Sunday, December 10, 2017

Another Illogical Conversion Story

William Alston is a religious philosopher who worked with Alvin Plantinga to develop Reformed Epistemology, which is a way for religionists to justify their God belief on the grounds that such beliefs are foundational, in the same way that empiricists would claim that belief in the existence physical objects based on the evidence of the senses constitutes foundational belief.  Alston also taught at the University of Illinois in Urbana, which happens to be where Victor Reppert got his PhD.  I don't know if they knew each other, but Reppert has posted an excerpt from one of Alston's essays that describes his return to the fold of religious faith after a period of youthful denial of that belief.  It struck me that this conversion story was in some ways similar to that of CS Lewis, whose writing figures prominently in the thinking and works of Reppert.  Both had grown up with religious belief and turned away from it in their youth, in the academic environment where rejection of religion was the trend.  And both lacked the scientific framework of understanding that would have given them a solid rational basis for non-belief.  So they ended up returning to belief, and making it sound as if their justification is logical and rational, when it really wasn't.

It seems that Alston based his non-belief on Sigmund Freud, whose psychological challenge to religious belief was popular at the time.  Freud postulated that religion was wishful thinking - the creation of a father figure to provide order and ease the stresses and psychological turmoil of the world.  Alston saw this as a good reason to reject religious faith.
The main bar to faith was rather the Freudian idea that religious faith is a wish fulfillment–more specifically, an attempt to cling to childish modes of relating to the world, with the omnipotent daddy there presiding over everything. - Alston
But this conviction was only temporary.  He eventually came to recognize the limited value of Freud's views of religion, and to feel that this "scientific" view was just a way to manipulate him and his fellows in acadenia into denying the real truth (which he had never really left completely behind):
I had been psyched into feeling that I was chickening out, was betraying my adult status, if I sought God in Christ, or sought to relate myself to an ultimate source and disposer of things in any way whatever.  ....  I suddenly said to myself, "Why should I allow myself to be cribbed, cabined, and confined by these Freudian ghosts? Why should I be so afraid of not being adult? What am I trying to prove?  ...  What is more important: to struggle to conform my life to the tenets of some highly speculative system of psychology or to recognize and come to terms with my own real needs? - Alston
Alston was right about Freud.  As insightful as Freud might have been about psychological motivations, his theory of religion was speculative.  There was never any convincing proof of it.  And it did turn out to be substantially wrong, by the reckoning of current scientifically-based hypotheses of religious belief, which holds that the hyperactive agency detection device (HADD) is the biological basis of religion.  HADD is an evolutionary outcome of survival-oriented behavior going back much earlier than the existence of humans.  It is the root of God belief, which is then embellished in various ways by fulfilling the wish for eternal life, anthropomorphizing God and seeing him as a father figure, adding a moral dimension, etc.

But Alston's reason for going back to religion is poorly considered.  If he felt that he was being bullied or chided into non-belief, it wasn't because of any conspiracy by scientists (or anyone else) to manipulate him toward atheism.  Even Freud's wrong-headed hypothesis was not conceived with the intention of influencing belief.  Alston's reaction to this feeling was to return to what he really wanted to believe all along, rather than taking a more scientific approach to understanding why we believe.  A scientific mindset builds a framework of understanding that encompasses all kinds of knowledge, which fit coherently together.  This coherency makes the framework robust.  It is not dependent on any one theory which could turn out to be wrong.

Alston is typical of the ex-atheist who returns to belief after dabbling with scientific views, but never having a robust scientific mindset that would develop the real rational basis for non-belief.  It's understandable that Freud's theory didn't work for him, and that may have colored his view of science as a whole.  But a real scientific-based rejection of religious belief isn't due to any single theory.  It's part of a coherent scientific understanding of nature and the world.  For Alston to return to the fold of God-belief because of one theory that doesn't work is really just an excuse to go back to the comfort of a deeply embedded belief system that he grew up with.   It is to abandon any pretense of a scientific view that he might have claimed to have.
I had, by the grace of God, finally found the courage to look the specter in the face and tell him to go away. I had been given the courage to face the human situation, with its radical need for a proper relation to the source of all being.
Alston rationalizes his embrace of religion as the discovery of "courage".  Religious belief provides comfort, and science was never designed to provide comfort.  But neither was it designed to coerce people into atheism.  As discomforting as it may be to many people, atheism just happens to be the inescapable result of scientific understanding.  That's something that Alston never had the courage to accept.


  1. Absolutely spot on.

    skep "Alston rationalizes his embrace of religion as the discovery of "courage"."
    The only thing he discovered was the courage to believe in religious mumbo-jumbo despite and even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, in exactly the same way that Evangelical Republicans believe that God sent them Donald trump:
    "Eighty percent of white evangelical voters voted for Donald Trump in the November election.....“Some of them sincerely believe that Donald Trump was ordained by God and actually going to put the right people on the Supreme Court and fight for religious liberty.”

    In his and Evangelicals' profound ignorance of the sciences of mind they simply are unable to comprehend that their belief system is wholly attributable to and a function of a very creative and overactive Theory of Mind, the HADD; God took an intentional stance to miraculously nudge the elections into Trump's hands despite being the absolute physical, amoral and unethical arsehole that he is this side of the universe, don't you know.

    THIS PAPER puts a lie to Alston being an atheist. Disenchanted with his earlier experiences of religion Alston assumed a more tentative, secular stance for some time. "Alston says that he had never been a convinced atheist, and the question of Christian faith decisively re-presented itself during this time."
    Hardly an atheist. Once again, Reppert overstretches the truth, lying for Jesus. A pretty common tactic.

    1. I didn't know Alston had two bouts with atheism. But still, his religious training prevailed.

      I thought it was interesting that he was involved with Reformed Epistemology, because to me, it represents an intersection between theology and science (regarding the HADD). Both recognize the feeling we have that there is an agent of some kind that enters our consciousness. From there, they take decidedly different paths. Science finds the biological basis for this feeling, while Reformed Epistemology (without evidence or any rational explanation) declares it to be positive knowledge of God. It's pretty clear that Alston never had any desire to gain a scientific understanding. He ran in the opposite direction.

    2. What the great irony here is that Alston is a Christian philosopher, and yet, there is no intellectual or academic discipline known as christian philosophy. A rider without a horse to flog.

  2. What is so galling and a complete waste of intellect is that despite being a university trained PhD student, Reppert persists in compromising those very investigative and analytical skills of seeking the truth wherever it might lead, to continue peddling superstition and ignorance of a primitive mythos.