Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Is Belief in God Irrational?

Joshua Cockayne
My name is Joshua Cockayne. I am currently a PhD student at the University of York under the supervision of David Efird. I am interested in the epistemic justification for religious beliefs and whether it can ever be reasonable to believe in the existence of God.

Is belief in God irrational? William Clifford claimed that ‘It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence’ (1877) and this charge is often put to believers in God to demonstrate that their beliefs are irrational. I maintain that even if the publicly available evidence for the existence of God is ambiguous, that belief in God can be rational. I claim that a certain experience of God can immediately justify belief in God and thus render this belief rational. In what follows, I describe what it is to experience God and the epistemic value of such experience.

Typically, beliefs are concerned with knowledge that something is the case. For instance, I believe that there is thirty pounds in my wallet, I believe that I had a croissant for breakfast and I believe that I have a hospital appointment at three thirty this afternoon. All of these beliefs can be justified by appealing to publicly available evidence - namely, by looking in my wallet, checking my receipts, and reading today’s date in my diary.

However, some instances of belief cannot be easily understood as knowledge that something is the case. In her Wandering in Darkness, Eleonore Stump (2010) claims that there are some beliefs which are irreducible to propositions purporting to claim that something is the case. She cites Frank Jackson’s (1982) famous thought experiment of Mary. Stump maintains that Mary learns something new which is essentially non-propositional and irreducible to knowledge that. She then extends this example to think about our knowledge of persons, she writes:

Imagine then that Mary in her imprisonment has had access to any and all information about the world as long as that information is only in the form of third-person accounts giving her knowledge….But she has never had any personal interactions of an unmediated and direct sort with another person. . . When Mary is first united with her mother, it seems indisputable that Mary will know things she did not know before, even if she knew everything about her mother that could be made available to her in non-narrative propositional form, including her mother’s psychological states. Although Mary knew that her mother loved her before she met her, when she is united with her mother, Mary will learn what it is like to be loved. . . . [W]hat will come as the major revelation to Mary is her mother. (2010: 52-3)

Supposing Stump is right here, and there is something that Mary learns when she meets her mother that is irreducible to propositional knowledge that, what follows for belief in God? I claim that this insight can shed light on our original question of whether belief in God is rational.

If the God of the Christian Bible exists, for example, then we ought to understand God as a person who aims to have relationship with human beings. Furthermore, as Soren Kierkegaard (1844) claims, we ought to expect belief in God to arise from an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ. With Stump’s distinction in place, we can see why public evidence which purports to show that something is the case is an inadequate basis for belief in God as a person. Such evidence can only provide beliefs about God, and not beliefs in God. What is required for belief in God, I maintain, is an experience of God. 

Do such experiences occur? And can these experiences really justify belief in God? These two questions cannot be dealt with here in depth, but I will suggest how these might be broached. Firstly, it is an empirical question whether or not theistic believers purport to having had experiences which are rich enough to be considered experiences of God. However, for present purposes, it seems reasonable to assume that at least some sane individuals claim to have had such an experience.

Secondly, the most promising account of epistemic justification for these experiences, I claim, focuses on the ‘theistic seemings’ that theistic believers claim to have (see my summary of Michael Bergmann’s paper in my post on the Workshop on Defeat and Religious Epistemology, for example). Under such an account, theistic believers are justified in believing P, iff P seems to be the case and there is no defeating evidence for P. James Pryor (2000, 2004) has developed a defence of this kind of justification for perceptual beliefs, which I claim can be extended to belief in God.

If this account is correct, and theistic believers lack successful defeaters for the belief, then they are justified in believing that their personal experience of God is reliable. Furthermore, if this is true, then regardless of whether or not the public evidence is ambiguous, theistic believers are not irrational in continuing to believe.


  1. Hi Joshua,

    This is a fascinating topic. I have a few questions for this project in general:

    -How do you deal with religious diversity? If a Muslim has a religious experience of Allah and a Christian a religious experience of the Biblical God, do these both count equally as support for incompatible beliefs? If a Hindu has an experience of Vishnu, does this give them evidence that HInduism is true? The worry with your account is that it's going to be rational for the Hindi to believe based on their experience and the Christian to believe based on their experience, but what's the most rational thing to believe given the fact that religious believers have idiosyncratic experiences that lead to mutually exclusive beliefs?

    -How do you weigh against the Bayesian prior that these experiences are hallucinations given how much we know about the brain? What about the evolutionary theories that can adaptive accounts for the brain would generate religious experiences even if no gods or God actually existed?

    -If experiences of God can be induced through experimental manipulation of the brain, does this undermine evidence that one's experience are evidence of God?

    -Similarly, what about mystical experiences induced by drug use? Does this provide evidence?

  2. Hi Joshua, thanks for the great post. A couple of quick thoughts (i) what do you think we should say in a situation where the evidence is, as many of those who object to the rationality of theistic belief claim, not ambiguous but clearly against the existence of God. Someone might agree with the Bergmann / Pryor line but think (as I guess the comment above is suggesting) that there is lots of defeating evidence (for the record my own view is close to the Bergmann / Pryor view and I’m not convinced that there’s all that much in the way of defeaters, just wanted your thoughts)? (ii) A lot of the debate over the rationality of belief in God seems to be over the rationality of the belief that God exists and this seems, at least at first blush, to be straightforwardly propositional and the kind of thing we don’t need to believe on the basis of experience (in most of the cases where I believe that someone exists I do so on the basis of testimony rather than on the basis of experience). I have some sympathy for the claim that focusing almost exclusively on this, rather than on e.g. in believing in God in the (perhaps non-propositional) sense of trusting him, is a mistake but I wonder whether these other attitudes could ever be rational in a situation where we don’t rationally believe that God exists.


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