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Why religious faith is rational after all

by  randywombat

Posted: Saturday, April 17, 2004
Word Count: 3829
Summary: Philosophy of religion: An article about the relationship between reason, evidence and religious faith. I argue that, contrary to the opinions of many modern thinkers, religious faith is straightforwardly rational, and therefore open to evidential confirmation and disconfirmation just like any other belief.

In the past, I’ve spent a fair bit of time and energy discussing non-rational faith, by which I mean belief in a proposition without the need for supporting reasons for that proposition, and therefore logically immune to argument and disproof.(1) Underpinning these discussions was my basic understanding that religious faith fell into the non-rational category.

But I now think I was mistaken to concentrate on non-rational faith because I was wrong to think that religious beliefs are generally based on it. In this paper, I’ll argue that religious beliefs, like other, more mundane beliefs, are in fact ordinarily rational – that is, grounded in reasons – and none the worse for it.
I realise that I’m flying in the face of the majority of thinkers on both sides of the theist/atheist divide by saying this. There’s fairly widespread agreement that religious faith really is non-rational, or at least it ought to be. The view is theologically fashionable, and accepted implicitly – sometimes explicitly – by theologians and philosophers, evangelicals, lay believers, weak and strong agnostics, and even militant atheists.

Modern theism’s most zealous philosophical apologist, Alvin Plantinga, argues that faith can provide a route to truth that is independent of evidential reason, though not contrary to it. In a review of Dennett (1996), he describes the complementary nature of faith and reason:

"Christians and other theists may think they know by faith that God created the world and in some way superintends or orchestrates or guides the process of evolution…; then they would be claiming to know something in addition to what reason delivers – but not, of course, something that goes contrary to reason." (Plantinga, 1996)

The distinction is drawn even more starkly between rational (science-type) and non-rational (religion-type) beliefs by Joseph H. Royce:

"We have described scientific truth as dependent on rational, empirical confirmation in contrast to the existential validity of religious truth." (Royce, 1959)

Furthermore, the Church itself has traditionally encouraged the characterisation of religious faith as non-rational, and the Bible often exalts this kind of faith without evidence as morally desirable,(2) as highlighted by Richard Dawkins:

"Religious faith not only lacks evidence, its independence from evidence is its pride and joy, shouted from the rooftops. Why else would Christians wax critical of Doubting Thomas? The other apostles are held up to us as exemplars of virtue because faith was enough for them. Doubting Thomas, on the other hand, required evidence [John 20:26-29]. Perhaps he should be the patron saint of scientists." (Dawkins, 1996)

The weight of majority opinion is clearly against me, but despite this, I honestly think that the caricature of evidenceless, non-rational faith is a straw man, set up and perpetuated both consciously and unconsciously by those on both sides of the divide.

In this article, I will start by picking out two almost analytic facts about belief: firstly, that we automatically believe those things that we think are true, based on the balance of considerations available to us; and secondly, that we automatically reject a belief if further considerations are brought to our attention that undermine our reasons for it. I will then argue that these two principles apply to religious beliefs as well as mundane ones. I will also argue that the traditional distinction between reason (on the one hand) and revelation and experience (on the other) is fallacious; revelation and experience are nothing more than good evidence that can be fed into a reasoned argument.

By the way, it goes without saying that, if I’m right and religious faith is rational, this doesn’t mean that religious beliefs are necessarily true, nor does it mean that the reasons on which they are based are necessarily good ones. It simply means that people who hold religious beliefs base them on what they see as good reasons. I’m essentially using ‘rational’ in what George I. Mavrodes called the “Plantinga-Wolterstorff” sense, hence “There would be nothing paradoxical or perverse in someone’s agreeing that it would be rational for him to believe in God and yet cheerfully persisting in his atheism” (Mavrodes, 1983, pp.195-196).

Beliefs are involuntary assessments of truth
We can’t simply decide what to believe. Suppose I demand of you, ‘Believe, please, that I am a giraffe’. I might put a gun to your head, or to the head of a loved one, with the threat that I’ll pull the trigger if you don’t believe what I want you to believe. In such circumstances, perhaps you would passionately want to believe it in order to save a life. Perhaps you would be well advised to feign the belief that I’m insisting on. But, given the obvious perceptual evidence that I’m not a giraffe, you wouldn’t be capable of actually bringing yourself to believe it, no matter how great the threat. Orwellian psychology notwithstanding, that choice is simply not available to you. Once I’ve left the room and my threat has evaporated, the suggestion that I really am (or ever was) a giraffe won’t even occur to you.

The point is not that a belief in God is like a belief that people are giraffes – of course it’s nothing so trivial or obviously false. The point is simply that beliefs, ordinary ones at least, are presented to us as faits accomplis, so to speak; they’re the involuntary products of rational processing, conscious or subconscious, taking into account all considerations whose relevance we’re aware of. We are bound to accept those products, whether we like it or not. Yes, I can want to believe something in order to secure a benefit, such as eternal life, or to avoid a peril, such as the deaths of my loved ones, but (barring the not inconsiderable effects of wishful thinking and self-deception) of I can’t just decide to believe something.(3)

I’m continually amazed by the strength of some people’s resistance to this obvious and (seemingly) uncontroversial point. I suppose, at first glance, it might seem like rather a gloomy suggestion – after all, if our beliefs aren’t caused by our choices, how can we have freedom of belief? But personally, I don’t find it gloomy at all – on the contrary, it’s actually quite heartening, because beliefs are among the few kinds of things that I’d prefer to have externally determined.(4) Think about it this way. My contention is that our beliefs are the result of rational processing, automatically weighing up pros and cons and coming to a conclusion about what, on balance of evidence, appears to be true. Compare that to the alternative, where beliefs are formed by volition – that is, at least to some extent non-deterministically, independently of how things actually are. Wouldn’t you rather acquire your beliefs by the former method rather than the latter? We should be glad if our beliefs are entirely based on external considerations.(5)

Beliefs are rejected if our reasons for them are undermined
We reject any belief which we have reason to think was acquired unreliably – either based on faulty evidence or derived from invalid reasoning. To take a simple Gettier-type example: suppose I look at my watch and it says 3:15. I thereby acquire the belief that it’s 3:15. But, if I now come to realise that my watch is broken, I immediately reject my belief that it’s 3:15 because I now realise that the evidence which originally led me to believe that was faulty: looking at a broken watch isn’t a reliable way to find out the time.

Notice that this is true no matter how firmly I held the initial belief, or how important it was to me. And notice that it’s true even if, by coincidence, it really was 3:15 when I looked at my watch – perhaps I just happened to look at my watch the very second that it stopped, or exactly 24 hours later. The fact that my belief just happened to be true, unbeknown to me, doesn’t stop me from rejecting it when I realise that it was acquired unreliably. I’ll only come to accept my belief as true again when I eventually acquire it reliably – for instance, when I check a functioning clock and realise that it really is 3:15 after all.

We all reject beliefs when we come to realise that they’ve been acquired unreliably – either based on faulty evidence or by invalid reasoning. By implication, for every belief that a person holds, the person also believes that his belief was acquired reliably. Like my previous point that we only accept beliefs we think are true, this is so obvious as to be almost analytic.

Religious beliefs work the same way as mundane ones
I’ve just said that, for every belief that a person holds, the person also believes that his belief was acquired reliably. I think that this is as true for religious beliefs like ‘There is a God’ as it is for mundane ones like ‘It’s 3:15’. Every religious person can say why they believe what they do, what reasons their beliefs are based on, and how they acquired them (be it revelation, experience, tradition or whatever). No religious person will ever say, ‘I believe this for no good reason’. And religious people conspicuously don’t think that their beliefs are simply psychologically-generated consolations produced subconsciously to offset an unhappy life, or that they’re based on illusions, false testimony, or the innate tendency of the evolved human mind to generate supernatural hypotheses. If a religious person did come to think any of those things, then in doing so he would have automatically rejected his belief, just as my discovering that my watch is broken is enough to cause me to reject my belief that it’s 3:15.

Once again, I have to say that all this seems to be very obvious. It also corresponds clearly to what we observe with regard to the more dubious species of religious belief. For instance, what happens to people who are ‘deconverted’ after having been hoodwinked by dodgy American cults? Put simply, they realise that they’ve been conned – that the rational basis for their faith, which they previously took as convincing, was in fact unreliable. And it’s hard to deny, for instance, that a Muslim who discovered that the Qur’an was faked by 18th-century monks rather than dictated by Allah would reject its claims, unless he had a different reason to accept them nonetheless, such as personal experience. Similarly, a Christian who came to believe that the religious experience on which his faith was based was, in fact, a psychological illusion would reject Christianity, unless, again, he had a different reason to accept it.

Revelation and experience are simply reasons to believe
Philosophers have sometimes distinguished between ‘revelation’ and ‘reason’, suggesting that beliefs based on revelation are somehow different to beliefs based on reason. A similar distinction has occasionally been drawn between ‘experience’ and ‘reason’. (Usually, the motivation for drawing the distinction is so that the writer can go on and say, ‘Therefore you can’t challenge my experiences using your rational arguments’.)

I reject this distinction. Of course, revelation and experience can lead to a belief in God – and, if they’re genuine, it’s quite right that they should. But they do this because they are basically just reasons, albeit particularly strong ones, for believing in God.
Since all reasons can sometimes be undermined, revelation and experience aren’t immune to rational challenge. Revelation and experience, no matter how convincing, aren’t infallible because people aren’t infallible.

Religious beliefs can be rationally examined
When it’s recognised that religious belief isn’t really non-rational, the belief can be seen in its proper light – as just as valid a priori as any other belief, scientific or otherwise. Atheists lose the ability to classify any religious belief as automatically inferior to any scientific one on account of its supposedly being ‘not based on evidence’, but this cuts both ways, of course: if religious belief is rational, then its reasons can and should be examined in the cold light of day, and any aspects of them which don’t stand up to rational examination can and should be rejected, regardless of the strength of faith supporting them.

Now, I have no doubt that there are hard-line believers who might thus far have been nodding cautiously, but who would leap to their feet in indignance at this point. There must be something, they protest, that exempts religious belief from rational examination! It’s just not the same kind of thing as mundane beliefs like the belief that it’s 3:15.

But I think people who hold this line are just inconsistent. On the one hand, they can say exactly why they believe what they do, based on experience, revelation, testimony, logical argument, physical evidence or whatever. They’ll use these reasons to explain to others why their beliefs are right, and if they have an evangelical bent, they will try to point out the strength of their reasons to unbelievers as an attempt to convert them. After all, nobody ever said, ‘Why not convert to Christianity for no good reason?’. Yet, on the other hand, they’ll happily deny that their reasons are in fact rationally defensible at all, and insist that they ‘just know’ that they’re right. This shift tends to happen when a challenge or query is raised against some aspect of the theist’s faith. This is what Richard Dawkins has called “flashing one’s religious credentials” in the face of criticism, and it borders on a claim of infallibility, which is unjustified, arrogant, and, of course, false.

Of course, nobody can deny that believing in God is very different from believing it’s 3:15. Belief in God is (or surely ought to be) a life-changing, fundamental, morally and emotionally significant, all-embracing belief whose implications affect one’s entire outlook on life in a way that believing it’s 3:15 just doesn’t. It also tends to be held very firmly, with very great conviction. In short, religious belief is infinitely more significant than some ordinary belief about what time it is. But these many huge differences don’t affect the point that belief in God is always grounded in rational judgement, and rational judgement isn’t flawless because people aren’t infallible. No matter how important or life-changing a belief may be, it doesn’t come with its own guarantee of correctness.

In fact, the opposite could be argued: any belief which is so significant should not be held lightly, but should be subject to the most rigorous rational checking, always erring on the side of caution (Pascal’s wager notwithstanding). The risks of not taking this point seriously enough are great, and this applies to both believers and non-believers.

Belief in God is falsifiable
It’s sometimes been argued that belief in God is unfalsifiable in principle – that no observations or arguments could possibly count against it.(6)

If this were true, it would obviously be a bad thing for theism. Any theory for which there could be no conceivable reasons or evidence that would count against it is empty and should be rejected out of hand. Such a theory makes no difference to anything because it makes no predictions about the universe, is empirically untestable, and is completely indistinguishable from any other theory or from no theory at all. If religious belief were unfalsifiable then it should similarly be rejected, since it would make no difference to anything.
But the idea that religious belief is unfalsifiable strikes me as parallel to the idea that religious faith is non-rational: it’s fashionable but obviously false. If all those skeptical philosophers really think that religious belief is unfalsifiable, why do they spend so long debating the problem of evil? What is the existence of evil if not an alleged falsifier for certain religious claims?

One obvious way to falsify some claims of Christianity would be for Allah to issue a proclamation that He is the One True God; the second coming of Christ would similarly falsify some claims of Islam. Most forms of Western theism would be falsified in practice if many people were to report memories of previous lives that provided evidence for a Hindu-type reincarnation system. And, if the problem of evil is decisive, then any religious claims that rely on postulating an omnipotent and benevolent God are falsified. The fact that religious beliefs are contentful and meaningful guarantees that they are falsifiable, and that’s a good thing for theists, because if it were otherwise, theism would have no implications and there could be no reason for anyone to ever take it seriously.

Another way to appreciate the falsifiability of religious belief is to go back to my earlier point about how religious beliefs are acquired. For instance, Islam would be falsified if the Qur’an turned out to be a fake, unless there were good independent reasons to accept Islam.

By the way, we need to be careful not to confuse unfalsifiability in principle with non-falsification in practice. A theory that has been tested and never falsified, such as quantum physics, is a well-confirmed theory, and it’s perfectly OK to regard it as ‘true’ unless some counter-evidence subsequently comes along. The problem only arises if a theory is literally unfalsifiable – that is, there’s no conceivable evidence, factual or counter-factual, which would falsify the theory if observed.

For this reason, theists should be glad to learn that their faith isn’t unfalsifiable. They’ll still believe, of course, that their beliefs will never in fact be falsified – this is just an unambiguous restatement of my earlier point that, obviously, everyone believes their own beliefs to be true. (No Muslim believes that the Qur’an actually will turn out to be a fake, because being a Muslim entails that you don’t believe that.) Yet, even for our most securely held beliefs, we must also acknowledge that counter-factual falsifying evidence is conceivable.

How theists ought to react
If I’m right and religious faith is rational, the case for theism ought to be strengthened, since atheists are deprived of one of their favourite complaints (“Isn’t religious belief just based on blind faith?”); and theists are saved from having to defend its own non-rationality, which is, by definition, indefensible.

Despite this, I suspect that many theists will strongly resist the conclusion that their faith is rational, for several reasons. Firstly, religious faith been consistently viewed as non-rational since Biblical times, and the dominant view is always rather hard to shake off. Secondly, religious doctrine has frequently extolled blind trust and non-rationality as somehow virtuous (remember Christ admonishing Doubting Thomas?), so some believers may actually react with moral revulsion to the idea of their faith being rational after all. Thirdly (and most cynically), there’s always the worry that, once we open the floodgates to rational examination, some of religion’s most cherished tenets will suddenly come under threat, threatening the very survival of the faith which has defended itself so well for so long by shouting from the rooftops (in Dawkins’s phrase) its independence from reason and evidence. Where will it all end?

The only reassurance I can offer to counter this third worry is unfortunately rather analogous to the rather Big-Brotherish political insistence that honest citizens have nothing to fear from the ever-closer monitoring of a police state. Take each religious belief in turn: now, either it does stand up to rational enquiry or it doesn’t. If it does, then theists have nothing to fear, and their faith will be strengthened by the rational support that this belief enjoys. If it doesn’t, then we must be ruthless, for there is no room in an intelligent faith for an irrational belief.

Naturally, this latter possibility will be psychologically much more difficult for adherents, and we mustn’t be surprised if there are a few attempts to retreat back into the unassailable comfort of non-rationality, however forlorn this comfort must eventually prove. But perhaps we can apply an analogous cold logic to that employed by Bishop John Robinson (1963, p.43) when he argued for the demythologising of the Christian faith, and point out that, in the long run, theism can only be strengthened by removing those barriers of irrationality which can be obstacles to an intelligent faith – “and indeed will progressively be so to all except the ‘religious’ few”.

(1) Other terms have been used to refer to this species of faith. Philosophers, whose self-conscious need to assert the importance of their discipline leads them to invent terms that nobody else understands, sometimes refer to it as ‘fideism’. The term ‘blind faith’ has also been used as a synonym, usually by either hardline atheists or religious fundamentalists; I’ll avoid this term because of its pejorative overtones.

(2) Though the Bible does not always take this stance; see also, for instance, Isaiah 1:18; 1 Samuel 12:7; John 14:11; John 20:31; Romans 16:25-26; 1 Corinthians 14:22; and much of Hebrews 11. A thorough survey of the Scriptural precedent for reasoned, evidence-based faith is chapter 1 of Forster & Marston (1999).

(3) I’m deliberately ignoring wishful thinking and self-deception here, not because I don’t think they have significant effects, but just because even those people who endorse non-rational faith would agree that they aren’t good routes to belief.

(4) On the other hand, ‘freedom of belief’ in the political sense is of course a good thing – it means protection against being harmed for your beliefs – and this is true whether or not I’m right about the involuntary nature of beliefs.

(5) This implies, by the way, that it would be wrong to hold someone morally responsible for their beliefs, provided (perhaps) that they haven’t been negligent in coming to them. Whether this can be reconciled with the attitude towards ‘sinful belief’ that one finds as a running theme in both the Bible and the Qur’an is another question. An interesting discussion is in Plantinga & Wolterstorff (1993).

(6) Throwing down the gauntlet to theism, Antony Flew (1950) wrote what claims to be the “most read philosophy article of the 20th century”, a short paper entitled Theology and Falsification, challenging theists to show why religious faith is falsifiable after all.

Dawkins, R., 1996: ‘Is Science a Religion?’. In The Humanist, Jan/Feb 1997. Also available online at

Dennett, D., 1995: Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. London: Penguin.

Flew, A., 1950: ‘Theology and falsification’. In Flew & MacIntyre (ed), 1955. Reprinted in many places, including Philosophy Now Oct/Nov 2000, pp.28-29. Also available online at

Flew, A., & MacIntyre, A. (ed), 1955: New Essays in Philosophical Theology. London: SCM Press.

Forster, R., & Marston, P., 1999: Reason, Science and Faith. Crowborough: Monarch Publications. Also available online at

Mavrodes, G. I., 1983: ‘Jerusalem and Athens revisited’. In Plantinga & Wolterstorff (ed), 1983.

Plantinga, A., & Wolterstorff, N. (ed), 1983: Faith and Raionality:reason and belief in God. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.

Plantinga, A., 1996: Review of Dennett, 1995. Available online at

Robinson, J., 1963: Honest to God. London: SCM Press.

Royce, J. H., 1959: ‘The search for meaning’. In American Scientist 48.

2 September 2003