Posted by: gcarkner | August 23, 2012

Faith Results from Social Conditioning?

Conversion and religious experience are the result of social conditioning?

There is much truth to this statement. No one decides or acts in total isolation. We are all influenced by our parenting and our various academic and personal mentors. In fact, without social conditioning, we would not be healthy humans. Culture is already happening as we are born and nurture is necessary. We have to join a conversation that is ongoing. It is our ground zero, so to speak. Many social factors influence our choices and our practice of religion, secular or nihilist belief. We are continually affected by both our past upbringing and our present environment; this is inescapable. We all need good mentors, family and friends. Yet this sort of social conditioning does not preclude genuine freedom of choice in religion, philosophical stance or in anything else. We are never simply bound by influences: we live in dynamic interaction, sometimes substantial tension, with them. These things are mulled over in the mind on those long walks on the beach or drives in the countryside, or reflections on top of a mountain. This is how we get to know who we are.

There are many people, however, who hold to their religion (or irreligion) simply because they were brought up in it, or because they have succumbed to the pressure of a peer group or the academic discipline in which they find themself. Cool is powerful. Fitting in makes us feel good. Others come to a specific faith through manipulative, “mind-bending” techniques that violate personal integrity and choice–cultic isolation. There are bullies and propagandists out there who want us to join their tribe. We sympathize with the pain that this causes and the scars it can leave. But these factors do not account for all cases of conversion or religious experience. Not at all. Some people make radical changes in their convictions after much experience, thought and deliberation. It takes time to think through your worldview.

Examine Your Position: There are also authentic religious choices. People often consciously and intelligently choose to go with or against their upbringing or peer group out of courage and a growing, deep conviction, within the context of a deeper reflection on life. Critical thinking is necessary to our maturity. Many, employing a robust combination of critical faith, critical realism and critical reason, are personally convinced of the truth of their own religion. They have committed themselves wholeheartedly to it, because it animates their life, makes sense of key phenomena and answers some of the big life questions. In university, it is time to examine and decide the parameters of one’s existence, especially one’s calling, purpose and passion. What we believe and the heroes we follow matter immensely and have a huge impact on us. We should choose wisely and carefully when it comes to such a vital question or set of questions.

Genuine, open-minded Christian conversion often happens during one’s university years of growing individuation, whether we have been brought up as a believer or unbeliever. It is possible to move beyond the naive faith of childhood to a more informed and reasoned faith of adulthood that is in critical dialogue and dialectic with the larger world. One hopes this happens in the midst of a thousand discussions with peers and professors–discernment is absolutely key. It depends neither on the suddenness of the commitment nor on the intensity of accompanying emotion. Authentic faith is as distinct from the passive acceptance of tradition as it is from the eager grasping at passing fads. While it is often initially hesitant and accompanied by doubts, eventually it grows and matures into a sustained, reasoned trust in God, with positive, empowering, life-changing results. The worst thing one can do is check their mind at the door no matter who the presenter or where the presentation.  Healthy skepticism is an asset to discernment; it should be celebrated as Flannery O’Connor writes. A holistic, deep-structure worldview outlook gives meaning and parameters for a life of growth and discovery–an adventure which opens up the horizons of meaning and the vision for one’s calling and life expectations. One should feel more enchanted, more free  and imaginative as a result of a good conversion.

This last point is crucial! Without a transformed life and a new vision, faith is pointless. These are the real spiritual drivers. Religious experience without a growing change in behaviour and growth in character is simply not Christian experience. “By their fruits you shall know them.” said Jesus (Matt. 7:16). He emphasized repentance,  turning from evil to good, a full re-posturing of the self, issuing in a new life trajectory. A new identity emerges from immersion in his teaching. This involves renunciation of narcissism, rejection of a false self to embrace new truth and take the moral high road of integrity and compassion for others (Jim Wallis, The (Un)Common Good).

This is not a lazy person’s faith; it entails a stringent demand to think differently, think freshly about everything that really matters. By this criterion, many who call themselves Christian would be excluded; they are asleep spiritually, living on the brain candy of pop religion. Socialization and conditioning are simply not enough. In fact, this complacency can produce even a dangerous religion (as we have witnessed in aspects of the religious right). Commitment to a life-giving journey is required–the way of grace, forgiveness, healing of broken relationships, hope. These are goals that make a difference and contribute value to society–take responsibility for the common good. It can lead to unstoppable, constructive good if properly negotiated and mentored. New research on well-being (what makes us  fulfilled human beings) affirms this.

But commitment cannot stand alone. In the final analysis, Christianity is concerned with the issue of truth. Wait, can we use this language in late modernity for fear we are pushing a power interest? Yes I think we can (explained in a coming post). This is at bottom the test for every commitment, every conviction; it separates good faith from fantasy, superstition and violent religion. And there is violent, eco-cidal and racist religion. Here are some pressing questions: Is God there or is he not? Is it a God-shaped, God-blessed universe that we inhabit? Does he have a demand on our lives? Who is Jesus Christ and why did he claim to reveal God to us? What is the significance of his death? Did he rise from the dead? Does the Christian answer to the big questions of life’s meaning really make the best sense of our experience? And there are many other important questions that invite serious investigation. Does it resonate with a robust, mature existence? Will God be there at the bedside of my dying wife or child? Is it relevant: does it have cash out value in the marketplace of life? Will it give me strength of character?

The challenge to each of us, then, is not to passively acquiesce in our own social conditioning, nor our academic cheer leading of one cool philosophy professor. Remember that hegemonic cultural atheism is a form of social conditioning as well, riddled with all sorts of unprovable assumptions (David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God; Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies)). We all have our doubts as well. Charles Taylor (A Secular Age) shows that atheism or other forms of scepticism are not a logical projection from science; they entail a meaningful religious stance with respect to the world.  Atheism is a religious claim and a form of worship. One must take the honest journey forward and examine the evidence and the plausibility of one’s commitments. This is sometimes painful but ultimately quite rewarding. Some of us will change worldviews and change heroes. See Manhattan’s Tim Keller, The Reason for God and Philip Yancey, Reaching for the Invisible God for a positive, sensitive and respectful discussion that examines evidence and arguments. Recently I have enjoyed Cultural Apologetics by philosopher Paul M. Gould.

~Dr. Gordon Carkner, Meta-Educator with UBC Postgrad Students, Author, YouTube Webinar Producer (appreciation to R. Middleton, B. Toombs and H. Gruning and the Ten Myths about Christianity Project birthed at University of Guelph IVCF Chapter)

Related Book about an Oxford Grad Student Conversion Narrative:   Surprised by Oxford: A Memoir by Carolyn Weber. From Cambridge University, Rebecca McLaughlin’s Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion. (Crossway, 2019).

A deeper analysis and critical reflection is available in Gordon Carkner’s recent publication, The Great Escape from Nihilism: rediscovering our passion in late modernity. (2016) See also resources at Apologetics Creativity Centre on this Blog:

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