A Brummie friend told me about his upbringing. ‘If I’d been born in Pakistan,’ he said, ‘I’d be a Muslim. If I were from Israel, I’d be a Jew, if from Italy, I’d be a Catholic. When you’re from my part of Birmingham, you’re an Aston Villa supporter. It doesn’t occur to you to be anything else.’ He added, ‘I was in secondary school before I met anyone who supported any other team.’
I know supporting a football team is not the same as following a religion, but can you see the parallels? Both sets of beliefs are acquired in more or less the same way.
When we’re born, we have no beliefs. Like language, they are acquired as we grow. At first we get them from the people who raise us and those with whom we grow up – parents, siblings, relatives, friends and teachers. Later on the peer group and media play a big part.
Most of us tend to conform from an early age; it’s hard to resist when everyone around you thinks and behaves a certain way and there are serious consequences of not conforming.
Young children don’t have the same critical faculties as adults, and by the time we’re able to work things out for ourselves, we’re already programmed. Of course religious leaders are well aware of this. The Jesuits believe that if they can train a boy for his first seven years, he is theirs for life. That’s how strong our programming is.
As we mature, we gain new knowledge and experiences and begin to interpret the world for ourselves. We acquire new beliefs and let go of some of our previous beliefs, but few of us change completely. Research shows that few religious people change their religion. This is partly because the programming process is so strong, and also because people can be treated very badly in some parts of the world for speaking out against the local religion and way of life.
Once we accept a set of beliefs as true, they become part of who we are, and if we depart from them we feel profoundly uncomfortable (this is known as ‘cognitive dissonance’). If someone criticizes our beliefs, we feel personally under attack. We fight to defend them. Then no logic, no evidence, no arguments can budge us. Every new item of information is screened, and if it doesn’t correspond with our current beliefs, rejected.
We certainly don’t want any inconvenient facts getting in the way unless – and this is the only exception – we decide to change. If the new evidence is so convincing that we feel the old belief is no longer true, we can drop it and adopt a new one. Sometimes an individual decides to believe something because it meets their current needs or just because they want to. Then the very same process that used to reinforce the old belief – cognitive dissonance and so on – sets to work to defend the new belief. And it doesn’t matter a jot if the new belief is actually ‘true’!
Christianity is full of inconvenient facts. Wake up! It’s time to stop looking at the Twenty-First Century world through First Century eyes!
©David Lawrence Preston, 30.8.2016
Follow me on Facebook and Twitter @David_L_Preston
Balboa Press, 2015
 A soccer team from the English Midlands.