Is Inherited Belief Inherently False?

Five problems with believing that it is

An idea has made its way from the halls of academia onto the pages of bestselling books and highly-followed blogs. The idea is that a person’s religious beliefs are largely determined by the culture in which that person lives. That is to say, religion is culturally conditioned. On a societal level, families are pressured by way of politics or economics to conform to a religious norm. On a personal level, children are pressured by way of indoctrination to conform. Many conclude, therefore, that religious belief is generally not so much about finding truth or trusting God, as much as it is about brainwashing and fitting in.

In his book The God Delusion, Dr. Richard Dawkins explained it this way:

If you are religious at all, it is overwhelmingly probable that your religion is that of your parents. If you were born in Arkansas and you think Christianity is true and Islam false, knowing full well that you would think the opposite if you had been born in Afghanistan, you are the victim of childhood indoctrination.[1]

Many people in many places have addressed this issue, but their arguments always seem to boil down to two main objections:

First, there is a tacit assumption that because a person’s religious belief is passed down from a previous generation, having been received from the culture at large, it is not grounded in truth or reality. In other words, the biggest reason why people are religious is that they were raised to be so, presumably since there are no other reasons for believing.

Second, there is a stated condemnation of teaching children a particular religion before they have the opportunity to choose one for themselves, or whether or not they even want to be religious. In other words, the biggest reason why people teach religion to children is that it is easier to do so, presumably since there are no other reasons to teach them.

As a teenager growing up in a Christian home, I specifically remember the first time this idea swept over me. My parents had done their due diligence in bringing me to church and putting me in a Christian school. I did not really doubt Christianity as much as I did my own reasons for saying I was a Christian. Maybe I was a Christian simply because no other options were presented. Moreover, if that was the case, I could have been any religion or none at all, depending on the place and the family in which I just so happened to be born. The realization was devastating.

But, here’s the thing…

I came to realize something. How I as an individual came to know about Christianity had no bearing on whether or not Christianity is true. Therefore, it should have no bearing on whether or not I believe it. If believing Christianity just because my parents wanted me to believe is a bad idea, then rejecting Christianity just because my parents wanted me to believe is a bad idea.

The fact is just because one’s religious views are inherited does not mean that those beliefs are inherently false. It is undeniable that the greatest influence on our religious views is our parents and that the greatest influence on our parents is their culture. That reality should bring a fair amount of humility to the consideration of religious views. However, to argue that it invalidates a person’s religious views altogether proves too much by way of a genetic fallacy.

When someone comes to a conclusion, good or bad, about an idea based on where it came from, it is known as a genetic fallacy. It is illogical because the source of an idea does not determine whether it is true or false. Where we first hear about an event does not necessarily determine whether the event happened.

The genetic fallacy has several problems when applied to religious belief.

Problem 1: It destroys itself.

Why do you think people believe that religion is culturally determined and socially constructed? Perhaps it is because they live in a culture in which it is popular to do so. (See what I did there?)

The argument collapses when applied to itself. The truth is that this is a relatively new and very Western idea. I would suggest, therefore, that the idea that religion is culturally conditioned, and therefore not worthy of consideration, is itself culturally conditioned, and therefore not worthy of consideration.

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga put it this way:

Suppose we concede that if I had been born of Muslim parents in Morocco rather than Christian parents in Michigan, my beliefs would be quite different. [But] the same goes for the pluralist…If the pluralist had been born in [Morocco] he probably wouldn’t be a pluralist. Does it follow that…his pluralist beliefs are produced in him by an unreliable belief-producing process?[2]

Problem 2: It works until it doesn’t.

The idea that most Christians only believe because it was how they were raised makes Christianity look oppressive. Religious instruction for children is painted as Orwellian indoctrination. Faith is relegated to religious determinism.

However, if religion is as oppressive and deterministic as the argument suggests, you have to wonder how guys like Dr. Dawkins made it out. Oh, you didn’t hear? Richard Dawkins was raised Anglican. It almost sounds like religion is a choice that everyone must make for themselves regardless of their upbringing.

All sarcasm aside, on a personal level the thought that we believe what we believe only because it was what we were taught to believe can be a crushing realization. But, our reaction should not be to abandon the faith altogether. We must ask whether there are any further reasons to believe. I can personally attest that Christianity has plenty of them.

Problem 3: It belittles the personal struggles of the believer.

A while back, one of my apologetics students showed me a subreddit in which a former student of mine took to the internet in hopes of sparking profitable conversation about Christian apologetics. Because we all know how often that happens…on Reddit.

A random user posed the question, “Ever wonder why you’re defending Christianity and not Hinduism or the monkey god Hadoman?” (I assume the user was referring to the Hindu figure Hanuman.)

Undaunted, my student briefly explained that he did not believe Hinduism was rooted in truth since many of its core beliefs do not correspond with reality. I held back tears of pride as I continued to read.

As if my student had not even given an answer, a different user chimed in harmony suggesting, “Most likely it’s because your parents were Christian and you love your parents.”

My student saw this as a cheap accusation. It was as if the user simply assumed that they had never asked any questions, felt any doubt, or studied the issues for themselves. The argument failed to consider that maybe people who are raised Christian doubt every bit as much as the skeptic. The only difference is that they find answers and continue to believe.

Problem 4: It underestimates the value of religion to the believer.

They call it childhood indoctrination. They say we have to get to them before they have the critical thinking skills to question our authority. They say we are afraid that if we let them choose for themselves, they will choose not to believe.

I say, guilty as charged.

I have given my life to raising my children with a Biblical worldview because I believe it is true, and as a teacher I aid other Christians, working to do the same. I want to train my children in critical thinking so that they can discern when their culture is selling them a false bill of goods. I want to get them while they are young to see that they have a choice to make, one that no one else can make for them. And, you can be sure I am going to do everything in my power to show them that what I believe will all my heart, mind, and soul is the right choice to make.

My faith is the most important thing in my life. My God gives me purpose, His Word gives me direction, and his Son gives me identity. What kind of father and teacher would I be to not pass that along to a younger generation?

How could you expect me to do otherwise?

Problem 5: It ignores the cultural versatility of Christianity.

It is not accurate to say that Christianity is a Western religion. It was not originally, and it has not been for some time.

Over 90% of Muslims live in a quarter of the world. Over 95% of Hindus live in India and neighboring countries. About 88% of Buddhists live in East Asia. Christianity, on the other hand, is represented by a much more global spread, with about 26% in Europe, about 37% in the Americas, almost 24% in Africa, and 13% in Asia and the Pacific.

Richard Bauckham stated that “certainly Christianity exhibits more cultural diversity than any other religion, and that must say something about it.”[3] I believe what that says is that Christianity is the only religion that can genuinely be called a worldwide religion.

Christianity does not depend on a given culture, a specific language, a religious garb, a geographic location, etc. It is not a religion that comes from culture but reaches to cultures. This testifies to the universal nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who wanted from the very beginning for his story and message preached to all nations.

Bottom line: Yeah, I was raised Christian. But just because something is inherited, doesn’t make it any less personal or any less real.

[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 3.

[2] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Dutton, 2008), 11.

[3] Richard Bauckman, Bible and Mission: Christian Mission in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), p 9.


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