There is a rash of terrible arguments against the existence of God which some adamant atheists think have great purchase against theism in general. Any argument, for example, which uses empirical evidence against God’s existence is almost always weaker than its champions seem to realize, especially since empirical proof is an oxymoron. Often times these arguments are riddled with the most elementary errors such as argument ad hominem or the genetic fallacy. Recently I came across one such fantastically bad argument against the existence of God, which normally I would not even bother responding to; however, the response which a fellow Catholic blogger gave to it was one which I think took it too seriously, and gave it too much credibility. That can be found here.
The video here:
I, of course, agree with Bad Catholic’s points, but I do not think that is how I would have responded. I would want, therefore, to add to his response the following points. First, that this argument at best commits the genetic fallacy – that by explaining where a belief might come from you can demonstrate its truth or falsity objectively. Second, I would like to point out that the experience described by the test subject was ridiculously wide of the mark of religious experience in any of the great theistic traditions, including Hinduism. The subject felt the presence of other people in the room. Religious experience is usually an experience of something distinct, communicative, something the experience of which has a noetic quality, which reduces man to the ultimate dimension (in the language of Frederick Streng), so on and so forth. In fact, this argument from the “God helmet” is not only sensationalism gone wild (though that was obviously the aim of the scientists who produced the study since it means more funding – and good for them) but I am almost tempted to say that it hasn’t reached the sophistication necessary to even qualify as committing the genetic fallacy, since it doesn’t even reproduce anything analogous to theistic religious experience.
There are, of course, other arguments from cognitive science that do a better job than this one in trying to reproduce religious experience, and some of these definitely commit the genetic fallacy. However, almost all of these are recognized to be rather weak demonstrations that religious experience can really be reproduced without fail under ‘X’ conditions or mental states. The strongest argument I’ve read was by Jesse Bering who aimed to demonstrate that the irrationality of religion was a necessary by-product of our cognitive evolution; he says “we’ve got God by the throat and I’m not going to stop until one of us is dead.” However, even his argument only demonstrates that man has evolved in such a way that he has a religious disposition, and one might have expected as much on theism (in fact, the real surprise for theism would be if we were not disposed to be religious, though that wouldn’t be surprising on atheism, and likewise it seems that it is more surprising on atheism than not). At most these arguments can demonstrate that belief in God is not epistemically warranted by religious experience – and that’s already granting it quite a lot. Moreover, that arguments is not very powerful, since all a theist needs to respond to dissolve that argument is “my religious experience isn’t the only reason I believe that ‘God exists‘ is true” or perhaps “my reasons for believing God exists are good reasons when considered as a cumulative case; given both my experience and all the reasons with which I am familiar, belief in God seems more plausible than not.” Even here, though, I am skeptical about granting this much credence to the arguments at hand. Imagine if the “God Helmet” was recognized to simulate the experience of the presence of other sentient and intelligent beings with whom one could communicate (which is what it was actually doing, btw) – how powerful an argument would that really be for solipsism?
… Quick joke about solipcism, since I cannot resist:
Somebody said “Solipsism is such an attractive philosophy, I don’t know why more people don’t accept it”
In any case, it was unnecessary to attack the argument by demonstrating that it doesn’t take Christian theology seriously, since the linchpin of the Christian worldview (which itself is open to empirical arguments) is the resurrection of Christ. The “God Helmet” argument against the existence of God is a terrible argument, but perhaps it serves at least this purpose: that by demonstrating how terrible it is, maybe people will be able to come up with better arguments by avoiding its mistakes.