Are we solely products of our environment?

Posted on July 4, 2010 by Matt

I recently received this email and thought it would profit more then the sender. Here is the email in its entirety:

I have a very intriguing question and no one has ever given a satisfactory answer. Will you please?

“Are you born by own will? Not certainly. I am a Muslim because I have been born among Muslims and those who have been born among Christians, Jews, and Hindus etc. become what ever teachings and knowledge they get from their parents, teachers or society.

It is a common belief among Muslims, Jews, Christians and Hindus that only members of their sect will be rewarded by God and people of other religions will go to hell. When a person does not have any control on birth and adopts religion where he has been born by God, why God will punish or reward on the basis of religion?

Kindly guide me. Thanks.

This is indeed a question that should be examined? Are we born of our own will? Can we control our environment that compels us to act and to live and to think? How can a Muslim or Hindu or Christian be punished by God when she is merely acting in accordance with her environment? Is the Beaver condemned by God for chopping down trees and making damns? Does the Raven stand in judgment for feeding on the robins’ young? Should the Lion feel guilt because he has feasted on a fawn? Of course not, in these examples each animal is acting in accordance with his nature. The beaver in his beaver nature, raven in raven and lion in lion.
But applied to humans, how should we conclude? Indeed man is defined by his environment. You could know nothing about me, but if you looked at my house, saw my clothes, you could know something about me. You could see the dvds I own and determine what type of movies I like. You could see my small and yet modest library and know even more about me.
The question remains, is man defined by his environment and merely a product of it, or can he shape and mold his environment? I was born into a culture with a Christian background. Does this mean that my only possible choice for my life is a Christian one? If what you say is true and then being born among a religion will always lead to that religion. If it is like the beaver, or the raven, or the lion then just as a beaver will act only according to his beaver nature, and a raven a raven and a lion a lion then so also man will act according to his man nature. But is this compulsion seen within humanity? An acorn will always grow into an oak tree. If the proper conditions are met then an acorn will grow into an oak tree every time. There is no doubt, no wavering, acorns produce oaks. If for whatever reason the acorn does not produce an oak it is not considered normal.
Is a human an acorn? If he is left to grow will he produce the same results every time? If what you argue is true, namely that each person born into a religion has no option other then that religion, then at least two conclusions follow. 1. Man is like an acorn and despite any situation he will become what he was born into 2. If the first premise is true, then there are no counter examples now, nor have there ever been. A counter example would be a person who is born into a religion and for whatever reason did not embrace that religion.
Have there never been any Avant-gardes? No front runners? None who rose up and were known as rebels? For if acorns produce oaks, there would ever be any other tree. But is this the case? How many examples have there been in history? Is history not comprised of people who rebelled against their environment? Who fought the status quo? Consider even Muhammad, was he a product of his environment? Did he follow the religion of his father and those before him? What about Jesus? Was he not mocked and beaten because the religious leaders of his day thought he was acting contradictory to the religion of his father? Of the community he was born into? These are just two examples, if there is just one counterexample then we know that a human need not always become the product of his environment.
Even in my own life and experience I can think of counterexamples. I know people born into atheist homes who became Christians, people born into Christian homes that became atheists, people born into Muslim homes who became Christian, and people born into Christian homes who became Mormon. Can you not think of any examples yourself?
I think you are conflating the idea that humans are inherently religious with specific religious compulsions. Humans are religious. Even the original humanist manifesto referred to secular humanism as a religion and that man would be saved through reason and technology. Wherever humans are and whatever they do, they are religious. When a human is born into a specific culture where a specific religion is favored of course that would push his natural religious fervor toward that religion. But this is not compulsion.
It is the duty of all men to seek the truth. The ability to reason and to know is one of the greatest gifts given to man. But his reason is not infallible. Consider the book of Revelation. The Apostle John probably knew Jesus better then any other apostle, however when he was confronted by a mighty angel he thought because of the majesty of the being, it must be God and began to kneel. The angel stopped him because God alone is worthy of worship. If John, someone who knew Jesus so well could be confused as to mistaking a being for God, would it not seem likely that someone who has only heard of Jesus could become (at times) confused? It is for this reason that Paul compels the early church to test the spirits to see if they are from God.
Man is free to embrace or to reject his environment and culture. If the culture he is born into denies the God of Biblical Christianity, then that environment and culture should be rejected. I don’t say this as a biased man, but rather a man who has studied the pertinent historical and biblical accounts, who has spent hours seeking the truth. It is my prayer that all people who seek the truth and make it their goal, for then he will understand the words of Christ who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no man comes to the father but through me.”


  • site on May 31st, 2012

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  • Shawn on October 8th, 2012

    Hi I stumbled upon your blog. I liked everything up until the point where you justified your beliefs about rejecting cultures that deny ‘God of biblical christianity’. I suspect – just like myself- being truly unbiased on this topic isn’t possible. So you shouldn’t judge others and their cultures for having their opinions either.

  • secular on November 25th, 2013

    Totally agree with Shawn. This idea of “If the culture he is born into denies the God of Biblical Christianity, then that environment and culture should be rejected” seems idiotic. Maybe it is because you have seen the light and i have not 🙂

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