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.

24 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.

      • Patrick said, on October 14, 2015 at 2:03 pm

        I agree Michael. People don’t have time to understand the reasoning for evidence of certain claims, so you get this kind of catch all irrational statement “I believe in science”. I often find when probing further what they mean is that they believe in strict philosophical materialism and reductionism, rather than the latest findings from the scientific community.

        The layman often believes in claims without any other basis other than because a scientist or newspaper said so, which can sometimes be risky (as was the case of frontal labotomies and ECT).

        I have a question for you Mark though. We appear to live in the age of rationality, in that rationality is a kind of buzz word that is assumed to be good or a stamp of reasonableness. Nobody really knows what they mean when they say it, and it has this real ‘hoorah’ quality. Although rationality is definitely appropriate in many instances as a dominant force of thinking, surely there must be instances where rational thinking has limits and is not appropriate vis-a-vis other approaches. For example, although we may try to find an explanation for love in terms of a rational methodology like science, when talking to my girlfriend lovingly I am not exercising a rational part of my brain and empirically weighing up the evidence to try and disprove a hypothesis. In fact I have to rely on things like trust, intuition and being in tune with my feelings. This is not a rational process, yet this is something that is fundamentally important to human existence.

        I guess my question is, is rationality really always the most appropriate criteria for justifying all aspects of your life? And also, do you think that this begets a cultural trend of throwing about soundbytes like ‘liberal’, ‘democracy’, ‘rationality’, ‘freedom’, ‘socialist’, without really knowing what they mean, or whether they appropriate, largely because they are self-aggradising buzz words from a largely ideological and Western cultural perspective? If so, it’s kind of ironic, as it’s very unscientific and irrational!!

  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.

    • Patrick said, on October 14, 2015 at 3:38 pm

      A scientific claim that is not supported by evidence is not a scientific claim. It’s sort of part of the definition of what a scientific claim is! Your statement is highly irrational.

  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.

      • Arjun L. Sen said, on December 29, 2015 at 7:38 pm

        The evidence for the strong anthropic principle is solidly established in cosmology and astrophysics. There are interpretations both for and against the God concept in this cosmology but even Stephen Hawking acknowledges that the incredible precision of over 200 constants in the universe requiring the universe to have certain properties for human intelligence to observe is highly suggestive. Quantum mechanics provides overwhelming evidence in favour of consciousness as an independent principle in the universe and other theories to leave God out of the equation like the many world’s theory are less rational and credible than the leaner strong anthropic principle which suggests a creator principle. It is not rational to believe the authority of any “holy books,” but it is cetainly irrational to insist on scientific materialism today and an oversimplification. Our wonderful technological capacity indeed points to the power of materialist science but it does not explain ultimate things. The attempt by scientific materialists today to insist on total explanatory power is irrational because it is contradicted by the evidence.

    • Patrick said, on October 14, 2015 at 3:44 pm

      That quote at the top is true, but the same is true of every claim made by atheists as well. As a result philosophical atheism or theism is unsupportable from the vantage point of logic and rationality alone.

      • arjunlsen said, on January 5, 2016 at 12:19 am

        Professor Anthony Flew, Britain’s greatest atheist philosopher for over forty years, finally changed his mind and agreed that there is a creator God in 2008. Read his book. To suggest that belief in God is irrational is ill-informed today. Scientific materialism is outdated today. But like all faiths,it holds on to its dogmas well past its intellectual sell-by date.

        • enoch said, on April 27, 2016 at 11:46 pm

          why would anthony flew have been “Britain’s greatest atheist philosopher”, do you believe that because its true, or do you believe that, because you do not truly know the greatest atheist philosopher in britain?

          depending on your response, your assumption that god exists might have to be shaken away.

      • Arjun_L_Sen said, on May 31, 2016 at 5:38 pm

        Read John Polkinghorne. He makes the case for a theistic view extremely well. There is no’proof’ either way but in so far as one can hold a metaphysical position taking scientific knowledge into account, he makes the case for the theistic view very effectively.

  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.

  8. Lucifer said, on August 9, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    But, perhaps not believe in A god is irrational, but believe in a omnipotent god is. The world around us is inperfect. A onnipotent god would either:
    -not allow what to occur if he is good
    -not allow me to spread this idea if he is evil

    • Ian James said, on August 10, 2014 at 3:31 am

      Hell is empty and all the Devils are here!
      ~ The Tempest.

    • arjunlsen said, on January 2, 2016 at 4:09 am

      Omnipotence is one of the most misunderstood concepts. All religions suggest that the material world necessarily includes suffering because the laws governing matter require it. Our condition of being mired in the material world owes to a fall from a state of grace. Most world religions agree on this though their myths in their holy books tell different nt stories. Modern Christian apologists like Dinesh d’Souza show how natural calamities produce both good and bad effects andvare in fact necessary for the processes of the may riwl world. Human calamities arise because of our comparative free will to make choices – and the leaders of men usually choose bad ones. If God fixed everything there would be no need for choices and the moral drama played out in this world. Therefore deploring an imperfect world and suggesting that this denies God’s omnipotence is to misunderstand the cont t entirely.

    • enoch said, on April 27, 2016 at 11:48 pm

      Perhaps, you are simply lacking in the knowledge of what an omnipotent “god” might do or allow.

    • Arjun_L_Sen said, on May 31, 2016 at 5:40 pm

      Again, read John Polkinghorne who answers why God allowed the world to be as it is. I can’t be asked to rehash his excellent argument myself. Read him and then come back to me on this.

    • Arjun_L_Sen said, on May 31, 2016 at 5:43 pm

      You need to understand that omnipotence does not mean that God will fix this world t make it comfy for us. Thus is the basic fakkacy of popular theodicy and that stops most people today looking again at what God is. Again, read Polkinghorne and D’Souza who outline the strength of the free will defence in the scientifically explicable world.


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