I recently watched Professor Matt McCormick’s Youtube video titled “Bias and Heuristics in Religious Thinking” and read through his PowerPoint slides that were featured in his video on his blog called Atheism:Proving The Negative. In the video Matt discusses come psychological findings that point to errors in human thinking that he believes particularly pertain to people of faith. I did find the presentation interesting and believe that there are findings that are instructive to people in general. I was pleased that Matt was generous enough to say that these findings do pertain to everyone, but I was disappointed that he applied these findings particularly to religious people and committed one of the most common atheist fallacies, the genetic fallacy.
Matt commits the genetic fallacy
Matt discusses how the hyperactive agency detection device (HADD), a mechanism that he claims was evolved to help man agents such as predators, and how our HADD causes us to see agents where they aren’t. He believes that HADD causes us to perceive gods who aren’t there. The problem with this assertion is that it commits the genetic fallacy because assuming that we have this evolved device it could actually be pointing us to God, in fact if God exists then it is quite probable that he gave us (either through evolution or some other means) this device in order to detect him. In any case the existence of HADD does not mean that God doesn’t exist or that the origin of the belief that he exists is incorrect.
There is no prayer fallacy
Later on in the presentation Matt discusses prayer, and calls theist’s claims that God answers prayers with yes, no or maybe later a fallacy. The problem with this is that it presupposes that God is an omnipotent genie that must grant all prayers no matter how ridiculous or harmful they are. Bob could pray to be Supreme Dictator of the Universe so that he can torture and execute anyone who doesn’t bow down to him and the genie god would have to grant his prayer. What if Fred prays the same thing? This is a logically impossible situation, not to mention the fact that one of these prayers being granted would be a downright scary situation. The fact that all prayers aren’t granted does not prove that God doesn’t exist, or that prayer doesn’t work. God is not obligated to answer any prayers. God is a free agent who can decide which prayers should be granted and which shouldn’t, and he has the freedom to grant them when he sees fit. As an omnipotent, timeless being he has a better perspective then we do about which prayers should be granted and which shouldn't.
Are skeptics really open minded?
Next Matt talks about defense layers for Jesus vs. actively open minded thinking. The funny thing about this his belief that atheists/skeptics generally exhibit actively open minded thinking while religious believers are close minded, dogmatic defense lawyers for Jesus is that skeptics, who are generally naturalists, are closed to the possibility of God and miracles. How can a proponent of naturalism claim that they can make an objective open minded investigation into religious claims when they start with the presupposition that God doesn’t exist and miracles are impossible? The answer is they can’t. That is why proponents of skepticism/naturalism will always favor naturalistic explanations, even if those naturalistic explanations are farfetched, because supernatural explanations are seen to be impossible. In fact it is kind of ridiculous to equate skepticism with open mindedness because the whole idea of skepticism is that it is a way to avoid possible mistaken beliefs by filtering out beliefs by demanding near if not absolute proof for that belief. So, the project of skepticism is the opposite of being open.
The difference between possible and probable
Next Matt says that believers argue that God possibly exists. Perhaps some believers do argue this but I think most sophisticated believers say that God’s existence is highly probable. There is a huge difference between possible and highly probable because just about anything is possible, but far fewer things are highly probable. When I say that God is highly probable it is because I’ve looked at the world and concluded that God is the cause of the finely tuned universe and is the ontological foundation of objective morals. I have reasons for believing that God exists. However, I realize that it is not possible to absolutely prove God’s existence because we don’t have enough information to do that.
The weak analogy of the elf in the basement
Then Matt moves on to a weak analogy between an elf in a basement and God and his work in the world. The reason this is a weak analogy is because there is a huge difference between God and elves, unicorns, dragons and celestial teapots. One reason is that God is immaterial and resides in heaven while the elf is material and is said to be living in a basement. This means that even if the elf is invisible (how is a material object invisible anyway?) and really quiet there is a way to prove that he is there or not. You could use thermal cameras or radar to detect the elf, or you could use extremely sensitive microphones to detect the elf’s breathing or heartbeat. However, since God is an immaterial entity can’t be detected with current technology because we have no way to detect something that is immaterial.
Another difference between the elf and God is that there is no good reason to assume that an elf would be in your basement. Although it is possible that an invisible elf is in your basement there is no good reason to think that there is one there. However, when it comes to God, he is said to be the ontological cause for the universe and the foundation of objective moral values. As an uncaused cause God plays a crucial role in answering the question why is there something rather than nothing.
A final key difference between elves and God is that elves are contingent entities while God is a necessary being. Elves are contingent because they are material biological entities that need things like matter, land, food, water and oxygen to exist. We could conceive of possible worlds such as worlds without matter where elves could not possibly exist. However, that is not the case with God, a necessary being, because God does not require anything to exist. God can exist in all possible worlds.
Not all believers go nuclearMatt says that believers go nuclear which is just a dramatic way of saying the argument from ignorance i.e. you can’t prove that God exists therefore God exists. Some believers may commit argument from ignorance fallacy, but all believers certainly don’t. Many believers say that God’s existence is probable because there are good arguments for his existence. What Matt doesn’t mention is that skeptics can commit the argument from ignorance fallacy when they say that there is no evidence that God exists therefore God doesn’t exist.
ConclusionThese are some interesting psychological findings, but when atheists try to apply them to faith and believers and say that faith in God is all in believer’s heads they commit the genetic fallacy. Just because people seem to be highly sensitive agency detectors doesn’t mean that they are imagining that God exists. In fact, HADD might be pointing us straight to God.