Seeing Through Cultural Beliefs

One of the common objections to belief in God is that people often follow their culture’s beliefs. If you were born in India you would be likely to become a Hindu, if you were born in Asia you would be likely to become a Buddhist, if you were born in the Middle East you would be likely to become a Muslim, and so on. People only believe in God because they follow their culture’s belief, or so the argument goes.

On examination of the evidence, this is a powerful argument against Hinduism (90% of the world’s Hindus live in India), against Buddhism (80% of the world’s Buddhists live in Asia), and against Islam (the majority of Muslims live in the Middle East/North Africa). But how powerful an argument is this against Christianity? Where exactly do the world’s Christians live?

According to Pew Research, 25.9% of the world’s Christians live in Europe, 23.6% in Africa, 36.8% in North America and South America combined, and 13.1% (and growing) in Asia. In fact, according to the Pew research centre: “of the major religious groups in [our] study, Christians are the most evenly dispersed. Roughly equal numbers of Christians live in Europe (26%), Latin America and the Caribbean (24%) and sub-Saharan Africa (24%).”

The argument that people’s beliefs about God are determined by where they were born, is certainly a strong argument against some religious beliefs. But on a closer examination of the evidence, it’s not an argument against Christianity, but for Christianity; because the sociological evidence suggests that Christianity is the only worldview that transcends culture and geography. According to Richard Bauckham:

“Whatever defines Christianity as a historical world phenomenon, cultural homogeneity is not likely to be such a feature. Almost certainly Christianity exhibits more cultural diversity than any other religion and that must say something about it.” (Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission, 8-9)

An African scholar, Lamin Sanneh, makes the same point in Whose Religion Is Christianity? As a native African, Sanneh contrasts how African people heard the appeals made by Europeans to adopt European culture, and how they heard the appeals made by Christian missionaries to put their trust in Jesus:

“African people sensed in their hearts that Jesus did not mock their respect for the sacred or their clamour for an invincible Saviour, and so they beat their sacred drums for him until the stars skipped and danced in the skies. After that dance the stars weren’t little anymore. Christianity helped Africans to become renewed Africans, not remade Europeans.” (Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity?, 43)

The argument that people’s beliefs are shaped by their culture draws on a field of study called the sociology of knowledge – the study of the relationship between human thought and the social context within which it arises. The principle itself can be applied to any and all beliefs, including the belief that there is no God. It’s not limited to only religions, but can equally be applied to all worldviews (religious and secular). In fact, applying it certain groups and not others, defeats its very purpose. As the sociologist Peter Berger points out:

“The past, out of which the tradition comes, is relativised in terms of this or that socio-historical analysis. The present, however, remains strangely immune from relativisation. In other words, the New Testament writers are seen as afflicted with a false consciousness rooted in their time, but the contemporary analyst takes the consciousness of his time as an unmixed intellectual blessing. The electricity- and radio-users are placed intellectually above the Apostle Paul.

This is rather funny. More importantly, in the perspective of the sociology of knowledge, it is an extraordinarily one-sided way of looking at things. What was good for the first century is good for the twentieth. The worldview of the New Testament writers was constructed and maintained by the same kind of social processes that construct and maintain the world view of contemporary “radical” theologians. Each has its appropriate plausibility structure, its plausibility-maintaining mechanisms. If this is understood, then the appeal to any alleged modern consciousness loses most of its persuasiveness – unless, of course, one can bring oneself to believe that modern consciousness is indeed the embodiment of superior cognitive powers.” (Peter Berger, A Rumor of Angels, 41)

According to Pew Research, the religiously unaffiliated (including atheists, agnostics and people who do not identify with any particular religion in surveys) appear to be clustered in China (which recently had an atheist regime), Western Europe, North America and Latin America (the cultural rise of those answering ‘none’ for religion). Indeed, if you were born in one of these places, you would be more likely to become an atheist.

Many beliefs about God appear to be clustered geographically. The majority of Hindus live in India, the majority of Buddhists live in Asia, and the majority of Muslims live in the Middle East/North Africa. However, Christianity is the only worldview that’s spread out all over the world rather than being tied to any one people/place. Indeed, even atheism appears to be tied to countries that have had atheist regimes in recent history (China) or places where secularism is being pushed by cultural forces (Western Europe and North America). The sociology of knowledge gives us a strong argument against atheism, but not against Christianity.

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