You’re only an atheist because you were raised in an atheist home.

Contributed by Matthew Clayton of Loving Christ with Your Mind.

One time, if I remember correctly, for my brother’s stagecraft class, he had an assignment to make a birdhouse and it seems as though one of the requirements was that it be painted. I believe he was busy (I don’t know the situation’s exact details) so he asked my sisters if they’d like to paint it. And, of course, they thoroughly agreed with the notion and picked up their paintbrushes.

The painting was bound to take place outside in our drive way, and that’s what reality beheld. The birdhouse was placed on top of a spread out Whole Foods bag, and they were ready to do the job my brother requested of them.

But, as any of us would cause, the dripped paint swayed away from the paper bag. It landed on the concrete, and this caused disorder, as well as my dad’s time and effort to clean it.

When my father first heard of it, he was talking to my sister in a “Why did you do that?” way, but it wasn’t necessarily vicious or aggressive. My sister Maggie[1] said, “It was Molly[1] who did it!” My dad wisely responded, “It doesn’t matter who did it; what matters is that it’s there.”

And that answer can be applied to a mess caused by disorderly painting, as well as atheistic objections.

Richard Dawkins and the Genetic Fallacy

The most famous atheist in the world, Richard Dawkins, seems to be rather popular for his response to the question “What if you’re wrong?” Here’s an excerpt from this comeback:

Why aren’t you a Hindu? Because you happen to have been brought up in in America, not in India. if you had been brought up in India, you’d be a Hindu. If you’d been brought up in Denmark at the time of the vikings, you’d be believing in Wotan and Thor. if you had been brought up in classical Greece you’d be believing in Zeus. if you had been brought up in central Africa, you’d be believing in the great Juju up the mountain.[2]

So is this the argument that basically destroys religious belief? Not really. In the words of William Lane Craig, it is a textbook example of the Genetic Fallacy.

What is the Genetic Fallacy?

One is committing the Genetic Fallacy “when an idea is either accepted or rejected because of its source, rather than its merit.”[3] Whenever you try to invalidate a view or belief because of where it came from or why one believes it, you are firing the bullet that is this fallacy.

Now, accusing Dawkins of the Genetic Fallacy without providing evidence that the attack actually is flawed may not be credible enough for you skeptics. Well, that’s OK; there is evidence that such an argument is an invalid one.

For example, the only reason I know the base ten number system, and how to count using that system, is probably because my parents and my Pre-K teacher(s) taught me. Now suppose that my parents were terrible people (they’re really not, far from it actually, but pretend for the sake of the analogy); would that mean that the base ten number system has no truth in it, or that 2 doesn’t come after 1 and 3 after 2 and so on? Of course not! Going to a belief’s place of origin to try to justify or nullify a belief is like saying, “Daddy told me that Santa exists, therefore Santa must exist” or “Mommy said that Napoleon wasn’t a real person, therefore Napoleon isn’t a real person.” It’s nonsense.

Please bear with me—I have one more analogy. Suppose a child told a truthful statement, “Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address.” It would be absurd to say “You’re a child! You don’t know what you’re talking about; you haven’t even taking a second grade history class.” (As Jesus said, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who is in heaven.” [Matthew 18:10].) If it’s wrong that the earth is flat, it’s wrong whether you’re brought up in ancient Mesopotamia or in the house of the leader of the flat earth society. If Christianity is true, it’s true if you’re raised in a home of Bible-thumping fundamentalists or in India. You can’t deny a teaching because of the teacher.

Whenever Richard Dawkins, or any atheists, for that matter, argue that Christianity is false because it seems as though it’s all a matter or geography, they are committing the Genetic Fallacy. It is irrelevant how one came to believe in Christianity; that effects whether or not Christian doctrine is true the same how one came to understand mathematics effects what 2+2 is. The “You’re only a Christian because you were raised in a Christian home” argument has a synonym—the Genetic Fallacy.

So using the wisdom of my dad, which can find its roots in his fear of the LORD, we can rephrase his words to fit this context: “It doesn’t matter who did the making of a Christian[4]; what matters is that they are a Christian.”

It Attacks the Reasoning of the Belief?

Once I tweeted a link of my post, Atheistic Fallacies.  In the article, I answered the Genetic Fallacy argument rather briefly, saying:

A belief’s place of origin has nothing to do with the belief itself. Let’s say Christianity is true. It’s true in India, it’s true in South Africa, it’s true if I’m raised in a Christian home. This is a pointless objection.

On Twitter, the man responded with a stream of tweets objecting to what I wrote. I’d have to hypothesize that if he read the previous section of this article, he would agree. But he did, however, back up the fallacious argument I am dissecting here by saying that it has to do with the reasoning of the belief, and, conclusively, not the truth of the belief.

That’s fair. But it assumes that the only reason Christians hold to the doctrines they cling to is because their parents “indoctrinated” them. That is not true. Sure, many Christians accept Christ for this vain reason. But as long as one Christian believes what they believe through rational thought, belief in Christianity would be reasonable, and it is[5]. For example, there’s me. I came to accept that Christian teaching was indeed the Truth because of evidence (although I became a Christian because God came down, revealed Himself to me, and rescued me while I was still in my sin).

Also, “the reasoning behind Christianity,” if it were shown to be, in fact, unreasonable, wouldn’t really change a thing. Suppose that someone believed that a square had four sides because he had a “religious experience” with the “Great Almighty Square.” That would be an irrational reason to believe that a square has four sides, yes, but it wouldn’t alter the fact that a square has four sides.

So at the end of the day, saying that Christianity is unreasonable because some Christians come to believe it because of their parents isn’t a good argument, for even that commits the Genetic Fallacy.

Turning the Tables

Atheists use “You’re only a Christian because you were raised in a Christian home” to try to falsify Christianity. But what if the tables were turned and Christians, out of no seriousness whatsoever, used a similar argument?

In this video, the atheist Penn Jillette talks about raising an atheist family. This is very interesting, for this gives evidence that atheists—or at least one atheist for that matter, but I’m sure Richard Dawkins’s daughter is an atheist—”indoctrinate” their children into accepting the notion that there is no God.

But if the fact that Christians teach their children Christianity disproves Christianity, than the fact that atheists teach their children atheism disproves atheism. Which it doesn’t, but this shows the ultimate self-destruction of the argument.

It’s self-defeating. It’s like arguing “You’re only an atheist because you were raised in an atheist home,” as this post title jokingly reads.

Conclusion

Nathanael said to him, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathanael coming to Him, and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to Him, “How do You know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel.” (John 1:46-49)

When we look at this Biblical passage, we see the Genetic Fallacy: “Can anything good come from Israel?” The answer is yes.

An argument similar to the one I have refuted was used about 2000 years before Richard Dawkins’s “What if you’re wrong” speech. Nathaniel questioned whether anything good could come out of Nazareth, but once he realizes that Jesus is in fact the Son of God, he deserts his fallacious criticism.

I pray that this article would encourage those who use the Genetic Fallacy argument to let it go so that they could become better thinkers, and, as Phillip said, to “come and see.” Come see the that Jesus is the Son of God and the King of Israel. His Salvation is offered to every tribe, every tongue, and every nation, regardless if you were born in a Christian home, a Hindu home, or even an atheist home.

“who [God] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time. (1 Timothy 2:4-6)”

________

[1] Names were changed due to personal and privacy reasons
[2] The full transcript can be read here; warning: Genetic Fallacy
[3] A thank you to this page for this definition
[4] It is not our earthly father who makes us a Christian, but our Heavenly Father. God alone can save. Isaiah 43:11
[5] I am currently reading a book called The Reason for God, and if you are a seeker evaluating the truth claims of certain religions, and you have come to seek out the rationality of Christianity, I suggest reading the book.

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DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
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  • http://twitter.com/JTrott Jim Trott

    I don’t think the “faith due to geography” argument is used to deny truthfulness, but rather as part of an indictment of the notion that the Christian God is dedicated to, or bound by, Justice (which always has a concept of “fairness” in attendance.)

    It isn’t debatable that the culture and circumstances of one’s birth have a profound affect on the likelihood of his embracing (or swerving into) the “proper” faith; there are so many competing, and persuasive, supernatural narratives available.

    There are also many hopeful apologists who do a disservice to the goal of “winning souls” with their eagerness to purvey rhetorical tactics, which derive from a lack of effort to understand the arguments they seek to dispel.

  • Jonathan

    I agree with much of what you say, but I can see how Dawkins’ argument can be sensible. He’s trying to cast doubt on anyone’s belief that their religion is the One True Faith by pointing out the historical and cultural contingency of religious affiliation. If one already thinks religion is nonsense, it’s a good bolstering argument. But then again, being in a culture where science is the dominant mode of understanding physical reality is also a highly contingent state of affairs. One could easily say, “Well, you just believe in science because you were raised in a culture that taught it to you. I was raised in a culture that believes the earth is flat and rests on the back of a giant turtle.”

    I also disagree that Nathanael was committing the genetic fallacy. I take his statement to express amazement that a great teacher could come out of back-town, podunk Nazareth.

  • Mark

    I disagree that Dawkins used the genetic fallacy in his response. Firstly, he didn’t point to a single characteristic of his questioner to attack his argument. Instead he supplied the correct context for the argument (how does believing make you safer if you don’t know which of the myriad religions to believe). Secondly, it is unclear if logical fallacies apply here, because Dawkins questioner was not putting forward a case based on logic, but rather one based on fear ( i.e. if you’re wrong, you’ll burn in hell).

    As a side note, one of the most entertaining times I’ve invoked the Genetic Fallacy was when debating the origin of the universe. I challenged a Christian to prove that the universe was not created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster. He replied that because I didn’t really believe that FSM existed, that proving it didn’t exist was unnecessary. I pointed out that he was employing the Genetic Fallacy, and my beliefs didn’t discharge his need to prove FSM didn’t’ create the universe. The conversation was most interesting from that point on.

    • http://www.facebook.com/DanielWMann Daniel Mann

      Mark,

      I think that you were correct in your application of the genetic fallacy.

      However, the atheist, for consistency sake, should avoid denigrating the Christian faith because most Christians were born to Christian parents or within a Christian culture. Atheism, materialism, and naturalism also seem to largely be children of modernity – affluence, a rebellion against religious limitations, and an education-bred arrogance.

    • http://www.facebook.com/DanielWMann Daniel Mann

      Mark,

      I think that you were correct in your application of the genetic fallacy.

      However, the atheist, for consistency sake, should avoid denigrating the Christian faith because most Christians were born to Christian parents or within a Christian culture. Atheism, materialism, and naturalism also seem to largely be children of modernity – affluence, a rebellion against religious limitations, and an education-bred arrogance.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joshua.gibbs.737 Joshua Gibbs

    The idea that people are only members of a religion because their parents were never made sense to me, and as someone who has made a personal decision to join a specific religion I actually find it insulting and offensive. The basic idea is that because you inherited your religion it’s just an accident of birth and so one religion can’t be right and the others wrong because that would be like racism or sexism. That argument is great if you care more about tolerance than truth, but it makes no sense because for it to work you have to ignore too many facts: conversions, reformations, denominational splits, new religions being founded, and so on – all cases where a religion was demonstrably not inherited. The fact is that in modern societies people inherit their religion because thy chose to; in most cases they could have investigated other religions and chosen something else with very little effort and no serious problems. If they just copy the religious beliefs of their parents then it’s hardly the religion’s fault that they’re too lazy or weak-minded to do some research and soul-searching. People usually keep the religions of their parents because most people don’t care enough about what’s true to try and figure it out, so they just accept whatever they’re told.

    • http://twitter.com/MidwestPride MidwestPride

      What i’ve found odd is that those who aren’t religious, for the most part, always accuse people who are (and who are conservative in every sense of the word) as being brainwashed/indoctrinated. It seems in their mind the only “free” and “liberated” people are so called secular ‘progressives.’

  • SteveM

    The problems with this argument are not that hard to grasp.

    “Not-Christianity” is not a belief system that children have to be indoctrinated with. If you leave kids alone, they will naturally accept “not-Christianity” all by themselves. But they will not naturally accept Christianity all by themselves. It is not symmetrical whatsoever.

    “Oh yeah? Well you only DON’T think [my crazy thoughts] because your parents DIDN’T tell them to you! You see, we were both influenced as children.”

    …If you honestly cannot see the distinction here, let’s try something else.

    If there’s no God, then it’s perfectly natural to expect that people would be influenced by childhood indoctrination. And they are. But there is no reason why, if God exists, he would send people to heaven (or hell) based on such childhood indoctrination–that he’d intentionally set it up in such a way that unless someone gets the childhood indoctrination, they are much more likely to go to hell.

    If God exists, we’d expect that people of all ages and circumstances would have equal chance of being saved and accepting him when they heard about him. Or that he’d pick people based on some mysterious criteria. Whatever. But what do you know, he “picks” the people whose mommies and daddies indoctrinated them. Those people just *happen* to be the people whose hearts are open to repentance, the truth, etc.

    Finally, many more non-believers were raised in strong Christian households (like myself) than believers were raised in staunchly non-believing households. People would continue leaving Christianity because of the hard evidence, whether you indoctrinated them or not–but if we raised everyone as a non-Christian, it would vanish.

    The truth does not depend on childhood indoctrination. Even if you destroyed all the science textbooks in the world, people would discover it all over again, whether they were told about it as children or not.

  • Guest

    Only 17.5% of atheists worldwide come from an atheist background. Just over 70% come from a Catholic or Protestant background. Most atheists are ex-theists, or people who were at least more accepting of the idea of god (coincidentally usually the most popular one). Most theists are not ex-atheists coming from an atheist background, so you don’t really have a leg to stand on. When the majority of the world is atheist for an extended period, maybe, but something tells me you wouldn’t like that very much.

    While it’s not fair to judge any one individual as only believing something because their parents do, it’s silly to pretend like there’s not a connection between where people live and which god they believe in, to deny that most religious cultures scoff at foreign gods with have no less evidence than the familiar, and it’s hard to believe people would end up believing in the same gods if swapped at birth.

  • Andy

    Only 17.5% of atheists worldwide come from an atheist background. Just over 70% come from a Catholic or Protestant background. Most atheists are ex-theists, or people who were at least more accepting of the idea of god, at least the popular one(s). Most theists are not ex-atheists coming from an atheist background, so you don’t really have a leg to stand on. When the majority of the world is atheist for an extended period, maybe, but something tells me you wouldn’t like that very much.

    While it’s not fair to judge any one individual as only believing something because their parents do, it’s silly to pretend like there’s not a connection between where people live and which god they believe in. To deny that most religious cultures scoff at foreign gods, which have no less supporting evidence than the familiar gods. To believe two people from different religious traditions would probably end up believing in the same gods if swapped at birth.

  • Andy

    Only 17.5% of atheists worldwide come from an atheist background. Just over 70% come from a Catholic or Protestant background. Most atheists are ex-theists, or people who were at least more accepting of the idea of god (coincidentally usually the most popular one). Most theists are not ex-atheists coming from an atheist background, so you don’t really have a leg to stand on. When the majority of the world is atheist for an extended period, maybe, but something tells me you wouldn’t like that very much.

    While it’s not fair to judge any one individual as only believing something because their parents do, it’s silly to pretend like there’s not a connection between where people live and which god they believe in, to deny that most religious cultures scoff at foreign gods with have no less evidence than the familiar, and it’s hard to believe people would end up believing in the same gods if swapped at birth.