Is Religion Purely the Product of Social Conditioning?

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by Shane Scott


If you have been following the current series of articles I have been writing, you know that I am responding to some common objections raised against Christianity by unbelievers. There was a time when this sort of study (called apologetics) was a small niche that interested only a handful of Christians. But as our society becomes more secularized, and as unbelievers become more aggressive in promoting their beliefs, the practice of apologetics can no longer be relegated to a narrow, technical domain reserved for intellectuals. Increasingly, apologetics is becoming one and the same thing as evangelism, and all Christians need to be prepared to defend their faith.

This particular series was inspired by a Facebook discussion I had with some friends I have come to know through a hobby we share. So far, I have discussed three objections to Christian faith that they raised in this discussion:

  • The notion that faith is belief without evidence.
  • The idea that faith is nothing more than wishful thinking.
  • The assumption that scientific proof is the only sort of proof that is valid.

In this article, I’d like to address an objection raised by one of my friends who happens to live in Sweden, a very unreligious country. He offered this argument against the validity of faith:

If you’re born in the US you are very likely to become a Christian. If born in Iran it’s [likely you will be a] Muslim. Etc, and so forth. If I were born in Iran I would without the shadow of a doubt be a Muslim. That to me is strong evidence for religion to be more about social upbringing rather than spirituality.

So what my friend was claiming is that religious belief is simply the product of social socialconditioning. An American is likely to be a Christian. An Iranian is likely to be a Muslim. An Indian is likely to be a Hindu. This is not because of reason, logic, or evidence, but rather the mere luck of the draw in terms of where a person is born. This therefore undermines the notion that a person’s religion is anything other than the product of her environment.

So I asked my Swedish friend this question: Is your belief – that religious faith is the result of social conditioning – the result of social conditioning?

My friend never answered this question.

And if you think about the possible answers, you can see why this question would have been an awkward one to answer. If he said, “Yes, my belief that religious faith is the result of social conditioning is itself the result of social conditioning,” then I would have immediately followed up with another question. “Is your socially conditioned belief valid?” If he said “yes,” then the obvious point would be that it is possible to hold beliefs that are socially conditioned that are nevertheless valid and true, and therefore religious faith is not inherently irrational simply because it is socially conditioned. And of course, if he said, “No, my socially conditioned belief is not valid,” then he has refuted his own argument!

On the other hand, he could have answered my question, “No, my belief is not the result of social conditioning.” And in that case, I would have pointed out that he would therefore be claiming that it is possible to arrive at beliefs even if they are not the result of one’s environment, and therefore it is impossible to dismiss all religious belief as purely the product of social conditioning. After all, if he can arrive at beliefs that aren’t socially conditioned, then so could I, and so could you.

Therefore, the argument against the validity of Christian faith on the basis of social conditioning fails.

No one would dispute that social factors play a huge role in shaping our beliefs. This is the very reason the Bible teaches parents to raise their children in the Lord’s discipline and instruction (Ephesians 6:4), and it is why Scripture warns Christians about the corrupting influence of the world (James 4:4). So yes, where a person is born, how a person is raised, the friends a person makes – all of these environmental influences are going to wield a tremendous impact on what a person believes.

But that is not really the issue. The real issue is, does this social conditioning automatically invalidate religious faith? And the answer is clearly, no. Otherwise we must (to be consistent) agree that since all beliefs are socially conditioned, all beliefs are invalid, including that one! The end result is hopeless self-contradiction.

The reality is that while social conditioning is influential, it is not determinative. Many Americans are not Christians, many Iranians are not Muslims, many Swedes are not atheists, many Indians are not Hindi. And from the first century point of view, the Great Commission was a mandate to defy all social norms with the proclamation that Jesus is the world’s true King, and to bring all nations to repentance (Luke 24:47; Matthew 28:19-20). The Book of Acts describes the spread of the gospel across all kinds of cultures, touching people in all strata of society. In story after story, whether it was a Jewish zealot, a Samaritan charlatan, an Ethiopian government official, an Italian soldier, a Philippian jailer, people ventured beyond their social conditioning to follow Jesus. And people still do so today.