Sunday 20 April 2014

Is Belief in God Irrational? A Reply to Joshua

Anna Ichino
Thanks Joshua for your great post. I find your question about the rationality of religious beliefs* really interesting, and I’m sympathetic with your way of approaching it. I’ve just got a few doubts on some aspects of your answer on which I’d like to know more.

(*To be clear: by ‘religious beliefs’ here I refer, roughly, to the attitudes that religious people commonly avow, calling them ‘religious beliefs’.)

I think I agree with most of your claims; notably, with the negative ones. I surely agree that typical instances of religious beliefs are NOT beliefs-that: I argued along these lines in my last post. And I agree that, insofar as it is true that they’re not beliefs-that, religious beliefs are NOT irrational: it’s precisely because I take religious people to be as rational and sensible as anyone else that I don’t think they really believe that God exists (indeed, my position on this developed also as a reaction against positions – such as those of so-called ‘Brights’ – which charge religious people with an irrational view of the world, based on bad science, etc…).

On the other hand, I have some doubts concerning the positive parts of your claims. Once we have agreed on what religious beliefs are not, it remains to be explained what they are. Here is, I think, where our views differ; and I wonder whether they are alternative or they might be complementary.

My view is that religious (so-called) beliefs are actually not beliefs, but imaginings: lacking such crucial features of belief as sensitivity to evidence and holistic coherence, they display many typical features of imaginings, instead (notably, subjection to the will). Religious people do not really believe that, say, the God of the Christian Bible exists; they imagine that God exists, and take this imagining as a serious hypothesis ‘in the light of which’ to live their lives. So, I don’t question that ‘religious beliefs’ are propositional attitudes; I just argue that they are instances of propositional imagination, rather than of belief-that.

What about your view? I’m not sure what precisely the attitude of belief-in that you describe amounts to (whether it is better understood as a cognitive or as a conative one, for example); and, what its content precisely consists in. Here are three more specific questions.

1) Referring to Stump (2010), you talk of something that is ‘essentially non-propositional and irreducible to knowledge-that’. Does this mean – in the case, for example, of a belief in the God of Christian Bible – that the content of such belief does not include any of the propositions which describe God in the Bible, but is an entirely non-propositional (/non-conceptual) representation of that God? If so, I’d be curious to hear something more on what kind of representation you think is at stake here. How, for example, would a non-propositional representation of the Christian God differ from one of the Muslim God, or of Hindu Brahman? (This connects to the question on religious diversity that philosophyandpsychology’s made to your original post.)

2) A second question concerns the relation between the non-propositional representations of God you describe and the peculiar kinds of evidence that in your view would justify beliefs in the God they represent. How can we establish whether the evidence provided by my ‘theistic seemings’ – my inner experience of God as a person – really justifies my belief in the non-propositional representation I form of God, rather than brutally causing that representation like a drug might do? (Or vice versa, to echo again philosophyandpsychology’s question, should we count an experience triggered by a drug as reliable evidence?)

3) Finally, if it is true that Christian people’s beliefs in God are not understood at best as attitudes towards the propositions that describe God in the Bible, it seems nonetheless plausible that Christians people have also some kind of attitude towards such propositions (e.g., towards the proposition that GOD CREATED HUMANKIND IN HIS IMAGE - Genesis 1:27). Is your view that, beyond believing in God, Christian people also believe that God exists and that he/she created humankind in his image? Or would you agree with me that many Christian people do not really believe that, but assume that as a serious hypothesis.

An answer to this latter question would help also to address Jon Robson’s question of whether it might ever be rational to believe in God without believing that he/she exists. I’m quite keen to think that it can be rational, provided that one is at least willing to suppose that God exists and to take this hypothesis seriously in his life. After all, to assume/hypothesize that P might well be rational even in the absence of enough evidence to believe that P.

It'd be great to know your views on these points!


  1. Hi Anna,

    You prefer a non-doxastic approach to religious attitudes because they lack features crucial (necessary?) to belief: you suggest sensitivity to evidence and holistic coherence as two of these features.

    It strikes me that such features are had by many of our so-called beliefs, including the following:

    • Self-deceptive beliefs.
    • Circumscribed delusions.
    • Beliefs arising from transportation.
    • Beliefs based on certain doxastic biases, including self-enhancement bias (overly positive self-evaluation), and partiality bias (differential doxastic treatment of one’s friends over strangers).
    • Confabulations (indeed, confabulations are often characterised as genuinely believed by those who offer them, even though they are resistant to counter-evidence).

    On your view, is there an important difference between religious attitudes on the one hand, and attitudes like the above on the other, which helps justify a doxastic approach to the latter? Or do you deny that any of the above are beliefs on the grounds that they are not appropriately sensitive to evidence and do not display holistic coherence?

  2. Many thanks for this comment/question Ema.

    I am indeed inclined to think that some degree of sensitivity to evidence and (hence) of holistic coherence is necessary for an attitude to classify as belief (note that I say ‘some degree of’, which is different from requiring *perfect* sensitivity/coherence; of course, the question then arises of what is the critical degree of sensitivity/coherence that an attitude must display in order to deserve a doxastic treatment. Here let’s simply assume that there is a minimal degree).

    That said, the question whether the various states you mention display the minimal degree of sensitivity/coherence required to classify as beliefs is of course an empirical question, which might get different answers in different cases.
    I'm afraid I don't know the empirical literature well enough to answer properly in relation to most of your cases; but here are some first general thoughts.

    I suspect you are right that most cases of SELF-DECEPTION and CIRCUMSCRIBED DELUSIONS lack even the minimal levels of sensitivity to evidence and coherent inferential integration that I take to be necessary for belief (in the case of circumscribed delusions, the lack of coherence might be true by definition: as far as I understand, ‘circumscribed’ here indicates (also) a lack of integration between the delusion and the other intentional states of the subject; is that right?).

    I suspect the same is true for most cases of CONFABULATIONS, though I should study them better in order to be more confident about this.


    As to the transportation case: even granting that transportation studies actually reveal transportation-driven *belief* change (which I don’t think is true in most cases!), why do you think that those beliefs would be insensitive to evidence and badly integrated with the other readers’ beliefs? (perhaps – if transportation theorists are right on the mechanisms of ‘narrative persuasion’ - those beliefs are not originally formed in response to suitable evidence; but then I don’t think there is any evidence that they are particularly resistant to counter-evidence or inferentially isolated; quite the opposite).

    As to beliefs based on doxastic biases: I’d say that even if admittedly not perfectly responsive to evidence, such beliefs are not completely insensitive to evidence, let alone holistically incoherent – and their degrees of sensitivity to evidence and holistic coherence seem to be high enough for them to count as beliefs (again, though, I might be wrong here: I should study the empirical literature to answer properly).

    Anyway, to answer your question even more in general, I’m aware that according to my view of belief, which gives so much weight to those two sensitivity/coherence features, many things that we use to call ‘beliefs’ turn out not to be beliefs, after all.

  3. P.S. I don’t want to give the impression that I take the question of what degree of sensitivity/coherence is necessary for belief to be a marginal question. That’s rather crucial (as well ashard to answer!); I’m thinking through this.

    Is your view that no degree - even minimal- of sensitivity/coherence is necessary to belief, instead?


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