How Not to Invoke the “Genetic Fallacy”
by Thomas Rauchenstein
The Fallacy in a Nutshell
When the origin of religious belief is a topic of debate between Christian apologists and atheists, their arguments follow a predictable thread. The atheist usually claims that religious beliefs arose because they were advantageous for our evolutionary ancestors, or were the by-product of adaptations that conferred such advantages. Then, the apologist responds to the atheist by accusing him of committing “the genetic fallacy.” But what is the genetic fallacy, exactly?
This fallacy is committed when someone infers that a belief is false because of how it originated. It is a fallacy because the truth or falsity of a belief does not hinge on where it comes from. For example, it is fallacious to argue that the equation E=mc2 is false because one learned it from bathroom graffiti. The equation is still true regardless of how one learned it. Likewise, apologists often accuse atheists of committing the genetic fallacy when they explain religious beliefs in evolutionary terms.
Undercutting the Warrant for a Belief
But is the atheist really guilty of committing this fallacy? Not necessarily. The apologist is correct to point out that an evolutionary explanation of religious beliefs does not entail their falsity. But very few atheists disagree with that! Rather, they claim that religious beliefs are no longer justified or warranted for certain people when they become aware of how these beliefs were formed. To understand how the origin of a belief can affect its warrant, consider the following example:
Suppose you believe that a pink elephant is standing in front of you. You haven’t seen a pink elephant before, but the shape, color and scent of the elephant seem just as real to you as any other object nearby. Now suppose that you become aware of how your belief in the pink elephant was formed. You discover that someone has put LSD into your beverage and that hallucinations of discoloured animals are not uncommon for people under the influence of this drug!
Should you still believe in the pink elephant upon discovering that you’ve taken LSD? It seems not. You might check and see by petting the pink elephant or asking someone else to verify if it is there; but in the absence of such corroboration, you should give up your belief. Does this mean that a pink elephant is not there? Not necessarily…
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