Is It Rational to Believe in God?

Author Greg Koukl Published on 02/20/2013

Seminar in Philosophy of Religion: Apologetics

TTPH 735

December 14, 2001

The question of the epistemic status and rationality of theism in general (vs. atheism or some non-theistic alternative), or of Christianity in particular (vs. competing forms of theistic religions) hinges on two things. First, it hinges on the particular truth claims in question. Second, it hinges on the definition of “rational” and “reasonable.”

The truth claims at stake have been nicely stated by Alvin Plantinga [Alvin Plantinga, “Pluralism: A Defense of Religious Exclusivism,” in Philip L. Quinn and Kevin Meeker, eds., The Philosophical Challenge of Religious Diversity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 173.]:

The world was created by God, an almighty, all-knowing, and perfectly good personal being.

Human beings require salvation, and God has provided a unique way of salvation through the incarnation, life, sacrificial death, and resurrection of his divine Son.

Atheists, Buddhists, and pantheists (e.g., Hindus) deny (1). Muslims and Jews affirm (1), but deny (2). Christians hold to (2), which naturally entails (1).

I will use the terms “rational” and “reasonable” to mean justified in Plantinga’s sense of “being within one’s intellectual rights, having violated no intellectual or cognitive duties or obligations in the formation and sustenance of the belief in question” [Alvin Plantinga, “Pluralism: A Defense of Religious Exclusivism,” in Philip L. Quinn and Kevin Meeker, eds., The Philosophical Challenge of Religious Diversity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 180.].

This is a general definition, and I do not want to try to put too sharp a point on it for my purposes here. Suffice it to say that to be rational is to have reasons. It is not enough, though, merely to give an accounting of one’s beliefs in terms of reasons, that one has her own reasons. The account must give adequate justification; she must believe for good reasons, even though fallible.

The Epistemic Status of (1)

What of the epistemic status of (1)? Are there good reasons to believe theism? The answer is undoubtedly yes. Perfectly good arguments with epistemic force have been advanced for a kind of “mere theism.” The kalam cosmological argument comes to mind. It is deductively valid and its premises enjoy strong support, suggesting the argument is also sound. There are arguments from design and from revelation that have merit. The moral argument is compelling given the strength of the case for moral realism and the failure to produce adequate grounding of morality apart from a divine lawgiver whose own moral character is the foundation for perfect goodness.

These arguments may not be decisive for some, or even compelling, but that does not mean they do not have significant epistemic value. Taken as a whole, they represent a cumulative case providing adequate justification to make the theistic case reasonable.

I think we can do better than this, though. Given the formulation either (a) God or (b) not-God, the theistic position can be strengthened by providing evidence for (a) or by pointing to the weakness of (b), that is, the inadequacy of the alternatives. Evidence that plays against (b) would be evidence for (a), and vice versa, given the law of excluded middle.

The main alternatives to (1) would be atheism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Hinduism entails a contradiction, it seems to me. Pantheistic monism claims that the world is illusion (“Maya”), of which each of us is part. If all were illusion, though, how could we know it? How could I possess true knowledge that I, as a substantial self, do not exist? How could I possess any knowledge at all under those conditions? Can members of a dream know they are in a dream? Does Charlie Brown know he is a cartoon character? The Hindu concept of Maya contradicts the idea one can have knowledge of Maya, rendering Hinduism incoherent and therefore not epistemically defensible. Something similar might be said of Buddhism in that it denies a durable self.

Atheism falters for other reasons. The atheist’s strategy largely has been to deny the potency of the theist’s positive case and to offer negative evidence for (1) most notably the problem of evil but to mount no positive case of her own. Therefore, if the theist’s positive case survives (as I think it does) and the atheist’s negative evidence is compromised, the case for atheism suffers.

The deductive argument from evil has been largely put to rest, thanks to Alvin Plantinga. The inductive argument has force when taken in isolation. In the absence of countervailing evidence it would be unlikely that an “almighty, all-knowing, and perfectly good personal being” existed given the magnitude of suffering in the world. However, there is evidence to the contrary. The inductive argument loses much of its impact when all things at the theists’ disposal are considered, i.e., the array of arguments just mentioned coupled with plausible explanations answering the inductive challenge.

There is a further line of evidence. My conviction of the truth of theism has long been buttressed by an awareness that the central claims of theism (especially Christian theism) resonate with my deepest intuitions about the way the world is. Theism has explanatory power.

We feel morally guilty because we are morally guilty. We exhibit “moral motions” because we are moral creatures with an immediate awareness of objective moral truth, capable of choosing good and evil. We seek to lead purposeful lives because life has objective purpose and meaning that can be discovered. We hunger for justice in this world even though it is not fulfilled because there is a world in which the accounts will be balanced. We use design language when referring to the universe (e.g., “Mother Nature”) because the universe is designed and we are able to perceive that. We recognize the different obligations we have towards animals than we do towards humans because human beings have value that transcends their animal natures.

This is powerful justification for the truth of theism (on the correspondence view of truth). Each of these elements would be, at very best, odd and unusual features of the world given atheism, Hinduism, or Buddhism.

Is rejection of (1) reasonable? It may be, depending on the alternative. Atheism qualifies as rational, on our definition, but not well justified. It therefore does not have epistemic parity with theism. Hinduism and Buddhism, however, do not fare as well due to their coherence problem. In my estimation, they are irrational belief systems, though this is not considered a vice on their view.

The Epistemic Status of (2)

What of the epistemic status of (2), the explicit claim that sets Christian theism apart from all other contenders, most notably Judaism and Islam? Each intuition mentioned above that is available to strengthen the case for Christianity is, arguably, available to the Muslim and the Jew as well. The key question is this: Are there evidences for Christianity not available to other religions? The answer is yes, one in particular: Jesus.

The most compelling evidence for Christianity over all contenders is Jesus of Nazareth. What do we make of Jesus? He is not easy to dismiss. If He is reduced to the itinerant sage of the Jesus Seminar, there is no adequate account for his execution. If He is reduced to a great prophet, we cannot account for the prophetic claims He made of His own identity, which entailed something much greater than prophet. If He is reduced to a great moral teacher, we cannot reconcile His holiness with his pretense to be Messiah.

And then there is the empty tomb. Islam has nothing like this. Jews may point to miracles in the Hebrew Scriptures, even resurrections, but this evidence equally helps the Christian who appeals to the Old Testament for evidence that Jesus is the promised Messiah. How do we explain the empty tomb?

There have been attempts, some more believable than others. None have succeeded, though, in having more epistemic merit than the simple account given by those who knew Jesus and gave their lives for Him: The tomb was empty because Jesus had risen from the dead, just as He said He would.

Are other forms of theism rational? Yes, there are good epistemic reasons to prefer theism over non-theism. Insofar as Christian theism is rational and other forms of theism share foundational characteristics with Christianity, they are rational as well.

Is there epistemic parity between theistic religions? I do not think this is the case. There are good epistemic reasons to prefer Christianity above other forms of theism, principle among them Jesus who, according to the Apostle Paul, was “declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4).