One atheist contended that we have a naturalistic explanation for why human beings believe in God. He explains that “We are of the opinion that religious [belief] in creator deities can be explained, fully secular, from an evolutionary standpoint.” He then rightly notes that this hasn’t been proven “conclusively” and admits that “there are hypotheses that do make a lot of sense.” His preferred hypothesis is the “hyperactive agency detection device” (HADD).
HADD is the inclination for animals, including humans, to presume the purposeful intervention of an intelligent agent in situations that may or may not involve one. Far from achieving any consensus, some have argued that belief in God, or creator gods, is an evolutionary by-product of agent detection. Although this may be true it is problematic as an argument in favour of atheism for two big reasons.
Firstly, the argument perhaps extends further that it should. As psychologists Kurt Gray and Daniel Wegner realize, it is possible that agent detection might be a “foundation for human belief in God” (1). However, the pair explain that to claim that this somehow constitutes the whole picture is unwarranted since “simple over attribution of agency cannot entirely account for the belief in God…” because the human ability to form a theory of mind and what they refer to as “existential theory of mind” are also required to “give us the basic cognitive capacity to conceive of God.” So, this atheist’s preferred hypothesis doesn’t take him to his conclusion.
Here one can add in that HADD is only one of several hypotheses. As a student of religion myself, I have to learn that theorists in the development of religion as an academic discipline numerous hypotheses have been proposed for why human beings believe in God. These, one learns, are often mutually exclusive. For example, some have argued that animism explains the rise of religions, whereas other note a primordial monotheism or polytheism. Thus, the atheist who makes the argument from HADD fails to appreciate the diversity of explanations posited by theorists far more knowledgeable than he. Why should one accept the HADD as opposed to animism, or polytheism, or any other explanation? But this brings us to the second major challenge to this argument.
Here the atheist commits an error in reasoning referred to as the genetic fallacy (GF). The GF is committed when one attempts to explain away, and undermine, a specific belief due to how that belief originated. Philosopher William Craig explains that the GF “is the attempt to invalidate a position by showing how it originated. You try and invalidate a position by showing how a person came to believe that” (2).
What this suggests is that even given the truth of naturalistic evolution and the proposed HADD it remains possible that a God still exists. In fact, it turns out that many Christians accept evolutionary theory, and argue that God could have intervened in the process or at least initiated it. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga explains that,
“The theory of evolution doesn’t say that the whole process is guided by God. Of course it doesn’t say that. But it also doesn’t say that it isn’t. Being a scientific theory, it doesn’t make any statements on that point” (3).
It is clear then that our atheist commits the GF through his attempt to explain away a belief (in God) by how humans inherited that belief (from evolution). The late atheist evolutionary biologist William Provine saw this error himself,
“even if every case of theistic belief could plausibly be explained in terms of some naturalistic theory or other, that still wouldn’t exclude positive answers to the questions ‘Does God exist?’ and ‘Is belief in God warranted?’” (4).
Thus, even if one were to grant the atheist his conclusion that belief in a god is merely the evolutionary by-product of agent detection it still wouldn’t follow that a god does not exist. For an argument to be a persuasive one it has to have a conclusion that follows logically. However, even if we accept the HADD explanation for humanity’s belief in God it just does not follow that God doesn’t exist, and therefore the argument cannot be said to be successful.
1. Gray, K. & Wegner, D. “Blaming God for Our Pain: Human Suffering and the Divine Mind” in Personality and Social Psychology Review 14 (1): 9–10.
2. Craig, W. 2007. The “New Atheist.”
3. Wilson, J. 2011. Q & A: Alvin Plantinga on Conflict Resolution with Science.
4. Provine, W. 1998. Scientists, Face it! Science and Religion are Incompatible.