Does Culture Determine Religious Belief?

If you’ve been investigating the skeptical arguments against religion (or, more accurately, the Christian faith) then you have likely come across the argument that, ultimately, culture is what determines religious faith. Is this an argument that stands under scrutiny?

Where you’re born essentially determines what you believe. Why is the truth based on geography?

Many atheist spokesmen have used this argument, or a similar one, at least once in their attempts at anti-evangelism. This particular wording comes from a character I’ve looked at before, Hemant Mehta of The Atheist Voice. Others might phrase it this way,

If you were born in America you’re likely to become a Christian. If you were born in Pakistan, you’re likely to become a Muslim. Religious belief is nothing more than a product of culture and people reflect the environment they were raised in.

There are a couple of ways this argument has been addressed. Let’s briefly touch on a few of these answers before moving on to the biggest problem with the argument (in regards to Christianity) and the one I find to be the most problematic for the skeptic.

Some have answered this by noting that culture isn’t always the determining factor when it comes to a particular faith and worldview. We find many people of various faiths in countries where a particular faith isn’t commonly upheld. Here in Australia, possibly the most non-religious country in the Southern Hemisphere, you can find Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, New Agers, and the list goes on. However, in the skeptic’s defence, I highly doubt they use the argument as an absolute. The more precise way to phrase the argument would be,

There appears to be a correlation between certain cultures and religious belief. It is not necessarily true that culture determines faith, but there appears to be a general correlation that must be answered.

That doesn’t have quite the grab of a slogan Mehta’s wording does, but it more than likely reflects the thinking of those who use it, so calling the argument false in this way hasn’t gotten us anywhere.

Another way this argument has been addressed has been to expose the logical fallacy behind it. It has been said that this argument falls into the trappings of the Genetic Fallacy. What is the Genetic Fallacy? The Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy defines it thusly,

A critic uses the Genetic Fallacy if the critic attempts to discredit or support a claim or an argument because of its origin (genesis) when such an appeal to origins is irrelevant.

Once more, we run into a problem. I am not saying that this isn’t the right way to answer the argument, but the more nuanced phrasing we’ve used above doesn’t fall prey to it. The Genetic Fallacy can be the correct response to a personal accusation (for example, “You’re only a Christian because you were raised as such.” But what if I wasn’t? And if I was, why can’t there be more to my understanding of the world than blindly following what my parents believed? etc.), but in a general sense, it appears to be used less like an argument and more like a cautious observation.

There is another way to address this in regard to the Christian faith. It is this answer that I believe introduces the biggest problem for the skeptic. Let’s look at the popular phrasing of the argument again,

If you were born in America you’re likely to become a Christian. If you were born in Pakistan, you’re likely to become a Muslim. Religious belief is nothing more than a product of culture and people reflect the environment they were raised in.

Something just seems off about it, doesn’t it? They often say that if you are born in America, you are likely to become a Christian, but is that really true?

Let’s break it down to a single question: does Western culture encourage children or undecided people to become God-fearing, committed, true, radical and consistent followers of Christ, people that believe in the death and physical resurrection of Jesus Christ and are committed to following Him and His Word, and who experience unnatural urges to love the unlovable and forgive the unforgivable? And does it do so more than other cultures? I find that very difficult to believe.

Western culture is very much against this kind of “extreme” lifestyle. The term “Jesus Freak” was not made up by believers after all. The West has consistently been against the Christian faith and it has resulted in ridicule, condescension, trivialization, and marginalization. The West is not a Christian nation, it’s a predominantly secular one. There is just no place for outspoken followers of Christ in society at large. It’s a very sad reality but we should remind ourselves that the culture Jesus lived in put Him on a cross. The culture was just as much against the Christian movement then as it is now. If Christianity is accepted in the West, it’s through the work of motivational or prosperity preachers (whose work couldn’t be described better than this satirical article).

This isn’t to say that Western culture is morally bankrupt. Crime is punished and moral vices like lying, cheating, and selfishness are frowned upon by the West. However, the West does not, in any way, relate these with Jesus or even the Bible. The West can be said to encourage moral living but it does so isolatedly from the Christian faith.

Rather than encourage faith, Western culture more often than not encourages a lifestyle and worldview that moves away from it. Materialism, vanity, self-centeredness, and the idolization of fame and power are but a few ideas the West strives for and to which Christianity is opposed. The values and ideology of the West are counter to and antagonistic towards spiritual virtues. From this point of view, I see no reason to answer our question with an empathetic “yes.” The culture of the West does not encourage children and undecided adults to become believers and may even drive them away from it.

Perhaps the skeptic will argue that there are a greater number of Christian parents in the West than not, that the image of the Christian faith is more commonplace than not, or at the very least, more churchgoers than not. However, I tend to describe these kinds of people as those walking on a tightrope. At the time of my writing, a popular worship leader at Hillsong Church proudly stated that he was leaving Christianity. The church at large is simply not preparing people to stand in a predominantly secular culture. If you step onto a college campus you’re likely to come across arguments against the existence of God, claims that religion opposes science, forgeries or other objections to the reliability of the New Testament, and more. The church needs to prepare its congregation precisely because the culture is vehemently against Christianity. In fact, it may even be open to any kind of spiritualism but Christianity.

Cultural influence may indeed play a significant role in other religions and worldviews, that is something I do not dispute and it’s something they need to answer for themselves, but I fail to find an equivalent for Christianity, so the inherent assumption in the argument/observation, at least as a strong affirmative (that in the West it’s easier to become a Christian or you’re more likely to become a Christian), is false.


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