The Inclination to Believe

Man, it seems, has a natural inclination towards religion, or at least to belief in God or something very much like God. The scriptures say;

“From the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.”
~Wisdom 13:5

This isn’t merely a theological point, but a fairly well attested point of psychological fact about which there needn’t be any disagreement between Christian theists and atheistic naturalists; human beings seem naturally inclined towards belief in a transcendent creator, a locus of moral value, and summum bonum. Almost all peoples across almost all times have had something like religion, and almost all of these (to greater or lesser extents) have directed man to God or something like God.

Some atheists might suggest that once we know we have a predisposition (emotional or otherwise) to believe in God or something like God, we have acquired a reason to be skeptical of our belief in God or something like God. After all, if our belief is not formed under the influence of rational deliberation then it seems unlikely that it would be reliable. The analogy of seeing patterns where there aren’t any is often raised; we make out an octopus in the clouds, we make out a portrait of the virgin Mary on a piece of toast, we connect conspiratorial dots leading us to conclude that 9/11 was an inside job or that aliens built the pyramids, et cetera. Once we know that we are-appeared-to-patternly as an intellectual knee-jerk reaction even when not presented with any actual pattern, we have acquired a reason to be skeptical of any prima facie beliefs about patterns. It follows (so the suggestion goes) that if we know we have a natural tendency to believe in God, or something like God, we ought to be skeptical of that belief.

I think the Christian here can both argue that the (hypothetical) atheist is wrong to advance such an argument, and that, in fact, (perhaps surprisingly) just the opposite is true. First, what’s wrong with the argument? Well, obviously in the case of our prima facie beliefs about patterns, we are regularly confronted with defeaters of our beliefs. We have good reason to think, for instance, that no cloud’s shape is due to its tendency to conform to shapes like those of cars, or octopuses. However, in the absence of such a defeater we would be well within our epistemic rights to believe that we were confronted with a pattern when being appeared-to-patternly. After all, the inclination we have to believe in patterns is broadly reliable; evolution wouldn’t have selected for it (we presume) if it weren’t at least reliable enough to be an aid to survival and reproduction. So, we are justified (at least if reliability of a belief forming process is a sufficient condition of justification) in retaining our belief in the absence of a defeater. We rightly give up our beliefs in a set of patterns when presented with a defeater for our beliefs, and this happens regularly. Do we have any similar defeater in the case of our belief in God, or something like God? It doesn’t seem so (unless one is inclined to think that some argument for atheism is sound, such as the argument from the evidential problem of evil). Thus, in the absence of an apparently sound argument for atheism, we seem to have no defeater for our belief in God or something like God, even if that belief were formed not as a result of doing sophisticated natural theology, but formed just by looking up at the heavens and reacting to the beauty of it all by forming the belief in God or something like God. If the (hypothetical) atheist wishes to convince us that this belief-forming process isn’t reliable, they will have to provide us with some reason (any reason) for believing so without begging the question.

We might also advance a tu quoque argument against the atheist here, noting that there seem to be plenty of beliefs for which we (the Christian and atheist both) have no justification beyond our psychological disposition for believing it. This seems to be true for our fundamental moral judgments, which are not as such open to empirical verification or falsification. This seems to be true of our belief in an extra-mental extra-linguistic external world (as opposed to, say, subjective idealism). It seems to be true of our belief in the reality of the past (as opposed to the most unpalatable version of presentism imaginable). There are many examples of beliefs which we have a natural inclination to form and which we all (or, nearly all) believe, but for which it is difficult to see what non-circular or non-question-begging argument(s) we could present in their defense. If this is right, then the atheist is in exactly the same position (with respect to many of her beliefs) she is accusing the Christian of being in (with respect to his belief in God). This does nothing to indict the atheist’s argument, but at least it gives the atheist some reason to pause and reconsider the objection.

Finally, I don’t think we’re stuck with a stalemate between the Christian and the atheist here. In fact, I think that our having an inclination to believe in God or something like God is itself evidence for the reliability of this disposition. Consider the conditional probability that we would have such an inclination on atheism (along with background knowledge); it may not be astronomically low, but it certainly isn’t very high prima facie. Now consider the conditional probability that we would have such an inclination (to believe in God, or something like God) on theism (along with background knowledge); it may not be astronomically high, but it certainly isn’t very low, and it is obviously at least higher than it would have been on atheism. Therefore, the fact that we have a natural tendency to believe in God actually gives us a reason to think that this tendency is ‘reliable’ (i.e., conducive to the formation of true beliefs). Even if it isn’t much more likely that this disposition is reliable, it is certainly marginally more likely (prima facie) that this disposition is reliable. In the absence of a defeater or other relevant considerations, that’s enough to tip the scales slightly in the favour of the Christian.

Finally, the disposition to believe in God is not only evidence of its reliability, but also serves equally well (or equally poorly) as evidence for the truth of theism or something like theism. Thus, the natural inclination in man to believe in God provides evidence both for its own reliability, and for the existence of God.

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