Why do you believe what you believe?
That question can be asked of anyone, about whatever the topic at hand might be. Ask a person why they prefer a Snapper© lawn mower over a Poulan©, and they’ll probably be able to come up with a quick, fact-filled answer. Ask them their beliefs about topics like global warming or affirmative action, and the answers will be lengthier, more laced with identifiable opinions, and much influenced by the educational background of the person answering. But the answers will be recognizable as fairly complete statements whatever their merits.
Ask a person about their faith, and the answers are- usually- not as easily forthcoming. It is not a question most people ever get asked; they have not had to form an answer, ever, and so they are not prepared to put their thoughts in any particular form. There is no mental template in place out of which answers to such a question easily rise. “I’ve never thought about/ been asked about that before” is a usual starting place. It’s not that anyone is reluctant to answer, but they must first put into mental words, for themselves, what it is they believe so they can make it understandable to someone else. That is not true, of course, when the person who is asked perceives the questioner to be leading them down a predetermined set of other questions, which will lead them into a corner controlled by the questioner. In those cases, the answer (properly so) is, “Get off my porch!”
When sincerely asked, without the threat of judgment, I believe most people enjoy the process of answering questions about their beliefs, even those based on faith. I’ve heard, in answer to such questions I’ve posed, testimonies about strength prayed for and received, quotations from sacred writings, serendipitous encounters that the person could not attribute to anything but divine intervention, perceived calm or serenity or presence, and many variations of “I don’t know, I just believe,” usually followed by a shrug of the shoulders.
Even in the most elaborate and eloquent answers, however, I have never heard an answer that included information about one’s birthplace, parents, or personal culture. In fact, it seems to me, that those things are properly located at the top of any answer about why we believe what we believe.
No one who really believes it hesitates to admit that they drive a Ford because their Daddy hated Chevys. Or that they believe the University of Texas is better than Texas A&M because “our family has been going there for four generations.” Most people are quickly able to “feel” the virtues of their hometown high school football team, and just as quick to know (for a fact!) the less-than virtuous motivations of their league rivals.
I don’t know what the percentage is, but I’m guessing that a huge majority of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Janists, Daoists, and members of every other faith group on earth believe the way they do because of: 1. what their parents believed; 2. where in the world they were born; and 3. what the predominate culture is in the place where they now live.
That is not to denigrate any one of those systems; it is, rather, to say something obvious, out loud.
By not addressing these factors and thinking about them critically, I fear that most people of faith believe in the primacy of their faith over other faiths because of some pretty happenstance, rather than substantial, factors. In the 1000’s and 1100’s, people born in Roman Catholic Spain, of Roman Catholic Spanish parents, rushed to join the Crusades and rid Jerusalem of people born in Islamic Arabia of Muslim Arab parents. Few (none?) of the Spanish or Arabian men involved had any knowledge whatsoever about the faith or the customs of the “other,” besides the learned-at-home knowledge that the “other” was wrong and evil.
If we know the history of our local football team, go to the same clubs and churches as the boys’ parents, and have even known most of the boys since they were babies, it is easy to project our own self-perceived virtues onto them on the night of the Big Game. It is also easy to suspect the opposing team, most of whose players have last names that end in a vowel, and who arrive at the game in an air-conditioned bus (said with a sneering emphasis), and whose hometown is notorious for issuing speeding tickets, as being cheaters, ringers, or 20 year old Seniors. It is equally easy to project our very quietly self-perceived flaws onto “them.”
We all agree that it was evil that motivated Arab men to fly airliners into the Twin Towers. But we don’t all agree that it is evil for the U.S. to bomb a country that had nothing to do with that horrible act. We are here, born here, “my father served in WWII,” and so we are good and they are bad, and most of the basis for that attitude, I maintain, is happenstance rather than substantial.
Every faith group is guilty of these same things- some more than others. And all this has been written for the purpose of introducing a series of essays which I will start in the next day or two, and which may change my standing in some people’s eyes, but which I can no longer be quiet about. I must stop feeling around in the dark of my own soul, and turn on some lights. If I don’t, I’m just going to keep banging my head (and heart) on things I’m tired of banging into.