The Irrational Faith–Proof, Intuitions, and Religious Belief

“You talk to God, you're religious. God talks to you, you're psychotic.” – Doris Egan

William Lane Craig, popular Christian apologist who has debated almost every prominent atheist and agnostic alive, closed his opening statement in his debate with Oxford professor Peter Atkins with an existential claim. After spending 20 minutes giving rational proofs for God’s existence, he offers a final option if the proofs weren’t convincing.

“The immediate experience of God. This isn’t really an argument for God’s existence. Rather, it’s the claim that you can know that God exists wholly apart from argument simply by immediately experiencing Him. This was the way people in the Bible knew God. As professor John Hick explains, “To them, God was not an idea adopted by the mind but an experiential reality which gave significance to their lives.” Now if this is so then there’s a danger that proofs for God could actually distract your attention from God Himself. If you’re sincerely seeking God, then God will make his existence evident to you. . . . We mustn’t so concentrate on the external proofs that we fail to hear the inner voice of God speaking to our own hearts. For those who listen, God becomes and immediate reality in their lives.” (The Craig-Atkins Debate)

In his book Reasonable Apologetics, Craig appears to take an even harder existentialist line claiming that it is the “Holy Spirit who gives us ultimate assurance of Christianity’s truth” and “reason does not serve as a basis for [the Christian’s] belief.” But he quickly attenuates his view and for those that might claim that reason plays no role, Craig chides, “this attitude is unbalanced and unbiblical” and then spends the majority of his 300 pages providing rational arguments for Christianity and God’s existence.(Craig, 1994)

William_Lane_CraigIn a previous essay, I began looking at the religious existentialism of the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. As we saw there, Kierkegaard would not agree with Craig’s assessment. Kierkegaard’s position is that belief about the existence of God which is based on argument is not belief about any real god. The true Christian is the one that comes to God in “the way people in the Bible knew God,” through a personal, existential encounter. The true God cannot be the conclusion of a syllogism. Yet the both/and approach that Craig calls for typifies the religious epistemology of many Christian believers and the popularity of books and websites on Christian apologetics is at least anecdotal evidence of the desire on the part of believers both that their faith be seen as rational and that they have rational grounds for believing. Can the believer have it both ways?Peter_Atkins

Craig (rightly in my opinion) makes a distinction between belief formed by way of “external” proofs and belief formed by way of direct experience. For Kierkegaard, these two ways are not mutually supporting or compatible when it comes to religion because the object of belief formed by each way is unique. Beliefs arrived at by way of rational evidence have as their object a proposition—an idea. Beliefs formed existentially have as their object the reality the belief is about. Since God is not a proposition but a person, it is not possible to form belief in God by way of reason and actually believe in God qua being. Paul Moser captures this distinction as follows, “If faith that God exists is just belief that God exists, it is merely a psychological attitude towards a judgment or proposition. That is, it is simply de dicto, related to a propositional dictum: to the statement that God exists. In contrast, faith in God is best understood as having a de re component (specifically, involving a relation to something agent-like) that is irreducible to a judgment or proposition. In particular, faith in God relates one to God, and not just to a judgment or proposition about God.” (Moser, 2010) It is similar to a distinction between believing propositions about love and being in love. A woman standing at the altar may take issue if her would-be spouse chose to change the marriage vow to, “Do you promise to fervently believe propositions about love, honoring and cherishing with regards to [fiancée] as long as you both shall live?”

But perhaps this is too rigid a dichotomy. It seems one could encounter a person and have an existential relationship with them but also believe true propositions about them. After all, I know my wife existentially in every way that would satisfy Kierkegaard but I also believe a great number of propositions about her. I know her height, her eye color, her hair color, her movie preferences, how many kids she has, the names of her siblings and the like (I have no idea how much she weighs and she has promised me I’ll never know that fact). The latter beliefs may in some way be based on the former but it certainly seems possible for me to know those facts propositionally while at the same time having a fully existential relationship with her. In fact, many propositional truths are like this. I see (or believe I see) a red object before me and then come to believe the proposition, there is a red object before me. I could then offer evidence and arguments that ground belief in the proposition even though my belief in the red object isn’t grounded on them. Couldn’t religious belief function much like this? One comes to believe in God existentially by directly experiencing him. Then, that belief is supported by a number of rational arguments and physical evidence that essentially provide her with propositional truth about Him.

Moser parts company with Kierkegaard on precisely this point. For Moser, faith is not opposed to reason because an existential commitment can (he argues must) be supported by evidence. He writes,

"In fact, faith in God should be grounded in trustworthy supporting evidence of that distinctive kind in order to avoid becoming just wishful thinking, misleading dogmatism, distorting bias, or some other kind of cognitively arbitrary commitment. Cognitive arbitrariness is harmful in this connection because it leaves faith as unguided by a trustworthy indication of what is true and therefore as a prime candidate for a species of distorting bias or misleading dogmatism. Fideism1 [an epistemic category into which he places Kierkegaard] about faith in God, we shall see, suffers from the deficiency of failing to protect against this serious problem."

"Faith in God therefore should not be characterized as an inward embracing of contradictory or absurdity, because that approach to faith undermines the import and need for supporting evidence of the truth of any proposition accepted and faith.”

He later remarks,

"The receptive feature of faith in God, toward an experienced divine call, arguably excludes a characterization of such faith in terms of pure imagination or wishful thinking, and points instead to a kind of experiential cognitive support. This lesson, if secured, counts directly against fideism, because the lesson portrays faith in God as being responsive to a kind of intervention in human experience that can, and arguably sometimes does, qualify as trustworthy evidence. Exactly what such evidence is evidence of will be, of course, a matter of dispute among philosophers, as pretty much everything else is. Even so, we have a basis for contrasting faith in God with and constraint fantasy or guesswork, and for finding a trustworthy ground for faith in God and the thing(s) two which such faith as a response. This consideration merits our attention as a warning against inflating faith in God with mere belief that God exists. In addition it counts against any kind of fideism (familiar from Kierkegaard, Bultmann, and Barth) that portrays faith in God as irreconcilable with supporting evidence." (Moser, 2010)

To reject evidence for belief in God and view faith, as Kierkegaard does, as absurd is to make faith tangential to the rightly ordered mind. It is to view faith as being in a distinct cognitive category that threatens to lead to distortion, bias, and arbitrariness. As we’ll see later, this is precisely the kind of distinction Kierkegaard wishes to draw in order to illustrate the bright lines between the deliverances of faith and the deliverances of reason. One who would seek to ground faith in anything but experiences is not seeking God but something else.

These two specific ways of viewing the relationship between faith and reason capture in general, I believe, the distinction between the Kierkegaardian religious epistemology and the religious epistemology of contemporary believers that wish to preserve the role of reason in religious belief. The latter hold that the deliverances of faith and the deliverances of reason not only do complement each other but should complement each other. If they don’t, one or the other must be adjusted until they do (which typically entails fiddling with the rational side of the dichotomy in some fairly dramatic—sometimes amusing—ways). Many existentialists reject this move and certainly Kierkegaard would. Their position is that a belief formed existentially is epistemically isolated from beliefs formed rationally and if an argument proves an existential belief false, so much the worse for the argument. In fact, the argument is irrelevant.

I was faced with a striking example of this recently on the topic of free will. Galen Strawson has developed a powerful argument that human beings cannot be ultimately morally culpable for their actions and thus has devastating consequences for the belief that humans are agents with free will (see my summary of it here). The argument, I think, is fairly conclusive and I don’t believe a rejoinder is forthcoming. Even so, Strawson appears to have intuitions that run counter to the argument. When considering questions about the impact of the argument on our attitudes about praise and blame he writes,

“Taken as a whole, my attitudes on such questions are dramatically inconsistent. For (a) I regard any gifts that I have, and anything good that I do, as a matter of pure good fortune; so that the idea that I deserve credit for them in some strong sense seems absurd. But (b) I find I do not regard others’ achievements and good actions as pure good fortune, but feel admiration (and, where appropriate, gratitude) of a true-responsibility-presupposing kind. Furthermore, (c), I do not regard bad things that I do as mere bad luck, but have true-responsibility-presupposing attitudes to them (which may admittedly fade with time). Finally (d) I do naturally regard bad things that other people do as explicable in ways that make true-responsibility-presupposing blame inappropriate.”(Strawson, 1988)

I would go further than Strawson and admit that, even in light of the argument, it seems to me that I do engage in free acts (acts which appear to me to be entirely under my control and for which I deserve praise or blame). This intuition and “appearance” is extremely strong such that I’ve had to compartmentalize his argument in light of my experience (in other words, I don’t find myself behaving differently towards others nor has my social expectations changed all that much in spite of the argument). But there is clearly a problem here: rationally, I find the notion of free will untenable if I accept the argument but existentially, I find it irresistible. More importantly, (1) if my core intuitions and subsequent behaviors are inconsistent to what I believe to be rationally true, should I consider myself to be deluded or irrational or both? Or (2) should I reject the logic and go with my “common sense,” my intuitions, with what my experience tells me?

I believe Kirerkegaard and many existentialists would answer yes to the second question and while they would agree that such a person is irrational, they would not agree he or she is deluded. They argue that existentially grounded beliefs have no epistemic relation to a belief that a proposition that putatively is about that belief is true. This entails that any evidence or argument that provides rational support for or against the proposition provide no rational support for or against the existential belief. This is because reason itself has no relation to what is existentially known. In the context of the free will question, an existentialist might say that Strawson’s argument has nothing to do with my experience of being a free being. His argument is about something else entirely and as such should have no epistemic or behavioral implications for me as a person in the world.

The distinction between this position and one Craig or even Moser might defend is dramatic and at the core of the current debate over God. The outcome is that a belief formed existentially may strictly be irrational but this has no implications for the epistemic duties of the one holding the belief. Put another way, irrationality in no way counts against the epistemic validity of the existential belief.

In the next essay, we’ll explore why.

Copyright © 2011 Philosophy News Service


  1. Fideism is the view that certain beliefs are not justified on the basis of evidence or argument but by exercising faith that they are true. Philosophers Peterson, Hasker, Reichenbach and Basinger use the term “faithism” as an analogue for fideism (see their book Reason and Religious Belief). Fideism is similar to existentialism and some use it as a broad category under which existentialism is placed (I believe Moser does this). I do not believe this is entirely appropriate on specific formulations of fideism but this taxonomy is adequate for the purposes of this essay.

Works cited:

The Craig-Atkins Debate: Evidence For/Against the Existence of God, William Lane Craig and Peter W. Atkins April 1998, Carter Convention Center (Atlanta, Georgia).

Craig, W. L. (1994). Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books., pages 31ff.

Moser, P. K. (2010). The Evidence for God: Religious Knowledge Reexamined. New York: Cambridge University Press., chapter 2

Strawson, G. (1988). Consciousness, Free Will, and the Unimportance of Determinism. Inquiry, 32, 3-27.

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