Did You Inherit Your Religion?

The vast majority of people in the world automatically and unquestioningly inherit their religion from their parents.For something as important as religion, why are we so reluctant to shop around?

One Saturday morning I was sipping my coffee and reading the newspaper when the doorbell rang. This was an unusual occurrence as we lived in a somewhat isolated log cabin in the mountains west of Denver. At the door stood two attractive college-age girls who wanted to talk to me about becoming a Jehovah’s Witness.

Normally I would politely say, “No thanks” and return to my paper, but that morning I decided to engage with them. After hearing their initial pitch, I asked one of them, “Are your parents Jehovah’s Witnesses?”

“Our whole family is,” she replied.

“Do you think religion is an important thing for people to have in their lives?” “Very,” she replied, and I agreed.

“How many other religions have you studied and investigated?”

“None.”

“Is a car an important thing in your life?” I asked.

“Well, yes, but not as important as religion.”

Again I agreed. “What kind of car do you drive?”

“A Toyota.”

“Is that what your parents drive?”

“No.”

“Why not?” I inquired.

“Because I like Toyotas better.” She was starting to get impatient but politely continued to humor me.

“How do you know?”

“Because I like the way my Toyota looks and drives, plus it was inexpensive and gets good gas mileage.” I nodded toward my Toyota sitting in the driveway and agreed.

“How did you know that about your car when you bought it?”

“I test drove different cars and talked to my friends about their cars.” she said, increasingly exasperated.

“So you checked out lots of different cars before deciding on your Toyota,” I gently summarized, “but your religion, which is much more important, you inherited from your parents without knowing anything about the alternatives?”

“Yeah,” she replied rather sheepishly, catching my drift.

“I’ll tell you what,” I said. “Spend the next five years investigating and the other great religions of the world and then if you still want to talk to me about becoming a Jehovah’s Witness, we’ll talk.”

The girls, realizing they had a hopeless case on their hands, thanked me for my time and left.

The vast majority of people worldwide inherit their religion—one of the most important things in their lives—unquestioningly from their parents, without ever investigating the alternatives. Many arrogantly believe that their religion is the only way to salvation and that the vast majority who don’t share their beliefs will go to hell.Some believe that other religions are heresy, and a few will even fight and die in the name of their religion.

Most people are incurious about religion and simply want to be told what to believe without personal investigation.Such investigation is, after all, a huge task which most people are not cut out for.This is OK; there is nothing wrong with inheriting the religion of our parents.This is why the Dalai Lama encourages people to follow the religion of the culture in which they were raised, as opposed to proselytizing Buddhism.

But when we assume that the religion we inherited is superior to other religions, the only way to God and that other religions are wrong without knowing anything about them or the cultures in which they evolved, then we create serious problems.Such problems are at the crux of many of the conflicts in the world today and throughout history.

It seems that those who do inherit their religion would acknowledge their limited understanding of other religions and adopt a posture of tolerance, not dogmatism, toward them.But sadly, it seems that the opposite is true–the less one knows about other religions, the more likely s/he is to be intolerant of them, fueling the fires of fundamentalism.Yet Islam has just as much meaning and validity for those in the Middle East and Hinduism has just as much meaning and validity for those in India, as Christianity does for those in the West.

Did you inherit your religion?

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13 comments ↓

#1 KWiz on 12.19.07 at 12:15 pm

Great post! I love how you engaged the young ladies – very lovingly, not attacking them or feeling superior. Thank you for a wonderful post.

#2 jrpenberthy on 01.08.08 at 11:09 pm

I saw a documentary on Mormons on PBS and the 2 kids who went out on their year-long missionary stint converted a total of 1 person. Now that’s devotion! Most evangelicals and spiritual liberals are so entrenched that one side rarely influences the other.

Every aspect of our society operates under the premise of logic and rational thought except religion, which operates under age old tradtions. Given that we’re in a rational age I suspect that Christianity will slowly undergo major changes in the next century.

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#4 Anmol Mehta | Mastery of Meditation on 03.14.08 at 9:57 am

Hi John,

Terrific post. Loved the dialogue. Have featured the article as well in the blog carnival.

Cheers,
Anmol

#5 John Penberthy on 03.14.08 at 10:12 am

Glad you enjoyed it Anmol. Quite a comprehensive site you have there. Namaste, John

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#7 Sandy Levin on 03.25.08 at 5:18 pm

Yes, as a child I inherited my family’s religion. Then as an adult, I gave it up. I did study other religions, but at the time, I rejected them. Now, I consider myself spiritual. I practice yoga and meditation and contemplate the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. I’ve found there are many similarities in different religions and I’m finally coming to the point in my life where I accept that each person must follow God in their own way.

#8 joanthemaid on 06.27.10 at 9:00 am

I did inherit my “beliefs” (I’m a second-generation atheist) but I take any opportunity I can find to discuss it with religious people ot theists. I like hearing their arguments and experiences. have to say though that none of them ever convinced me.

#9 John Penberthy on 07.03.10 at 9:22 am

The 1 thing that convinces me is not the existence of life or humans, but simply existence itself. It seems to me that something is behind/of the existence of the universe, though it certainly isn’t the anthropogenic/centric God most of humanity believes in

#10 Chris Murphy on 07.15.10 at 5:21 am

Both my parents are religious. My older sister is religious.
My brother and I are both atheist. It is about the only topic we agree on actually.

I think more people need to investigate the possibility that all religions are absolutely wrong. I think the only logically sound conclusion to all the supporting evidence is that god does not exist in any form. Unfortunately, this is about the one thing that religious people will absolutely refuse to consider.

#11 Stan on 05.06.11 at 3:27 pm

If your one of Jehovahs Witnesses you have to understand other peoples beliefs or you wouldn’t be able to speak with them at the doors. Do you think God would make it that hard to get to know him, it is us who make it hard to get to know by trying to fit God into what we want.

#12 John Penberthy on 05.07.11 at 9:31 am

Sorry, Stan, but I don’t believe in an anthropocentric God (the big spirit-man in the sky who thinks and acts like human beings). This is mankind’s single greatest hangup in spiritual understanding.

#13 Steve Oakley on 08.28.12 at 10:00 am

Great article, although Jehova’s Witnesses don’t believe in Hell.

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