In many cases, responding to a person’s belief by explaining the physical, psychological, historical, social, emotional, or biological causes of it misses the point if that response is somehow intended to refute or disprove the belief. The truth of the claim and the reasons given in support of it are completely independent of any of these other facts about the genesis of the belief. The genetic fallacy is making the mistake of thinking otherwise. Suppose Smith believes the Pythagorean theorem and some sneering critic points out, “Well, you just believe that because you were indoctrinated to believe it by everyone around you. Your teachers and parents and everyone else believed it and pounded it into you and now, just like a sheep, you believe it too.” Suppose Newton was driven to relentlessly organize and systematize everything he encountered by an obsessive, compulsive disorder. The fact that a psychological disorder contributed to his work wouldn’t affect whether or not g=9.8 m/sec2. The causal origin of the belief, it should be obvious, is irrelevant to its truth or its justification. So when people similarly sneer that religious believers are just obedient sheep who believe because it gives them emotional comfort and because they were indoctrinated, they are making the same mistake. The causal story about what may have happened psychologically to bring about the belief just has no bearing on whether or not it is true. Even if the description of the belief is accurate, it’s not therefore false. And even if the belief owes its origin in part to some neurological or psychological facts, the disbeliever isn’t justified in rejecting the view because of that. It would be fallacious to reject religious beliefs because of these causal accounts alone.
But there is a point of importance here. When we have good reasons to believe that there’s really nothing else supporting the belief besides the causal explanation, then we do have grounds to reject the truth of it. The Inuit Eskimos believed that the moon god, named Aningan, chased his brother, the sun, across the sky, and lives in a giant igloo in the sky. We don’t take such a claim seriously, and we know that there’s not much more to account for this belief in a particular Inuit Eskimo than that his mother and father believed it, everyone else around him believed it, they told him it was true, and it fits in well with the rest of what he believes is true about the world. Maybe the belief provides some emotional comfort. Or maybe there is a neurological disposition to believe such things. Here the psychological, social, causal explanation of the belief explains it away entirely. There are no good reasons for us to believe that the story about Aningan is true, and there are many plausible causal accounts of why the Inuits believe. That’s why you’re an atheist about Aningan.
What about Christianity? The early Christians were a small group of people embedded in an Iron Age world view. The world, as they saw it, must have been heavily populated with magical events and forces, supernatural beings, gods demanding tribute and obedience. They had been raised their entire lives to believe that a spiritual and political messiah would come and provide them with salvation. They were illiterate for the most part. Science as we know it wouldn’t be invented for another 1500 years or so. They had no general expectation that there were natural explanations for lots of the events that people often take to be of religious and supernatural significance. Religiousness and spiritual devotion to some sect or other was a normal way of life for them.
I won’t propose any particular alternative explanation for what might have happened surrounding the beginning of Christianity. I don’t think the non-believer needs to commit themselves to one natural explanation or another being true unless the evidence is really compelling. What should be obvious, even to the staunch believer, is that there are a host of possibilities that could explain why someone might have thought or said he was the son of God and why a lot of people might have believed him besides his really being the offspring of a divine entity who was the creator of the universe. People get confused, they make mistakes, they are enthusiastic, they have ulterior motives, they lie, they cheat, they manipulate, they get duped, they perpetrate cons, they have mental illness, they hear voices, they see things, or they succumb to social pressure. And then social, political, and religious movements can spread by historical accident, through social fads, by political mandate, and so on.
The firm believer must think that one of these alternatives or some combination of them give the real explanation for all the false religions that compete with Christianity. The mainstream Christian would need to conclude that Muhammad, for instance, and his prophecies and the rise of Islam can be explained away in this fashion. The Christian who thinks that the one, true, authentic path to God is through one doctrine or another, say Catholicism, or some kind of fundamentalist creed, they would have to conclude that the vast majority of religions that ever arose in human history are grounded on mistakes and some natural account like those above. There have been tens of thousands of religions in history, and thousands of those claim to be “the one, true religion,” while all the others are false. For them, the precedent is already set for many religions to based on a grand, historical mistake.
The book, The Secret has sold millions of copies. In it, a supposedly ancient secret is revealed that people who have positive thoughts will receive positive events in their lives, and people who have negative thoughts will have unfortunate things happen to them. That such a transparent, and ridiculous scheme could draw in so many millions of people with modern educations, college degrees, and a vast background of scientific knowledge compared to the people in the first century shows how strong the transcendental temptation is, and how easily people are suckered by preposterous metaphysical and supernatural fantasies. If millions of Americans, who have such a vast advantage in education and background knowledge, can be seduced by this sort of scam, then how surprising is it that the people in the early centuries of Christianity’s growth bought that farfetched story hook, line and sinker?
So now, consider what that “one, true religion” must look like to those of us on the outside. Sure, it’s possible that a magical, and divine super being decided to have a son, however that happens, and to send that person to in a tiny village in the middle east in the first century. And it is possible that the magical super being did it in order to tell people to be kind, loving, and forgiving to each other. And those people who believe that all of this story is true will be rewarded in a special magical place after death that no one has ever seen, while all the ones who have doubts and don’t believe will be tortured for eternity.
But doesn’t it really strain credulity for you to really take all that to be true, and for you to expect us to take you seriously? You’ve got to admit that given all the far-fetched, crazy metaphysical schemes that religious traditions have come up with over the centuries about giant igloos in the sky, crocodile gods in the bottom of the Nile, animal spirits, and positive thinking, it’s just common sense to look at one of these stories with a healthy amount of skepticism, and to suspect that the more plausible explanation is that some people who just didn’t know better got confused, or made some mistakes, and the whole thing managed to catch on and spread through a series of interesting historical developments. All of those thousands and thousands of other religions arose from just those sorts of mistakes, so how likely is it that Christianity didn’t?