Philosophy and Religion

The details
Colchester Campus
Undergraduate: Level 5
Thursday 08 October 2020
Friday 18 December 2020
16 May 2020


Requisites for this module



Key module for

BA VV56 Philosophy, Religion and Ethics,
BA VV57 Philosophy, Religion and Ethics (Including Placement Year),
BA VV58 Philosophy, Religion and Ethics (Including Foundation Year),
BA VV59 Philosophy, Religion and Ethics (Including Foundation Year and Year Abroad),
BA VV5P Philosophy, Religion and Ethics (Including Year Abroad)

Module description

Should the origin of your belief ever make you think twice about its truth? You might say, "Of course not! What gives me reason to believe P (or not P) is the evidence for (or against) P, not the history of how I came to believe P. To claim otherwise is to commit the genetic fallacy!" Why, then, do Genealogical Debunking Arguments loom large in historical and contemporary critiques of religious belief?

Such arguments, which date back at least to Xenophanes (570-480 BC), attempt to debunk religious beliefs by pointing out their lowly origins (often in some shameful or base aspect of human nature). If all that matters for the rational assessment of our religious beliefs is our evidence for (or against) those beliefs, why do these arguments exert so much influence in the philosophy of religion?

This module will take a close look at these genealogical critiques of religious beliefs, beginning with classic historical examples from Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and others. We will then turn to more recent critical genealogical arguments, especially evolutionary debunking arguments. These latter arguments appeal to evidence from the scientific study of the neurological and psychological underpinnings of religious belief to cast doubt on those beliefs.
Are such Genealogical Debunking Arguments any good? Together we will try to develop sophisticated philosophical answers to this question.

Module aims

The aims of this module are:
• To introduce students to the key features and uses of Genealogical Debunking Arguments
• To help students improve their ability to enter into serious philosophical conversation both orally and in their written work.
• To help students develop the key philosophical skill of argument reconstruction and to learn how to put it to use in their writing.
• To help students develop their ability to write well-structured philosophical essays.
• To help students achieve greater independence as researchers and to develop their authority as writers.

Module learning outcomes

By the end of this module, students should be able to:

• display knowledge of classic texts in the history of philosophy pertaining to Genealogical Debunking Arguments (GDAs);
• display knowledge of current debates in the philosophy of religion pertaining to GDAs;
• explain and critically discuss the central concepts that inform the discussion of GDAs;
• explain and critically assess various formulations of GDAs, and the main lines of response to them.

By the end of the module, students should also have developed a set of transferable skills, and in particular be able to:
• define the task in which they are engaged and exclude what is irrelevant;
• seek and organise the most relevant discussions and sources of information;
• process a large volume of diverse and sometimes conflicting arguments;
• compare and evaluate different arguments and assess the limitations of their own position or procedure;
• write and present verbally a succinct and precise account of positions, arguments, and their presuppositions and implications;
• be sensitive to the positions of others and communicate their own views in ways that are accessible to them;
• think 'laterally' and creatively - see interesting connections and possibilities and present these clearly rather than as vague hunches;
• maintain intellectual flexibility and revise their own position if shown wrong;
• think critically and constructively.

• think critically and constructively.

Module information

Erasmus/IP students must have already taken an introductory module in Philosophy at their home institution.

Learning and teaching methods

One 3-hour block each week in the autumn term to cover lecture, argument reconstruction practice, and student-led discussion. Week 8 is a Reading Week. All teaching events will be accessible to students on and off campus either face-to-face or remotely through online teaching.


  • Vavova, Katia. (2018-01) 'Irrelevant Influences', in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. vol. 96 (1) , pp.134-152
  • Vavova, Katia. (2014) 'Debunking Evolutionary Debunking', in Oxford studies in metaethics: Volume 9, Oxford: Oxford University Press., pp.76-101
  • Srinivasan, Amia. (2019-07-01) 'VII?—?Genealogy, Epistemology and Worldmaking', in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. vol. 119 (2) , pp.127-156
  • Jong, Jonathan; Visala, Aku. (2014-12) 'Evolutionary debunking arguments against theism, reconsidered', in International Journal for Philosophy of Religion. vol. 76 (3) , pp.243-258
  • Plantinga, Alvin. (2011) 'Evolutionary Psychology and Scripture Scholarship', in Where the conflict really lies: science, religion, and naturalism, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Plantinga, Alvin. (2011) 'Defeaters?', in Where the conflict really lies: science, religion, and naturalism, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Schloss, Jeffrey. (c2009) 'Religious Belief as an Evolutionary Accident', in The believing primate: scientific, philosophical, and theological reflections on the origin of religion, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Schloss, Jeffrey. (c2009) 'Explaining Belief in the Supernatural: Some Thoughts on Paul Bloom's 'Religious Belief as an Evolutionary Accident'', in The believing primate: scientific, philosophical, and theological reflections on the origin of religion, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Inwagen, Peter van. (2009) 'Explaining Belief in the Supernatural: Some Thoughts on Paul Bloom's 'Religious Belief as an Evolutionary Accident'', in The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Reflections on the Origin of Religion: Oxford University Press.

The above list is indicative of the essential reading for the course. The library makes provision for all reading list items, with digital provision where possible, and these resources are shared between students. Further reading can be obtained from this module's reading list.

Assessment items, weightings and deadlines

Coursework / exam Description Deadline Weighting
Coursework   Argument reconstruction     25% 
Coursework   Essay (2000 words)     50% 
Coursework   Reading questions TOTAL    25% 

Overall assessment

Coursework Exam
100% 0%


Coursework Exam
100% 0%
Module supervisor and teaching staff
Dr Matthew Burch, email:
Dr Matt Burch



External examiner

No external examiner information available for this module.
Available via Moodle
Of 38 hours, 36 (94.7%) hours available to students:
2 hours not recorded due to service coverage or fault;
0 hours not recorded due to opt-out by lecturer(s).


Further information

* Please note: due to differing publication schedules, items marked with an asterisk (*) base their information upon the previous academic year.

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