(book review) "The Christian Delusion" - Christian Belief through the Lens of Cognitive Science


This series is an atheist review of an important anti-Christian apologetics book, "The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails" (TCD), that is likely to be popularly discussed across the web. My review focuses explicitly on the weaknesses of the esteemed skeptical anthology and should be seen as supplementing the positive reviews from folks like Ken Pulliam, Jim Walker and the many 5 star reviews on Amazon. With all the hype there needs to be a range of internet contributions and sober assessment. How is the substance of the book framed? Is the polemical strategy a success? Have the most typical Christian objections to certain skeptical themes been addressed or ignored and amplified carelessly? Have well known inflammatory hot spots in the debate been dealt with tactfully? Have common atheist biases and prejudices been checked or are they overwhelming the actual arguments? Have the same standards that apply to Christians equally applied to the authors? Are the arguments in the book persuasive to outsiders or do they merely reinforce atheist group-think? Are weaker arguments distractingly in the mix with stronger arguments? Has an adult conversation been started/continued or have the ugly age old political cycles been perpetuated? Are mainstream Christian readers treated with respect as though they could be smart, informed people who think their worldview stands a chance in the debate? Would I recommend this book to a Christian friend or family member without having to apologize for its contents? Etc. Those are some of the important questions I'll be addressing. I may briefly summarize the strong points of each chapter and add my comments if that helps readers understand whatever issues come up. Occasionally I'll point out things that I just think are interesting in their own right (or things I don't understand and need help with). Also, I'll be reviewing the book in light of just about every other response to TCD on the web (as sort of informal post-market research) and responding to Christian objections I find. I think this will be the best that I personally can contribute to advancing our collective conversation about these important roadblocks to solidarity in our culture.

Chapter 2, "Christian Belief through the Lens of Cognitive Science," by Valerie Tarico:

Jim Walker explains:

Psychologist Valerie Tarico presents us with a look at Christian belief through the lens of cognitive science, showing that cognitive research provides a sufficient explanation for the phenomenon of belief. Indeed, in the past, many Christians argued that there was simply no explanation for the "born again" experience. Tarico claims: "We now now this is not the case. Humans are capable of having transcendent, transformative experience in the absence of any given dogma."

What can I say. This chapter is awesome. I'm sure many Christians will manage to find ways to misunderstand anyway, but I think for the most part this will end up being their own fault in this case. This post will focus on the misapprehensions that I can find around the internet in response to Valerie Tarico's chapter.

Contents of My Review (the "CliffNote" version):

I respond to Christian reviewer, Looney: Does Tarico's chapter 2 contradict David Eller's chapter 1?
Looney tries to say that since religion is so plastic (as Eller argues) how can it also converge on psychologically manipulative techniques (as Tarico argues)? Short answer: Both the similarities and differences need to be explained and the orthodox Christian interpretation is not the best explanation.

I respond to Christian reviewer, jayman777: Can humans be trusted with metaphysical conclusions?
Jayman777 objects that Christians aren't supposed to be any more infallible than atheists, but Tarico's point is that humans can't really be trusted to evaluate far reaching religious claims.

I respond to Looney: Has psychology explained religious experiences?
Looney says he's familiar with how this kind of psychology works and asks why he should care? I explain that though his interpretation is possible, naturalism is a sufficient explanation and in any event there are many Christians who should probably at least be informed about what is attributable to psychology even if God may still be responsible in some way or some circumstances.

I respond to jayman777 (and Looney): Did Tarico only focus on the "born again" experience?
For some reason both reviewers here seemed to think Tarico was only explaining one aspect of religious psychology. While she never claimed to be covering everything, there were several other factors covered in the chapter.

I respond to jayman777: Are skeptics in denial of religious experiences?
Jayman777 complains that skeptics tread dangerously close to being in denial that Christians have any religious experiences at all. I sympathize, but ultimately this is about interpretation of actual experiences and arguments to the better explanation in context of a vast and arbitrary religious landscape (plus all of the anomalous non-religious experiences, too), rather than denial.


I respond to Looney: Why didn't evolution favor a predominantly atheistic mentality?
I attempt to answer on Tarico's behalf (assuming evolution had much to do with religion at all) that atheism has no content and doesn't enable mental shortcuts for framing the human experience like theism tends to do.

I respond to jayman777:

Are abstract theologies a recent invention?
Short answer: Even if early Christianity had a more advanced understanding of their deity, that doesn't mean the OT authors did.

Does it make sense to pray to an omniscient being?
Short answer: It can. I explain that there are other issues, though.

Do all Christians base their faith on emotional states?
Short answer: No.

Outro: 5 out of 5 stars.
Awesome chapter. Well written.

Christian reviewer, Looney, claims:

Chapter 1's argument is that Christianity is wildly multifarious to the point of being meaningless. Dr. Tarico argues that exact opposite:

Rather, natural selection is at play. Over millennia of human history, religious leaders have hit on social/emotional techniques that work to win converts, just as individual believers have hit on spiritual practices they find satisfying and belief systems that fit how we process information.

Tarico's point is that when there is commonality, there is a very natural reason for those commonalities. Religion has found and exploited virtually every psychological gimmick there is. Both the similarities and the differences in religion need to be explained, and when we combine the perspectives of both authors (of chapter 1 and chapter 2) we have a much more plausible account of religion than the alternative view Tarico calls attention to at the beginning of her chapter (page 48):

Why is Christian belief so widespread and powerful? The traditional answer is: because it's true, and people who haven't hardened their hearts recognize this when God's plan of salvation is presented to them.

Liberal Christian reviewer, jayman777, says:

In the first section Tarico notes that humans are not entirely fair-minded and rational. She believes Christianity faces a core problem: “Arriving at belief in an infallible God by way of an inerrant Bible requires an unwarranted belief in yourself” (p. 53). I am not sure why this is a core problem for Christianity any more than it is a core problem for any other belief system. It is not like Christians claim to be infallible themselves.

It's a problem for "any other belief system" that deals with far reaching metaphysical claims. Surely atheism/agnosticism can be understood to be much more conservative in nature. They don't necessarily entail metaphysical naturalism.

Looney continues:

This chapter's other major argument is that religion is reflected in biologically observable effects. I suppose this is radical to some, but gets a "Duh!" reaction from me. Perhaps it is because I view God as the author of biology, which is so radical today.

True, that is a possible interpretation. When dowsers learn about the ideomotor effect they tend to move the goal post of explanation back and step and ask, "Well what is causing the brain to send those imperceptible arm movements?" Similarly, when people learn the psychological causes of religious experiences and how they aren't special to their brand of religion, they can still claim God is responsible for stimulating that experience, or setting up those social circumstances to begin with. However, as Tarico explains (pages 62-63):

Understanding the psychology of religion doesn't tell us whether any specific set of beliefs is true. I might believe in a pantheon of supernatural beings for all the wrong reasons (childhood credulity, hyperactive agency detection, theory of mind, group hypnotic processes, misattributed transcendence hallucination), and they still might exist... [however,] ...cognitive research does offer what is rapidly becoming a sufficient explanation for the phenomenon of belief. [...] One general principle that has worked well for humans seeking to advance or refine our knowledge is called "parsimony," also known as Occam's Razor. It can be paraphrased thus: "Usually the simplest explanation is the best one" or "Don't multiply entities unnecessarily." If we can predict storms by looking at barometric pressure and cloud formations, then there is no need to posit the existence of storm spirits or angry ancestors causing us trouble. [...] It's not that we know for sure that the [supernatural] explanation is wrong, but simply that it is unnecessary for predicting or treating [relevant problems]."

I think at the very least a typical believer can read about the various cognitive possibilities and make an informed decision about their religion if in fact they are putting too much weight on their subjective experiences. No doubt Tarico would settle for inspiring (page 55):

...a healthy mistrust for our sense of knowing...

and that:

...certitude is coming to be seen as a vice rather than a virtue.

And it's not like Tarico is only chastising believers with what we know of human bias (page 54-55):

...how can anybody claim to know anything? We can't, with certainty. Those of us who are not religious could do with a little more humility on this point.

As was easily predicted, Christians (like jayman777) can agree we share our limitations:

...Tarico states that our sense of knowing (correctness, certainty, conviction) works well in our everyday lives but that it is not perfect. The realization that certainty is not possible calls for some humility. We can agree on this but this means that all humans, not just Christians, face a problem in acquiring knowledge.

Though jayman777 cautions:

[Tarico] asserts that cognitive science provides a sufficient explanation for the phenomenon of religious belief. I might agree with her if all deities were very limited and the only reason people became believers is because of the born-again experience she describes. Unfortunately, for her, at least some people become believers for intellectual reasons and/or because they are convinced they have witnessed a genuine miracle (something far more grand than a sense of peace).

As I told Looney in the comments, the born again experience isn't the only thing she covered. There was also childhood credulity, hyperactive agency detection, theory of mind, group hypnotic processes, misattributed transcendence hallucination, etc. I didn't get the impression that Tarico was excluding other means of persuasion. Eller might rightly be accused of that, though I'm sure in practice he'd have to admit otherwise. Both authors probably could have taken a moment to address the exception categories neither of them covered. I'm not even sure this book will attempt to deal with modern claims of the miraculous. Perhaps in Part 4? I don't know. Hopefully Robert Price or Richard Carrier will at least point us to some other reading material. And presumably, once we get out of the first section of the book, we'll get more into actual arguments. We'll see how that goes.

jayman777 concludes:

Perhaps some atheists are content to deny that believers became believers for such reasons. If so, they should at least be aware that Tarico’s so-called explanation comes across more as a denial of our testimony than an explanation of it.

I do understand that though I'm not sure I see anywhere in the text where Tarico is really overstating her case. Maybe jayman777 can point out some quotes. Even when specific claims are directly addressed, it can come off as though the skeptic believes even the subjective experience didn't happen. Sometimes that's the believer's fault though, too, if they feel attacked. We all have to deal with a world where lots of people are making all sorts of "extraordinary happening" claims. Did those people really get abducted by aliens? Did that angel really save that girl from drowning? Etc. Obviously we have to go case by case. Perhaps jayman777 might indulge us on some specifics of his particular experience(s)?

Anyway, if you combine what is actually good from chapter 1 and the introduction, the overall case is on its way to getting stronger and stronger. Good show.


The following would make a great audience question from Looney, for Tarico if she were giving a public presentation:

There is the statement that evolution caused the mind to be more suited to religion, which begs the question of why survival of the fittest didn't favor atheism.

If I could venture a guess, I'd say that Tarico might go back to something else from the chapter (page 52):

What we're always trying to do is get to a coherent plot line. Consider what it's like to read a novel: when there are too many contradictions or loose ends, or the conclusion is ambiguous, we grumble and lose interest. What we want is a story where the mysteries get solved and everything gets tied up in the end. In everyday life, we operate the same way. [...] Our compulsion to think in "stories," to ignore threads that don't fit the plot line, and to fill in any gaps, may be at the heart of the religious impulse.

Atheism has no content and doesn't function to help pull the threads of life together into some coherent plot line. Theism on the other hand does tend to fit that niche quite easily if you don't think about it too much. If you do think a lot about religion, the reverse can be true by a very large factor. Atheism on balance can actually end up being a lot simpler, because you aren't dealing with the vastly important and unknown intentions of a very judgmental invisible deity who might see things very differently than you do and not care to explain until it is too late. Some people do find that the more you know about all the bizarre excuses you need to really make Biblical Christianity square with the facts, the more convoluted and nebulous your convictions about life can become.

jayman777 claims:

[Tarico] says that more abstract theologies (e.g., an omniscient deity) are a relatively recent invention. The problem is that things like omniscience have been a part of Christianity since its beginning. It is not a new idea that arose in the last couple centuries. Christians have long realized that the Bible contains anthropomorphisms and that we do not have a full understanding of God’s mind.

The question is over whether that "realization" of anthropomorphisms is retroactive interpretation by later theologians or whether Tarico is basically correct. At face value, the God of the Old Testment is not the same kind of God that later theologians describe. He's much more like the result we'd expect from the agency projection that Tarico describes.

jayman777 says:

I will merely note that prayer is not solely about trying to influence God’s behavior and it is conceivable that an answered prayer was predestined.

I don't have a problem with that in and of itself (any more than I'm concerned about whether a piece of artwork I can create in the future already happens to be hanging on Jesus' wall in his office). What I do have a problem with (as a former Christian) is that there is simply no interactivity to it. Since the relationship is so much about imposed interpretation, too many possible interpretations easily apply even within the confines of the Christian worldview. A prayer life is just too plastic to be any more meaningful than non-theistic meditation on positive values.

jayman777 says:

I’ve run across quite a few Christians who want it to be clear that Christianity is not dependent on your emotional state.

I come from a Missouri Synod Lutheran background and that was their standard response as well.

Luke Muehlhauser over at Common Sense Atheism especially liked the message of this chapter. Jason Long (another contributor to the book) seemed pretty happy with Tarico's chapter. And as I pointed out in the previous post of this series Greg Peterson didn't care for most of the book, but did appreciate Tarico's chapter especially.


I give this chapter 5 stars. It is incredibly well written, informative, conceptually rich, gives many great down-to-earth examples of the many ideas it presents, it is modest, intellectually honest, and arguably in tune with its target audience (whether it likes it or not). It excels in virtually every way Eller's chapter 1, Loftus' introduction, and Barker's foreword suffered. That means it doesn't appear to make use of any logical fallacies, addresses mainstream positions as though they are prevalent and actually exist, and doesn't flaunt its flaming skeptical objectivity in the faces of hostile ideological opponents. The few minor tweaks I could suggest aren't even worth mentioning and looking back over them it seems the author, Valerie Tarico, got around to carefully clarifying (or just avoiding) where normal Christian readers are likely to get stuck. That's outstanding.

Next up, chapter 3, "The Malleability of the Human Mind," by Jason Long.


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