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Posted by on Jul 19, 2014 in featured, Featured Inc, morality, philosophy, secularism, skepticism | 9 comments

Why atheists (and everyone) should not leave psychology out of their disagreements

This post is in reply to “Why atheists (and everyone) should leave psychoanalysis out of their disagreements ” by Vlad Chituc, posted on Chris Stedman’s Religion News Service blog.

I would suggest reading it first for proper context. Vlad argues that it is inappropriate to “appeal to psychological motivations” is “pointless at best, condescending and derailing at worst.” I can agree with Vlad that this certainly can be true. For example, the claims that theists are indifferent to evidence because it is uncomfortable, or that their faith stems from the will to dominate others. These may be true in some cases, but I know no evidence suggesting they are causal in religious faith or distinct properties of the religious vs. non.

However, as a rule, I believe Vlad is not correct, and does not make a compelling case.

To start with, Vlad does not attend to context. In the opening paragraphs he wrote “in a debate” and “discourse”, but venue and purpose make a big difference here. Am I discussing religious psychology with other secularists? Am I addressing a theist in a debate? In a conversation? In social media? These matter about how appropriate certain remarks are. Vlad seems to pick examples from the least restrictive as evidence that atheists are using them in the most restrictive settings, which is misleading.

Pointless?

Vlad wrote,

As interesting a puzzle as religious belief is to an atheist, it’s worth noting that the psychology of religious belief says nothing about whether or not God actually exists. By itself, it’s no more evidence against God than the phylogenetic development of number cognition is evidence against math, or the neuroscience of moral emotions is evidence against morality.

There are two problems with this. One is that it is wrong outright. Once we understand humans are predisposed to face paradolia, should we change the likelihood estimate that reports of faces on Mars, tree trunks, and the odd grilled cheese are miraculous? I think that we should, even if it fails to be conclusive in and of itself. If scriptures/holy texts can be shown to survive over time purely on the basis of how psychologically compelling it is to a given society, one is forced to conclude that its truth value is not relevant to its continued existence. If that is true, it diminishes the likelihood that the Gods of the sort commonly proffered are real.

The second problem is that psychology and sociology are usually not cited to make epistemological points, but pragmatic points about the reasons for belief made important by the effects religious belief have. Religion often seems to contribute to the crystallization of social attitudes, including bigotries and other regressive views. Each year children die because their parents refused to seek medical treatment proscribed by their religion. The psychology may also be important in understanding how religious doctrine, organizations and authorities can exploit the vulnerable for their own ends. I find it quite important to understand why retirees send their few dollars to televangelists.

This way of handling dissenting positions—my view has reasons and your view is something I just need to explain away with psychology—seems like the hallmark of dogmatism and closed-mindedness. They’re just angry at God, or they’re just jealous of our success, or they’re just expressing a longing for their fathers in a form of wish fulfillment, and so on. Tangents like this do nothing but show everyone involved that you’re not arguing in good faith.

1. I have yet to meet a pro-secularist speaker or debater who is reluctant to engage on what the legitimating “reasons” are for religious views.

2. I see no reason to think discussions over the psychology of belief, including religious belief, are always or usually “acting in bad faith”. Vlad offers one citation which I will discuss shortly. Any argument or counter-argument can be abused, used dismissively, or inappropriately applied. Making that observation is not evidence a wide swath of people have, are, or will necessarily.

3. Almost all of the critiques of religious belief apply equally well to atheists, at least in terms of mechanisms and sources of bias. Anyone who believes that they are immune to the classes of fallibilities that underlie religious belief because they are an atheist are mistaken.

Treating others as unwilling subjects of psychoanalysis is toxic to discourse, and it’s something I see many atheists take part in too frequently. The most recent example comes from Jerry Coyne, though it’s hardly limited to him. In a new piece, Coyne asks, “Why are faitheists so nasty?”…

The context issue I mentioned before is at issue here. Who are we talking about? Atheists addressing religionists? That was the language in the opening. But Jerry Coyne’s quote referred to “some faitheists” not to “theists” or even “fatheists” in general. Exactly what is the topic here?

But even if Coyne were right, it’s unclear what this adds to the conversation—other than to get a jab in at another group’s expense. It says nothing about whether Richard Dawkins’ accounts of religious belief are simplistic, or how we ought to engage with religious believers, or whether policing our own is more appropriate than heaping scorn on others.

My reading is that it was an attempt to understand the occasional “nastiness” from “fatheists”. It may not contribute to the “conversation” between the two groups in question. But not every blog post is meant to be part of a conversation with you, or anyone, in particular.

If these discussions are worth having, it’s worth leaving amateur psychoanalysis out of them.

To leave off on a positive, I think this remark is, more often than not, good advice. While there are some very good reasons to discuss the psychology of belief, it is important to attend to the details of context, mode and tone. It should never be used dismissively or in lieu of proper argumentation.

  • Clare45

    Firstly, I do not think Vlad Chituk is using the term psychoanaylsis correctly. He is lumping all types of psychology and psychotherapy as if they were one and the same. Psychoanalysis is quite specific to Freud, Jung, Klein and perhaps the post-Freudians.
    . I agree that amateur psychology inappropriately used can be annoying, but what if you are not an amateur-a professional psychologist or psychiatrist? Is it OK then?

    • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

      That’s a fair point, but I think “psychoanalysis” has a colloquial meaning in addition to the more technical one. I try to interpret such things as charitably as possible when engaging in criticism.

      • Shatterface

        The colloquial use is wrong, and if we use colloquial terms we forfeit the right to make psychological judgements.

        If you intend to dismiss someone’s beliefs on psychological grounds you owe it to them to use the science, and it’s terminology, correctly.

        There’s a difference between paradolia and penis envy; the former belongs to neuroscience and is supported by evidence; the latter belongs to psychoanalysis and is supported by people who haven’t read a psychology book published since World War 1.

        • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

          It is not possible for a common colloquial use to be “wrong”. Languages grow and change over time, and vocabulary has no “proper” meaning apart from however words are used and understood.

          If you intend to dismiss someone’s beliefs on psychological grounds you owe it to them to use the science, and it’s terminology, correctly.

          I agree. However Vlad’s title was not an instance of dismissing anyone’s belief. It was merely a title of a blog post discussing individuals who engage in it.

          • Pete A

            “It is not possible for a common colloquial use to be ‘wrong’.”

            Many colloquialisms are globally meaningless — they are not even wrong. E.g. the colloquialism “It’s a warm day.” is a meaningful relative statement to those sharing one’s locale yet it is totally meaningless to the global audience of the World Wide Web.

            In my locale, psychoanalysis has two meanings, both of which are unpleasant therefore I have to support the notion that “psychoanalysis” should be left out of disagreements.

            Using evidence-based psychology, rather than colloquialisms, is sometimes appropriate.

          • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

            A colloquialism is feature of a particular language. No language is “globally meaningful”. In this sense, all statements are relative statements. So that isn’t much of a criticism.

            Blog posts for mass consumption are not academic journals requiring strict technical language; in fact that would be rather unhelpful to them.

          • BayAreaGuy

            Although you’re correct regarding basic rules of language, I have to disagree with you in general. As a psychology professor, I spend a good deal of my time “un-learning” what my students have picked up from pop-psych misuse of terms like this one. If we were discussing the misuse of the word ‘theory,” for instance, I doubt you’d support its colloquial use as a synonym for “guess.” The same sort of confusion can happen when people incorrectly use terms “psychoanalysis,” “controlled study,” “case study,” “psychiatrist/psychologist,” and a host of other terms in my field.

          • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

            Hey Guy,

            I do support the colloquial use of “theory” in the sense “guess”. I use it that way on a regular basis. If one allows the confusion, ignorance, or disingenuity of other people to become so important that they can take words away from you, I fear to think what of a language would be left.

            Words commonly have more than one related meaning. This is a more specific case of technical versus vernacular meaning, but it won’t do to insist that every lay person abide our narrow, technical meanings. “Memory” means something different to a computer programmer, neurologist, psychologist, and lay person. None gets to lay claim to the “right” meaning and none other shall be permitted.

            More to the present point though, I think it is a bad idea to give a lot of focus to debate on form, because it puts me in danger of appearing to readers to be using errors of language use to discredit the person I am criticizing. That would be fallacious. Even if I didn’t intend to do it, my opponent could easily believe it and/or claim it.

            I wish to keep the issues as clear as possible. I can agree with you that some of his language use choices are debateable, but that issue is far less important than others in play, and I do not want to lose focus.

  • Shatterface

    I think it’s valid to use psychological arguments the same way we use political arguments; we wouldn’t hesitate to say that religious beliefs correlate with social conservatism but at the same time we shouldn’t assume that the particular religious person we are talking to is socially conservative unless their behaviour demonstrates that to be the case.

    Likewise we can point out that religious belief corresponds to teleological biases without assuming the person we are talking to suffers from a teleological bias unless their behaviour demonstrates that to be the case.