Thursday, September 02, 2021

On psychoanalyzing religious belief

The psychology of religious belief does matter to philosophy of religion. But we can't start there. The temptation is to assume that what you already believe is right, and then produce explanations of why other people might come to believe what they do even though it isn't true. So a lot of people come at religious questions thinking "I know I am right about God, what I need to know is how people who disagree with me came to be so screwed up. The trouble is I can explain away theism or atheism pretty easily if all I have to do is come of with psychological explanations for belief or unbelief. Believers can be explained away in terms of their hope for a future life or fear that the universe should be meaningless, or the idea that if they disbelieve and they are wrong, they might be punished eternally, while there seems to be no similar risk in believing. (Actually there is, you could be a Baptist and get to the Great White Throne and be sent to hell for not being a Muslim.) But unbelievers can be similarly explained away. Unbelievers, one could argue, want there to not be a being who requires obedience, do not want to believe that we humans are not the supreme beings, and do not want to believe that they will be held accountable inescapably for everything they do. Plus religious put restrictions on sexual behavior, and if you don't like those restrictions, atheism can be pretty appealing. We can't read the minds of our fellow humans, so ideas of why people believe what they do is to extent a speculative enterprise. 

So, philosophy of religion looks at what we have good reason to believe, rather than getting in to the business of explaining why people on the other side believe what they do. 


Starhopper said...

Victor, if I understand you correctly, you're saying we need to concentrate on why people believe what they do, rather than why other people believe differently. Is that correct?

As for myself, I believe in God because with that belief, the universe (and existence itself) makes sense to me. Without God, all is unintelligible. So I guess my faith is grounded in a prior belief (or desire) that existence is rational and intelligible.

As to why I believe in Christianity, I do so on the grounds of the New Testament, especially the Gospels. To me, at least (to borrow a phrase from J.B. Phillips) they have the "Ring of Truth". I have yet to hear a plausible explanation of how the NT could have even come into being, were it not true. This is not a "because the Bible tells me so" but rather "I have determined the NT to be factual, and therefore I believe in what it tells me.

Kevin said...

I think he is saying that it is better to argue the ideas on their own merit rather than dismissing the ideas by seeking irrational or otherwise poor reasons people have those ideas.

For example, your entire post could be dismissed by an atheist with "You were brainwashed, otherwise you wouldn't believe as you do". Or "You fear the idea of a godless universe so you cling to the idea of God for comfort".

Such assertions may have their place in some other conversation, but they have no place in the truth of religious belief.

Victor Reppert said...

It's the good old critique of Bulverism.

One Brow said...

I doubt we will find any dissimilarities between the brains of believers and those of atheists that are not marginal compared to the brain differences within the believing population or atheist population. The same would be true for their psychology.

Believers and atheists use similar brains and have similar mental processes. They fall victim to the same types of irrational thinking.

Starhopper said...

I would not say "irrational", but rather a-rational. Some thought processes do not require reason to be effective. For example: listening to music, admiring nature, or watching sports.

Another is prayer. It is not against reason to do so, but reason is irrelevant to the action.