Think back to your childhood. What did religion mean to you? Finding yourself in a church or synagogue singing loudly or deeply bored? Family prayers and a sense of togetherness or hypocrisy? Feasts and fun? A strange language? A sense of peace? A friendly or abusive stranger?
And what does religion mean to you now – particularly if you live in a country where it is not the predominant faith? Whether or not you still believe, do you still feel an attachment to the rituals? When you see the robes and symbols of childhood beliefs do you feel somehow reassured?
Even if we have rejected faith, many of us fond memories of our childhood religion. Even if as little children we yawned through long sermons, week after week we felt secure, surrounded by our families and familiar sights and sounds.
Community and religion
Many adults continue to find that sense of familiarity and security in their place of worship. For them, religion is less about God or scripture or morality or everlasting life than the sense of community it offers. “This is a place where I am welcome; it has meaning for me.”
From this beginning – “I belong to this church because it offers me a sense of community” – it is easy to slip into faith. We tell ourselves “because this community has this belief, then this belief and these values are also mine.” Put differently: “i respect these people; if they have these beliefs, then the beliefs must be true”.
Of course not every adult comes to faith in this way, but this subconscious argument influences many believers, particularly those who do not think much about their faith.
Identity and religion
Community and personal identity are closely linked. We define ourselves through our relationships with others. “I am a woman, a wife, a mother, daughter, an American, a New Yorker by birth and a Californian by adoption, a veterinarian, a Democrat, a pianist, a driver” and so on and so on.
For many people, religion is an essential part of their identity. By calling yourself a Christian / Muslim / Jew / whatever, you consciously or subconsciously call upon the strength of your religion and the strength of your God. You do not even have to start with belief, although you may end up there. “I am Jew. This is what Jews believe. Therefore I believe it too.”
Not everyone who defines themself by religion is a believer. Many Jews and Muslims are atheist but still define themselves by their religious background, particularly in communities where they are in the minority. Many Europeans call themselves Christians, not because they have faith in God, but because that is the culture in which they grew up.
No clear distinction
The intertwining of religion, community and identity means that for many believers there is no clear distinction between their faith and identity. To question their belief is to question their sense of self. It is much easier for them to accept the many inconsistencies and hypocrisies that underlie their religion.