Culture Warriors.

A friend of mine posted on facebook:

I find the argument that people generally belong to a given religion based on the place where they were born or the family into which they were born to be one of atheism’s weakest arguments and I also find it to be personally insulting, and you should too. How many atheists here were born in “Christian countries” or had Christian parents (or otherwise depending on the religion in question)? Could I not have had the same opportunities and circumstances in my life that would have lead me to become an atheist? And yet, I am still a believer. Why is that? Is it because I failed to get educated on the matter or that I have not thought it through? No. Try again. Is it because my neurons are connected differently than yours and they fire differently? Well that holds for everyone doesn’t it? My neurological structures could be exactly the way they are now and I could be an atheist (unless science can now show what the mapping of belief vs disbelief looks like). The more we analyze the issue, the more we move away from the original issue, namely, demographics. The argument for atheism based on demographics is about the most futile thing I’ve ever heard.

What he is referring to is the argument that since statistically people practice the majority religion of their homelands, religious conviction is a matter of cultural conditioning and, let’s face it, narrow intellectual horizons. After all, if you call yourself a committed Muslim and were born in Yemen, you would probably call yourself a Catholic had you been born in the Philippines. Your so-called “conviction” is completely relative and no one religion has more claim to truth than any other.

What is fascinating about this discussion is the whole problem of culture and truth. Different cultures have incompatible ideas about God, the world, and human behavior: what is “true” in Yemen is “false” in the Philippines. I think the atheists do not carry the point far enough: the problem isn’t “people disagree about Jesus and Allah, so let’s throw the whole thing out!”, but whether even the notion of “truth” can be valid.

It is tempting to look at human thought as a closed circle: our cultural ideas about God, the world, and man determine how we see reality, and in turn this vision of reality reinforces our original ideas. The same could be said for our political ideologies. Even scientific theories have the unavoidable tendency to filter out seemingly insignificant data that could end up contradicting it. If we have such a pessimistic view of culture then our greatest heroes are the counter-cultural rebels.

They represent a tiny minority who are able to buck the trend and undergo a mental conversion against their cultural tradition: noble philosophers, persecuted free-thinkers, Nietzschian supermen, (etc.) who burst the chains of superstition, step forth from the cave of shadows and into the light of pure reason (and so forth), only to be outcast, hated, and hunted down (ad nauseam) by the fearful, unenlightened and un-deodorized masses.

Well… not quite. The truth is that while everyone is culturally conditioned, most everyone goes through a complex process of examining and questioning his cultural inheritance called “growing up”. When we are very little, our parents and social institutions fill our cultural backpacks with all kinds of stuff: some items carefully wrapped up with love and little bows, others just thrown in, and some things getting into our backpacks despite the efforts of our parents and institutions. Eventually we sit down, open the backpack, and sift through our cultural baggage, comparing it to our experiences and the longings of our hearts.  The process starts with adolescence and never really ends, but we are all familiar with the arc from childhood (uncritical acceptance) to teenage rebellion (faux-critical rejection) followed by real-life experience (the “My God! My parents were right!” stage, marked by a growing critical acceptance) to full adulthood and the responsibility to pass on lessons to the next generation.

Critical acceptance does not mean reverting to the cultural programming of childhood, but reaching a stage where you understand why your parents stuck all that stuff into your backpack, discerning what corresponds to your life experience, and maybe adding or subtracting some things. Most of us never really abandon our culture for another, but we all go through a process of trying to improve on the culture we have received.  This is why all cultures change over time, sometimes evolving into something purer, sometimes degrading into something worse, or just different.

Hopefully over the next couple of days I’ll return to this theme and flesh out some conclusions.



  1. It’s an interesting discussio, but I am wary of modelling ‘culture’ in terms of a conscious belief-stance. The operant cultural values are generally presupposed rather than being on-the-table, so to speak, and it is difficult to change that. Someone who for example re-evluates their cultural background to the degree that they change their mind about the existence of God may well accept uncriticallly the term sof the debate, the significane of belief as a determinant of personal identity, etc.

    But that said, I don’t think the argument from cultural determinism is valid to begin with, not the least of reasons being that it applies as easily to non-belief as belief or any other variant of the debate,

    1. Your right, that cultural values are implicit and therefore hard to think about. I probably should have fleshed that out better in my post.

  2. It’s not an argument. It’s just an observation. It’s simply true. What you do with it, is another question. For some people, this observation may be enough to make them start thinking about the reasons behind their belief. “Attacking” the “argument” by telling us a nice story about himself doesn’t change the observation and the fact, that it’s based on statistics and not individual stories.

  3. Reblogged this on Biltrix.

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