There is certainly some truth to the old saying, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”. Like it’s close cousin, “a chip off the old block”, it refers to a parent and child having very similar beliefs, personalities or behaviors. Out in the Greater Twitterverse it’s also the basis for a very common argument leveled by atheists against believers. Namely, that a believer in God is only a believer because they were indoctrinated as a child to believe. This is quite a common refrain from my atheists friends like @Doubtism:
— Thomas Doubtmoore (@Doubtism) April 25, 2017
So how valid is this argument? In a recent discussion about reason, logic and God, @jcamachott asked me the following:
— John Camacho (@jcamachott) April 24, 2017
I first answered with: यीशु प्रभु है. But apparently there were no Hindi-speaking participants in the conversation to enjoy the humor in that reply. So I asked if his point was that humans are unable to think beyond the culture in which they were raised. To which he answered “not at all”. But then he added a statement that directly contradicted his first answer:
— John Camacho (@jcamachott) April 25, 2017
I have to admit that I agree with his statement more than I disagree with it. The culture and family in which one is raised certainly establishes the beginning of one’s view about God. From a sociological standpoint it makes sense; people naturally teach their children the things they themselves believe to be true about the world. Guiding and teaching your children is an important part of being a good parent. It would be ridiculous to do otherwise. “Look, little Billy, I happen to believe that it’s important to be an honest person and one shouldn’t steal or hurt other people just to get what they want. But I’m just your dad, so I’m going to let you come to your own beliefs about those things.”
No, a good parent—atheist and theist alike—teaches their child right from wrong, teaches them responsibility, and teaches them how they believe the world works. And in my opinion, the really good parents leave room for their children to ask questions and encourage them to think for themselves, especially as they grow older and begin forming their own worldview.
Everyone has a worldview—a particular philosophy of life or conception of the world; a way they believe ultimate reality to be. One’s worldview (aka beliefs) drives one’s decisions and behavior. So children pick up their parent’s worldview by watching and listening and having their daily lives impacted by their parent’s decisions and behavior. In fact, it’s impossible not to teach your child your worldview.
That’s the sense in which I agree with @jcamachott’s statement above. The majority of humans tend to adopt the worldview and religious beliefs of their parents. Many never question it, and that’s a sad thing. I wish everyone at some point in their life would test the beliefs they were raised with and come to their own conclusion about God, especially Christians. Until we seek and find God ourselves, we’re simply living out someone else’s beliefs. And because I believe God exists and is the source of ultimate reality, I believe any open-minded seeker is going to ultimately end up at His feet.
So I agree that many never question the worldview in which they were raised. But here’s the thing. Many do. And this fact reveals three logical flaws inherent in the assertion that a believer in God is only a believer because they were raised to believe.
1. Common Behavior Is Not Universal Law
If every human being were fated to adopt the beliefs of their parents there would be no point in having this discussion. It would mean all the hours @Doubtism spends bashing Christians on social media are wasted because he is merely arguing from the beliefs he was raised with; he’s unable to believe otherwise. And the Christians he is bashing are only defending the beliefs they were raised with and they are, too, unable believe otherwise.
While most people may tend to believe the way their parents did, it’s not true of every person. The world is full of people who have questioned and ultimately left the beliefs under which they were raised. (And, paradoxically, even @Doubtism has made this point by posting news stories about Christians pastors who claim they no longer believe in God.) So when an atheist levels this accusation at any one believer personally, without knowing how that person was raised or what they went through to arrive at their current beliefs, it is nothing more than an ad hominem attack; accusing someone of something personally in an attempt to undermine their case without actually having to engage with it.
Here’s an example of a brilliant man who left the faith in which he was raised because he had the courage to question it openly and honestly and follow logic and reason wherever it led:
2. It’s a Two Way Street
If humans all believe the way their parents did this fact would be as true of atheists as it is of religious believers. This is a self-defeating argument because it means the atheist himself does not believe in atheism because it’s true, but rather because he is unable to believe anything different.
In other words, the same logic used to conclude that Christians are merely raised by Christians parents and unable to believe otherwise, can also be used to conclude that atheists are merely raised by atheists and are unable to believe otherwise. Both conclusions are demonstrably false, of course.
3. It’s a Decoy Flare
My dad flew fighter jets in the Navy and I remember him telling me about decoy flares, a countermeasure for avoiding heat-seeking missiles. The targeted airplane would launch flares that give off an infrared signal which registers with the incoming missile causing it to veer off course and away from the targeted jet.
That is what this argument about inherited beliefs amounts to; a distraction from the real conversation. It focuses on why someone believes what they believe, yet completely avoids the question of whether or not what they believe is true. It’s the classic logical fallacy of judging an idea to be false on the basis of where it comes from rather than if the idea itself lacks merit. So even if I were to stipulate that the accusation is 100% true for me personally—that I am only a Christian because I was born into a Christian family who indoctrinated me into the faith as a child and I have never questioned my beliefs since then—it still does nothing to prove whether or not Christianity is true.
Therefore, I’m going to offer my atheist friends some helpful advice, and its advice I would offer even if I was on your team; stop arguing that Christians are only Christians because it’s what they were raised to believe. It’s a self-defeating line of reasoning and even if you’re right it proves nothing. There are much stronger arguments you could be using. So let’s move the discussion forward and talk about fun, productive topics like evidence for God or whether or not abstract entities actually exist!