An Accident of Birth

An Accident of Birth

Duane McClearn

June, 2020

The overwhelming majority of Saudi Arabians are Muslims. The overwhelming majority of Saudi Arabians a generation ago were Muslims, as was the generation before that and before that. The majority of the people of India are Hindus. Their parents and grandparents were most likely Hindus. Most Brazilians are Christians (Catholics, in particular). Their parents were most likely Christians, and their parents’ parents were Christians, as well. Similarly, in the U.S. most religious people are Christians, but whatever faith Americans hold, it is likely that of their parents. Among American Christians, people tend to stick to their parents’ denomination. Catholics tend to stay Catholic generation after generation. Mormons tend to marry and raise Mormons.

It’s not as if people are generally questioning their own religion, working through it, comparing it to other religions, then concluding that their own is obviously the true one (or True One). Very few religious people, it would seem, pause for reflection about religions other than their own. It may be that few pause to reflect, or have knowledge, even on their own. In the U.S., for example, biblical illiteracy is remarkably high, especially considering how many politicians and other public figures declare that this is a Christian nation. In his book, Religious Literacy, author Stephen Prothero refers to  a study that found, among other things, that only half of American adults could not name even one of the four Gospels of the New Testament and most couldn’t name the first book of the Bible. And it isn’t as if atheists are dragging the averages down. In fact, atheists tend to score as well as, if not higher, than most Christian denominations on measures of Bible knowledge.

Several years ago I was teaching a college course about global issues. One day I asked students to take out a sheet of paper and explain: Why  aren’t you a Hindu? I already knew that none of them was a Hindu, and that all were raised either Christian or Jewish in the U.S. They asked for guidance. What, exactly, were the beliefs of Hinduism? What were the practices of Hindus? It didn’t really matter for the purposes of their assignment, I responded. You know that it is the majority religion of India, and you have the sense that it is different from Christianity and Judaism in its beliefs and practices. So write away. They struggled a bit more. They tried to get me to divulge more about Hinduism. I wouldn’t.

Perhaps I was being too obtuse. What I was trying to get at was that it didn’t really matter what religion I asked them to write about; it could have been Zoroastrianism or Jainism or Kemetism (the religion of the ancient Egyptians).  It didn’t matter if they knew what the beliefs were or had examined them carefully, and weighed their merits. The reason that they weren’t Hindus was almost certainly that they weren’t raised as Hindus, and the reason that they weren’t raised as Hindus was most likely because they didn’t have Hindu parents and were not born in India. So to the Christians in my class, I asked: how many of you have seriously studied other religions before settling on Christianity. The answer: none. The reason that they were Christians is that that is how they were brought up–their parents were Christians, their neighborhoods were Christian, their towns (to a greater or lesser extent) were Christian, their churches were Christian (obviously), and so on.

So I asked the obvious question. If you had been raised in Saudi Arabia by Muslim parents, do you think that you would now be a Muslim? The answer: Well, yes, almost certainly. And if you had been raised in a Hindu village in India by Hindu parents, would you now be a Hindu? Yes, of course, they replied.

I would venture to guess that most people of faith don’t come to embrace a religion based on considering the various religions on offer around the globe. Rather, they accept without question what they are told by parents and the others around them starting at a young age. This means that for the majority of the world’s religious people, their faith is really just based on an accident of birth, much as if you are likely to be a Denver Broncos fan if you are born and raised in Colorado and a Seattle Seahawks fan if you are born and raised in Washington state (that is, if you care about football).

If there is a single True Faith, and billions of people seem to believe that there is, and if you are rewarded by a celestial being or beings for adhering to it and punished for not adhering to it, then I have to conclude that it is one of the big lucky life lottery draws for the people who happen to be born in the right place to the right parents.

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