Good Question: Does Culture ultimately determine belief?

Date: October 31/2003

I have received a question to this effect a couple of times over the lifetime of the Tank, and wanted to offer at least an initial response to it:

You've probably been asked this question already, but I can't to find anything on your site about has to do with bringing up the idea that one's religious views are greatly (and almost totally) determined by the culture/environment that person was born and brought up in. An example usually follows how in the middle east Islam prevails, and in the USA Christianity prevails. One will usually say to the Christian, something like, "if you were born in the middle east you'd believe in Allah, not Christ!"

So the questions: (1) Is it really all that true that ones religious beliefs greatly (and almost totally) depend on the culture they were brought up in? More importantly, how can the Christian possibly argue that he/she would STILL be Christian if he/she was born and raised in a Muslim culture? This may imply that we are only saved because we were lucky enough to be born in a culture which did not cause us to embrace a false religion. In other words, one may arrive in heaven based ultimately on the luck he had on earth. He may have wound up in hell if he was unlucky enough to be born and raised in an anti-Christian society. And, if (1) is true, why would God knowingly allow a child to be born in a culture that would directly cause the child to be ignorant of the evidence for the resurrection (maybe like 'brainwashing', almost) and in turn cause the child to grow up and embrace Islam instead? Couldn't God have created some kind of 'will' inside of each person that is not affected by the outside world, so the person's beliefs would not be determined by outside influence?

There are two question in here. The first is one about cultural influences, and depending on the answer, a second theological one on God's fairness. If, of course, the first question is answered 'negatively' (i.e., cultural factors are NOT determinative or even dominant), then the theological problem doesn't arise in this form. So let's dive into the first one...

As I have pondered this over the years, I have always felt a little uneasy about the question—that somehow the question wasn't 'formed right' or something. And now I think I understand why—the assumptions hiding in it seem backward.

Let me explain, and let me do so under two different understandings of the issue.

I'll approach the question first from (1) a strict, New Testament definition of 'Christian', and then (2) from a looser pan-Testament definition of 'believer'.


First, the stricter view.

In this view, we are talking about true, obvious, New Testament Christians. These would be described as true followers of Jesus, who understand the import of the substitutionary death of Jesus on the Cross for their guilt, who experience the un-natural 'urges' of renewal, love, grace, forgiveness toward others, self-examination, impulses toward truth, and inner peace associated (theologically) with the New Testament teaching/image of “having the Holy Spirit”. These might be also considered 'disciples', who make an active, aggressive, and conscious effort to conform their lives to the life of their Lord. In the words of Jesus, these can be known by 'their fruit'. Their life is filled with grace (instead of judgment), sharing (instead of 'hoarding', outreach to others (instead of retreating to safety), moral outrage at treachery (instead of apathy, relativism, or demonic tolerance), and humility (instead of self-righteousness and self-aggrandizement).

Most western folks would recognize these characteristics to apply to a very, very small minority of those who would check the box “Christian” on a Census form. This wider group of “census Christians”, would more practically be described as 'Church goers', 'cultural Christians', members of “American Civil Religion' (one of my professor's favorite phrases), and would have checked 'Christian' mostly because none of the other boxes on the census form would have applied any better (i.e., Jewish, Muslim, Atheist, Other, Don't Know, Don't Care, Don't understand the Question, None of your Business).

So, if we understand the question to be referring to THESE types of individuals, then our question can be rephrased to read:

“Does living in the Western world encourage undecided people to become true, beautiful, consistent, committed, radical (in the sense of 'radix'--from the center/heart—as opposed to meaning 'fanatical', 'extremist', 'bizarre', etc.) followers of Jesus? And does it do this more so than in other cultures?”

Now, when I phrase this question in this way—which is probably the way God sees the issue (influencing HIS view of Western Culture, I suspect...ouch-for-us)--I doubt seriously if any intelligent or informed person could answer this 'yes'. The Western world that I personally have lived in for 53 years (at the time of this writing) has been rather inimical to this radical lifestyle in many ways. I can vividly remember times of public ridicule, condescension, patronizing, trivialization, marginalization, and even semi-demonization. And I have seen it in the lives of others, and in countless ways. For crass/overt cultural examples, one can look at the financial popularity of secular-only self-help markets over against bible-based 'products' (economic arena), or at implicit intellectual discrimination in university appointments against radical, outspoken followers of Jesus (workplace arena), or at portrayals of 'religious people' in the Cinema as being hypocritical, corrupt, perverted, or at best—insipid and Neanderthal (cultural arena).

To see how powerful this, is consider this 'interview' scenario. You are interviewing teenagers on the streets of NY, London, Paris, Rio, and Rome, and your question is this:

“Who, in your opinion, are the three individuals most like Jesus in the modern world—within your lifetime?”

Unless these kids already know personally one of the (for our argument, 'statistically') rare followers of Jesus, I would wager that they produce some list that looks like this:

  1. Mother Teresa

  2. Some cultural 'icon' (e.g. Media star, political figure, sports hero, etc.) who has achieved some notoriety for a single act of 'charity' or 'defiance'--but I suspect MOST of these would be entirely unrelated to/unassociated with the ways and name of Jesus, and more to the ways of 'contemporary values' (e.g., eco-stuff, purity, perhaps some act of altruism?), and that these cases have a half-life of about 18 months.

  3. Billy Graham (depending on where they grew up, and how old they are)?

If the kids are (past) members of the 'Christian' sub-culture groups (e.g., large denominations, the Religious Right, Christian cultish-sects, television-prophet-followers), the list they up with will be easier to create, but might not have ANYBODY in the 'true followers of Jesus' category.

I am not trying to be judgmental here (nor hypocritical, in excusing myself from these criticisms), but too much of the 'visible leadership' in our Western religious subculture would probably fail—some to different extents, of course-- in the 'love of money', 'partiality', 'compassion', and 'social justice' categories, perhaps.

And, although there are some cultural forces toward honesty/integrity (e.g., you go to jail for fraud, but the prevalence of this on various scales suggests that it is only valued beyond some 'threshold' of vividness', and NOT at the personal integrity level), these are not overtly related (by the culture) to anything having to do with Jesus. It's just about being a 'good person', or a 'good citizen', or the such like. The culture may encourage do-good-ism, but it's never (IMO) been associated with Jesus.

So, I really cannot formulate an argument (in my own mind) that Western culture encourages or influences undecided individuals to become radical, visible, long-term followers of Jesus.

[BTW, the same argument applies to the other major New Testament image of believers—children of heart. Our Western world—although it does tend to support infantile behaviors/beliefs at times (smile)--teaches us to NOT 'trust as a child'. It teaches us skepticism, doubt, mistrust, self-centeredness, and workaholic-ism. The argument form would be the same for 'child' instead of 'disciple', but I will only focus on the 'disciple' image here.]

However, I DO think a case can be made that Western Culture DOES acculturate us AWAY from such a lifestyle. The non-Western world's criticism of the West as being obsessed with youth, material goods, flash-pleasures, personal appearance/vanity, elitism, power, fame, and superiority is dead-on in my opinion. Even those least informed about Jesus would still likely understand that these values are counter to and antagonistic toward a Jesus-centered lifestyle of love, freedom, sacrifice, efforts for social justice reform, and “non- magnanimous” acts of mercy and compassion.

And, even though I will admit that there are 'probably' more radical-to-the-heart carriers of grace and freedom in the West (although the Christian 'demographics' in Africa might change this within a couple of years), I think a case can be made that there are two offsetting factors which 'balance out' (or even negate, statistically speaking) this higher-than-elsewhere numerical presence:

  1. The significantly larger number of counter-examples: those who profess the name of Jesus and live lives in manifest repudiation of His values, His heart, and His ways of interaction with others. The media is filled with scandals and shameful events in high-profile leaders associated with “Christianity”, and these public debacles 'neutralize' (or even undercut) the witness of grace-bearers [i.e. “so, Mr. Goody-goody, how long until YOU show up in an expose like that—you Christians are all alike, apparently--judging by the numbers...”];

  1. The basic principle that repeated exposure (without responding) to a stimulus reduces the effect of that stimulus to provoke a future response—a common (and necessary) built-in function of our perceptual ability. The more we see something, the less we 'notice' it, or even 'remember' it. Thus, time and frequency THEMSELVES are 'enemies' of the character/message of these Alive Ones ever getting across...

One can actually see the 'test case' of Biblical Israel as confirmation of this overall point. Their civilization in the OT/Tanaach was crafted completely in the Law to confront every person with every aspect of God, every day, and in every setting. All their institutions, leadership, social charter, rituals, holidays, military codes, economic structures were structured in such a way as to keep the “way of the Lord” before their minds constantly. But what was the result? According to the OT/Tanaach prophets, Israel closed their ears, shut their eyes, stiffened their necks—and only a small remnant walked in the light of the Lord. If ever there were a culture which SHOULD support this objection, it would have been that one—and its history illustrates clearly that the assumption of 'exposure produces commensurate results' is mistaken.

If a non-Western culture (e.g., Muslim, Eastern, traditional) might militate against becoming a Christian 'at all', Western culture seems to clearly militate against becoming a 'real Christian' just as much (if not more), and so our response to the FIRST version of this question is most likely

“No, being born in the West does NOT encourage/influence one towards radical discipleship, but it actually 'lowers the chances' due to various anti-Christian values (and their respective reinforcing institutions, symbols, rituals, etc.)”


Now, let's consider the case of “from a looser pan-Testament definition of 'believer'”

This is a good bit more nebulous, since the definition and delineation of these people is so much more complex (and controversial). Consider this example from the OT/Tanaach, 2 Kings 5:

Now Naaman, captain of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man with his master, and highly respected, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man was also a valiant warrior, but he was a leper. Now the Arameans had gone out in bands, and had taken captive a little girl from the land of Israel; and she waited on Naaman’s wife. And she said to her mistress, “I wish that my master were with the prophet who is in Samaria! Then he would cure him of his leprosy.” And Naaman went in and told his master, saying, “Thus and thus spoke the girl who is from the land of Israel.” Then the king of Aram said, “Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” And he departed and took with him ten talents of silver and six thousand shekels of gold and ten changes of clothes. And he brought the letter to the king of Israel, saying, “And now as this letter comes to you, behold, I have sent Naaman my servant to you, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” And it came about when the king of Israel read the letter, that he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man is sending word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? But consider now, and see how he is seeking a quarrel against me.” And it happened when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, that he sent word to the king, saying, “Why have you torn your clothes? Now let him come to me, and he shall know that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and his chariots, and stood at the doorway of the house of Elisha. And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored to you and you shall be clean.” But Naaman was furious and went away and said, “Behold, I thought, ‘He will surely come out to me, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place, and cure the leper.’ “Are not Abanah and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage. Then his servants came near and spoke to him and said, “My father, had the prophet told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean. When he returned to the man of God with all his company, and came and stood before him, he said, “Behold now, I know that there is no God in all the earth, but in Israel; so please take a present from your servant now.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, before whom I stand, I will take nothing.” And he urged him to take it, but he refused. And Naaman said, “If not, please let your servant at least be given two mules’ load of earth; for your servant will no more offer burnt offering nor will he sacrifice to other gods, but to the Lord. “In this matter may the Lord pardon your servant: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, and he leans on my hand and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, when I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, the Lord pardon your servant in this matter.” And he said to him, “Go in peace.”

BBC points out that Naaman doesn't turn into an Israelite here:

“Since Elisha would not take anything, Naaman asked him to give as much earth as he could carry back to Damascus on two mules. He intended to use this in making an altar to the Lord. Many polytheists believed that no god could be worshiped except in its own land or on an altar built with the dirt of that land ... Naaman proposed to worship only Yahweh Himself (the Lord), but superstition shaped his thinking. In the course of his official duties, however, he would have to give token respect to the god of his master the king. The god of Damascus was Hadad-Rimmon, a god of rain and thunder, here shortened to Rimmon. It was Naaman’ duty to participate in this official worship with the king and probably other officials of state. The commander was not prepared to risk his life, as Daniel’ three friends would (Dan. 3:12), by refusing to bow before an idol. But one must remember that Naaman was not an Israelite with the advantage of knowledge of the revealed Word of God. Perhaps his responsibility therefore was not as great as an Israelite’ would have been. Leaning on my arm (cf. 2 Kings 7:2) is a figurative expression for relying on an assistant for help.

Now, remember that Elisha specifically absolved him from guilt, in his polytheistic duties of state--”go in peace”.

And WBC:

“Naaman’s strange request for two loads of dirt from Israel introduces into the story a mixture of monotheism and universalism with the notion of the localization of Yahweh in Israel. A conflict appears between Naaman’s statement and the author’s comment in v 1. Sentiment, rather than superstition, motivates Naaman. Altars were to be made of earth or unhewn stone (Exod 20:25) and Naaman wished to establish his own shrine to the Lord in Syria.”

Briefly, Naaman is accepted by God (as indicated by the prophet), yet offers 'pagan' (i.e., non-Levitical, non-temple) sacrifices, fills NONE of the Mosaic regulations, still participates in culturally-required pagan/polytheistic rites (but without conviction—a sad analogy to some census-Christians today?), and still holds to some 'a god is linked to the land' belief baggage—and to who-knows-what-else less-than-theologically-pure elements??

Yet he seems explicitly monotheistic—although classical monotheism includes many other non-divine/non-human spirits, such as angels, demons, jinn, etc.—but this could actually be an expression (technically speaking) of henotheism (with the Rimmons of the world demoted from 'big gods' to 'little sub-gods'). And, in our story, there is clearly some Israelite-influence here.

But we can broaden this—for our discussion here-- to general 'non Judeo-Christian' believers (without suggesting that ALL/MANY such people either exist, or are common), as long as we stay true to some basics of the pre-NT 'gospel' (see hnohear.html for discussion on this point). In this category of non-Israelite (pre-NT-Christian) believers which were obviously in an 'approved' relationship with God would be Melchizedek and the Magi from the East in the gospels.

These latter two examples may have been derived from 'original revelation' (a la Adam and Noah), and/or from encounter with biblical traditions, transmuted through international interaction (e.g. Balaam's 'star' prophecy, connected with Middle Eastern astrology). In any event, these 'true beliefs' – as fuzzy as they might seem – are adequate to describe/define our category/profile for this half of the question.

We might attempt to fill out this second 'profile' by noting that these individuals:

There is, in these OT/Tanaach cases, some element of honest response to some type of revealed truth (original-and-traditional-transmission, cosmic/natural, stories about Israel, or an Israelite prophet—as in Jonah). This is, in essence, the evidence of true faith in the true God. [I am greatly simplifying this, so see hnohear.html for a sober discussion of this complex issue. Here I am trying to answer our question, from the perspective of 'If this version is True, then the objection fails'--regardless of whether the 'version' is True or not.]

And, at perhaps the most extreme end of this continuum, we might place the people of the city of Nineveh, in the book of Jonah. They are spoken about in tender terms by God (in the final chapter of the book), and are the explicit target of aggressive grace—sending a messenger to help them. But did they turn to monotheism? Did they become YAHWISTs? Did they adopt the Law of Moses? Did they abandon idolatry? Of course not—but something was different about their relationship to God in/after the process of that book, than before it.

[I make no pretensions to be able to 'dissect' the theology/soteriology of what happened there--!--and I do not need to for the purposes of this argument. It suffices here to situate these people into a different 'class' than they were in before they responded to Jonah's simple (very non-theological, judging by the biblical text, btw) message. And this second question is about cultures 'producing' these post-Jonah types of individuals.]

The only commonality I can find in these cases (and there is a serious danger of over-generalizing here) is that, in response to some 'unusual event', these individuals modified their worldview (e.g., behavior-producing values, theological valuations) somewhat, away from the 'usual' one created/reinforced by their culture, with the result that their 'landscape of transcendence' was re-drawn. The same gods might have been there as before, but One of them was now more 'in relief', and others were perhaps demoted to 'lesser deities' or even just 'spirits'. Not massive change, perhaps, but significant in a major element or two dealing with the nature and implications of 'transcendence'. And, with the possible exception of Naaman, none of these people would have gone by the religious names “Jewish”, “Mosaic”, “Christian”, “Yahwist”, etc. , although the new landscape included a deity that 'looked more like YHWH' than it/He did BEFORE this event.

Okay, given this understanding, let's try to restate the question, for this version:

“Does living in the Western world encourage undecided people to respond to unusual events in such a way as to recalibrate their understanding of transcendence (and the implications of that new view for values and behavior) positively toward the Christian God ...? And does it do this more so than in other cultures?”

Although this is a very difficult question to answer with any precision, I would suggest again that a couple of factors in Western culture actually militate AGAINST this 'positive recalibration' (in the statistical majority of cases).

  1. The “Modernist” legacy and its adherent-groups of Western Culture still try to explain 'unusual events' away, and/or to 'reduce' them to non-transcendental events. In many cases—IMO—these are laudatory and important exercises(!), and the debunking of the vast majority of 'spectacular' claims is an important ethical imperative enjoined by God (remember, “Critically examine everything—hold on to the good”--is at the top of the front page of the ThinkTank, or had you seen it so many times that you stopped noticing it? This factor, of course, can often operate against a 'transcendental interpretation' of the unusual [and would never operate in favor of it].

  1. For some reason (possibly as a backlash against the “Christian” legacy of the West?--another anti-Christian force) paranormal and/or 'unusual events' –if they are NOT operated upon by reductionism or debunking—result in openness to NON-Christian theological structures (e.g., New Age, Eastern philosophy, vague personal spiritualities) instead of Christian ones. The Christian option is not even considered as being 'an option'. This means that even when the 'unusual events' are allowed to speak of the transcendent, their voices are often interpreted as being incompatible with the Christian worldview. This factor, obviously, doesn't support the objection either.

  1. And even if we clear these two hurdles (reaching some pro-Christian conclusion), we still have the massive problem with the anti-transcendence values/habits of Western culture: materialism, short-term perspective, opportunistic thinking, etc. A theological insight might instantly be swept away by a culture that rarely 'trains' its constituents to think implicatively about truth (i.e., “if this is true, what does this imply about how should I live...?”). [I sometimes refer to this as 'intellectual' or 'philosophical' bulimia—they enjoy and savor experiencing the moment of insight and its afterglow, but they make sure it doesn't become part of their on-going existence and behavior...]

To be sure, these factors are not decisive in any specific case—we have tons and tons of cases where some unusual event 'opened eyes' to God, and sometimes this is conceived of in vague, but traditional, Judeo-Christian terms. But it would be difficult to underestimate the cultural 'power' of these to undermine any cognitive/volitional movement 'from the unusual, to the Judeo-Christian God'--and some of the factors in the first part of this question would also contribute to this opposition (e.g., the litany of 'failed conversions', due to some unusual events).

Where does this net out? Again, I don't see any reason to accept the assumption hiding in the objection...It just doesn't seem any 'easier' in the West, than anywhere else—and it might be a little more difficult here.


I think this answers the question more or less, but let me make two other quick comments:

One. I think I have made a decent case above that cultural influences in the West are not necessarily related to the 'probability of becoming' either a New Testament Christian, or a Pan-Testament 'Believer', but I also want to point out that cultural factors probably don't even determine the 'probability of becoming' a 'census Christian' either. When confronted with such a choice on a form-to-be-filled-out, undecided people tend to pick what they were raised as, and NOT what the majority culture 'wanted them to be'. For example, Jewish Americans don't check 'Christian', and neither do American Muslims-- even though they live in the West. What is checked is more a function of family background, and this is a function of culture ONLY through the praxis of immigration (and possibly assimilation). So, even the assumption that 'being born in the West means you are more likely to check 'Christian' on the form' is true NOT because of culture 'influence', but because of historical migration and settlement patterns. Likewise, I know 'census Muslims' (e.g., who don't pray on the rug 6 times a day toward...) and 'census Jews' (e.g., who celebrate Peshach/Passover, but who are atheists), so I'm not singling out Christians here.

Secondly, and this is more theoretical than the discussion above, is that Western culture is notoriously (and increasingly) inefficient at 'assimilation' of its constituents. Western culture has NEVER been as monolithic as the pre-Modernist historians might have suggested. Sociologists and anthropologists speak of three important terms here: acculturation, assimilation, and deviance.

[Btw, if culture were totally effective in dictating our beliefs, then there wouldn't be so many young people, discontents, and academics complaining about how the system tries to 'force them into a mold'. The system DOES TRY THIS, of course, but it fails miserably, and on a large scale—as evidenced by 'social deviance' in our Western society.]

Culture DOES exert pressure, of course, consistently, and does so via various means of social control, but our decisions are much more 'complicated'. Indeed, some sub-groups in our society specifically value deviance, (and 'deviance from deviance'--that is, 'traditionalism'--is 'punished' as deviance), and this pretty well assures us of 'extreme variability' in our cultural composition for some time.

My limited visibility into this factor (i.e., deviance) in non-western cultures, leads me to believe that deviance is perhaps less prevalent in more 'traditional' cultures, but the information I receive from the media is that it is increasing dramatically among the youth (due to globalization and information factors). I DO know that the theological 'variance' within the major religions is already significant (e.g., the varieties of Islamic and Hindu theological systems are numerous and significant), and the wider the variance, the more likely one pole on the continuum will label the other pole as being 'deviant' (e.g., the occasional violence between Sunni and Shiite is an aberrant example of this).

And of course, there is the naked fact that people in every non-Western culture DO fall in love with Jesus, every day...these cultures obviously are not infallible, regardless of how monolithic they might be in a given region or on a given day.


So, I have to conclude that, given the somewhat hostile-to-true-Christianity behavior, values, and (possibly) naturalistic assumptions of Western culture, it is not a dominant factor in 'determining' that one will become a true follower of Jesus (in the New Testament sense) or a historically-generalized 'believer'. In fact, the negative factors might obviate any 'influence advantage' afforded by the (probably) higher presence of true followers of the good-hearted Shepherd. [This renders the second question—the theological one—inappropriate.]

I hope this helps,

Glenn Miller



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