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Belief without Proof: Is Belief in God Rational if there is no Evidence? Part I

April 4th, 2009 by Matt

This series is effectively the talk I gave to Thinking Matters Auckland on Belief without Proof; It will be split into three posts.

First, I will examine a common objection to belief in God, the objection that it is irrational to believe in God without proof; I will unpack this objection and argue that it fails. Second, I will propose an alternative view of faith and reason, that defended by Alvin Plantinga. Third, I will address two common objections to this view of faith and reason.

The Rationalist Objection
Since the 17th century, one of the most common objections to the Christian faith is the claim that Christianity is irrational because its central tenets cannot be proven to be true.[1] John Mackie raises this argument,

If it is agreed that the central assertions of theism are literally meaningful, it must also be admitted that they are not directly verified or directly verifiable. It follows that any rational consideration of whether they are true or not will involve arguments . . . it [whether or not God exists] must be examined either by deductive or inductive reasoning or, if that yields no decision, by arguments to the best explanation; for in such a context nothing else can have any coherent bearing on the issue.[2]

Mackie claims that the “rationality consideration” of theism (by which he means belief in God) depends on the arguments that can be mustered in support of theism; if belief in God cannot be proven then it is irrational.

Mackie’s method here is not unusual. In the 19th century Clifford wrote a famous article about the rationality of Theism entitled The Ethics of Belief.[3] Clifford writes, “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.”[4] The same thesis can be seen in the writings of prominent atheists such as Michael Scriven,[5] Bertrand Russell,[6] Antony Flew,[7] Gordon Stein,[8] Michael Tooley[9] and Michael Martin.[10] A particularly lucid example of the same approach is seen in the writings of Antony Flew,

[T]he debate about the existence of God should properly begin from the presumption of atheism, that the onus of proof must lie upon the theist…What the protagonist of my presumption of atheism wants to show is that the debate about the existence of God ought to be conducted in a particular way, and that the issue should be seen in a certain perspective. His thesis about the onus of proof involves that it is up to the theist: first to introduce and to defend his proposed concept of God; and second, to provide sufficient reason for believing that this concept of his does in fact have an application.[11]

Central to these writers is an important contention. It is contended that Theism is rationally acceptable only if there is good evidence for it. In this context it is clear that the word evidence is being used synonymously with the idea of an argument or proof. Mackie states, “[whether or not God exists] must be examined either by deductive or inductive reasoning or, if that yields no decision, by arguments to the best explanation;” Flew talks of a “burden of proof” their contention is that if theism cannot be proven in the manner laid down, it is irrational. This contention is often known as “Rationalism.”

Why Accept Rationalism?
The initial question to ask is why assume this? It is important to note that not everything one believes needs to be proven to be rational for at least two reasons. First the claim that everything must be proven to be rationally believed leads to a regress problem. Roy Clouser notes,

If everything needs to be proven then the premises of every proof would need to be proven. But if you need a proof for every proof, you need a proof for your proof, and a proof for your proof of a proof and so on-forever. Thus it makes no sense to demand that everything be proven because an infinite regress of proofs is impossible.[12]

A second problem is that there are many things that we believe quite rationally which cannot be proved. Such things as there is a chair in front of me or that other people have thoughts and feelings.

Consider my belief that I was in New Market yesterday. I reflect on what I did yesterday and automatically find myself strongly inclined to accept the belief ‘I was in New Market.’ In this instance, I believe ‘I was in New Market’ because I remember being there. Yet I am unable to provide any argument or proof for this claim.

Nevertheless, my belief that I was in New Market yesterday and numerous other beliefs about the mental states of other people and the existence of various objects are obviously rational. So if not everything needs to be proven, why does Theism need to be proven to be rational? This question was put to a conference by Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga; the answer he received from a leading sceptic is interesting;

All of us can agree, at least for a large range of cases, whether somebody is in pain, whether he’s thinking, feeling anxious or the like. We do in general agree about these things. Only a madman would claim that no one is ever in pain or that no one ever knows that another person is in pain. The same is true for thinking, feeling anxious or sad and the like… Now the situation is very different in religion.[13]

Others have offered similar answers;

Part of the justification for believing that our perception or memory is not faulty is that in general it agrees with the perception or memory of our epistemological peers … one knows that one’s memory is reliable by determining whether it coheres with the memory reports of other people whose memory is normal and with one’s other experiences. As we have already seen, lack of agreement is commonplace in religious contexts.[14]

Richard Grigg argues in response to Plantinga,

[T]here is a universality about the genesis of the paradigm beliefs that does not attach to the genesis of belief in God. For example, nearly all persons upon having the perceptual experience X, will automatically form the belief that they are seeing a tree.[15]

Ernan McMullin has made a similar suggestion as to why belief in God cannot be utilised as a premise, as opposed to a conclusion, in an argument in scientific theorising. This is because, “It appeals to a specifically Christian belief, one that lays no claim to assent from a Hindu or an agnostic.”[16]

The basic idea, then, is that religious beliefs are private beliefs that not all people (at least all sane people educated people) believe; whereas the belief that other people have thoughts and feelings are public beliefs that all people accept and no sane person would doubt. Once we see this, then, I think we can make sense of the objection here.

[1] A belief is rational if it is either:
(a) acknowledged to be true by all sane people; or,
(b) can be proven from premises that are acknowledged to be true by all sane people;

[2] Religious beliefs are not acknowledged by all sane people nor can they be proven to be true from beliefs acknowledged by all sane people.

Critiquing Rationalism
Alvin Plantinga has levelled two powerful objections against Rationalism.

The first is to note that if it is true then almost every philosophical position of any significance is irrational. This is because, as Marilyn Adams points out,

[D]efense of any well formulated philosophical position will eventually involve premises that are fundamentally controversial and so unable to command the assent of all reasonable people.[17]

In a slightly different context Philip Quinn makes a similar point, “it would seem that the appeal to any comprehensive ethical theory, including all known secular ethical theories, should be disallowed on the grounds that every such theory can be reasonably rejected by some.”[18]

The second, more pertinent, response to this objection is to note that [1] is self-refuting. Take the claim explicitly articulated in [1] that if something is not acknowledged to be true by all sane people then it needs to be proven to be true. Now the truth of this claim itself is not acknowledged by all sane, educated people. Many theologians, philosophers and lay people don’t accept [1] so by [1] we are irrational in believing it unless someone offers a proof for its truth. However, to the best of my knowledge no one has done this; therefore, if [1] is true then the rational response is to reject [1].

Note also that any proof the proponent of this argument attempts to offer can only appeal to premises that are accepted by all sane people. If the proponent does not, we will be required to disbelieve the premises and hence the proof.

This, then, is the problem with this kind of critical rejection of theism; the sceptic rejects God’s existence out of allegiance to certain assumptions about what constitutes a rational belief. The problem is that these assumptions are in the same boat as theism is alleged to be; a person who rejects theism because he or she believes these assumptions is acting inconsistently.

In my next post I will sketch and defend an alternative view of faith and reason and in the post after that, I will address two common objections to this view.

[1] For an essay arguing that this objection has its origin in the 17th century, see Nicholas Wolterstorff “The Migration of Theistic Arguments: from Natural Theology to Evidentialist Apologetics” in Rationality, Religious Belief, and Moral Commitment, ed. Robert Audi and William J. Wainwright (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986).
[2] John Mackie The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983) 4-6.
[3] William Kingdon Clifford “The Ethics of Belief” in Lecture and Essays ed. William Kingdon Clifford (London: Macmillan, 1879) 339-63.
[4] Ibid, 186.
[5] Michael Scriven Primary Philosophy (New York: McGraw Hill, 1966) 87.
[6] Bertrand Russell “Why I am not a Christian,” in Why I am not a Christian, ed. Bertrand Russell (London: Routledge Publishing, 2004) 3.
[7] Antony Flew The Presumption of Atheism (London: Pemberton Publishing, 1976).
[8] See his debate with Bahnsen
[9] See his debate with Craig
[10] Michael Martin Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990) particularly Chapter 1.
[11] Flew The Presumption of Atheism 14-15.
[12] Roy Clouser Knowing With the Heart 69.
[13] Kai Nielsen “The Skeptics Reply” in Faith and the Philosophers, ed. John Hick (London: Macmillan, 1964) 274.
[14] Martin Atheism 274.
[15] Richard Grigg “Theism and Proper Basicality: A Reply to Plantinga” The International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 14 (1983) 123-27; see also, “Crucial Disanalogies between Properly Basic Belief and Belief in God” Religious Studies 26 (October 1990) 389-401.
[16] Ernen McMullin “Plantinga’s Defense of Special Creation” Christian Scholars Review XXI:1 (1991) 55-79
[17] Marilyn McCord Adams Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999) 180.
[18] Phillip Quinn, “Political Liberalism and their Exclusion of the Religious,” in Religion and Contemporary Liberalism, ed. Paul Weithman (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), 144.

Belief without Proof: Is Belief in God Rational if there is no Evidence? Part II
Belief without Proof: Is Belief in God Rational if there is no Evidence? Part III

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