Is Belief in God Rational? :
Neocalvinism — By Joe Carter on January 4, 2005 at 1:00 pm
Reformed Epistemology and Properly Basic Beliefs
[Note: Although this piece first appeared exactly one year ago today, I’m reposting it as a converstation starter for the post that will follow.]
Recently, I read a post at Lean Left on “Respecting Rights versus Respecting Beliefs.” The author, T. Girsch, is an avowed atheist and admits that he holds Christian beliefs in low regard:
I find the “blind faith” arguments, which require you to believe in the absence of all evidence, and even in the face of contradictory evidence, to be utterly uncompelling and, frankly, dangerous.
While the “blind faith” assertion could be dismissed as a straw man, I think there is an underlying assumption that is important and should be addressed. Girsch seems to imply that if there is an “absence of evidence” for a Christian belief then it is irrational to hold such a belief. That’s a point that deserves closer scrutiny.
Based on his writing, I assume that Girsch believes in a foundationalist epistemology. Briefly, this is a theory of knowledge that states that all beliefs are either “basic”, immediately justified in themselves, or “nonbasic”, based on a “foundation” of other beliefs.
(Some people might assume that all beliefs are required to be based on “evidence” but this is hardly the case. For example, if I were to say that I believe I have a stomach ache I would have no “evidence” for this claim. The stomach ache is considered to be “grounded” in my pain but it is not evidence in the technical sense. These types of beliefs that are valid but not rooted in “evidence” are considered “properly basic.”)
To claim a belief is properly basic means that it is not based either on propositional evidence or on another belief. While 2+2 = 4 would be a basic belief, 22 x 22 = 484 is considered a nonbasic belief since it is based on a “foundation” of other beliefs (namely lower level arithmetic).
Other examples of basic beliefs would be “perceptual beliefs” (I see a dog.), “memory beliefs” (I took out the garbage yesterday.), and beliefs about someone else’s mental states (My wife is mad because I’m spending too much time on my blog.). All of these experiences are the grounds for the beliefs, but they are not evidence for the beliefs themselves.
I mention this in order to lay the groundwork for a claim made by Reformed epistemologists: The theist’s belief that “God exists” is a properly basic belief.
To clarify further, let’s look at a basic belief that atheists and theists have in common. (This line of argument isn’t essential to the claim that “God exists” is a basic belief but I think it will aid in clarifying the point.) One basic belief held by all rational people is the belief in eternal existence. The two variation are that “some are eternal” or “all is eternal” (to claim that “none is eternal” is to make the illogical claim that existence came out of non-existence).
Hinduism is an example of a basic belief that “all is eternal.” Theism and atheism, on the other hand, fall into the “some is eternal” category. Theists believe that a Being labeled “God” possesses eternal existence. Atheists, on the other hand, consider impersonal “matter” to be the only thing that exists eternally.
Girsch, as a reasonable and rational atheist, would agree that matter has, in one form or another, always existed. He has no “evidence” for this belief yet he doesn’t need any. It is a properly basic belief. In much the same way, theists believe that an eternal Being has always existed. Neither the atheist nor the theist can be considered to be possessing an irrational or improper belief. One or the other may be wrong, of course, but that doesn’t mean they are irrational for holding such views.*
Naturally, this is a but a brief explanation of a complicated philosophical argument. We also have to be careful not to read too much into this claim. This is not an “argument for the existence of God.“ For while theists are justified in having a belief in God, that does not necessarily mean that he actually does, in fact, exist. What this does show, however, is that the claim “God exists” requires neither evidence nor outside justification in order to be considered rational.
*The atheist, for instance, either has to deny the “personal” as a matter of illusion or explain how the personal developed from impersonal matter.
Update: Rusty from New Covenant highlights Plantinga’s reasons for rejecting the necessity of evidentialism.
The ideas presented here are loosely based on Alvin Plantinga’s writings on Reformed epistemology.
Other sources used were Religious Belief as Properly Basic and History of Religion.