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Reply to Commentaries on “Are People Born to be Believers, or are Gods Born to be Believed?”



The four commentaries on my article “Are People Born to be Believers, or are Gods Born to be Believed?” only indirectly address my main argument that god-belief is not an innate (natural, normal, and so on) capacity of all humanity. Although scientific disciplines dispute criteria for innate biological functions, there remains little scien-tific evidence of an inherent capacity to our species for getting acquainted with any deity. Theologies looking to science may hope that the right sort of god best fits the right sort of brain. Methodologies for scientifically studying religion should not be in-fluenced by such normative presumptions.
©   , , | ./-
     
   () -
in th
Reply to Commentaries on “Are People Born to be
Believers, or are Gods Born to be Believed?”
John R. Shook
Philosophy and Science Education, Graduate School of Education
University at Bufalo
The four commentaries on my article “Are People Born to be Believers, or are Gods
Born to be Believed?” only indirectly address my main argument that god-belief is not
an innate (natural, normal, and so on) capacity of all humanity. Although scientic
disciplines dispute criteria for innate biological functions, there remains little scien-
tic evidence of an inherent capacity to our species for getting acquainted with any
deity. Theologies looking to science may hope that the right sort of god best ts the
right sort of brain. Methodologies for scientically studying religion should not be
in-uenced by such normative presumptions.
religion – science of religion – anthropology – cognitive science – theology – popular
I am grateful to the authors of the four responses to my paper (this volume)
asking, “Are People Born to be Believers, or are Gods Born to be Believed?” I
am also grateful to readers reaching my reply, who may be wondering how a
siege against cognitive science of religion or religion’s naturalness could regain
momentum. But my article defends sound cognitive science and anthropol-
ogy of religion, on the single topic of gods. It nowhere denies that many forms
of religiosity appear to be naturally endemic to most of humanity. My focus
is instead on the considerable body of scientic research unable to conrm
that humanity naturally cognizes deities. This situation evidently frustrates
  
         () -
scholars indebted to religious studies and theology, but it couldn’t be ignored
forever. Theology takes close interest in alleged unnatural acquaintances with
god(s), so theology’s forays into science and science of religion do merit rigor-
ous scrutiny. Examinations into theoretical blends of science and religion are
not ruled out of order simply because they can fruitfully inform each other.
My objections are not directed at their dialogue, but the disguise of religious
dogma as scientic fact.
Philosophy’s intrusion of sharp analysis into dominant paradigms is rarely
welcomed. Where religion is involved, paradigms are treated with a level of
deference and sensitivity unmatched almost anywhere else in academia. Even
the largely agreeable response from Julie Exline, David Bradley, Alex Uzdavines,
and Nick Stauner turns a sharp corner to deliver a nal section-length shaming
about bluntness and tone. They pick out concise expressions of argumentative
goals, such as “God-belief is hardly as valid as religious people like to think,” as
if those were my stubborn biases. My premises are actually drawn from basic
points about religion and science of religion, so a review of my main argument
is in order.
Logical arguments wielded for critical efect only cut apart positions, ex-
posing genuine relations among their components and revealing what can be
inferred and what cannot. Logic cannot dictate labels or deter longings. My
commentators only sporadically grapple with my article’s argument, foraying
into the search for a precise meaning to “innate” in particular, and the quest for
a sympathetic study of religiosity in general. I regard both ventures as worthy
in themselves and contributory to science of religion. But they are no substi-
tute for a philosophical investigation into methodological procedures applied
to the question of god-belief’s naturality and normality for humanity.
Assigning the label of “innate” for what is regarded as natural, normal, in-
herent, inborn, and/or intuitive is hardly new, and nothing original appears in
my article about that. My commentators are able to mention these and more
synonyms besides, in their replies to me and in their own writings. And they
appear to agree with me that neither deep antiquity nor current popularity
suces for fullling such concepts. All the same, lexicography isn’t logic. If
readers happen to agree that religious “innateness” is a poor label for the view
that god-belief comes with being entirely human, they may pick some other
label, and my critical analysis is unafected. God-belief is not inherent to being
human, so far as science can say, and no one is rendered unnatural or abnor-
mal for irreligious disinterest in unnatural deities, despite the multitudes who
have longed for gods. Setting aside commentators’ sketches of longstanding
disciplinary struggles over criterial denitions, and synopses of current disci-
plinary interest in religiosity’s attractions, this response stays focused on what
 
         () -
my article attempted to prove. I am gratied that its argumentative verdict
stands unscathed.
The specic position analyzed by my article holds that each human being,
by virtue of being human, is naturally and normally born to place belief in
god(s). Taking this kind of religiosity to be innate (the reader can substitute
another term if ‘innate’ won’t do) would be bolstered by scientic conrma-
tion that humanity naturally cognizes deities. To naturally cognize a god using
a well-functioning cognitive capacity, some accuracy is required. No properly
functioning cognitive ability normally and nearly universally arouses false be-
lief. (Profered counter-examples need a second look. Anyone could naively
take the clear sky to be a high dome, for example, but human optical capacities
aren’t functioning for judging distance in that direction.) Many ordinary cogni-
tive functions regularly impel mistaken ideas; cognitive biases and deceptions
populate anyone’s thoughts. But the heavens are not really populated by all, or
even many, of the gods that religious people contemplate. These basic points
appear to be admitted by my commentators.
In consequence, even if one of the innumerable gods ever worshipped by
humanity is actually real, any human cognizing that god would simply enjoy
incredible luck. That lucky cognitive process could not be described as “well-
functioning,” nor could we infer that humanity is “supposed” to normally rely
on that singular cognitive process. Therefore, no well-functioning cognitive
ability possessed by humanity can be credited by science with accurately cog-
nizing any god. The primary purpose of my article is hence fullled. It is nec-
essary to note here that this conclusion is not that god-belief is “irrational” or
intellectually “vicious,” to repeat Justin Barrett’s wording. If my article mount-
ed a solely epistemic rejection of knowledge of God, that terminology might
come into play (see Shook 2015). When science has only a negative answer to
theology’s optimism about the intellect’s powers to know god, our actual pow-
ers should not be deemed unreasonable, unless we encourage ourselves to
think we know more than we do.
Let us therefore move on to the second stage of my article where we observe
theology demanding a positive scientic role. My argument would be weak if
humanity, from religion’s early origins, has not been placing belief in a large
variety of deities. Peruse any multi-volume compendium of religion. Has hu-
manity’s religiosity, across so many regions and continents and hundreds of
centuries, really been devoutly directed towards a few gods or maybe a single
god? Some of my commentators, and many more scholars across religious stud-
ies and theology, seem intrigued by that idea. The view that God can have a
thousand names is not uncommon, and oft-heard among theological religions
pretending to universal validity. Even more common is the theological opinion
  
         () -
that most of humanity has been idolatrously wrong about the One True God.
Proof of a real god’s existence would also weaken my argument, but premis-
ing a mocked-up deity is hardly scientic. To presume that much or most of
humanity is actually cognizing pretty much the same god is a falsiable (and
falsied) claim inspired by religion, not a scientic fact. To presume that some
portion of humanity regularly cognizes an existing specic god is a theological
hope, not a scientic hypothesis.
As my article suciently justies the rejection of those presumptions to
conduct science of religion, we may put matters more bluntly here. If I am
completely wrong about theology’s infusion of dogma into scientic inquiries
into religion, we would not observe scholars repeatedly using the word God as
if it had a clear and univocal meaning, or scholars faulting humanity’s weak-
nesses for failing to appreciate God, or scholars inferring from religion’s preva-
lence that humanity seeks the divine in the same way, or scholars assuming
that human interest in divine revelation implies divinity’s interest in revela-
tion. Revealingly, three of the four replies illustrate such theological maneu-
vers, so the remainder of this brief response addresses their highlights.
Lluis Oviedo expressly defends monotheistic theology’s discriminating in-
terest in selected aspects of the scientic study of religiosity. His accusation
that my stance is the reductivist one cannot be right, since my argument only
sees that not all worshipped gods are real, whereas he upholds but one real god.
Perhaps there is a real god like Aquinas’s Christian God, and perhaps not—but
Oviedo shows no interest in quite diferent deities. And he takes revelation (in
the Christian tradition, at least) to be authentic without adequately justifying
that view, while classifying my skepticism about revelation as the fallacious
view. There is no fallacy, for my part, since my article’s argument is diferent,
only premised on the point that religions themselves deny that all of human-
ity’s revelatory experiences are equally valid. If Oveido suspects otherwise, he
may have to re-consider his own tradition, as well as my argument. Skepticism
towards revelation was not invented by the rst scientists or atheists to boldly
speak up.
As for Oveido’s overall impressions of my worry about theology’s oversized
role in cognitive science of religion, I can easily perceive why he cannot share
that worry. He informs us, at the end of section (b), that cognitive science’s in-
quiries into any innateness to religiosity have only a modest degree of relevance
for theology. After all, as he tells us in his concluding paragraph, theology is not
troubled by the question of God’s existence, but only by humanity’s diculties
recognizing this God. Oveido’s perspective is quite understandable. No creedal
monotheism is surprised by the ignorance and intransigence of humanity, de-
laying its congregation into the One True Church. If science of religion at most
 
         () -
conrms that humanity’s ordinary cognitive abilities only arouse suggestive
and attractive ideas about deities, creedal monotheisms are pleased to take
over the matter from there. After all, theology hardly trusts naïve religiosity,
preferring to indoctrinate children and monitor adult conformity.
Creedal monotheism is not the only sort of theology to assign vast impor-
tance to the careful socialization of religious followers. Those expecting hu-
manity to possess an inherent capacity for vague theism also have account for
the immense variety to adult god-belief. As I have said, my article sets to one
side the broad claim that religion is innate, so Barrett mistakes my specic goal
and ofers red-herrings about the term “innate.” Barrett next composes lists of
other scholars on religion and their personal stances, as if my worries about
theology rested on polling the discipline instead of exposing diculties with
positions like Barrett’s. But instead of focusing on those diculties, Barrett di-
gests his version of the naturalness hypothesis, innocently enough, and next
ofers a reading of my primary argument that he is capable of following. I leave
it to readers to judge comparisons. More interestingly, he then proceeds in
later sections to illustrate the sorts of theological maneuvers that science of
religion should be more wary about.
A theological stance searching for natural god-belief has to overcome reli-
gion’s skepticism as much as any epistemic agnosticism. (Barrett, like Oveido,
erects a straw man about my procedure.) Establishing some sort of god-belief
inherent to human cognitive capacities on rmly scientic grounds must grap-
ple with a dicult question. Does that vast religious diversity about gods imply
a generic cognitive capacity for merely placing belief, or does that diversity
imply some accurate understanding of a generic god? Each religion (having
any god) has no use for generics anywhere—only a specic conviction in the
actual deity (or pantheon) suces—and followers are instructed accordingly.
If a scholar cannot (blatantly) take one religion to be better acquainted with
the divine, this dilemma stands: either god-belief is plentiful but misguided, or
god-belief is guided but not so plentiful. Either way, humanity as a whole does
not appear to be naturally cognizing deities.
Barrett senses this dilemma, but manages to get impaled on both horns.
When Barrett wants to make generic god-belief a plausibly natural matter, he
accuses me of ignoring how easy it is to induce people into one religion or
another (but my article elaborately agreed). When Barrett wants to make re-
ligious people seem reasonable for believing in their god, he accuses me of
unreasonably denying all gods (but he can’t discern who is worshipping a real
god). Erecting a suitably abstract deity, vague enough for any human’s intel-
lect while god-like enough for most major religions, is the tempting (but theo-
logical) leap over the dilemma’s horns. Barrett doesn’t disavow this strategy in
  
         () -
his reply. I therefore continue to deny that anything but current science and
common sense animates my arguments, while maintaining that Barrett’s ma-
neuvers only ensnare his procedure more deeply in theology. Of course theo-
logians can selectively learn from science of religion; our concern is whether
science of religion must methodically rely on theological views.
Benjamin Purzycki sets out to defend Barrett’s theory, but he rst surveys
incidences of “innate” and debates over detecting “innateness.” I must forebear
any further remarks about that diversion. Purzycki next rejects crediting just
“culture” for religion rather than god-belief’s naturalness. My article isn’t based
on that dichotomy, agreeing that religious worldviews are largely rooted in
inherent (but fallible) cognitive proclivities strongly selected for and shaped
by cultural development. Yet Purzycki must tear apart what he would join to-
gether. Is there really so much about religious commitment that isn’t cultural
at all? If he wants to focus on isolatable cognitive functions, of the sort young
children might display towards other minds, in order to suggest that religions
aren’t just making everything up, he gets impaled on the rst horn of that di-
lemma. Such varied generic agent-belief is not good evidence of an inherent
cognitive ability to understand divinity. Purzycki admits how Barrett con-
ates ideas of invisible friends with ideas of gods. That conation is far more
controversial than the expectation that people can blend their personal inspi-
rations with social expectations (an ability that I do not nd controversial).
With regard to the form of religiosity that a child happens to encounter,
Purzycki runs into the other horn of the dilemma. Can culture really be set
aside for the purposes of scientic inquiry into religion? Asking a child wheth-
er God knows the contents of a box presumes that the child has some notion
of this “God” and its usual powers. Which god, again? Surely it is the God that
this child has already been socialized into contemplating. This experiment
wouldn’t work so well for a child raised in an entirely secular society, or a child
living in the Congo region 40,000 years ago. (Unless one dogmatically posits
theism’s ubiquity, revelation’s eciency, or the sensus divinitatis, for example).
It is circular to posit just the right “intuitive” idea and then design an experi-
ment to “naturally” elicit that idea. It is natural, though, for a religion to be
uninterested in everyone else’s imaginary friends.
No one indeed should still be debating whether religion is just innate or
just cultural. What deserves more debate is whether assembling a natural
account of all forms of god-belief is getting diverted into a quest for a reli-
gious account of all people naturally believing in God. Readers warming to
that debate but tiring of all that dilemma-talk may now be thinking, “Why can’t
science of religion drop the whole issue of whose notions of gods are more
normal, or who is more natural for having or lacking god-belief?” That’s my
 
         () -
wish, exactly, but this academic debating remains murky. If Barrett, Purzycki,
or Oveido do not think that god-belief should be regarded as innate, or they
doubt that commitment to a god is naturally normal for all humanity, why
can’t they tell us? One might suspect that they have other audiences in mind.
If humanity is so cognitively prepared for entertaining specic god-ideas,
then we’d expect to nd few nontheists and see most religions promulgating
a delimited construct for God (but that is not evident). If, on the other hand,
humanity is just equipped with fallible and misguidable cognitive functions,
then we’d expect to observe plenty of religions proliferating their conceptions
of entertaining gods (and that is evident). The soundest scientic judgment is
that people are not born to believe in gods, but gods are born to be believable.
Shook, John R. 2015. Rationalist atheology. International Journal for Philosophy of
Religion 78(3): 329-348.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
Atheology, accurately defined by Alvin Plantinga, offers reasons why god’s existence is implausible. Skeptically reasoning that theological arguments for god fail to make their case is one way of leaving supernaturalism in an implausible condition. This ‘rationalist’ atheology appeals to logical standards to point out fallacies and other sorts of inferential gaps. Beyond that methodological marker, few shared tactics characterize atheists and agnostics stalking theological targets. If unbelief be grounded on reason, let atheology start from a theological stronghold: the principle of sufficient reason, a cornerstone of rationality. Seven rules, corollaries to that principle, are enough to show how theological arguments for god repeatedly contravene rationality by perpetuating mysteries, contradictions, begging of questions, pseudo-explanations, and the like. None of these complaints are new, nor has theology been unaware of them. Disorganized atheology has, so far, allowed theology to appear to answer them. Five major arguments for god are systematically analyzed and refuted using these seven rules of rationality, as a preliminary exercise illustrating this re-organized and re-focused rationalist atheology.