This comment was left by TR on my post Tuesday:

Church membership is only voluntary for adults, and questionably so, for those who were raised that way.

I don’t know if this is implying that the social pressure to remain in a faith community compromises an adult’s free will, or if the religious indoctrination they received as children compromises their ability to think independently.  I wouldn’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth, but neither do I want to go to the trouble of asking what exactly she meant by that, because that would go contrary to my agenda for this blog.  Regardless of which spin I put on this statement, I actually agree with it to some extent.

Church membership, technically, is always voluntary, except for children who are baptized as infants, but being raised under the spectre of a particular dogma is not.  I was raised by Mormons, and it is no accident that I continued to identify as a Mormon even after I left my parents’ home.  Some people call this sort of thing “brainwashing.”  Which is not an inaccurate term, just a pejorative one.  But we all brainwash our children to some degree.  I mean, I hope so.  What’s the point of parenting if you aren’t going to pass on your values to them?  Oh, sure, there’s that whole clothing and feeding thing, but basic survival tools can only take you so far in life.  Most parents feel obligated, even privileged, to steer their children on whatever path they consider the Road To Being A Decent Person.  Lots of people use religion as a means to this end, but secular humanists also indoctrinate their children for this purpose, i.e. churning out decent human beings.  They just have different arguments.

But parental brainwashing is about more than instilling ethics.  We also teach our children what we believe about the world.  One might believe a particular thing about the world for a religious reason, or one might have some non-religious reason–but still believe the thing with a religious fervor.  You could believe that the world is only 6,000 years old.  It would be pretty hard to believe that for a non-religious reason, unless you were just pulling random numbers out of the air.  But alternatively, you could believe that humans evolved from lower primates.  You could believe that there’s no such thing as a “lower primate.”  You could believe that Chinese people have a natural facility for mathematics.  You could believe that white men can’t jump.  You could believe that women are irrational because of their menstrual periods and that this has something to do with why they can’t parallel park.  You could believe that homosexuality is genetic.  You could believe that sexuality is a matter of free will.  You could believe there’s no such thing as “free will.”  You could believe that women are innately more nurturing than men.  You could believe that gender is a social construct.  You could believe that there is life on other planets.  You could believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.  You could believe that the Constitution is a “living document.”  You could believe all governments are illegitimate.  You could believe that violence never solves anything.  You could believe that the toilet paper should always roll over rather than under.  You could believe that Republicans hate the poor.  You could believe that Democrats eat their young.  You could believe it’s okay to mix plaids with stripes.  You could believe that you should talk to your kids openly about sex.  You could believe that clothing is oppressive.  You could believe that it’s essential for everyone to learn a second language.  You could believe that it’s wrong to eat animals.  You could believe that people suck.  You could believe that Wal-Mart is a major source of the world’s suffering.  You could believe that Jews are the cause of all the wars in the world.  You could believe that air travel is safe.  You could believe Sudoku is a waste of time.  You could believe that there’s no point in trying because the Man is always going to keep you down.  You could believe that aspartame kills. 

Growing up in a millennialist religion during the cold war era, I was convinced that I would not live to see thirty.  Either the U.S. and the Soviets were going to blow us all up, or Jesus was going to come, or both.  I was well into adulthood before I could wrap my head around the possibility that the end of the world was not immediately at hand.  To this day I have difficulty making plans for the distant future, e.g. retirement, even though I now lean toward thinking that the Earth most likely has a few hundred more years left in her, global warming notwithstanding.  Rationally I know that living to see my golden years is a distinct possibility, but in my bones I feel that it is a moot point.  What is responsible for this world view, which I can’t seem to shake in spite of my best efforts–religion, nuclear power, or mental illness?  Most likely all of the above.

Who I am and how I got here is a very complicated story.  Fifteen years ago I was a Democrat, which is somewhat subversive in Mormon culture, at least in the Western U.S., but I would have told you then that my religious beliefs absolutely shaped my political views.  They still do, even though my political views are drastically different now.  The reason is that both my religious beliefs and my politics have been informed by my personal experience. 

My mother was a very religious woman, though she was not a pious one.  She swore like a sailor when she got angry, but her specialty was sins of omission.  I inherited that from her.  I did not inherit her strong, natural inclination toward faith in God.  My father was religious–a very obedient, religious Mormon–but he was also a scientist and an independent thinker.  Some might wonder how one could simultaneously be religiously obedient and think independently, and those people will just have to trust me.  One of my favorite stories about my father–and I’m sure I’ve told it here before–is when he was impanelled for a jury and the defense attorney asked him how he made judgments.  “If someone holds up this ball and says it’s blue, and someone else says it’s green, how do you know what color it is?”  Dad said, “I look at it.  If it’s blue, it’s blue, and if it’s green, it’s green.”  Interestingly enough, he was not selected for that jury.  I did not inherit my dad’s facility for science.  But I was profoundly influenced by his unrelenting logic and insistence on seeing things as they really were.  I lived with it and saw it every day.  I have to tell you, it was frequently as annoying as the religious indoctrination was.

I have never been fully at ease with my religion.  There have been times when I thought it was less nutty than others, but I don’t pretend that there isn’t a high level of irrationality involved.  At one point I thought I would chuck the whole thing and start over from scratch, but I found that I couldn’t really do that.  I would have to forget everything I’ve ever learned, including the stuff I’d rather remember.  It’s all so intertwined.  Instead I’ve taught myself to work within the intellectual framework that’s been foisted on me–by my church, by my culture, by my parents, by my DNA–and I consider every act of faith, such as it is, a voluntary one.  But am I as free, philosophically, to not choose Mormonism as I would have been if I’d been raised differently?  Theoretically, yes.  In reality, probably not.  But ultimately it must be a choice, or else nothing is.