Geography as the Most Important Predictor of Religion?
Seven and a half minutes into his 10-minute rebuttal speech during our February 12, 2009 Darwin Day debate, Dan Barker noted that “there are other reasons besides reason and truth that people come to their faith.” He continued:
The most obvious one is geography. Geography is the greatest single predictor of what religion a person will have. If you were born in Baghdad, you can pretty much predict what religion that person will have. If you were born in Tennessee, you can pretty much predict what kind of person you are going to be with your religion, generally. It’s the highest predictor (Butt and Barker, 2009).
While it may be true that geography is the highest predictor of a person’s religion, it is important to understand what Barker is trying to say and why it has no bearing on the truth of the proposition that God exists. The implication is that if most people in an area hold a certain religious belief, then the mere fact that it is the “traditional” belief of that area should cast disparaging light on the belief, or at least should call into question the honesty and intellectual rigor of those who hold the belief.
When Barker’s statement is studied critically, however, it becomes apparent that his point is moot. So what if the biggest predictor of a person’s religion is geography? Does that mean that when geography is the biggest predictor of those who will hold a certain belief, then that belief is false? If that were the case, we could simply lump atheism in with all other “religions” and say that geography is the single biggest predictor of whether a person will claim atheism. Polls indicate that those born in China or the former Soviet Union, and certain other areas of Europe, are much more likely to be atheists than other areas of the globe (“Major Religions of the World...,” 2007). So what does that mean about atheism? We are forced by rationality to agree that it means nothing, other than the fact that most people, including atheists, adopt the beliefs of the people nearest to them. It says nothing whatever about the truth of the beliefs.
Suppose we were to suggest that geography is the single biggest predictor of whether a person will know his or her multiplication tables by age 12? Would that mean that all those who learned their “times tables” hold an incorrect view of the world? Of course not. Would it mean that the local knowledge of multiplication casts suspicion on the truth of the math being done? No. It has absolutely no bearing on the accuracy of the multiplication tables. Again, suppose that we said that geography is the single most important indicator of whether a person understands how germs are passed. Does that mean that all those people who wash their hands because that is “what their mothers taught them about germs” have been taught wrong? Certainly not.
In truth, everyone knows that geography has nothing to do with truth claims. Is it the case that truth seekers often break away from their culturally held beliefs, forsake false ideas, and embrace the truth that God exists, the Bible is His Word, and Jesus is His Son? Yes. It is also true that many forsake the cultural truths that they were taught as children, reject the reality of God’s existence, and exchange that belief for false worldviews like atheism and agnosticism. Yes, that happens as well.
In logic, there is a common fallacy known as a “red herring.” The term comes from the idea of dragging a fish across an animal’s scent trail in an attempt to throw the hounds off the scent. In logic, a “red herring” is a device used to divert the attention of the audience from the real point that is being addressed. When we look at Barker’s use of the “geography” idea, something smells very fishy.
Butt, Kyle and Dan Barker (2009), Butt/Barker Debate: Does the God of the Bible Exist? (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).
“Major Religions of the World Ranked by Number of Adherents” (2007), [On-line]: URL: http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html#Nonreligious.