• Skip Wilson

An Atheist Begs the Question

This is a transcript from Lord’s Army Radio Dispatch 46. You can hear the podcast wherever you listen to podcasts or here:

Today I’m going to play a clip for you from a YouTube channel called the Big Think. For business advice and the like, the Big Think has some great content actually. However, for this particular interview they went theological.

They interviewed Lionel Tiger, a Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University. Here’s him talking about his study on the purpose and cause of religion. If you aren’t going to be able to listen to this whole podcast right now, then you may want to cut out now before this clip.

Clip 1:

Notice that he calls religion a “vexing issue”. He calls it that because people actually believe that religion is true.

Then he states that “religion is an artificial secretion manufactured within the brain.” He then goes on to talk about things like tax exemptions. Notice the framing of a narrative here.

First of all he sets up a contrast. On the one hand you have these vexing religious adherents that all believe their particular flavor of religion are true despite “no one having any evidence”, and on the other hand you have people like himself and his partner with all these scholarly credentials.

He then flatly states says that this “massive unreality turns into a real reality”. People are “still” donating money in America to religious causes.

Also notice the dropping of arbitrary numbers such as 4,200 religions in the world. That is a number, just FYI, that varies wildly depending on how one defines religion, such as the thousands of different variants on Buddhism and so forth.

The point is that he’s setting up a victim/hero paradigm. The idea is that the masses are all being controlled by some artificial fantasy, and they’re wasting their time, money and even governmental resources in support of this fantasy. And then he and his highly credentialed scientific researchers are going to see what’s going on.

It’s a story framed to fit a familiar story to each of us- it’s the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Everyone is deceived, really deceiving themselves, and finally his team is going to shout out the truth and unmask the whole thing thus freeing the masses from their deception.

Now, please note that I’m not blaming or condemning his use of narrative framing. In fact, it’s just plain good rhetoric. Here’s what I want you to take away from our episode today- I want to help you get really good at stripping away and identify narratives in order to address the specific claims a person makes.

Every opinion is framed. This was a key focus point of my journalism degree at Clemson. People often complain about media bias and always claim that they want objective information. In practice though, objectivity is a mirage. There’s just no such thing as objectivity when it comes to learning.

The truth is that few journalists set out to be biased. I can tell you that, over the course of my more than a decade and a half long media career- I don’t think I ever met a journalist that believed himself or herself to be unfair.

The reality is that information is collected, written and dispersed by humans. Each human has an opinion. Therefore, objectivity is a no-go. Even when an interviewer interviews someone from both sides of a topic, the reality is that those two interviews are then edited by a person into a piece that tells a story.

True objectivity would be pure data. That’s it. And pure data is simply not something that we can deal with.

Think of it this way- every news story you ever watch is typically made up of two to three interviews. Each interview likely took anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours. So, let’s say that instead of a news story, you had to just watch three hours of raw interview… would that then be objective? The short answer is no… you’d simply be getting an unfiltered look at an interview of three different people. Each of those individuals would still have an opinion and a worldview of their own. And, an interviewer can steer a conversation by his or her questions, the location of the interview, the time of day of the interview, etc.

Then, there’s the coup-de-grace for objectivity… your own mind. You have your own biases, your own set of facts and information that you know. Even if purely objective information could somehow be presented to you, then you’d inevitably try to squeeze those facts into preexisting narrative templates already in your brain.

I really don’t think we were designed for objectivity. We weren’t made to be holders of facts- instead we were designed to be holders of narrative anyway. There’s a reason, from the Christian worldview, that we can remember and relate to stories better than facts anyway- after all it’s how God chose to communicate to us. He didn’t give us a long, complex systematic theology. He gave us a book of narratives and precedents. The systematic theologies are wonderful tools that can be derived from the Scripture and help us understand big Truths, but what God gave us is a beautiful text… a book, a story.

So… give up the hunt for objectivity. Instead look for honesty. Get used to looking through the narratives in order to look at the facts and claims.

When you first hear his interview, you may have found his premise intriguing or convincing. If so, that just speaks to how powerful Lionel is at his use of narrative. When you strip all of that out of the way, you’re left with a bold claim… he claims that “religion is an artificial secretion manufactured within the brain.”

Let’s see how well he supports that claim.

Clip 2

There you have it… case closed... Serotonin produces feelings of high status, feelings of high status produces happiness, and religion produces Serotonin.

Hold, what?! That’s it! Remember, the claim is that religion is an artificial secretion manufactured within the brain. As evidence, he produces research that shows that religion makes us happy?!

Let’s try that with something else. Using this logic, I can absolutely prove to you that chocolate does not actually exist. How can I do that?

Well serotonin produces feelings of high status, feelings of high status produce happiness, and (get this… it’s true) chocolate produces serotonin.

I talked about a lack of the ability to be objective in relating data- in other words you can’t be objective when you report a finding (or even when you hear a report on a finding), but the conclusion that these researches reach is an example of experimental bias.

Let’s be clear, these are not dumb individuals and frankly I don’t think that he is intentionally being misleading.

Think of it from his perspective... he’s trying to solve a problem. In his worldview, humans are simply highly evolved primates. In this worldview, every aspect of what it means to be a human must be explainable by evolution.

So, when it comes to something a ubiquitous as religion, he has a problem to solve. What possible evolutionary purpose could religion serve?

Well, they do some research and BOOM- there you have it. Religion causes happiness. That must be why it among unanimously among humanity… it makes us happy.

But see, that’s the limit of data. All their research actually found was that religion makes us happy. If you do a deeper dive of his actual research, it’s actually even more interesting.

You see, Lionel mentions that there are 4,200 different religions in the world… but this study was conducted in a population that was 75% Christian. And, if you isolate just the religious individuals, it’s actually 89% of the study base is Christian.

So, after all the fluff and framing is stripped away you’re left with an interesting data point… Christianity makes us happy.

Remember the claim- the claim is that “religion is an artificial secretion manufactured within the brain.” And the supporting evidence for that claim… Christianity makes us happy.

I think you can see that the claim does not logically flow from the data. Instead, ultimately what Lionel proved is that Proverbs 10:28 is true: “The hope of the righteous is gladness, but the expectation of the wicked perishes.”

Now, the tragic part of the interview… I should mention that after this third clip plays, you will have officially heard every word of the Big Think video. There’s been no cherry picking of sound clips on my part.

In this clip, the interviewer has posed the obvious logical question. If religion is purely the result of brain, then can the same results be achieved by some other means?

Clip 3

Here’s what I found so tragic about that clip, two things. First of all, his description of the French is depressingly accurate. By and large, the French society is a completely secular one. And, as he puts it, “they’re the most enthusiastic pill poppers of the bunch.”

Secondly, I find it simply tragic that someone as smart as Lionel Tiger doesn’t see that he’s committed such a logically blatant logical error.

His conclusion is plain and simple question begging. It’s so blatant, that I don’t see how any freshman speech and debater doesn’t instantly see it. Question begging is when a premise of the argument assumes the conclusion. For example, all religious worldviews are false and must therefore have a naturalistic explanation, happiness is favored by natural selection. Religion causes happiness. Therefore, religion is made up by our brains.

However, that assumes that religion is false. You could just as easily frame his findings this way.

Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, worship God (or religion if you will) causes happiness, therefore Christianity is true.

Guard your mind. Don’t let yourself be caught off guard by convincing narratives. Just because a world-renowned anthropologist makes a claim, take a look at it.

As Christians, we should be lovers of science. When data is examined closely, as in this case, it actually supports the Christian worldview.

We are to be lovers of Truth. When someone asks a hard question, or makes a hard claim, look for the Truth before answering.

When someone makes a claim, examine it in the light of Truth. The simple fact is that Christianity and the Christian worldview always stands up to the challenge.

Here's the Full Original Big Think Video: