Post Author: Bill Pratt
A couple months ago I attended a debate between a Christian scholar and an atheist scholar at a local university. At the conclusion of the debate there was a Q and A session and one of the atheist students stood up and asked something like the following to the Christian scholar: “How do you explain the fact that where a person is born is highly predictive of what religion they will believe?”
When I’ve heard this question before, the inquirer is usually making the point that religious belief is merely the result of cultural conditioning. You don’t come to your beliefs through thought or reason; your religion is merely a reflection of where you were raised and what you were taught as a child. Similar to your speaking accent, you “pick up” your religion through your parents and friends.
First, I must say that there are certainly people who merely inherit their religious beliefs from their culture. There is no doubt about that, but what conclusion can we draw from this data? Can we conclude that all religious believers are merely socially conditioned, that they don’t have any good reasons for what they believe?
Timothy Keller, in his book The Reason for God, quotes Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga as he answers those who claim religious beliefs are merely culturally conditioned. Speaking of Plantinga, Keller says:
People often say to him, “If you were born in Morocco, you wouldn’t even be a Christian, but rather a Muslim.” [Plantinga] responds: ‘Suppose we concede that if I had been born of Muslim parents in Morocco rather than Christian parents in Michigan, my beliefs would have been quite different.
Plantinga then points out that the same goes for the person making the charge. For example, if the atheist student had been born in Morocco, then he probably would be a Muslim, not an atheist! Does it follow that his atheist beliefs are merely conditioned by his parents or peers? Keller concludes, “You can’t say, ‘All claims about religions are historically conditioned except the one I am making right now.'”
The atheist wants to claim that he is exempt from the cultural conditioning that everyone else is subject to, but this won’t fly because even he is influenced by his upbringing. Even so, he would never want to say that his atheism is merely the result of cultural conditioning. If the atheist can escape his culture, then so can everyone else. Just look around. There are people who hold minority religious views all over the world.
Once I go down the road of claiming that those who disagree with me only believe what they believe because of their culture or upbringing, I have ceased giving their position any respect. I am simply patronizing them and fruitful discussion ends.