Richard Dawkins on the Demographics of Theism

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 21, 2010 in General Atheism

Here, Richard Dawkins plays a variation on philosopher Stephen Maitzen’s arguments concerning the demographics of theism:

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{ 40 comments… read them below or add one }

cartesian May 21, 2010 at 7:08 am

Was there an argument in there? Or was this just a stand-up routine? There were some funny moments, but I don’t really see any argument in there.

I guess he was trying to point out that religious beliefs are unevenly distributed geographically, whereas scientific beliefs aren’t. And perhaps the suggestion was that this calls those religious beliefs into question. But on the contrary, aren’t scientific beliefs, like religious beliefs, unevenly distributed geographically? Had you been born elsewhere, you likely would hold different scientific beliefs. I’d bet that people who live in urban areas have different scientific beliefs (on at least some questions) than those in rural areas. And the Chinese probably differ from Africans, and Amazonians probably differ from Western Europeans. “Oh, well there’s a whole bunch of scientific beliefs that are shared across geographic regions.” Well, likewise with religious beliefs. So what’s the problem?

It looked like Dawkins was making this very bad inference: mere uneven geographic distribution of a kind of belief is sufficient to call that kind of belief into question. But that’s pretty clearly false! Here’s a counterexample: People’s beliefs about where they were born are unevenly distributed geographically. Africans tend to believe they were born in Africa. Chinese people tend to believe they were born in China, and so on. I believe I was born in California. But had I been born elsewhere, I wouldn’t have believed that. Should I therefore be skeptical of my belief that I was born in California? Hardly. So it looks like Dawkins made a very bad inference here.

And the move from uneven distribution to skepticism would have bad results for scientific beliefs, since scientific beliefs are unevenly distributed temporally. Had you been born at a different time, you likely would have held different scientific beliefs. If this uneven distribution is meant to raise skeptical worries, well then even our scientific beliefs won’t escape the skepticism. Hardly any beliefs do. So either we admit that Dawkins is wrong here, or we embrace skepticism about science. I vote for saying that Dawkins was wrong.

And, of course, the elsewhere, elsewhen consideration applies to atheism as well. Atheism isn’t evenly distributed geographically or temporally. Had Dawkins been born in Pakistan, he likely would have been Muslim. Had he been born in medieval France, he would have been Catholic. Does that raise some serious concern for his present atheism? I don’t think so. But then why think that the uneven geographic distribution of, say, Catholicism raises concerns for Catholics? It doesn’t. So I just can’t see what Dawkins was up to here.

And it’s a bit disappointing that it’s so difficult to extract an argument from the talk of someone who is held up by so many as a paragon of rationality. Personally, I think the guy should just stick to biology.

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Louis May 21, 2010 at 7:25 am

cartesian,

Can you provide one example of a scientific theory that varies amongst scientists on a geographic basis that would be of similar scope to varying religious truth claims?

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Justfinethanks May 21, 2010 at 7:51 am

Was there an argument in there? Or was this just a stand-up routine?

Both. He was comically illustrating the difficulty posed by the argument from inconsistent revelation

But on the contrary, aren’t scientific beliefs, like religious beliefs, unevenly distributed geographically?

Amongst scientists, no. And that’s what Dawkins specified in his parody:

“In the blue area, the scientists all believe it was a metorite…”

: People’s beliefs about where they were born are unevenly distributed geographically. Africans tend to believe they were born in Africa. Chinese people tend to believe they were born in China, and so on.

Clearly you should understand why this is a poor analogy. “I was born in Africa” and “I was born in China” are not mutually exclusive beliefs, so long as different people are speaking. Whereas “Allah is God” and “Jesus is God” ARE mutually exclusive beliefs, no matter who is speaking. Unless you are arguing for religious pluralism, this doesn’t touch on Dawkins’ point.

And the move from uneven distribution to skepticism would have bad results for scientific beliefs, since scientific beliefs are unevenly distributed temporally.

I would submit that while the geographic distribution of religion is a mark against it, the temporal changes in scientific beliefs are actually a virtue. Because it demonstrates, unlike religion, that it is an enterprise willing to quickly scrap a belief once it is found to be unsupported. This is a far cry from religion, where people pride themselves to adhering to millennia old creeds unchanged.

So a wrong scientific belief is still more right than any given religious belief. To quote Asimov:

“When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

And it’s a bit disappointing that it’s so difficult to extract an argument from the talk of someone who is held up by so many as a paragon of rationality.

I think few people, especially those who frequent this site, hold Dawkins up as a “paragon of rationality.” Most atheists I know fully recognize him as a popularizer. Even so, he is a talented rhetorician, and he can present the absurdities that one must accept in order to maintain religious belief with a lot of fun a flair.

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Burk May 21, 2010 at 7:56 am

Hi, Cartesian-

Your analogy doesn’t work. The belief you cite is quite well based in evidence and naturally geographical. Religion is not naturally geographical at all. The point of Dawkins’s presentation was not demographic, but sociological- that the existence of strongly segregated lineages of mutually contradictory beliefs indicates that they not only do not talk productively with each other to resolve differences in a logical manner, but that they do not talk productively with that body of facts that is usually called upon to adjudicate matters of belief- i.e. evidence.

The second part of the spiel reinforced this point by juxtaposing those who usually *do* interact with evidence and provide logically compelling foundations for their beliefs (i.e. scientists) with those who quite clearly do not.. religious believers.

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Martin May 21, 2010 at 8:01 am

I agree that Dawkins should just stick to biology. He’s fighting the good fight against creationism, but he derails when he moves outside this area.

First of all, doubting the truth or falseness of a proposition based on where that proposition is located geographically is, of course, the genetic fallacy.

Secondly, Dawkins uses an ironic example here, as the K-T extinction event does indeed have many different proposed causes. If you did a survey among paleontologists I bet there might even be a geographical distribution of support for these different theories, just as Dawkins snidely snickers at with his chart.

In the mid 20th Century, you would have found belief in evolution predominant in the West, and belief in Lysenkoism predominant in the Soviet sphere.

Congruently, it may very well be that Christianity is reality, and the rest of the world just hasn’t come around to it.

Or not.

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ayer May 21, 2010 at 8:13 am

“Unless you are arguing for religious pluralism, this doesn’t touch on Dawkins’ point.”

Religious pluralism is not necessary; Craig’s molinist argument takes care of the problem quite nicely:

http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/middle2.html

Of course, Dawkins appears completely unfamiliar with it, which is not surprising.

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lukeprog May 21, 2010 at 8:40 am

cartesian,

Some people would say you’re taking Dawkins’ little speech way too seriously. He’s obviously not presenting a rigorous argument here. But I think your reply offers great value. Thanks.

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Adito May 21, 2010 at 8:46 am

“For God in His providence has so arranged the world that anyone who would receive Christ has the opportunity to do so. Since God loves all persons and desires the salvation of all, He supplies sufficient grace for salvation to every individual, and nobody who would receive Christ if he were to hear the gospel will be denied that opportunity.” – Craig (http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/middle2.html)

I’ve heard this kind of reasoning before and it really doesn’t sound plausible at all. To claim this is logical we must first say that a rejection of every other system of belief is rational for a human to do. Why is this the case? Why should I reject hinduism if every member of my family has practiced it for the past 200 years? Craigs argument rejects everything we know about human psychology and how beliefs develop. Perhaps if christianity seemed to effect people in a completely different way then other religions we might be able to say that some sort of special revelation is occurring but this does not appear to be the case. It fits with the phenomenon of every other religion that has ever existed.

This basically serves as an excuse for those who already have faith and does absolutely nothing to show christianities validity over another religion.

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Mark May 21, 2010 at 8:51 am

The argument is supposed to show that most people’s religious belief-forming faculties are insensitive to the truth, instead primarily tracking whatever they were taught as children. It’s an abductive inference. You can point out instances of geographical scientific diversity, but these are perhaps amenable to explanation by means of more than just childhood indoctrination.

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Lorkas May 21, 2010 at 9:00 am

It looked like Dawkins was making this very bad inference: mere uneven geographic distribution of a kind of belief is sufficient to call that kind of belief into question.

It seems to me that he’s not calling the truth of the belief into question, but rather the reasons for belief. A belief can be true, but still be held for irrational reasons. It might very well be true that fairies exist and are somehow integral to the stability of Earth’s orbit, but it’s still irrational to believe that statement, since there’s no evidence for it.

In the same way, it may be the case that God exists, but it’s irrational to believe in him anyway because he created a universe in which all evidence points against his existence.

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cartesian May 21, 2010 at 10:17 am

Maybe I was just taking this video too seriously. If we can all agree that there’s no good argument in there, I’ll shush right up and just enjoy Dawkins’ stand-up routine. (“Your momma’s so fatwa that, her burqa could cover up the entire holocaust.” Duh-dum.)

But some of you seem to think there IS a good argument in there. Well, just what exactly is this good argument? (It would be nice if you would clearly represent it as a series of numbered premises meant to support a conclusion.)

Justfinethanks seems to think Dawkins meant to give the “argument from inconsistent revelation.” Justfinethanks then directed me to Wikipedia, which gives this statement of the argument:

“It asserts that it is unlikely that God exists because many theologians and faithful adherents have produced conflicting and mutually exclusive revelations. Since a person not privy to revelation must either accept it or reject it based solely upon the authority of its proponent, and there is no way for a mere mortal to resolve these conflicting claims by investigation, it is prudent to reserve one’s judgment.”

Before I spend time evaluating this argument, would anyone like to go on the record as endorsing this argument? If nobody thinks it’s any good, I will, as promised shush up. (I don’t think it’s any good.)

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lukeprog May 21, 2010 at 10:23 am

cartesian,

I, for one, have not spent enough time with arguments from inconsistent revelations, so I don’t know if they are any good.

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Mark May 21, 2010 at 10:28 am

1. Religious beliefs are strongly correlated with geography.
2. The best explanation of 1. is that most people’s religious beliefs are primarily determined by sociological factors.
3. Therefore, most people’s religious beliefs are primarily determined by sociological factors.
4. The sociological factors in question are largely insensitive to the truth.
5. Therefore, most people subject to these sociological factors have unreliable religious belief-forming mechanisms.
6. Therefore, most people’s religious beliefs should not be taken seriously.

That’s how I’d develop the argument.

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Justfinethanks May 21, 2010 at 10:47 am

Maybe I was just taking this video too seriously.

That’s an accurate assessment.

Before I spend time evaluating this argument, would anyone like to go on the record as endorsing this argument?

It depends on what you mean. Do I think that the diversity of religions is necessarily incompatible with any creedal specific theism (like Christianity)? No. I’m sure it’s possible to come up with a situation in which Christianity is true but most people believe in a diversity of other religions. And as someone else pointed out earlier, concluding that a person’s belief is false because of WHY they believe it is fallacious.

However, I think it’s fairly reasonable to make the weaker conclusion that the observation of inconsistent revelation fits comfortably with atheism, that is, there is no God who provides revelation to Humans, and thus people would naturally come to wildly different conclusions about the nature of this nonexistent being. At the same time, it fits uncomfortably with theism, and must be sort of “explained away” in an ad hoc manner. In the case of Christianity, you must assume that God has provided a perfectly consistent revelation, but the sinfulness of humans has caused people to either reject or misunderstand it (I assume).

But I am perfectly open to being shown why inconsistent revelation is equally probable on either worldview.

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anon May 21, 2010 at 11:36 am

@Ayer:

Maitzen offers an effective critique of Craig-style molinist replies in a couple of articles. It therefore seems to me that it’s you who are uninformed.

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John D May 21, 2010 at 11:43 am

Cartesian,

Luke suggests Dawkins is echoing Stephen (or Steven) Maitzen’s expansion of the argument from divine hiddenness. I think Craig’s Molinism — linked above — is the relevant reply (although obviously I don’t think it works).

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T'sinadree May 21, 2010 at 11:52 am

“Some people would say you’re taking Dawkins’ little speech way too seriously. He’s obviously not presenting a rigorous argument here.”

Luke, this is one of the problems I see with Dawkins fans. If one presents a weak argument against Dawkins, then a Dawkinsian would respond by saying that Dawkins has demolished the argument presented. However, when one presents a much stronger counter argument, or points to the glaring contradictions in his reasoning, then they just say Dawkins didn’t intent to make a rigorous argument. He’s just trying to “raise consciousness.” Pretty crap if you ask me. I don’t intend to include you in this category. It’s mostly the ones on Dawkins’s website (or Dawkins himself).

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Lorkas May 21, 2010 at 11:59 am

I don’t think he’s making an argument so much as demonstrating how scientific beliefs and religious beliefs are predominately formed in different ways.

Religious beliefs are primarily passed from parent to child without much evaluation, while scientific beliefs typically pass through a guantlet of testing and criticism, with only the best theories surviving and becoming prominent.

This is really only problematic for people who want to claim that their particular religious beliefs are demonstrable in the same way that f=ma is demonstrable. If you’re a religious person who recognizes the differences between religious belief formation and scientific belief formation, there’s no problem here for you.

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Rob May 21, 2010 at 4:07 pm

I grew up in a Baptist church, but don’t really recall if I ever believed what was taught. What I do recall is that age 8 as soon as I learned about Hinduism, it dawned on me that there was something funny going on. Within a few years, I was calling myself an atheist.

I’m wondering if the realization of religious pluralism was a major contributing factor to anybody else’s atheism.

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Rhys Wilkins May 21, 2010 at 4:12 pm

It seemed to me to be a piece of abductive reasoning, i.e. if all religions were just projections of personal culture rather then having divine implications, then this geographical distribution of religious belief would be precisely what we would expect to see .

Of course, it alone would not constitute a good disproof, since one might argue that it constitutes a genetic fallacy, especially if framed in the form of a deductive argument.

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Lorkas May 21, 2010 at 4:40 pm

I’m wondering if the realization of religious pluralism was a major contributing factor to anybody else’s atheism.

Yes

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lukeprog May 21, 2010 at 4:56 pm

I second that. One main idea was: Why should I accept my own tradition’s magical claims as real, while reject the magical claims of all other religions as superstition?

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Ex Hypothesis May 21, 2010 at 4:57 pm

“Of course, it alone would not constitute a good disproof, since one might argue that it constitutes a genetic fallacy, especially if framed in the form of a deductive argument.”

if you’re talking about abductive reasoning, then drop the language of “proof”.

The genetic fallacy is not a formal one.

If you were to structure your argument deductively, it would formally invalid, since it affirms the consequent.

::Rhys Wilkins dusts off his logic text::

Dawkins should make fun of Kuhn instead of making fun of those po’ ignant folk. But of course, making fun of Kuhn is not something a sophomore philosophy student is capable of doing.

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Rob May 21, 2010 at 6:24 pm

So, while religious pluralism may not be a strong argument for atheism, it is a damn good reason to be skeptical of and to investigate the religion you happened to inherit due to the arbitrary circumstances of your birth.

And once a person starts down that road, atheism usually (but not always) follows. I think that was Dawkins point, as all religions claim conflicting revelations.

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al friedlander May 21, 2010 at 8:49 pm

“And once a person starts down that road”

For me, it was more like ‘opening the floodgates’. Once I started facing the things that I’ve always refused to accept, my entire mental structures were, in a way, rebuilt from top to bottom.
~~~

“This basically serves as an excuse for those who already have faith and does absolutely nothing to show christianities validity over another religion.”
~~~

For me, Craig is, and has always been, probably the most daunting opponent towards my personal beliefs. He’s an expert with words, and like a talented brawler, almost always avoids getting cornered. When allowed, he then unleashes a fury of counterattacks.

In other words, he’s -good- at what he does, and I found him rather intimidating (which is how I ended up linking to Luke’s site actually)

The quote taken from his website below, however, almost serves to ‘tame’ his undefeated image. In my opinion, religion has always had the harder-time in the debate because it carried the burden of proof. If you poke a hole in science, you could say ‘they’re working on it’. But poke a hole in religion, and the whole things starts to get fishy real fast. If you’re going to devote your entire life to a belief-system, you’d definitely want to make sure it’s legitimate. And if it’s from GOD HIMSELF, it’d better be pretty airtight because, well, it’s FROM GOD.

The reason why I bring this up is because I’ve found it to be incredibly easy to ‘poke holes’ in my native faith, Christianity (and of course, this bothered me as a young baptist). Which brings me to my next point: Craig. Craig is an excellent debater, but his ‘weakness’, I suppose, is that he’s defending something that’s inherently hard to defend. Eventually, underneath all the hardcore-philosophy and rhetoric/skill, you’re going to have statements like this:

“For God in His providence has so arranged the world that anyone who would receive Christ has the opportunity to do so. Since God loves all persons and desires the salvation of all, He supplies sufficient grace for salvation to every individual, and nobody who would receive Christ if he were to hear the gospel will be denied that opportunity.” – Craig”

After reading this bit, I felt an inherent ‘aha’ arise. Now -these- were the arguments that I was used to. All you need to do is poke a hole in -one- area. One area…and the whole thing goes flat.

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Atheist.pig May 22, 2010 at 12:53 am

I grew up in a Baptist church, but don’t really recall if I ever believed what was taught. What I do recall is that age 8 as soon as I learned about Hinduism, it dawned on me that there was something funny going on. Within a few years, I was calling myself an atheist.

For me it was even before I knew about other religions, I’ve always felt I was born an atheist and skeptic, ie “I just can’t believe this stuff”. I think there is some decent evidence coming out that a certain percentage of people are genetically or at least physiologically more susceptible to “religious” or highly “irrational beliefs” about the world. But the people who are not so susceptible are a much smaller minority than those who are, we’re the mutants, genetically speaking.

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Rhys Wilkins May 22, 2010 at 2:33 am

Ex Hypothesis,

Yeah sorry I got a bit lazy with my terminology there, disproof should be swapped for “evidence against”.

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Hermes May 22, 2010 at 8:51 am

The argument Dawkins makes is simple; Don’t expect not to be mocked if you make statements that are worthy of being mocked. That, and, well — the obvious little bonus concerning the sciences that religious proclamations do not share.

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Rob May 22, 2010 at 11:40 am

@Atheist.pig

I think that’s right. As I said, I do not recall EVER believing in God or miracles, but nor do I remember dis-believing either, prior to age 8. I do remember feeling very uncomfortable in Sunday school though, and then with the Hinduism exposure a light bulb came on. Prior to a certain age, I just don’t think critical thinking is possible. But for some of us, as soon as that age arrived, we realized we were skeptics or atheists or whatever.

Which does make me more sympathetic to those who fall for the woo. They are just hard-wired for it. So how do we know whose hard-wiring provides a more accurate model of reality? Hell if I know.

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Justfinethanks May 22, 2010 at 12:58 pm

I did believe in God, but in the same manner I believed in the existence of the planet Venus. I never saw Venus, I never really felt the presence of Venus, but I simply assumed it was true because everyone I knew believed in the existence of Venus. And it was the sort of the same with God.

But in High School I slowly started realizing that even though everyone I knew just sort of assumed that “Venus exists” and “God exists,” they were VERY different propositions.

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cartesian May 22, 2010 at 4:01 pm

Hooray for Mark, who actually made an attempt to salvage a plausible argument from Dawkins’ talk:

1. Religious beliefs are strongly correlated with geography.
2. The best explanation of 1. is that most people’s religious beliefs are primarily determined by sociological factors.
3. Therefore, most people’s religious beliefs are primarily determined by sociological factors.
4. The sociological factors in question are largely insensitive to the truth.
5. Therefore, most people subject to these sociological factors have unreliable religious belief-forming mechanisms.
6. Therefore, most people’s religious beliefs should not be taken seriously.

What to say about this argument? Well, first of all, it seems to me that the typical religious person already believes this conclusion! Take an orthodox Catholic, for example. Surely he thinks that, since the majority of his fellow humans now and in the past have formed mostly false religious beliefs, their mechanisms for forming religious beliefs are or were, on the whole, unreliable. In that sense, they shouldn’t be taken seriously. (The Catholic even has an explanation of why this is so, what with the noetic consequences of the Fall and all.) Such a Catholic will welcome (6), wouldn’t she? But surely Dawkins didn’t mean to give an argument for a conclusion that typical religious people would welcome. So I’m not sure you’ve captured his argument here.

Or maybe I’m just misunderstanding the conclusion. Maybe I’m meant to read the conclusion as something more like this: probably, your religious beliefs are false. That’s certainly more troubling! But notice that such an argument would put BOTH the theist AND the atheist in hot water! Atheism, like other beliefs on religious matters, is strongly correlated with geography. If (2) is plausible in the case of theism, why not in the case of atheism? (Because atheists have some inside information? Get real. Even Job knew about the problem of evil and divine hiddenness.) And the same goes with (4): if you like it with respect to theism, why not with respect to atheism? But then, if this argument’s inferences are any good, we’re led to the conclusion that, for any given atheist, her beliefs about religion are probably false. So we’re all screwed by this argument. But surely Dawkins didn’t mean to give an argument that screwed atheists and theists alike, right? So I don’t think we’ve managed to properly understand Dawkins here.

Maybe I’m meant to read this argument as for some reason only applying to theists [bracket my concern that there is no such good reason]. If so, I’m skeptical about premise (4), though I suppose a lot turns on what you mean by “determined by sociological factors.” Maybe some other examples would help.

Think about the world around the time of Copernicus’ death. Rumors of his heliocentric theory were just spreading, and had already convinced many people. However, those followers of Copernicus were located in only a few of the great cities of Europe. Elsewhere in Europe, nearly everyone believed in the Ptolemaic model of the universe. Outside of Europe, people believed other false stuff. So imagine you’re alive at that time, you’re properly convinced by Copernicus, and yet you notice this phenomenon of geographic variation in astronomical beliefs.

Does your argument still work? Should you be convinced that your new Copernican beliefs are probably false? I sure hope not. That would be a bad result for your argument (aka a counterexample). But then which premise is false in the Copernican case? I suspect that the theist should say the same premise fails in her case.

I bet you’ll say it’s premise (4) that is false in the Copernican case. Sure, your belief was determined by sociological factors in some sense (you heard about Copernicus’ work via testimony, and had you lived outside of a major city, you wouldn’t have heard of it), but these sociological factors were sensitive to the truth, since the origin of the testimony was Copernicus, and he was in touch with the truth.

Well, why shouldn’t the typical Catholic, for example, say the same thing? Sure her Catholicism is in large part determined by sociological factors (i.e. testimony, and had she lived elsewhere she may not have gained this testimony), but — she’ll insist — these sociological factors are sensitive to the truth, since the origin of the testimony was a group of people in touch with the truth (Jesus and his apostles, for example). You might think that’s false, but THAT’S where the heavy lifting in this argument is being done. You’ll need to do a lot of work to support premise (4) before this argument makes the typical theist sweat.

Or consider another example: moral beliefs about slavery in pre-Civil War America. People who thought slavery was wrong tended to live in the North. People who thought it was OK tended to live in the South. You live in the North, you’ve thought about slavery long and hard, and it just seems obviously wrong to you. But then you reflect on something like the argument you gave here. Should such an argument convince you that you’re probably wrong about slavery being wrong? I sure hope not. I’d count that as a counterexample to some crucial inference in your argument. But if your argument doesn’t go through in the case of pre-Civil War America, why not? I suspect it’s premise (4) again. But, again, the religious believer will understandably insist that premise (4) goes wrong in her case as well.

How would you convince a religious believer that premise (4) is true in her case?

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Mark May 22, 2010 at 4:49 pm

Cartesian, I think you’re assuming that the argument is supposed to be acceptable and informative for everyone. Probably this is because you’re a sophisticated theist who’s used to arguing with atheists. But given the scope of Dawkins’ audience, that assumption needn’t hold true here. There are plenty of on-the-fence, unreflective agnostics out there who figure that religious beliefs could still be reasonable even if they’re false. At any rate, they might figure that religions with lots of adherents have something going for them epistemically. My interpretation of Dawkins’ argument would challenge those claims.

That said, I think an argument like the one I formulated could be justly used to lower a Christian’s credence in his own belief, even if it doesn’t constitute an outright defeater to it. Christians (and atheists!) really should worry about the role of illicit psychological factors in determining their beliefs.

When it comes to scientific geographical diversity, presumably we can usually appeal to more than, e.g., childhood indoctrination to explain it. We can generally appeal to known truth-sensitive factors. In that case, the argument wouldn’t hold. Note that a phenomenon like Lysenkoism in Russia is better explained by sociological factors, namely, “Darwinists” being purged by the Soviet state. And sure, a Christian may not buy that his Christianity isn’t due to any truth-sensitive factors. But again, Christians needn’t be the intended audience of the argument.

Regarding moral disagreement: well, I’m not a moral realist or even a moral cognitivist. Brian Leiter recently wrote an essay developing precisely this thought (in the context of Nietzsche’s philosophy), that moral disagreement is best explained by the absence of objective moral fact. I’m inclined to agree, as perhaps would many others.

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Rups900 May 23, 2010 at 12:33 am

Cartesian,

“Maybe I’m meant to read this argument as for some reason only applying to theists [bracket my concern that there is no such good reason].”

I think the underlying ‘Dawkinsian’ premise would be something along the following:

DP: The various geographically distinct religious beliefs are held by the majority of the population in those areas/countries, i.e. religious belief is the default position.

And thus whilst religious belief is generally ‘just passed down’, to hold atheistic beliefs, one would actually have to think and consciously reject those beliefs handed down, i.e premise 3 would not apply to an atheist.

I’m probably wrong but at least it seems to me that this is what defenders of this type of argument would generally have in mind. Whether it’s a good reason or not…well that’s another question.

Cheers.

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Rob May 23, 2010 at 7:33 am

Cartesian,

I frequently hear Christians make the claim that everybody knows God exists, and the non-theist is willfully rejecting God due to sin or whatever. But if that is true, what accounts for the demographics of theism? As Stephen Maitzen points out, what is it about Cambodians that makes them reject the obvious evidence for God, and makes Afghans accept the alleged evidence?

So, Dawkins may not have a strong argument for atheism here, but he does point out a fact that makes certain claims of Christians untenable.

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Atheist.pig May 23, 2010 at 9:29 am

Which does make me more sympathetic to those who fall for the woo. They are just hard-wired for it.

Thats also why I’m sympathetic to psychopaths and sociopaths, their just hard-wired for it, but we still need to hold them responsible for their actions and the consequences they have. (note I’m not comparing religious people with psychopaths but just making a point)

But we can try to make the woo as harmless and benign as possible since they may be hard-wired for woo, but not a specific type or doctrine of woo.

So how do we know whose hard-wiring provides a more accurate model of reality?

We use the scientific method. Or become radical sceptics.

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al friedlander May 23, 2010 at 11:15 am

“Thats also why I’m sympathetic to psychopaths and sociopaths, their just hard-wired for it, but we still need to hold them responsible for their actions and the consequences they have.”

I’ve thought hard about this issue as well. I too, am also sympathetic to psychopaths and/or sociopaths because of their genetic/environmental hard-wiring. The conclusion that I came to, however, was similar to yours. We -must- hold them responsible for their actions, whether it is their fault or not. It’s the only reasonable way to keep society going, even if it isn’t completely ‘fair’. Basically, given the way that the universe is designed, we have little other choice.

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cartesian May 23, 2010 at 1:52 pm

Cartesian,

Hi Mark, thanks for the reply.

I think you’re assuming that the argument is supposed to be acceptable and informative for everyone.

Yikes, that would be an extremely high standard! I didn’t mean to suggest that an argument has to meet that standard to count as successful, though I can understand how you might have read my reply in that way.

I meant to point out different shortcomings in your argument: Your argument is presumably meant as an objection to religious belief. It’s meant to make religious believers uncomfortable, right? Well, my first point was that, on one natural reading of the conclusion, religious believers already happily accept that conclusion. So of course the argument on that reading won’t make religious believers uncomfortable.

My second point was that, on a reading of the conclusion that religious believers would be less likely to accept, the argument also applies to atheists. After all, atheism is unevenly distributed geographically, and this is determined largely by sociological factors. So we’re all in hot water, on this understanding of the argument.

My third point was that religious believers won’t have the slightest inclination to accept premise (4) as it applies to them. They’ll think that the sociological factors which determined their belief *were* sensitive to the truth, just as the guy who hears about Copernicus’ heliocentric theory wouldn’t think premise (4) applied to him. Only the atheist will be inclined to think (4) is true in the case of theism. But if the argument will only convince those who already accept its conclusion, it can hardly be counted as a successful argument. By itself, this argument puts no pressure at all on the theist. What’s needed is a substantial defense of premise (4).

It’s like this argument:

(1) You shouldn’t believe bullshit.
(2) Theism is a load of bullshit.
(3) Therefore, you shouldn’t believe theism.

Will the theist lose any sleep over this argument? I doubt it. She’s been given no reason to think that (2) is true.

Similarly, if we argue in roughly this way:
(1*) Theism is unevenly distributed geographically.
(2*) That’s because the methods used to arrive at theism aren’t sensitive to the truth.
(3*) Therefore, we shouldn’t take theism seriously.

I don’t think the theist will worry about this argument anymore than she’d worry about the bullshit (1)-(3) argument above. And that’s because she’s been given no reason to think that (2*) is true.

There are plenty of on-the-fence, unreflective agnostics out there who figure that religious beliefs could still be reasonable even if they’re false. At any rate, they might figure that religions with lots of adherents have something going for them epistemically. My interpretation of Dawkins’ argument would challenge those claims.

I don’t really see how. Should an agnostic be moved by an argument like (1)-(3)? Surely not. Well then why should an agnostic be moved by something like (1*)-(3*)? A sensible agnostic will ask you to support that crucial premise (4), just as I’ve done.

That said, I think an argument like the one I formulated could be justly used to lower a Christian’s credence in his own belief, even if it doesn’t constitute an outright defeater to it. Christians (and atheists!) really should worry about the role of illicit psychological factors in determining their beliefs.

Well, I’m glad you added “and atheists.” Maybe Dawkins’ only point was that, “hey, you might hold the religious beliefs you do not for good reasons but just because you were told so, and maybe that testimony was unreliable.” That’s a fine point, I guess. But notice, as you did, that it applies to *all* of us. Yet I take it that Dawkins didn’t mean to put pressure equally on all of us, atheist and theist alike. I take it he meant to put pressure on specifically theists. And it’s there that I think he failed.

When it comes to scientific geographical diversity, presumably we can usually appeal to more than, e.g., childhood indoctrination to explain it. We can generally appeal to known truth-sensitive factors. In that case, the argument wouldn’t hold.

Alright, well of course the typical Christian says the same thing, given the history of Christian evangelism. The testimony of Jesus and his apostles (supremely truth-sensitive testimony, they’ll add) spread from Jerusalem. It took root in Rome, which explains the prevalence in modern Europe. It was spread by the Brits, which explains the prevalence in Australia, North America, etc. It was spread by the Spanish, which explains South America. It was snuffed out by the Arabs, which explains the present lack of Christianity in Egypt, Turkey and the Middle East, where it was once very popular. How does any of this call the truth-sensitivity of Christian testimony into question? I mean, it likewise took the testimony of Copernicus’ work a long time to spread around the world, and we don’t think that calls into question the reliability of that testimony.

Regarding moral disagreement: well, I’m not a moral realist or even a moral cognitivist.

Sure you are, at least when it comes to the ethics of belief. You pretty clearly think it would be wrong, inappropriate, blameworthy, etc. to believe something on the basis of testimony once you realize the testimony doesn’t track the truth. Right?

I mean, look at this move your argument makes:

5. Therefore, most people subject to these sociological factors have unreliable religious belief-forming mechanisms.
6. Therefore, most people’s religious beliefs should not be taken seriously.

What’s up with that “should” in (6)? Clearly you think there would REALLY be something wrong with accepting (1)-(5) and yet rejecting (6). I think that makes you a realist about ethics, at least when it comes to the ethics of belief. Doesn’t it?

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Mark May 23, 2010 at 2:08 pm

Hi again.

I meant to point out different shortcomings in your argument: Your argument is presumably meant as an objection to religious belief. It’s meant to make religious believers uncomfortable, right?

Not necessarily. As I said after the sentence you quoted: “There are plenty of on-the-fence, unreflective agnostics out there who figure that religious beliefs could still be reasonable even if they’re false.” The argument may be primarily meant for them.

After all, atheism is unevenly distributed geographically, and this is determined largely by sociological factors. So we’re all in hot water, on this understanding of the argument.

It’s true that atheism is geographically uneven, but given the demographics of atheism, perhaps Dawkins could appeal to more epistemically respectable explanations than for theism.

My third point was that religious believers won’t have the slightest inclination to accept premise (4) as it applies to them.

Err, are you quite sure you read my comment carefully? I conceded this: “And sure, a Christian may not buy that his Christianity isn’t due to any truth-sensitive factors. But again, Christians needn’t be the intended audience of the argument.”

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Mark May 23, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Whoops, I submitted that comment before I finished it.

Sure you are, at least when it comes to the ethics of belief. You pretty clearly think it would be wrong, inappropriate, blameworthy, etc. to believe something on the basis of testimony once you realize the testimony doesn’t track the truth. Right?

I don’t think “the ethics of belief” is the right term here. You perhaps mean I’m an objectivist about norms of rationality, or something like that. But frankly, I’m not sure that I am. Hartry Field has been developing an expressivism about rationality that I find appealing.

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cartesian May 24, 2010 at 6:10 am

Hi Mark,

“There are plenty of on-the-fence, unreflective agnostics out there who figure that religious beliefs could still be reasonable even if they’re false.” The argument may be primarily meant for them.

Christians needn’t be the intended audience of the argument.”

So what did you think of this bit I said about agnostics? “Should an agnostic be moved by an argument like (1)-(3)? Surely not. Well then why should an agnostic be moved by something like (1*)-(3*)? A sensible agnostic will ask you to support that crucial premise (4), just as I’ve done.”

I don’t think this argument of yours should change anyone’s mind. Atheists will think it works in the case of theists, since atheists believe (4) is true with respect to theists. And theists of course will believe that the argument works with respect to atheists, since they’ll believe (4) is true with respect to atheists. Agnostics won’t be sure if this argument works with respect to anyone, since they’re unsure about whom (4) is true with respect to. And so, without any substantial defense of (4), this argument isn’t really advancing the discussion. It puts no pressure on anyone. I’ve never seen a satisfactory definition of “question-begging,” but I suspect that this argument of yours is in the neighborhood, just as my fictional (1)-(3) is.

Hartry Field has been developing an expressivism about rationality that I find appealing.

I had heard but never read about his stuff on the a priori. Are you sure he has some general expressivist view about rationality in general, and not just the a priori? (How does it go?)

If so, we may just reach an impasse on that. I think it’s really (and obviously) true that, for example, “You shouldn’t believe p and not-p.” If you think I’m just expressing myself here but not saying anything true or false, I don’t know what to say in response. I guess we’d just have to talk about something else.

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