Hereditary Religion: Cultural Genetics
By David McAfee
My interest in the field of Cultural Genetics began two years ago during an interview with a university student for a local magazine. His name was Mike and he was a second-year Theater Major at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I had the chance to speak candidly with Mike and asked him a series of questions regarding his religious preferences and freedoms, his answer to one question in particular would surprise me more than the rest. I asked Mike a very simple question, “Do you consider yourself a religious person?” A 2001 American Religious Identification Survey indicates that 81% of Americans DO associate themselves with a specific religion, so a “Yes” would not have been cause for alarm. Instead, Mike paused for a moment and answered “I’m half Catholic and half Agnostic.” Before I responded, my mind was filled ideas of what he could have meant, some blend of Catholic intrigue mixed with skepticism perhaps? Upon elaboration I discovered that Mike’s mother was a practicing Catholic and his father was not associated with an organized religion.
When I describe the “genetics” of religion, I am referring to a phenomenon that I came across during the course of my research and, to me, implies the thought of religion as something similar to heritage; it is passed on from generation to generation via the parents. For example, people who have extremely limited knowledge of the Bible or its implications may still choose to classify themselves as Christians on the basis that their parents do so. This phenomenon of our nation’s children inheriting religion is often overlooked because the perpetrator guilty of indoctrination is not a dictator or cult leader, but their own parents. In the course of my research and daily life, it became increasingly apparent that many Americans consider themselves “religious” with extremely limited knowledge of the beliefs and practices of the particular religion simply because of their parents, peers, and popular culture.
When a child is growing up, there is a crucial period in which they begin to ask questions about life and wonder about the origin of existence. In a religious family, these questions are typically answered by creationist ideas in the home, church, or Sunday School. Once these beliefs are instilled in the child, it becomes a part of his or her identity. So much so that, in many cases, the child will grow up and forever identify themselves with that specific religion without question or skepticism. This is not to say that all religious parents pass on their faith to their offspring, but it seems as if it is just as likely as inheriting hair or eye color. For an idea as important as religion, it is a shame that Americans simply take what they are taught from family at face value as opposed to studying, questioning, and learning about multiple religious traditions in order to make an informed decision.
It seems to me that more and more people are treating their religious affiliation as if it were an inherited trait as opposed to an individual right and a decision not to be taken lightly. The momentous event of choosing a religion, or lack of religion, should not be a mindless reflex but a carefully scrutinized moment in life… and the key to this moment is information.
When a child is raised in religion it eliminates the choice in what is debatably the most important decision one can make in a lifetime, the decision of which religion, if any, to follow. Christianity, being the most popular religion in the United States, is the example I will use most often when describing ‘cultural genetics’.
I recently spoke to a Catholic priest regarding the issue of Hereditary Religion; he wished to be referred to only as John. “John” responded by making the point that religion is the only way to teach our young ones morals in today’s society; I personally believe that we are better than this. Morals do exist outside of organized religion and the ‘morals’ taught by many of these archaic systems are outdated, sexist, racist, and teach intolerance and inequality. When a parent forces a child into a religion, the parent is effectively handicapping their own offspring by limiting the abilities of the child to question the world around them and make informed decisions.
Each child raised under these conditions will mature believing that their religion is the only correct one, and in the case of Christianity, they will believe that all who doubt such a religious phenomenon will suffer eternal damnation. This environment is one that often breeds hate, ignorance, and ‘justified’ violence.