Is Belief in God Rational?

One of the main epistemological dilemmas, which continues to be faced by philosophers/theologians, is whether one’s belief in God can be considered rationally justified. As of today, the discursive validity of such a belief has been assessed from a variety of different gnoseological perspectives, among which the most ‘proposition-friendly’ appears to be the Foundationalist one.

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However, there are many conceptual deficiencies even to the Foundalist line of argumentation, in favour of the idea that one’s belief in God can be deemed rationally sustainable, for as long as it remains fully consistent with the concerned person’s ‘noetic structure’, built out of his or her self-evident and incorrigible God-related convictions.

The above-stated appears to be the main theoretical premise of the article Is Belief in God Rational? by Alvin Plantinga. In it, the author promotes the theistic approach to arguing that a person’s belief in God is indeed ‘basic’. This implies that the extent of its rational soundness cannot be measured, in regards to what happened to be the related sets of beliefs, on this individual’s part.

According to Platinga, even though the Foundationalist idea that just about any epistemological pursuit is necessarily ‘finite’ does make a lot of sense, there is a clearly notable logical fallacy to how Foundationalists go about defining the extent of a religious belief’s discursive appropriateness.

The author outlines their argumentative stance, in this respect, as follows: “A proposition is properly basic for a person only if he knows it immediately – i.e., knows it, and does not know if on the basis of other propositions… The only propositions that meet this condition of immediate knowledge are those that are self-evident or incorrigible” (9). Given the fact that people’s belief in God does meet the mentioned criteria, there appears to be a good reason to discuss it in terms of the a priori type of knowledge.

There is, however, a certain paradox to this line of thinking – the above-mentioned assumption is itself neither self-evident nor incorrigible. Therefore, according to Plantinga, the fact that Foundationalism appears to result in the subjectualisation of the possible preconditions, under which one’s religious faith can be justified, does not do any good, in the epistemological sense of this word.

Instead, the author proposes that it is not the measure of a religious belief’s experiential incorrigibility, which reflects how ‘basic’ (and therefore natural) it is, but rather the fact that there are a number of innate ‘theistic’ undertones to the very manner, in which people assess the significance of the surrounding reality’s emanations.

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What it means is that one’s belief in God correlates rather well with what happened to be his or her ‘noetic essence’, which in turn implies that this belief is ‘basic’: “We have found no reason at all for believing that belief in God cannot be basic in a rational noetic structure” (13). In other words, there is no need to be questioning the rational/circumstantial validity of a religious belief, since it can be well defined in terms of one’s actual ‘cognitive apparatus’.

Nevertheless, Plantinga’s line of argumentation, in regards to the subject matter in question, deployed throughout his article, is far from being considered as such that represents an undisputed truth-value. This, in fact, is the foremost idea that is being promoted by Wesley Robbins in his article Is Belief in God Properly Basic?

According to Robbins, the very fact that Plantinga claims a religious belief not to be the legitimate subject of an epistemological inquiry, raises certain concerns about whether his article is indeed quite as unbiased, as it appears to be. As the former author noted: “The principal reason for bothering to argue that belief in God is properly basic is order to show that this belief is immune to evidentialist criticism” (241).

It is understood, of course, that this observation alone can be considered indicative of the fact that Plantinga’s perspective on the discussed issue is not thoroughly objective. There is, however, even more to it – while striving to address the methodological inconsistencies of the Foundationalist criteria for a particular religious belief to be considered ‘basic’ (or rationale-based), Plantinga himself ended up in the logical ‘dead-end’.

The reason for this is that, even though people do in fact seem to be perceptually theistic, there is a great deal of uncertainty about how such their perceptual theism is being extrapolated socially. For example, one can be referring to God as an emotional being, while the other may be inclined to think of the term ‘divinity’ in terms of an impersonal law.

Therefore, Robbins rightly points out that the line of Plantinga’s argumentation is being ‘artificially’ rather than objectively sustained, because the factor of ‘epistemic privilege’ plays a crucially important role, within the context of how he goes about constructing it: “Plantinga claims that certain specific beliefs about God are epistemically privileged” (245). In its turn, this implies that it is specifically the beliefs that belong to the world’s mainstream religions, which deserve the right to be referred to as ‘basic’.

The mentioned implication, however, is inconsistent with the very idea (formally promoted by Plantinga) that one’s belief in God is a ‘thing-in-itself’, and that as such, it should not be subjected to the evidentialist examination.

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As Robbins noted: “If… privileged beliefs have their epistemic value in connection with other beliefs, then there is also nothing left of the idea that they are immune to evaluation and criticism in terms of their relation to other beliefs” (247). It is understood, of course, that this illustrates that, contrary to what was Plantinga’s initial intention, his theistic defence of the idea that even the obviously fallacious religious beliefs are nevertheless fully rational, contradicts this idea’s epistemological premise.

Nevertheless, it would be quite inappropriate brushing aside Platinga’s line of argumentation, in regards to the subject matter at stake; as such that does not hold much water. Neither, it would do very little good agreeing with the idea that, due to being utterly ‘basic’, one’s belief in God is also thoroughly rational. Whatever illogical it may sound – Plantinga is simultaneously both: right and wrong about how he popularizes the theistic outlook on what a religious belief really is.

The author’s main fallacy, in this respect, is that while in the process of writing his article, he appears to have remained utterly arrogant of the main provision or the principle of Occam’s Razor – do not provide structurally complex explanations for a particular phenomenon, for as long as it can be well explained with the help of much simpler ones.

After all, had it been otherwise, Platinga would inevitably come to conclusion that one’s belief in God could not possibly be rationally justified, because it stands in the striking contradiction to the assumption that rationality presents the pathway towards gaining a better understanding of the surrounding reality. In this respect, one’s reference to the so-called ‘theorems of incompleteness’ by Kurt Godel will come in rather handy.

Even though the mentioned theorems are purely mathematical, there is nevertheless a strongly defined discursive implication to them: regardless of what happened to be the essence of one’s system of perceptual/cognitive axioms, it is necessarily either ‘incomplete’ or ‘self-contradictory’ (Degen 206). The ‘incomplete’ (scientific) system contains axioms, which within the methodological framework of what account for this system’s conceptual propositions, cannot be positively deduced as being either 100% wrong or 100% correct.

The ‘self-contradictory’ (religious) system, on the other hand, is the one based upon the set of axioms, which the system’s epistemological apparatus may well deem as being simultaneously both: 100% wrong and 100% correct – a direct result of the fact that the system in question presupposes that there is a prima facie justification for their existence, such as God.

However, given the fact that neither of the observable reality’s emanations exhibits any mutually contradicting subtleties (something cold cannot be simultaneously hot, etc.), it necessarily means only one thing – there is no God, as the primary cause of all the rest of causes and effects. Therefore, believing in God is highly irrational – regardless of whether the concerned practice has to do with the believer’s ‘natural’ tendency to address life-challenges through the gnoseological lenses of theism or not.

Still, Plantinga’s argument about the fact that there is much rationality to one’s ‘basic’ belief in God, is not together deprived of a logical soundness. However, unlike what Plantinga would like us to believe, this rationality has very little to do with the assumption that people are being naturally predisposed towards seeking divinity, as a ‘thing-in-itself’. Rather, it is nothing but yet additional indication of the fact that it is namely the impersonal (godless) laws of evolution, which prompt many people to believe in God.

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The reason for this is that, as practice points out to, the chances of a particular human society to succeed in the competition with its rivals for the same environmental niche, positively relate to the measure of this society’s systemic integrity. In plain words, the higher is the percentage of adequately behaving individuals in this society, the better.

This explains the phenomenon of many formally unaffiliated world’s religions encouraging people to never cease being observant of essentially the same set of behavioural ‘commandments’, such as ‘do not kill’, ‘do not lie’, ‘do not covet thy neighbour’s wife’, etc. Apparently, one’s belief in God is rather ‘instrumental’ – this is something that helps the concerned individual to act in the manner that would prove most beneficial for the affiliated society’s overall well-being.

What appears especially peculiar, in this respect, is that, as the realities of today’s living indicate, there are appear to be more and more people in Western countries, capable of acting as the society’s productive members, without having been coerced to accept this behavioural mode by their deep-seated ‘loving fear’ of the ‘big Daddy’ up in the sky.

Thus, even though Plantinga’s suggestion that one’s belief in God belongs to the category of ‘basic’ (and consequently irrefutable) ones is indeed fully justified (in the evolutionary sense of this word); it definitely cannot be considered universally applicable to all the people.

Works Cited

Degen, Joseph “Socrates did it before Godel.” Logic & Logical Philosophy 20.3 (2011): 205-214. Print.

Plantinga, Alvin 1979, Is Belief in God Rational? DOC file. 2014.

Robbins, Wesley “Is Belief in God Properly Basic?” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 14.4 (1983): 241-248. Print.

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