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Is it easy to debunk religious belief?

The rapid development of the cognitive science of religion over the last 20 years has led to a renewed enthusiasm for anti-religious debunking arguments. The typical form of these is that w thinks that she/he is motivated to believe the tenets of religion x because of y, but w’s real motive for believing the tenets of religion x is z, which is not sufficient to warrant acceptance of x; therefore w is unwarranted in accepting x. For example w may think that she/he has a sound argument for the claim that God probably exists and is motivated to believe in God in virtue of accepting this sound argument. But Pascal Boyer and others tell us that humans are predisposed to believe in the existence of supernatural beings (minimally counterintuitive agents) and are inclined to do so, on the basis of less evidence than they would ordinarily accept to warrant belief in an agent, therefore w is unwarranted in believing that God exists. 

Debunking arguments typically attribute motives to us that we were not hitherto aware of, and purport to undermine our overt motives for our beliefs in doing so. One problem with this line of attack on belief is that we may have mixed motives. Freud proposed a debunking explanation of the widespread belief in God as being motivated (roughly) by a need for a father figure and some Freudians may have thought that they would effectively debunk belief in God by proposing this explanation. However, it has done very little to undermine religious belief. The problem is not that it has simply been rejected. The problem is that even if people accept that they are motivated to look for a father figure they do not relinquish other motives for believing in God when doing so. Even if w has a powerful need to believe in God, this does not mean that w’s faith or w’s argument for the existence of God are insufficient to warrant belief in God.

Debunking arguments are more somewhat effective when, as well as introducing additional motives, they serve to undermine our current basis for belief. If we believe in God and, having read Boyer, we come to think we are predisposed to believe that supernatural beings exist then our current grounds for belief in God is rendered suspect. But all that this suspicion does is prompt us to re-examine our grounds for belief in God to see whether these were sufficient or not. It is quite possible that we are predisposed to believe in supernatural beings and at the same time our grounds for believing in a particular supernatural being are entirely sufficient to warrant belief in that supernatural being.

But suppose that, having been prompted by a debunking argument, we re-examine our grounds for belief in God and find them to be inadequate. This will not necessarily lead us to abandon belief in God. It may equally, lead us to search for other grounds to base our belief in God on. And even if it does lead us to abandon belief in God, it seems to me that the debunking argument which triggered the abandoning of faith should not get all the credit for causing an abandoning of faith. It may be the proximate cause of a loss of faith, but it is not the underlying problem. The underlying problem is that a particular person’s belief in God was built on shaky foundations and was liable to be abandoned at any time that it was subjected to a sufficiently strong challenge. It happened to be abandoned as a result of the influence of a debunking argument, but it was liable to be abandoned as a result of the influence of any number of factors.

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9 Comment on this post

  1. “This will not necessarily lead us to abandon belief in God. It may equally, lead us to search for other grounds to base our belief in God on.”

    But in the interim one has no good grounds for the belief, nor good reason to think that a well-conducted search will find good grounds (if one had such reason one would already have grounds for belief). Do you mean to make a descriptive point here, that the believer will usually fail to respond reasonably, or a normative point that the believer can reasonably believe without any good grounds?

  2. Hi Carl,

    well I hadn’t really thought about the interim period. However, now that you prompt me to think about it I’m inclined to the normative view that they should continue to believe until a thorough search of possible grounds has been conducted. I am persuaded by Kuhn’s epistemic conservatism here. We ought not abandon our views about core topics lightly given, that there are many epistemic and practical consequences that follow from them. And it seems that much will typically follow from abandoning belief in God – so, unless this happens to be a relatively inconsequential belief, one ought not do so until a proper search of possible grounds to support belief in God has been conducted. Kuhn, of course makes similar claims about ongoing support for scientific theories in the face of counterexamples.

  3. Anthony Drinkwater

    Imagine that I wanted to persuade someone of the truth of a belief. Would I use “bunking” arguments, in other words give my listener a motive to share my belief ?

    Descriptively, the situation seems clear : such events happen (often). They are usually – when detected (and especially when not approved) – classed as propaganda or manipulation.
    Normatively it is, I believe, equally clear – the appeal to motives does not and can not justify a belief.

    The question thus becomes : why should debunking arguments be considered important, other than in a descriptive sense ?
    Part of the answer perhaps is that they are used exactly when we wish to challenge propaganda or the manipulation of beliefs for vested interests. Hence the renewed enthusiasm for anti-religious debunking that you describe.

  4. Dennis J. Tuchler

    Good Post, especially the last paragraph! But I am in favor of continuing the war on religion because it gives rise to some very readable books and commentaries and a great deal of humorous writing! Steve Clark’s conservatism works both ways of course. One can be persuaded that one’s non-belief is not well-grounded but still cling to it until there is a good reason to believe.

    Arguments against religion are like the famous Chinese finger-trap. The harder you pull, the harder it is to get out. Better to plant a seed of doubt (or a seed of belief) and maybe later water it a bit. Most people who leave religion simply fall away because there is no real point in staying. I fell away because there was no real point in believing in God. An omnipotent, all-wise, omnipresent and omniscient god hardly needs worshiping!

  5. What I find odd is that many who try to debunk religion in this way are so ill-read in religious literature and argument. Such a view as those espoused by Freud or even cognitive scientists should realize that questioning of this kind – of one’s motives for belief – are always at the heart of a deep and deepening faith/ Does one need to read Kierkegaard to find this put. I think the problem that many non-believers have is seeing that even the most unsophisticated believer has these types of tests of conscience and scanning of reasons for belief. It’s just that they do not always put these questions into the formulas that non-believers would like to have them phrased.

  6. What do you mean by ‘belief in God was built on shaky foundations’?

    Because foundations can mean a lot of things but most important of it all would be whether the person open to rational arguments. If not then there is no point in making an ‘a sufficiently strong challenge’.

  7. I like this descriptive/normative distinction, and in a descriptive sense I think the post is spot on, although it left me thinking, “So what?”…which brings me to the normative questions.

    Let us take, in particular, Anthony’s statement “the appeal to motives does not and can not justify a belief”.

    This to me begs the question what DOES justify a belief. What are beliefs for? What purpose do they serve? What purpose SHOULD they serve?

    Those who have been following my comments up to now will no that I don’t believe that there are absolute, irrefutable answers to normative questions. For some, beliefs are justified by reason and evidence. For others, beliefs are justified because they bring some kind of psychological (or “spiritual”) or practical benefit for the believer. Others, including myself, would be concerned about the effect of certain beliefs on the welfare of society at large. From this perspective, I tend to take the view that the criteria by which we should regard beliefs (religious or otherwise) are “justified” or not indeed include reason and evidence, but also whether they inspire people to be good and happy citizens.

    This being the case (and Dennis’s remark about humour notwithstanding) I often wonder why some atheists (such as Richard Dawkins for example) seem to be quite so determined to “debunk” religion per se. Surely what we should be “debunking”, mainly by pointing out the consequences as well as the lack of evidence, are those forms of religion that are particularly conducive to obscurantism and/or intolerance and violence.

  8. Anthony Drinkwater

    Peter, I agree with much that you write on the criteria of reducing intolerance and obsurantism in judging the utility of beliefs.
    A question for you, however, on beliefs that bring benefit to the believer, and those that promote welfare of society at large.
    You imply that beliefs that delivered these consequences could be justified. But what if they were shown to be false ? Would they still be justified simply because of their effects ?
    To take two few seemingly trivial examples, such as the belief in Father Christmas, or the tooth fairy – fine for young children to believe. But for adults ? Of course one can “justify” these practices in a weak sense of defending their propagation (in the certain knowledge that children will one day grow out of them), but I don’t thnk many of us would justify the beliefs themselves.
    Perhaps this is the reason why Richard Dawkins is so determined : in brief, adults ought to be capable of constructing beliefs on the basis of reason, and not superstition.

  9. I think it’s generally a bad idea to cling to beliefs that have been clearly shown to be false because the mental gymnastics we have to perform to maintain such beliefs tend to have negative consequences (neurosis, general distortion of our cognitive capacities, impaired judgement). There are exceptions, however: denial can be helpful in the short term, and sometimes it’s the short term that matters.

    The thing about belief in God, though, is that it hasn’t been shown to be false: in fact, if suitably defined it’s not even falsifiable. One may argue that some of the above objections to holding false (even though in some ways helpful) beliefs also apply here, but surely less so.

    Is God a meaningful or useful concept? Currently I don’t find this to be the case for me, but perhaps that’s partly because I operate in a largely secular social milieu. Perhaps there’s a way to define religious belief so that it does serve a useful purpose without leading to the negative consequences described above. Aren’t there, in fact, many examples around us of such belief?

    It’s perhaps also useful if we think about what exactly we mean by “superstition”. I guess I would define this more or less as holding beliefs for which there is no compelling evidence out of some combination of fear and wishful thinking. There are, of course, many secular forms of superstition as well. It’s indeed important to have some criteria for determining which superstitions are sufficiently harmful to require “debunking”, but perhaps the idea that the world would be a better place if we all gave up superstition is itself a superstition.

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