• Why atheists (and everyone) should not leave psychology out of their disagreements

    This post is in reply to “Why atheists (and everyone) should leave psychoanalysis out of their disagreements ” by Vlad Chituc, posted on Chris Stedman’s Religion News Service blog.

    I would suggest reading it first for proper context. Vlad argues that it is inappropriate to “appeal to psychological motivations” is “pointless at best, condescending and derailing at worst.” I can agree with Vlad that this certainly can be true. For example, the claims that theists are indifferent to evidence because it is uncomfortable, or that their faith stems from the will to dominate others. These may be true in some cases, but I know no evidence suggesting they are causal in religious faith or distinct properties of the religious vs. non.

    However, as a rule, I believe Vlad is not correct, and does not make a compelling case.

    To start with, Vlad does not attend to context. In the opening paragraphs he wrote “in a debate” and “discourse”, but venue and purpose make a big difference here. Am I discussing religious psychology with other secularists? Am I addressing a theist in a debate? In a conversation? In social media? These matter about how appropriate certain remarks are. Vlad seems to pick examples from the least restrictive as evidence that atheists are using them in the most restrictive settings, which is misleading.


    Vlad wrote,

    As interesting a puzzle as religious belief is to an atheist, it’s worth noting that the psychology of religious belief says nothing about whether or not God actually exists. By itself, it’s no more evidence against God than the phylogenetic development of number cognition is evidence against math, or the neuroscience of moral emotions is evidence against morality.

    There are two problems with this. One is that it is wrong outright. Once we understand humans are predisposed to face paradolia, should we change the likelihood estimate that reports of faces on Mars, tree trunks, and the odd grilled cheese are miraculous? I think that we should, even if it fails to be conclusive in and of itself. If scriptures/holy texts can be shown to survive over time purely on the basis of how psychologically compelling it is to a given society, one is forced to conclude that its truth value is not relevant to its continued existence. If that is true, it diminishes the likelihood that the Gods of the sort commonly proffered are real.

    The second problem is that psychology and sociology are usually not cited to make epistemological points, but pragmatic points about the reasons for belief made important by the effects religious belief have. Religion often seems to contribute to the crystallization of social attitudes, including bigotries and other regressive views. Each year children die because their parents refused to seek medical treatment proscribed by their religion. The psychology may also be important in understanding how religious doctrine, organizations and authorities can exploit the vulnerable for their own ends. I find it quite important to understand why retirees send their few dollars to televangelists.

    This way of handling dissenting positions—my view has reasons and your view is something I just need to explain away with psychology—seems like the hallmark of dogmatism and closed-mindedness. They’re just angry at God, or they’re just jealous of our success, or they’re just expressing a longing for their fathers in a form of wish fulfillment, and so on. Tangents like this do nothing but show everyone involved that you’re not arguing in good faith.

    1. I have yet to meet a pro-secularist speaker or debater who is reluctant to engage on what the legitimating “reasons” are for religious views.

    2. I see no reason to think discussions over the psychology of belief, including religious belief, are always or usually “acting in bad faith”. Vlad offers one citation which I will discuss shortly. Any argument or counter-argument can be abused, used dismissively, or inappropriately applied. Making that observation is not evidence a wide swath of people have, are, or will necessarily.

    3. Almost all of the critiques of religious belief apply equally well to atheists, at least in terms of mechanisms and sources of bias. Anyone who believes that they are immune to the classes of fallibilities that underlie religious belief because they are an atheist are mistaken.

    Treating others as unwilling subjects of psychoanalysis is toxic to discourse, and it’s something I see many atheists take part in too frequently. The most recent example comes from Jerry Coyne, though it’s hardly limited to him. In a new piece, Coyne asks, “Why are faitheists so nasty?”…

    The context issue I mentioned before is at issue here. Who are we talking about? Atheists addressing religionists? That was the language in the opening. But Jerry Coyne’s quote referred to “some faitheists” not to “theists” or even “fatheists” in general. Exactly what is the topic here?

    But even if Coyne were right, it’s unclear what this adds to the conversation—other than to get a jab in at another group’s expense. It says nothing about whether Richard Dawkins’ accounts of religious belief are simplistic, or how we ought to engage with religious believers, or whether policing our own is more appropriate than heaping scorn on others.

    My reading is that it was an attempt to understand the occasional “nastiness” from “fatheists”. It may not contribute to the “conversation” between the two groups in question. But not every blog post is meant to be part of a conversation with you, or anyone, in particular.

    If these discussions are worth having, it’s worth leaving amateur psychoanalysis out of them.

    To leave off on a positive, I think this remark is, more often than not, good advice. While there are some very good reasons to discuss the psychology of belief, it is important to attend to the details of context, mode and tone. It should never be used dismissively or in lieu of proper argumentation.

    Category: featuredFeatured Incmoralityphilosophysecularismskepticism

  • Article by: Edward Clint

    Ed Clint is an evolutionary psychologist, co-founder of Skeptic Ink, and USAF veteran.