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 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 reasons.
A first point is that the argument perhaps goes further than 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.” HADD is only one of several hypotheses and as any knowledgeable student of religion will known, numerous hypotheses have been proposed for why human beings believe in God. Some have argued that animism explains the rise of religions, whereas others note a primordial monotheism or polytheism. The atheist who makes the argument from HADD who does not acknowledge other explanations or theories fails to appreciate the diversity of explanations posited by theorists.
Another issue confronting this argument is the genetic fallacy. The genetic fallacy is committed when one attempts to explain away and undermine a specific belief by how that belief originated. Philosopher William Lane Craig explains that the genetic fallacy “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). The argument commits this fallacy because even given the truth of naturalistic evolution and HADD it remains possible that a God still exists. HADD simply explains how humans came to believe in God, not whether or not God exists. In fact, many Christians accept evolutionary theory and argue that God intervened in the evolutionary process or at least initiated it. But as a scientific theory, the theory of evolution makes no comment on the transcendent or whether or not there is a God who was involved; 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).
For the atheist to explain away God through the HADD inherited by evolution commits the genetic fallacy for these reasons. The late atheist evolutionary biologist William Provine came to see this error: “[E]ven 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).
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.