By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam
Throughout the world, the overwhelming majority of people who believe in, or otherwise feel emotionally linked to, a particular religion have been born into it. This fact has crucial implications for how most ‘believers’ come to develop notions of what they regard as ‘true’ and, conversely, ‘false’, religion.
For almost all people, their religious faith is something they inherit from their immediate families. From infancy itself, they are carefully socialized by their parents and other close relatives into accepting the doctrines, beliefs and rituals of the religion of their families. At this stage in their lives, children are most susceptible to the influence of their parents. Unable to think for themselves about matters such as religion, they naturally accept whatever is taught to them by their parents, whom they implicitly trust. Being wholly dependent—psychologically, emotionally and materially—on their parents, they automatically imbibe the religious beliefs and prejudices of the latter. This is how blind, unquestioning belief in the religion that they inherit at birth becomes so deeply-rooted in most people as to make it almost impossible for them to shake it off at a later stage in life. Along with this, in many cases children are also socialized by their parents into believing that their religion alone is true and that all others are false, impure or deviant. Naturally, all these religious prejudices—about the supposed superiority of their own religion and the putative falsity of all other religions—that they inherit at this impressionable age remain with many people deep into adulthood and last till they die.
The fact of the matter, then, is that what almost all ‘believers’ —irrespective of religion—passionately regard as ultimate religious truth is simply the collection of religious beliefs, rituals and prejudices that they unthinkingly inherit from their parents, and which, through very effective indoctrination, they are trained into blindly believing as Absolute Truth. This means that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Sikhs, ‘pagans’ and so on are such only because they happened to have been born into families linked to the particular religion that they grew up to believe in. If almost all ‘believers’ regard their respective religions as the best among all or as the truest or as most fully manifesting the Ultimate Truth, it is almost inevitably only because this is what they have been reared into believing by their parents from a very young age itself. Such faith in the superiority of their inherited religion is rarely, if ever, based on a careful, objective, unbiased and neutral examination of all religions, including their own.
The reality of the inherited nature of notions of religious truth that most ‘believers’ adhere to does not stop here, however. Each religion is susceptible to multiple interpretations, and this explains the existence of fierce sectarian divisions within each of them. Each sect within a larger religious tradition claims to monopolise religious truth in quite the same way as most religious traditions themselves do. Here, too, membership in a particular religious sect is almost always based on one’s birth in it and consequent socialization into its doctrines from a young age. Almost inevitably, a person is a Sunni or a Shia Muslim, and, then, a Deobandi Sunni or a Barelvi Sunni or an Ithna Ashari Shia or an Ismaili Shia, not on the basis of conscious, informed choice made in adulthood, when alone such a choice can be made, or as a result of a careful comparative study of the competing doctrines of these rival Islamic sects, but simply because he or she was born into a particular sect whose beliefs he or she is then socialized into believing represents the ‘true Islam’—which, in his or her mind, is equated with Absolute Truth. The same principle holds in the case of sectarian divisions in other religious communities, too.
What does all this mean for our understanding of religious truth? Quite simply, it indicates that for the vast majority of us, what we fervently regard as ‘true religion’ (which a very great many of us spend our entire lives ardently believing in, defending, and passionately seeking to convert ‘non-believers’ into accepting, through persuasion or even, if necessary, coercion) is simply the bundle of religious beliefs, rituals, traditions and prejudices of the families we happen to have been born into and which, through no fault of our own, we have been made to believe represents Absolute Truth—even if it really doesn’t!
That most people simply inherit from their families their understandings of what they regard as Ultimate Truth indicates another key aspect of their religiosity: a fundamental inability or unwillingness to search, think and experience the Truth for themselves. Being effectively drilled into accepting the religious beliefs of their families as supposedly representing the Ultimate Truth, they see no reason to search for such Truth, for, so they think, they already possess it! So effective is this indoctrination in most cases that to even contemplate such a search comes to be regarded as a dangerous lack of faith that supposedly merits Divine wrath. Little wonder, then, that relatively few people are able to escape the totalitarian religious brainwashing that they are subjected to as children, and relatively fewer are courageous enough to question if their inherited religion is truly the perfect embodiment of Ultimate Truth or Divine Will that its unthinking votaries insist it is.
Yoginder Sikand is a regular columnist for New Age Islam