Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Old Geography Argument

There is a post on Humanist Plus: Geography Is Fate& You Didn’t Choose Your Religion that makes an argument, namely that where you are born is the primary factor determining your religion.  This is a very old argument, often with Christians in mind as the intended target. The argument is usually presented in a condescending “gotcha” manner—as if we never stopped to consider this.

The puzzled look on our faces is not because we don’t have an answer, it’s because we are dumbfounded that anyone would ask the question.

Here is a map (click to enlarge) showing the density of Christianity around the world. I have no idea how accurate the map is. My guess: very inaccurate in an absolute sense (for crying out loud, it shows western Europe as 50% Christian—5% is probably closer), and no doubt better in a relative sense. But the accuracy of the map is not important. It shows what the “geography argument” proponent contends (and nobody disputes): religions thrive in distinct geographic pockets. You betcha they do.

Just as a throw away to those presenting this as a substantive argument: you do know we recognize this—you do understand that is why so much is spent on supporting foreign missionaries?

We also understand the point that I think you are trying to make: that in a place like the United States, there are many cultural Christians. They self-identify as Christians, attend church—maybe even regularly, give money, etc. But in their hearts, they know that they are not really believers. Who knows, maybe I’m one of them. This is why the lessening of the stigma against atheists is good for everyone—anyone hanging out at church just because it’s the path of least cultural resistance should feel absolutely free to leave, with no negative implications. That would be good for the church, and good for those who no longer feel the need to wear a Christian mask.

If we could remove this Cultural-Christian background (we can’t in any scientific way) from the map what would it do? Well, the map would certainly look different. The scale would have to change—the percentage categories would come down, maybe even way down. The coloring would shift too, because I think we all can agree that if we could filter out the cultural-Christians, the areas most affected would be those, like the US, with a high self-identification. I doubt that there are many cultural-Christians in Iran.

However, the geography argument, such as it is, would remain. Even if we were handed a map of divine origin that showed “The Percentage of True Christians as certified by God” we can stipulate that it would have the familiar geographic-pockets feature.

So how do we answer that theologically?

If only all “gotcha” arguments were so easy. (Actually, most of them are.)

Let’s answer this from the two broad flavors of Christianity:

Arminianism: The belief that one must hear the gospel and respond positively, and that while an unconverted person needs God’s grace to say yes, he still has the self-ability to say no to God’s call.

Calvinism: The belief that from eternity God has chosen a people for redemption, and in this case God’s call, when it comes to the elect, is irresistible.

Those are crude, working definitions, but good enough for present purposes.

How would an Arminian respond to the geography argument?

Of course there are pockets. You must hear the gospel and respond. Are you more likely to hear the gospel (and see examples of it lived out) if you grow up in Christian home? If you grow up in the United States? Or if you grow up in Saudi Arabia?

How would an Calvinist respond to the geography argument?

Of course there are pockets. We do not teach that election is a random draw in a cosmic lottery in which you’d expect a uniform distribution. God chose a people—it is not surprising that he would clump them in families and localities for mutual support and edification.

The distribution of religions is one place where the religious and the anthropologists make the same prediction. All religions, true or not, spread by word-of-mouth proselytizing. (Even Calvinism, properly understood, agrees.) I believe Christianity is the true faith. If you back two thousand years and make a map it would show up as a barely visible speck in Palestine. That wouldn’t be a compelling argument that is was false.


  1. 50% is definitely much closer than 5% - in case you're interested:

  2. JBeav, Awesome map.