I recently finished reading God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. I loved reading it, partly because he was (heh) preaching to the choir, but also because of how eloquently Hitchens writes. He runs through the usual litany of complaints about religion, with which I agree enthusiastically, but he raises one point that, if not the thesis of the book, is probably the most compelling: “If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world.”
That got me thinking about the various categories of belief that I’ve seen in people, and what I think causes the differences. I haven’t spent a great deal of time thinking about it, mind you, but now that I have an MBA I feel compelled to put things into 2×2 matrices, and I think it works.
First, I suspect that if a child isn’t raised with any exposure to religion, they rarely go on to count themselves as believers. I think that’s a rare situation though; most people I’ve ever met had some exposure, if not to church, at least to biblical teachings.
For those who did receive religious instruction as children, I think this is where the matrix comes in. Some of these people will, over the course of their lives, question their religion for some reason. This puts them on the left side of the table. If they then perceive some kind of need for their religion — perhaps a loved one is ill and prayer provides some comfort, or perhaps their church is an important organizing principle and social aspect of their life — they may not feel compelled to cast off their religious beliefs, but retain them, or least parts of them, to keep from unbalancing their own life. I would place — and this is my opinion, not their suggestion — my parents in this category I’ve labeled Traditionalist…they’re too thoughtful and rational to have never questioned their faith, but both see great value in their involvement in their local church. My mother is certainly a believer — she is/was a church trustee, plays the organ every week, leads the choir and is involved in her regional presbytery — but I’ve always thought of her as more spiritual than religious.
I place myself, obviously, in the Non-believer quadrant. As a child I never thought of religious teachings as anything but fables, and many years ago the lack of evidence in a god prompted me to question and reject the hypothesis. I’ve never doubted that thought process.
Of those who have never seriously questioned their faith, I think they follow the same thought process. My theory is that the default position for those on the right side of the matrix would be the Lazy category. I could just as easily have labeled this quadrant ‘Scared’, since (as Hitchens points out) the stories used to ensure compliance among children are ones of eternal damnation, not to mention hairy palms, but ‘lazy’ — as in, intellectually lazy — will do for now. Many people go to church, or don’t but still say they believe in a god, because they were raised to do so and haven’t really thought about why they do it. This isn’t tradition, like those in the upper-left quadrant, but rather habit and fear. These are the people who, when asked why they say they believe in God, answer, “Might as well, just in case.”
Finally, the upper-right: the Fundamentalists, who have never questioned their faith, and have good reason never to do so. They gain some advantage, or perceived advantage, from their religion. Some wield it to get rich or gain political power, though you could argue these are actually corrupt Traditionalists. A rare and dangerous few fuel extremist, even murderous, tendencies with it. Mainly, I think that most in this category simply have a need to feel right. I suspect a defining line between Traditionalists and Fundamentalists could be the desire to impose their beliefs on others, by recruiting, campaigning, altering legislation, etc.
Of these, I find the Lazy category the most frustrating. These people seem to think they’re religious, and speak (and vote!) accordingly, but they don’t follow most tenets of their religion. It’s peer pressure, or latent childhood fear. It’s this tragically silent majority that could make the difference in the world Hitchens speaks of.