Do people believe in God just because their parents did?

Occasionally I’ve heard a simplistic argument against belief in God that goes something like this: “You believe in God just because your parents did.”  The usual implication (either explicit or left unstated) is that any arguments in favor of God’s existence that I might offer would be biased, and therefore do not need to be considered by the listener on their merits.  This type of argument is commonly classified as ad hominem circumstantial, and labeled fallacious because one’s disposition to make a certain argument does not make the argument false.  (In an essay on this topic, C. S. Lewis coined the more colorful term Bulverism.)  I do agree that this issue of one’s parents’ faith has no logical bearing on the factual question of God’s existence.  Nonetheless, it is an issue worth further reflection.

The truth is that everyone, as a result of upbringing, genetics, or life circumstances, brings biases to life’s questions, big or small, about God or any other subject.  There is no such thing as a truly dispassionate observer with a beating heart.  While it may not be true that I believe in God because my parents did, it is true that I was more likely to believe in God as an adult, having parents who believed, than I would have been if raised by non-believers.  The clearest scholarly analysis of this of which I am aware is at study by Myers, here.  In Table 1, we see that about 32% of the variance in adult religiosity can be explained by characteristics of one’s parents, with factors such as education, work hours, and the quality of one’s parents’ marriage having significant (and interesting) influences, but with parents’ religiosity being the most significant factor of all.  If you add in socioeconomic characteristics of the adult in question in to the model, you can explain about 41% of the variance, and with all interactions of all factors considered, 49% can be explained.  Myers’s model is not exhaustive of all possible factors, so it must be acknowledged that at least a majority, and probably a large majority, of the variance our religious belief can be explained by something other than our own choices.

So clearly the right response, by a believer raised as a believer, to an accusation of bias is not to deny that any bias exists, but to ask the questioner to acknowledge their own numerous biases. Childhood factors such as parental nonbelief, parental marital problems, a father with little education or employment, or a mother with much education and employment: all of these tend to (in the Myers study) predispose a person towards non-belief, although it is not hard to see various factors working in opposite directions in particular circumstances.  It is not hard to think of other generic factors (such as IQ and its correlation with belief, something I discuss in detail here), nor is it always that hard to identify formative experiences when someone tells their life story.  I am always amazed to hear how many people (believers and non-believers alike, and for many years myself included) reached what they generally consider their final conclusions on religious belief sometime in their teens.  Few would admit to that little ongoing personal growth in, for example, their careers, their relationships, or even their politics.

For all parties to acknowledge the biases they bring to a question about God (or anything) is a healthy precursor to actually discussing the merits of the question.  For one thing, it can highlight areas where each of us has turned out contrary to the predictions of a factor model. In my own case, I was raised Catholic but now consider myself more generically Christian, with Protestant church affiliations.  Neither of my siblings has any Christian affiliation, despite having been raised in similar conditions by the same parents.  I was fortunate enough to have an Ivy League education, and one that involved both technical training in statistics and heavy exposure to the worldview of scientific materialism.  Together these factors should have marked me for ardent nonbelief; I credit my rescue from that not to any vigorous response on my part, but to my indifference at the time to these questions.  Similarly, what later awakened my Christian faith (which had never been rejected, but had largely been neglected) was the birth of a child.  In my subsequent attempts to do what C. S. Lewis called thinking things through to “the absolute ruddy end”, I must admit that I would likely be in a different place today, spiritually and intellectually, had I not encountered Lewis’s works at just the moment when I did.  My own story is unique, but so is everyone else’s.  I have found something fresh in the experience of each person who bothers to share his or her story with me, as well as in the lives of famous converts to and from the Christian faith.

What should be made of all of this?  Of course, some are drawn to the elegant hypothesis that if 50%+ of a person’s faith choices (or any other life choices) can be explained by factors of nature and nurture, perhaps 100% are ultimately driven by these factors.  I argue against this idea in another post, but admit that it has a circular appeal to it (akin to fundamentalism, especially of a Calvinistic sort); if one believes one has no choice in what to believe, this can ironically feel “liberating”, and it does have a way of shutting down further discussion.  For the rest of you, I would simply highlight what ought to be obvious but is easy to temporarily forget – that our choices are influenced by our nature, upbringing, and life experience.  Thus, in our roles as friends and acquaintances, and most powerfully as parents, each of us influences whether and to what extent someone else will develop or maintain a faith in God, and/or a specific commitment to Jesus Christ.  While each of us is partially responsible for our own choices, we are also partially responsible for the choices of others in this way.

I think there is an important theological implication of all this.  It seems to me that many Christians who reject the idea of predestination swing to the other extreme in their thinking, emphasizing the stark choice that a person makes to accept or reject Jesus Christ, and characterizing it somewhat simplistically, as if it were a choice made completely freely, and thus a choice for which all people will be held equally responsible.  I’ve argued against the simple view of heaven and hell in more detail here, but I would further note in this context that since nature and nurture give each of us with a varying level of inclination to accept or reject faith, the idea of judging all people by the same standard is unfair.  If (as I do) you believe God to judge fairly, then a simple, binary system of separating Christians from non-Christians, wherever one draws that line, cannot be the way God actually works.

C.S. Lewis, referencing how Jesus called us not to judge others, put it this way:

Human beings judge one another by their external actions. God judges them by their moral choices. When a neurotic who has a pathological horror of cats forces himself to pick up a cat for some good reason, it is quite possible that in God’s eyes he has shown more courage than a healthy man may have shown in winning the V.C. When a man who has been perverted from his youth and taught that cruelty is the right thing, does some tiny little kindness, or refrains from some cruelty he might have committed, and thereby, perhaps, risks being sneered at by his companions, he may, in God’s eyes, be doing more than you and I would do if we gave up life itself for a friend.

It is as well to put this the other way round. Some of us who seem quite nice people may, in fact, have made so little use of a good heredity and a good upbringing that we are really worse than those whom we regard as friends. Can we be quite certain how we should have behaved if we had been saddled with the psychological outfit, and then with the bad upbringing, and then with the power, say, of Himmler? That is why Christians are told not to judge. We see only the results which a man’s choices make out of his raw material. But God does not judge him on the raw material at all, but on what he has done with it. Most of the man’s psychological make-up is probably due to his body: when his body dies all that will fall off him, and the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or worst of this material, will stand naked. All sorts of nice things which we thought our own, but which were really due to good digestion, will fall off some of us: all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off others. We shall then, for the first time, see every one as he really was. There will be surprises.

— from Mere Christianity, Book III, Chap 4, “Morality and Psychoanalysis”

While Lewis may have been discussing matters of behavior here, I see the same principle applying even to choices of faith (which ultimately are revealed in actions).  Look closely, and you will find throughout the New Testament references to one’s accountability to one’s own conscience (e.g. 1 John 3:19-22, Romans 2:12-16) and to God’s judgment being fair, proportional, and relative to the wisdom that one was given regarding God’s will (e.g., Luke 12:47-48).

This does not, however, imply moral relativism.  Right and wrong actions, and right and wrong beliefs, are objective things, but people are held accountable only to what they can fairly be held accountable to.  Perhaps golf provides a useful analogy to some – it is always better to complete the course in fewer shots, but each of us has a different “handicap”, and judgment is relative to that.  The best response to this situation is to focus on listening more closely to conscience, reason, tradition, scripture in an honest effort to discern God’s will from these and follow it, and to maintain a humble spirit towards others (Luke 18:9-14).

Finally, it should not be forgotten that God’s judgment is not an end to itself.  God is love and judges us like a parent.  The whole point of judgment is reformation and sincere repentance, not punishment.

God will judge us fairly – like a magistrate – only if we insist upon it.  If the idea of being judged fairly for our lives is discomforting – and for each of us it should be – then we should rejoice at the path of grace that Jesus offers us, of throwing ourselves upon His mercy and forgiving others, thus receiving forgiveness ourselves.

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