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Phoenix, AZ, United States

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Christian Delusion

This post finds me at my local corporate bookstore. I happened across a book titled, The Christian Delusion edited by John Loftus (author of Why I Became An Atheist). The book is a compilation of essays by various scholars (of various fields) about the implausibility of Christian belief. I have worked through the introduction and the first two essays in a semi-comfy green striped chair. I will have to return to my studies shortly, but the book has provided a good intermission. I also thought I might post a short blog about the book. What caught my attention about this work is that the so many of its contributors would consider themselves to have been at one time "believers."

The first essay was by an anthropologist and the second by a psychologist. To be honest, the former didn't peak much interest in me. The author essentially argued that some religions become cultures in that doctrines infiltrate every part of a persons life. This in turn is thought to make it more difficult for adherents of such coteries to obtain any amount of objectivity when assessing their beliefs. Instead of viewing religion as a crutch, the writer argued that religion is the very lens through which people interact with reality. I honestly can't understand how this was much of a contribution to academia. Ok, so people tend to be biased. No kidding... Perhaps I was hoping for too much from this guy...

The second essay on the other hand was a bit more intriguing. Its author considers a psychological explanation to the phenomena of "religious experiences" and "born again encounters." To be fair, he doesn't provide much scientific data, but rather recounts anecdotal evidence.

But before he gets into the gist of his argument some time is spent talking about just how irrational people tend to be according to the field of psychology. Again this is merely anecdotal, but it isn't very difficult for me to believe him. More specifically he points out that people will tend to accept beliefs based on feelings or sentiments rather than for good reasons (and often despite). In other words, people tend to express an irrational epistemology. Of course, this is a general statement that applies to all. Further it isn't a claim of necessity (that is people aren't necessarily always going to be irrational).

The next point was more interesting and had to do with "religious experiences." When believers are pressed for justification for their belief in an invisible God they often report having some personal, supernatural encounter. These experiences are phenomenal in that they are "felt" and such subjectivity is thought to be proof enough. The psychologist offers an interesting argument to repudiate such a view which is that these phenomenal experiences can be explained another way. What is more, he argues that a simpler psychological explanation can suffice to account for such experiences. In the philosophical and scientific communities there is such a thing called the principle of Parsimony. It is often overstated and presumptive but the general idea isn't super controversial. In essence, parsimony requires that when provided with two proposed explanations for a phenomena all things considered (that is, provided that the two proposals account for the phenomena equally well) then we ought to go with the simpler of the two. This often means that we shouldn't multiply entities beyond necessity. I have my qualms about parsimony but I think when applied well it is useful. Maybe an illustration of its application may help.

Suppose I hear a knocking sound on my front door which is not possible to see through. Not being able to see the cause of the sound I can hypothesize that a person is on the other side of the door causing the noise or I can posit that a mystical creature like an elf from some clandestine land is the cause. The latter requires me to make a further ontological commitment namely, the existence of some mystical being while the former does not (presumably people do exist). Both could equally explain the noise on my door of course, but one is simpler than the other. It is by this principle that the author of the essay in question concludes that "religious experiences" should not be accepted as proof in the existence of God. I think this is a strong argument against anyone who argues from religious experience alone to the existence of God. Such an argument would go something like this (and should make you cringe):

1) I had a esoteric, out of this world experience of God's presence.
2) Therefore, God must exist.

It is by all accounts a pretty terrible argument but I am sorry to say I hear it a lot among believers.

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