Sunday, September 05, 2010

Reply to Parsons (and Eller, Tarico, and Long), on the Psychological Explanation of Religion

I notice the fully three chapters of The Christian Delusion are devoted to the psychological explanation of religion (Eller, Tarico, and Long). So, I thought I would re-present my critique of Keith Parsons' anti-theistic argument based on the psychological explanation. For some reason, I had trouble redating the post, so I copied it here. But I am linking back to the previous edition of this post. In addition, you can go back to the original Secular Outpost exchange between Parsons and myself, here. If you follow the link to the Secular Outpost posting, you will an original post by Keith, a reply by me, and a reply by Keith, to which I respond here.

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 constitute a reason to reject religious belief.


Tim said...

<sarcasm>I'm sure no one still believes that we can dismiss religious belief by giving an explanation for it.</sarcasm>

Good grief. Time to break out "Bulverism" again ...

Victor Reppert said...

Or a good old informal logic text under informal fallacies. See "ad hominem circumstantial."

I wish people who advance these kinds of arguments would read Lewis's "On Obstinacy of Belief" and "Bulverism." These are classic responses. People should be prepared to rebut them if they wish this type of argument to be taken seriously.

Blue Devil Knight said...

I tried to explain why there is nothing wrong with this lne of attack when taken as one strand in Chrisianity's noose. Not a full noose in itself, but a useful thread or two can be provided by anthropology/sociology/psychology/neuroscience.

Tim said...


I just disagree. If you can show that X is not well supported on evidential grounds, that's your argument. Explaining how someone might have come to hold it is irrelevant.

And if you can't, then explaining how he might have come to hold it is also irrelevant.

Victor Reppert said...

The anthropological et al argument works as a rebuttal to arguments of the kind "how could all those people be wrong?" or "how could all those smart people be wrong." But having been around the block a few times, I happen to know that lots of people are wrong about lots of things, and lots of smart people are wrong about lots of things. So, the arguments are not really directed against any big guns in the Christian arsenal.

People who use those sorts of psychological arguments also have to show how they came be so immune to everything that undercuts human rationality. For example, Tarico argues that human beings are irrational. That puts the burden on her to explain how her own essay shouldn't be dismissed as the work of another irrational person suffering from confirmation bias.

Jake Elwood XVI said...

There is an interesting dicussion about Parson going on over at prosblogion.

Gregory said...

Haha...funny comments :)

I would like to know what sort of "psychological" explanation can account for something like this:

This kind of behavior is not in line with "survivalist" Darwinism. Nor is it clear what sort of "biological" necessity this variety of isolation can benefit a species, which thrives and survives in community.

When Keith Parsons can go out to a desolate mountain range--albeit in a very harsh climate like Romania--and survive it then.....well, he might just become a Christian!!!

But I don't see him, or any atheist for that matter, going "Into The Wild" anytime soon. Let alone spending a decade there.

Arthur said...

Victor Reppert said... "For example, Tarico argues that human beings are irrational. That puts the burden on her to explain how her own essay shouldn't be dismissed as the work of another irrational person suffering from confirmation bias."

Hi Victor , i dont see that Tarico went as far as suggesting humans are always irrational.Just because a suggestion is made, doesnt need to suggest it always is going to be the same situation.That situation are not always the same doesnt mean humans are never irrational.Tarico is not so wrong, we know far to often plenty of humans are irrational.

I agree with Blue Devil on this when Blue said "there is nothing wrong with this lne of attack when taken as one strand in Chrisianity's noose"

In my opinion its like doing detective work or trying to understand a certain sickness.Putting forward scenario for consideration in hope of better understanding the bigger picture , is not always a total waste of time .For if it really was always so worthless, surely the police would never bother with using any of this type of approach either.

Its a bit like, somebody having a motive for commiting a crime doesnt really ever automatically convict somebody, but yet somebody having a motive to commit a crime can still be of great help in the conviction of somebody.

Victor Reppert said...

We know humans are prone to irrationality. Though, of course, that presupposes that we are in possession of a standard of rationality, and to have the true standard of rationality one has to resolve some of the major questions of epistemology which are still being debated today.

The problem is, that given human fallibility, it is easy to see how someone might misread the evidence and come to the wrong conclusion about issues like this. Most people know about confirmation bias without needing cognitive psychologists to tell them about it. People who claim to believe something because they have reasons for believing it offer arguments. Once an argument is offered, logic requires that the focus be removed from the person presenting the argument to the argument itself, for evaluation. It's only when we ask "How could anyone so smart make such a mistake," that psychology becomes relevant.

We are dealing with persons who are claiming that their beliefs are, at least in part, being sustained by arguments. They deserve to have their arguments considered before their failure needs to be explained.

Arthur said...

Victor Reppert said... "Most people know about confirmation bias without needing cognitive psychologists to tell them about it."

Hi Victor.I would honestly like to feel i coud agree.But when i look around me in this world and see the actions of many people ,i have to say i find it hard to agree that most people do think so much about this issue.

Seems to me many people get led right up the Gum-Tree all the time.We will buy loads of rubbish thinking somehow we have purchased a bargin.We vote politicians into power because they told us they were going to be great politicians ,and thats exactly what we had hoped to be hearing.Car salesman and insurance folk love us ,because many of us dont even bother reading much fine print their sales chat will do just fine !,that is until it comes to the time we try start making any claims.From the cradle it seems we are often taught to agree to run with what seems good advertizing or rely on majority tastes of those around us, clothes and food dont matter just so long as other people seem to be happy and enjoying it, we quickly all learn to enjoy it also.

I dont see why it hurts to have pre warned people to be sure to read all the fine print and not be afraid to ask themselves extra questions and consider senarios as they study the matter.

If we only warn about confirmation bias at the end, then to be sure about what we just read, it maybe means a need of going over the whole matter once again .By which time the human mind is maybe a little tired and saying oh no but do i really have to.Meaning maybe we will also be far more likely! to skip things our tired mind tells us maybe we already do know enough about.

If you were advising somebody who was thinking of buying a house or a car.Would you say it best to remind them to at least be a little aware and careful of swift moves of sales sharks and being sure to read all the fine print, before or after they start looking.

Im not really quite sure what to think is best Victor.I realize warning them maybe makes their scepticism alert, but cant they at least still get to choose to use that alert scepticism both ways.