"What if you're wrong?"

Richard Dawkins's answer to the question "What if you're wrong?" (asked by a Liberty University student at Randolph College in 2006) received so much attention that the short video of his rapid-fire little speech got over three and a half million hits on YouTube. Someone has made an animated collage which nicely illustrates Dawkins's points:

Although Dawkins used a lot of examples, he made his main point clearly when he said "there's no particular reason to pick on the Judeo-Christian god, in which by the sheerest accident you happen to have been brought up". His point is not:

(1)  Since you have acquired your religious beliefs in such and such a way, these beliefs are questionable (or false).

It is:

(2)  You would have acquired utterly different religious beliefs if you had been brought up in a different religious tradition, and these different sets of religious beliefs are equally unjustified. So you have no more reason to accept one of them rather than the other.

(1) is an instance of the genetic fallacy, while (2) merely points out the lack of justifying reason for preferring one religion over another. That (2) is Dawkins's main point is also supported by his last remark: "What if you're wrong about the great Juju at the bottom of the sea?"

Dawkins's main point is clear enough (which explains why it is so forceful), but it doesn't stop someone like William Lane Craig from insisting that Dawkins committed the genetic fallacy:

Craig the great strawman maker... (Sigh). Alvin Plantinga, who is a more sophisticated thinker than Craig, fails to offer a more reasonable response to Dawkins's main point. Actually, he's responding to Philip Kitcher, but Kitcher's point is the same as Dawkins's:

For all their doctrinal disagreements, Muslims, Jews, and Christians agree on many things. If, however, you had been acculturated within one of the aboriginal traditions of Australia, or within a society in central Africa, or among the Inuit, you would accept, on the basis of cultural authority, radically different ideas. You would believe in the literal truth of stories about the spirits of ancestors and about their presence in sacred places, and you would believe these things as firmly as Christians believe in the resurrection, or Jews in God's covenant, or Muslims in the revelations to the Prophet. (Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith, p.141)

Plantinga's response sounds a bit deeper than Craig's, but is no less missing the point:

Kitcher points out, as others before him have, that most believers accept the religion in which they have been brought up. And that can be worrying: if I had been brought up in medieval China, for example, I would almost certainly not have been a Christian. Fair enough; and this can induce a certain cosmic vertigo. But doesn't the same go for Kitcher? Suppose he had been born in medieval China, or for that matter medieval Europe: in all likelihood, he would not have been skeptical of the supernatural. As I say; this can induce vertigo; but isn't it just part of the human condition? (Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, p.62)

Again, Kitcher's (and Dawkins's) point is not that religious beliefs are questionable because believers have been brought up to accept those beliefs, but that believers have no more reason to accept the religious beliefs they have rather than some other religious beliefs. Kitcher makes the point straightforwardly this way:

The trouble with supernaturalism is that it comes in so many incompatible forms, all of which are grounded in just the same way. (p.142)

Since these incompatible forms of supernaturalism are grounded in just the same way, we have no reason to prefer one form over another. Most believers stick to their religious belief simply because they have been brought up to accept them blindly.

It is indeed part of the human condition that we have all been brought up to accept certain beliefs, but it is not part of the human condition that we should not question these beliefs. Plantinga is right that Kitcher would not have been skeptical of the supernatural if he had been born in medieval Europe, but that doesn't mean Kitcher's skepticism about the supernatural is no more justified than medieval religious beliefs --- they are not incompatible forms of the same kind of belief system that are grounded in just the same way.