Is christianity just cultural?

September 4th, 2011 in Belief. Tags: , , ,

But what is certain is …. that humans believe only the irrational tales of their own culture, not those of others

Adele Mercier

I hear it a lot these days.

  • “People only believe in christianity because they were born into a christian culture.”
  • “If you were born in Mecca, you’d be a Muslim.”
  • “No religion is true – it’s all cultural.”

It’s clear that the surrounding culture has an impact on a person’s beliefs. But is it the major factor? Is Adele Mercier right to be “certain”?

Humans believe only the irrational tales of their own culture?

Leaving aside the slur and assumption that religious belief is irrational, is this a statement supported by evidence?

  • Christianity began in about AD 30 with about a hundred people, all Jews and all living in Israel. Yet 320 years later, historians estimate that there were about 30 million christians in the Roman Empire, that is, about half the population. So large numbers of people had to convert from a pagan culture to christianity over this period – and this in the face of persecution that only ended a few decades before.
  • In the two millennia from its beginning, christianity has grown to more than 2 billion people in almost every country in the world – hundreds of different cultures. Again, it must have attracted many people out of “other” cultures.
  • In the present day, the fastest rates of growth for christianity are in China (50 to 100 times in 60 years), some other parts of Asia (see here) and Africa (from 9 million to 380 million in the twentieth century). While some African countries can now be considered to have a christian culture (they didn’t a few generations ago), China certainly does not. Meanwhile, christianity is generally declining in Europe where it was the dominant culture for centuries.

It is clear that Adele’s statement is factually quite wrong. Whatever may be true of other religions, christianity has grown for 2000 years by making converts in cultures generally opposed to it. Of course it has also maintained numbers through continuation of belief within a culture, but that is certainly not the only factor.

So what can we say?

A truer summary seems to be that:

  1. Most christians today were probably brought up in a christian culture (Wikipedia estimates 90%), but significant numbers (perhaps 10%) were not.
  2. These average figures disguise the fact that christianity is growing fast in some non-christian cultures (e.g. in Asia conversions are about 40% of growth and births are 60%), and growing slowly or declining in some nominally christian cultures (e.g. in Europe conversions are one third and births two thirds of growth, while in South America conversion “growth” is negative) – for all this see here.
  3. In times past, when christianity was growing at a faster rate than now, these percentages would have been very different – from almost 100% in a foreign culture at the start, and gradually falling as the total number of christians increased.
  4. Christianity appears to be most successful (i.e. it grows the fastest) in foreign cultures, and tends to become sluggish in friendly cultures.

I conclude that christianity generally grows through the conversion of people from a foreign culture and maintains itself through births in christian cultures. The opening statement is misleading and not well-based on evidence. People convert to christianity, or continue in their belief for both cultural and anti-cultural reasons, just as those who disbelieve.

One Comment

  1. You’ve addressed this canard rigorously. I often compare statements like that on religion to statements on science; in the early seventeenth century the belief that the heart is a pump for blood would have been distinctly European, but does that mean it is “all cultural”?

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