The Untrustworthiness of Inherited Beliefs

I read apologetics books every so often just to keep in practice, and this week I’m tackling Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God. So far, I’m supremely unimpressed: it’s mostly just reheated C.S. Lewis leftovers (seriously, his answer to almost every question is a quote of Lewis), spiced with that old apologist standby, blatant dishonesty (e.g., he writes that medieval slavery only occurred “over strenuous papal opposition”).

I did see one argument that I don’t think I’ve addressed before, so I’ll deal with it here. It has to do with Keller’s response to the fact that people’s religious beliefs are strongly influenced by the time and place of their birth, part of what I call the argument from locality. He quotes the Christian apologist Alvin Plantinga:

People often to say to [Plantinga], “If you were born in Morocco, you wouldn’t even be a Christian, but rather a Muslim.” He responds:

Suppose we concede that if I had been born of Muslim parents in Morocco rather than Christian parents in Michigan, my beliefs would have been quite different. [But] the same goes for the pluralist… If the pluralist had been born in [Morocco] he probably wouldn’t be a pluralist. Does it follow that… his pluralist beliefs are produced in him by an unreliable belief-producing process? [p.11]

Christian apologists always think they’re very clever when they make an I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I argument like this one. (Keller is quite taken with this kind of apologetic and repeats it in several slightly different forms in the first few chapters.)

But even in the watered-down and distorted form that’s the only way he allows this argument to be presented, he’s missed the point of it. The purpose of this pluralist argument isn’t to say that religion is false because different people have different beliefs; the point is to demonstrate that most people’s religious beliefs weren’t generated by a truth-seeking process.

Some methods of forming belief are truth-seeking: they’re responsive to evidence and have a built-in way of sifting truth from falsehood. The scientific method is truth-seeking because it forces you to test your ideas against reality through experiments and observations that can’t be rigged to yield the results you favor.

Other methods of forming belief are not truth-seeking. For example: choosing a religion because it’s the most common one where you live and you want to be popular; because you’re coerced into choosing it by the threat of punishment for heretics; or because you had a mystical, unreplicable subjective experience which persuaded you that that was what the gods wanted.

And the one that’s relevant here: inheriting your beliefs from your parents through childhood indoctrination is also not a truth-seeking process. This is shown by the fact that, like other non-truth-seeking methods, it leads to different and incompatible results with equal ease. Children born in Morocco tend to be Muslim; children born in India tend to be Hindu; children born in ancient Egypt tended to worship the ancient Egyptian gods; and children born in America’s Bible Belt tend to be Christian. Obviously, that’s because there’s cultural and social pressure that works in favor of whichever religion is dominant at a particular time and place.

If you pick your religious beliefs by comparing several alternatives (including atheism!) and impartially considering the arguments for and against each of them, then you can claim those beliefs were produced by a truth-sensitive process, no matter when or where in history you live. But the number of people who can credibly claim to have done this is infinitesimal, compared to the much larger majority in every era that go with the flow. And while this doesn’t, strictly speaking, prove anything about the truth of the underlying doctrines, it’s fair to conclude that if a religion relies on the non-truth-seeking method of indoctrinating children for its survival and propagation, it’s likely because it fears a fair comparison of the alternatives.

Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
Atlas Shrugged: The Rapture of the Capitalists
Weekend Coffee: March 28
SF/F Saturday: Terry Pratchett’s Death
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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