In defence of the Genetic Fallacy

Many objections to religious belief take the form of ‘debunking arguments’. On these views, religious belief is a manifestation of class oppression, or psycho-sexual disfunction, of some evolution-inspired psychological glitch (agency detection) or similar. An objector might want to nail his colours to the mask of a particular debunking account of religious belief, or he might instead make a more general appeal: that given the demographic pattern of religious belief, some sort of epistemically untrustworthy process (acculturation, indoctrination, or something) is probably going on, even if we are not confident what exactly that should be. 1

Besides disputing how well a given ‘debunking’ account really explains religious belief, a common line of reply is to consider these sorts of arguments exercises in the genetic fallacy. Even if Christianity was motivated in all cases by (for example) a misfiring agency-detector, that wouldn’t demonstrate the Christian God did not exist. Belief in God could be uniformly irrational but nonetheless true. As the saying goes: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you”.

I’m now much less convinced by this response. For in the case of God, the genetic fallacy does not seem fallacious: we should not expect most people to irrationally believe God exists if God exists, and so an argument that showed the bulk of religious belief was irrational would be evidence for Atheism.

To unpack this a bit, consider the following:

  1. X’s belief ‘They are out to get you’ is irrational.
  2. X’s belief ‘They are out to get you’ is more likely to be irrational if it is false ‘They are out to get you’ than it is true ‘they are out to get you’
  3. The fact X’s belief is irrational is evidence against ‘them being out to get you’.

This argument, cast in Bayesian form, is something like this:

¬R /

Where ¬R is the belief not being rational, ¬V is ‘they are not out to get you’ (and V ‘they are out to get you).

This argument seems mistaken, and it goes wrong in the second line. If ones beliefs are irrational, they are generally uncorrelated, not inversely correlated, with the truth. So finding out X’s belief that people are out to get him is irrational is not evidence against people being out to get him – rather, it has no evidential value ‘either way’. So we should keep whatever our prior belief is that people are out to get X. In most cases this prior will be low, and so we will not think people are out to get X, but X’s unwarranted belief does not provide further reason to think that is the case.

Now consider this argument:

  1. Most people believe Christianity irrationally.
  2. It is more likely most people would believe Christianity irrationally if it was false than if it was true.
  3. The fact most people believe Christianity irrationally is evidence against Christianity.

This has a parallel Bayesian gloss:

¬Rc /

Where ¬Rc is “Most people believe Christianity irrationally”, and C is Christianity.

This argument seems about right, because the second line here seems correct whilst in the first argument it wasn’t. Although most beliefs would not make themselves more likely to be rationally held if they were true, God seems to be one of the (very few) exceptions where we should expectepistemic genetics to be correlated with truth-value.

It would be very odd for the Christian God to ordain a world in which most people who believe he exists do so irrationally, through cultural acculturation or evolutionary quirk, rather than through some appropriately warranted process. This seems not to fit with God’s character or his relationship with creation as advertised by Christianity, and might prompt soteriological concerns if God was damning people to hell based on the precise species of their irrationality. By contrast, if God did not exist, one should not be surprised if most people who believe in him do so irrationally.

So Christianity predicts most Christian belief being rational, whilst atheism does not. If a ‘debunking’ account of Christian belief is persuasive, then this is evidence not only that the bulk of christian belief is irrational, but also that it’s content is false, for if the content were true then God would ensure he was generally not believed irrationally.

A robust ‘debunking’ account of religious belief seems a long way off: we have some interesting case studies (e.g. mentalists and mind-altering substances prompting religious belief), and some tricky demographics and some early accounts of how religious belief might come about which suggests it is a broadly irrational process not connected to how the world really is. However, if we do arrive at a persuasive mechanistic account for religious belief which does require it to be linked up to a supernatural object, then claims of a genetic fallacy will not temper this blow against the rationality of religious belief. 2

  1. This is what Loftus’s Outsider Test for Faith should be doing if Loftus was not such a generally confused thinker.
  2. It should be noted this goes the other way. If naturalist keeps failing to account for religious belief or experience in a naturalistic way, then this might be data in which theism could take the upper hand. However, given the relevant fields are in their infancy, we should not be too surprised there is no compelling account of religious belief yet.


3 responses to In defence of the Genetic Fallacy

  1. Paul Wright said:

    Typos: 2 is missing an “if”. The second argument has gone wrong somewhere: perhaps 5 should say “rationally”?

  2. 4. Most people believe Christianity irrationally.

    Out of curiosity, what support do you think Naturalist could provide to (Christian) Theist for this premise?

  3. Thrasymachus said:

    @Paul Wright

    Thanks for the catches! I’ve added in the ifs and flipped the sentences around so it now makes sense.

    @Thomas Larsen

    The support naturalist would provide would be first (following Maitzen) the demographic case: good predictors of your religious belief include the time and place of your birth, the prevailing religious beliefs of your community and family, and so on and so forth. This demographic pattern is not suggestive of warranted belief forming processes, and seems to support an account that deploys unwarranted belief forming processes better (e.g. acculturation, etc.). Second (although much weaker) would be any naturalistic/evolutionary account of religious belief, if it could be shown to be broadly applicable.

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