Are You Muslim Because You Were Born in Morocco?

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.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “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.”

    I don’t think there are specific areas that produce atheists – they arise everywhere. In some areas it’s a lot harder to ‘come out’ as an atheist, reflected in far fewer people admitting to not having faith.

    Religion, however, is much more divided along geographical lines. Yes it’s possible for people to transcend their upbringing and choose another religion, but it remains true for the vast majority that the religion they end up with is heavily influenced by their peers and culture.

    Another difference is that atheists aren’t claiming that a just superbeing is going to punish punish non-atheists. If you believe that all who choose the wrong religion are going to hell, you need to reconcile this with the fact that people’s choice of religion mainly comes down to their background. If, say, the Muslim God turns out to be the right one, then Turkish, Morrocan and Saudi Arabian people are at a massive advantage with regards to getting into heaven.

  • Andrew EC

    The difference — and it’s a pretty important one, all things considered — is that the atheist doesn’t claim to have the one true ultimate revealed truth about the universe. There’s a reason our bus campaign says “Hey! There’s probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

    If you concede the argument to the atheist that our beliefs are culturally conditioned, then you’re conceding that your religion isn’t ultimate truth. And that pretty much gives away the store.

  • Does Keller ever make an argument without setting up a straw man?

    Go back and look at the student’s question “How do you explain the fact that where a person is born is highly predictive of what religion they will believe?” No one is claiming that it impossible to overcome cultural conditioning or that every single person’s beliefs are explained by cultural conditioning. Muslims sometimes convert to Christianity and Christians sometimes become Atheists and idiots sometimes become Scientologists. However, in the overwhelming majority of cases, people accept the religious beliefs that they are culturally conditioned to accept.

    Christians maintain that God will banish people to eternal fiery torture based upon which religion they choose. If in the overwhelming majority of cases, choice of religion is culturally conditioned, that means that the overwhelming majority of people who go to hell as well as the overwhelming majority of people who go to heaven do so as the result of happenstance. That is hard to square with any notion of love or justice.

    On the other hand, the possibility that people become atheists as the result of cultural conditioning doesn’t have any adverse implications for atheism. It doesn’t create and contradictions or logical inconsistencies. It doesn’t provide any reasons to think that God does or does not exist.

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  • Boz

    this is another strawman. The argument here is known (among other names) as the outsider test for faith.

    this argument does not make an exception for atheism, or pantheism, or deism. It applies to all inherited beliefs.

    Furthermore, this response by Timothy Keller and Alvin Plantinga is a tu quoque fallacy.

    I highly doubt that Alvin Plantinga would make such a basic a tu quoque fallacy, because his profession involves making logical arguments. So, I suspect that Timothy Keller has misrepresented Alvin Plantinga’s argument.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Boz, don’t give Plantinga too much credit. This is the guy who came up with the crazy argument that evolution is self-refuting.

  • This is an easy question to answer: People do not always vigorously pursue truth and will accept their birthright before they renounce it. This is a good thing, for if we remade ourselves with every iota of new knowledge we’d never get around to doing much of anything else.

    Test everything, hold fast to what is good.

    From here, the question becomes: What is true? We already know what truth is — from Aristotle, “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true,” — so from here it becomes a matter of finding what is truth and holding fast to it. Hold fast to it as a new birthright, whose depths we are called to plumb and which we must never renounce except by finding that we were mistaken about its truth. To know this, therefore, we are also called to plumb the depths of every other claim.

    An honest atheist is better than a dishonest Christian. By the definition above, however, an honest atheist is someone who has read Aquinas — or, let’s be honest, Lewis — with the same fervor and receptivity as he read Sartre or Nietzsche. An honest atheist will dismiss the psuedo-intellectual pandering schmaltz of Dawkins or Hitchens with exactly the same disdain as he dismisses the kneejerk fundamentalism of Paley or, yes, William Lane Craig.

    Now, this is not to say you should and must spend every waking moment investigating the claims of literally everyone. Triage based on size — assuming both that people have the capacity to know truth and that all people desire truth, this would mean that people gravitate toward truth freely — and intellectual tradition — for example, where do you see a strong tradition of intellectuals revered as much as the mystics, as false a distinction as that appears to the believers? — and if there are other factors you believe reflect truth include them, albeit with even more discretion than you’d give nearly spoiled milk. Be careful though, and beat with a boulder any additional factors like “What pleases me,” and the sort as the nonsense it is. Do not imperil the pursuit of truth with a frame of reference that excludes it.

    Then, knowing that people are flawed, set aside for the moment the behavior of believers as the ad hominem fodder it is. Even if a faith claims to make you a better person, you cannot know the hearts and minds of the believers and therefore cannot make any real judgement based on their personal progress, or what they might have been.

    There’s more, but that’s enough to get started.

  • You say: “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.”

    The above is the type of statement made by someone who lacks training in logic and reasoning. I am an atheist because I went to university and took every religion course offered. I also took courses in logic and philosophy. I began university as a Methodist, and finished as an atheist because of my ability to think critically and rationally. I would never say the I was “exempt from cultural conditioning, as I too was once a Christian!

    Escaping this conditioning is easier for some than others. I know of some atheists who pretend to be theists in order not to be “excommunicated” by their families. There are also atheists that would be killed/tortured by believers if they knew they did not believe in their particular god.

    BTW–the subject of your post is known as “Cultural Relativism” and it does not only pertain to religious beliefs, but others as well, and most philosophers are well aware of how powerful this phenomenon can be.