Is Belief in God a Delusion?

A persistent atheistic trope is calling belief in God delusional or a delusion.  The most obvious popular example is Richard Dawkins’ pro-atheism book The God Delusion, a book that, while popularly successful, is notorious for its shallowness and lack of rigorous argumentation (interested readers may wish to look at Alister McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion for a highly detailed account of the many deficiencies under which Dawkins’ book suffers).

Is belief in God a delusion? The most widely used and accepted definition of a delusion comes from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA):

Delusion. A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture (e.g., it is not an article of religious faith).

Well, things don’t look very promising for the atheist trope, do they?

To begin with only the most obvious point, delusions are standardly defined in such a way as to exclude articles of religious faith, something for which belief in God obviously qualifies.

Now, an atheist of course could claim that the DSM’s defining delusion in such a way as to exclude commonly held articles of religious faith is an error, a kind of special pleading exemption for religious beliefs, which are not being treated the same as other beliefs. On this basis, the atheist might insist on adopting a different definition of delusion. But this very demand for changing the standard definition appears to be a kind of special pleading on the part of the atheist.   Why shouldn’t religious beliefs be treated in a manner different that other sorts of beliefs? The theist merely needs to note that religious beliefs are not like other beliefs, because they are about a particular part of reality that is sui generis, viz. the divine or transcendent dimension of being.  The atheist could respond that there simply is no such dimension of being, but would immediately fall right back into special pleading and/or begging the question against the theist—unless of course the atheist can bring forth proof that there is no divine or transcendent dimension of being, a proof we still await.

But of course the theist need not rest her case on the specific exemption for articles of religious belief in the DSM’s definition of delusion. Let it go. Let us look at the other factors which make a delusion a delusion.  We see right way that there are three.  To count as a delusion a belief must be

  1. based on incorrect inference about external reality
  2. firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes
  3. firmly sustained despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary

Let’s start with criterion 2.  It appears that the authors of the DSM are aware of something which many atheists manage to somehow overlook, namely, the consensus gentium.  What is the consensus gentium? It is merely a technical name for the common consensus of humanity.  And the common consensus of humanity speaks overwhelmingly in favor of theism.

Here too, it is open to the atheist to object that the consensus gentium is not infallible and to treat it as such is to commit an ad populum fallacy (an appeal to popularity).  But the consensus gentium does not, in itself, constitute an ad populum fallacy—it is, in itself, not a proof of a given proposition, but it does constitute evidence.  To dispute the consensus gentium requires one to hold that the majority of human beings are deceived or delusional in their beliefs (as atheists do hold).  But this view seems to be strong evidence for the proposition “human belief formation is highly unreliable,” since it reliably produces false or delusional beliefs.  But the belief that human belief formation is highly unreliable serves as an all-purpose defeater for any belief whatever, including itself and the belief that “belief in God is delusional.” In other words, to dispute the consensus gentium without specially pleading that human belief formation is reliable everywhere except with respect to the divine, seems to be a self-defeating move.

Just on the face of it, it is obvious that theism is the majority belief of human beings, and always has been, just as atheism is tiny minority belief, even if one grown loud and strident in our modern, highly secularized society.  Theism very obviously fails to meet criterion 2 of the DSM’s definition of a delusion, so it isn’t one.  So far, we’ve seen that belief in God is not a delusion twice over. But there’s more.

Things are worse yet for the atheist who wants to use the “delusion” trope.  Criterion 1 specifies that the belief must be the result of some kind of faulty reasoning, an “incorrect inference about external reality.”  And criterion 3 specifies that a delusion is a belief held “despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary.”

In other words, it would need to be shown that theism is (1) irrational and (2) obviously false.

And of course atheism has not met either of these challenges.  It has not even come close. In fact, atheists by and large admit that not only have they not proven either of these things, that they cannot do so, more, that it is impossible to do so.

It is no accident that the vast majority of today’s atheists are “lack of belief” atheists.  They follow philosopher Antony Flew’s 1972 redefinition of “atheism” to mean “lack of belief in God” as opposed to the standard and traditional definition “belief that God does not exist” (which is still held by ~80% of people, according to the Oxford Handbook of Atheism).

The “lack of belief” atheist does not claim that he knows or even believes that God does not exist, but only that he remains unconvinced that God does exist.  Well, good for him. (Actually, it’s bad for him, but set that aside).  That someone happens to be unconvinced that a belief is true in no way indicates that the belief is false.  It isn’t even a statement about whatever the belief is about, but a statement about a psychological property of a belief-holder.  If A says, “I lack a belief that G,” a perfectly legitimate response is to make a psychological report of one’s own and note “And I have one. What of it?”

There are, to my knowledge, only three serious arguments which attempt to show that theism is false, that is, that God does not exist:

  1. The Argument from Evil, which holds that the existence of unnecessary evil in the world is incompatible with an all-good being, which a perfect being, God, must be.
  2. The Argument from the Unnecessariness of God, which holds that God is unnecessary as an explanation for anything, and therefore is merely a gratuitous hypothesis which, following Ockham’s Razor, we ought not to make.
  3. The Argument from Self-Contradiction, which holds that the concept of “God” is self-contradictory, and therefore, God cannot exist.

All three arguments are notoriously weak and easily refuted:

  1. The Argument from Evil can be highly persuasive as an appeal to emotion.  One points to some horror or tragedy, personal or historical, and demands “How could a good God let this happen?” The honest answer, and the rational one, is that we don’t know, and we aren’t in a position to know the thoughts of an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfect being. Most theists believe that, since God is good, He does not cause or will evil, but only permits or allows it for a sufficiently good reason, which we simply do not (yet, fully) understand.  Nor can the atheist rule out the possibility that whatever evil he regards as “too much” is not, in a way beyond human understanding, for the best when seen from God’s point of view.  The most an atheist could do, it seems, is what Ivan Karamazov does in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and willfully refuse to accept some evil or another (Ivan cannot accept the suffering of innocent children).  Yet, one of the basic elements of faith, as Christians use that term, is trust in God.  The Argument from Evil may well test one’s faith, but if it convinces, it does not do so as a rational argument. Christians trust that in the end, even though we do not understand how, in the words of St. Julian of Norwich “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”
  2. The Argument from the Unnecessariness of God fails for two reasons.  As in the Argument from Evil, we simply don’t know enough to be sure that God is not necessary; on the contrary, there is a very strong case that God is necessary as the only possible answer to “The question of Being” namely “Why is there anything at all, and not rather nothing?” But even if we could be sure, which we cannot, that we need not invoke God as an explanation, to infer the nonexistence of God from this is simply a non sequitur.  At most, this argument could aim to show that belief in God is an unreasonable postulate to make, in which case it collapses into the Evidentialist Argument (see below).
  3. And as for the Argument from Self-Contradiction (and also it’s cousin, the Argument that Religious Language is Meaningless), well, no one has ever succeeded in making anything close to a good argument for the notion.  There are of course ways one can define God such that the concept is self-contradictory (and it causes the theist no pain to admit that God so defined does not exist), but no one has ever shown even a good candidate for contradiction in the traditional conceptions of God. The “paradox of omnipotence” which sometimes impresses philosophical beginners is not a paradox at all, once one grasps the fairly basic point that “power to do anything possible” ≠ “power to do things that are impossible.”

With the failure of the only robust atheistical arguments on the table (and they are not very robust), in our time we have seen atheism retreat and retrench from ontology to epistemology, and the rise of the “lack of belief” atheist, which brings us to the Evidentialist Argument.

The Evidentialist Argument is not an argument that God does not exist, and does not attempt to prove that theism is false. It merely argues that belief in God is not sufficiently warranted by the evidence to count as a reasonable belief.

Before taking this up, we should note that even if the Evidentialist Argument turned out to be 100% successful, it would still fail to establish that belief in God is a delusion, since by definition, a delusion must be “firmly sustained despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary,” and as we have just seen, the atheist has no such “incontrovertible and obvious proof” of the falsity of theism.  He doesn’t even have a remotely plausible one.  Nowadays, the typical atheist doesn’t even try to make an argument.

As we have already seen, belief in God is NOT a delusion, since criteria 2 and 3 cannot be met by the atheist who claims it to be one.  But what about criterion 1? Is belief in God based on an “incorrect inference” about reality? Can the atheist at least meet one out of the three criteria that establish delusion?

No, he cannot. The best the atheist can do is appeal to his own personal incredulity.  He looks at the evidence (or doesn’t look, commonly) and says “I’m not convinced.” The theist looks at the evidence and is convinced.  What sort of epistemic error is the theist making? Why is her belief absurd or rationally unwarranted? These questions have simply never been answered in a way that is non-question-begging, that is, in a way that doesn’t assume from the beginning, tacitly or explicitly, that belief in God is absurd or rationally unwarranted.

The best case the atheist has, it seems to me, is a specularly weak one, but one which happens to sell fairly well in our age. I mean the Appeal to Scientism. Science is so highly regarded today as a way of acquiring knowledge, that unreflective persons can sometimes be induced to accept the claim that “scientific knowledge” is an absolute touchstone of all knowledge or knowledge as such, and so “only scientific knowledge is valid knowledge” which, joined with “there is no scientific evidence of God” would indeed yield the desired result, so

  1. Only scientific knowledge is valid knowledge.
  2. There is no scientific evidence of God
  3. ∴ It is unreasonable to believe in God.

This is the Argument to Scientism in a nutshell. It’s valid and premise 2 is true. The argument fails because premise 1 is obviously false. Science is not the only source of knowledge we have. Science itself makes use of extra-scientific knowledge, and does so necessarily and constantly: it is part of the scientific method to use both mathematics and empirical observation (i.e. experience)—and neither mathematics nor experience, which science seeks to explain, are cases of scientific knowledge, just as such. One is not “doing science” when one is having experience. Another instance of a proposition that is not a scientific one is Premise 1 of the Argument to Scientism itself. Scientism, as a doctrine, is notoriously self-refuting: if it is true, we must reject it as true, on the grounds of itself, because it isn’t itself scientific knowledge.  It fails its own truth test.

The Argument to Scientism also falls to a simple objection of common sense (another often valid source of knowledge, and indeed, the root of the consensus gentium spoken of above): we know that science studies nature (or nature plus human activities, if you count the social sciences as full sciences), and we also know that God, as traditionally understood, is transcendent of nature. God simply doesn’t fall under science’s domain, any more than goodness does, or for that matter, logic and math do.  Why on earth would a  very excellent method for studying nature discover something it neither looks for nor can see, given what its method and scope are? The short answer is: science simply has nothing to say about God; it studies nature. Period.  So appeals to science, including bogus appeals to principles that aren’t scientific but look vaguely “science-y”, as in the Argument to Scientism, fail because they cannot succeed without unreasonably making science omni-competent in every sphere of knowledge, which it obviously is not (Who should you vote for, according to the scientific method?), and reducing all other sources of knowledge to nullity, which would would destroy mathematics and logic and experience as valid kinds of knowledge, and so take science down with it.

To bring this to a close, even if we charitably overlook the DSM’s explicit distinction between delusion and articles of religious belief (one that is entirely reasonable, as I argued), belief in God is still not a delusion: the atheist who claims that it is a delusion cannot meet even one of the three criteria needed to establish a belief as delusional.

I conclude that the atheist trope of calling belief in God “a delusion” amounts to nothing more than name-calling. It doesn’t have the slightest amount of rational weight behind it.

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4 comments on “Is Belief in God a Delusion?

  1. Steven Hoyt says:

    belief in god may indeed be a delusion. atheism may also be. it’s never evidence nor reason itself that appeal to either because there can’t be evidence for transcendent beings and logic corresponds to ideas, not reality, and doesn’t entail truth; its predicated on reasonableness instead. both theism and atheism then agrees we have an impression about reality. each recognizes there are numinous experiences. each merely attribute the source of these differently.

    there’s no important difference between a theist and an atheist: both are exactly definable by stating each lacks the impression of the other.

    either or both may be deluded.

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    • Eve Keneinan says:

      How exactly would you substantiate the claim “there can’t be evidence for transcendent beings”?

      It seems as if you would have to be capable of knowing something very important about transcendent beings, namely, that they relate to us epistemically in such a way as to be unknowable by us. And yet, the claim to know of X that that X is unknowable in any respect is a contradiction. If your claim were true, you could not know it. And yet you do claim it, which implies that you do not believe the very claim you assert.

      My guess—and please clarify if I’m wrong—is that you are simply working with a stipulative definition of “evidence” which defines it as something that cannot even in principle apply to transcendent beings. If so, then your statement is trivially true: on a definition of “evidence” such that evidence cannot apply to transcendent beings, evidence cannot apply to transcendent beings. You are in good company, in a way. Hume and Kant both do something like this. Kant, for example, defines “evidence” is such a way that it must involve sense experience. And armed with this concept of “evidence” he manages to “prove” that there is no evidence for the existence of God (although he still holds it is rationally necessary to believe in God). Likewise, Hume defines “truth” in such a way that there cannot be any moral truths, and then claims to have proven that there cannot be any moral truths.

      The possibility is always open to “prove” something by means of a tendentious definition of “evidence.” But that would not show anything at all about whether or not evidence defined in a non-tendentious way could not apply to transcendent beings. The appropriate response would be “Your conclusion does follow from your tendentious definition, but I see no reason to accept your conclusion, because I see no reason to accept your tendentious definition in the first place. Can you make a rational case for your definition?”

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      • Steven Hoyt says:

        evidence, unless you include reasoning, is entailed in the reality a transcendent being transcends.

        to say and assert such a thing is simple. it’s axiomatic and dialectic. it is an indisputable fact of the matter, unless you have private meaning for all the terms used.

        this is the entire apophatic tradition of theology.

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  2. Mark says:

    In buddhist thought nothing exists independently, there’s no separation between us and the universe, and thus nothing that we could worship, or believe in, or pray to. Not sure if this is really denial of God, more that the whole question of God’s existence is a flawed question to ask in the first place.

    So I don’t know if that makes it a religion of atheists, or they just have a different name for God and think that we are all part of God, or they are just avoiding the question?

    And if buddhists are atheists, then which one of your three arguments are they using? The third one?

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