This is the sixth installment in my extended review of The Christian Delusion which was originally published at “The Christian Post” in 2010.
* * *
We now turn to the second chapter of The Christian Delusion, Valerie Tarico’s “Christian Belief through the lens of cognitive science,” 47-64.
The first thing to note is that Tarico is not addressing the question of whether Christianity is true. Rather, what she intends to address is whether it is rational or justified to believe:
“Why is Christian belief so widespread and powerful? The traditional answer is: because it’s true, and people who haven’t hardened their hearts recognize this when God’s plan of salvation is presented to them. But cognitive science offers a new way to look at this question, not from a moral or theological vantage but from a practical vantage. What is the mental machinery that lets us form beliefs? What are the roles of reason and emotion? How well do beliefs tend to relate to external realities?” (48)
“Understanding the psychology of religion doesn’t tell us whether any specific set of beliefs is true.” (62)
With that in mind, Tarico’s argument appears to serve as an undercutting defeater. That means that she seeks to undercut the knowledge, justification and rationality that Christians believe they have in holding the set of core claims that constitute Christian belief.
(Unfortunately, Tarico is not always a reliable guide to what those claims are. For instance, twice she refers to the “propitiatory” death of Jesus as being at the “heart” of Christian belief (48, 55). But there has always been an enormous amount of opinion among Christians on the atonement, and only a minority, including many in the evangelicalism that Tarico left behind, would hold to a propitiatory atonement.)
Tarico goes on to make some striking claims, at least striking for anybody who has read some epistemology. Here’s the most important one:
“We humans are not rational about anything, let alone religion.” (48)
She goes on to explain that this is because “Our brains have built-in biases….” (50) “To put it bluntly, each of us is a protagonist in a custom-made Hollywood movie with the best possible camera angles.” (51)
But now let’s turn to religion. These biases “help to explain why stunningly self-centered religious beliefs don’t trigger any alarms.” (51)
Well, maybe. But then these biases also explain why Tarico thinks certain beliefs are “stunningly self-centered”. In other words, this is a classic case of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.
As an aside, I must say that I never liked that expression: too grisly. So I suggest we replace it with “amputating one’s limb to spite one’s hangnail.”
No this is better: it is being hoist with one’s own petard. Tarico writes: “As we learn more about the human mind, even the outrages of religious belief become more understandable.” (52)
Indeed. And so too the outrages of sailors, socialists, corporate CEOs, and yes even post-evangelical cognitive psychologists.
Tarico then says: “Given what I’ve said about knowing, how can anybody claim to know anything? We can’t, with certainty.” (54) Well no Dr. Tarico, based on what you’ve said things are a lot worse than that. You see, on any plausible definition of knowledge, if it is irrational to believe p then one cannot know p. You said none of our beliefs are rational. Therefore, on your view we cannot know anything, period.
So to sum up, Tarico’s essay is akin to the salesman coming to your door and saying “Everything my company makes is crap. Now let me introduce our newest product.” What’s the likelihood you’d open your wallet?
But now let’s not just leave it at that. Let’s pretend that Tarico didn’t make indefensible and self-defeating claims about rationality and knowledge. Let’s pretend that instead she simply advocated for a healthy dose of fallibilism such as is de rigueur in contemporary epistemology. Is there anything remaining that should worry the Christian or persuade them that their beliefs are delusionary?
The answer, not surprisingly, is no. Tarico tends to make points which beg the question. For instance, she observes that “we tend to overattribute events to conscious beings” (58), a tendency called “hyperactive agency detection.” Well okay, maybe we do. But does that mean a Christian is never justified or rational in believing that God is acting in the world? Analogy: as Tarico also pointed out, we tend to think too highly of ourselves. Does that mean I am never justified in believing that I nailed Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” at the karaoke bar? Of course not!
Tarico also notes how mystical experiences might have a physiological basis like a migraine aura or a seizure. Yeah, so? Let’s say you check into room 237 at the Overlook Hotel and suddenly a red crayon writes “redrum” on the wall. That event could be explained in a way consistent with the laws of physics, but don’t tell me you wouldn’t be calling the front desk to change rooms. In other words, a complete physical scientific description of an event still leaves open the explanatory door to something more.