Science Sez So: Man Made God

This week the L.A. Times ran an op-ed piece written by two atheists who use neuroscience to show us that God is a human invention. Cutting edge stuff, I know.

In recent years scientists specializing in the mind have begun to unravel religion’s “DNA.” They have produced robust theories, backed by empirical evidence (including “imaging” studies of the brain at work), that support the conclusion that it was humans who created God, not the other way around. And the better we understand the science, the closer we can come to “no heaven … no hell … and no religion too.”

Like our physiological DNA, the psychological mechanisms behind faith evolved over the eons through natural selection. They helped our ancestors work effectively in small groups and survive and reproduce, traits developed long before recorded history, from foundations deep in our mammalian, primate and African hunter-gatherer past.

Game over, right?  As I gather it, their argument runs something like this:

  1. Psychological mechanisms are the byproduct of natural processes, viz. natural selection.
  2. Faith in God, religious experience, etc. is the result of these natural, psychological processes.
  3. Therefore, religious belief is invalid.

This all seems so groovy and scientific, but at bottom it is a bunch of fallacious hooey. (Hooey, I say! Fighting words!)

1. The argument commits the genetic fallacy. The genetic fallacy is based solely on something or someone’s origin and not its current meaning or context. The truth of a belief is independent of how we came to know it. I could believe that Des Moines is the capitol of Iowa from reading tea leaves. It doesn’t mean that Des Moines isn’t the capitol of Iowa; it just means I have some lousy justification for thinking that such is the case. Even if we grant that human beings have some fallible and possibly sketchy reasons for believing God might exist, it doesn’t follow that God doesn’t exist.

2. The argument is bulverism. Bulverism is when the argument is assumed to be wrong and then we’re told why the person believes the argument instead of being told why it is really wrong.The writers say that the religious believe for their need of attachment and protection. They go on to write that  “among the psychological adaptations related to religion are our need for reciprocity, our tendency to attribute unknown events to human agency, our capacity for romantic love, our fierce “out-group” hatreds and just as fierce loyalties to the in groups of kin and allies.”  What’s being said goes something like this:

  1. You say God exists.
  2. Because of your psychological need for attachment, protection, to explain the unexplained, etc, you personally want there to be a God.
  3. Therefore, God doesn’t exist.

That doesn’t follow at all. It would be an equally fallacious assertion for the Christian to say to the atheist “you say God doesn’t exist only because of your psychological wish to make your own rules and have no higher accountability for your life”. That’s just attacking the person, not the arguments. I will say that I do find it ironic that the writers of this piece act like they’re being objective and are themselves free from psychological factors. Along these lines, I find this truthful admission from atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel to be refreshing. Nagel says

“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and naturally hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope that there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

Again, this doesn’t prove atheism to be true or false. The point is that no one is completely free from psychological factors in their beliefs.

3. The argument is question-begging. What the writers are saying is “we know religious beliefs aren’t true because there is no God, so religious beliefs have to be explained by purely natural means”.  If there is no God, then our religious beliefs are selected by evolution strictly for survival value, not for truth. But if God exists, wouldn’t it be rational to think He would want us to know that He does, in fact, exist? So God could either guide the process of evolution in such a way that human beings will develop basic cognizance that He is real, or He could simply just instill a belief in us that He does exist and that he wants a relationship with us. We then could choose to suppress that knowledge or not. That seems to be the point of what Paul was saying in Romans 1:

…The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened…

4. The argument is self-defeating. If naturalism is true, then all of our beliefs; not just religious ones, are the byproduct of blind, unguided material forces. If our cognitive faculties cannot be trusted to have true spiritual beliefs, what makes us think we can we trust them to produce true beliefs about anything related to the real world? Purely naturalistic evolution is not concerned with learning truth, but survival:  feeding, fleeing, fighting, and reproducing.  Charles Darwin himself admitted:

With me, the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?

J.B.S. Haldane, the famous biologist said something similar:

“If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of [physical materials] in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true … and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of [physical materials].”

In his book Miracles, C.S. Lewis also addresses this in the chapter aptly titled “The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism”

“If all that exists is Nature, the great mindless interlocking event, if our own deepest convictions are merely the by-products of an irrational process, then clearly there is not the slightest ground for supposing that our sense of fitness and our consequent faith in uniformity tell us anything about a reality external to ourselves. Our convictions are simply a fact about us-like the colour of our hair. If Naturalism is true we have no reason to trust our conviction that Nature is uniform.”

Any theory that leads us to such radical skepticism about our beliefs – not just our religious beliefs, but all of our beliefs, including our scientific beliefs – is self-defeating. On the contrary, the theist has no reason to doubt her cognitive faculties if they are given to them by God; who would want her to have true beliefs. The theist is actually justified in believing that they actually can take advantage of “our mind’s greatest adaptation: our ability to use reason”.

Imagine that.

Finally, I have to say something about this –

 It is conceivable that St. Paul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus was, in reality, a seizure caused by temporal lobe epilepsy.

So Paul may have had a seizure that caused him to have a religious experience and go from persecuting the church to being its greatest advocate? Did the women at the tomb have an epileptic seizure that caused them to see an empty tomb and an angel? Did the disciples who said they saw Christ after his crucifixion and burial, did they also experience some sort of seizure that caused them to believe they saw the risen Jesus? The disciples claimed they saw the risen Jesus individually and in groups; were they experiencing some sort of seizure that caused them all to hallucinate the same thing?  Does that even remotely explain the historical facts? But I guess I’m just leaning on some psychological crutch and not using my ability to reason. Right?


7 thoughts on “Science Sez So: Man Made God

  1. Oh wow, Thank you for posting this Erik! I posted it on facebook so my other friends can see it.

  2. Another awesome post Erik! I appreciate the end where you bring it back to the historical evidences for Christianity. People like the authors of the article do just what you’re saying: They assume falsity of belief, and go on to try to explain the origin.

  3. Pingback: Really Recommended Posts 7/25 « J.W. Wartick -"Always Have a Reason"

  4. Lee, it seems to me they are doing much more than just offering merely a plausible explanation. They end the article assuming they have made the proof when they say:

    “We can be better as a species if we recognize religion as a man-made construct. We owe it to ourselves to at least consider the real roots of religious belief, so we can deal with life as it is, taking advantage of perhaps our mind’s greatest adaptation: our ability to use reason.”

    The conclude as if they proved the case, religious belief is a deception and they say they have the science to back it up. I think that a lot more than just religious belief is undercut when we want to argue the way the critics have wrote here.

  5. There was once a “robust theory” that the Earth was the center of the solar system and the Sun revolved around the Earth. This theory too was backed up by observation and empirical evidence. Please be careful about a little scientific evidence. Often times as more knowledge is gained, your firm stance is not so sure.

  6. If the human brain evolved, and there really is no God, what could possibly have happened in that evolutionary process that caused the brain to develop the concept of a nonexistent entity that would cause the brain confusion and irrational fears?

    • Hey Bill,

      Of course if there is no god then the idea of god could be explained purely by naturalistic means. But that’s one of the problems with this piece; it’s just question-begging, it assumes what it’s trying to prove. Separate arguments need to be given in support of the argument that there is no god, not just saying “hey, we have these brain scans”.

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