I’ve been listening to a lot of Tim Keller lately. Today I listened to an old interview in which he said something that got me thinking. He asserted that, for many or most people, whether they are religious or secular often depends on their social influences. I suppose this would mean parents and family as well as peers. Richard Dawkins, the famously vocal atheist has said similar things: what religion we are depends to a large extent on the society in which we grew up.
Keller supported his thesis with anecdotal evidence from his own experience. He says, for him, he was religious initially because he wanted to gain the favor of people closes to him. What does that say about the power of social interactions? What does it say about our beliefs? If Richard Dawkins and Keller are right, how authentic are anyone’s beliefs?
If we think of our first social interactions, typically family, there is certainly some truth to what Keller says. We tend to want to please our parents. If our parents are religious, we will tend to want to be religious. If our parents are secular, we will tend to want to adopt a secular view on the world.
As for Richard Dawkins, his point seems to be generally true in that people living in Muslim communities tend to be Muslim; people living in Christian communities tend to consider themselves Christian; and people living in communities dominated by other religions will tend to associate with those religions that are dominant.
Keller goes on goes out to say that we cannot remain in that state of adopting and maintaining a world of those we hang around with. We have to move on from that. We have to decide for ourselves where our allegiances lie and what our beliefs will be. Perhaps, some of us don’t ever move beyond those influences, but his point is that we should move beyond that if we are going to mature into what we believe.
This is as true for the religious person as it is for the non-religious person. Why do you believe what you believe?
Tim Keller’s statement in this regard was an answer to the question about what influenced him. He admitted that his initial religious leaning was the result of wanting to please those around him, but he advocated that people should move past that, implying that he had done just that, coming to a mature position on his belief independent of the influences around him.
I can imagine that Richard Dawkins, might smirk in skepticism at the idea that Keller was able to shed those influences and come to his position of belief independent of them. We can’t really know, of course, whether Keller is being truthful or whether he is fooling himself to think that he arrived at his present state of belief independent of those early influences.
Richard Dawkins is, ironically, an example that suggests his view of religious belief is not entirely accurate. Dawkins spoke in his first debate with John Lennox of the early influences he experienced that might have caused him to consider himself a Christian, but of course he is no longer a Christian. He ceased considering himself a believer in God around the age of 15 (if I remember right).
Yes, he was influenced early on, but as he matured in his thinking, he came to believe in something very different than what those influences suggested to him. He might say that he is an exception to the rule. Maybe that is true, but his own example discounts the factor of social influence on mature belief.
I also have some anecdotal information to add from my own experience. During the years in which social interaction had the biggest influence on me, those teenage years, I hung out with the drinkers, smokers and partiers. I was also probably considered a jock, but my social circles were not primarily athletes, and I was far from religious.
Though I grew up in a Catholic home in which we went to church every Sunday, I never felt comfortable in church. I was attracted to the rebels, and I adopted their behavior and their view of the world. In my teenage years, I was far more influenced by my irreligious peers than my family.
As I look back, I see that I wanted to be like them, so I adopted their attitudes and behaviors, but I was also attracted to them, for whatever reason. I don’t know which came first, the attraction or the desire to be like them. This suggests that there is some truth to what Keller and Dawkins both assert in regard to social influence. But that isn’t the whole story.
I found myself at odds with the attitudes and worldview to which I was attracted and I was putting on. In my innermost self, I was miserably lonely and unfulfilled. I was desperate for meaning and some moresubstantive reason for existence. I began to pull away from my friends and to seek what I was longing for.
When I went off to college, I was a seeker, eager to dig into any avenue for discovering truth and meaning to life. I was a nonconformist. I had parted from the crowd toward the end of my high school years, and was skeptical of anything that was popular.
I initially became friends with the guys in my dorm who were freshmen and, especially, the wrestlers because I was a wrestler and part of the wrestling team. We all vowed that none of us would join a fraternity. When it came time for pledging, though, I was the only one who didn’t pledge. I went my own way, seeking the truth I was looking for.
I have described my journey to faith in other writings, including My Journey, the introduction on this blog and Reflecting Back On the Path I Have Traveled. I won’t recount the details again here other than to observe that, when I embraced faith, it wasn’t the faith I grew up with.
I could consider myself exceptional, like perhaps Dawkins may consider himself exceptional, but I don’t think I am. While many people may adopt beliefs as a result of social influences and do not question them, there are countless stories of people who left the crowd they were walking with to follow their own paths. (The story of Francis Collins, the manager of the Human Genome Project, is one such example. See Inspiration or Artifice? Faith and Reason)
The fact is that, if a person is really serious about truth and meaning in life, he or she can’t be satisfied with adopting what others believe for the reason of gaining their favor. There is no satisfaction in that. Integrity and authenticity demands more of us. The more stories one reads or listens to of people who have traveled similar paths to belief (or unbelief as it were), the more one must realize how great the exception is to the rule.