It is well-known that there is great variability in religious practices across the world. Climate, geography, and historical memory shape the outlook of man; and what may be routine and normal for one, may be seen as anathema to another. Yet this variability in practices does not mean that morals, or beliefs, are irrelevant; it only means that man has proven himself infinitely creative in adapting customs to environment.
St. Augustine, in his City of God (VII.17), was making this very point when he quoted the Roman writer Varro (who was himself quoting Xenophanes of Colophon) with these words, when Varro was addressing the subject of the nature of the gods:
Sed ut Xenophanes Colophonios scribit, quid putem, non quid contendam, ponam.
And this means, “But as Xenophanes of Colophon writes, ‘I will set down what I think, not what I believe unambiguously to be true.'” In other words, no one can speak with absolute certainty when it comes to religious subjects. To elaborate on his point, Augustine later describes (VII.21) the sexually explicit religious rites of the pagan god Liber. According to him, phallic symbols were paraded around in public with shameless sincerity; and he tells us that the town of Lavinium in Italy assigned an entire month to this celebration. A woman of high standing in the community was also supposed to “place a crown” on the “shameful” phallus (cui membro inhonesto matrem familias honestissimam palam coronam necesse erat imponere). But Augustine should have been aware that these kinds of fertility rites and symbols are common in different parts of the world; they should be seen as harmless rites of the harvest, which persist here and there to this day.
I remember the theologian Al Ghazali made this very same point in the preface (تمهيد) to his personal testament The Deliverance from Error. He repeats a famous hadith, one that lodged itself in my mind when I first read it many years ago:
.كل مولود يولد على الفطرة فأبواه يهودانه و ينصرانه و يمجسانه
This saying means, “Every child is born with an innate character; yet it is his father who makes him a Jew, a Christian, or a Magian [i.e., Zoroastrian].” I know that there are certain interpretations of this saying, and I make no claims of expertise in the religious sciences of any faith. I can only repeat what this saying means to me, and that is: when it comes to religion, environment is the determinative influence. We adopt the faiths of our fathers, and are socialized to them as we grow to adulthood. What matters, it seems to me, is not so much a man’s faith, but whether he behaves in socially responsible ways, respects his neighbor, and does not cause offense. Augustine tells us a pretty fable elsewhere in the City of God (XXII.8) about a man named Florentius, who was raised in Augustine’s own city of Hippo.
This man–whose name was Florentius–was a poor tailor, but also very pious. One day he lost his coat, but did not have enough money to buy another one. Not knowing what else to do, he went to a church in Hippo called the House of the Twenty Martyrs and prayed for guidance. He did this in a loud voice, and some surly youths overhead him. They began to make fun of him and his misfortune. He left the church and began to walk along the seashore; there he saw a large fish lying on the beach. It was still alive, so he hauled it to a local fishmonger named Cattosus, and sold it to him. The cook began to prepare the fish by cutting it open, and found a gold ring in its belly. The cook generously returned it to the poor tailor, telling him that his prayers had been answered: “Look at how the Twenty Martyrs have clothed you! [Ecce quo modo te viginti martyres vestierunt]”
All things being equal, it is probably better to continue with the traditions in which we were raised, instead of adopting an entirely new set of religious beliefs. We become habituated to a certain set of rituals and symbols, and these things become firmly set as the years progress. I do not wish to criticize the conversion experience; I know that for some people, a clean break with the past is best for them. Religion is a matter of conscience, and no one should be forced to believe what he does not believe in. It is also true that matters of faith cannot really be fit into neat packages, or easily categorized. People change over time, and there are times when a sincere conversion is the best thing for them. Yet I find it difficult to imagine this sort of thing ever happening to me.
As usual, our friend Dr. Samuel Johnson had something pungent to say on these matters. In April 1778, he was conversing with one Mrs. Knowles, who told him that an acquaintance of hers had converted to Quakerism. This woman had been known to Johnson, and he had been favorably inclined to her; but once he found out she had left the Church of England, he became offended by it. Boswell tells the rest of this unintentionally amusing anecdote:
Mrs. Knowles at the same time took an opportunity of letting him know ‘that the amiable young creature was sorry at finding that he was offended at her leaving the Church…and embracing a simpler faith,’ and in the gentlest and most persuasive manner, [she] solicited his kind indulgence for what was sincerely a matter of conscience. JOHNSON (frowning very angrily). ‘Madam, she is an odious wench. She could not have any proper conviction that it was her duty to change her religion, which is the most important of all subjects, and should be studied with all care, and with all the help we can get. She knew no more of the Church which she left, and that which she embraced, than she did of the difference between the Copernican and Ptolemaick systems.’ MRS. KNOWLES. ‘She had the New Testament before her.’ JOHNSON. ‘Madam, she could not understand the New Testament, the most difficult book in the world, for which the study of a life is required.’ MRS. KNOWLES. ‘It is clear as to essentials.’ JOHNSON. ‘But not as to controversial points. The heathens were easily converted, because they had nothing to give up; but we ought not, without very strong conviction indeed, to desert the religion in which we have been educated. That is the religion given you, the religion in which it may be said Providence has placed you. If you live conscientiously in that religion, you may be safe. But errour is dangerous indeed, if you err when you choose a religion for yourself.’ MRS. KNOWLES. ‘Must we then go by implicit faith?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Madam, the greatest part of our knowledge is implicit faith; and as to religion, have we heard all that a disciple of Confucius, all that a Mahometan, can say for himself?’
Perhaps this is the wisest position to take. Providence places us in a certain time, place, and circumstance, and it is our own task to (as Johnson states it) “live conscientiously” with those boundaries imposed by Fortune. I suppose there are always exceptions to every rule, but I would not venture to guess at them unless pressed forcefully on the matter. Some things are better left unsaid, and some topics better left alone.
Read more in the new, original illustrated translation of Cicero’s masterwork, On Moral Ends: