A Review of Chapter 2 of The Christian Delusion

Chapter 2 of The Christian Delusion is entitled “Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science” and is written by Valerie Tarico.  In the first section Tarico notes that humans are not entirely fair-minded and rational.  She believes Christianity faces a core problem:  “Arriving at belief in an infallible God by way of an inerrant Bible requires an unwarranted belief in yourself” (p. 53).  I am not sure why this is a core problem for Christianity any more than it is a core problem for any other belief system.  It is not like Christians claim to be infallible themselves.  The apostle Paul said:  “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12).  Tarico even paraphrases part of this verse on p. 55!

In the second section Tarico states that our sense of knowing (correctness, certainty, conviction) works well in our everyday lives but that it is not perfect.  The realization that certainty is not possible calls for some humility.  We can agree on this but this means that all humans, not just Christians, face a problem in acquiring knowledge.  This is no more a “core problem” for Christianity than it is for atheism.

In the third section the author asserts that all gods are believed to have human minds “with quirks and limitations that are peculiar to our species” (p. 56).  The next section describes how humans sometimes attribute agency to things that are not agents.  Tarico writes (p. 58):

All of this builds on the idea that supernatural beings are akin to us psychologically.  They have emotions and preferences.  They take action in response to things they like and dislike.  They experience religious indignation and crave retribution.  They like some people better than others.  They respond to our loyalty by being loyal to us.  They can be placated or cajoled.  They like praise, affirmation, and gratitude.  They track favors and goodwill in a kind of tit-for-tat reciprocity.

She says that more abstract theologies (e.g., an omniscient deity) are a relatively recent invention.  The problem is that things like omniscience have been a part of Christianity since its beginning.  It is not a new idea that arose in the last couple centuries.  Christians have long realized that the Bible contains anthropomorphisms and that we do not have a full understanding of God’s mind.

She also notes how some people who describe their God as omniscient and as having predestined everything act as if they can influence future events through prayer.  The relationship between God’s will and human prayer could probably be a book of its own.  I will merely note that prayer is not solely about trying to influence God’s behavior and it is conceivable that an answered prayer was predestined.

The final section deals with born-again experiences, where individuals feel a sense of conviction along with peace or joy.  Allegedly, most Christians are ignorant of the fact that non-Christians also have similar experiences.  I’m not sure how true that is.  I’ve run across quite a few Christians who want it to be clear that Christianity is not dependent on your emotional state.

In the conclusion the author admits that this chapter does not tell us whether a certain set of beliefs is true.  However, she asserts that cognitive science provides a sufficient explanation for the phenomenon of religious belief.  I might agree with her if all deities were very limited and the only reason people became believers is because of the born-again experience she describes.  Unfortunately, for her, at least some people become believers for intellectual reasons and/or because they are convinced they have witnessed a genuine miracle (something far more grand than a sense of peace).  Perhaps some atheists are content to deny that believers became believers for such reasons.  If so, they should at least be aware that Tarico’s so-called explanation comes across more as a denial of our testimony than an explanation of it.

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