October 14, 2011
Not all objections to Christianity are equally challenging. In fact, some of them commit an error in reasoning known as "the genetic fallacy." I’ve even known graduate students in philosophy to make this mistake, and so, learning to spot it will help you become a better thinker and more confident disciple of Jesus.
Not long ago, an atheist friend and I were talking about whether atheism is true. I presented him with arguments from contemporary scholarship against his claims.
His response surprised me.
Rather than respond to my objections, my friend changed the subject to biography. He basically said, “You’ve been a Christian your whole life. You were raised in a Christian family, and went to a Christian graduate school.” Here’s his point. He thought that since my belief in God was formed and even strengthened in those contexts, my belief was false.
But that’s fallacious reasoning. In fact it’s called the “genetic fallacy.” It’s the fallacy of trying to show a view false because of the way in which someone came to believe it. (More precisely: A genetic fallacy occurs when an inference is made from the way a belief is acquired to the belief’s truth-value (in this case, its falsity)). Yet, you can’t show someone’s belief is false simply by showing the psychological reasons he holds to it. This is because a person’s psychology has nothing to do with whether the idea is true.
You may have heard variations on this objection:
"You believe that God exists merely because of…
* your fear of death
* the need for an emotional 'security blanket'
* being raised in a culture or family that believes this sort of thing.
Therefore, your belief that God exists is false."
Now, as interesting as the historical or causal origin of a belief might be (say, to one's children or a biographer or a sociologist), that is simply irrelevant to its truth. What is relevant to an idea’s truth is the evidence and arguments for it.
So, next time you hear someone say a view is false because of how people came to believe it, you’ve spotted a genetic fallacy. Consider kindly telling the person, “You know, how I came to believe in an idea is actually irrelevant to its truth. What matters are the evidence and arguments for the idea. We should stick with those.”
When I informed my atheist friend that my belief in God is not false because of alleged psychological ways I came to believe in God, he changed strategies slightly. I’ll tell you about that in another post. For now, I’d like to know if you have seen this fallacy before in conversation, on the news, etc.?
You can learn more about Timothy Bayless by visiting his bio page.