The Fallacy in a Nutshell
When the origin of religious belief is a topic of debate between Christian apologists and atheists, their arguments follow a predictable thread. The atheist usually claims that religious beliefs arose because they were advantageous for our evolutionary ancestors, or were the by-product of adaptations that conferred such advantages. Then, the apologist responds to the atheist by accusing him of committing “the genetic fallacy.” But what is the genetic fallacy, exactly?
This fallacy is committed when someone infers that a belief is false because of how it originated. It is a fallacy because the truth or falsity of a belief does not hinge on where it comes from. For example, it is fallacious to argue that the equation E=mc2 is false because one learned it from bathroom graffiti. The equation is still true regardless of how one learned it. Likewise, apologists often accuse atheists of committing the genetic fallacy when they explain religious beliefs in evolutionary terms.
Undercutting the Warrant for a Belief
But is the atheist really guilty of committing this fallacy? Not necessarily. The apologist is correct to point out that an evolutionary explanation of religious beliefs does not entail their falsity. But very few atheists disagree with that! Rather, they claim that religious beliefs are no longer justified or warranted for certain people when they become aware of how these beliefs were formed. To understand how the origin of a belief can affect its warrant, consider the following example:
Suppose you believe that a pink elephant is standing in front of you. You haven’t seen a pink elephant before, but the shape, color and scent of the elephant seem just as real to you as any other object nearby. Now suppose that you become aware of how your belief in the pink elephant was formed. You discover that someone has put LSD into your beverage and that hallucinations of discoloured animals are not uncommon for people under the influence of this drug!
Should you still believe in the pink elephant upon discovering that you’ve taken LSD? It seems not. You might check and see by petting the pink elephant or asking someone else to verify if it is there; but in the absence of such corroboration, you should give up your belief. Does this mean that a pink elephant is not there? Not necessarily. Perhaps you have stumbled upon the world’s very first pink elephant! But even if you have, your belief lacks warrant because there is good reason to think you are hallucinating.
How does the pink elephant example relate to the genetic fallacy? The example shows that the circumstances of a belief’s origin sometimes undermine one’s basis for holding it, especially if it was produced by an unreliable (or malfunctioning) process. These circumstances do not make the belief false; but they can weaken one’s basis for believing it.
Similarly, if an apologist has good evidence that his supernatural beliefs are the by-product of evolutionary forces that did not have truth in mind, then in the absence of further corroboration of those beliefs, he should give them up. It will do him no good to reject this evidence on the grounds that it commits “the genetic fallacy.”
Strengthening the Explanatory Power of a Belief
But there’s more to the atheist’s strategy than undermining a person’s warrant for holding supernatural beliefs; he is also strengthening the explanatory power of his position. To see why, let’s first consider how an apologist might use a similar strategy to bolster his belief in God, and then see how it mirrors what the atheist is doing.
Suppose that the apologist has made a sound case for theism. He has shown that God’s existence is likely and that atheism rests on faulty assumptions. In this situation the apologist’s viewpoint faces a new challenge: if God exists, and there is good evidence, then why do some people lack belief? How and why does atheism originate, if not for rational reasons?
At this point, the apologist strengthens his view by proposing answers to these questions: perhaps some people resist God because of moral or psychological hang-ups and then reinterpret the evidence to suit themselves; maybe some people reject God because a strict atheistic upbringing has shaped them; or perhaps God temporarily conceals himself from certain people because they will respond more favourably to him at a future time. Whatever the answers might be, if they are plausible, then the apologist has increased the explanatory power of his position. How has he done this? By showing that unbelief is unsurprising on his view – that’s how.
A similar line of reasoning is open to atheists. To see why, suppose that the atheist has made a sound case against the existence of God. He has shown that God’s existence is improbable and that the rationale for theism is weak. Like the apologist, the atheist is now faced with a pressing question: why do so many people still cling to God in the face of strong counter-evidence? How and why does theistic belief originate, if not for rational reasons?
At this juncture, the atheist strengthens his view by proposing answers to these questions, vis-à-vis the evolutionary and psychological data he has. If his answers are plausible, then his position enjoys more explanatory power. Why? Because he has shown that supernatural beliefs are likely to arise even if God’s existence highly improbable – that’s how.
The Moral of the Story
So what’s the moral of the story here? It’s this: even though the truth or falsity of a belief does not hinge on its origin, a person’s warrant for holding it can be undercut by these considerations. Secondly, the explanatory power of atheism is strengthened if the atheist is able to account for why supernatural beliefs originate in the absence of good grounds for them.
So here is my caution to apologists – including myself: please be discerning when you accuse someone of committing the genetic fallacy. There are many factors (other than truth) that make the origin of a belief relevant to the opposing viewpoints in a debate.