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Do the Social Sciences Discredit Religious Belief?

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Though the objections from the natural sciences for religious belief are strong, many would be surprised that the objections from the social sciences trump even them. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries gave rise to, in my opinion, the most powerful objections to theism thus far. Names like Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx (pictured above), and Friedrich Nietzsche found their way into the libraries of millions of Americans and crowned what many call the hermeneutics of suspicion.

The sociological objection to God, though it exists in multiple specifics, basically says that God is an allusion created in the minds of the people of the society for their own self-gaining purpose. God, in this view, is used to justify social behavior or to satisfy social purposes, such as oppression of the poor. Karl Marx (1818-1883) is known for his very famous claim that religion is the “opium of the people.” To an audience in 2015, this might strike you as rather odd, or you may simply be getting the wrong idea. Back in the time of Marx, opium was not used as a recreation drug; it was a painkiller. To Marx, religion was developed in the minds of the people to justify the status quo. For example, in order for the rich to keep the poor in check and to prevent revolts, religious ideas about an afterlife where everyone enjoys a life of wealth or prosperity – much like the Christian message – would keep the poor in place and convince them that revolting out of their class status would jeopardize their right to this afterlife.

Aside from this, the sociological objection seems weak when attempting to disprove theism. Only when one looks deeper into the objection can he see the reality of the claims. In Marx’s work, for example, he seems to just assume that no divine being exists and upon this assumption he builds his case for the social origins of religious belief. Most who adopt Marx’s theories fail to see the elementary fallacy committed in this approach. Marx gives his theory on the origins of religious belief and commits to believing that this origin thus renders religious beliefs false. To believe that a theory or idea is false exclusively on the basis of their origins is to commit what is called the genetic fallacy. In short, the origins of a belief play no role in determining the true or false nature of said beliefs.

An example of the genetic fallacy could go something like this: “John says that the earth is less 6,000 years old. Since John is a Christian, that claim cannot be true.” To insist that because John is a Christian, his belief about the age of the earth must be false is rather dense. John may or may not be correct in his belief in the age of the earth, but his identification as a Christian is irrelevant to the nature of the truth contained within his position. Consider further the possibility of two Christians, John and Kyle, who believe differently about the age of the earth. John believes that the age of the earth is less than 6,000 years old while Kyle believes that the earth is older than 6,000 years. Here we have two opposing beliefs held by two Christian individuals. Logically speaking, the earth is either less than 6,000 years old, favoring John’s belief, or it is older than 6,000 years, favoring Kyle’s belief. Since one of these two men must be correct and the other false, we can conclude that the origin of a belief – in this case, an identification as a Christian by both men – does not determine the falsity of said belief.

Aside from the illogical nature of Marx’s genetic fallacy, one can argue that religious beliefs are often times used to fight against the social norm. Yes, the biblical passages concerning slavery were used in justifying the oppression of African peoples in America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but the abolitionists who followed later also used biblical beliefs to end this slavery. Religious beliefs have been used both to justify and revolt against the social norms and the theory of religion satisfying social functions should not be particularly threatening to the Christian believer.

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