Naturalist accounts of religion and evidence for God’s existence

Posted on September 22, 2009

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Another issue that was raised during question time after my Bristol talk was that of the evidence for the existence of God. One of my main points is that religions try to protect their claims against counterevidence, making it also unlikely that any evidence for such claims can be obtained in their normal social context. It is the religions, themselves, that make it difficult to obtain evidence for the truth of their claims! Having said that, if one treats religious claims as factual claims to be investigated by scientific methods, there is no intellectual issue that I can see – the evidence is unequivocally against them. When I said as much after my talk, the response was something of a disgruntled murmur – which I see as evidence for how even scientists internalise the social rules against evaluating the truth of religious claims (the other important part of the story being, of course, that, socially, the truth of the claims is irrelevant). This all follows from the picture of religion I drew during my talk, yet it was shocking for people when I put it as bluntly as that.

Christophe Heintz, who attended the conference in Bristol, suggested that I could avoid the issue of God’s existence by simply saying that it was irrelevant to my account. While this is certainly correct to a degree, it isn’t completely the case (even if it makes for a very expedient strategy). First of all, while the account does not presume the truth or falsehood of the ontological claim, the related epistemic issue is front and centre, as made clear in the previous paragraph. Secondly, even though a naturalist account of religion – such as I presented – does not assume that God does not exist, a successful naturalist account of religion removes a possible argument for the existence of God since it is able to explain the existence of religion without reference to any objectively existing supernatural agents. That this is the case is something that appears not be appreciated by the majority of the religious people who have heard about the work on naturalist explanations of religion. All too often you see people claiming that the fact that religious beliefs are natural for people means that God must exist – it is suggested that discovering the naturalness of religious beliefs is akin to seeing God’s fingerprint in our minds. That this is total poppy-cock does not stop the Templeton Foundation from pouring millions into such research and making theistic claims on the basis of this work. In the context of such well-funded misrepresentation of the implications, I think it is ultimately unjustifiable for a scientist working in the area not to clearly state the truth.

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