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Is Religion Cultural?
A Common Atheist Fallacy
One common fallacy of modern atheists is that religion is merely a cultural phenomenon. They would say that the reason most people in America are Christians is because they were brought up in a culture where the majority of people are Christian. However, if these people were all reared in Iran or Iraq, for example, then they would all be Muslim. They use this to degrade religion. By this they are implying that religion has nothing supernatural behind it. It is merely the result of the cultural myths that have developed in a particular society.
The question is, are they right? Is religion merely a cultural phenomenon? And does the fact that there are a number of religions in the world, each with a separate belief system, make all religious beliefs relative to a certain culture, and false everywhere else?
Being a Christian, I really can't speak for all religious belief, but from my knowledge of Christianity I would say that their conclusions about religion are both overly simplistic and completely wrong.
I. Christianity is a World Religion
The interesting thing is that, if what the atheists are saying is right, then Christianity would would be merely a small religion in the area of Palestine today. From the very beginning, the Lord told His disciples to go into all the world and preach the good news to every creature (Matthew 28:19,20). Jesus died for the sins of the world, and not for a small group of people.
And it was the ambition of the Apostle Paul to preach the gospel where Christ was not yet named. He didn't want to build on another man's foundation (Romans 15:20).
Another thing that Paul did that we still do today is to adapt the message of Christianity to the culture in which it is introduced. That doesn't mean we change the message of salvation by grace, through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. But where the culture doesn't go against this basic message, and Scriptural principles, Christianity appeals to the culture of a people group in order to win them to Christ. Paul said he did this in I Corinthians 9:19-23. He says:
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it."
Christians today still believe that Christ is for all men, women and children and that we are ambassadors for Jesus Christ to a world that is lost without Him (II Corinthians 5:19-21). It is a religion for the whole world.
II. The Gospel Continues to Spread Throughout the World
Far from being a cultural phenomenon, Christianity is spreading rapidly throughout the entire world. In 2010 there were 2.18 billion Christians in the world. That is nearly a third of the global population. It is estimated that by the middle of this century, the Christian religion will continue to increase until there are 3 billion worldwide. By that point only one-fifth of the world's Christians will be non-Hispanic whites. The typical Christian by the year 2050 will be a woman living in a Nigerian village, or a Brazilian shantytown. Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds and is moving to the South.
III. Christianity has a Small but Faithful Population in the Middle East and North Korea
But what about places in the world which are predominantly Muslim today? Christianity began in the Middle East and was the major religion of this region from the fourth century until the seventh with the Saracen Muslim Conquests. Now, Islam has the greatest group of adherents. Christians make up about 5% of the population there, and will likely decrease from 12 million to 6 million by 2020. The reasons for this are varied. They include low birth rates of Christians compared with Muslims, immigration, and an extensive persecution of the Christians in that area.
However, if the atheists are right and religion is merely a cultural phenomenon, then why are Christians still in this region at all? Despite the fact that it is dangerous to be a Christian in a place like Iraq, or Iran, still there are people faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ, and are willing to give up their lives for Him. It would be much easier to go along with the major religion of the culture. But these people don't accept that religion.
The same is true in North Korea. The traditional religions in that area are Buddhism and Confucianism. However, the government is officially atheist, and many in the population are non-religious. If you're found out to be a Christian there, up to three generations of your family can be killed. That is a high price to pay for your beliefs. But these people are bucking their families and their culture. Despite the culture and the persecution, they have seen the truth of Christ and are truly born again.
Just because a religion is primarily in one part of the world or the other, doesn't make that religion right or wrong. Truth is truth whether a billion people accept it, or no one accepts it. Much of what we know as Scientific fact today was once not accepted by the majority. But the truth won out in the end. And there are cultures in this world even today that are unaware of much of what Science has learned. But that doesn't mean the truth that Scientific study has uncovered isn't true, or that it is just a cultural phenomenon. Nor do the things that Science has believed in the past, or the things that they believe today, make them true when they are false. They are either true or false, despite the belief to the contrary.
Christianity is based upon the claims of Jesus Christ, and the fact that He rose from the dead, proving that His claims were true. And if His claims are true, then culture has nothing to do with it. It is true everywhere. Christianity is not a cultural phenomenon. It is truth verified by history and has changed lives throughout the world. May we who believe continue to spread that truth to every culture in the world.