By L. Alfred James
We are currently dealing with objections to Christianity that assume religious pluralism. This is the idea that all religions are true in some vague, undefined way. Religious pluralism is often expressed by the saying, “What’s true for you is true for you. And what’s true for me is true for me.” And one of the most powerful ways to argue for this view is to claim that…
“Religions Are Culturally Relative!”
I was once having a chat with a couple of close friends of mine who are not Christians. They told me that they’d recently had a conversation (just between the two of them) about my belief in Christ and why they personally did not find Christianity persuasive. They said to me, “If you’d been born in India, you would probably be a Hindu. And if you’d been born in Northern Africa, you’d probably be a Muslim. The only reason you’re a Christian is because you were born in a Christian country.”
This argument was given as a reason for dismissing my own commitment to Christ as naiveté. But it didn’t stop there. It was also given as a justification for their own rejection of Christianity.
Their argument is based on an undisputed sociological fact: Most people’s religious beliefs are very similar to the culture (or subculture) that they grew up in. Most people raised in India are Hindus.1 Most people raised in the Middle East and Northern Africa are Muslims.2 Most people raised in Cambodia and Thailand are Buddhists3.
“Therefore,” it is argued, “no religion is objectively true. Religious beliefs are merely the product of one’s upbringing. They come from the influence of one’s culture. Everyone is just grasping in the darkness coming up with their own theories of what God (if there is a God) is like. At best, these religions could be called ‘subjectively true.’ They simply help people cope with the sufferings of this life, along with the fear of death.”
Evaluating The Logic
This logic has an immediate appeal to it. Superficially, it seems very strong. In fact, I clearly remember when my friends said this to me. I was very disturbed, unsure of what to make of it. I had no answer to them. I had to admit, it does seem highly unlikely that I would be a Christian if I had been born in India, Thailand, or Northern Africa.
So, is my Christianity merely a product of being born in a Christian culture? If so, it certainly doesn’t seem true, does it?
What should we make of this argument?
First of all, we can’t dispute that a person’s upbringing has a lot to do with their religious beliefs. However, it is not appropriate to say that one’s religious beliefs are entirely determined by their culture. This is simply claiming too much. There are many people who end up rejecting the beliefs of their surrounding culture and even rejecting the beliefs of their own family. Thus, while one’s religious beliefs are heavily influenced by one’s culture, they are certainly not entirely determined by it. To say that a person’s religious beliefs are merely the result of their upbringing is claiming too much, way too much.
Second, this argument is a textbook example of a faulty form of reasoning called the genetic fallacy. This fallacy is easy to commit because it seems so reasonable. After all, if a person forms a belief in a questionable way, then it makes that belief very doubtful. For instance, if a scientist were to formulate a scientific belief simply because of something he saw in a dream, we would tend to be skeptical about that belief. Dreams are typically poor sources of scientific truth.
Likewise, if a scientist said he discovered a powerful medication by mere happenstance, by a frivolous accident, we would be a little suspicious. As with dreams, happenstance is not typically a good source of scientific truth.
However, this line of thinking is wrong. A belief may have originated in a person’s mind as a result of a mere happenstance, or in a way that is a bit weird, and turn out to be completely true. After all, August Kekule discovered the true structure of the benzene ring because of a dream he had (in which he saw a snake seizing its own tail). And Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin’s medicinal properties purely by happenstance (because he unintentionally let mold develop on a culture plate). Both of these men developed scientific beliefs in very unusual ways, but their beliefs have turned out to be completely correct (and confirmed thousands of times). Therefore, you cannot dismiss a belief as false simply because it was generated and/or accepted in a way that seems intellectually unsophisticated.
The fact that one’s religious beliefs are derived from one’s culture does not mean that those religious beliefs are false. They may still be true. There are many beliefs that I have derived from my culture that (as far as I know) are correct. After all, my belief that the earth is round is not a result of me personally flying in a spacecraft and seeing the roundness of the earth with my own two eyes. No, I believe the earth is round because everyone in my culture believes it. My parents and elementary school teachers told me it was round, and I have never doubted it since. The same is true for many other beliefs I have. For instance, I believe that:
- The earth orbits the sun
- Australia is a real continent
- George Washington was the first president of the United States
- Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon
I originally came to believe all of these things simply by “osmosis.” I just absorbed them from my culture. To this day, I have never verified any of these beliefs by my firsthand experience. So, is it wrong for me to continue believing these things? No. Indeed, they are all true.
In fact, if being born in modern American culture is a reason to doubt that Christianity is true, then being born in modern American culture is also a reason to doubt that the earth is round. After all, if you had been born in ancient Assyria, you would almost certainly believe that the earth is flat. And if you had been born in ancient Norway, you would have almost certainly believed that thunder was caused by Thor, the god of thunder. And if you had been born in certain parts of Asia in the present day, you would almost certainly believe in astrology—the idea that your destiny is determined by the stars.4 But you probably believe the earth is round, thunder is caused by lightning (which comes from a buildup and release of electrical charges), and that you are in control of your own destiny (not the stars). And you are well within your intellectual rights to continue believing these things.
So, what is the verdict? Does the fact that I was raised in a Christian country somehow invalidate my Christian convictions? Not at all, and for two reasons:
- A person’s religious beliefs are not entirely determined by their upbringing.
- Pointing to the source of a belief does absolutely nothing to prove that that belief is false.
Therefore, the fact that one’s religion is derived from one’s culture does not at all prove that pluralism is true or that Christianity is false.
1. 79.8% of the population of India identifies as Hindu. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hinduism_in_India
2. 93% of the Middle East and Northern Africa identify as Muslim. See https://www.statista.com/statistics/374759/population-in-middle-east-north-africa-by-religion/
3. 96.9% in Cambodia and 93.2% in Thailand identify as Buddhist. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism_by_country
4. For instance, take a look at what Bharati Mukherjee says about her own fate in a New York Times article: https://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/05/magazine/lives-destiny-s-child.html