The Genetic Fallacy: "You're only a Christian because you were raised in America!"

Can you invalidate someone's belief by showing how they came to hold it?  

As you'll discover in this short video, when someone confuses the ORIGIN of a belief with the TRUTH of a belief, this commits a textbook logical fallacy. Hear special guest Dr. William Lane Craig explain the Genetic Fallacy.  

Be sure to grab a copy of Dr. Craig's book "On Guard" to learn more about this and other arguments on how to defend your faith with reason and precision.

IS RELIGION A CRUTCH?

Believers are often caricatured as being weak and naïve — the kind of people who need their faith as a crutch just to get them through life. But the truth of the matter is that Jesus never offered a crutch, only a cross.

“ONE OF THE most familiar criticisms of Christianity is that it offers consolation to life’s losers,” writes Alister McGrath in his book 

Mere Apologetics 

. 1 Believers are often caricatured as being somewhat weak and naïve—the kind of people who need their faith as a “crutch” just to get them through life. In new atheist literature, this depiction is often contrasted with the image of a hardier intellectual atheist who has no need for such infantile, yet comforting, nonsense.

This type of portrayal may resonate with some, but does it really make sense? 2

From the outset it is helpful to define what we mean by a “crutch.” In a medical setting, the word obviously means an implement used by people for support when they are injured. The analogy implies, therefore, that those who need one are somehow deficient or wounded. In a sense, it is fairly obvious that the most vulnerable might need support, but as the agnostic John Humphrys points out, “Don’t we all? Some use booze rather than the Bible.” 3 As this suggests, it is not so much a question of whether you have one, but it is more of a question of what your particular crutch is. This is an important point to make, as people rely on all kinds of things for their comfort or self-esteem, ranging from material possessions, money, food, and aesthetics to cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, and sex. Rather than being viewed as signs of weakness, many of these are even considered to be relatively normal in society, provided they don’t turn into the more destructive behaviors associated with strong addiction.

Nevertheless, many of these only offer a short-term release from the struggles of life and they sometimes only cover up deeper problems that a person might be suffering from. To suggest, therefore, that atheists are somehow stronger than believers is to deny the darker side of humanity, which is only too apparent if we look at the world around us. As McGrath explains:

“[I]f you have a broken leg, you need a crutch. If you’re ill you need medicine. That’s just the way things are. The Christian understanding of human nature is that we are damaged, wounded and disabled by sin. That’s just the way things are.” 4

Moreover, Augustine of Hippo compared the church to a hospital, because it is full of wounded and ill people in the process of being healed. 5 As is the case with any illness, this treatment cannot begin, however, until someone has admitted they are sick or need help. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that religious belief does have an advantageous effect on both mental and physical health. Andrew Sims, former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, writes that a “huge volume of research” confirms this, making it “one of the best-kept secrets in psychiatry and medicine generally.” 6 In a culture that often seems to exalt health, well-being, and happiness above other things, this would seem to render religious belief very appealing both to the weak and the strong in society.

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Is God Just a Psychological Crutch for the Weak?

By Paul Copan

Have you ever met nasty skeptics or hostile atheists who seem to have a chip on their shoulder? Have you considered that maybe something’s gone deeply wrong in their family, often because of a failed (or missing) father figure?

I recently came across one such person. Having grown up in an ultra-legalistic “Christian” home, this person’s parents were involved in professional ministry. But his father committed adultery and, as a result, brought alienation, hostility, and humiliation to the entire family.

In a debate with an atheist, Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland told the audience: “If you’re an atheist, I’ll bet you a steak dinner that you’ve had authority issues with a father figure.”

1

 Ronald K. Tacelli, another Christian philosopher friend (Boston College), told me of his encounters with particularly cranky, mean-spirited atheists. He made the same connection: “They’ve got family issues.”

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

PSYCHOLOGIZING THE BELIEVER

We are familiar with the common challenge to believers that God is nothing more than a made-up or projected idea — an infantile illusion, a pathetic flight from reality to help us through life’s hardships and cruelties. Rather than humans made in God’s image, skeptics claim humans have made God in their image. Atheist philosopher Peter Railton refers to the gods “to whom we have given life.”2

The Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–72) asserts“Religion is the dream of the human mind.”

This notion inspired Karl Marx to call religion “the sigh of the oppressed creature” and “the opiate of the people.”

4

Likewise, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud followed Feuerbach’s line of reasoning, connecting humanity’s religious impulse with subconscious desires. God is the product of such “illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind. … the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fears of the dangers of life.”The poem Invictus (meaning “unconquered”) by William Ernest Henley (1849–1903) captures the spirit of these psychologizers of religion: “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” Believers, say skeptics, transfer personal responsibility to a made-up deity rather than being masters of their fate and captains of their souls. (Perhaps one could call such a projection “Captain Crutch.”)

PROBLEMS WITH THE CRUTCH ARGUMENT

What is the flaw in this argument? There are number of problems and concerns.

First, Freud himself acknowledged that his “psychoanalysis” of religion had no supporting clinical evidence.

 In 1927, Freud confessed to Oskar Pfister — an early psychoanalyst and believing Protestant pastor — that his perspectives on religious projection “are my personal views.”6 Freud had very little psychoanalytic experience with genuine religious believers and published no analysis of believers based on clinical evidence. 7

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