A Philosopher's Blog

Is the Belief in God Irrational?

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 10, 2007

One popular theme these days is that the belief in God is irrational. As a philosopher, I find that view rather interesting.

Whether a belief is irrational or not depends entirely on what is meant by “irrational” in this context. There is extensive debate in philosophy about this, but here are two intuitive ways a belief can be irrational.

First, the belief is such that it cannot possibly be true. Two clear examples of this sort of thing include contradictions and contrary claims. A contradiction is a claim that is false in virtue of its logical structure-it cannot possibly be true. For example, the claim P & -P (“P and not P”). is a contradiction. Two claims are contrary when they both cannot be true at the same time (yet both could be false). For example, if someone believes that all killing is wrong and also believes that capital punishment is right, then he has beliefs that are contrary to one another. To believe claims that cannot be true would clearly be irrational.

In the case of God, there seems to be no such problem. The claim “God exists” does not express a contradiction. In fact, philosophers such as St. Anselm have argued that the claim is necessarily true.

The second way a belief can be irrational is in the way the belief is justified. In this case, a belief is irrational if it is based on evidence/reasoning that does not adequately justify the belief. In other words, beliefs that are based on fallacious reasoning are irrational. For example, if Jane believes that Hilary Clinton would be a poor president because Jane hates other women, then her belief is irrational. A person’s hatred of women has no relevance to the truth (or falsity ) of the claim that Hilary would be a poor President.

It is important to keep in mind that a belief could be mistaken, yet still not be irrational in this sense. For example, I believe that the computer in my office at FAMU is still there. It was there when I last checked, the door is kept locked, and the office manager goes to to office daily and would presumably call me if it was stolen. Given this evidence my belief that my computer is still on my desk is hardly irrational. But, I could be wrong. As I’m typing, someone could be loading the stolen PC into their car, eager to get the $15 it would no doubt command at a pawn shop.

Turning back to God, many people believe in God for fallacious reasons. They believe because some people tell them to (fallacious appeal to authority). They believe out of fear (appeal to fear) or hope (wishful thinking). They believe because everyone they know does (appeal to popularity). In these cases, the belief in God would be irrational and unjustified.

But, philosophy and theology are rife with cogent arguments for God’s existence. While one might dispute the arguments put forth by Anselm, Augustine, Descartes, Locke, Leibniz and others, they present considered arguments that make a reasonable case. A person who believes in God on the basis of considered evidence and reasoning is not irrational. She might be mistaken, but that is true of almost any belief-even those in the sciences. If a person disagrees with the conclusion of such arguments it is not enough to dismiss them as irrational. They must be properly engaged as arguments. By presenting such arguments, these thinkers have earned the right to be taken seriously.

So, the general charge that belief in God is irrational is mistaken. Some people who believe in God are irrational in their belief and others are rational in their belief.

The same can be said about any belief. People believe scientific claims without adequate justification, yet no one would say that the belief in science is irrational. The belief in God deserves the same treatment. To do otherwise is a senseless and needless insult to those who carefully consider the rather important matter of God and find that reason and evidence point them towards belief.

What do I believe? Stay tuned.

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10 Responses

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  1. Iago said, on August 12, 2009 at 6:33 am

    “The same can be said about any belief. People believe scientific claims without adequate justification, yet no one would say that the belief in science is irrational.”

    They may not say science irrational, however many people would openly say the claims are irrational if they don’t have adequate justification. In fact, if they don’t have adequate justification they’d likely be rejected by the scientific community.

    Of course nobody would say that belief in science is irrational, because science has proven itself. The computers in front of us are proof that science works and therefore is real. There is no solid evidence for God and there is an overwhelmingly amount of solid evidence for science.

    Your attempt to equate a fictional “scientific claim with no adequate justification” in your analogy to science in general makes no sense. As I said, the scientific community would almost certainly reject the “scientific claim” although they of course would not reject science.

    Having said that, I certainly agree that God should receive the same treatment that the “scientific claim” would most likely receive… Rejection due to complete lack of adequate justification/solid evidence.

    • Iago said, on August 12, 2009 at 6:45 am

      I apologize, I should’ve used plural “scientific claims” not a singular “claim”

      The point remains the same though, scientific claims without adequate justification are rejected by the scientific community and certainly not believed.

      I challenge you to find me a single scientific claim without adequate justification that is backed up by the bulk of the scientific community.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 12, 2009 at 11:47 am

      I don’t claim that folks in the scientific community (which, I take it, consists of professional scientists) believe such things. Rather, my point was that some people believe scientific claims without adequate justification. For example, think of someone who believes in global warming, but they do not do so on the basis of rational evidence. Rather, the view is held because of (for example) his/her political feelings.

      I present the same sort of view in my book: creationism can be a scientific hypothesis, but it is one that has been adequately disconfirmed.

  2. magus71 said, on August 12, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    “I challenge you to find me a single scientific claim without adequate justification that is backed up by the bulk of the scientific community.”

    Need we go through the history of science to find all of the mistakes it’s made? Of course, it matters what you mean by “adequate”. It seems “rational” to think that by merely eating fat, people will get fat. However, this is not the case though to this day there are PHDs who will tell you it does. The simple though not complete answer is that calories (excess energy) makes you fat. So there’s one: Fat is bad for you. Not scientific, but backed by the majority of scientists who don’t look at all the information. Fat scientists I might add.

    Also: “creationism can be a scientific hypothesis, but it is one that has been adequately disconfirmed.”

    By creationism, do you mean that Goad created the universe? Because I’m not sure that’s been disconfirmed any more than any other explanation as to how everything came into existence.

  3. magus71 said, on August 12, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    God, not Goad….

  4. Asur said, on June 20, 2010 at 11:02 pm

    I enjoyed your observation that considerations of rationality pertain not only to the What of a belief but also to the Why.

    Regarding God, though, I think it’s important to stress that the definition of God used determines the validity of a given argument for or against God’s existence.

    I could — to use an example from Spinoza — say that God and what exists are one and the same, and then observe that since something clearly exists, therefore God exists.

    Of course, my God may then be unrecognizable as such to most others, but that only seems to further underscore the importance of attention to definition.

  5. Ros said, on September 11, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    Uh, yes if a scientific claim is unsupported by evidence I’m going to say it is irrational. Unless you have a personal reason for Gods that is impossible to communicate with the rest of the world, then you have no reason to believe in God. EVERY argument that theists give about the existence of Gods can be refuted logically. I’m not saying Gods aren’t real, but that they have about the same likelihood of existing as leprachauns and fairies.

  6. kyleenfield said, on February 27, 2013 at 2:32 am

    “EVERY argument that theists give about the existence of Gods can be refuted logically.”

    So, if I were to argue that the mere existence of a cognitive, complex and intelligent species that inhabits a world that could only have come about by the most incredible of circumstances demands a creator rather than chance and a few billion years, what logic would you use to refute that?

    • Anonymous said, on July 8, 2013 at 2:22 pm

      “So, if I were to argue that the mere existence of a cognitive, complex and intelligent species that inhabits a world that could only have come about by the most incredible of circumstances demands a creator rather than chance and a few billion years, what logic would you use to refute that?”

      I would respond that your argument is loaded with presuppositions that have not been shown to be logically or objectively true, and that these presuppositions therefore ruin the question and make it illogical to begin with. I would simply point out logically that your question contains unknowns presented as truths and thus its merely speculative in nature. Basically, the argument lacks objective evidence to support its point.

  7. Nal said, on July 10, 2013 at 12:50 am

    While one might dispute the arguments put forth by Anselm, Augustine, Descartes, Locke, Leibniz and others, they present considered arguments that make a reasonable case.

    Dispute? If one shows that those arguments are not valid or not sound, then those arguments do not make a reasonable case.

    If it is reasonable to believe in God and it is reasonable not to believe in God, what does that say about reason. If it is reasonable to believe in God then it is unreasonable not to believe in God, and vice versa.


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