One very common question about Christianity goes like this: “If you were born in another country, a place like Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Iran, would you still be a Christian?”
The presumptive answer, from an honest look at the demographics, is simple: it would be very unlikely. (Though you might be surprised to learn that in 2000, 60% of all Christians lived in Africa, Latin America, or Asia).
The implicit next step is to suggest, “then how can you be sure that Christianity is right?” If the primary support for your beliefs comes from growing up in a certain place, then it seems your beliefs lack the right kind of rational support.
Though this does seem to be a compelling argument against faith, let’s look closer. Two questions:
- If you were born in another country, like Iran, would you still believe that women should not be punished by the government for how they dress?
- If you were born in another century, like the 10th century, would you still believe in special relativity?
In both situations, the answer is either “very unlikely” or simply “no.”
But so what? Should we doubt whether women should be required to wear hijab? Or should we suspend our acceptance of special relativity?
Of course not. But why is that? Let’s look at three reasons:
- Independent confirmation for our beliefs.
- The genetic fallacy.
- The problem of self-refutation.
The primary reason we hold to special relativity is because this theory enjoys abundant scientific support. That it might also be widely accepted as true by our family or our culture is totally irrelevant to whether or not:
- Special relativity accurately describes reality.
- We are rational in accepting special relativity as a true theory.
Likewise, with Christianity (or any religion or a political affiliation), the primary reason to believe in it is because the worldview is true and enjoys abundant rational support. For instance, the teleological and cosmological arguments support theism, and the historical evidence for the resurrection supports Christianity in particular.
The genetic fallacy
The main problem with this objection is that it is a kind of genetic fallacy:
It is fallacious to either endorse or condemn an idea based on its past—rather than on its present—merits or demerits, unless its past in some way affects its present value.
That is, we’ve made a mistake in reasoning when we point to the origin of a person’s belief (whether their childhood or their socialization process) rather than dealing with the reasons offered in support of their belief.
Therefore, the “born in another country” question draws attention to an irrelevant issue. It makes more sense to ask each other, “So, what reasons are there for thinking that Christianity is true?”
The “if you were born in another country” objection can be part of a kind of religious agnosticism. But since we’d probably believe very strongly that a specific religion is true had we been born in a different place, it is therefore unclear that religious agnosticism is true. Therefore, the “born in another country” objection undercuts itself.
The general principle is that if the “born elsewhere” argument works to destabilize Christianity, it works equally well to destabilize any other position, including itself, since we all could have been born somewhere else.
In Conclusion: Getting personal
Arguments aside, I can see how threatening this question could seem for some people. After all, if, upon reflection, you realize you hold a certain belief only because everyone else does, that can serve as a wake-up call! If you really do lack any reasons to believe in something important, but just accept it by force of habit, that can be a serious problem.
Again, this works both ways: Are you an agnostic or atheist merely because your family or friends think that’s best? You should find stronger rational support than going along with the crowd! Are you a Christian just because Mom says so? Time to read some books and really think about the evidence (which is one reason why we need apologetics in every church).
The important issue isn’t where we were born, but what we believe. So let’s focus on the important questions: Are our beliefs true? Why or why not?