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Is Your Faith Determined by Your Society?

If religious faith can be questioned on the basis of societal factors, so can religious skepticism

In the Q&A session of a 2006 lecture, atheist Richard Dawkins was asked, “What if you’re wrong?” Dawkins responded:

Well, what if I am wrong? I mean, anybody could be wrong. You happen to have been brought up, I would presume, in the Christian faith. You know what it’s like not to believe in a particular faith because you’re not a Muslim, you’re not a Hindu. Why aren’t you a Hindu? Because you happen to have been brought up in America, not in India. If you had been brought up in India, you would be a Hindu . . . If you were brought up in central Africa you’d be believing in the great Juju up the mountain. There’s no particular reason to pick on the Judeo-Christian God in which by the sheerest accident you happen to have been brought up and ask me the question, what if I’m wrong. What if you’re wrong about the great Juju at the bottom of the sea?

Dawkins’s argument is essentially that religious convictions are nothing but the product of social factors that can vary from place to place, so no sense can be made of asking whether one religious worldview is right or wrong. It’s actually a common claim: if only religious believers grew up in another country with a different set of religious beliefs, the argument goes, then they would of course hold the beliefs of the place and time in which they live.

Let’s look at some ways that we can respond.

First, we can grant the obvious premise that certain religions are dominant in different areas of the world, and children born into these societies are brought up in the faith of their family and society. But the conclusion he draws from this fact simply does not follow—namely, that religious beliefs are nothing but accidents of upbringing.

Consider, for example,  that belief in the transcendent, and our human impulse to direct our lives in a way that relates to that transcendent reality, is a human universal. There has never been a human society that is fundamentally non-religious. Belief in a transcendent dimension of reality and the desire to relate to it are fundamental and found in all eras and places.

Also, it’s just simply not true that all religious believers hold their beliefs merely because of the circumstances of their upbringing. There are many people who believe that God exists because they have thought long and hard about the question, even doing so in environments that were antagonistic to belief in God.

A second response is that this argument is arbitrary in that it is only applied to religious beliefs based on social environment and not, for example, political and moral views.

People are born into various political systems just like they’re born into religious environments. So, according to this argument’s line of reasoning, we could say with Christian apologist Paul Copan that if a socialist or a conservative Republican had grown up in Nazi Germany, then statistically speaking he would have joined the Hitler Youth.

Should we infer from this that it’s irrational to have any sort of political views, since you’re likely to embrace whatever views are dominant in the place where you grow up? Of course not! We still need to evaluate whether a political regime is in accord with our dignity as human beings.

We could also use the example of moral beliefs. I would assume Dawkins agrees with us that women have equal rights. But if we grew up and lived in Saudi Arabia, we probably wouldn’t hold those beliefs. Must we say then that our belief in equal rights among women is irrational, since on this view it’s only an accident of our upbringing?

If we’re not going to reject as a whole politics and morality based on the fact that people are raised with political and moral views, so too we shouldn’t reject as a whole religion because people are raised with particular religious beliefs. To single out religious beliefs but not other kinds of beliefs is simply arbitrary.

Further, the person making this argument, like Dawkins, fails to apply the logic to his own religious indifferentism. For if he grew up in a predominantly religious environment, for example medieval France, then it’s likely he would be a Christian!

In order to be consistent, Dawkins would have to reject his own religious indifferentism as irrational, since his views may also be conditioned by the environment in which he grew up. It would be merely a product of an unreliable belief-producing process, and thus irrational.

If religious belief is irrational because it’s supposedly a mere accident of birth, then religious indifferentism also is irrational when it is a mere accident of birth. The culturally conditioned argument cuts both ways. Many like Dawkins simply don’t apply the same assumptions to their own belief systems, and believe they pose some devastating challenge only to religious belief.

Finally, all this argument does is attempt to explain the motivations behind religious beliefs. It has no bearing on whether the beliefs are true or false, which is the real question.

Just because a belief emerges from a society into which a person is born, it doesn’t follow that the belief isn’t true. Suppose, for example, I convince you without evidence that it’s raining outside. Does the lack of evidence mean that you believe something that is untrue? Absolutely not, for it could very well be raining outside, in which case your belief would be true.

So, the motivations behind a person’s religious beliefs don’t have any bearing on whether a claim is true or not. And to focus on motivations is simply a distraction from the real question.

For the reasons that we’ve given, the argument that religious beliefs are irrational because they’re the product of accidental circumstances of birth fails. It provides no reasonable grounds to reject religious beliefs.

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