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III. Projective Theories a Defeater for Christian Belief?

Now we can turn to the projective theories of religious—in particular, theistic—belief Quinn mentions. These theories propose to explain theistic belief and other religious belief in terms of our projecting into the heavens something like an idealized father. Freud proposes such a theory, as do Marx, Durkheim, and others; according to Quinn, such projective theories, along with natural evil, constitute defeaters for theistic and hence Christian belief. I’ll deal with evil in the last chapter; but what about Freud and Marx? Aren’t their theories, as Quinn says, reasons for responsible and informed contemporary Christian believers to give up belief in God, or at any rate accept it less firmly?

I don’t think so; allow me to explain. The fact is I’ve already given some of my reasons in chapter 6, pp. 192ff. As I argued there, the heart and soul of the F&M (Freud-and-Marx) complaint is that theistic belief lacks warrant: it is not produced by cognitive faculties functioning properly according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth. According to Marx, such belief arises from a sort of cognitive disorder produced by a disordered society; according to Freud, it is produced by cognitive processes that are aimed at psychological comfort or survival rather than truth. Now if I believed these things, then 368perhaps I would have a reason to give up theistic belief.445445   Although, as I argued above (p. 197), it is possible that theistic belief originates in something like wishful thinking, but nonetheless has warrant. If I also believe this, then coming to think that belief in God is a product of wish-fulfillment would not automatically give me a defeater for such belief. But why should I believe them? Is there a rationally compelling argument for one or another of them? Freud and Marx certainly give no reasons for thinking these theories true; they simply announce them. More important, as I argued in chapter 6, their attack on the warrant of theistic belief really presupposes that theistic belief is false; it presupposes atheism. If I am aware of that, however, how can their attack constitute a defeater, for me, of theistic belief? If theistic belief is false, then perhaps the F&M thesis would be a good way to think of it; but, of course, I do not believe that theistic belief is false. Freud and Marx’s declarations, therefore, do not give me a defeater for theistic belief; what they announce might be a defeater, if I came to believe it, but they provide no reason at all for my coming to believe it. A person can easily be apprised of Freud’s views, here, and continue to accept theistic belief in complete rationality.

Projective theories like Freud’s could be a defeater for theistic belief (and hence for Christianity) for some people. Suppose I believe very firmly that if theism is true, there couldn’t be any coherent projective theories of religious or theistic belief; suppose I also accept theism, though not particularly firmly. Now suppose I then come to believe that

(F) Freud’s theory (or some other projective theory) is indeed coherent.

Then (F) will be a defeater—perhaps a partial defeater—for my theistic belief; as long as I accept it and continue to accept the rest of my noetic structure (including the idea that theism is true only if there are no coherent projective theories of theistic belief), I can’t rationally also accept theism. Of course that idea is false; but a false belief can nonetheless serve as a defeater. Or suppose I don’t realize either that Freud’s theory really presupposes atheism, or that he gives no argument either for atheism or for his theory. Then too I might have a defeater, at least a partial defeater, for my theistic belief. So I could acquire a defeater in learning about these theories. However, the point is that rationality does not require that I acquire such a defeater under those conditions. The point is that a rational person could perfectly well be a theist, learn about and be well acquainted with Freud’s (and others’) projective theories, and rationally remain a theist—in particular, if she sees that Freud’s views are unargued and in any event really presuppose atheism. Alternatively, a theist for whom Freud’s views did constitute a defeater could acquire a defeater for that defeater (a defeater-defeater) by coming to be apprised of these or other epistemological truths. Here is a 369place, then, where the philosopher can be of service to the Christian community by pointing out truths which, when added to a Christian noetic structure, can preserve Christian or theistic belief from defeat or provide a defeater-defeater for a defeater of such belief.

Now Quinn argues that projective theories of theistic belief are defeaters for such belief if they successfully explain theistic belief:

I believe it is useful to think of projection theories of religious belief as constituting a research program in the human sciences. . . . The unifying idea of the research program is that there is in us a mechanism of belief formation and maintenance that involves projecting attributes of individual humans or their societies outwards and postulating entities in which the projected attributes are instantiated. . . . The existence of the postulated entities is supposed to play no role in explaining the formation or persistence of belief in the postulates. If such hypotheses can explain religious beliefs in a wide variety of circumstances, leaving unexplained no more anomalies than other good theories, then appeal to some principle of economy such as Ockham’s razor can be made to justify the conclusion that the entities whose existence is postulated as a result of the operation of the projection mechanism do not exist because they are explanatorily idle.446446   “The Foundations of Theism Again,” in Rational Faith: Catholic Responses to Reformed Theology (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993), pp. 41–42.

If I understand Quinn’s suggestion as specified to theistic belief, it is that:

(Q1) the existence of God is not needed in order to explain theistic belief;


(Q2) the existence of God is explanatorily idle;


(Q3) that is a good reason for holding that there is no such person as God.

It’s not clear that Quinn accepts (Q1) through (Q3); perhaps he is only proposing them as possibilities. (And even if he did accept them, he might also hold that there are also good reasons for theistic belief.) In any event, I believe there are several serious problems with these suggestions. First, according to the theory in question, believers in God postulate the existence of God (“there is in us a mechanism of belief formation and maintenance that involves projecting attributes of individual humans or their societies outwards and postulating entities 370in which the projected attributes are instantiated.”) Belief in God, however, is clearly not a result of postulation; believers in God do not ordinarily postulate that there is such a person, just as believers in other persons or material objects do not ordinarily postulate that there are such things. Postulation is a process that goes with scientific theories; one postulates entities of a certain sort (e.g., quarks or gluons) as part of an explanatory theory. Christians, however, do not ordinarily propose the existence of God as an explanation of anything at all (see above, pp. 330ff.). Still, perhaps this is not a central point. It shouldn’t be essential to the theories in question that belief in God be formed by way of postulation; indeed, the theories would work as well or better if what they claimed was that believers in God came to believe as they do by way of unconscious mechanisms of one sort or another.

Second, even if the existence of theistic belief can be ‘explained’ (whatever exactly that amounts to) without postulating the existence of God, it might still be that theism itself explains lots of other things. Theistic belief is only one of the things that theism can be invoked to explain. Theism has also been used to explain the fine-tuning of the universe; the existence of propositions, properties, and other abstract entities; the origin of life; the nature and existence of morality; the reliability of our epistemic faculties; and much else besides. Hence the fact that it is explanatorily idle with respect to theistic belief doesn’t by itself show that it is explanatorily idle tout court; there is no reason, so far, to infer (Q2) from (Q1).

Third, given (Q2), why infer (Q3)? According to Ockham’s famous razor, entia non multiplicandum sunt praetor necessitatem; “entities ought not to be multiplied beyond necessity.”447447   As the razor is ordinarily understood. There is apparently some doubt as to whether Ockham himself ever put it just this way. Taken as the suggestion that one ought not postulate entities of a certain kind unless required to in some way, the razor manifests a certain robust common sense. (Perhaps one can explain certain phenomena by way of postulating the existence of mice in the garage; then it would be multiplying entities beyond necessity if one were to postulate both mice and fairies to explain the phenomena.) But theism isn’t ordinarily accepted as an explanatory hypothesis. So suppose theistic belief is indeed explanatorily idle: why should that compromise it, or suggest that it has low epistemic status? If theistic belief is not proposed as an explanatory hypothesis in the first place, why should its being explanatorily idle, if indeed it is, be held against it? Beliefs such as that I had an orange for breakfast are not (ordinarily) accepted as hypotheses; should we take the fact that they don’t explain much of 371anything as a point against them, a defeater for them? So it is hard to see why theistic belief’s being explanatorily idle (if it is) is a point against it. Indeed, (Q3) actually says something much stronger: explanatory idleness, it says, is a reason for taking theistic belief to be, not just epistemically suspect, but false. But why think that? Suppose (contrary to fact, as I see it) explanatory idleness is something against theistic belief. Why go on to infer that it gives one a reason for denying the existence of God? Wouldn’t agnosticism, withholding belief, be sufficient? Maybe I don’t know of any phenomena that I can explain only by supposing there is intelligent life on other planets. Should I then deny that there is any such life? Wouldn’t simple agnosticism be sufficient?

The crucial point, here, is that on the model (and in actuality as well) theistic belief is not ordinarily accepted as an explanation. It is not that the theist sizes up what the world appears to be like (including the existence of theistic belief itself) and then proposes the existence of God as the best explanation of these phenomena. If that were how she was thinking, then the fact that theistic belief is explanatorily idle (if it is) with respect to some range of data might be relevant. But it isn’t. On the model, the believer in God ordinarily believes in the basic way, not on the evidential basis of other propositions, and not by way of proposing belief in God as an explanation of something or other. Hence the fact that there are better explanations of some range of phenomena (if there are) does not so far cast any doubt on belief in God.

Allow me to return to an analogy I have used elsewhere. I apply for a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship; realizing I am not really qualified, I offer you five hundred dollars to write a glowing if inaccurate letter of recommendation. Perhaps, as they say, everyone has a price; as it turns out, yours is definitely more than five hundred dollars. You indignantly refuse, and write a blistering letter to the chair of my department. The letter mysteriously disappears from her office. One of the most respected members of the department, however, reports having seen me apparently trying to enter her office through a second-story window. I have means, motive, and opportunity. Further, I am known to have done this sort of thing before. But I clearly remember being on a solitary hike in the mountains the entire afternoon during which the letter disappeared. I believe that I did not remove that letter, and that belief has warrant for me. But I do not propose my belief that I am innocent, or that I took a walk in the woods, as an explanation of the facts pointing to my guilt. I don’t propose my innocence or my going for a hike as an explanation of anything at all: these beliefs enter my noetic structure in quite a different way. Suppose, then, that these beliefs are, in fact, explanatorily idle; and add, if you like, that there is a good (if false) explanation of x’s claiming to have seen me trying to gain entrance to 372the office: namely, that I took the letter in order to avoid further embarrassment. Does the explanatory idleness of my beliefs constitute a defeater for them? Of course not. They aren’t proposed as explanations.448448   Granted: if the evidence for my having taken the letter continues to mount (the letter turns up in my back pocket; my fingerprints are all over the file it was kept in; the mountain I thought I was hiking on that afternoon was destroyed by a volcanic eruption the preceding morning), I may eventually have to conclude that my memory is playing me tricks. The point is only that the explanatory idleness of my belief does not constitute any kind of defeater for it—because it isn’t accepted as an explanation. Similarly for theistic belief.

Taken as they stand, therefore, Quinn’s claims do not seem to show that projective hypotheses furnish a defeater for Christian or theistic belief. Could it be that a stronger argument of the same sort is lurking in the neighborhood? As Quinn states the objection, the fact that theistic belief is explanatorily idle gives us reason to believe that there is no such person as God, so that the theist who realizes that this belief is indeed explanatorily idle has a rebutting defeater. But there may be another and possibly stronger way to put the objection. Perhaps the problem is not just that belief in the existence of God is explanatorily idle (if it is); after all, many of our beliefs do not function as explanations, or at least don’t function primarily as explanations. Perhaps the idea, instead, is that

(Q4) If S can give an explanation of a certain range of her beliefs without assuming the existence of the entities whose existence those beliefs affirm, then S has an undercutting defeater for those beliefs.

The idea would then be that when the theist learns of these projective theories, she sees that the existence of her theistic belief can be explained without assuming the existence of God; that, according to (Q4), provides her with a rebutting defeater for her belief in the existence of God. This way of putting the objection differs from Quinn’s in two ways. First, what provides a defeater for belief in the existence of God is not the fact that this belief is explanatorily idle (if it is), but rather the fact that there is an explanation of belief in God available that does not presuppose the truth of that belief—that is, does not presuppose the existence of God. Second, the kind of defeater allegedly provided is undercutting, not rebutting.

Still, is (Q4) really true? There are at least two versions of (Q4). On the one hand, (Q4) could require that the proposed explanation must involve only entities whose existence S already accepts; on the other, the explanation could involve either entities whose existence she already accepts or entities whose existence she does not already accept. Because the first version is the weaker and hence more plausible, suppose we confine our attention to it. So imagine that I can give an explanation of 373a certain range of my beliefs without assuming the existence of the entities E those beliefs affirm; suppose further I can give the explanation in terms of entities I already do accept. Does that give me a defeater for belief in the existence of those entities E? I don’t think so. Consider my belief in the external objects of perception (trees, houses, horses, other people): perhaps I could explain these beliefs as implanted in me by God, for reasons of his own. This explanation does not presuppose the existence of those objects, and it is in terms of entities (God) whose existence I already accept. Would the availability of this explanation give me a defeater for those perceptual beliefs? I doubt it. Another possibility: perhaps I could also explain them (in accordance with the projection theories we are considering) as projections I myself unconsciously make: I am appeared to in various ways and, as a result, project beliefs to the effect that there are material objects that persist even when I am not having any experience. Would that explanation of such beliefs give me a defeater for them? Again, I doubt it. Perhaps there is also a projective explanation of my belief in the existence of other people: I see these bodies around me; I project the belief that they are, or are the bodies of other thinking, feeling creatures like myself (the alternative is pretty lonely); does that give me a defeater for my belief that there are other persons? Again, I don’t think so. The fact is there is little reason to accept (Q4), at least if taken with complete generality. This means, I believe, that we have no good reason to think one acquires a defeater for theistic belief in learning of these alleged projective explanations of it.

Of course even if alleged projective explanations of theistic belief do not give me a defeater for such belief, there are many more candidates for that post. In the next chapters, we will move on to a consideration of some of those other alleged defeaters: contemporary historical biblical criticism, pluralism and postmodernism, and the facts of evil.

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