Opponents of religion have often said that the beliefs of Christians (or religious folk in general) are weakened because those beliefs (for the most part) are simply the adopted from their family or culture. Sheeple, they’ll call us.
Whenever I hear this, I don’t get defensive or upset. In fact, I accept that my culture and upbringing has been significant in shaping my beliefs. I’ll even take it a step further. I think one’s society is more influential than these objectors realize. Not only do I think my beliefs are sociologically influenced, but I believe their beliefs (or non-beliefs) are too. Irreligious people fail to see that their irreligion or agnosticism or atheism is sociologically influenced too. Their beliefs, too, are socially shaped.
Vern Poythress, using the example of a fictitious man named Donald, explains it well:
Many people in many cultures have had confidence in their religious views. But Donald does not have confidence in any religion. And today in Europe, Canada, and the United States we meet many people like him. Why? Sometimes sociology of religion has played a role. Sociologists observe that many people hold the religion of their parents or the predominant religion in their location and in their ethnic group. Religious convictions are passed on by society, especially by parents. When Donald observes this social dimension of religion, he concludes that exclusive religious claims are a product of narrow ethnocentricity. Donald thinks that religion as a whole is suspect.
But now let us ask why Donald is so different from many people in non-Western cultures who confidently belong to a particular religion. Just like other people, Donald has received social influences, including the influence of sociology of religion. Donald’s views about religion have been socially shaped. If social shaping undermines truth, it undermines the truth Donald’s views as well as everyone else’s. Donald’s views are just as ethnocentric as everyone else’s, but Donald is unaware of it. (Taken from Inerrancy & Worldview, p. 20-21).
Yes, a person’s religion is undeniably affected by their family and culture, but so is the irreligion or atheism of others. The blade cuts both ways. If sociological influence undermines the religion of some, then it also undermines the irreligion of others.
How can we avoid being trapped in the thinking our of society? There are more answers than could be given here, but a place to start is by studying for yourself. Unfair caricatures and straw men must be put away; the truth must be ruthlessly sought. Do not uncritically conform to the beliefs (or non-beliefs) of your parents, neighbors, or nation, but also don’t act like you are absolutely unaffected by them. We all carry cultural biases and assumptions. The key is to seek the truth regardless of how counter cultural it may be. I am confident that, earnestly seeking the truth, people will meet the Truth (John 14:6).