"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.


  1. Dr. Wong, I'm inclined to somewhat disagree with the reading of Dawkins. Although I do think you've clearly distinguished how these arguments are not instances of the genetic fallacy and responded well to Craig and Plantinga, I'm not sure that you've accurately captured Dawkins' point. You wrote that his point is that a religious person would have acquired utterly different religious beliefs if they had been brought up in a different culture, and those beliefs would be just as unjustified, so why preference one over the other? However, in listening to the audio of Dawkins' response, although this is an implication of his argument, I don't think it's his primary point.

    Dawkins is responding to the rhetorical fallacy in which someone challenges someone elses supported claims with the assertion "but what if you're wrong?" This kind of blanket skepticism is offered as a reason for not accepting the interlocutors supported claims. The argument runs thus: You have given me an argument, but you could be wrong, therefore I do not accept your claims. But Dawkins wisely points out that the skeptic has her own convictions which she holds just as strongly as Dawkins holds his, and that she very well could be wrong about those. He offers a plausible reason: there are other religious beliefs in other countries which she would hold if she had been born in those countries. Therefore, she is no different than a religious person born in those countries in terms of having religious convictions, and yet she could ask the same question, "What if you're wrong?", to any one of those religious persons. But this means that it could just as equally be asked of her, and at the end of his illustration, Dawkins does so.

    The illustration makes the point much better than if Dawkins had just traded the question back at the beginning. The illustration tries to bring out the close-mindedness the girl was trying to suggest in Richard Dawkins. The question "What if your wrong?" often implies that the person is not open to possibilities they don't like. But Dawkins skillfully shows that the skeptic is just as unopen to possibilities she doesn't like. By giving a strong illustration, he shows the vacuousness of blanket skepticism. Yes, he could be wrong, but he has reasons to support his claims, and by pointing out other religious beliefs in other countries, he shows the skeptic that the question just as strongly applies to her. So, she can either provide reasons for her beliefs, or question Dawkins reasons' for his beliefs, but blanket skepticism has been rhetorically diffused.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Michael. I am not sure we really disagree; we may just be emphasizing different, but compatible, points.

  2. I think you've missed the substance of Plantinga's response. For almost any belief of yours, X, it is true that there is some possible culture in which you could have been raised where you would not believe X, or even where you would believe not-X. Religious beliefs are no different. So, if the Kitcher point is that this fact about beliefs undermines them (that they are sensitive to upbringing) then we are left with near-total skepticism, and Kitcher himself is unable to hold most of his cherished beliefs (about Science, for example).

    Also, why do you say "Kitcher's (and Dawkins's) point is NOT that religious beliefs are questionable because believers have been brought up to accept those beliefs"? That is almost certainly what Kitcher is saying, in the very quote you've provided.

    1. Kitcher's point is not merely that religious beliefs are sensitive to upbringing, but also that they are all "grounded in the same way".

  3. In the first place you can't prove or disprove what one believes in on religion, like God.
    Second, there are no reasoning (mostly, just to be safe,) in religious faith. Why do they want other people to use reasoning or logical arguments to show that they are probably wrong?

    My approach is not "what if you are wrong." It's rather "what if you are right." Like one comment I left before, if you are right about this, I can make up many Gooroos (my term for creators or Gods or whatnot) and I am right too. I can say one of the Gooroos creates your God. I am right too. If you are right, I am right too. (Obviously, I'm not using logical arguments. In this case, why bother? Okay, maybe I just don't have patience for this. I am just being as unreasonable as God's people.) --zpdrmn