You’re Only a Christian (and have a Christian perspective) because you happened to be Born in a Christian Family. Apparently who God “saves” is merely a feature of geography and culture? How convenient.
Provocative comments like these are common for critics of exclusive religious claims. In Western culture, Christianity often bears the brunt, but the squabble could be levied at any recognized religion paired with a geographical and cultural setting. After all, one could just as easily argue that the only reason a person is a Buddhist is because she or he was born into a predominantly Buddhist culture, family or situation.
The argument reasons that people are merely the recipients of the traditions of their particular family and cultural point of origin, and as such, religious “truth” claims are relegated to little more than parochial oddities. If this is the case, then those religions can hardly be applicable to anyone outside that societal pedigree. To argue otherwise would seem to be on the horns of a dilemma, for one’s preferred religious worldview must either be pushed onto those from an alternate perspective and heritage, or it must alternatively accept that its own truth claims are not as universal as they were previously believed to be. In the former case, cries of intolerance, arrogance and cultural bigotry are bound to surface, while the latter requires such a serious reworking of religious claims that it oftentimes leads adherents to reject the entire religious paradigm itself. These are exactly the kinds of conclusions that hecklers of religious traditions want believers to face and accept.
The Reciprocating Saw
But does this argument work? In a word, no. For one, the rationale cuts both ways. Whatever the worldview of a person raising this argument against a religion like Christianity might be, it could just as easily be argued that the “only” reason she or he adopted that worldview was because she or he is from a non-Christian tradition. Since most atheist and agnostic types like to think of themselves as enlightened and free-thinking critics who blaze their own trails rather than following someone else’s, this is undoubtedly not where a religious heckler intends the argument to turn. Nevertheless, the reciprocating edge of the argument should preclude a double standard. Unless a person can prove that she or he invented their own perspective from scratch, their outlook falls victim to the same argument. They inherited it from somewhere, therefore it is invalid.
What I mean is that in the marketplace of ideas, no one is an objective observer who passively evaluates other perspectives without harboring one of their own. People (philosophers in particular) do not operate in a vacuum when it comes to worldviews, faith claims and religions. Each of us has one (or more). All fine and good, but if we argue that the “only” reason we have that perspective is because a particular environment nurtured it, and that therefore it cannot possibly reflect objective reality, then we just sawed off the branch we were sitting on. Stated another way, if we all have an inherited viewpoint, and if the source of a belief structure is contemptible for the mere fact that it has a traceable lineage, then the only thing this proves is that all such positions are equally contemptible. Is your head spinning yet? It should be, for this is self-defeating “logic” at its worst.
The Double Standard
Skeptics nevertheless raise the argument because they unwittingly operate from a double standard which simply assumes that their perspective is the objective one from which the the merits of others’ can be judged and measured. Ironically enough, while proponents of this argument pretend that they have a privileged platform to analyze other perspectives, they seem to imagine that the religions and perspectives they appraise remain blissfully unaware of each other’s existence. The reality of the situation is quite different though. Religions do not exist in isolation from one another any more than philosophers do. They rub shoulders, and people convert from one faith to another all the time. Some people do this over and over throughout their lives while others convince themselves that they have de-converted from an official religion and replace that previous faith system with an anti-faith, faith system (like leaving Judaism for atheism etc.). This is noteworthy because it calls into question the very premise of the original argument. A person who has converted “to” or “from” a religion cannot simultaneously be accused of having adopted that religion (or anti-religion) simply because they were born in a certain geographical or cultural context.
The Problem with “Only”
The reality of conversions strikes at the heart of the fallacy this argument leans on because they prove that adopting a religion or worldview goes well beyond merely being born into a certain time, place and culture. To be clear, the first problem we should have with the skeptic’s argument here is its reliance on the word “only,” as in, “the only reason you are a Christian is because you were born into a Christian family culture.” Even if “nurturing” is why many people first accept Christ, that makes no accounting for why they stay as Christ followers or why others convert to become his disciples as free-thinking adults who measure and weigh the case for Christ with the case against him or for alternate religious and philosophical paradigms.
The Heritage Fallacy
The second problem we should be aware of is that this skeptic’s argument steps into a logical error informally referred to as the “heritage fallacy.” This particular logical miscue attempts to prove a position false by condemning the source or initial cause of the position in question. This is not completely unlike an “ad hominem” (Latin for “to the person”) fallacy, which attacks a particular idea merely because the person who first proposed it is of questionable moral fiber or generally unlikeable etc. This may be of particular relevance as we suffer through a barrage of negative political ads in an election year, but in either case, both variations of the fallacy fail because how an idea or position came into being (or who developed it) is completely irrelevant to the value and truthfulness of the idea itself.
For example, Sir Isaac Newton’s “discovery” of gravity should not be questioned even if it could be proven that he was a scoundrel when it came to drinking, gambling and his taste in women. Gravity would still be in operation despite his personal failings, and we would be silly to suggest otherwise. Similarly, even if the reason that a person first became a Christ-follower was because his or her parents nurtured the decision, that fact in and of itself has absolutely no bearing on the truthfulness or validity of Christianity itself. Just like the issue with converts, this also fails to make any allowance for the likelihood that, at some point, individuals made some decisions for themselves regarding the veracity of their adopted religions rather than merely leaning on what their parents and guardians had taught them.
The hereditary source of a situation (like children selecting the religion of their parents) may very well be true. In fact, the link between faith development and a nurturing environment towards that faith are practically undeniable. The situation certainly lends itself to skeptics asking the question or raising the argument in the first place. Are we merely Christians because our forebears were? I strongly urge all Christians to ask themselves if they have taken ownership for their own faith or if they are merely plodding along as mindless robots who have uncomprehendingly taken on the faith of their fathers (and mothers). That remains a valid question. Nevertheless, the reasons why the faith may have been adopted are irrelevant to the value and truth of the faith itself, and on that point, the skeptic’s argument comes undone.
For our part, Christians should be wary (and perhaps weary) of the way that we often go about evangelism. Regardless of the heredity of our faith, clearly we believe that Christianity reflects objective truths applicable and profitable for all of humanity. Clearly we are called to partner with Christ, to go, and make disciples of all nations. I affirm this, but as per Ephesians 4.15, it is equally our duty to speak and demonstrate the truth in love rather than through arrogance, intolerance and bigotry. Passionate as we are for the eternal difference who is Jesus Christ, we cannot be jerks who try to “push” him on others. God does not “save” merely as a feature of geography or culture, but neither does he save because we have to do all the heavy lifting. We are his partners, but we are his junior partners. In 1Timothy 2:4 and 2Peter 3:9, the text tells us that God wants everyone to be saved. It is our duty and our joy to work with him toward that end, but if God doesn’t force people to accept him, then neither should we. That being said, we are under no compulsion to tolerate stupid arguments designed to make Christians feel bad for growing up in a Christian home. I am one of those Christians, and I thank God for the faith of my forebears.
Thanks Mom and Dad. -Corbin