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The Etiology of Religious Belief


My favorite story about belief comes from Russia. It takes place in the tenth century. It’s about how Russians adopted the Orthodox faith. It is particularly relevant at this time because it helps to explain the current disaster of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

            Grand Prince Vladimir 1 was a pagan with a consuming ambition to unify the Russian tribes into a single nation. He considered several possible approaches to integrating the state and eventually decided the best way to achieve his goal was to use religion.

            He sent out special emissaries to explore three possibilities. The first was Roman Catholicism. Although there were no doctrinal issues that concerned him, he concluded it would be dangerous to subject his country to the political intrigues and power struggles of Western Europe. He also looked into Islam and rejected it for similar reasons. Actually, this process of deliberation was more pretense than real because conversion to the Greek Orthodox faith would enable him to marry the beautiful sister of the Emperor of Constantinople whom he coveted.

            In 988, Vladimir forced all ethnic Russians to be baptized into the Orthodox faith at sword-point along the banks of the Dnieper River. One man’s lust decided the religious fate of an entire nation. Over the years Russian Orthodox Christians came to believe that only they practiced religion in a manner acceptable to God. This claim is a remarkable one considering the fact these people could have become Muslims if the Muslim ruler during Vladimir’s search had had a beautiful daughter.

            If the truth is known, we are all like those Russian tribes. I am an Episcopalian because my father lusted for a beautiful Episcopalian, my mother. If one were to reroll the cosmic dice, that woman of my father’s dreams could have been Mormon or Seventh Day Adventist. The consequences for me would have been different childhood stories. Such stories become embedded in the complex electrical systems of our brain and develop into the background music that defines our lives.

            Religious belief is acquired when young children are “brainwashed” with all good intentions by loving parents. Religious belief survives because some people desire unambiguous and comforting answers to the complex and sometimes tragic problems that confront them. Christian religious belief survives because some people fear death and crave an eternal life with Jesus. Religious belief survives because it often solves character defects such as alcoholism, anger management, or drug addiction.

            True believers from all faith traditions are like Russian Orthodox Christians in that they live with the fantasy that their beliefs have a monopoly on truth. They forget the lust of their fathers. Religious belief is not rationally acquired. This subject would not be worth discussing except for the fact that true believers want others to see the world as they do. This dynamic has led to bigotry, sectarian violence, and countless other problems. The real source of religious truth is love, a heart overflowing with the love that comes from an encounter with God. Sadly, belief does not lead one to love. Reaching out to others who are different is the best way to do that.


Dr. Rick Herrick (PhD, Tulane University), a former tenured university professor and magazine editor, is the author of six published novels and two works of nonfiction. His three latest books are: A Christian Foreign Policy, A Man Called Jesus, Jeff’s Journey and A Second Chance. His musical play, Lighthouse Point, was performed as a fundraiser for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Herrick is currently retired, living in Bluffton, SC. He is married with three children and seven grandchildren.

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