“meta”-beliefs: the stuff people “believe” about their “beliefs”

As I’ve covered elsewhere on this blog (in rather obsessive – and admittedly strident – detail), the fact that religion has anything at all to do with either “geography” or “demography” is sufficient grounds to justify being extremely skeptical about “religion” as such..

It is also sufficient grounds for being extremely skeptical about the claims made by self-identified “believers”/”practitioners” of those religions, as well.

Consider the hypothetical “Billy-Bob” from my new favorite tongue-twister:

Billy-Bob is a Baptist because Billy-Bob was born in the “Bible-Belt”.

On one level, the above statement should be utterly uncontroversialOf Course he is!

We all know this, to the point where it is even possible to build “humor” around it:

Now, the “humor” in the above comes from the (regrettably) self-evident fact that it would be so blindingly unlikely for the above scenario to happen, as to seem incongruous.

Barring something truly out of the ordinary, Billy-Bob will NEVER become a Buddhist.

Moreover, folks like the Pew Research rely on the above fact (as a generalization), and use it to make “predictions” about the growth (or decline) of specific religions based on the breeding-patterns of those who (currently) self-identify with a particular religion.

Their “reasoning” on this is (regrettably) sound: The vast majority of religions maintain and propagate themselves NOT by means of reasoned “conversion” of adults – but by “breeding” – and then indoctrinating – the next generation of “members”.

What happens to religions who refrain from doing so?  (IE: religious groups who not only restrict participation to ADULT “converts”, but who also refrain from indoctrinating children?



EXTINCTION, that’s what.


Now, let me be be clear about this:  My primary concern here is NOT a detailed discussion of the myriad of truth-claims/practices etc. of any particular religion.  (IE: this is not – primarily – about whether or not Christianity/Islam/Judaism/Hinduism/Shinto are TRUE.

Rather, it is about the transmission vector used to propagate them.


So, let’s consider “Billy-Bob”.

“You’d be a Muslim if you were born in Pakistan” is a concise way to express the observation, but it isn’t precisely correct. Better would be: “People tend to reflect the religion of their environment.” Or: “We find a very strong correlation between belief and the environment of the believer. Why is that?”

While adults can switch religions, this is rare. The recent Pew Research study of the changes in world religions estimates that of the 8.1 billion believers in 2050, just 65 million (less than one percent) will have switched into their belief (chart).

People don’t pick their religion by throwing a dart at a grid of the hundreds or thousands of religions of history. They don’t even roll the dice and pick a religion based on its popularity at the moment (31% Christian, 23% Muslim, 15% Hindu, etc.). The religion of young adults is very strongly correlated with that of their culture.


Now, this presents a serious — hell, insurmountable – problem for our hypothetical “Billy-Bob”:  IF “Billy-Bob” really stopped to think about this issue rationally (provided he is even aware of the whole “geography of religion” thing, at all):  he is confronted with the following question:

Does he really BELIEVE the various truth-claims made by the religion foisted on him during  childhood?   WHY does he engage in the “practices” associated with it?

In other words: is Billy-Bob a Baptist because it is “True” – or because Mommy and Daddy SAID it was true?

I think that this – more than anything else – is why people tend to get so offended when others fail to uncritically kowtow to their supposed “beliefs”/practices: it represents MY failure to uncritically APE and PARROT YOUR “Mommy and Daddy”.

Now, nobody wants to admit that their “beliefs” and “practices” boil down to a mere accident of geography/demography..  “Billy-Bob” simply cannot allow himself to even consider the possibility that HIS “beliefs” and “practices” originate from the same source as those of (for example), those who were culturally “programmed” to be Hindus/Buddhists/Hasidic jews, etc.

Billy-Bob desperately needs to lie to himself about that.   THEY might believe/practice “false religions” – but NOT HIM.  Hell, depending on his religious programming, he might be explicitly required to engage in “missionary” work, in an attempt to ‘convert” those damned heathens.

Of even just knock on doors obsessively

On one hand, I feel bad for Billy-Bob (or Shlomo, or anyone else “struggling” with the beliefs/practices foisted on them during childhood).

On the other hand, I am much less likely to take their attempts to “explain” or “defend” those beliefs/practices seriously than I otherwise would:



I simply won’t be able to refrain from asking myself whether any such “apologetics” is merely window-dressing to cover up your real answer: “Because Mommy and Daddy said so, that’s why!”

Now, by the same token, the above will probably make me appear to be much more “tolerant” and “accepting” of your (supposed) beliefs, and the “practices” to which they (supposedly) lead.  I’m not going to go out of my way to “offend” you, or even call “bullshit” on them to your face — because that would be an affront to your “Traditions” (IE: “What did you say about my Mommy and daddy?”).

Moreover, it would be like yanking the security blanket away from a small child.

I am still most likely going to regard your (supposed) “beliefs”/religious “practices” as mere window-dressing related to your “upbringing”.

For example: I have no more ‘respect” for the (supposed) theological convictions of some random Amish guy than I do for the fact that he speaks English with a goofy accent, or wears that specific style of hat, or suchlike.

ALL of those things originate from the same  – unexamined – source:

That’s how “Mommy and Daddy” trained Li’l Jakie Stolzfus to behave.

Jakie see, Jakie do.

That’s it.







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