Neurotheology and the New Atheists

The Neurotheological Argument Against God               brain-clip-art-13

“Neurotheology” is a term used by Dr. Andrew Newberg to describe the relationship between the brain and religious experience. In fact, many neuroscientists have performed studies claiming to find the part of the brain responsible for religious belief and experience. One approach is to use a single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scanner to analyze the brains of religious people (from various faith traditions) and look for stimulation in activity in certain portions of the brain. In fact, many scientists claim to have found the “God Center.” A variation of this research comes from geneticists who search for the “God Gene,” a particular gene that correlates with religious belief.

In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with these studies. The problem lies in the use many new atheists try to put them to. Take Daniel Dennett, for example. In his book Breaking the Spell, he discusses the possibility that a gene called VMAT2 may fully account for religious belief.

Now we have a plausible candidate for filling in the blank: the hypnotizability-enabler. Moreover, in his recent book, The God Gene, the neurobiologist and geneticist Dean Hamer (2004) claims to have found a gene that could be harnessed for this role. The VMAT2 gene is one of many that provide recipes for the proteins—the monoamines—that do the major work in the brain. These are the proteins that carry the signals that control all our thought and behavior: the neuromodulators and neurotransmitters that are shunted back and forth between neurons, and the transporters within the neurons that do all the housekeeping, restoring the supplies of neuromodulators and neurotransmitters. Prozac and the many other psychoactive or mood-changing drugs developed in recent years work by enhancing or suppressing the activity of one monoamine or another. The VMAT2 gene is polymorphic in human beings, meaning that there are different mutations of it in different people. The VMAT2 gene variants are ideally placed, then, to account for differences in people’s emotional or cognitive responses to the same stimuli, and could explain why some people are relatively immune to hypnotic induction whereas others are readily put into a trance. None of this is close to proven yet, and Hamer’s development of his hypothesis is marked by more enthusiasm than subtlety, a foible that may repel researchers who would otherwise take it seriously. Still, something like his hypothesis (but probably much more complicated) is a good bet for confirmation in the near future, as the roles of proteins and their gene recipes are further analyzed.1

In essence the neo-atheistic argument proceeds as follows:

(1) Any belief with a purely genetic or otherwise biological origin is false.

(2) Religious belief has a purely genetic or otherwise biological origin.

(3) Therefore, religious belief is false.

So do these “God Center” studies show that all religious belief is merely the product of genetic influences in the brain overriding rational capabilities, a disability from which some lucky few (i.e., the new atheists) have fortunately been freed? Actually, the use of these studies in this way is fraught with classic logical errors.

When confronted with this argument too many Christians seek to refute premise (2), virtually ignoring premise (1). Usually, we fall for this trap because the atheist does not explicitly state premise (1) and it slips by unnoticed. Look, for example, at the quote from Daniel Dennett above. He spends all his time advancing premise (2), as if that premise alone is sufficient to support his conclusion. Obviously, though, premise (2) without premise (1) leads nowhere. Premise (1) is tacitly assumed.

The Genetic Fallacy

First, premise (1) is a textbook example of the genetic fallacy. The genetic fallacy occurs when someone explains the origin of a belief and thereby contends they have demonstrated the truth or falsehood of that belief. Suppose I tell you that the sky appears blue. You then ask me why I believe that to be true and I explain that long ago, fireflies poured blue food coloring on the atmosphere and from that point onward it was permanently stained blue. Assume you could demonstrate that my firefly theory is false. Does that mean my conclusion is false? Does invalidating the manner in which I arrived at my belief in a blue sky demonstrate that the sky does not, in fact, appear blue? Naturally, one has nothing to do with the other. It is possible for a person to arrive at the correct conclusion through faulty means. Demonstrating the origin of the means does not necessarily invalidate the conclusion. In order to do that you must face the conclusion head on and address its merits.

Christians make many truth claims, including “Jesus rose from the dead.” Assume that there is indeed a gene that makes someone more likely to believe this claim. Does that make the claim untrue? A skeptic still must evaluate the claim head on and evaluate whether sufficient evidence exists to support it.

Suppose these studies are correct and a certain portion of the brain is stimulated when a person is having a religious experience. What does that have to do with whether the religious experience is true? It is the classic chicken and the egg dilemma, or in logical terms the fallacy of confusing correlation with causation. Did the brain stimulation produce the religious experience or did a genuine religious experience produce the brain stimulation? Observing stimulation in a certain portion of the brain, in and of itself, cannot answer this question. The evidence behind the claimed experience must be addressed.

Again, assume for the sake of argument that these studies are correct and that a certain gene predisposes someone to religious belief. What about atheism? If the action of that gene leads to religious belief, does the inaction of that gene (or contrary action, or the action of another gene) lead to atheism? If one part of the brain is stimulated when a person is having a religious experience, is another part of the brain stimulated when he or she is having a secular (or atheistic) experience, or is it simply the lack of stimulation that is correlated with anti-religious thought? It really does not matter how the atheist answers these questions. Either through action or inaction, if genetics is responsible for theistic belief, it must also be responsible for atheistic belief. The atheist fails to recognize that “what is good for the goose is good for the gander.” If a theist’s views are determined (or at least predisposed) by his or her genetic makeup, then so are the atheist’s.2

A similar tactic often used by atheists3 is to ask the Christian, “Do you realize that if you had been born in India you would most likely believe in Hinduism? Or if in Iran you would be a Muslim?” The simple response would be to point out to atheists that the same is true of them. If they had been born in India, statistically speaking they would be more likely to be a Hindu, not an atheist. Does that invalidate their atheistic belief? If not, why should it invalidate my belief in Christianity? If my brain chemistry makes me more likely to believe in Christianity than theirs (either in the form of the presence of some element in me that is absent in them or the absence of some element in me that is present in them), does their brain chemistry invalidate the truth of their claims? If not, why should it invalidate mine? In point of fact, neither is true. Whether claims of this sort come from theists or atheists, they are equally invalid genetic fallacies.

The Assumption of Improper Function

Second, this argument suffers from a more subtle problem; it involves circular reasoning. It assumes that which it seeks to prove. Generally when circular reasoning is utilized it is not as obvious as stating a first premise that matches up exactly to the conclusion. When it occurs “in the real world,” the proponent of an argument has usually failed to recognize that they have made an implicit assumption that matches their conclusion. That is the case with the “God Center” proposal.

In advancing the neurotheological argument the atheist assumes that the genes and/or portions of the brain that correlate to religious belief are acting improperly when they lead a person toward belief in the divine. In other words, the proper function of the brain in regard to truth claims is to point toward truth, not away from it. In the case of religiously-minded people, the so-called “God Center” points toward belief in some form of religion. Therefore, the atheist assumes that the brain must be pointing away from truth when it does this, thereby demonstrating that the brain is acting contrary to its proper function.

But why does the atheist conclude (based solely on the fact that some aspect of the brain may point someone toward religious belief) that it is thereby pointing away from truth? How does the atheist know that the genes that predispose someone to religious belief do not do so because it is their proper function? In other words, how does one know that the brain with these genes acting is not the one functioning properly (i.e., pointing toward truth) as opposed to the brain without them which leads someone toward atheism? The atheist assumes that this brain activity points away from truth rather than toward it, but that is only because they have decided in advance that the conclusion to which this brain activity points (i.e., the existence of God) is false.4 This is classic circular reasoning.

Conclusion

All attempts to construct an argument against God based upon neuroscience defy many standard logical rules. C.S Lewis explained beautifully how the entire venture “puts the cart before the horse,” so to speak.

Some of the things I should like to believe must in fact be true; it is impossible to arrange a universe which contradicts everyone’s wishes, in every respect, at every moment. Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is “wishful thinking.” You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself. When you have checked my figures, then, and then only, will you know whether I have that balance or not. If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic, and the doctrine of the concealed wish will become relevant – but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds. … In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong.5

In advancing an argument based upon neuroscience, atheists attempt to show why the religiously-minded among us are wrong without first demonstrating that we are wrong. No amount of scientific terminology or inquiry will ever be able to overcome this elementary logical error in the structure of the position they advance.


1. Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Viking, 2006), 138-39 (emphasis in original).

2. In fact, under an atheistic worldview, the entire notion of rationality is insupportable and all belief becomes deterministic. See here.

3. See, e.g., John W. Loftus, Why I Rejected Christianity: A Former Apologist Explains (Victoria, BC: Trafford, 2006).

4. Even relying upon the concept of a “proper function” for biological organs causes a self-refuting problem for the atheist. For more on this see here.

5. C.S. Lewis, “Bulverism,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 272-73.

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DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Ken Coughlan

Ken Coughlan founded Ten Minas Ministries, a Christian apologetics ministry, in January, 2006. He is now a Director with Ratio Christi. In addition to these ministries, Ken is a practicing attorney, earning his Juris Doctor from the College of William & Mary in 1998. He is currently licensed in four different jurisdictions.

You can contact Ken via Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kencoughlan.ratiochristi.

  • staircaseghost

    ” Take Daniel Dennett, for example. In his book Breaking the Spell, he discusses the possibility that a gene called VMAT2 may fully account for religious belief.”

    Was there an editing error? Did you perhaps mean to quote something on either side of that paragraph?

    The passage you quoted does not, on a first (or second) reading, come anywhere close to claiming to “fully account for religious belief”.

    “In essence the neo-atheistic argument proceeds as follows:

    (1) Any belief with a purely genetic or otherwise biological origin is false.”

    I am not aware of a single person working in this field who would assert anything like such a crude claim. People do claim, every day, that parsimonious causal accounts of the origin of a belief which do not involve the belief being true render its truth otiose as an explanation. Or do you think that someone high on peyote who says “the UFOs are behind the 9/11 cover up!!!!!” is on epistemically secure footing when he says “…and don’t say it’s just because I’m hallucinating — that’s the genetic fallacy!”

    • http://www.facebook.com/ken.coughlan.7 Ken Coughlan

      As I said in the lead in to that paragraph, Dennett was using the evidence cited in that paragraph to support his argument that the VMAT2 gene may fully account for religious belief. That is the “blank” he is discussing being filled in the opening paragraph. I would recommend reading “Breaking the Spell” if you are interested in the full context.

      As I also pointed out in the blog post, I would agree that skeptics do not come out and distinctly state, “Any belief with a purely genetic or otherwise biological origin is false.” Rather, they simply offer evidence that they believe supports premise (2) as an argument against religious belief, failing to recognize that premise (2) without premise (1) proves nothing. Premise (1) is necessarily implicit in their argument, but as I argued, is unsupportable.

      As for your UFO example, I sincerely doubt the proponent of such a position could offer any credible evidence to support such a claim, and in fact there is a large amount of evidence to the contrary. But that is precisely the point. We believe that this claim does not rest on secure footing precisely because we are familiar with the total lack of evidence in support of such claims. We are still, however, evaluating the evidence, and in so doing are not committing the genetic fallacy. To use your example, if someone high on peyote tells you that the sky is blue, does that mean the sky is not blue simply because he is on peyote? Being influenced by peyote is not what makes you reject his claim. Even people on peyote may make accurate claims. It is because the overwhelming lack of credible evidence that UFOs are intervening here on Earth and the overwhelming evidence of who was truly behind the 9/11 attacks that we reject such claims.

      • staircaseghost

        “As I said in the lead in to that paragraph, Dennett was using the evidence cited in that paragraph to support his argument that the VMAT2 gene may fully account for religious belief. That is the “blank” he is discussing being filled in the opening paragraph. I would recommend reading “Breaking the Spell” if you are interested in the full context.”

        You are operating under the mistaken impression that I have not read the entire book. Having done so was one of many factors which elevated my confidence that there was some strawmanning going on.

        Dennett has made a career out of being extremely skeptical of what he calls “greedy” reductionism. Anyone familiar with his thought, even if they hadn’t read this book, would be immediately suspicious that he has ever claimed to “fully account for all religious belief with a single gene”.

        I don’t have the whole book in front of me, but google books has the sentence immediately prior to your quote as “In chapter 3, I briefly introduced the hypothesis that our brains might have evolved a ‘god center’ but noted that it would be better for the time being to consider it a what’s center that had later been adapted or exploited by religious elaborations of one sort or another.”

        So it appears as though he is perfectly cognizant that “religious elaborations” i.e. forces coming from outside of pure genetics are going to play a vital explanatory role. Searching for “whatsis center” lead me to the following passage, presumably in chapter 3 (google books doesn’t have page numbers for this item):

        “But we should carefully set aside the anachronism involved in thinking of this hypothesized innate system as a ‘god center,’ since its original target may have been quite unlike the intense stuff that turns it on today — we don’t have an innate chocolate-ice-cream center in the brain, after all, or a nicotine center. God may just be the latest and most intense confection that triggers the what’s center in so many people.”

        Pardon me, but I simply am not seeing any kind of vulgar reductionism here. Do you think there is just some kind of logical or conceptual flaw in explanations like those for why moths fly into fluorescent lamps, or why kids like soda pop?

        “As I also pointed out in the blog post, I would agree that skeptics do not come out and distinctly state, “Any belief with a purely genetic or otherwise biological origin is false.” Rather, they simply offer evidence that they believe supports premise (2) as an argument against religious belief, failing to recognize that premise (2) without premise (1) proves nothing.”

        But as you can see, neither Dennett nor your unnamed “skeptics” are greedy reductionists arguing for purely biological causes of religion. That is the core of my objection to your straw man. Everyone understands that contingent historical conditions (cultural, economic etc.) are going to play a role. As the extended quotation demonstrates.

        Premise (1) is necessarily implicit in their argument, but as I argued, is unsupportable.

        It is indeed insupportable, but you have not shown that it is either implicit in the text or logically necessary, and with all due respect, you’ve simply ignored my attempt to supply you with an actual, plausible, charitable version of the argument.

        “As for your UFO example, I sincerely doubt the proponent of such a position could offer any credible evidence to support such a claim, and in fact there is a large amount of evidence to the contrary.”

        Apologists tell me, over and over and over (and over and over) that one can know to a moral certainty that a corpse rose from the grave because eyewitness testimony is very very reliable, and only a “hyperskeptic” would give greater weight to the billions of observations of corpses not coming back to life than to eyewitness reports. But now I am told that I should demand “additional evidence” for this extraordinary claim!

        I guess whether or not I am permitted to evaluate testimony against background scientific knowledge is just a function of whose theological ox is being gored…

        Look, there is a single, consistent rule to apply in both cases — indeed, in all cases: weigh the probability that the mental processes which led to the person giving the eyewitness report were non-truth-preserving against the magnitude of violence done to background beliefs. So we naturally, instinctively construct models about the causal chain that terminated in the words coming out of particular mammals’ mouths. Every time.

        I simply don’t believe you when you affect to be indifferent to whether the reporter was intoxicated, or mentally ill, or in poor viewing conditions, or mistaken, or lying, or, etc. This is not “the genetic fallacy”. It is basic, common sense, everyday responsible evaluation of evidence.

        Religionists shriek like coeds in a bad 80s sex comedy realizing there’s peeping toms in their shower room when someone dares to venture that their beliefs might have natural causes, but remain remarkably sanguine when they apply the identical reasoning to every other religious belief. (In the interests of completism, I suppose I have to add an asterisk here for those who literally believe that literally every religious belief held by everyone ever besides their own was directly implanted by demonic forces. I’m not dealing with one of those people, am I?)

        “We are still, however, evaluating the evidence, and in so doing are not committing the genetic fallacy.”

        Then we agree. It is not an instance of the genetic fallacy to weigh the likelihood of an unreliable report against our background knowledge. Which is all people like Dennett are trying to do.

        You believe that at least some (probably most) religious beliefs have causes other than their truth.

        “To use your example, if someone high on peyote tells you that the sky is blue, does that mean the sky is not blue simply because he is on peyote?”

        Yes, let’s use my example, because my examples are well-thought-out and all cohere quite well with applying a single, consistent standard to evidence.

        I adjudge the report to be truthful because my most parsimonious model of his thought processes includes his past veridical observations of the sky’s color.

        “Being influenced by peyote is not what makes you reject his claim. Even people on peyote may make accurate claims. It is because the overwhelming lack of credible evidence that UFOs are intervening here on Earth and the overwhelming evidence of who was truly behind the 9/11 attacks that we reject such claims.”

        Your first and third sentences are not in tension. We can, should, and must evaluate the causal processes that led to the oral report. It is equally as accurate to say the bullet pierced the flesh “because the bullet was traveling fast” as to say “because flesh is soft”. Because both play a role in our explanations, and are just the variables we attend to when we say a bullet traveling at the same speed does not pierce stone, or that the same flesh struck with a bullet at two mph is not pierced. Just as the sobriety of the reporter and the weight of our background knowledge both play a role. So you can see there is no fallacy here. Only consistent application of a single, epistemically responsible principle. This is the defining behavior which separates skepticism from credulity.

        • http://www.facebook.com/ken.coughlan.7 Ken Coughlan

          In an effort to try to get this discussion more focused, I will attempt to keep it simple.

          “Might we have a god center in our brains along with our sweet tooth? What would it be for? What would pay for it?…God may just be the latest and most intense confection that triggers the whatsis center in so many people. What benefit accrued to those who satisfied their whatsis craving? It could even be that there isn’t and never has been any actual target in the world to obtain, but just an imaginary or virtual target, in effect: it’s been the seeking, not the getting, that has had a fitness advantage.” (Dennett, 83).

          Forget for a moment the precise mechanism Dennett is advancing here and just ask very broadly what is he advancing? He is advancing an explanation for religious belief that has nothing to do with the veracity of that belief. Whether you believe it is a purely genetic explanation or a genetic predisposition influenced by other factors, etc., he is proposing to explain why people have religious belief by giving reasons other than “because it is true.” He is not analyzing the evidence for its truth or falsehood, but rather is examining the person and their cognitive abilities/influences. That is the definition of the genetic fallacy. Much of your reply was spent arguing that Dennett is not advancing a PURELY genetic explanation, but that is irrelevant. He is still undoubtedly advancing a mechanical-like explanation (whether nature or nurture, so to speak), suggesting that the religiously-minded are not simply arriving at their beliefs by a logical evaluation of the evidence (something from which he interestingly does not believe affects the non-religiously minded). It does not need to be PURELY genetic in a biological sense order to commit the genetic fallacy. The genetic fallacy is committed any time someone argues that they have addressed the veracity of a belief by merely offering evidence of how that belief came to be. You seem to be equating the term “genetic” as used in biology with the manner in which the term is used in logic, and they are not necessarily the same.

          “Apologists tell me, over and over and over (and over and over) that one can know to a moral certainty that a corpse rose from the grave because eyewitness testimony is very very reliable, and only a ‘hyperskeptic’ would give greater weight to the billions of observations of corpses not coming back to life than to eyewitness reports.”

          Respectfully, now this sounds as if you are advancing a straw man. I know of no apologists who ever deny that the ordinary course of human experience is that corpses do not rise from the grave or who argue that eyewitness testimony is overwhelmingly reliable. Rather, reasons are customarily provided as to why this eyewitness testimony should be deemed reliable (i.e., the familiarity of the witnesses with Jesus after having spent many years with him, the number of witnesses whose testimony agrees, the lack of incentive to
          fabricate, to name but a few examples). No apologist argues that eyewitness testimony should simply be customarily accepted as a matter of course because it is, as you say, “very
          very reliable.” Rather, the argument is presented that given the circumstances in this particular case, the eyewitness testimony should be deemed reliable. If the only ground for you refusing to accept it as reliable is that it runs against our customary observation, then that criteria could be used to exclude every unique or first-time phenomenon. You would never accept anything unique or new on the sole ground that you have not observed it to occur previously. All the apologist is asking is that people keep an open mind and evaluate the evidence without setting up criteria in advance that automatically exclude certain conclusions from ever being considered. By demanding strict adherence to the “usual case,” however, the skeptic is closing the door on certain possibilities before the evidence is evaluated.

          “There is a single, consistent rule to apply in both cases — indeed, in all cases: weigh the probability that the mental processes which led to the person giving the eyewitness report were non-truth-preserving against the magnitude of violence done to background beliefs.”

          If you are going to apply this standard, though, the fact that “violence” is done to background beliefs cannot be your sole evidence that “the mental processes” were “non-truth preserving.” That is the point I made in my last paragraph. The apologist advances evidence that the mental processes WERE truth preserving in order to argue that the eyewitness testimony in this case was reliable. However, the conclusion that is drawn if that testimony is truthful is something that, to use your phrase, does violence to our background beliefs.

          What do you do in that situation? If you are truly weighing one against the other, at best you should be left with a position of agnosticism; i.e., “On the one hand I have what seems to be reliable eyewitness testimony that a resurrection occurred, but on the other I have my background beliefs that resurrections do not occur. What am I to do with this conundrum?” That would be truly weighing one against the other. But what the atheist does is to take the weights from one side of the scale and apply them to the other. In other words, they use the background information as evidence that the eyewitness testimony must be unreliable. But in making that leap they are committing circular reasoning. They are deciding in advance that the background information will always outweigh eyewitness testimony regardless of the other indicia of reliability for that testimony. You are no longer weighing the evidence for one against the evidence for the other, but rather are blindly adhering to the evidence for one regardless of the strength of the evidence for the other. You are stacking the deck to say that regardless of the weight of the eyewitness testimony, it can never tip the scale in its favor. That would be in violation of your own standard.

          “I adjudge the report to be truthful because my most parsimonious model of his thought processes includes his past veridical observations of the sky’s color.”

          Can you see what you have smuggled in with this statement? Why do you choose to use the word “veridical?” How do you know that his previous observations were “veridical?” How do
          you know they were not false? Because you have previously evaluated the objective evidence for the sky’s color and drawn a conclusion based upon that evidence, not the mental state of the observer, that the sky is blue. You then compare his observations to your conclusion that was based upon this objective evidence and conclude that his observation is veridical. You have still drawn your conclusion based upon the evidence for the merits of a position, not the manner in which an observer acquired that position.

          Fundamentally, we judge which observations are veridical and which are not based upon an objective evaluation of the merits. Even, for example, when we say that people under the influence of drugs or alcohol do not have reliable faculties, it is because we have seen on previous occasions that such people’s observations do not “match up” with what the objective evidence shows to be true. We believe, for example, that someone high on peyote may inaccurately report the color of the sky because we have already arrived at a conclusion of the true color of the sky based upon objective evidence, and we have seen case after case in which people under the influence arrive at conclusions that do not match the objective evidence. It still eventually boils down to an objective evaluation of the evidence, not of the person.

          What are we to do, however, with someone who is not under the influence of peyote, and for whom we can find no other evidence that their faculties are not reliable other than the fact that they are telling us something we would not expect? That presents a more difficult problem, and to reject that testimony out of right ensures that new phenomenon will never be accepted.

          Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

          • staircaseghost

            He is
            advancing an explanation for religious belief that has nothing to do with the veracity of that belief. Whether you believe it is a purely genetic explanation or a genetic predisposition influenced by other factors, etc., he is proposing to explain why people have religious belief by giving reasons other than
            “because it is true.”

            Yep. Just like you do, for
            every religious belief other than your own. He is merely doing it consistently.

            They can’t all be true, so
            ex hypothesi you do the very same thing! I was only half
            joking when I asked about demonically implanted beliefs. Now I’m asking you
            seriously: where does every other religious belief besides your own come from,
            and why do they take the form they do?

            The very fact that apologists
            feel driven to make such outlandishly bizarre claims as “Satanic counterfeits
            before the fact” tells us the non-truth-involving genesis of religious beliefs
            is a genuine subject for inquiry.

            He is not
            analyzing the evidence for its truth or falsehood, but rather is examining the
            person and their cognitive abilities/influences.

            There is no contradiction
            here, as your ordinary, everyday reasoning demonstrates.

            That is
            the definition of the genetic fallacy. Much of your reply was spent arguing
            that Dennett is not advancing a PURELY genetic explanation, but that is
            irrelevant.

            The objection there was to
            your “fully account for “ verbiage.

            He is
            still undoubtedly advancing a mechanical-like explanation (whether nature or
            nurture, so to speak), suggesting that the religiously-minded are not simply
            arriving at their beliefs by a logical evaluation of the evidence (something
            from which he interestingly does not believe affects the non-religiously
            minded).

            Remember that you also
            believe this for the vast majority of cases, so we haven’t gotten to any
            objection you can consistently level yet. Do you believe Mohammed came by his
            religious belief by “logical evaluation of the evidence given to him by the
            archangel Gabriel”? How about Joseph Smith? What about all those weird Catholic
            miracles you don’t believe in, or those weird quasi-animist Pentacostal
            miracles in the global South, or Shinto, or the shamans of the Mongolian
            steppe, or the bloodthirsty gods of the Aztecs, or or etc. etc.

            Assuming you dismiss all
            these religious beliefs, is your reason 1) based on a general theory of how
            primates generate religions or 2) simply noting that they contradict your own
            personal theology, the very essence of question-begging?

            seem to be
            equating the term “genetic” as used in biology with the manner in which the
            term is used in logic, and they are not necessarily the same.

            No, that was a separate
            objection I was making to the “fully account for” verbiage.

            And just as not all appeals
            to authority are fallacious, not all ad hominems are fallacious and not all
            examinations of the source of belief are fallacious. Think about it. Literally every
            time you evaluate testimony, you are “committing the genetic fallacy” by trying
            to reconstruct the causal chain which led to it.

            No
            apologist argues that eyewitness testimony should simply be customarily
            accepted as a matter of course because it is, as you say, “very

            very reliable.” Rather, the argument is presented that given the circumstances
            in this particular case, the eyewitness testimony should be deemed reliable.

            As sure as the sun rises in
            the east, apologists say that disbelieving the (hearsay accounts of) gospel
            witnesses means the skeptic “must throw out all knowledge of ancient history”
            or “must disregard all testimony as a source of knowledge”. I’ve seen you pull
            this same maneuver in old debates with Dagoods on your blog. You basically do
            the same thing right here:

            If the
            only ground for you refusing to accept it as reliable is that it runs against
            our customary observation, then that criteria could be used to exclude every
            unique or first-time phenomenon.

            And again here:

            You would
            never accept anything unique or new on the sole ground that you have not
            observed it to occur previously.

            I rather specifically said
            it is weighed against our customary observation. This is how
            you reason, every minute of every day, except you apply the principle
            inconsistently to your personal religious beliefs.

            Where the fundamentalist
            mindset leads one astray is the refusal to think in terms of degrees
            of belief
            instead of in black and white. To the fundamentalist, truth
            (sorry, The Truth) is ultimately simple, therefore complexity and uncertainty
            are ipso facto indicators of falsehood.

            Unfortunately, life really
            is complex and uncertain. “Well, he does have an alibi, and although I don’t
            think he’s lying it does sound awfully convenient, but then a witness saw him
            at the scene, but the witness was elderly and it was from a great distance, and
            although he would profit monetarily from the crime, he seems genuinely shaken
            up by the victim’s death, but maybe that’s an act…”

            Testimony is just one more
            form of observation – observation of primates flapping their meat whistles at
            us or clacking keyboards at us, and we weigh the likelihood of its being
            truth-preserving against our background knowledge just like any other
            observation.

            My world model tells me
            ,although it does not rule it out nomologically, that it is unlikely that a cat
            would play fetch like a dog. So I was skeptical (not categorically dismissive,
            I said skeptical) of my friend’s report that she had taught my cat to do it,
            until I saw it myself. Then I updated my model. I probably would have updated
            in the absence of direct observation if there had been corroborating testimony
            that didn’t seem like collusion.

            So let’s have no more of
            this silly strawman talk about only believing what you’ve already seen, or
            throwing out all testimony.

            By
            demanding strict adherence to the “usual case,” however, the skeptic is closing
            the door on certain possibilities before the evidence is evaluated.

            But since you have now been
            definitively corrected and shown that the skeptic does not “demand strict
            adherence to the usual case”, I’m sure we’ve seen the last of this strawman.

            If you are
            going to apply this standard, though, the fact that “violence” is done to
            background beliefs cannot be your sole evidence that “the mental processes”
            were “non-truth preserving.”

            In fact it is the only
            criterion. The question is how much violence we can tolerate.

            If I look outside and there
            is snow on the ground and my weather app says it is 299 degrees, accepting the
            veracity of that report would do extreme violence to, among
            other things, my background beliefs about the formation of snow, and general
            climatological patterns on earth in January. Whereas the supposition that the
            causal process which led to the report (see? See?) involved a misplaced decimal
            point does very little violence.

            We incorporate novel,
            anomalous observations into our model when the parsimony cost of dismissing
            them becomes higher (degrees of belief, see?) than the cost of updating the
            model. Therefore you can, must, should, and do model the causal chains leading
            to religious beliefs other than your own.

            That is
            the point I made in my last paragraph. The apologist advances evidence that the
            mental processes WERE truth preserving in order to argue that the eyewitness
            testimony in this case was reliable.

            Genetic fallacy! Genetic
            Fallacy! How dare you look at a process leading to a belief instead of the
            evidence for the belief itself!!!!!

            What do
            you do in that situation? If you are truly weighing one against the other, at
            best you should be left with a position of agnosticism; i.e., “On the one hand
            I have what seems to be reliable eyewitness testimony that a resurrection
            occurred, but on the other I have my background beliefs that resurrections do
            not occur. What am I to do with this conundrum?”

            You say “agnosticism” like
            it was a dirty word. And like it is somehow in contradiction to skepticism,
            which the fundamentalist mindset cannot fathom unless it is the dogmatic
            rejection of a belief, held with absolute certainty.

            Note the asymmetry here. All
            I have to do is fail to be convinced, not supply a positive model of how the
            (hearsay) eyewitness reports were generated. But supplying one surely helps!

            But what
            the atheist does is to take the weights from one side of the scale and apply
            them to the other. In other words, they use the background information as
            evidence that the eyewitness testimony must be unreliable.

            That it is very very very
            very very very very very unlikely to be reliable. Not “must”.

            They are
            deciding in advance that the background information will always outweigh
            eyewitness testimony regardless of the other indicia of reliability for that
            testimony.

            Incorrect, as has been
            explained at length now. Not “always”. Only when the parsimony costs of
            modeling a false report outweigh the parsimony costs of accepting the
            observation.

            Can you
            see what you have smuggled in with this statement? Why do you choose to use the
            word “veridical?” How do you know that his previous observations were
            “veridical?”

            Are you kidding me?

            Because most people’s are,
            most of the time. According to my model. In my experience.

            Because
            you have previously evaluated the objective evidence for the sky’s color and
            drawn a conclusion based upon that evidence, not the mental state of the
            observer, that the sky is blue.

            My evidence
            and my model of his mental processes. Weighed against one
            another. May the most parsimonious man win.

            You then
            compare his observations to your conclusion that was based upon this objective
            evidence and conclude that his observation is veridical. You have still drawn
            your conclusion based upon the evidence for the merits of a position, not the
            manner in which an observer acquired that position.

            Fundamentally, we judge
            which observations are veridical and which are not based upon an objective
            evaluation of the merits.

            Did you notice the point
            where your line of reasoning inverted to become an argument
            against the position you started out for?

            {testimony that the sky is
            blue : my observations that the sky is blue} :: {testimony that a corpse
            returned to life : my observation that the corpse returned to life}

            Notice anything funny about
            that fourth term? Maybe something a little different from the case of us having
            a wealth of sky color observations to draw from?

            Even, for
            example, when we say that people under the influence of drugs or alcohol do not
            have reliable faculties, it is because we have seen on previous occasions that
            such people’s observations do not “match up” with what the objective evidence
            shows to be true.

            DING DING DING!

            Exactly. Just as we have
            seen on previous occasions where religious people make stuff up.

            We establish a baseline for
            the null hypothesis. Exactly what you are calling “the genetic fallacy” when it
            threatens your beliefs, but not otherwise. Primates make religious beliefs the
            way pine trees make pine cones. What we need is a model of how often and in
            what manner humans, left to their own devices, will come up with such beliefs,
            in order to evaluate the probability that any given report of a belief is to be
            expected under the null hypothesis. So you can see there is no fallacy here.

            We
            believe, for example, that someone high on peyote may inaccurately report the
            color of the sky because we have already arrived at a conclusion of the true
            color of the sky based upon objective evidence, and we have seen case after
            case in which people under the influence arrive at conclusions that do not
            match the objective evidence.

            No, that’s
            my argument. Get your own, and stop committing the genetic
            fallacy by proposing a model in which people under the influence arrive at
            conclusions that do not match the objective evidence!

            What are
            we to do, however, with someone who is not under the influence of peyote, and
            for whom we can find no other evidence that their faculties are not reliable
            other than the fact that they are telling us something we would not expect?

            We weigh
            the parsimony cost of modeling a non-truth-apt causal process behind the belief
            against the parsimony cost of updating our models. So you can see, there is no
            dogmatism or “hyperskepticism” here.