December 21, 2011

The if-you-were-born-in-India objection

By Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, December 21, 2011)

The if-you-were-born-in-India objection

There is an oft-heard objection to Christian belief which runs like this: If you were born in India, you'd probably be a Hindu. If you were born in Indonesia, you'd probably be a Muslim. If you were born in Tibet, you'd probably be a Buddhist. Christians are Christians because they were born in a Christian country or they were raised by Christian parents.

So, or so the objection goes, Christianity is merely cultural—something one has grown into. In other words, Christian belief is due to the geography or "accident" of one's birth rather than any connection to reason and truth.

Is this a good objection?

I don't think so, for two reasons.

Reason 1. Yes, it's true that, statistically, if one were born in India, then one would probably be a Hindu. However, from this it does not follow logically that one must accept the religion of one's culture as true or worthy of belief. Why not? Because, as Socrates famously quipped, "the unexamined life is not worth living."

The point: You begin your life with the belief system that's inherited from your culture or parents, but you need not end there—you can think carefully about the inherited belief system and evaluate it for its truth content.

Philosopher Paul Copan clarifies (in his book "True For You, But Not For Me": Deflating the Slogans that Leave Christians Speechless): "An analogy from politics is helpful. As with the multiple religious alternatives in the world, there are many political alternatives—monarchy, Fascism, Marxism, or democracy. What if we tell a Marxist or a conservative Republican that if he had been raised in Nazi Germany, he would have belonged to the Hitler Youth? He will probably agree but ask what your point is. What is the point of this analogy? Just because a diversity of political options has existed in the history of the world doesn't obstruct us from evaluating one political system as superior to its rivals."

Ditto for religion and philosophy.

In other words, people need not be locked into their cultural ways of thinking. There is something called simple truth that all people can discern. Also, there are logical ways of reasoning that are cross-cultural. Also, there is moral knowledge that is not limited to one's culture.

Yes, some cultures thwart the appreciation of simple truth, good reasoning, and moral knowledge. Nevertheless, the misuse or abuse of X doesn't mean X does not exist and cannot be appropriately used. How important, then, for those persons who have knowledge of truth to share it.

(At this juncture, we should note that sharing truth need not imply that the sharer thinks of him/herself as superior in any way. Copan [in Lee Strobel's book The Case for the Real Jesus] puts it this way: "My wife and I like a restaurant called the Macaroni Grill. When we tell people about it, we're not saying, 'I'm better than you because I know about the Macaroni Grill and you don't.' No—we're merely happy to pass on the news about the place. And that's how it should be with the Christian faith. Our attitude shouldn't be, 'I'm better than you,' but, 'I found something really good; I urge you to check it out.'")

Reason 2. It is important to realize that the Christianity found in the New Testament was not just a cultural expression or merely a result of the way people were raised; rather, New Testament Christianity began anew in a non-Christian culture and it spread into other non-Christian cultures—as it continues to do today.

Christianity began and spread on the basis of eye-witness testimony concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—testimony that the Holy Spirit clearly used and continues to use to further Christ's kingdom.

Of course, many persons in later generations accepted Christianity for merely cultural reasons. Nevertheless, this fact does not preclude the reality that many non-Christians accept Jesus Christ as Lord—and many Christians continue to accept Jesus Christ as Lord—for reasons having to do with evidence and truth.

In summary, the following comment from J. Steve Lee (from the Apologetics Study Bible for Students) is helpful: “[W]here you were raised does have an obvious impact on your religious beliefs; however, history proves that this can be overcome when people reconsider their beliefs in light of evidence and argumentation. While most people’s religious beliefs reflect where they were raised, they still have the freedom and responsibility to consider the evidence and claims of their religion. Christianity excels when people take the time to seriously explore its claims as well as reconsider the non-Christian beliefs with which they were raised.”

Therefore, the if-you-were-born-in-India objection is problematic.

Significantly, the objection impinges on neither the reasons for nor the truth of the core claims of Christianity, i.e., that God became a human being in Jesus, that Jesus died for our sins, and that Jesus physically resurrected from death, thereby giving us hope of eternal life.

To all my readers, whether born in India, Indonesia, or Tibet—or wherever—I wish you Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

(Hendrik van der Breggen, Ph.D., teaches philosophy at Providence University CollegeThe views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)


poetreehugger said...

-Isn't the "...If you were born..." objection sometimes not so much an objection to Christian belief as an explanation of why we should not be condemning of others' beliefs? (Condemnful?)
-Does everyone have the ability or opportunity for 'careful thinking' to the same degree? To what degree are we responsible for our false or mistaken beliefs? Of course we don't often hold false beliefs, or at least only until we realize they are false. Or do we?
-If you tell me about a restaurant you really enjoy, but I then observe that you never go eat there, but spend your mealtimes eating fast food while talking about that other fabulous restaurant, is that like me considering myself a Christian and then walking past a shivering person in tears asking for help on a city street, or me snapping at a relative who asks me for help because I am impatient to get back to reading my enjoyable theology book?...I guess you kind of answer that with "How important, then, for those persons who have knowledge of truth to share it."
Also, as I get older I find it more and more difficult to list simple truths that everyone can discern. Or is it simple truth, singular?
I enjoy your thought provoking blog posts and the opportunities they provide for mental exercise.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Hi Poetreehugger,

It's good to hear from you. I read your blog often, and I appreciate your poetry and photography. Please know that these last months, as you've expressed your mourning for the loss of your son, I have prayed for you. I have also wept with you. You will continue to be in my prayers and tears.

I am glad that you enjoy my column. I don't deliberately set out to be thought provoking in my work—it just usually turns out that way. Many years ago I would drink alcohol (to excess) to calm my mind; now (after having given my life to Christ) I turn to writing. I hope that the thoughts provoked by my column bring honour to God.

I have some replies to your comments. I will repeat your comments plus set out my replies below. (I'm skipping your question about the restaurant because you seem to have answered it.)

1. You wrote: "Isn't the '...If you were born...' objection sometimes not so much an objection to Christian belief as an explanation of why we should not be condemning of others' beliefs? (Condemnful?)"

My reply: I suppose that with some tweaking, the objection could be understood in such a way as to be an alleged reason for not "condemning" others' beliefs. Nevertheless, the fact remains that as a reason for or against the truth of another's beliefs, the If-you-were-born-in-India objection is simply not relevant. Whether a person's beliefs are worthy of belief (or not) depends not on where a person comes from but on whether the beliefs are true or have good evidence/warrant for truth.

(For further discussion of this point, see my column and comments at Genetic Fallacy.)

2. You wrote: "Does everyone have the ability or opportunity for 'careful thinking' to the same degree? To what degree are we responsible for our false or mistaken beliefs? Of course we don't often hold false beliefs, or at least only until we realize they are false. Or do we?"

My reply: Degree, ability, opportunity, and responsibility for careful thinking seem to vary from person to person. However, that there is truth, and what the truth (about the world) is, seem very much not to vary from person to person. Think of the truth that the earth revolves around the sun—this is true, period.

Of course, the extent to which there are good reasons for the truth of some claim X may vary from person to person, depending on what X is. Let's say that X = germs cause disease, or X = there is water on Mars. In these cases, whether a person knows or has good reasons for believing that X is true depends on, is relative to, the person's cognitive ability and historical circumstance, and these vary from person to person.

But also consider the case where X is a simple truth that is known via what is sometimes called properly basic belief. That is, consider X to be any of the following: that I am presently conscious and not dreaming; that the world has existed more than five minutes; that I’m not in the Matrix; that the principle of non-contradiction is true; that various argument forms are valid; that inductive reasoning is generally legitimate; that my sense perceptions of the external world are generally veridical (i.e., when I see my pencil, I see an actual object that fits the description “pencil”); that I had breakfast this morning; that other people have minds; that out of absolutely nothing, nothing comes; that torture for fun is morally wrong; that rape is morally wrong. These sorts of beliefs are true and known to be true by all people (i.e., adults who haven't been taking LSD or haven't been watching too many mindless TV sitcoms). We know that these beliefs are true, and I think that we're responsible for what we do with what we know to be true: we can choose to pursue other truths and live in accordance with them, or not.


Hendrik van der Breggen said...

3. You wrote: "Also, as I get older I find it more and more difficult to list simple truths that everyone can discern. Or is it simple truth, singular?"

My reply: See my above list of properly basic beliefs (my list isn't necessarily exhaustive). It seems to me that this is a list of simple truths (plural) that we all seem to know. The epistemology that I'm setting out is sometimes called a "particularist" epistemology. The idea is that there are some particular things that we just simply know, even though we don't know how we know them. The items on the list are philosophically basic, i.e., they are the epistemological foundations of our knowledge—and we use this knowledge to discern additional knowledge of other truths.

(For more elaboration on properly basic beliefs, see the Philosophy Foosball Blog entry and subsequent comments at Alvin Plantinga.)

Well, I should stop. I believe—I know—the following truth: there is some turkey dinner waiting for me!

On a much more serious note, Poetreehugger, I wish you and your family a Christmas season that draws you closer to God—the God who came to earth as Mary's son, who died a horrible death, but rose again, thereby giving us hope.

Best regards,