Is Belief in God Rational? :
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.

Published by

Joe Carter

Joe Carter founded Evangelical Outpost in 2005. He is the web editor for First Things and an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. A fifteen-year Marine Corps veteran, he previously served as the managing editor for the online magazine Culture11 and The East Texas Tribune. Joe has also served as the Director of Research and Rapid Response for the Mike Huckabee for President campaign and as a director of communications for both the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and Family Research Council. He is the co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicaton.

  • Jeff Richardson

    See my comment regarding your previous post on The Nothingness.
    I think Plantinga doesn’t go far enough. He essentially argues (as I read him) that belief in God is at least no more of a stretch than the belief in other minds. And that, as such, belief in God (though very generally described here as a noncorporeal supernatural “mind”) is no less rational than my belief that those I come into contact with possess some sentient presence.
    By saying he doesn’t go far enough, I mean to say that Plantinga’s position is a counterargument to the accusation that belief in God is irrational, while I (as I alluded to in my other post) believe that the materialist cum naturalistic foundationalist has no basis whatsoever to even levy such a charge. Indeed, the idea of rationality presumes at least some epiphenomenological category of epistemology that leaves the ontological monist in an untenable position.
    See a lengthy debate on this topic at my website. And note an excellent anti-foundationalist (as I read it!) argument by Inwagen here.

  • mumon

    For example, if I were to say that I believe I have a stomach ache I would have no

  • Joe McFaul

    The belief in God is not rational.
    Neither is the love for my wife.
    Both are real.
    When I try to rationalize either one I get into serious trouble.

  • Mark O

    Looking at Mr Girsch’s post, it seems one of the reasons he doesn’t believe evidence for Christ for example is that historical methods (for him) are inadmissable as evidence. I wonder if he is a holocaust denier? More seriously, his lack of faith in historical evidence may only apply to events prior to the modern era. Or perhaps he needs a preponderance of evidence, so while the existence of Rome might be believed, Augustus Caesar, Cicero or Virgil may be just fictional figures made up by later historians.
    Does anyone know any atheists/agnostics with the patience to read E.P. Sanders or N.T. Wright? Or any similar writers?

  • db

    A rational belief in God is founded in the environment. See

  • Mr. Moderate

    I don’t have time to get into this right now but my two cents is this:
    A belief in god is rational.
    A disbelief in god is rational.
    Our belief or disbelief is a function of our personal experiences with the presence of god, or lack thereof. Each of us has different experiences in this arena and can be making rational conclusions about the same issue but come to different answers.

  • Mr Ed

    The belief in God is not rational.
    Am I correct in assuming that you’re making some sort of a distinction between “not rational” and “irrational” as conventionally understood?
    What do you do with Roman’s 1:19-20?

  • Revenge of Mr Dumpling

    Reason Vs Faith

    REASON VS FAITH – Evangelical Outpost has two excellent articles up today on the rationality of belief and on the beliefs of scientists. I won’t attempt to summarise them here, because you are probably already reading his blog, and if not, you should…

  • Joe McFaul

    The authority of Rom 1 19-20 relies on the belief that it is scriptural–the word of God. It is a circular argument to erly on any biblical text for proof that God exists.
    The text, of course, is utterly in error. It’s completely factually and philosophically in error in every way.

  • db

    Moderate: Are you saying rationality is defined by experience? Would think that rationality is defined by actual existence, not whether I think it is there or not.
    Ed: Concur. See

  • Mr Ed

    The authority of Rom 1 19-20 relies on the belief that it is scriptural–the word of God. It is a circular argument to erly on any biblical text for proof that God exists.
    I’m not reasoning by the authority of Scripture. But if one believes that Romans 1 is true then one would also, not by authority of Scripture but simply by being in agreement with Scripture, beliveve that the evidence for the existence of God was clear in all of Creation. However, I take your disagreement with the passage to be an answer in itself.
    The text, of course, is utterly in error. It’s completely factually and philosophically in error in every way.
    I am always interested in the faith of those Christians who believe the text of the Bible to be in error. But even more so when they state it to be “completely factually and philosophically in error.”
    If it’s not too much to ask, what denomination do you belong to? And, if none, can you give me a simple outline of the basis of your faith?
    And, please, I’m not going to use it to bash you. I am sincerely intersted.

  • ern

    There certainly are rational reasons for believing in God. Mr. Moderate is also correct to note that there are rational reasons for not believing in God.
    Even though believing in God may be rational, I suspect people’s actual reasons for doing so are seldom primarily rational. As a Christian, I have many reasons (rational reasons) for believing in God, but the most significant reasons for believing in God are intuitive or experiential. This is why it is nearly impossible to reason a person into belief in Jesus Christ as Son of God.

  • Mr Ed

    This is why it is nearly impossible to reason a person into belief in Jesus Christ as Son of God.
    I would say that it’s not “nearly” but simply impossible to do so. Of course, that’s the Calvinist in me.

  • pgepps

    I’m not a Calvinist, but I concur. It is not possible to “reason a person into belief.”
    It is, however, often possible to (by reductio) demonstrate the absurdity of all alternatives to belief.
    And our faith is reasonable.

  • View from the Pew

    Faith and Reason addendum

    If you are interested in this subject, you HAVE to read this at The Evangelical Outpost. Do it now. Outstanding post that I wish I had written.

  • Mark O

    I think Joe has a more modest programme in mind. He’s trying to use reason to demonstrate to the atheist that his faith is not “blind faith … in the absence of all evidence”. That one might hope is possible. And you don’t have to be a Calvinist to think it is impossible to reason your way into faith, St. Anselm said the same thing just a “few” years earlier.

  • Jeff H

    Mumon opined:
    “‘For example, if I were to say that I believe I have a stomach ache I would have no

  • mynym

    ….not before the Big Bang, and after the universe(s?) cease/ceases to exist properly speaking there’s no notion of time as well as anything else that “exists” in a material sense.
    I think that you may have no rationale for rationality. This seems to be your main problem and why you only have rationalizations about it.
    Such rationalizations are intellectually inferior.

  • mynym

    Looks self-refuting to me: it’s an assertion that it’s a “basic” belief?
    It is your assertion that it is an assertion. To have a mind, you have to make your mind up.
    There are self-evident truths, evident in the Self.

  • mynym

    I’ll be REALLY interested in your new medical knowledge which allows you to observe the effects of my stomach ache.
    There probably are effects to be seen by sight.
    It is affect that needs to be seen by insight. There is a thought. Or is it just some symbols?
    The mind is a wondering sort of wonder.

  • Macht

    Regarding this whole stomach ache business. The point Joe was trying to make (I’m assuming) is that we all have incorrigible beliefs. Incorrigible beliefs are beliefs that are about your own mental states that are incapable of being wrong. To say something like “My stomach hurts” is to be saying something about my own belief about how I feel. We could, of course, examine my body and see if I have too much food in there or too many of the wrong gastric juices doing there thing, but that wouldn’t tell us anything about how I feel about my own stomach. There are all kinds of incorrigible beliefs – “I feel sad,” “That flower seems red to me,” etc. None of these types of beliefs can be wrong.

  • Macht

    “The interesting thing to me is the assumption that “irrational” = bad.”
    Of course it’s bad. It’s bad in the same way that immoral=bad or unjust=bad. They are all norms for what we ought not to strive for. We ought to strive to think clearly, we ought to strive to be loving towards others and we ought to strive to be fair to all people.
    Now non-rational, that’s another question. There’s nothing wrong with being non-rational.

  • corrie

    Non-rational and irrational are synonyms in common usage; c.f. “irrational numbers.” If we were to coin a term, perhaps arational is what Macht is looking for?

  • Macht

    Well, I would argue that the nonrational commonly means “not based on reason” while irrational commonly means “opposed to or inconsistent with reason.” Anyways, that’s how I use them and I think it fits in well with how they are commonly used.

  • RA

    Phylosophical gobildiegoop can never decide if there is or is not a God. You have to inspect the hard evidence.
    The prophetic scripture, with it’s 100% accuracy, is a good indication that the author is supernatural, extremely consistant and can be trusted. The power of the Word is inescapably evident. However that should just be the hook to get you into a place where you can view the real evidence.
    The power of prayer is why most Christians would give their life before denying Jesus. Anyone who has attended a regular bible study will have experienced the power of prayer. Sure humanists will say it is all coincidence. That workes for the first 5-10 times. But as the numbers start to build, you see an indisputable divine hand behind the problems submitted and the solutions presented.
    I know of 8 miraculous healings that the doctors concerned have no explanation for.
    I have experienced one miracle in my life. My daughter was 7-8 years old. She was eating hard lemon candies. All of a sudden she could not exhale or inhale. I was stunned into shock. My wife jumped up and gave her 4-5 sharp shots to her back. No change. I recovered, jumped up and gave her 7-8 hard slaps to the back. No change. My wife gave her the hymlic hug 3-4 times. I pulled my wife away and gave her the hymlic hug 7-8 times. No changed. I was at my witts end. I was watching my beloved baby die right in front of me. I new she would be dead before any help could arrive. I was desperate. I immediately put my hands together, knelt to one knee and shouted “Lord help me!”. The very instant my knee touched the floor the candy shot out of her mouth 8-10 feet across the room. When this happened neither my wife or I (or anyone else) was touching my daughter.
    Today the three of us know there is a God and He is good. He provides those who believe and fear Him with ample evidence of His existance and His nature. This is so we can take the unseen things by faith.