belief in God be nothing more than a social or biological phenomenon? This was the question posed by the skeptic. His point was obvious: if he could provide an explanation as to why people began to believe, or why people choose to believe, he would be one step closer to proving that there is no need for God.
Or would he?
When a question is framed in the way the skeptic phrased it, the anticipated answer is “yes.” After all, anything is possible, so why could this not also be a possibility?
The true answer to the challenge requires that one assess the lines of evidence in support of, and the lines of evidence opposed to, the proposition “God exists.” If the evidence against God’s existence is strong, then it would make sense to look for an explanation of where this persistent belief finds its roots. After all, it seems pretty obvious that most people from just about every culture on Earth in every period of history have developed and practiced religious beliefs. But if the evidence for God’s existence is great – an easy conclusion to reach when one considers the dozen or more proofs for the existence of a supernatural Creator – then then likelihood that atheism is true diminishes to the point that holding such a view becomes irrational. So, in fact, I think the correct answer to the challenge is “no.” It is not reasonable to conclude that religion is simply a useful social or biological trait; it is reasonable to conclude that people believe in God because they rightly conclude he must exist, and they then set about trying to learn what they can about him.
On closer examination, the question is actually an example of the genetic fallacy at work. The genetic fallacy seeks to explain the source of a belief – i.e. to explain why it is false or mistaken – before showing that it is false. It has persuasive power because it seeks to “make sense” of something. A example would be if I were to say that of course the teacher gave me an F on this paper because it’s no secret that she doesn’t like me. First, one would need to prove that the paper did not deserve an F before an explanation becomes necessary. If I got every question on the test wrong, that would be the reason for the F, regardless of the teacher’s feelings. If, by contrast, I could show that my paper was actually correct, that the F was wrong, only then would seeking an explanation for why the teacher gave me the F make sense.
If skeptics proved that God did not exist, seeking to find out why He persists as an idea in all people’s mind – and the object of belief for the vast majority of all who have lived – would be relevant. Without that proof, the question seeks to explain why religious people are wrong, without first establishing that they are wrong.
Taking the argument at face value, for a moment, I don’t think it has much explanatory power, in any case. Under this view, mankind is the product of random forces that did not have humanity in mind. As time passes, some men, who just happen to acquire intelligence for reasons no one can explain, realize that religion confers a benefit to its adherents that other views do not confer. With the passage of time, believers would increase in numbers as they continue to receive a benefit that would then be passed on to later generations. But consider the problems with this view: first, not all religions are the same. Some command peace and cooperative living while others command war. How could diametrically opposed views explain man’s intuitive grasp of the creator? Second, whatever value living cooperatively has, there is no reason man could not have developed that approach without invoking a deity. It’s just common sense to see this. Finally, why would I believe that all religion confers an advantage? I don’t see that today, so I’m not sure why early man would have. Men prayed but did not receive what they asked for; others invoked God to win a battle or to bring rain with no effect. Religion is in fact quite counter-intuitive in some ways. We can continue to believe despite realizing that there is no necessary immediate benefit that will come from adopting a religious worldview. One need look no further than Jesus, who lay down his life for others because of the faith system he professed. How would that confer an evolutionary advantage?
The better explanation is that human intelligence is God-ordained and that our recognition that there is a God is a function of the intelligence with which we have been endowed. The skeptic should make his case first, before trying to come up with a reason why believers are mistaken.
Posted by Al Serrato