Don’t be too confident in the correctness of your Christian beliefs—they’re just the reflection of your culture. You’d be a Muslim if you were born in Pakistan (or Saudi Arabia or Iran or any other overwhelmingly Muslim country).
This argument feels right—it’s hard to imagine a baby born in Yemen growing up as anything but a Muslim—but let’s put our confidence on hold until we explore some popular objections.
Objection 1: The argument fails when stated in absolute terms.
There are people born in Pakistan and Somalia who grow up to not be Muslims. Some come from Christian communities, and some grow up to reject the Islam of their birth. Ayaan Hirsi Ali (raised as a Muslim in Somalia) is one well-known example. And a large fraction of the American atheist community must’ve rejected their Christian upbringing.
You’re right. We’re talking about a tendency or correlation, not a certainty. “You’d be a Muslim if you were born in Pakistan” is a concise way to express the observation, but it isn’t precisely correct. Better would be: “People tend to reflect the religion of their environment.” Or: “We find a very strong correlation between belief and the environment of the believer. Why is that?”
While adults can switch religions, this is rare. A 2015 Pew Research study of the changes in world religions estimates that of the 8.1 billion believers in 2050, just 65 million (less than one percent) will have switched into their belief (chart).
People don’t randomly pick their religion by throwing a dart at a grid of the hundreds or thousands of religions of history. They don’t even roll the dice and pick a religion based on its popularity at the moment (31% Christian, 23% Muslim, 15% Hindu, etc.). The religion of young adults is very strongly correlated with that of their culture.
Objection 2: So there’s a correlation; so what?
Does it therefore prove one’s religious beliefs are false? This is the genetic fallacy (think “genesis”—the genetic fallacy criticizes an argument based on where it comes from).
No, this argument doesn’t prove anything. It simply points out a correlation that must be explained. When someone’s religion can easily be explained naturally—that they are a reflection of their culture—then we don’t need to reach for a supernatural explanation.
Alan Shlemon of the STR ministry said, “[This argument] confuses motivation with justification. It makes no difference what motivates a person to arrive at their belief. It only matters whether or not the belief is true.”
When we have a very plausible natural explanation for their beliefs, that doesn’t prove those beliefs wrong, but the natural explanation is the way to go.
Shlemon again: “If a challenger wants to undermine your faith, they must first show why it is false with reasons or evidence. . . . It only makes sense to ask why someone came to believe something false after you’ve done the hard work of refuting that belief.”
Here again is the familiar Christian response: the atheist has the burden of proof. I don’t want it.
Uh, no. You’re the one making the incredible claim. The burden of proof is yours. Atheism is the default position.
Objection 3: A pro-Christian argument stands on its own.
When I present an argument for Christianity, you must respond to the premises. Let’s say I’m biased. Or let’s say that I’m a Christian because I come from a Christian society—so what? That does nothing to prove my argument wrong.
Agreed, but we’re not talking about your arguments. The issue is that upbringing correlates with belief, and therefore religion looks like nothing more than a cultural custom.
Objection 4: The atheist is hoist with his own petard.
The argument applies to the atheist as well. Was the atheist raised in an atheist environment? Then his conclusions about religion must be as suspect as those of the Muslim raised in Pakistan! Was the atheist instead raised in a religious environment? Then since the atheist is confident in his beliefs, adults can then be trusted to correctly wade through the possibilities, whether they arrive at atheism or Christianity (or any other religion).
Imagine four people. One has malaria, one smallpox, one yellow fever, and one is healthy. Which of these is not like the other? “Healthy” isn’t a kind of sickness just like bald isn’t a kind of hair color. We don’t see four people with different sorts of sickness; rather, we see three people sick and one healthy.
In the same way, the symmetry that you imagine doesn’t exist. Children raised in a religion-free environment usually aren’t atheists because they were taught to be atheists but because they were not taught to be religious. By contrast, Christians are Christian because they were taught to be. Remove tradition and religious books, and Christianity would vanish. There is no objective knowledge from which to rebuilt it. (I explore religions vanishing in such a scenario here.)
No supernatural beliefs are self-evident. Atheism is the default position. To see this, suppose we see this religious correlation of Muslims in Pakistan, Christians in Alabama, atheists in Sweden, and so on. So we dismiss them all and say that each is a biased worldview. They’re all invalid. So what’s left? What’s left is no opinions about supernatural beliefs at all—in other words, the default view is simple atheism.
Remember the chart of religious switching mentioned above. Religions must continually get new recruits to thrive, and adults switching in isn’t where they get them. They get them through childhood indoctrination: they get them through making babies (discussed more here).
These four objections are representative of the dust raising that I’ve found on the internet in response to this argument. But when the dust settles, the problem remains. The strong correlation between adult beliefs and environment must be answered: almost all religious adults got their religion from their families, friends, or elsewhere in their environment.
Glass House rebuttal
Christians must be careful about pushing back too much. If they deny that the correlation between upbringing and adult belief means much, they’re left explaining why there are 29 countries that are 95+% Muslim and ten that are 99+% Muslim. Is it because the claims of Islam are correct? Or is it (dare I say it?) that people tend to adopt the religion of their culture?
What explains this?
Religion is a cultural trait like customs, fashion, or traditional foods. If there really were a god, we would expect people to be drawn to the true religion over all the others because its claims were supported by far better evidence, not that people would mirror their environment and religions would fill their ranks by indoctrinating children before their critical thinking skills are developed.
Religion is like language. I speak English because I was raised in the United States. I didn’t evaluate all the languages of the world before I picked the best one; it was just part of my environment.
Language, customs, fashion, and food aren’t things that are evaluated on a correct/incorrect scale. English isn’t any more correct than French or Chinese or Farsi; it’s just what some people are accustomed to. It’s not incorrect to understand or speak or prefer French; it’s just uncommon in the United States.
In the United States, one speaks English—not everyone, of course, but mostly. And in the United States, one is a Christian—not everyone, of course, but mostly. There’s no value judgment behind either one. Religion and language are simply properties of society.
wherever you happen to be born,
the local religion always turns out to be the true one.
— Richard Dawkins
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 6/8/15.)
Image from Arian Zwegers, CC license