Why are Certain People More Religious than Others? Answering a Reader’s Question


I have a regular reader who emails me questions that he is currently wrestling with as someone who has recently lost faith. I am always glad to lend my opinion and share my own experiences, even though at the end of the day that’s all it amounts to–me just yapping my mouth. But if it adds some sort of consolation or comfort to someone else, then I’m more than happy to oblige.

My reader wrote me asking the following (I trimmed it a bit due to length, but I left the gist of it):

Hi Tristan,

I’ve got one question for you. I cannot understand one thing. Why are some people, like you or me, (more) susceptible to religion than others?

For example, in my family everyone goes by as Christian on paper, except my father and sister. But the thing is none of these relatives of mine even have a Bible in their homes, let alone go to church. It was only me who got interested in Jesus Christ beyond what is considered ordinary Christian life in my country…

Is it a religious gene?… It seems to me that the whole religious business along with the Bible, Church, and the story of God is just the (an) invention… That is my impression. But the thing is and what I have been asking myself is: why one earth was I trying to believe in the first place?

I am not a Christian any more, do not believe in a personal God, and all those years spent believing seem foolishly wasted. It is really foolish to believe so why was I so foolish? This puzzles me.

My response was as follows:

***

Sorry for the late response. Things have been hectic. I’m burning the candle from both ends, as the late Christopher Hitchens used to say.

Regarding your question about a “religious gene”, the idea you propose about certain people being more religious due to genetics has been a line of inquiry I’ve wondered about ever since I heard Richard Dawkins mention it as a possibility.

Although, I don’t know how much our propensity to believe is genetics per se, as it’s outside my knowledge base, I only know a few studies that investigate the question very thoroughly. It seems the research I’ve read suggests it is a real possibility, but as always, more research needs to be done.

Personally, I am inclined to think that it is probably more environmental than genetic.

In fact, our environments influence our genetics more than anything, so even if there is a genetic trait that makes people more or less religious, I would bet this influence is still mainly governed by our surrounding environments.

Jared Diamond’s wonderful book Guns, Germs, and Steel shows how certain key inventions and cultural innovations changed the entire course of human history.

Diamond mentions that:

“History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.”

What’s great about his book is that he examines the sociological component, that is to say the human aspect, of each of these main historical and cultural movements–and he shows that many of these changes occurred because the environments of humans changed.

New technologies made it easier to mine and refine steel, trade routes improved, better steel led to the ability to build larger buildings which could contain more people and cities grew bigger. Larger populations with more people traveling on new steel railroads and boats caused the rapid spread of germs to other cultures and countries, which in turn sparked the need for better medicine.

This, in turn, generated more medical research and helped improve medicine, which made it safer and easier to travel and to live in densely populated cities, etc. and etc.

In another one of Diamond’s works, Why is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality, he has this to say:

“Perhaps our greatest distinction as a species is our capacity, unique among animals, to make counter-evolutionary choices.”

I think religion is much the same way.

There may be social reasons humans grouped together in close-knit societies, and a byproduct of this change may have been religion, which at it most basic seems to be a kind of tribalism which aims at maintaining strict allegiance to the group and being distrustful of outsiders.

At the same time, all the harm religion seems to cause can, in my mind, be equated to our capacity to make, as Diamond so astutely observes, counter-evolutionary choices.

Now a days, with the Internet, global communication, smart phones, easy, affordable, and expedient International travel, tribal borders has all but shrunk away to nothing. We are truly becoming a global society. And time marches on.

In this context, of ever shrinking borders, where cultures and ideas rub up against one another, and sometimes clash, it seems that certain religious ideas never had the ability to leave their local region until widespread communication and travel allowed these ideas to spread all across the globe.

Some have likened the harmful aspect of these tribal religious beliefs to a virus. But I think it’s probably more nuanced than that.

Many of the ideas have a universal appeal, which is why they hang on. Many people can relate to them, because at their most basic they are still “tribal” stories in nature. Stories about moral values, upholding the values of the group, and keeping your faith safe from those things which would seek to dismantle the harmony of your particular group. This exclusivism often breeds an overzealous conservative streak in those who fear liberalism as a “dangerous” change that will erode and destroy their traditions way of life and as an affront to their conservative beliefs.  Yet the world continues to become more multicultural, and it seems to me liberalism is the only way to engage other cultures and people’s without causing unnecessary friction by placing the ‘other’ into opposition with oneself or one’s group.

I only mention all this because, in my experience, when I was in a secluded yet highly religious environment, conservative values were always championed and liberal values always demonized. There was no thought about inclusiveness, it was all about the community, the pride we had as a group, as a church, as a town, as a Republican, as conservative safeguarding our traditional values, as if they were sacred cows that should never be challenged or revised, lest they be tainted by the evils of the outside world.

It was in this sphere is where my religious beliefs and values were instilled.

And to a small degree, I would say when the environment changes the conditions of what we are exposed to changes, and we will change. We are all the product of our environments, after all.

And this is what religion tries to vehemently avoid. Religion doesn’t want to be accommodationalist to the outside world and to other worldviews. It wants the outside world and all other worldviews to be accommodating to it and, often times, its archaic, outmoded, even dangerous rituals, practices, and beliefs.

Now, I know not all religions are created equal and not all religion is entirely bad. But it is in this sphere, this circle of conservatism, where religion operates and it uses this political element as a wedge to separate the heretical views of the world outside and creates for itself opposition. This is why religion always seems to butt heads with other ideologies, whether social, political, or moral.

I know, I’m going on at length about this, but bare with me. My point is coming.

I know that i was extremely religious from about 12 years old until I turned 18 and entered into college / university. The reason, I think (looking back now), is that I still hadn’t developed enough critical thinking skills to evaluate ideas on my own, and I simply didn’t have exposure to other ideas. In my small community, which was highly religious (a church on every street corner for a community of less than 2,000 people) I had a selection of about 20 different churches to attend in my community. The only other thing there was 20 of in my town was bars and pubs.

To put this in perspective, my entire town had one only two grocery stores. But approximately a dozen bars and a dozen churches. So until I turned 21, drinking at all the bars was out of the question. But religion, there was plenty of that to go around.

Now, my parents came out of religious homes, but they were more along the liens of “cultural Christians.” That is, they were Christian in name mainly but didn’t attend church or practice any of the ritualistic elements. Well, my mother did for a long time, but then sort of stopped. I think she goes to church again now that she has remarried a devout religious man. But she’s happy, so that’s good.

My parents prayed sometimes, and would go to church on the main days like Easter and Christmas Eve, and if someone they knew died or got married, but that was about it for church services.

But not for me though. Not even by a long shot.

When I turned 14 I made the personal choice to devote my life to Christ.

Why?

Because my church had a robust youth ministry. We called it Youth-Group or Kids for Christ. It was sponsored by the church, which organized fun activities for the local youth, and it was always accompanied by bible studies and mini-sermons by either our pastor or youth pastor.

Namely, it was something to do. It kept me out of trouble, so it wasn’t all bad. But, in hindsight, it really did amount to basically a brainwashing camp. Because, when you think about it, what else were we learning?

I attended church and church related activities three times a week, and that was about the same amount of times I had math class per week at school. So, basically, I was learning about the Holy Bible just as intensely as I was any of my other studies at school. And, of course, school has distractions, like sports, and girls and what not. Not so much at church.

You see, when I was at church, I focused on church. I was focused on improving my relationship with God. I was focused on faith.

I read my Bible thoroughly. I read it before bed. I read it three times a week at Bible study. I read it on the weekends. Those were the stories I knew, and at school, mainly I was just getting watered down, general overviews of subjects. Nothing too in depth. I mean, we never really got into any subject in any detail unless it was an elective class and the teacher made sure we knew our stuff. My mythology class was one of the better classes I had in terms of content. My Shakespeare class was another one. It was the same teacher, and she really pushed us to read the material and learn it.

But at the same time, my general knowledge of history and science was pretty lacking. Math was a pain in the ass. School life was fine, but outside of that, all there was to do was sports or video games, and hang out with friends. Pretty much what every teenager these days does anyway. But there was no YouTube. I couldn’t just go on and listen to religious people debate atheists. There were no outside ideas streaming into my home. This stuff simply didn’t exist.

So I spent my free time in other ways.

Religion filled that niche for me.

So I grew more and more religious. And by the time I was 16 — Jesus and the saving grace of God was about all I could talk about. I was on fire for Christ, as we used to say. In the 90s, we called ourselves “Jesus Freaks.” A fitting name, because that’s exactly what we were.

At that time I started doing youth ministries, started traveling the U.S. to visit other Evangelical churches like my own, getting to know other Christians. And within this little sub-cultural of the greater Christian culture that saturates America, I had a lot of fun. Made a lot of friends.

And then, my religioisity started to get really extreme.

My friends and I began to burn all our music albums that weren’t Christian. We stopped watching movies that were rater R or even PG-13. We vowed not to let our girlfriends or the thought of sex distract us from our mission to be more Christlike.

I even got a summer job as a camp counselor at one of the better known Christian bible camps in my state, and they ran that thing exactly like a cult. We literally used emotional blackmail and fear tactics to scare young children into emotionally breaking down and accepting Christ. We called it “Witnessing.”

In retrospect, being a part of that Christian bible camp is one of my life’s greatest regrets. But at the time, I didn’t know what I was doing was a kind of sick and twisted psychological manipulation of young children’s minds.

I honestly thought I was doing God’s work, spreading the “good news” and sharing my faith while helping others to walk a righteous path with the Christian Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It was about fellowship and making lasting bonds with my fellow Christians.

And we rejoiced in this.

Perhaps the most ironic thing is, thought, that I am no longer in touch with any of the Christian friends I once had back then. Not really. Not since I left the faith. The only people I still talk to from my Bible camp days are those who, like me, left the faith.

But those that stayed true to their faith, every time I’ve reached out to them, although polite, they haven’t shown me the time of day. I can only think back to that religious tendency of wanting to shelter itself from those dangerous outside views that challenge it and which sometimes outright defy it. I know I bring a lot of that to the table in terms of my activism, and so I can’t blame my old religious friends for shying away from the Advocatus Atheist. I guess, in this respect, my zeal for the religious subject matter never truly dissipated. But instead of wasting precious hours of my day devoted to atheist, humanist, and secular activism, I have settled to just blog about these issues instead. 😉

So, okay, I’ve rambled on for far too long.

But my point is, once I left that religiously super-charge environment where there was no other stimuli, when I went out into the world and began thinking for myself, when I found other interests besides religion — because I learned there was other subjects in the world than religion — my mind expanded greatly.

College helped open my mind up even more, by challenging my limited knowledge and my views. My move to Japan tore my mind wide open to other possibilities and different worldviews. And somewhere along the way my religion fell out.

When you have an open mind, it’s really hard just to hold on to one thing. When you have many interests, you want to learn them all. When you gain new experiences, you can no longer pretend that you’ve experienced all you need to. When you obtain new knowledge, you cannot pretend you know all there is to know.

Between becoming better educated, learning to critically evaluate my beliefs, and having more experiences I realized that my religiosity was just a small part of who I was.

But it was a big part of who I was when I didn’t know anything else.

Finally, I will share one last quote from Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

“Two types of choices seem to me to have been crucial in tipping the outcomes [of the various societies’ histories] towards success or failure: long-term planning and willingness to reconsider core values. On reflection we can also recognize the crucial role of these same two choices for the outcomes of our individual lives.”

At any rate, I apologize for going on at length. I really don’t know the answer to the genetic aspect of being more or less religious, so I think I failed to answer your question, but it is fascinating to think about none-the-less. Hopefully I gave you something to chew on, if its any consolation.

Sincerely,

Tristan Vick aka The Advocatus Atheist

***

UPDATE:

My loyal reader responded with a nice compliment!

Thanks for the reply. Better late than never.

As for the length of your response I can only say that your emails have been so far of the highest quality possible despite their quantity. Your responses have always been informative and I have learned much from them….

Once again, thanks for sharing your experience.

All the best.


***

What a nice compliment! I was afraid I had bored them to death with my ramble. Anyway, I must say thanks for the compliment! I always enjoy hearing that my words are beneficial to someone and I’m not just wasting my breath.

😀

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