It’s All in Your Head…

A constant refrain one hears from the more angry atheists is that religious belief is purely psychological.  When one asserts that God exists, he is really asserting an inner mental state or frame of mind—he is not really commenting on some objective outer state of affairs—something true about the universe we live in, its origin, end, or reason for existing.  And hewing to the fact/value distinction, all talk of morals, good, evil, and the “ought” over the “is” is really just sentimentalism.  There is some good stuff on this whole issue here.
The problem with this line of reasoning is that it is so obviously self-defeating.  After all, the argument can simply be turned around.  It is entirely possible that atheism is a psychological response to something experiential or cultural.  Perhaps one had a bad relationship with his father or was abandoned by his father and these bad experiences are projected onto a “God-the Father” figure and there is a need, a desire, a wish, to believe this figure, this being, doesn’t really exist.  Or perhaps one was hurt by a pastor or priest, or had a bad experience in a church, wherein the hurt was such that it made one want to throw out the whole thing, wash one’s hands of the whole matter, including a belief in the “God” these people who hurt me believe in and trust.  Or perhaps it just fills a psychological need to rebel, to pat one’s self on the back as a maverick and not a blind follower likes the rest of those “sheep.”  It could also stem from a need to be shown a “free-thinker” an “intellectual,” someone smart and not given to belief in fairy tales and superstition.  Since this attitude has been the status-quo in the academy for so long, there is no doubt a lot of peer pressure (a matter of psychology) to adopt this same sort of attitude—to feel part of the “in” group.
One could go on and on.  While one may want to believe he went through a logical, reasonable, linear, sequential process of reflection, where evidence was examined and a cool objective neutral conclusion was reached (God does not exist.), it may be one is just unconsciously trying to mask the hidden psychology of wishing or not wanting such a being to exist—and then looking for reasons.
One runs into the same problem with morality.  Even most atheists want things to be a certain way as opposed to another.  For instance, they may think it “evil” to let capitalism run free and rampant, without any restraints whatsoever.  Or they may think it “evil” for oil companies to be given free reign as to the environment.  But what if they are just being “sentimental”?  The fact/value distinction means then that every “value” is just a sentimental wish, like wishing there was a Santa Clause.  The problem is that it reduces everyone’s claim of “good” or “evil,” even the atheists’, to sentimentalism, which at the end of the day is really just a condescending dismissal.  It is an acid that “dissolves” everyone’s view of morality–not just the Christian’s.
So these claims then are just self-defeating and a waste of time.  The Christian, the atheist, the agnostic, the “whomever” are all susceptible to having their views dismissed as social constructions based in nothing but pure psychology.  How does this help the conversation?  After all, who is going to continue conversing with someone who we think is really just spouting made up stuff—that is “all in their heads”?  It would be pointless.  So we simply put “those” people in a “box” and move on to talk to people like us, you know, the “smart” people.  And guess what?  That person then just lives in an echo chamber.  So not only is this line of reasoning ultimately self-defeating, it is harmful to one’s growing, learning, and maturing as a human being.  This attitude or sensibility leads to closing the door and shuts down conversation because it deems all such views as “non-starters.”  Wow, I guess there is no point in starting then.  Goodbye.  What other response could there be to such an attitude?
Something else to consider: Is a view which claims that everyone else’s view is purely psychological, while one’s own is the only “true” and objective view of the world—more likely or less likely to be tolerant, open-minded, and not condescending toward other views?  Bernard, given how dear this subject is to your own heart, it would be good to hear your response to this question.  What do you think, more likely or less likely?
Just like with cigarettes, this line of reasoning should come with a warning: Use of this reasoning may be hazardous to one’s philosophical health and also inhibit the maturation process.  This product is known to produce the cancer of ignorance and immaturity.

I bring this up partly to say that I will not respond to such lines of argument in the future as an assertion for what Christian belief is “really” about.  To do so would just be a colossal waste of time.  I’m happy to let it go and let it act as just a very revealing insight into the person making the assertion. 
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207 Responses to It’s All in Your Head…

  1. Sorry Darrell

    I checked back to your last comment, and it centred on the notion of self defeating. So I'm unsure what else you'd like us to focus on. let me know.

    Yes, of course the very charge comes back. I don't understand what you mean by that being self defeating. One last try…

    To hold as an open hypothesis 'God exists' is by definition to hold open that atheists are in error. To which the atheist may return, 'have you considered that it also means you could be wrong?'

    Hence, because the structure is identical (and only the group that are initially though to be in error is reversed) to hold God exists is to hold a self defeating belief, by your definition.

    What am I missing?



  2. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    I’ve meant the same thing JP meant when he said that “…Only that one can't reach it [the answer to the question of which party's beliefs are purely a result of cultural/psychological causes] by this [the very one disputed and the point of the post] argument…” and what he meant when he said it was a “fruitless” way to proceed and the same thing you meant when you said it was a useless and intolerant argument. I would call those self-refuting or self-defeating. If you would rather use “fruitless” or “useless” or “intolerant” or some other similar descriptor, that is fine with me.

    And Bernard, if you come to the conclusion and know for a fact, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that my beliefs are purely the result of cultural/psychological causes, then please let me know and we can have that discussion. I will do the same if I come to a similar conclusion regarding your agnosticism, okay?

    In the mean time, let's just hold the possibility that such is true for each of us, individually, and we should reflect upon that. We should each ask ourselves, “Why do I believe what I do? Is it really just becuase of culture and psychology? But it is something we should only reflect upon as to ourselves, constantly checking ourselves and questioning our own position. This line of reasoning should only be self-reflective purposes a “looking in the mirror” first question.

    I trust that the people in this conversation have done that and are open to at any point learning that perhaps that was the true reason for their beliefs. But we need to let each person come to that conclusion on their own. So while possible, for all the reasons cited above, from myself, JP, and you, it needs to be on the table but used self-reflectively only.

    Ready to move on?


  3. JP says:

    Hi Darrell,

    Perhaps I was unclear when I wrote the comment you quote above – but I didn't mean what you appear to have understood. Here's the full paragraph:

    What I have commented about is the argument Darrell uses in the post to dismiss all form of AITH hypothesis (as I understand it). I don't think it works – which DOES NOT mean that his conclusion is false (or true for that matter). Only that one can't reach it by this argument.

    The “it” in the last sentence refers to your conclusion that AITH hypothesis may be dismissed. And by “this argument”, I meant your argument, as developed in the post, claiming that AITH is self-defeating and question begging. Sorry if I wasn't explicit enough.

    And as for arguing over AITH being fruitless, I am not saying it is so. What I have done is, rather, asking whether this was what you meant. If you allow me to quote myself again: “What about you [Darrell]? It's not entirely clear from your comments whether you dismiss AITH as false a priori or simply reject considering the hypothesis as something of a fruitless exercise?”


  4. Darrell says:

    Hi JP,

    I did respond, I said I would be happy to go with “fruitless” exercise. I indeed have meant more than that, but I’m also happy to just agree it is a pointless argument. And if I did misunderstand, how about this other one you suggested: “Perhaps you mean something like this: suppose A comes to B and says religion is “all in your head” and B answers that A's position is also “all in his head”, then A and B have achieved nothing at all. As a style of discussion, this is not very useful – yes, of course.” Yes, that is a big part of what I meant, as I’ve been saying over and over now.

    As I said then, I am happy to go with “not very useful”, which is an understatement for sure! If you would rather go with “not very useful” instead of “fruitless” (which sounds the same to me) I am fine with that too.

    At this point, I would even be happy to go with what you noted here: “To be sure: here, I am NOT arguing either way. But I am saying the AITH option should be left open (even if we don't discuss it at this point). If you don't, you're simply assuming you are right.”

    Well, as long as it’s open it means both are assuming they’re right, which is already true. I don’t care about that. We already know that. The point is that when used it simply leads to an infinite regress of counter-charges that become redundant, question-begging, and meet all the hallmarks of the way fundamentalists argue. So, I am saying I’m not going to discuss it at this point and not at any point. If you, Bernard, Burk, Ron, and anyone else want to discuss it on your own blogs, have at it. I would love to sit back and watch that food-fight. But on this blog, I would rather talk about something productive and useful.

    And that is why I’m ready to move on.

    I have never commented so much on something I said I would stop responding to in my life! Ha!


  5. Darrell says:

    Also JP,

    One more point. You have yet to respond to the fact I had to keep addressing this because Bernard was raising it as a defeater of my thesis or to show I was making some fundamental error of logic or reason.

    If you think the argument, as I do, of “little use” then how do you explain Bernard's use of it?


  6. Hi Darrell

    Absolutely, I entirely hold the possibility that any and all of us in error, one could hardly be an agnostic without holding this.

    And, to simply conclude the other is, you know, hallucinating, is pointless. Again, we agree.

    Your 'evidence as hint 'case does, as best I can tell, contain a logical flaw, in that it claims a hint towards one hypothesis without any reason why the alternative, live hypothesis (you accept it's possible, this is all we need) is less well supported by the same evidence.

    I know you'd much rather not accept that, but your reason for not accepting it (possibility of error is best kept for self reflection) applies just as well to belief in atheistic error as belief in theistic error. And yet you only apply it one way.

    So something weird is going on here, and I can't follow your reasoning. Hence I remain intrigued. But you've been more than patient in trying to make this case, so feel free to sign out at this point. As you say, you'd rather not discuss it, so happy to move on.



  7. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    Well it is good to see we do agree on quite a bit here. I am curious about something. I’m wondering if everyone else out there understands and sees the same “logical” error you do and understands it in the same way. No one else seems to be making the same argument as you. Maybe if they explained it in a different way, I could perhaps see it and understand your position better. At this point, I just don’t see it. I see disagreement as to interpretation and perspective, but not one of “fundamental” logic or reason.

    Perhaps down the road a bit we can revisit this and maybe hear from some different perspectives as to your argument. Maybe that would help me understand better. I could very well be wrong.


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