Alan’s monthly letter for November 2009
I’ve heard a lot of arguments against Christianity. Skeptics thrive on challenging my beliefs. There’s one argument that mystifies me—not because it’s persuasive, but because it comes back time and time again. Though it may sound convincing at first, it’s hopelessly wrong-headed. It occurs when someone confuses motivation with justification.
You’ve probably heard this kind of challenge before: “Christianity is just a crutch” or “You believe in God because you want a father figure.” Since you came to believe in God in this way—so the argument goes—your belief isn’t true. But these examples commit the same error. They dismiss the merit of one’s belief based on the motivation for it. This is formally known as the genetic fallacy.
This is a big blunder. It makes no difference what motivates a person to arrive at his belief. It only matters why he believes it. It might be true that my real father was awful and abusive, which led me to God as a perfect father substitute. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have good reasons to believe God exists. How does my desire for God to exist cause Him to exist or not exist? It doesn’t. What I wish to be true has no bearing on what actually is true.
It also might be true that my addiction to pornography or drugs led me to rely on Jesus as a “crutch” who carries me through each day without succumbing to temptation. But that doesn’t mean Jesus doesn’t exist. I could still have good evidence that He’s real. If a skeptic wants to challenge my belief, he must refute the evidence for Jesus’ existence, not merely point out what motivated me to believe in Him.
One final example of this misstep occurs when one says, “The reason you’re a Christian is because you were born in America. If you had been born in Saudi Arabia you’d probably be Muslim.” My response? So what? It might be true that I’d be Muslim if I had been born in Saudi Arabia, but what follows from that? Nothing. It doesn’t prove that Christianity is false or Islam is true. It merely confuses the origin of my belief with the reasons supporting it.
If a challenger wants to disprove Christianity, they must show why it is false with reasons or evidence. No psychological or sociological discovery about the believer can accomplish this. As C.S. Lewis once explained, “You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong” (emphasis in the original). It only makes sense to ask how one came to believe something false after they’ve done the hard work of refuting that belief.
Christians can make the same mistake too. Simon LeVay, a Harvard trained neuroscientist, once published a report that homosexuality is biologically caused. Many Christians dismissed his claim when they discovered Dr. LeVay was a practicing homosexual who wanted to prove his behavior was rooted in biology. They confused his motivation for belief with the justification for his claim. It was futile to critique Dr. LeVay’s motivation. The validity of his report stands or falls on his evidence for it.
It turned out his conclusions were rejected by the scientific community due to methodological errors. Since he was refuted by reasonable evidence, it was then fair to speculate what his motivation was for propagating poor science.
After teaching a recent three-week series on bad arguments against religion, the audience was relieved. People were pleasantly surprised to understand the missteps in logic of common challenges against their faith. Many of these arguments that appeared persuasive at first turned out to be misguided upon closer inspection.
And these believers can thank our partnership for this encouragement to their faith. Without us working together to train Christians, these moments of truth can't happen. I’m excited that we are building belief among our brethren for the purpose of expanding the Kingdom.
For the glory of God,