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Talk Back 11
A Reply to Meditation 21

by Jay Random

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I have the honour to call your attention to `Meditation 21' on your site, `Why People Believe In God'. While I have not time to discuss in full the logical incompetence of this argument, I should like to adumbrate such a discussion in brief.

Your commentator suggests that we believe in God simply because evolution has selected for those who hold religious beliefs. This assertion is presented without any evidence whatever. In particular, it is suggested that religious belief has a specific genetic cause, though in fact this issue has never been studied, and no genetic link has ever been advanced even as a hypothesis. If a geneticist made this claim and suggested what specific gene might be responsible for religious belief, we could regard this as a legitimate scientific hypothesis. As it is, it falls under the category of wishful thinking.

Specifically, it falls under the category of logical error that C.S. Lewis named `Bulverism'. He used to refer to the (fictitious) inventor of Bulverism, Ezekiel Bulver, who discovered the secret of winning any argument one day as a child, when he overheard his mother refute his father as follows: `You only say that because you are a man.' Brilliant! Don't bother investigating the evidence for or against your opponent's position. Just assume that he is wrong, and invent an ad hominem attack to explain why he would hold such an obviously stupid belief.

Here is a paraphrase of the Freudian catechism from Lewis' The Pilgrim's Regress. (I paraphrase to remove the terminology specific to Lewis' allegory, referring to concepts and persons instead by their usual names.)

Q: What is the answer to an argument turning upon the existence of God?

A: `You only say that because you were indoctrinated by priests.'

Q: What is the answer to an argument turning upon the existence of absolute moral precepts?

A: `You only say that because you are a puritan.'

Q: What is the answer to an argument turning upon the belief that two and two make four?

A: `You only say that because you are a mathematician.'

To claim that people believe in God only because they are compelled by some (unnamed) genetic mechanism is precisely equivalent to the claims above. It is also, of course, equivalent to the claim made by Freud in The Future Of An Illusion, in which he attributed the belief in God to the neurotic displacement of the wish for an all-powerful father-figure. Mind you, he never proved the existence of such a wish, nor elucidated any possible mechanism by which it would almost universally be displaced in such a peculiar manner (to an invisible God, and not to say Comrade Stalin or Old King Cole or Dr. Freud); he merely assumed that, since God must be a figment of a diseased imagination, he ought to be able to explain the disease from the principles of Freudian analysis.

I could go deeper into the various logical fallacies exhibited in `Meditation #21', but as I said earlier, I have not the time (and precious little inclination). But I will say this: For someone who claims to be an agnostic, i.e. to have no knowledge for or against the existence of God, your commentator spends a great deal of effort arguing from the assumption that there is no God. It would be more intellectually honest of him to admit that he is an atheist than to pretend to a state of philosophical open-mindedness.

Likewise, the tenets of your `church', while couched in ostensible terms of intellectual humility, in fact contain the most astounding statement of intellectual arrogance of which the human mind is capable. To admit that you know nothing about God, one way or the other, would be a laudable and truthful confession. To conclude from this that there is no possible way for anyone to know anything about God -- this is amazing hubris. If God exists, then it should in principle be possible to discover His footprints. If not, then it may be possible to demonstrate this, perhaps by showing how the existence of a God is not compatible with what we know to be the nature of the observable universe, or by demonstrating that the idea of God is self-contradictory and that no such entity could exist on its own showing.

For a group that claims to be apathetic and aware of its own ignorance, you expend a great deal of energy expounding a position of absolute dogmatic certainty.