The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

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Born Atheists? Science and Natural belief in God


Is atheism or theism more natural for human beings?

According to online author Tim Covell, “Everyone is born atheist. Religion is learned.” Similarly, over at the “rational response squad” you’re treated to the same  claim: that “Many people don’t know it but everyone is born an Atheist, it’s not until a child has religious beliefs Pushed on them with out any evidence to support them that they “think” their [sic] a Theist.” David McAfee makes the same claim: “Now, the way I see it, everybody is born an atheist and, without submersion into religion as a child, we would most likely maintain that position…”  These are just examples. There are plenty more out there in the non-peer-reviewed pool of “intellectual diversity” that is the internet. But is this claim true?

On the evolution of moral beliefs


I’m a moral realist. That means that I think there really are some moral facts. It is wrong to do some things, and it is right to do some things, and this isn’t just a vent of emotion or an expression of my will, it’s really true. Stephen Law is also a moral realist, but if I’m reading him rightly in his debate with William Lane Craig on the existence of God or in his more recent discussion with me on the Unbelievable radio show where I discussed the moral argument for theism, he’d sooner give up moral realism than accept theism.

An argument I sketched in that discussion was that the best way to explain moral facts is by reference to God. Although he does currently believe in moral facts, he noted that they may not be there after all, so maybe there’s no reason to invoke God as an explanation. After all, he said, we can come up with an evolutionary explanation of why we would believe in moral facts whether they really existed or not. Law wants to be careful here. At the time I raised the concern that this may just be a case of the genetic fallacy, offering an explanation of where a belief came from as though this showed or suggested that the belief is false. But this isn’t what Law means to say, he replied. The point is not that the existence of an evolutionary account of why moral beliefs exist shows that those beliefs are false. That would indeed be the genetic fallacy at work. No, the point is that whether those beliefs are true or false, there exists the same evolutionary account for why we hold them – and that account is unaffected by their truth or falsehood. There is thus no particular reason to think that the evolutionary processes that brought them into being is likely to produce true-belief forming processes.

While this line of argument does not purport to show that the moral beliefs we hold aren’t true, it’s meant to cast doubt on the probability that the process that gave rise to these beliefs (or at least the process that gave rise to the relevant belief forming processes) is likely to result in either true beliefs or reliable belief forming faculties. It’s best to think in terms of the latter, if only because it’s downright bizarre to think that evolution forms beliefs. It plainly doesn’t, but it does form mechanisms or processes that creatures use to form beliefs.

So what should we make of this? Can we give an evolutionary account of why we would believe in moral facts, an account that is blind to the actual existence of those facts? Secondly, if we could give an account like this, would it undermine the probability that the processes that form those beliefs are reliable? I will give two answers: Yes, it is trivially true that we can give an account like this, and no, the fact that we can do so should not undermine our confidence in the belief form process that forms moral beliefs. In doing so I will be drawing on an argument by Alvin Plantinga, namely the “evolutionary argument against naturalism.” While I am inclined to think that argument is unsound, many of the insights that it draws attention to are true nonetheless.

Could atheism be a properly basic belief?


Could people have a properly basic belief that God does not exist, so that they do not need any other arguments or evidence for that belief in order to be justified in holding it?

A recent conversation reminded me of what is now a rather old argument in relation to the question of belief in God (old in terms of twentieth century arguments anyway). Essentially, the issue was this: If my purported experience of knowing God / knowing that God exists via some sort of intuition or any other sort of experience should count as a reason for me to believe in God, then why can’t somebody else’s atheist experience (or at least their testimony of it) count as a reason for me to not believe in God? I say that I have a direct knowledge of God’s existence (let’s say I do). But what about someone who has direct, intuitive knowledge of something like “there is nothing out there, there is no purpose at all to life”? Surely, it was suggested to me, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

Episode 038: Zeitgeist


At the request of a couple of listeners, this episode is a response to the documentary: Zeitgeist.

As I promised in the episode, here are a few links.

First, a link to some astronomical illustrations:

And here are the links to my three part blog series on evidence for the historical Jesus outside the New Testament, as promised:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

You might also find it helpful to check out my previous blogs on copycat theories about the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Do atheists know more about Christianity than Evangelicals?


The short answer is: No.

You may have noticed a bit of buzz recently about a new survey that (so the buzz is saying) shows that atheists know more about Christianity than Evangelicals do. I’ve seen self professed atheists make this claim online before, and now their bias confirmation tendencies have kicked into overdrive with the release of a recent Pew Forum study.

Let’s do some checking (sorry, it’s what some of us do).

The Great Pumpkin Objection


In the last podcast episode on Plantinga and properly basic beliefs, I briefly discussed the “Great Pumpkin Objection.” As it’s a subject worthy of a blog post of its own, and given that I know some people prefer things in writing, I thought I’d add a blog entry focused on that objection.

Alvin Plantinga has hammered out and defended the notion that if God (the Christian God that he believes in) really exists, then a Christian’s belief in God can be construed as properly basic. A properly basic belief is one that is rationally held and yet not derived from other beliefs that one holds (this is another way of saying that it is not justified by what is often called evidence). We hold many such beliefs, for example, the belief that the universe was not created just five minutes ago, any beliefs based on memory, belief that other minds exist, the belief that we are experiencing a certain colour, and so on. Set aside, for now, the fact that a lot of Christians think that they can produce decent evidence for the existence of God. Plantinga argued – successfully in my view – that even if that’s true, theism can be construed as properly basic and hence suitably justified even without such evidence. God created us in such a way that when we function properly we believe in him. The normal epistemic response to creation is to believe things like “God created this,” or more fundamentally, “God is real.” For more details, check out the podcast episode.

One bandwagon that anti-theists have jumped on is to claim that if theists can claim that their belief in God is basic, then just anybody at all can do this in regard to their belief in just anything. Here’s one popular version of that objection: In the comic strip Peanuts, the character Linus believes that there exists a Great Pumpkin who rises from the pumpkin patch every Halloween and rewards good children with presents. If Christians get to think that belief in God can be properly basic, then why couldn’t a person (like Linus) think that belief in the Great Pumpkin is properly basic, and so claim the right to believe it even though he cannot produce evidence for the belief’s truth?

The Lottery Fallacy Fallacy


Some arguments are like mosquitoes. They get slapped and well and truly squashed – unambiguously defeated in plain sight for all to see, obviously crushed. The smeared body is witnessed. But then as soon as you try to relax again, that familiar whining sound fades in again. You think, Didn’t I just squash you? Yes you did, and it’s back.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, objections to divine command theories of ethics are a good example of arguments like this. But they’re not alone. Another is the Lottery Fallacy Fallacy. I know, calling something a “fallacy” is a bit of a rhetorical device, but I use the term because the argument that I want to rebut – again – is one that trades on using that word for rhetorical effect, so my use of the word twice must surely double the effect!

Episode 035: Sam Harris, Science and Morality


So-called new atheist Sam Harris maintains that moral values are really scientific facts, and that they have no connection to God (indeed, God does not exist, thinks Harris).

Episode 35 is an analysis of a recent talk given by Harris gave on science and human values. The talk was part of a TED conference, and you can see it here. Here I offer an explanation of how I think he has failed. In brief, I think his entire presentation is an exercise in circular reasoning.

Harris has a new book on the subject, The Moral Landscape, which is to be released later this year.

 Glenn Peoples

Richard Dawkins on Pat Robertson on Haiti


As many readers will know, shortly after the earthquake in Haiti that did so much damage and claimed so many lives, Pat Robertson (a somewhat notorious televangelist involved in what has been dubbed “Word of Faith” theology) said something (I suppose I should say that he said yet another thing) that Christians in general didn’t think much of. His claim is that in history, the Haitians of the time made a pact with the devil to obtain freedom from servitude to the French, and that because of this, they have suffered numerous travesties since then, including this earthquake. Here he is in action:


Unsurprisingly, the response to this from the Christian community has been fairly negative. Christian theology just doesn’t teach this. The idea that whenever something bad happens to a person or to a group it is the result of a wicked thing previously done by that person or group is not one that you can find in the work of any major Christian theologian in history, as far as I am aware (I am setting aside for now the obvious fact that in this case the people who suffered and died were not even the same people who allegedly swore this pact – a pact for which there’s really no evidence anyway). For that matter, it is not taught in the Bible either. In fact there are passages in the Bible that directly deny this view.

Episode 020: The Argument from Atrocity


Should we reject Christianity because of the harmful deeds done in its name? Some have said so. This episode explains what is wrong with that line of reasoning.

Glenn Peoples

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