LECTURE #17: The Rationality of Religious Belief

I. Farrer on The Believer's Reasons & The Empirical Demand

A. In reality, religious beliefs are not the product of rational inferences from perceptible things. Religious beliefs have been transmitted by teaching from time immemorial and are sustained by concerns for salvation, blessedness.

B. This does not make illegitimate the philosophical question about the objective truth of these beliefs. However, the philosopher must avoid the mistake of forcing the justification of religious belief into a preconceived mold (derived from science or some other model). Instead, the philosopher should consider what refinements or modifications of the scientific method may be needed in order to render God's existence knowable. (p. 16)

C. Our belief in God is similar to our belief in the inner mental lives of other people. We don't rely on proofs in either case, but naturally accept certain signs as indicators. (p. 10) D. Faith is a precondition to experiencing God: I cannot approach God except through religious attention to Him. (p. 12) Our knowledge of God arises from religious interaction with God (through worship and obedience), not merely from passive observation of the universe. (p. 17) We have natural strivings, inclinations toward worship and religious devotion. (p. 26)

E. Contrary to Clark's position, Farrer argues that if the world is such as to allow us to read it as the creation of the Infinite, then it must also demand to be so read. Finite things must bear the mark of "existential insufficiency". (p. 15) However, this inferential knowledge of God is very limited: that of an unknown X, supreme in the scale of causative beings. (p. 24)

II. William James on the Will to Believe

A. W. K. Clifford argued that it was immoral to believe anything without sufficient evidence. The parable of the irresponsible ship owner.

B. James replied that believing without compelling evidence is OK if the choice is genuine: live, forced and momentous. In the case of science, the choice is rarely forced or momentous: we can always simply withhold judgment and prolong investigation. In religion, not to decide is to make a momentous decision.

C. Like Farrer, James insists that lack of belief cuts us off from an indispensable source of the knowledge of God: real religious experience.

D. James accuses Clifford of holding a self-defeating position. The acceptance of Clifford's Maxim is itself a "passional choice", based on Clifford's personal abhorrence of error and relative indifference toward the loss of possible truth entailed by agnosticism.


I. Our system of beliefs form a 3noetic structure2.

A. Some beliefs are properly basic: perceptual beliefs, memory beliefs, certainly, but also: beliefs based on testimony, belief in other minds, mathematical beliefs, belief in the uniformity of nature.

B. Other beliefs are non-basic. These are inferred from, based on more basic beliefs. Beliefs in scientific theories.

II. The problem of the criteria for properly basic beliefs

A. Some basic beliefs are properly so beliefs it is reasonable to accept without proof or evidence.

B. Is there a criterion that distinguish properly basic beliefs from improper ones?

C. Classical foundationalism: all properly basic beliefs belong to one of three categories: evident to the senses, self-evident (propositions one cannot understand without knowing them to be true), or incorrigible (propositions about which one cannot possibly be mistaken).

D. There is very little to be said in favor of classical foundationalism. In addition, it faces a crucial problem: is it reasonable to belief in CF, if CF is true? If CF is true, CF cannot itself be properly basic, since it is neither evident to the senses nor self-evident nor incorrigible. Are there any good arguments for CF, based on properly basic beliefs? None has ever been offered. CF is 3self-referentially inconsistent2. (p. 198)

E. CF excludes many cases of clearly justified beliefs: beliefs based on personal memory, belief in other minds, belief in the existence of an external world.

III. If there is no criterion, does anything go?

A. Proper method of epistemology is inductive: begin with the set of beliefs that are clearlly properly basic, and try to derive principles of epistemogical theory by finding true and interesting generalizations. (Compare Gilson: our methods should be determined by the facts).

B. Our ordinary tendencies to believe things should be treated as 3innocent until proven guilty2. Thomas Reid and Scottish common-sense philosophy.

IV. Applications to Religion

A. Belief in God, under certain circumstances, is a natural tendency of the human mind.

B. If God exists, it would not be surprising for Him to have made the human mind such that it forms basic theistic beliefs, when it is functioning properly.

C. Unbelief can be explained in terms of the noetic effects of sin.

D. Plantinga rejects fideism. The fideist believes in God despite the fact that doing so is irrational. Plantinga insists that religious belief is rational, even when not based on arguments or proofs.

E. Theists and non-theists have radi