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How is Religious Belief Justified?

In an earlier post I claimed that one can, in principle, have good reasons to trust (and thus to believe) in God. This is to say that theistic belief can be justified. What would be required in order for someone to be justified in believing that “God exists”? What I’m going to do here is give a brief overview of the various ways philosophers try to answer this question.

There are at least three main views on how belief in God is (or should be) justified: [A] by argument, [B] by experience, and [C] by proper basicality.

To say that the rationality of theism is dependent upon argument means that, in order for me to be justified in believing in God, I must have some argument (or set of arguments) which shows that God exists (or at least probably exists). An argument involves an inference from premises to conclusion.

The Cosmological Argument, for example, aims to show that the existence of the universe as a whole requires a creator. Another is the Teleological Argument, which aims to show that the order of the universe requires a designer. From the fact of the universe, or of the universe’s orderliness, one infers the existence of a creator or designer. On this view, religious beliefs are to be held on the basis of such inferences.

One prominent philosopher who argues along these lines is Richard Swinburne. On Swinburne’s view, theism is taken as a hypothesis to explain various natural phenomena – e.g. the universe, physical laws, consciousness – just as scientific hypotheses are postulated to account for empirical data (see The Existence of God, 2nd edition). So according to this position, I could only be justified if I come to believe in the existence of God as a inference from other things I know to be true, as a conclusion of an argument or as an explanation of data available to me.

To say that the rationality of theism is dependent upon experience means that, in order for me to be justified in believing in God, I must have some experience (or set of experiences) which shows (or indicates) that God exists (or at least probably exists). The difference between experience and argument is that when we know something by experience, it is through direct acquaintance rather than inference.

For example, suppose I learn about my new neighbor by his knocking on my door one day and introducing himself “Hello, I’m John” – in that case, my knowledge of John is via direct experience. On the other hand, suppose I learn about the new neighbor when I receive misdelivered mail intended for the house next door, addressed to someone named “John” – in that case, my knowledge of John is inferential – I infer that there is some person named John who lives in the house next door. This view holds that we would know God by acquaintance, through our own direct experience, rather than as an inferred conclusion of an argument.

One prominent philosopher who argues along these lines is Paul Moser. On Moser’s view, God, being perfectly loving, would want what is best for us, and thus would provide evidence of his existence in a way that would be morally beneficial to those who receive it.

A direct authoritative call from God to humans would seek to find acknowledgement and agreeable reception in human conscience, where people can experience deep conviction and move toward cooperation with God’s will and conformation to God’s moral character. Human yielding to such a call would enable God’s presence to emerge non-coercively with increasing salience in a human life, and it would advance human transformation away from selfishness and toward God’s perfectly unselfish will (Moser, The Evidence for God, 149).

Lastly, to say that theism is rational in virtue of proper basicality means that belief in God does not depend upon anything else for its justification. A basic belief is one which is not accepted on the evidential basis of other propositions. A belief is properly basic if one is justified in holding the belief in that basic way (i.e., not on the basis of other beliefs).

To illustrate this, consider Alvin Plantinga’s view. According to Plantinga, belief in God forms naturally by the sensus divinitatis, a faculty which in various certain circumstances triggers theistic belief in the person.

It isn’t that one beholds the night sky, notes that it is grand, and concludes that there must be such a person as God: an argument like that would be ridiculously weak…Is it rather than, upon the perception of the night sky or the mountain vista or the tiny flower, these beliefs just arise within us. They are occassioned by the circumstances; they are not conclusions from them (Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, 175).

The difference between proper basicality (Plantinga’s view) and experience/direct-acquaintance (Moser’s view) is that for Plantinga, the experiences which occasion theistic belief to be formed by the sensus divinitatis do not actually show that the belief is true. They naturally give rise to the belief, but they don’t evidentially ground it or indicate its truth. Whereas for Moser, though the belief (that “God exists”) does not result from the experience as an inference, the experienced reception of God’s volitionally-engaging call does ground the belief which results from it.

These three positions each provide an answer to the question–what is required for religious belief to be justified?–and as such, they are not compatible. This is because the positions disagree on what’s necessary for justification.

However, if taken as answers to the question–what can justify religious belief?–then they are compatible, because [A] argument, [B] experience, and [C] proper basicality can be taken as three sufficient means for justification. That is, perhaps some people believe because of arguments, some because of experiential evidence, and others because of their sensus divinitatis.

Justification and Belief in General

As I said before, we should aim to have as many true beliefs and as few false beliefs as we can (that is, if we want to be rational). But this raises the question, how do we know whether a belief is true or false? In most cases, we don’t (not with complete certainty). So, we have to evaluate beliefs in terms of whether or not they are justified. A belief is justified for me only if I’ve got some good reason to think it’s true. If I don’t, I’m not justified in believing it.

For example, I’m justified in believing that “my cup is empty” because I can see there’s no water in the cup. Hence I have a good reason to believe my cup is empty. But I’m not justified in believing that “there are an odd number of leaves on the tree outside” because I haven’t counted them all, and I can’t tell just by looking at the tree whether there are an odd or even number of leaves. So, I don’t have a good reason for that.

Not all beliefs are justified by my senses (what I can see, hear, touch, etc). My belief that my senses are reliable, for instance, is not held on the basis of any data I receive from those faculties (that would be circular). And moreover, I know that “all bachelors are unmarried” and that “all triangles have three sides” by reason alone, simply because those propositions are true by their terms’ definitions.

Beliefs can also be justified on the basis of others’ testimony. Suppose my friend tells me over the telephone that he watched the game on his TV the other night. Then, I would have a good reason to believe that he watched the game (and hence, I would be justified in so believing). Much (if not most) of what we believe about the world is based on what other people tell us, what we read, what we hear.

So clearly, there are many ways that beliefs are justified, and different beliefs are justified in different ways.

Fides Quaerens Intellectum (faith seeking understanding)

Faith and reason – what are they, and how do they relate to one another?

Faith is believing something you know ain’t true – Mark Twain

Is it? Twain’s statement reflects a very common view of faith as “believing without evidence.” This approach to religious belief is called fideism, according to which belief in God involves a “leap of faith” (a phrase invented by Kierkegaard). Some people go so far as to affirm that one can’t have evidence for faith, for “how can I have faith if I know it to be true?”

I would suggest that this understanding of faith is not only problematic, but simply mistaken. Why is it problematic? Because we ought to aim at having as many true beliefs and as few false beliefs as we can. This is why in epistemology (a branch of philosophy which studies knowledge), beliefs are evaluated in terms of justification. A belief is justified for a person only if that person has some good reason to think that it’s true. If one doesn’t have any reason for accepting a belief, then it’s not justified. Now, it follows from this that according to fideism, religious beliefs by definition cannot be justified, because they are believed without evidence. So understood, faith and reason are incompatible. This is a big problem, because if faith implies unjustified belief, then there is no reason why anyone should have faith.

Thankfully, there is no good reason to accept a fideistic approach to religious belief. Which is to say, there is no reason to define faith as “believing without evidence.” Why do people adopt fideism, then? Many Christians are under the impression that the Bible teaches it. It says, for instance, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29). But nowhere does it say to believe without reason. According to John, Jesus even says “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (7:17, my emphasis), which implies that one does not simply believe without justification – rather, one will have a reason to do so.

But if faith does not mean “believing without evidence [or reason],” then how is faith different from any other belief? The difference is that the biblical term “believe” does not just mean accept as true. It also has a component of trust. Paul Moser explains:

The kind of faith ascribed to Abram in Genesis 15 is no mere intellectual or psychological matter. It involves the central purpose and direction of Abram’s life relative to God’s promise to call to him. The best language for such faith is “entrusting oneself to God” (The Evidence for God, 91).

Hence, faith is not just believing that God exists; it also means believing in God, putting one’s trust in God and aligning one’s will and purpose with his. Moreover, one can (in principle) have good reasons to trust God in this way, just as one can have good reasons to trust a friend or a parent. This is the difference between faith and blind faith.

Definition of God

The title of this blog is “God, Faith and Reason”. As such, I should say something about each of these terms, at least by way of definition. I’ll begin with the first.

What do we mean by “God”? St. Anselm defines God as “a being than which none greater can be conceived” (Proslogion). This means that God is the greatest being that one can think of. Or similarly, God is the greatest being there could be. This is one sense of understanding God as a perfect being – if a being, x, could be any better than it already is, then x is not perfect.

All philosophers agree with this definition, or some form of it. What they may not all agree on, however, is what properties such a being would have. What is a property? A property of an object is anything that is true of that object. For example, I have the property of being a Tennessean, because it is true that I am from Tennessee. I also have the properties of being bipedal, of rationality, and animality (since I am a two-legged rational animal). Every existing thing has properties.

So, what properties would God have? According to Alvin Plantinga, God is “an all-powerful, all knowing, wholly good person (a person without a body) who has created us and our world” (Warranted Christian Belief, 3). Similarly, Richard Swinburne defines God as “a person without a body (i.e. a spirit) who necessarily is eternal, perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and the creator of all things” (The Existence of God, 7).

God, then, is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, immaterial, eternal, personal being, worthy of worship, and creator of all things other than himself. The belief that God exists is called theism. God may have other properties as well; according to Christian theism, for example, God is a Trinity.

Now, what do those properties mean? I will give a quick definition of each one. Omnipotence means that God has the ability to do anything that is logically possible. Creating a square circle, or a married bachelor, would be logically impossible. Omiscience means that God knows everything, every true proposition and no false proposition. Omnibenevolence means that God is morally perfect, does only what is good, and wills what is good for all things. Immaterial means “not material,” i.e. does not occupy space or have a body. Finally, a being is worthy of worship if and only if it is morally perfect.

While people may mean something different by “God” (the term is used in many ways), this is the definition used in the philosophy of religion, and the one I will be using in this blog.

Hello world!: Introduction

Welcome! WordPress has suggested that I use this post to tell readers [A] why I started this blog and [B] what I plan to do with it. So here goes.

Why did I start this blog? There are a number of ways to answer this question. One way is to explain what caused or led me to do this, and another is to explain what purpose it serves. As to the first, I got the idea to start this blog from my friends and family. And while I was initially somewhat reticent–because I know very little about blogs, and have little experience reading them myself–upon reflection, I decided that it would probably be a good idea. As to the second, the purpose of this blog is to provide answers and explanations to common (and perhaps uncommon) questions about the philosophy of religion, and to offer my own studied opinions on those issues.

What do I plan to do with it? I take this to be a question about how I will go about achieving that purpose. How will I decide what to post, what topics to address, what philosophical concepts to explain, what questions to answer, what opinions to give, and so on? This is more difficult. I’m not really sure. I think I’ll just play it by ear, at least to begin with, and perhaps a more structured method will present itself later on.

It occurs to me that a third  question readers might ask is [C] why are you qualified to speak on these topics? (i.e., why should I listen to you?) I won’t claim that I am qualified, or even that people should listen. While I did get my MA degree in philosophy, there are plenty of people more knowledgeable about these things than I. That said, I will claim that there isn’t any other topic I’m more qualified to speak on than the philosophy of religion. So, if I have anything to offer the reader, it will likely be in that domain.

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