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.