How can a Christian respond to social and cultural determinism?

Hi Abdu, I live in the UAE. A while back in our Lifegroup I was asked by a Christian Sister to give a response to the problem of the appearance of social and cultural determinism.
Her question was motivated by her deep concern for her Emirati colleagues at work that she cared deeply about. I have been wrestling with a response to this question ever since. Can you point me in the right direction? God bless!

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Hi Jimmy. Thanks for the question. I see that another in the Connect family has a similar question so I think I’ll try to answer both!

First, I want to make sure I understand what you mean by social and cultural determinism. I take your meaning to be that our beliefs, whether religious or not, are determined by where we’re born, the context, etc. Is that right ? (I’m going to assume it is and then provide an answer, but if I have you wrong, please follow up!)

There are a couple of ways to look at this. First, there is the logical fallacy aspect of this issue. To say that something’s truth value is determined by the way someone has come to believe it is to commit what’s called the 'genetic fallacy." So, let’s say it is the case that someone is a Muslim because they were raised in a Muslim home in a Muslim country and they never had a chance to hear a counter perspective. That does nothing to say whether Islam is true or false. It could be utterly false or absolutely true. How a person comes to believe it says nothing about that (but it does speak to quite a bit about a person’s motivations for believing something).

Another thing to think about is a subtle difference in human experience. I don’t think that social or cultural contexts determine beliefs. Rather, they influence them. And this, of course, shouldn’t surprise anyone because influence is all around us. It is inevitable. But it isn’t a deterministic thing.

I look at my own conversion experience as an example. Being raised in a strong Muslim social context influenced me to be a Muslim and stay that way for most of my life. I, in fact, influenced non-Muslims to practice Islam even though they were in a largely “Christian” culture! I also personally know many people who were not only raised in Muslim homes but also in Muslim countries and yet they became either Christians or atheists. Yes, there was influence, but not determinism.

But, the fact is, culture and social issues, like family and persecution, have a profound impact not on the truth of our beliefs, but on the motivations for holding onto those beliefs. In my second book, Grand Central Question, the first chapter is dedicated to discussing this. In fact, the excerpt from that book was run in Just Thinking a few years ago If you haven’ already read my book or that issue of Just Thinking, I would recommend you do so. The link for that JT article is HERE. The bottom line is this: Her Emirati friend will undoubtedly be influenced by his culture to stay Muslim and to shun the gospel as unthinkable, lest there be serious consequences. But it is my hope that your friend will lovingly and forthrightly point out that the truth is more important than culture of comfort.

Blessing to both you and her!

Thanks Abdu!

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