Saturday, January 31, 2009

Reply to Parsons in the explanation of religious belief

Keith Parsons replied to my genetic fallacy discussion on the Secular Outpost.

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 beyond 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?

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 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.

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.

Eric Koski said...

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 post, 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.

Anonymous said...

As Reppert may say, you can also turn around and play this exact psychoanalyzing game with atheists. One could offer examples of people in denial in the face of evidence indicating a certain outcome, writing off all the evidence as random chance or unintentional. "My husband can't be having an affair. That woman is just his friend. And there was lipstick on his collar and his shirt smelled like perfume because she fell on him. And they were at that hotel because she was on vacation and he wanted to visit. And he stayed over because he drank too much and didn't want to drive." And in the end, you can show that atheists may claim to lack belief in God due to evidence Q or argument X, and still have a determination that even lacking those their atheism would persist.

Further, a biological and natural inclination towards belief in God can also serve to add to theistic arguments in favor of God. Plantinga is just one example of someone making a strong claim in this regard, but the idea that man is generally and near-universally inclined towards seeking God isn't exactly a new thought - arguably it goes back as far as Aristotle in a sense, and possibly further. What would be needed is not only a demonstration that man is naturally inclined towards believing in God or gods, but an explanation of why that is the case - at which point we're lost in the deep and decaying swamp of evolutionary psychology, and one or more creation stories and perspectives are added to the pile, this time from an atheist standpoint.

In the same vein, the Christian 'looking at religions other than Christianity' doesn't get one very far. If people believing in the darndest things applies, it applies across the board - and the stance of the theist and atheist both suffer as a result. Further, the Christian (and others) are in the unique position of being able to say that those of other faiths, while wrong on some points (and certainly some extremely important points) are nevertheless correct on some also important points. Look at St Paul's perspective on the altar to an unknown God, or the Christian recognition of muslims and jews all worshipping the same God (and more liberal christians would apply this, in varying degrees, to hindus and even panentheistic buddhists as well.) So even theists of differing faiths can offer, in their perspective, additional confirmation of their own faith's fundamental point. Meanwhile, this can't help out an atheist - any God or godlike being is fatal to their perspective.

The sort of explanations atheists could pursue in this instance won't be the kind that will go much distance in arguing against Christianity, much less God as a broader concept. They'll just be additional creation stories, complete with central claims untestable by science, proclamations of faith, and ultimately a belief in something fundamental in the universe (In this case, 'complete chance' as opposed to 'some chance and some design' or 'complete design'.)

Victor Reppert said...

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.

Andrew T. said...

Victor: Doesn't your Arizona Cardinals example pretty much suck the wind out of the sails of your improbability argument? (Disclosure: as a Baltimore Ravens fan, I was rooting hard for your Cardinals yesterday.)

But seriously, the response goes something like this: in general, in sports, we can predict general trends by looking at players' past performances, what we know about career development, their ages, etc. And so we can be reasonably confident at the start of the 2008 season that (for example) the Eagles, Panthers, Titans, Steelers, Patriots, and Colts were all probably going to be pretty good teams.

But in any season, there are going to be surprises, things that wouldn't be reasonable to predict in advance -- like Kurt Warner deciding to throw for 4,500 yards at age 63. And if that happens, and if a team gets lucky, you get the Arizona Cardinals. And because we play enough games year in and year out, we get those kinds of happy surprises.

Now take a look at the history of religion. There are 32 NFL teams, but there have been, what, tens of thousands of religions that have come and gone over the years? Even if Christianity was improbable -- and incidentally, I think if you go to Internet Infidels, there's a pretty good refutation of the argument under "Was Christianity Too Improbable To Have Occurred?" -- but even if that's so, given ten thousand rolls of the dice, it's basically inevitable that you'll get the "Arizona Cardinals" of religion and something like Christianity will take root no matter how retroactively we think it would have been unlikely for it to do so.

Victor Reppert said...

Andrew T: What I was trying to refute was the claim, made by Parsons, that just as we can explain the origin of a belief in hobbits in such a way as to make that claim dismissable, BBTs or biological belief theories, are sufficiently strong to explain religious beliefs in such a way as to make them dismissable. That is Parsons' claim, and it is a very strong one, requiring strong evidence.

My reply was that it is a mistake to fail to consider all the things that would prevent something from happening when you explain how it did happen. There is, therefore, a heavier burden on the explanation of how the Cardinals got to the Super Bowl than there is on the explanation of how the Steelers got there. My argument was that the explanatory burden on BBTs to explain religious belief to the level that would support Parsons' argument is very heavy, a much heavier burden that is likely to be shouldered by such theories which, it seems do not even agree with one another.

Although I mentioned the fact that I believe that Christianity is too improbable to be false, I was not making the argument that it is too improbable to be false. If I were to make that argument, I would have to do a lot more work than what I have done in this post, and I was aware of, I think, the Holding-Carrier exchange of that title. While I think an argument like that could be made if it were done right, I don't need to make that argument here. I was playing defense, not offense. I was arguing Parsons' atheological argument, not making a theological argument of my own.

In my view, the improbabilities facing Jewish monotheism and Christian trinitarian theism are far greater than those that faced the Cardinals. My argument is that someone who thinks they can explain these two great religious developments based on human psychology probably has not considered seriously enough all the forced aimed at preventing these religions from emerging in the first place.

How much improbability and explanatory difficulty on the naturalistic side makes the supernatural a rational possibility? Well, I don't believe in objective antecedent probabilities, so rational people are bound to differ. That's why for every Swinburne there's a Mackie, for every Reppert there's a Parsons.

Andrew T. said...

Victor: If what you're saying is that complex phenomena (such as the rise of Christianity) usually require complex explanations, then I certainly do agree with you.

Victor Reppert said...

What I am saying is that explaining the emergence of both Jewish Monotheism and trinitarian theism faces a set of special difficulties.

Andrew T. said...

Victor: I'm not sure I understand your argument. Is it that, absent divine intervention, Jewish monotheism and subsequent Christian belief throughout the Roman empire would not have taken off? That seems to me to contradict the "defensive" position you staked in your previous post.

But if you're not arguing that counterfactual, then no historical event requires "a set of special difficulties" as explanation, because every event is, in a sense, unique. What are the odds that the 2000 U.S. Presidential election would have been decided by the Supreme Court awarding the presidency to the popular vote loser? Well, prior to 2000, that had never happened. After 2000, we can say that the odds are 1 in 1.

Similarly, I agree that Constantine deciding to convert to Christianity is a unique and strange moment in history. But is it any more strange than Bush's victory in 2000, or Hayes defeating Tilden, or George Washington crossing the Delaware, or colonists at Lexington and Concord defeating the British army, or anything else that's fertile grounds for alternate history fiction?

Anonymous said...


If 'every event in history' is in a sense unique, then Parsons' project can never really get off the ground anyway. His goal amounts to explaining how the development of Christianity is just what we'd expect, given naturalism. But if history is comprised of one special event after another, Parsons and company can't argue 'Well, we would have expected such a development.' The best he can go for is an after-the-fact rationalization - which seems to back up what Victor said. "For every Swinburn there's a Mackie, for every Reppert there's a Parsons."

Andrew T. said...

Anonymous: I don't read Parsons's argument that way, but to be clear -- if Parsons's argument is for atheistic naturalism in the strong sense; if he is claiming that the development of Christianity proves that Christianity itself is false, then I would disagree with that claim. Similarly, I would disagree with anyone who concludes that the fact of the 2000 election proves (or disproves) divine (or infernal) interference with said election.

Anonymous said...

Andrew T,

I didn't say his goal was to prove Christianity false, much less to prove atheist naturalism in a strong sense. I only said that, if we're taking the viewpoint that history is chock full of special cases that we couldn't rightly predict before the fact even with good knowledge of humanity, well. Then Parsons' project is in trouble, because implicit in his goal is the idea that Christianity in particular really doesn't have many aspects which makes it stand out as special. "Well, it does have a lot of special/unique points, but specialness abounds all over" doesn't make the project easier. It makes it impossible. He can still come up with a story, but we'll forever end up in the situation Reppert said we would.

Andrew T. said...

Anon: No, that doesn't follow at all. For example: just because I deny that the 2000 U.S. Presidential election doesn't compel a belief in divine intervention, it does not necessarily follow that I think the 2000 election was indistinguishable from, say, 1996. That's silly -- the 1996 election was a run-of-the-mill re-election campaign with predictable results, whereas the 2000 election was literally unprecedented. I'm just saying that the unprecedented nature of the 2000 election does not give rise to a supernatural inference.

Similarly, one can (as I believe Parsons does) dispute that Christianity is particularly unique in development while still maintaining, in the alternative, that even if it were unique, it would not cause us to think the hand of God reached down to make it so.

Anonymous said...

Andrew T,

And yet again, that comes right back to what Reppert has said. Whether or not one may view an involvement of God or otherwise in the explanation isn't going to be purely (in my view, even mostly) determined by the historical data, but what views someone has before having a look at that data.

You've already said that uniqueness abounds in history as a rule. Uniqueness alone doesn't necessitate God's involvement, but each situation has to be looked at and considered because it's, well... unique. So there's no chance of saying 'These developments played out just the way we'd expect', because there's no way to expect those unique traits. If Parsons' goal is to give an explanation of the development of Christianity acceptable to people who reject God and miracles from the outset, the fact that he'd think it's necessary to undertake that is strange to begin with. "God doesn't exist/doesn't act in history, and anyone who thinks so is mistaken" isn't exactly a new idea. "And I'll show it by analyzing the data and giving hypothetical explanations that are reasonable if you agree with me anyway!" won't add much to that.

Eric Koski said...

My original comment might have seemed a little slow getting to the point, but I thought it was worth noting a few basic things:

1. We can agree that some genetic arguments are fallacies. (Just to get this out of the way.)
2. I’m convinced (as Keith is) that some genetic arguments are not fallacies. Vic, you seem to agree.
3. One thing a genetic argument can legitimately accomplish is to serve as a rebuttal to an abductive argument (inference to the best explanation).
4. In evaluating a genetic argument, it’s worthwhile to try to get clear about what abductive argument it’s being used to rebut.

Since not all theist apologetic arguments are abductive, it seems unlikely that a single atheist genetic argument would dispose of the issue of God’s existence. The fact that different apologetic arguments – even considering only the abductive ones – would seem to require different genetic arguments to rebut them makes this still clearer.

For the legitimate genetic arguments and the apologetic arguments they are meant to rebut, explanation of some class of phenomena is the heart of the matter. Phenomena tend to be explained under descriptions. I suspect you and Keith have very different descriptions in mind for the explananda under consideration, such as the Holy Trinity – and it’s hardly surprising that you would assess the explanatory burdens very differently as a result. For instance, my own description might take greater notice than yours of the fact that there is not one Christian doctrine of the trinity, but rather dozens or hundreds of them.

Steve said...

I think Koski is correct that not all "genetic arguments" commit the "genetic fallacy". Let's set a few ground rules:

Except under extremely odd circumstances, genetic arguments cannot show that a belief is false. The best they can hope to do is to show that a belief is not warranted/justified. For what it's worth, Plantinga's lengthy discussion of Marx/Freud in Warranted Christian Belief agrees with this.

Now suppose we have an explanation of religious belief which obtains for every believer, and that no religious believer would hold their beliefs if the explanation did not obtain. Does it follow that the beliefs are unjustified/unwarranted? Clearly not. That will depend upon the content of the explanation. If the explanation references God or in some way would be unlikely if God didn't exist, then the beliefs could well be justified.

So, much will depend upon the content of the explanation.

What if the explanation doesn't hold universally, or if the evidence of it's holding universally is weak? In that case some people might have accepted the belief for other reasons. What might those reasons be? What if the reasons are purely intellectual? What if they are based on the testimony of someone who was themselves outside the scope of the genetic explanation?

I think the genetic argument against religous belief has it's work cut out here. That said, however, I think atheism would be in bad shape if no such explanations of religous belief were available. One must be able to account for the existence of one's opponents. In that sense such explanations can contribute towards an atheological case ... but clearly explanations of atheistic belief also exist and themselves contribute towards the theological case.

I also have the nagging feeling that the genetic arguments may backfire on atheists very badly. For example, if have a "God module" in our brains which makes it very natural for us to believe in God, then doesn't it follow that atheism is unnatural?

And supposing that isn't an indictment in itself, if atheists can be unnatrual couldn't there also be unnatural theists (theists for whom the explanation does not obtain)? And once we accept that, the genetic argument against religious belief in general fails ... there is no "religous belief in general", only concrete religous believers.

Steve Lovell

Victor Reppert said...

If an explanation for the prevalence of religious belief gets too strong, atheists are going to be hard put to explain their own existence.

Eric Koski said...

Lovell: “For example, if have a "God module" in our brains which makes it very natural for us to believe in God, then doesn't it follow that atheism is unnatural?”

These are empirical grounds for doubting the existence of a ‘God module’. (Good explanations do need to be empirically adequate!) It’s more likely that religious belief turns out to be a spandrel ( or a misfiring of some heuristic used in social reasoning. Or, indeed, it may not have a complete explanation at the level of the individual human organism at all. Theist critics of naturalism often make the mistake of claiming that naturalistic explanations of behavior have to be biologically reductionist at the level of the individual organism. They certainly don’t – that’s part of the point of Dawkins’ meme concept.

Consider: Smoking is a good explanation for the prevalence of lung cancer, even though it’s neither a necessary nor a sufficient cause of it.

Of course, being “unnatural” wouldn’t count against atheism. Our natural faculties for probabilistic reasoning cause us to systematically make faulty judgments: see Kahneman and Tversky’s “Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases”. I see this phenomenon as posing a very serious problem for the Argument from Reason, Plantinga’s EAAN, etc.

Steve said...


I think I agree with most of what you've said there. But does any of it go to support the genetic argument against religous belief? In particular how does it help the argument avoid the criticisms of my previous post? I'm not saying that no genetic explanation of religous belief is possible, only that the existence of such an explanation does nothing to undermine religous belief in general since there is no such thing as religous belief in general ... only individual religous believers who need to be taken on a case by case basis.

A side point: I've heard lots of people say that certain pieces of "natural" irrationality undermine Plantinga's EAAN. I've never seen how that is supposed to go. I'd have thought these phenomena just illustrate the sorts of this that Plantinga is saying. The more striking fact is that we are able, at least sometimes, to detect our own irrationality.

Steve Lovell

Eric Koski said...

My contention is that there really isn’t a single genetic argument against religious belief. To claim there is portrays mistakenly the role of genetic arguments, and leads to mistaken assumptions about the explanatory burdens these arguments bear.

Instead, there is a loose family of genetic arguments, each of which is a rebuttal to a particular theist (Christian) apologetic argument. For instance, Reppert argues that only divine intervention could account for the taking hold of monotheism among the Hebrews. Reppert’s opponent would argue against this that monotheism was not unique or unprecedented in that time, and was a natural outcome of cultural role of belief in the supernatural at that time. (To whom would you rather pray for aid in struggles for supremacy over your neighbors: a supreme deity above all others, or the local river-spirit?) Reppert argues that only divine agency could explain the doctrine of the trinity. His opponent would argue that the trinity is instead an ugly but understandable – and only partially successful – pastiche attempting to unify all of the themes, symbols, and traditions from which Christianity sprang – a very plausible human creation made all the more so by the fact that Christian denominations have never been able to approach consensus on what the trinity is, or whether the godhead is truly three-personed at all. In the face of this instability of a fundamental doctrine at the heart of Christianity, the apologist is forced to resort to double- (or triple-?) talk to try to explain all the messy phenomena. And so on for many more apologetic arguments and genetic rebuttals. The key thing to understand is that there’s no sensible way to assess the cogency of any global genetic argument, especially since it’s not clear what the point of such a global argument would be. It’s also possible that different genetic arguments might achieve different levels of cogency, although the prospects for many of them look pretty good to me.

Also part of an honest engagement with the subject matter is a recognition that human cultural evolution is a chaotic and non-deterministic phenomenon. On my view, reset the simulation to 25 A.D. and let it run, and we might be debating the finer points of Arian theology, or of something still (to our actual selves) stranger.

Eric Koski said...

Steve, I appreciate your comments.

Lovell: “since there is no such thing as religous belief in general ... only individual religous believers who need to be taken on a case by case basis.”

I don’t think this squares with the evidence, if we take believers at their word.

If there’s some diversity in Christian believers’ bases for their beliefs, I don’t see how that’s problematic. I’ll just let you pick the ones you consider most important and offer naturalistic explanations for those.

If you really want to claim that there is nothing that can be said in general about the origins of Christian belief, I think that puts the believer in an extremely uncomfortable position. It undermines the unity and Christianity as a religious tradition – does it make sense to speak of ‘Christians’ at all? It undermines your ability to argue for any rational basis for Christian belief. It gives the enterprise of apologetics no way to even get started.

I don’t think that’s where you want to go.

Steve said...


There may be mileage in the approach you are taking here, but it's not a defence of Parsons' line.

Parsons is arguing that genetic arguments can form an important part of a (or an entire) case for atheism. You are arguing that genetic arguments can serve to undermine certain religous apologetics. The questions may be related, but they certainly aren't the same, as VR has been at pains to point out.

So, I still don't see how anything you've said serves to support Parsons line against my response.

Steve Lovell