2020-08-01

Argument for God — part 2

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Argument for God — part 1.

. . . .

I will try to refrain from commenting on Barrett’s argument this time. My wordy part 1 post was met with succinct comments that said all that needed to be said then. I hope those and other commenters do not desert me now.

Barrett’s argument in his chapter titled Why Would Anyone Not Believe in God?

In this chapter, I argue that atheism (the disbelief in any gods) as a shared worldview arises only under special conditions and is indeed the exception to the rule. Compared to theism, atheism is relatively unnatural and, unsurprisingly, a very uncommon worldview. (108)

Barrett’s view is that the psychological factors, or the mental tools, that encourage us to believe in god/s present special challenges for atheism. For these reasons, he explains, atheism is “relatively unnatural” and a “very uncommon worldview.” True, he concedes, some atheists have no mental difficulty, no angst, over being atheists, but he attributes this situation to special environments that he will address towards the end of his chapter. Meanwhile, he chooses to address four mental tools that he believes post serious challenges for atheism. (Those mental tools were discussed earlier in this series, beginning at Gods – 2.)

1. Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD) and Theory of Mind (ToM)


Barrett asks readers to turn back to an event described earlier in the book.

Silo explosion – HarzardEx

Consider the following event. A coworker of my wife once performed maintenance tasks on a farm. One day, Doug was working in a grain silo when leaked propane exploded. The first explosion rushed all around him and out the second- level windows high above him. Stunned by not being harmed by the blast, he tried to get out the door, only to discover that the explosion had jammed the doors. Knowing that a second, larger explosion was coming and he had no way out, Doug muttered hopelessly, “Take me home, Lord.” He distinctly heard a voice say, “Not yet,” and then felt some invisible hands lift him a dozen feet in the air and out of a second-story window, then safely to the ground below. Once he landed outside the silo, a safe distance away, the silo and attached barn exploded into rubble. He stumbled to the farm office, where coworkers took him to the hospital. At the hospital, Doug told the doctor that God sent angels to save him. The dumbfounded doctor reluctantly agreed it was a possibility given that the amount of propane gas in the man’s lungs should have been fatal, yet he was not only alive but also conscious and talking. Doug, the doctor, and all staff of the farm believed this event to be caused by supernatural agency. In each of their minds, HADD played a major role in forming this belief. (34 — you can read this particular passage in context and with further discussion by Barrett at slideshare.)

Barrett imagines the questions that might be asked and the answers of theists and atheists:

Who [what agency – it’s our HADD prompting the question] saved him? God or angels. (theist responding)

Who saved him? A coworker saved him. (atheist answering)

But ToM then asks: Why did Doug not see the coworker?

Naive Physics asks: How did the coworker lift Doug out of the second story window?

The atheist has another possible response:

But the atheist has another option, rejecting the detection of agency: HADD was wrong, and no agent or agency was present. Some unknown physical property protected Doug from the initial explosion and propelled Doug out of the second-floor window unharmed, or it happened just by chance.

To which Barrett responds:

But this type of explanation is no explanation at all. What it amounts to is a promissory note: I don’t know how to explain it, but I’m sure there is an explanation that has nothing to do with agency. (109)

Barrett says that the atheist’s deliberate choice to reject HADD is not at all easy:

One of the strengths of the human mind is its ferocious desire to explain, make sense, and find meaning. If we tell HADD that it has misexplained something, it demands that we come up with a satisfactory counterexplanation. Finding such a counterexplanation is not always simple: it requires conscious, reflective thought; it is slow; and it may require tapping our long-term memories for knowledge we incompletely hold. Even if this cumbersome reasoning process yields a counterexplanation that seems satisfying to the self, others, not sharing the same knowledge base, may find it dissatisfying . . . (110)

Note the life-threatening urgency at the heart of Doug’s story:

Recall that HADD’s insistence that it has detected agency may increase under conditions of urgency, as when survival or physical well-being is on the line. Similarly, denying HADD and settling on a satisfactory counterexplanation in urgent situations may be all the more difficult. 

Stories like Doug’s are, Barrett acknowledges, “relatively uncommon” and

the more clever and creative you are, the more likely you are to hit on some counterexplanation that has a ring of plausibility to yourself and others.

and

But HADD experiences are common, occasionally occur when rapid explanation is required, and often cannot be easily explained in purely naturalistic terms.

I am reminding myself that I promised to bite my lip and not comment.

2. Moral Realism

Barrett claims that in the realm of morality theists have things much easier than atheists. Theists can intuitively feel a god has seen and agrees with their moral judgements and perhaps rewards or punishes accordingly. Atheists, he says, are faced with a problem:

Their intuitive sense of morality continues to function very much like the theists but with no reason for moral certitude. Consequently, atheists, unlike theists, have a burden to concoct theories of morality that justify their moral certainty or abandon it. (110)

If this is Barrett’s view then perhaps here is an explanation why I had for two posts step outside his book and focus more directly on other work in his bibliography:

(I know, and I feel a twinge of moral guilt for fudging the line about not making comments at this point.)

3. Dealing with Death

Now it’s Barrett’s turn to fudge. Dealing with Death is not a mental tool. Mental tools come into play when we deal with death. Barrett would approve of my links to Brian Greene’s reflections on our “natural tendency” to speak to those who have died, to feel their disembodied presence with us, etc.

Barrett’s point, though, is that the atheist cannot explain these feelings rationally. The impulses are “irrational”, “yet there they are.”

For atheists, these feelings and behaviors require other explanation. Denying disembodied agency, atheists have reason to view a dead body, even of a loved one, only as perhaps a reminder of mortality but having the agency and sacredness of a rock on the road. Musing about what a loved one who has died must be thinking or feeling or attempting communication with the dead is utter absurdity. Feel angry at being left behind? Nonsense. Feel betrayed or lonely at another’s passing? Rubbish. Such impulses must be regarded only as irrational. Yet there they are. (111)

Will some theists think I am struck dumb with an inability to answer the argument for God if I don’t comment at this point?

4. Overcoming Native Creationism

As suggested in chapter 3 and developed in chapter 6, we may develop as children with a formidable bias toward seeing the natural world as being purposefully designed. Accordingly, children seem eager to embrace creationist accounts of the origins of living things. For atheism to thrive and spread, not only must this bias be overcome by adult atheists, but somehow they must be able to pass their atheism on to their kids, against the objections of their mental tools that tell them the world was created with purposeful design. (111)

Oh dear.

I expected to finish this series with this post. But this is long enough. Expect to finish it off next time.


Barrett, Justin L. 2004. Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.

Barrett, Justin L. 2007. “Gods.” In Religion, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science, edited by Harvey Whitehouse and James Laidlaw, 179–207. Durham, N.C: Carolina Academic Press.


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6 thoughts on “Argument for God — part 2”

  1. “. . . somehow they must be able to pass their atheism on to their kids, against the objections of their mental tools. . .”. When I was 13, I had a conversation with one of my best friends about creation. I was religious, he was not. I said, “If there is no God, where does all the life in the world come from?” He began very calmly to describe for me what I later understood to be the theory of the ocean as a primordial soup, which has its basis in evolutionary theory. I then had a discussion with my other best friend about prayer. I told him prayer was very powerful, and he should just try it sometime, even if he didn’t at first believe strongly. When I checked with him later, he said he had not tried it. In both cases, I was struck by how easy it seemed for my friends not to believe in divine creation, or in the need for prayer. I realized that my friends had been raised differently from me, and that what I felt were strong arguments and powerful emotions with divine reasons behind them, were only so because of my prior assumptions that they were such. In other words, I was prejudiced in favor of God. I was turning my prejudice into a rule of human behavior. But, in fact, there was no such rule.

    1. Indeed. Mental tools are not so difficult to overcome even for children. Be with them to describe the noises as they hear them and they learn not to fear hidden agents. I was a regular visitor from the city to my grandparents’ house on the country dairy farm and at night there were many strange noises. My grandparents took the time to explain to me what they were so I would not lie in fear waiting for sleep to overcome me.

      But reassurance against the wild fears generated by our mental tools can go too far, too. My grandfather used to teach me that snakes won’t harm you if you leave them alone, and that most snakes are not poisonous. So one day when I overturned a large log and saw stretched out a very long brown snake I merely stood there, beside it, curious, and in my own mind merely “leaving it alone” as a mere bystander — only a couple of feet from its suddenly exposed body. My cousins (who were brought up on a farm) who were with me immediately jumped well back and screamed at me to do the same. I was loathe and slow to do so because I was in my mind “leaving it alone” as my grandfather taught me, and plain brown didn’t look very deadly anyway. My cousins eventually shamed me into stepping back and soon afterwards my uncle arrived and shot it. (It really was a deadly beast.)

      Without my impressionable hyper-heeding of my grandfather’s words I would surely have maintained a healthy life-saving natural fear of snakes.

      1. But the question is really, “What, after all, is natural, and what isn’t?” Barrett is basically arguing that it’s natural to believe in God, and that atheists are unnatural. Do you believe that? And on training, our natures are always being informed by various types of training, but the question then becomes how good is the training? I was bitten by a dog when very young, and thereafter I had a “natural” fear of dogs, which lasted for years, until I learned that the fear itself was producing the reaction in the dogs. If your grandfather had instructed you that certain types of snakes are dangerous, while others (most) are not, your reaction would have been more like that of your cousins. Most human populations have some type of religion, but some of them are akin to nature-worship and do not at all resemble Christianity, which deifies the human image above nature. These are two very different “natural” tendencies.

        1. As at least one ethicist has pointed out, rape is natural. Our moral intuition may say rape committed within one’s own group is wrong, but it is harder to intuitively (naturally) condemn rape against those in a foreign or enemy group. Crimes of passion are natural. Alcoholism is natural. Illness is natural. Ignorance is natural. The beliefs and practices of many peoples who have been most closely aligned with “the natural world” have often been barbaric. Barrett even earlier wrote that nonreflective intuitions can be wrong. I don’t buy into his valuation of our nonreflective (natural) intuitions at all. What enabled us to survive in the past is not necessarily the best tool for survival or quality of life in the now and the future.

  2. The guy (Barrett) could just be lying about the worker in the silo. Or the guy experiencing the deed might be lying. Or they all might be lying. Or it might be something they heard. All sorts of possibilities. Personally, I’m a little bit leery of the claims.

    1. I was dismayed to see how Barrett drew upon a hearsay anecdote like that. How many of those does one hear in religious communities — “witnessing” the various miracles of God in believers’ lives. It’s all hearsay and no way of testing for over-imagination shaping and filtering the stories. I used to boast of how God healed my teeth after testing me with prolonged pain. I later had to admit that the nerve causing the trouble simply died eventually and I had suffered needlessly for so long.

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