An Alledged Problem with (most) Religious Beliefs

There is a common objection to religious belief which is often aired (with condescending tone) in something like the following way: “you’re only a Christian because your parents were Christians, but if you had been raised in India you would have been a Hindu, or if you had been born in the middle-east you would have been a Muslim, et cetera; therefore, your faith is false.” This objection clearly commits the genetic fallacy (i.e., trying to show a belief to be false or invalid by showing how it originated), which is philosophically clumsy. To see the problem consider other beliefs which we have, but wouldn’t have had if we hadn’t been born and raised where and when we were. For instance, perhaps I only believe in the theory of evolution because of the time and place in which I was born and raised; had I been raised a hundred years earlier, or in a (very) different geographical location, I very likely would not have believed that evolution is true. My belief in evolution can be accounted for, at least in part, by the time and place in which I was born and raised. Does this mean I have good reasons to reject the theory of evolution? No, clearly not. Does it mean I shouldn’t place any confidence in the theory? No, clearly not. Perhaps it means, at most, that if I haven’t looked at the evidence for myself, or investigated the theory to my satisfaction, then I shouldn’t have a solid confidence in its truth, but the fact that my belief was formed in response to an idiosyncratic environment is no mark against my belief as such. The psychological genealogy of a belief doesn’t (necessarily) tell against its truth or its plausibility. In fact, the sword obviously cuts both ways and the atheist or skeptic who voices this objection also falls under the shadow of its blade, for they would not have been a (self-identified) atheist or skeptic if they had not been raised in the modern West, and, in fact, they would not even think that the objection is an objection at all were they not infected with the culture of modernism.

This is all very obvious, but there is an implicit, deeper and more impressive objection to religious belief which lurks in the background of the general observation the atheist/skeptic is making. The deeper objection might go something like this:

  1. For any method of belief formation M, conclusions arrived at using M should be believed if and only if M reliably induces true beliefs.
  2. There is an MR (widely) used for forming religious belief which does not reliably induce the same beliefs in different people.
  3. For any M, if M does not reliably induce the same beliefs in different people then M does not reliably induce true beliefs.
  4. Therefore, MR does not reliably induce true beliefs.
  5. Therefore, conclusions reached via MR should not be believed.

This objection is certainly more sophisticated, and it has some prima facie appeal. It just looks right, on its face. However, there are a number of problems I find with this argument. First, one could question whether there really is a single method common to all, or even most, religious believers for the formation of their religious beliefs. I won’t go any distance in that direction, though, because I think it is plausible that there is such a method common to most, and that this method is i) learning it from one’s parents and culture, and then ii) thinking about it for oneself and affirming it (because it seems plausible). I think most religious beliefs are formed and maintained in this way (as a convert to Catholicism myself, I know first-hand that not all religious beliefs are formed and maintained in this way, but I think it’s reasonable to say that most religious beliefs, for most people, probably are – most religious people are not philosophers after all, for the same reasons most people are not philosophers). This method does produce a wide variety of results, and so cannot be said to reliably induce true beliefs; yet, this method is also used for forming all sorts of beliefs, including political beliefs, moral beliefs, scientific beliefs, and philosophical beliefs. How was my belief that democracy is the best form of government formed? Wasn’t it by first accepting what my parents, teachers, and other authority figures taught me, and then, upon thinking it through later in life, affirming it for myself more confidently? Isn’t that exactly the same method as somebody in China who believes that communism is the best form of government used? Is there something wrong with the method we used? Examples like this help to illustrate the deeper problem with this objection. The problem is that premise 1 is, counter-intuitively, false.

There is, in fact, a stunning way to obviate its falsity. Consider the methodology used by analytic philosophers for forming their (at least philosophical) beliefs. They practice critical thinking, conceptual analysis, and giving logical structure to their thought process. This same method is used among analytic philosophers of all stripes, and yet there is perhaps no method of belief formation which produces such wild and radical variety as this. Using this method some have come to believe that God exists, others that God does not exist, and still others that the question of God’s existence is meaningless. Some believe in libertarian free will, others in hard determinism, and others in compatibilism. Some believe in the dynamic theory of time, others in the static theory of time. Some are scientific realists, others are scientific anti-realists. Some are correspondence theorists (about truth), others are pragmatists, and others are coherentists. Some are skeptics, others are rationalists, and still others are empiricists. Some are idealists, others are materialists, and others hold neither of these extremes. Some believe in the revisability of logical laws, others do not. Some are moral realists, others are moral nihilists. I could go on practically ad infinitum, but a moment’s reflection suffices to yield enough examples of the same kind that there is no need. Notice the irony that this method produces even more variety than the method usually used for forming religious beliefs. If yielding a variety of conclusions is really a damning problem with a method, then we should be even more skeptical about critical thinking, conceptual analysis, and the logical structuring of thought, than we should be about the usual (perhaps naïve) method of forming our religious (and political, moral, etc.) beliefs.

This phenomenon of the variability of philosophical belief has not been missed by academic philosophers; for instance, the philosopher Peter van Inwagen, reflecting on this situation, writes the following:

“Philosophers do not agree about anything to speak of. That is, it is not very usual for agreement among philosophers on any important philosophical issue to be describable as being, in a quite unambiguous sense, common. Oh, this philosopher may agree with that philosopher on many philosophical points; for that matter, if this philosopher is a former student of that philosopher, they may even agree on all philosophical points. But you don’t find universal or near-universal agreement about very many important theses or arguments in philosophy… Any why not? How can it be that equally intelligent and well-trained philosophers can disagree about the freedom of the will or nominalism or the covering-law model of scientific explanation when each is aware of all of the arguments and distinctions and other relevant considerations that the others are aware of? How… can we philosophers possibly regard ourselves as justified in believing much of anything of philosophical significance in this embarrassing circumstance? How can I believe (as I do) that free will is incompatible with determinism or that unrealized possibilities are not physical objects or that human beings are not four-dimensional things extended in time as well as in space, when David Lewis – a philosopher of truly formidable intelligence and insight and ability – rejects these things I believe and is already aware of and understands perfectly every argument that I could produce in their defense. Well, I do believe these things, and I believe that I am justified in believing them. And I am confident that I am right.”[1]

Peter van Inwagen goes on, shortly afterwards, to say that: “I don’t want to be forced into a position in which I can’t see my way clear to accepting any philosophical thesis of any consequence,”[2] calling this position “philosophical skepticism.”[3] The trouble is that if we take the argument I raised earlier seriously then we will have to affirm philosophical skepticism, and this constitutes a compelling reductio ad absurdam of the argument.

In fact, the problem is even worse than this. Consider that even if the argument (that for any method of belief formation M, conclusions reached via M ought to be accepted if and only if M reliably leads to true beliefs) is sound, it is presumably the result of critical thinking and analysis which is logically structured. However, the argument calls this method itself into serious question, so that the argument turns out to be not only self-undermining, but self-refuting (which is philosophically embarrassing, to say the least). The soundness of the argument cannot be rationally and consistently affirmed, and this provides a clearer and even more compelling reductio ad absurdam than simply noting that it leads to skepticism about the analytic method of philosophy.

By this point it should be clear that (and why) this argument against the average person putting any confidence in their religious beliefs should not be endorsed. I would like to end by offering a final thought on why this argument may have seemed intuitively appealing at first. Ever since the Enlightenment the western world has been (rightly) fascinated with the tremendous success of the scientific enterprise, and one of the features of the scientific programme which contributes to its success is that it has devised methodological procedures which yield (more-or-less) uniform and reliably verifiable results. The celebration of science and the scientific method has encouraged a philosophically problematic attraction to what is called ‘scientism,’ and I think this intellectual prejudice is ultimately responsible for making the argument I presented above look so appealing. It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if we could find a philosophical method which produced the kind of uniform results we see in science, and so managed to facilitate consensus analogous to the kind of consensus scientific theories enjoy? At least it sounds nice until one thinks more deeply about it and realizes that producing uniform results would be no guarantee of its reliably inducing true beliefs, and may even give us grounds for suspicion on this score. The only method we have ever found to reliably produce the same philosophical beliefs in different people is called brainwashing. I want to say that brainwashing is bad, though my belief that it is bad is based in large part, of course, on the philosophically free exercise of my reason, so that I could be said to be begging the question. Nevertheless, I hope that most people agree with me that brainwashing is bad (in light of their moral intuitions, if nothing else), and that the free exercise of reason is even more valuable than intellectual consensus.

In this respect philosophy is harder than science. There is no consensus among philosophers which provides them the kind of collective confidence that scientists can achieve. However, far from being a peculiar feature of philosophy, this is the situation we are in in a wide variety of disciplines including psychology, political science, social science, art history, (English) literature and many others. We might even say that science is the peculiar one, and that it has the kind of methodological edge it does due to its very nature (i.e., the nature of the things which it investigates). Perhaps philosophy, due to its very nature (i.e., the nature of the questions it investigates), cannot (or should not) have a (dialectical) methodology which reliably induces the same beliefs in most people. This is no cause for pessimism or defeatism, since the questions philosophy investigates are extremely interesting, worth-while, and tremendously important, and there is no good reason to think that we cannot be justified in coming to our conclusions, or even to think that our conclusions aren’t likely to be correct (I don’t think that probability can be measured). It simply means that philosophy is hard, and we have to proceed with cautious optimism. Additionally one might point out that philosophy can take on a different character based not only on the method it endorses, but also on the purpose one has for using it. I am confident, in fact, that the person who uses philosophy with the sincere and unimpeded (by sin, for instance) desire to find the truth will reliably be led closer and closer to the truth, though that process may be long and arduous.

As a post-script, I want to acknowledge that there is an apparent antinomy between the argument I have just presented, and an argument which I have presented and defended in the past; namely, that because determinism implies that the process by which our cognitive faculties form beliefs does not lead reliably to truth it cannot be rationally affirmed. The structure of the thinking, here, is also analogous to Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN), which I have tentatively endorsed in the past as a good (though not compelling) argument.

A few comments are in order here. First, this argument against trusting the conclusions arrived at via a method which doesn’t yield its results reliably seems to be of more concern to somebody wedded to an externalist epistemology than it is to an internalist. If we affirm internalism (briefly, this is the notion that if we know P then we are in a position to know that we know P – our knowing P is itself internally verifiable) then no such problem (necessarily) exists anywhere; not for the determinist, not for the naturalist who believes in evolution, and not for the Christian who originally inherited her theological beliefs from her contingent environment. Second, if we adopt externalist epistemologies like, say, reformed epistemology, then we can simply say that properly basic beliefs (including religious beliefs) are not necessarily defeated by this charge of unreliable method. Sure, this charge may provide some reason to lower our confidence in conclusions reached via this method, perhaps, but they may do so only negligibly in the grand scheme of things. In fact, if religious beliefs are formed as a result of proper functioning (and it is natural to believe that they are) and if we have no good reason to doubt that they are, then in the absence of a defeater they won’t be in any trouble here (and neither will our political, moral or otherwise philosophical beliefs).

The key point to bear in mind here is that determinism, like naturalism conjoined with evolution, is a belief, and not a method of belief formation. The argument I presented and dealt with above concerns itself only with methods, not with beliefs. Determinism and Naturalism conjoined with evolution face a fundamental problem because they are beliefs which, if true, undermine the very notion of proper functioning. According to an externalist, for a method to produce a justified belief it needn’t reliably produce true beliefs, it merely needs to be the case that the belief it birthed was formed as a result of the proper functioning of one’s cognitive faculties, where one’s account of proper functioning is a plausible externalist story about how the truth of the belief figures into the causal story of how it arose. The method of analytic philosophy, however much variety of belief it produces, does absolutely nothing to undermine the notion of proper functioning, which is what the externalist understands by justification.

For the sake of illustration, suppose I hold the belief that raping and torturing little girls to death is absolutely and objectively morally wrong. Does the fact that other people are moral nihilists give me any good reason to doubt my belief? No. ‘But,’ you may say, ‘they used the very same method of critical thinking (etc.) to come to their conclusions as I did to come to mine.’ Even so, no problem arises necessarily, for even if I should have marginally less confidence in my belief than I should have had if, all things being equal, there were no moral nihilists like Nietzsche, still my belief may be justified as far as I should be concerned. Assuming an internalist epistemology, I simply need to have reasons, accessible to me and internally verifiable by my rational faculties, for my belief, and so long as I have such reasons I can justifiably remain supremely confident of the truth of my beliefs. Assuming an externalist epistemology, my belief may be maintained as properly basic in the absence of a defeater, and the fact that other people come to believe differently, even using (ostensibly) the same method, just does not constitute a defeater. So, on internalism there is no problem for anybody (least of all for the religious person), and on externalism there is still no problem for the average (i.e., non-philosophical) religious believer who forms her belief using a method which does not reliably induce true beliefs.

The fact that a method of belief formation does not reliably induce true beliefs doesn’t mean that a belief formed using that method isn’t justified. It means, at most, that the method itself cannot be the locus of justification for the belief (i.e., what justifies the belief has to be something other than the unreliable method by which the belief arose as a matter of psychological history), but this is a far cry from the conclusion of the argument I’ve been considering.

[1] Peter van Inwagen, “It is Wrong, Everywhere, Always, and for Anyone, to Believe Anything upon Insufficient Evidence,” in Philosophy of Religion: The Big Questions, ed. Eleonore Stump and Michael J. Murray (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1999), 274.

[2] Peter van Inwagen, “It is Wrong, Everywhere, Always, and for Anyone, to Believe Anything upon Insufficient Evidence,” 274-75.

[3] Peter van Inwagen, “It is Wrong, Everywhere, Always, and for Anyone, to Believe Anything upon Insufficient Evidence,” 275.


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