The Contingency of Belief: Present Beliefs Stem from Past Happenstance

Robert J. Muscat

We live in a time marked by fundamentalist resurgence. In some societies, it is merely fervent and assertive. In others, it is violent and genocidal. The vast majority of believers, now and in past eras, came by their faith through historical and biological happenstance: they were either born into it or forced into it. Those accidents could easily have turned out differently. This means that today, any believer among us could have been born into a religion other than the one he or she now professes; we could be utterly convinced that this other religion is the only true faith, and that the faith we now in fact profess is utterly false. With the benefit of this historical perspective, believers might reconsider their religious certainty.

Conversion Archaeology and Inherited Religion

People who believe their religion is the only true faith (and therefore better than the other, false ones), may never ponder the fact that their own ancestors believed, just as fervently, in earlier religions—probably several different ones as we go back through different time periods. Furthermore, the forebears who first adopted the present faith that believers now hold may have done so only by necessity, even under coercion and in spite of disbelief. They may have made a show of adopting the new beliefs, without really believing them, in order to survive. For example, if you are a Lutheran of central- or northern-European descent, you owe your religion to ancestors from a realm whose rulers opted for Lutheranism in 1648 under the Treaty of Westphalia. This treaty (enacted to end the Wars of Religion in Europe) forced your ancestors to adopt the religion of their sovereign (or move to live in some other state ruled by a sovereign who had chosen another faith), no matter what your family at the time really believed.

If you are a Christian of Middle-Eastern descent, you may have inherited your faith from one of the seventy thousand people forcibly baptized by Byzantine emperor Justinian in the mid–sixth century. Many Orthodox Christians owe their present-day theology to Justinian’s imposition, by persecution, of the decision of the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which rejected the Monophysite belief that Christ had only a single nature that was both divine and human. This is no longer a burning issue between the surviving Monophysite churches of today (for example, Ethiopian Orthodox) and the Roman Catholic and other non-Monophysite descendants. Whether you are a Monophysite or not today (assuming you have even heard of these distinctions) depends on your parents’ lineage.

If your Latin-American ancestry goes back to before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors, your forebears were forced to convert to Roman Catholicism. Many such communities still practice vestiges of their pre-Catholic ancestral faiths.

Doctrinaire Sunnis have long condemned Shiism as enough of a departure from true Islam to qualify as apostasy. It is ironic that believers who support punishment for this apostasy are themselves descendants of ancestors who were apostates if they were among those willingly adopting Islam, denying the beliefs they had held in their previous religions. If you are of Middle-Eastern Muslim descent, you might find that prior to (perhaps forced) conversion to Islam in the eighth century, your ancestors, going backward in time, were Eastern Rite Christians, Gnostic Christians, Christian Jews (in the first century CE), and Jews (for one thousand years before)—who in turn were preceded by Baal-worshipping ancestors and even earlier paganisms. Each converting ancestral generation would have been guilty of apostasy in the eyes of its elders.

Adherents of Protestant churches that broke away from other Protestant churches in the past century or two, which earlier had broken off from Catholicism, would find a similar layering of their families’ beliefs, a history of heresies and apostasies. An Iranian Shiite’s ancestors going back may have been Sunni Muslim, Mazdak, Manichaean, Arian Christian, Zoroastrian, and before that worshippers of the Elamite or Sumerian gods of Persia. How does one respect one’s forebears if one condemns and despises the religious “truths” they successively held?

Not all converts condemn their abandoned faiths. Take, for example, a Christian on one of the islands of Indonesia, engaged in occasional violent struggles with fellow—but Islamic—Indonesians. This Christian’s forebears converted not very long ago from Islam, which reached Indonesia in the eleventh century and became dominant by 1600. Before that, his or her earlier ancestors were probably Hindu for three or four centuries; before that, Buddhist for perhaps five hundred years; and, before that, Hindu for an even earlier ancient stretch. Finally, and earliest, was an era over thousands of years, when all his or her (and all other Indonesians’) forebears were animist. Thus, a “dig” into the religious archaeology of our Indonesian Christian could uncover six layers of belief in one family line.

What is remarkable in the Indonesian case is the persistence of beliefs and practices from earlier layers. Indonesian Muslims today are likely to be knowledgeable, and relaxed, about the fact that their religious ideas, while mainly and formally Muslim, are actually a loose syncretism, a mix of beliefs going back through the layers, including the deep animist past. It would not be surprising if today’s tiny group of jihadists in Indonesia share the same residual pre-Islamic spirit beliefs as the majority of Indonesians.

As our ancestors successively abandoned their religions, even if reluctantly at first, they also discarded their former gods. The famous American curmudgeon H. L. Mencken wrote an essay, “Memorial Service,” mocking over 150 divinities all “gone down the chute.” While some of these gods’ names remain familiar—Baal, Isis, Saturn, Odin, and Istar—most are now obscure if not totally forgotten: Ninnib (Sumerian farmer-god); Llaw Gyffes (Welsh god born of the virgin goddess Aranrhod); Ogma (Irish); Zer-panitu (Babylonian mother-goddess); Hadad (Semite rain god); and Marduk (chief god of Babylon).

In sum, a dig into the religious history of all of us would reveal that we all have ancestors who adopted one or another of their faiths under duress, or who were, in good faith, others.

Alternative Histories: Alternative Religions

Abrahamic religions teach that history has been divinely ordained, or at least heavily influenced by God’s hand. However, if we suspend any idea of historical inevitability, we can enjoy the mind-widening “What if?” game that historians sometimes play. This is a thought experiment to identify possible consequences if specific key events had turned out differently. (For example, what if Pickett’s Charge had succeeded in breaking the Union line on Cemetery Ridge in the Battle of Gettysburg?)

In the eighth century, the Arab surge through North Africa crossed over into Spain and southern France. A raiding party reached as far as Tours, deep in western France. In a skirmish there, in 732, the Christian Franks’ victory reversed the Muslim advance. From this encounter emerged Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire, which confined Muslim expansion into Western Europe to the Iberian Peninsula (and later, a piece of Italy). Historian Barry S. Strauss has imagined the possible consequences if the battle had been won by the Arabs. Their surge could have continued, bringing Western Europe into the Muslim, rather than the Christian, world. Strauss cites the great historian Edward Gibbon: Tours was “an encounter which would change the history of the whole world.”

Imagine another “What if?”: suppose the Asian religions and ethical systems had preempted or prevailed over the Abrahamic, or that Christian conversion in Europe had remained a minor movement. The entire history of religion in the West, if not in the world as a whole, could have changed. One pivotal event that could have produced such a radically different history was King Sennacherib’s (plague-induced) withdrawal from his siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE. Twenty-two years earlier, the Assyrians had conquered the northern Hebrew kingdom, Israel, and forced the inhabitants into exile in Mesopotamia. The exiles, the famed “Ten Lost Tribes,” assimilated there and vanished to history. If Sennacherib had prevailed in 701 and taken the remaining two Hebrew tribes into similar exile, Judaism might have disappeared; without Judaism, Christianity and Islam might never have emerged.

A second pivotal religious event was Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. Before Constantine, Rome had persecuted the Christians. In 312 CE, Constantine won a crucial battle against a rival. Before the battle, Constantine reported that he saw a vision of the cross in the sky, under which were the words (in Latin, of course) “Conquer in this Sign.” He ordered his troops to mark their shields with the sign of the cross and saw his victory as proof that the Christian God was real and had been on his side. The next year, now the unrivaled Roman emperor, Constantine ended persecution of Christians and endowed the Christian church with resources, resplendent buildings, and power.

The conversion of Constantine was the most important individual conversion (other than St. Paul’s) in the history of Christianity. Without his patronage, continuing persecution might have ground Christianity down, giving greater scope for the rival religions that faded away once Constantine made Christianity official. To get an idea of how contingent on happenstance Christian history has been, read the “What if?” imagined by James Carroll:


In a way, this is the second-greatest story ever told, at least concerning what we think of as Western civilization. After the death and Resurrection of Jesus, the conversion of Constantine may have been the most implication-laden event in Western history. If we rarely think so, it is because we take utterly for granted the structures of culture, mind, politics, spirituality, and even calendar (Sunday as holiday) to which it led. None of these structures was foreordained, and indeed, to grasp the epoch-shaping significance of Constantine’s embrace of Jesus, his sponsorship of Jesus’ cause, imagine how the history . . . would have unfolded had the young emperor been converted to Judaism instead. It is a nearly unthinkable turn in the story, imagined in retrospect, but in prospect such a conversion would have been no more unlikely than what happened, and to entertain the idea is to wonder how Judaism, instead of Catholicism, would have fared as the locus of political and religious dominance.

Two other great events could also have resulted in religious outcomes profoundly different from what the world has actually experienced. One was the battle of Salamis in 480 BCE. In the narrow Salamis straits, the outnumbered Greek fleet crushed the Persian armada, enabling Greece to defeat the Persian army and to end the Persian dream of extending its empire into the West. If the Persians had won, Zoroastrianism might have become the dominant religion in Europe. The other event was the early death of Alexander the Great at the age of thirty-two. Historian Arnold Toynbee sketched out an alternative history if Alexander had lived longer and had extended, and held, conquests beyond India deep into China. Toynbee’s scenario included the spread of Buddhism from Asia to become the dominant world religion. If either of these alternatives had transpired, few believers today—no matter how deeply they now hold the revealed tenets of one or the other Abrahamic faith—would be Jewish, Christian, or Muslim.

In short, religious belief, like so much else in history, has been contingent on happenstance. Any believers today who may be ready to defend, preach, proselytize, or even kill and die for their faith are likely to be dedicating their lives to ideas they hold by accident.

Further Reading

Carroll, James. 2001. Constantine’s Sword. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Strauss, Barry S. 1999. “The Dark Ages Made Lighter.” In What If?, edited by Robert Cowley. New York: Putnam

Robert J. Muscat

Robert J. Muscat is a former chief economist of the U.S. Agency for International Development and consultant for the World Bank and several United Nations agencies. He is now an independent researcher. This article is drawn from his forthcoming book, Thinking about Believing: Religion and Violence.

Believers today ready to defend, preach, proselytize, or even kill and die for their faith are likely dedicating their lives to ideas they hold by accident.

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