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.

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