Does belief come from childhood experience?

The Claim : Belief comes from our childhood experience

“One of the reasons I gave it up was this. I had already worked out when I was about nine that if I’d been born to Viking parents I’d firmly believe in Odin and Thor. If I’d been born in ancient Greece I’d worship Zeus and Aphrodite. In modern times, if I’d been born in Pakistan or Egypt I’d believe that Jesus was only a prophet, not the Son of God as the Christian priests teach. If I’d been born to Jewish parents I’d still be waiting for the Messiah, the long-promised saviour, instead of believing that Jesus was the Messiah as my Christian schools taught. People growing up in different countries copy their parents and believe in the god or gods of their own country. These beliefs contradict each other, so they can’t all be right. If one of them is right, why should it be the belief that you happen to have inherited in the country where you were born?”

Richard Dawkins, Outgrowing God, Chapter 1: So many Gods!

A Counterargument

This is an important claim for Dawkins because it’s where the title Outgrowing God comes from. This refers to the idea that as children, we believe in something false. However, when we become adults, we grow out of childish beliefs. This is a theme in Dawkins’s work. He talked about it in his book, The God Delusion, at his debate with John Lenox on that same topic, and, again, it appears in Outgrowing God.

The Christian God is not the same as other gods.

Dawkins makes the mistake of lumping the Christian God with all the others when he suggests that the way people come to faith in Jesus in the same way that people come to faith in Thor or Zeus. @SeanO explains why this is a critical error here.

There are different experiences of conversion.

Secondly, the claim that belief comes from childhood experiences does not take into account the many people who did not grow up in Christian homes and came to Christ as adults. To contradict Dawkins’s claim, one simply has to list out the number of atheists who became Christians later in their lives after initially rejecting the faith. We can quickly build an impressive roster: C. S. Lewis, his wife Joy Davidman, Alister McGrath, and even Peter Hitchens, the brother of the late Christopher Hitchens, became Christians after a period of atheism. One has only to read their stories to see that their conversions were not a reversion to their childhood upbringings, but instead honest wrestling with evidence and truth.

Furthermore, the very fact that the Hitchens brothers ended up on opposite ends of the spectrum - with Christopher an atheist and Peter a Christian - proves this claim false. The brothers had the exact same upbringing, both became atheists, and then Peter became a Christian. This suggests that there is more to what we decide to believe than our upbringing, which is in contradistinction to what Dawkins suggests in the quote above.

Finally, in a debate with Richard Dawkins on Dawkin’s book The God Delusion, John Lennox responded to Dawkins’s claim that we should outgrow belief in God. He points to the fact that he and Dawkins had almost the same religious upbringing. However, Lennox ended up continuing to believe in God because of evidence and science.


Dawkins’s claim can be refuted by considering the uniqueness of the Christian God and the various ways that many people, including those not raised in Christian homes, came to faith.