.0155 worth. This might take a bit of unpicking; let’s see. […]

    Pingback by Politics and Religion « Not Saussure — November 25, 2006 @ 12:34 am

  3. The problem is that Dawkins doesn’t know the first thing about religion and, come to think of it, science. Andrew, you seem to imply that religion is a series of dogma. On the contrary, religion is made up by institutions (with differing and evolving politics and policies), different spiritualities, philosophies and doctrines. The point is interpretation. Religious people are not necessarily dogmatic nor are scientists necessarily non-dogmatic. There are dogmatic people in the world and people who need to be told what the world is like and what they ought to do. There are also those who use religious ideas or secular ideology to control them.

    Comment by F — August 4, 2007 @ 1:29 pm

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