Theism and the Genetic Fallacy

Skeptics have long argued that the human propensity to believe in gods is due to a pervasive and potent feature of human psychology–the tendency to project human form and activity. The Greek philosopher Xenophanes, maybe the first critic of religion, noted over 2500 years ago that people’s gods looked and acted like them. Ethiopians worshipped gods with snub noses and curly hair. Red haired and blue eyed people had gods with red hair and blue eyes. Warlike people have warrior gods. If oxen and horses had hands and could fashion images, said Xenophanes, their idols would be oxen and horses. The Greek gods were argumentative, boisterous, and bawdy, not unlike the Greeks themselves. Yahweh, the God of the Bible, is just as anthropomorphic as all the others: He (and he is definitely a “he”) smites, rewards, issues orders, changes his mind, suffers from bouts of jealousy and temper, booms in a loud voice, impregnates a human female, and walks in the garden in the cool of the day. So, the gods, including God, seem originally to have been merely a projection of the human tendency to anthropomorphize, to see natural occurrences as effects of powerful humanlike agents.

Theists counter that such an argument, if taken as supporting atheism, commits the “genetic fallacy.” You commit the genetic fallacy when you conflate two questions that should be distinguished: (a) What causal processes account for the psychological origins of a belief? (b) What rational grounds are there for thinking the belief true? Just because you can explain why somebody holds a certain belief (he learned it from his mother, say) doesn’t mean that the belief has no objective truth or validity. I might be “hardwired” to think that God exists, but, nevertheless, he might really exist, as arguments and evidence might show. As the saying goes, just because you are paranoid does not mean the people are not out to get you; likewise, just because you are wired to believe in God does not mean that God does not exist (Maybe, in fact, it was God who wired you to believe in him!).

However, the charge that atheists commit the genetic fallacy is both wrongheaded and disingenuous. Sometimes, indeed, the causal history of a belief has no bearing on its credibility: I may have originally accepted the Pythagorean Theorem because my high school geometry teacher pounded it into my reluctant head, but if I can now prove it, the history of how I acquired my beliefs about the Pythagorean Theorem is irrelevant to my current judgment about its soundness. On the other hand, there are times when the causal history of a belief is highly relevant to its epistemic merits. A belief acquired by the ordinary functioning of human sense organs in the appropriate circumstances (e.g., believing that someone, Bill Clinton, say, is present because he is seen from nearby in full daylight and with nothing in the way) is clearly more credible than one acquired by hallucination. If a friend, known to be trustworthy, told us that he just saw Bill Clinton walking down the street, and we believed his cognitive and sensory functions were normal, we would probably accept that Bill Clinton was in the area. But if we knew that our friend suffered a peculiar psychological condition that made him prone to Bill Clinton-hallucinations, we would strongly discount the claim that Bill Clinton was in the vicinity. Likewise, if we identified in the human psyche a powerful mechanism that inclines people to believe in gods—whether or not gods actually exist—we should, absent strong reasons to the contrary, discount belief in gods.

The theistic accusation is also disingenuous. Everyone disregards all sorts of ideas for no other reason than that we know how those ideas came about. Suppose that there are some fanatical J.R.R. Tolkien fans out there who think that Hobbits really exist and are even combatively aggressive in asserting such. Do we have a responsibility to take the Hobbit-believers’ claim seriously? Can you disprove the existence of Hobbits? I don’t think so. The reason why nobody, or hardly anybody, takes the actual existence of Hobbits seriously is that we all know where the idea of Hobbits came from. Tolkien just made them up. If Hobbit-believers accused us of committing the genetic fallacy, conflating the question of where the idea of Hobbits came from with the question of their actual existence, we would just laugh at them. Likewise for any latter-day Zeus or Odin worshippers; we know that Zeus and Odin are products of folklore and mythology, i.e., that they are just made up, and we are under no burden to separately consider the question of their actual existence. Theists find the comparison odious, but really there is no obvious reason why we shouldn’t regard Yahweh as we do Zeus and Odin.

About Keith Parsons
  • Victor Reppert

    First, I don’t think it’s fair to say that atheists commit the genetic fallacy for the simple reason that atheists need not use an argument of the type you are suggesting, nor do they feel the need to.

    It is true that very often atheists claim that their ability to explain theistic beliefs offers them a reason for rejecting theistic beliefs as false. Now if you had an explanation for theistic belief that showed that most human beings would believe in God regardless of the state of the evidence, that might be of some use argumentatively if it also showed that this was not the case for unbelievers. But do we have this? When someone like Freud comes up with a possible theory explaining the psychology of religious belief, that doesn’t do a whole lot. We have a clearly true explanation for how we got our information about Hobbits. Theism is just a much tougher case.

    So we get the argument “Humans fear mortality so much that they will invent any theory, however unreasonable, to escape the conclusion that they are headed for extinction.” And now we’re going to need the hard evidence, suggesting that this psychological theory is true. I can tell you that in my own case, wanting to believe in God made it more difficult to believe in God, not easier to believe in God. There are possible explanations for why I might have misevaluated the evidence in favor of theism, but these possible explanations don’t do much to undermine my beliefs.

    This is especially so since it’s easy to come up with psychological explanations for atheism. Freud had a good one: the Oedipus complex. Or just the natural human desire to be the supreme beings, to have no one in existence who can judge my actions and tell me definitively that I am wrong, that I am a sinner. It seems to me that I can tell the atheist “OK, you take your psychoanalytic arguments off the table, and I’ll take mine.”

    So while an industrial strength explanation for religious belief that really shows that people, including those like me who think they have good reasons for believing in God, would believe whether there were good reasons or not, might be damaging to religious belief, I don’t think we are anywhere near having that kind of an explanation.

  • philip m

    I think that the evidence you cite which you conclude favors atheism actually favors theism.

    There are certain features of the universe, such as its existence at all, its apparent design, its beauty, and the range of experiences which comprise life as a human, which are much more naturally explained by a personal agent. Thus the idea of a god has appealed to the human intellect throughout the ages because of its ability to explain the data which we experience. For would humans naturally posit something that doesn’t make sense? After having tabulated the data into a total picture in our minds, do we not tend to explain it with an idea that makes sense of it all?

    The way people respond intellectually to a situation seems to me to be context-dependent, which seems to me the best way to understand the human mind. We hear that a husband started arriving home late a month ago, he had recently not shown any interest in his wife, and his explanations of having more work to do have been stretched. Furthermore, we find out that an attractive new secretary arrived at work just a few weeks before the husband began arriving home late from work. What idea naturally suggests itself to be the case?

    So the tendency toward attributing these things to a god seems to me to reveal to us the core of humans’ intellectual intuitions about the universe. Of course, humans often mistakenly explained many phenomena in terms of gods which can now be explained through other means – but it is the features I mentioned above which I think have always provided the broad and overarching framework in which humans interpret their experience, and these are the ones that act as the brightest signposts pointing to a god beyond it all.

    Because of this, I think the issue is better framed another way. Walking around Ohio State’s campus, I often see a person walking who I think is someone I know. Upon a closer look, however, I realize it’s not them. This is obviously to me because I am familiar with the person I know, so I read their face onto the person I see walking, since the person walking looked at least in some ways similar to the person I know.

    This happens to lots of people, especially concerning celebrities. A friend might insist ‘I just saw Tom Hanks driving by in a car!’ Given that humans tend to think they saw someone’s face when they are familiar with that face, and they just saw him driving by at a bad angle, we can probably conclude it wasn’t really Tom Hanks. That doesn’t mean, however, that it wasn’t a person driving by in a car. That perception is probably true. If anything, we’ll probably have to do more work to determine the identity of the person in question, since we mistake people a lot of the time.

    So I think that’s the most you can adduce from the data – that people usually get the identity of whatever god there is that exists wrong (which seems to me to be very analogous to the above example, since over time it does seem that the testimony of humanity has been that there is, in fact, a god). That we can discount belief in gods until we get strong arguments to the contrary doesn’t follow from the fact that people usually believe in a bogus god.

    Besides, if God exists, it is likely that humans have a natural desire for something greater because we have lost the once solid relationship we had with Him. This is totally to be expected in a theist’s paradigm, so people acting on that desire in many ill-conceived ways is not any evidence against God. For something can only be comparative evidence between two hypotheses if it isn’t to be expected on the other hypothesis’s view.

    Furthermore, I don’t see why you limit the well you are poisoning to theistic beliefs. When you say ‘Look at all the invented (and therefore false) theistic beliefs there are, therefore human mental production of theistic beliefs is shown to be unreliable’ why not simply say ‘Look at all the invented (and therefore false) metaphysical beliefs there are, therefore human mental production of metaphysical beliefs is shown to be unreliable.’

    You take theistic beliefs out as a subset from a larger class of beliefs which are all over the board, and which are mostly all false. Why not discount all of them? What about the Buddhist conception of the universe, Native American conceptions, new age theories, naturalism? Why can’t they all point back to the unreliability of the human mind at all on metaphysics? Why can you pick theistic-type theories out of the bunch and only impugn them?

  • Keith Parsons

    Vic, thanks loads for your reply. I do not think that we have a theory that shows that most people would believe in the Judeo-Christian God. I don’t know of any theory, except maybe Plantinga’s sensus divinitatis, that says that belief in God is hardwired. However, there is much evidence that belief in a god or gods is. Here is a sample of recent books adducing such evidence: The “God” Part of the Brain by Matthew Alper, Faces in the Clouds, by Stewart Guthrie, Darwin’s Cathedral by David Sloan Wilson, In Gods we Trust, by Scott Atran, The Evolution of Morality and Religion, by Donald M. Broom, Religion Explained, by Pascal Boyer, and Breaking the Spell, by Daniel Dennett (We are a LONG way beyong the old Freudian and Marxist explanations). Each of the theories presented in these books is what I call a Biological Belief Theory (BBT). Each BBT adduces vast amounts of information from neuroscience, psychology, evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and anthropology to argue that humans have a natural proclivity towards belief in gods. No BBT holds that belief in a specific god, Zeus, Marduk, or Yahweh, for instance, is “hardwired.” All of these writers recognize that specific gods are social constructs, the products of particular cultures and historical contingencies and subject to historical development. But they argue that culture does not write on a blank slate. God myths are avidly invented, promulgated, and believed because they satisfy a natural yearning and give a specific shape to innate but inchoate urgings.

    Vic, you say that explaining God is a tougher case than Hobbits. We know how Hobbits were made up, but we cannot say so clearly how God was made up. But it seems that we can. Karen Armstrong’s A History of God recounts in considerable detail how a small-time, truculent tribal god of a minor pastoral people became the one universal God of the later prophets, and then the triune God of Christianity, and then the ferociously unitary Allah of Islam, and, eventually, the watchmaker God of the Enlightenment. Armstrong explains cogently how these evolving concepts of God were responses to the spiritual needs and cultural exegincies of particular times and places. Of course, just one person thought up Hobbits (though, of course, Tolkien was drawing upon a vast history of folklore about “little people”), and no one person made up God. But the principle is the same. If we know that an idea was a product of myth and folklore(and, prima face, this seems to be the case with Yahweh just as much as for Zeus, Odin, or Quetzalcoatl), and if we know that people will be inclined to invent, promulgate, and believe such myths whether they are true or not, then, absent compelling contrary evidence, it is rational to discount such ideas. Further, as I argued, such discounting does not commit the genetic fallacy.

    Vic, you say that wanting to believe in God was for you a major obstacle to belief. Knowing you as a person of exceptional honesty and intellectual integrity, I’ll take you at your word. However, I also know how easy it is for our introspective self-reports to be wrong, however honest our self-scrutiny is. For instance, over the years I have heard many people preface a statement of belief (in God, ESP, UFO’s, conspiracy theories, monsters, or what have you) with the claim that they started off as skeptics but were brought around by “overwhelming evidence.” Then, when you look at the evidence, and find it to be very underwhelming, you have to conclude that their initial skepticism did not run nearly so deep as it subjectively seemed to them. So, we can easily be wrong about what we perceive as our real, deep-down desires and motivations. Tell me, do you really think that, had you been born Vijay instead of Victor, and if you were from Bangalore rather than Phoenix, AZ, that you would not now be as devoted to Brahma as you are to God?

  • John W. Loftus

    Keith, your last sentence reminds me of my outsider test for faith, which has been attacked for committing the genetic fallacy, so I really appreciated this discussion.

    If someone has a paranoid belief about the CIA spying on him and we find that the genesis (or origin) of his belief comes from him taking a hallucinogenic drug like L.S.D., then we have some really good evidence to be skeptical of his paranoid belief, even though we have not actually shown his belief to be incorrect in any other way, and even though by doing so you could say we have committed the genetic fallacy.

    Furthermore, if all of our beliefs are completely determined by our environment then that’s the case regardless of the fact that by arguing for this it commits the genetic fallacy, and regardless of the fact that our own arguments are completely determined by our environment.


  • ahswan

    To quote Alister McGrath (“I Believe”):

    “Reason runs into difficulties when trying to cope with God. Alfred, Lord Tennyson made this point perfectly in his poem “The Ancient Sage”:

    For nothing worthy proving can be proven,
    Nor yet disproven.

    Belief in God, it need hardly be added, rests on solid foundations- even if paradoxically, as Tennyson suggests, it cannot be proved. Atheists and Christians alike take their positions as matters of faith. The former may like to try and represent their position as objective and scientific, but it is actually nothing of the sort.”

    The fallacy does not address the truth of the claim, only the validity of the argument.

  • John W. Loftus

    ahswan, since you compared Christian claims to atheist claims let me comment. Like others you have a mistaken notion of what an atheist is. An atheist is a non-theist. That’s what this negative word means depending on the religion in question. Early Christians themselves were called atheists for not believing in the Roman gods. So are you or are you not an atheist? An atheist is someone who rejects a religious set of beliefs. Do you reject Islam? Then you are an atheist. An Atheist (with a capital A) is someone who rejects all religious beliefs. That describes me.

    Christians argue as if the comparison is between their own beliefs and metaphysical naturalism (MN). Yes, they are poles apart, but those are not the only options. There are a host of other options between these two poles, from moderate to liberal Christianity, to another religion, pantheism, deism, and agnosticism, any one of which disagrees with your claims. The debate is not, as fundamentalist Christians seem to like to argue, between fundamentalism and MN. It is between fundamentalism and everything else.

  • The Barefoot Bum

    Whether or not any God actually exists, belief in God is an empirical fact and must be explained. Hence if atheists are going to deny the existence of God as an explanation for belief in God, it is incumbent on them to provide an alternative explanation.

    As Quine has shown, it's possible to construct a theory — even an empirically verifiable theory that fits all the facts — that preserves any number of standing statements. The keys are falsifiability — A statement that will be affirmed "come what may" is unfalsifiable — and ontological simplicity, the number of auxiliary hypotheses needed to support the unfalsifiable standing statements.

    The atheists' explanation for belief is a simpler explanation than the theists'. To make "God exists" unfalsifiable, we have to attribute a lot of seemingly weird properties to God — at least shyness, if not outright perversity — to explain the patterns of differences, particularly the cultural specificity of people's theistic beliefs. People do not, for example, exhibit the same pattern of differences when identifying well-known world leaders: they do not typically mis-identify George W. Bush as their own head of government.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    When using a genetic argument the atheist will use some premise about how theistic belief came about in order to decrease the probability that this belief is true. In this sense the counterexamples you mention do not work: If we knew that our friend suffered a peculiar psychological condition that made him prone to Bill Clinton-hallucinations, and he told us that he just saw Bill Clinton in the street, this would *not* decrease the prior probability that Billy Clinton was in the vicinity. If we estimated that probability to be some low p before our friend’s testimony, after his testimony the probability is still p. You also mention the example about the Hobbits. Here we don’t have a prior probability because we don’t know what Hobbits are until we read Tolkien’s fairy tale. But it’s not because we find Hobbits in the fairy tale that we assign low probability to them; after all we also find white horses in the same fairy tale. We assign low probability to Hobbits because we know that it is very unlikely that 50 cm tall persons with large hairy feet live on Earth undetected. So the fact that they appear in the fairy tale is irrelevant, and to think it’s relevant would be to commit the genetic fallacy.

    One is to claim that the evolution of religious belief both in society and in a particular individual is a purely naturalistic process, i.e. that one can, at least in principle, explain on naturalistic grounds exactly how religious beliefs came to be. In this case the genetic fallacy should be obvious. One can similarly explain on naturalistic grounds how mathematical beliefs came to be, and it’s not like this decreases the probability of mathematics. Not to mention that if theism is true then it’s not like God would have created the universe in such a way that belief in God would be an unnatural phenomenon.

    A second atheistic argument is based on Freud’s idea the religious beliefs come from wish fulfillment. Let’s accept for discussion’s sake that Freud’s idea is true. Would this decrease the prior probabability of theism? Clearly not. After all, if theism *is* true, then true beliefs may very well sound like wishful thinking, so that a cognitive mechanism that works towards wish fulfillment may well be epistemically effective. For the genetic argument to work we must not only accept that religious belief is produced by a process of wish fulfillment, but also that such a process will not produce true beliefs. But to accept the latter is to beg the question.

    A third atheistic argument is that belief in deities (Zeus, Odin, Yahweh) is the product of a process of mythology creation and that this process mainly produces false beliefs, which lowers the probability of any deity. But this argument once again begs the question. For perhaps theism is true and one of these deities does in fact exist (or perhaps several of these deities come close to describing God), notwithstanding its mythological roots. Similarly if we find out that a particular lottery ticket was bought at a particularly store known to sell a lot of non-winning tickets does not lower the probability that this particular lottery ticket has in fact won the jackpot.

    A fourth atheistic argument is that there is a human propensity to project human attributes to reality. But then again, if theism is true and what’s fundamental in reality is personal rather than mechanical, then this propensity may very well be an appropriate one. On pain of begging the question we can’t exclude this possibility.

    Now what goes for goose goes for the gander, so what about atheism’s naturalistic worldview? Here, conversely, the theist may argue that naturalism is the result of scientism, i.e. of an excessive admiration of all things scientific. Or that naturalism is the result of the unfortunate tendency to deify abstract models, in this case science’s mathematical models of phenomena. Or that naturalism is a reaction to various negative aspects of organized religion, including its insistence of upholding mythological beliefs. Each of these premises about the origin of naturalism may be true, but to argue that they decrease naturalism’s probability would amount to committing the genetic fallacy too.

    I think that especially in the case of ontological beliefs one can’t use premises about the way these beliefs came about to lower their probability without begging the question. The reason is that ontology refers to the whole of reality and therefore what kind of processes are epistemically effective are contingent on the same ontological beliefs one is arguing about. So, for example, suppose a theistic friend of ours claims that she formed some specific religious beliefs because of voices she heard while praying. Again, if theism is true then for all we know it may be case that God directly speaks to some chosen people to reveal truths to them. Or perhaps a fundamentalist claims a belief is true because it is so written in the Bible. Well, fundamentalism’s worldview entails that of each word in the Bible when interpreted correctly is true, so we can’t non question-beggingly argue that the origin of her belief lowers its probability. Or, conversely, if naturalism is true then perhaps deifying scientific models is precisely the right way to go. In conclusion then, to argue on genetic grounds about ontological beliefs is always fallacious. We must argue only on the merits of each ontological worldview.

  • Victor Reppert

    I posted this on my blog as well.

    Keith: First of all, I think the Hobbit example is flawed because almost no Tolkien readers have the slightest inclination to be realists about hobbits, since the words “fantasy fiction” are right on the cover of the book. Maybe the case of Tim, who sees snakes in his room after a long drinking binge, might be better. We have good reason to suppose that his room contains no snakes, and we can explain how someone having consumed as much alcohol as he has consumed would come to hold such beliefs. Here, however, you are typically going to find people in the room who see no snakes, etc. In short there will be a body of evidence undermining the claim that there are snakes in Tim’s bedroom.

    Do we have anything like this with respect to religious beliefs? I think it is difficult. Now IF we have assessed the overall evidence for theism as pretty poor, in much the way that the others of us in Tim’s room who see no snakes assess the evidence negatively, then we might try to figure out how Tim got his belief that there were snakes in the room. But presumably you are offering these psychological explanations as a piece of atheological evidence itself, as a reason to reject belief in God that stands independent of such arguments as the argument from evil. Now I do suppose that if we knew enough about alcohol and its effects on the brain we could dismiss claims of that sort even in the absence of evidence against the claim itself, simply on the grounds that it was produced by an unreliable belief-producing mechanism.

    But the challenge for this argument is going to be daunting. You have to remember, first, that if the Christian God really does exist, it is highly likely that God would make us in such a way that our true needs are met by a knowledge of, and relation to him.

    And let’s look at what we have to explain. First of all, you must explain the proclivity to think in terms of deities, and to produce religious explanations. Then you have to explain how a society moved from polytheism to monotheism. Then you have to explain how, right from the midst of a people whose whole history had been a battle for monotheism, someone came along who claimed to be the Incarnate God and got a significant enough following to spread belief in him throughout the Roman Empire, resulting in a monotheistic God that is nevertheless triune. And then you have to explain the fact that people at the highest levels in science and philosophy still think the evidence sufficient for belief in this triune God. These are four separate steps, and they all need to be accounted for.

    For the sake of this discussion, I will grant that if naturalism is true human beings can be expected to produce supernaturalist beliefs. When we get to the second and third steps, I think the naturalist is going to run into problems. Parsons writes:

    Karen Armstrong’s A History of God recounts in considerable detail how a small-time, truculent tribal god of a minor pastoral people became the one universal God of the later prophets, and then the triune God of Christianity, and then the ferociously unitary Allah of Islam, and, eventually, the watchmaker God of the Enlightenment. Armstrong explains cogently how these evolving concepts of God were responses to the spiritual needs and cultural exigencies of particular times and places.

    Really now! I haven’t read Armstrong, but let me point out that this job is a going to be a tough one. Let me present an analogy. The Arizona Cardinals are about to play in their first Super Bowl tomorrow. I do not know whether they will win, as I hope, or whether the Pittsburgh Steelers will win, as Keith hopes. But let’s concern ourselves with how we might explain the Cardinals’ playoff victories to date, the three triumphs over the Atlanta Falcons, the Carolina Panthers, and the Philadelphia Eagles. Now you can talk, if you want, about the stellar passing of Kurt Warner, the opportunistic defense and the enormously positive turnover ratio, the almost superhuman catches of Larry Fitzgerald, the resurgence of the Cardinals’ running game, and their enormous success in shutting down some pretty effective running backs. But if you take all of these things and say that, with them, they were the inevitable NFC Champions, you would be overlooking the fact that this franchise had been NFL doormats since the mid 1970s, that they had lost several games toward the end of the season, some by large margins, and that they were not favored to win any of the playoff games they eventually did win. In short, you have to take seriously what the Cardinals were up against in this playoff run if your explanation of their success is to have any credibility. That is why Cardinal fans who say they knew all year that this would happen are, well, blowing hot air out of some undignified places.

    What does this have to do with the explanation of religious belief? Surely I am not following the example of our quarterback in explaining these victories theologically. No, all I am saying is that if you are going to explain the emergence of such developments as Western theism, you had better be aware of the forces arrayed against this development.

    If it were perfectly natural for polytheists to turn to monotheism, why didn’t it happen in Greece, in Rome, in Moab, in Babylonia, in Assyria, in Syria, amongst the Hittites, or the Scythians, or in India (where there was some development, but not classical monotheism) in China, or in Egypt? No, your explanation has to explain how it happened in Israel and why it didn’t happen elsewhere. And if we look at the history of Israel, we find that the supporters of Hebrew monotheism had to fight a battle for it against what seemed like the forces of gravity dragging them back in to the polytheism of the other nations. The Golden Calf, Baal, and a host of other deities beckoned the ancient Hebrews away from Yahweh, and for the most part that gravitational power sucked them in. All of the kings of Israel and most of the kings of Judah were idol-worshippers. Remember any military defeat in that time was typically explained as the god of the victorious nation beating the god of the defeated nation. Seeing how Yahwism could hang on in that kind of an atmosphere is tougher than seeing how the Cardinals pulled off three straight playoff upsets and made it to the Super Bowl. The religion of Yahweh was tougher and more demanding, and did not promise the worshipper any magical power over his deity. If there had been no Babylonian captivity followed by an opportunity for those who held on to monotheism in the face of captivity (amazing given what I said about beliefs regarding military defeats) to return to the homeland, the belief in the Hebrew God would have died out as surely as belief in the gods of Moab did, or the gods of Assyria and Babylonia.

    And Egypt? Remember King Tut? He succeeded Pharaoh Iknaton, the innovative Pharaoh who introduced monotheism. But only for his reign. Young King Tut brought the force of gravity back to Egypt, he reinstituted the ancient Egyptian polytheistic God and got rid of Iknaton’s little experiment with monotheism.

    And then, once that is in place, we now have to tell the story of Jesus. How in the world does someone arise in the very bastion of monotheism who claims to be God incarnate, and who ends up being regarded as the second person of a Triune but still monotheistic God? First, someone has to make some remarkable claims about himself while at the same time having the kind of profound moral insight sufficient to provide him with a following. I think this is where the Liar, Lunatic or Lord argument has its proper place. I think this is difficult to explain. But that’s not all. Then Jesus has to be crucified, dead, buried, and resurrection claims now have to emerge. Did the disciples hallucinate? And then who else had to hallucinate? Saul of Tarsus? Without him the message of Jesus never makes it out to the Gentiles. I’m not exactly saying that it’s too all too improbable to be false (well, I actually do think this), but the idea that this is all easy to explain in terms of human needs and psychological impulses is crazier than saying that the Cardinals were inevitable NFC champions from the first snap of the 2008 season.

    And then we have to explain how people like Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Robert Adams, Francis Collins, John Polkinghorne, etc. come to look at the reasons for believing in the Christian God and find it good. Oh yeah, then there’s that Reppert guy, too. Now apart form actually refuting their arguments, I don’t see how you can criticize their beliefs. Yes, these people could have misevaluated the evidence. But I don’t see how a psychological explanation can possibly be a good argument against their convictions. Yes, there are possible psychological explanations, but that is all I will grant. I could give, just as easily, possible psychological explanation for the unbelief of Keith Parsons or any other atheist. Paul Vitz offers psychological explanations for atheism. I don’t think any psychological theory is deep enough and complex enough to be complete, in the absence of independent reasons to accept or reject religious belief.

    I conclude, therefore, that the psychological explanation of religious belief fails to constitue a reason to reject religious belief.

  • Eric Koski

    Suppose the following:

    1. Amelie asserts that she believes in God.
    2. Amelie states further that her belief in God is based on Argument Q.
    3. We are able to determine, however, that she would still believe in God even if she were unaware of Argument Q, or convinced of its unsoundness.

    Because of the failure of the proper counterfactual statements to obtain, we can state that Amelie’s belief in God is not based on Argument Q, and on this basis label her belief as being defective in some way – not properly justified.

    The level of confirmation conferred upon the assertion of God’s existence by Argument Q would be unaffected by this defect of Amelie’s belief structure. To claim otherwise would be to commit the genetic fallacy.

    What significance, then, can this ‘atheological genetic argument’ have?

    In practice, I believe the assertion “God exists” gains a kind of credibility in our intuitive assessments from the very fact that so many people believe it. This can be called a fallacy, but I think it still has an impact on our intuitive weighing of justification. A proper naturalistic explanation of this “ten thousand Frenchmen” phenomenon should entirely cancel any intuitive confirmation the assertion of God’s existence gains from the mere fact of its being believed. The fact that ten thousand Frenchmen believe that P does not confirm P if they would be just as likely to believe P if it were false.

    I believe this role of the genetic argument is very relevant to assessments of religious experience, whose evidentiary status is questionable because of its not being public. The sort of Biological Belief Theory Keith refers to often seeks specifically to provide a naturalistic psychological and/or sociological and/or anthropological explanation of religious experience itself. Such an explanation, if credible, can certainly cancel any degree of confirmation the assertion of God’s existence might otherwise obtain from claims of religious experience.

    (I’m double-posting here and at dangerous idea, hoping I’m not offending anyone by doing so …)

  • Eric Koski

    Here’s a bad design argument:

    1. The stars in the night sky appear in patterns suggesting the outlines of mythological heroes, monsters, etc.
    2. Therefore, the placement of the stars in the night sky must be a result of design by some divine agent.

    Of course, nearly any random arrangement of stars in the sky would be likely to yield constellations suggesting mythical creatures and heroes, to someone looking for them.

    Suppose Vic were to say, “To show that the placement of the stars is not a result of design, you have to explain to me, in completely naturalistic terms, why Polaris is where it is, and why Vega is where it is, and Arcturus, and Spica, etc., etc. It’s going to be difficult for you to explain this! You have so much to explain!” But that gets the explanatory burden wrong. For the atheist, it’s enough to point out that you see the damndest things when you stare long enough at a random collection of stuff.

    At some points in his latest comment, I suspect Vic might be making a similar mistake. The atheist doesn’t have to specifically explain every feature of Christianity and of the manner of its development. For at least some of this, it’s enough to point at that people dream up the damndest things, and come to believe them, and even to be willing to die for them. If the theist doubts this, he need only look at religions other than Christianity!

    Much of the explaining that needs to be done seems to be well underway, and not only in Karen Armstrong’s writings (which I don’t know as well as I should). Bart Ehrman provides a fascinating portrayal of the early church, describing the transformation of Christianity from the apocalyptic religion of Jesus to a religion about Jesus. He describes the manner in which the Christian message was fashioned over the early centuries to borrow authority from Judaism, with its roots in antiquity, while differentiating itself from Judaism so as to appeal to gentile converts. It’s important to remember over how short a time this sort of inquiry has been possible at all, due to both persecution and the immaturity of the relevant disciplines.

  • Victor Reppert

    Eric: The enterprise of this post is to show that there is a considerable burden on explanations of the growth of religious belief, such that if these explanations are to serve as a positive atheology, they fall considerably short.

    I didn’t say that you have to have all these explanations to be an atheist. It was Parsons who suggested that we know enough about how religious beliefs are formed to be able to dismiss belief, much in the way that we know enough about the formation of belief in hobbits to dismiss the belief once we understand how it was produced. Surely that’s an overstatement of the case. As I understand Keith’s argument, he has placed the explanatory burden on himself.

    When I mentioned the claim that Christianity is too improbable to be false, I said that believed this myself, but that it wasn’t the burden of this post to show this. What I wanted to show is that confident natural historians of the Jewish and Christian religions seem sometimes to underestimate the forces in place to prevent these religions from emerging as they did.

    In the case of my belief in God, it’s a combination of factors P, Q, R, S, T, U and V put together, taking into consideration some counterevidence L, M, and O. And there are non-rational factor B and C on the side of theism, but also some nonrational factors D and E on the side of atheism. So it’s going to be a little tough to come up with exactly the relevant counterfactuals, at least in my case, or in the case of many believers who think themselves rational.

    When I read people for Bultmann to Ehrmann, I can’t help thinking that they are saying what they’ve got to say in order to avoid belief in a miracle, (which they reject on the basis of Humean arguments which I consider unsound), and that if they were to begin without an overwhelming antecedent probability against the miraculous, they would reach a very different result. In short I think this kind of theorizing is driven by its priors instead of its posteriors.

    But overall world-view confidence can permit us to maintain our world-view in the face of an explanatory difficulty. That is why, unlike some Christians, who are eager to pronounce their opponents “without excuse”, and atheists who try to do the same thing, I am very slow to advance irrationality charges. They may be true of some of us, but I am not going to be the one to bring those charges and try to prove them.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Eric Koski said: “ Suppose the following:

    1. Amelie asserts that she believes in God.
    2. Amelie states further that her belief in God is based on Argument Q.
    3. We are able to determine, however, that she would still believe in God even if she were unaware of Argument Q, or convinced of its unsoundness.

    Because of the failure of the proper counterfactual statements to obtain, we can state that Amelie’s belief in God is not based on Argument Q, and on this basis label her belief as being defective in some way – not properly justified.

    Consider the following similar examples:

    1. Amelie asserts that she believes in quantum mechanics.
    2. Amelie states further that her belief in quantum mechanics is based on Argument Q. Q is her own understanding after having read a popular science book about quantum mechanics. She will explain about the double slit experiment and so on.
    3. We are able to determine, however, that she would still believe in quantum mechanics even if she were unaware of Argument Q, or convinced of its unsoundness. Indeed Amelie’s Q is wrong for she has misunderstood what she has read, but even after finding this out she keeps believing in quantum mechanics. Also she believed in quantum mechanics before reading that book and forming Q, simply because she trusts scientists.

    1. Amelie asserts that she believes in the existence of other minds.
    2. Amelie states further that her belief in the existence of other minds is based on Argument Q, according to which the fact that people around her behave so similarly to how she behaves is clear evidence that they too have minds.
    3. We are able to determine, however, that she would still believe in other minds even if she were unaware of Argument Q, or convinced of its unsoundness. Perhaps she reads about epiphenomenalism and the recent experiments which show that by studying the brain one can predict some actions of people many seconds before they themselves consciously make up their mind. So Amelie is now convinced that it’s not like consciousness actually causes behavior, and that therefore the fact that people around her behave similarly to her does not evidence that they have consciousness (or minds). Even so she keeps believing that other people have minds. Also she believed in the existence of other minds before forming Q, simply because she trusted her intuition in this matter.

    Would you say that these beliefs of Amelie’s are not “properly” justified, or “defective” in some way? Because if you do then by the same measure virtually everything everybody believes is “defective” also.

    Eric Koski said: “ In practice, I believe the assertion ‘God exists’ gains a kind of credibility in our intuitive assessments from the very fact that so many people believe it. This can be called a fallacy, but I think it still has an impact on our intuitive weighing of justification.

    I tend to agree, because we tend to trust others, even when knowing that some of the most popular beliefs (astrology, the various fallacies about probability, etc) are false. I think that the fact that many people hold a belief should only make it more reasonable to investigate that belief. Also it is often the case that we trust the opinion of experts in some subject matter, even though experts have been known to be wrong. We also tend to trust experts outside their field of expertise, for example we tend to trust physicists’ understanding of metaphysics.

    Eric Koski said: “ I believe this role of the genetic argument is very relevant to assessments of *religious experience*, whose evidentiary status is questionable because of its not being public.

    Strictly speaking *no* experiences are public. It’s the case though that there are experiences shared by virtually everybody, say that we see the moon. It’s also the case that many, probably most people have religious experiences. It’s not quite clear to me why exactly the former has a solid evidentiary status, and the latter don’t. Indeed my take on religious experiences is that everybody has religious experiences, but many do not interpret them as such.