Tag Archives: pluralism

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.

Does Each Religion See Only Part of the Truth?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

The vast majority of us believe in some kind of supernatural realm, but more and more people are uncomfortable saying that one religion possesses more truth about the supernatural than others.  We are becoming, in the US, a nation of religious pluralists.  A popular mantra of the religious pluralist, according to pastor and author Timothy Keller is: “Each religion sees part of spiritual truth, but none can see the whole truth.”

One of the most popular and enduring illustrations used to convey this mantra is recounted by Pastor Keller:

Several blind men were walking along and came upon an elephant that allowed them to touch and feel it. “This creature is long and flexible like a snake” said the first blind man, holding the elephant’s trunk. “Not at all—it is thick and round like a tree trunk,” said the second blind man, feeling the elephant’s leg. “No, it is large and flat,” said the third blind man, touching the elephant’s side. Each blind man could feel only part of the elephant—none could envision the entire elephant. In the same way, it is argued, the religions of the world each have a grasp on part of the truth about spiritual reality, but none can see the whole elephant or claim to have a comprehensive vision of the truth.

Christians see only their slice of supernatural reality, but all the other religions likewise see their slices of supernatural reality.  It is foolish to align oneself with a single religion, to make a commitment to one religion and deny the truths taught by others.  They are all grasping only part of the elephant and none can claim to know the entire elephant (i.e., supernatural reality).

Does the elephant and blind men illustration prove its point?  Not at all.  Keller explains, “This illustration backfires on its users. The story is told from the point of view of someone who is not blind. How could you know that each blind man only sees part of the elephant unless you claim to be able to see the whole elephant?”

The person giving the illustration (the religious pluralist) is claiming to know what the blind men (followers of single religions) do not know.  The religious pluralist knows that there is an elephant, even while saying that followers of single religions are blind.  But how does the religious pluralist have complete knowledge of the supernatural (the elephant)  if none of the followers of single religions do?  Why is he able to see and they are blind?

This is a case of false humility.  Every religion thinks it knows the truth about supernatural reality.  All the religious pluralist does is claim that every religion is blind and that only he can see! That, my friends, is not humility at all.  The pluralist should, instead of trying to convince everyone that he is above the fray, come down off his high horse (or elephant) and engage in the debate with the rest of us.  All religions are making the case for their beliefs and the religious pluralist needs to do the same.

*Note: If you want to hear from one of the preeminent religious pluralists yourself, then listen to this Unbelievable? podcast featuring John Hick from Feb 2011.