Inherited Belief Is Not Inherently Bad

It is commonly understood that a person’s religious beliefs mostly correlate with the culture in which that person lives. We see it all the time. People who are born and raised in a culture with Christianity is the most prominent religion will probably be Christians. People who are born in an Islamic country will most likely be Muslims. The same is true cultures that are predominantly Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, or any other religion. We should also recognize that this correlation is true for non-religious cultures.

It is no wonder that it is popular to think that religion is culturally conditioned. This means that on a societal level, families are pressured by way of politics or economics to conform to a religious norm. This also means that on a personal level, children are pressured by way of indoctrination to conform.

It would be easy to conclude that religious belief is generally not so much about finding truth or trusting God, as it is about being brainwashed and forced to comply. It is more about conformity than about authenticity. Furthermore, when you simply inherit your beliefs, can you really say that you genuinely believe?

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]

I have come across this issue in many places, but the arguments always seem to boil down to two main objections:

First, there is an assumption that if a person’s religious beliefs are passed down from a previous generation, having been received from the surrounding culture, they are not grounded in truth or reality. In other words, the biggest reason why people are religious is that they were raised to be so. After all, there does not seem to be any other reasons for believing.

Second, there is a condemnation of teaching children a particular religion before they can choose one for themselves, or whether they want to be religious at all. In other words, the biggest reason why people teach religion to children is to maintain control in future generations. After all, there does not seem to be any other reasons to teach them.

Having grown 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. 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 then I realized something else. How I came to know about Christianity had no bearing on whether or not Christianity is true. Therefore, it should have no bearing on whether 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 cause humility in our consideration of religious beliefs. However, to argue that this invalidates a person’s beliefs altogether proves too much by way of something called a genetic fallacy.

Just because one’s religious views are inherited does not mean that those beliefs are inherently false.

When someone agrees or disagrees with an idea based on where it came from, it is known as a genetic fallacy. A genetic fallacy is illogical because how we come to learn of an idea does not determine whether it is true or false.

Genetic fallacies happen all the time in sports fandom. A die-hard fan declares that “we” are going to the playoffs this season. The fan’s friends all argue he is wrong. “After all,” they say, “you’re only saying that because you’re a fan. And only a fan because you grew up going to their games!” Of course, that might be the case. However, at the end of the day—or season—the team’s success in the playoffs has a whole lot more to do with its players’ performance than with what any fan thinks. What’s more, if the fan starts giving reasons why he believes his team will win, spouting off statistics and strategies, his belief seems much more plausible.

If accepting 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.

When applied to religious belief, the genetic fallacy has several problems.

Problem 1: It destroys itself.

Why would someone believe that religion is determined by culture? Perhaps it is because they live in a culture in which it is popular to do so. Perhaps they believe this because they were taught to believe it. Does that make their belief wrong? The argument collapses when applied to itself.  

The idea that religion is socially constructed is a relatively new and very Western idea. We might 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.

Religion of all stripes has been used to oppress and abuse. Certainly, Christianity is no exception. In fact, here in the West, where Christianity has had such a predominant influence, it appears as though it is the predominant culprit.

However, if religion is as oppressive and deterministic as the argument suggests, you have to wonder how guys like Dr. Dawkins, quoted above, made it out. As it turns out, Richard Dawkins was raised Anglican. And he is no exception.

In fact, for the past couple of decades, the fastest growing category in the U.S. are the “nones”, those with no religious affiliation. The majority of these “nones” were raised in a religious home. If religious belief was as determined as Dr. Dawkins suggests, should this be happening?

“Furthermore,” as Rebecca McLaughlin points out, “while many Americans are becoming nonreligious, the traffic flows both ways.” She continues:

A recent study found that nearly 40 percent of Americans raised nonreligious become religious (typically Christian) as adults, while only 20 percent of those raised Protestant switch. If that trend continues, my secular friends are twice as likely to raise children who become Christians as I am to raise Children who become nonreligious. [3]

It seems that religious belief is a much more dynamic experience than many people assume.

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

Several years ago, one of my apologetics students a former student of mine went on Reddit in hopes of sparking good conversation about Christianity. Another user posed the question, “Ever wonder why you’re defending Christianity and not Hinduism or the monkey god Hadoman?” (I have to 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 joy 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 and was a bit insulted. This person who had never met him simply assumed that he had never asked any questions, felt any doubt, or studied the issues for himself. In fact, his parents were not believers.

This line of thinking fails to consider that people who are raised Christian often struggle with doubt and skepticism toward Christian beliefs. The “you only believe because” argument belittles that struggle. It fails to recognize that many Christians come through the struggle with deeper belief because they have seen firsthand how well Christianity holds up under the scrutiny of skepticism.

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 assist other Christians 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. It is what makes me a faithful husband, reliable father, and helpful friend. What kind of believer 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 simply not accurate to say that Christianity is a Western religion. It was not originally, and it has not been for some time. Some religions may be culturally determined, but Christianity is not one of them.  

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 it 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 one that reaches into cultures. This testifies to the universal nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who wanted from the very beginning for his story and message to be preached to all nations.

Conclusion

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

With anything you inherit, you have decision to make: Do you hold on to it? To make that decision properly, you must evaluate your reasons one way or another. Do you hold on to it because you “owe it” to past generations? Do you hold on to it because it is of personal significance? Do you hold on to it because it has value in and of itself? Do you hold on to it because it is a part of who you are? Do you hold on to it for a combination of those reasons?

If you inherited Christianity, I would invite you to explore the multitude of reasons why it is worth holding on to. Past generations testify to its rich heritage. Millions around the world testify to the personal fulfillment it brings. Rational arguments and empirical evidence testify to the truth value it has. The personal relationship that is at its heart brings you to know your Creator and Savior, which is to see yourself as you truly are. For all these reasons and more, it is worth holding on to.   

If you did not inherit Christianity, I would love to share my inheritance with you.


[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] Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 13.

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


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