April 20, 2017

Reliability and Religion: A response to Misplaced Faith?

Professor Galen’s podcast is refreshing in many ways. Claiming that recent scientific theories about religious belief are neutral has been the orthodox position in both philosophy and science for some time now. Galen questions the validity of this position. I will first formulate what I take Galen’s position to be and then offer some critical remarks.

I take Galen to argue that religious belief is unreliably formed. His point mirrors claims made by philosophers of religion who claim that recent theories of religious belief support the claim that these beliefs are reliably formed. The meaning of unreliability is widely discussed in philosophy. It is usually predicated of belief-forming mechanisms and means that the mechanism produces many false beliefs. Because they produce many false beliefs, beliefs produced by unreliable mechanisms cannot be considered rational.

In the discussion over recent scientific theories about religious belief, unreliability claims see the (potential) unreliability of religious mechanisms as following from their evolutionary history. The mechanisms at the root of religious beliefs are claimed to be the way they are as a result of evolutionary processes like natural selection. Since natural selection selects for traits that increase fitness and cares little about truth, the mechanisms are unlikely to be aimed at truth. Some authors have concluded to unreliability in this way.[i]

Galen’s argument for unreliability is different. He claims that there is independent evidence that the mechanisms at the root of religious belief produce many false beliefs. The evidence he offers is threefold.

  • First cognitive science shows that there are important individual differences in religious mechanisms. It is well established that, on average, women are more religious than men. People with a more analytic style of thinking also seem to be less likely to form religious beliefs. Tanya Luhrmann’s absorption theory, finally, states that some people are more gifted to form religious beliefs.
  • Second some mechanisms that contribute to forming religious beliefs have been connected with the production of false beliefs. Luhrmann’s absorption was connected to falsely detecting agency. Higher religiosity was correlated with blending of ontological categories.
  • Finally, (and this is the strongest evidence according to Galen) religious beliefs are malleable. When people encounter counterevidence for their beliefs they are inclined to double down on those beliefs rather than revising them. People suffering from social deficits are also found to be more likely to have religious beliefs. furthermore, manipulations of the brain can give rise to misattributions of agency; for example to attribution to a supernatural agent.

Galen claims scientific theories can lead to metaphysical conclusions. I think his argument is better understood as epistemological. From a claim of unreliability no strong metaphysical claims about what exists can be drawn. When a religious belief is produced by an unreliable mechanism, the object of that belief (in this case God or another supernatural being) can still exist. I believe Galen’s argument can be reformulated and summarized as follows:

  • There is strong evidence that religious beliefs are unreliably produced.
  • Beliefs that are unreliably produced are not rational.
  • Therefore, religious beliefs are not rational.

The argument is logically valid as the conclusion follows from the premises. The second premise is widely assumed in recent epistemology but is not obvious. A minority position states that rationality of beliefs is a function of how well they cohere with other beliefs. In this case religious beliefs can be considered rational because they cohere well with beliefs about order in the universe and beliefs about a supernatural origin of morality. Another minority position is pragmatic and states that beliefs are rational if they work, that is if they allow an individual to better make sense of her environment. In both cases, whether the belief in question is unreliably produced or not is (largely) irrelevant.

Denying premise 2 may seem implausible but in many cases we do tend to deny it. In the podcast the interviewer noted that many political beliefs are formed by similar unreliable mechanisms as religious beliefs are. These beliefs are sometimes claimed to be rational in virtue of their coherence with other beliefs or in virtue of their pragmatic use.

Nonetheless, the second premise is widely accepted. Therefore the crux of Galen’s argument is in premise 1. Galen’s first group of evidence is not really evidence for unreliability. Contrary to what Galen claims, I believe the strongest evidence for the premise are the second group of reasons. Mechanisms that are like other known unreliable mechanisms or that have been connected to the production of false beliefs are likely unreliable. The third group of reasons say more about what people do with their beliefs  than how they form their beliefs. Doubling down on religious beliefs when confronted with counterevidence presupposes that the individual already had a religious belief on forehand. Claiming that social deficit increases religious belief is also hard without presupposing that some belief was already there. Compensating lack of social interactions by interacting with an invisible, divine, being is easier if the individual already has some prior belief. Without it, jumping to beliefs in invisible beings seems a long jump. Misattributing agency also comes a lot easier if the individual already has some idea about the agent to whom actions can be attributed.

Concluding,  I agree with Galen that there is evidence for unreliability but disagree over what evidence is the strongest. His arguments are also rooted in a particular position in epistemology, and may need some refinement.  However, Galen has raised an interesting argument for the unreliability of mechanisms involved in religious cognition and as he rightly points out, CSR cannot be taken as completely irrelevant for the status of religious beliefs.


[i] Though they are a minority position, some unreliability claims have been made. Examples of this approach are: Wilkins, J. S. and P. E. Griffiths (2012). Evolutionary Debunking Arguments in Three Domains. A New Science of Religion. G. W. Dawes and J. Maclaurin. London, Routledge: 133-146 and Goodnick, L. (2016). “A De Jure Criticism of Theism.” Open Theology 2(1).