No, Christians, You Don’t Rationally Proportion Your Beliefs to Evidence

I define faith as the explicit or implicit volitional commitment to either believe, trust, hope, or be loyal to people, beliefs, or other things in ways that are not proportionate to the rational bases one has to believe, trust, hope, or be loyal to those people, beliefs, or other things. In other words it is willfully committing to people, beliefs, or other things without conscientiously deferring to standards of evidence and other rational warrant. It is being willing, whether consciously or without admitting it, to maintain one’s belief, loyalty, trust, or hope in the teeth of either present or future evidence, rather than abandon one’s commitments that prove unwarranted. For all the technical details of what my exact definition of faith is and my argument for why the word needs to be defined as I do and not as others do, see my post Why I Define Faith Philosophically As Inherently Irrational and Immoral.

In reply to this characterization of faith, some defenders of religious faith insist to me that they are not irrational. They claim that they believe, trust, hope, and loyally commit to their beliefs and their god, etc., all because of what they take to be rational reasons. As I said in my previous post, I have no doubt that there are religious believers who perceive themselves to be proportioning their beliefs to rational warrant. I just think it is misleading to call that “faith”. And I think that when theists or other believers in the supernatural insist to me that they are being as rational as anyone else who strictly proportions beliefs to evidence, logical consistency, and other philosophical, scientific, and everyday canons of reason, they are making a big claim that they cannot really back up.

Often what makes them perceive themselves to be rational is that they think there is more reason than not to believe in some philosophical conception of a god. On this, I take them to be wholly sincere in most cases. And I can even grant that if they define “god” narrowly and philosophically enough as something very abstract like “The Ground of All Being” then the idea of such a thing is at least one worth batting around philosophically. Further, some are seduced by wholly natural and understandable teleological prejudices in the mind to insist that the universe must have a rational designer. I can completely see why people who reject creationism but still hold on to the idea of rational designer feel very rationally justified in believing this. (Even though I also think they are completely wrong to do so, as I explain in depth in my post How Belief In “Theistic Evolution” Is Nearly As Much A Denial Of Science As Creationism and Examining Some Alleged Divine Attributes.)

Where theists who believe in an interventionist god or “revealed Scriptures” or supernatural agencies start acting like outright faith believers (on my definition) rather than like rational scrupulous people who proportion believing, trusting, hoping, and being loyal to rational merits, is when they start making rationally intemperate leaps to thinking that the supposed rational designer ground of all being is the same figure they encounter in their religious traditions’ Scriptures, and when they start believing whole cloth all sorts of fantastic and evidence-free claims about supernatural realms and goings on that they read in their Scriptures.

For specifity’s sake, let me single out Christians (but analogous objections could be phrased to Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or any other theistic believers in the supernatural). Even granting you for argument’s sake the existence of an eternal, immaterial, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, rational designing ground of all being, where is the rational basis to believe that the character of Yahwheh in the Old Testament is the same being as this and not just the product of the mythic superstitious imagination of ignorant, tribalistic, xenophobic ancient peoples? What are the rational reasons for this belief?

Even if you can strain to show some way that it is possible that the perfect God of metaphysical philosophers that you think you have rational reason to believe in is the same being as Yahweh, do you really think the preponderance of evidence points that way such that anyone who does not see this can be shown rationally that they are wrong? While there may be some incredible hermeneutical and metaphysical twisting you can do to make it minimally plausible that an omnibenevolent god commanded genocides or that he revealed himself as bodily even though he is immaterial or that he underwent changes of mind even though he is supposedly unchanging and atemporal, etc., is it the most likely explanation to say that the eternal ground of all being is identical with the interventionist god character of the Old Testament? Being strictly rational means not just finding some strained story that reconciles all the contradictions, it means making a case that the best account according to reason is one that says “the ground of all being” = “Yahweh”. Is that the best explanation and not just one you can rationalize if you are committed in advance to believing it no matter what? Do you have reasons for this claim that could not with comparable plausibility be used to claim any of the other countless gods from world history are the true manifestation of the Ground of all Being?

Is it rationally careful and proportional to think that Jesus could be both an eternal being (God) and a temporal being (human) at the same time. Is this the most likely account of Jesus? Does it even make sense to say a being can be both eternal and temporal? Can you explain at all how this makes sense? If you can’t and it’s something that does not make sense to you in any clear way, how is your belief in this rational? How is it “proportionate to rational warrant”? How is it careful and restrained? How is it unlike the kind of willful faith believing (a believing that contemptuously flouts standards of rational warrant when choosing to believe) that some of you get offended that I accuse you of engaging in?

And even if you could do the unlikely and make a clear, rational, logical, coherent, conceptually clear, consistent, historically sensitive, psychologically plausible, morally satisfying, evidence-based, compelling case for a greater than 50% likelihood that Yahweh was identical with the perfect eternal ground of all being or that there could be such a thing as a specific person that was both a temporal human and a non-temporal god, would you nonetheless have enough reason to believe in these things (or in, say, angels or expiation of sins through blood sacrifice or heaven or hell or the divine inspiration of the Bible, etc.) strongly enough that you can commit your whole life and self to these beliefs the way that your Christianity requires of you? In other words even if you could find ways to prove individually that each and every one of these fantastic implausible things you believe were not only minimally possible but as much as greater than 50% likely, can you justify a 100% commitment to them? Can you defend each and every one of these fantastic beliefs independently? Or do you just leap from “I think there’s more likely than not a ground of all being rational designer god” all the way to “I commit my whole life to my Christian beliefs and completely accept the existence of angels, Satan, Jesus who is both God and man, the Bible as to one degree or another the ultimate guide to truth”, etc.

Or if you’re a Catholic do your philosophical reasons to think there’s some sort of ultimate being translate into the kind of trust in the Church to tell you what to believe in any number of matters? Is each and every belief you adopt because of Church teaching one that you have greater than 50% reason to think is true? And the even the ones that you do have say just 60% reason to believe, do you affirm them only 60%? Do you think of them as only that likely and that much worth basing your life on? What’s your evidence that Jesus’s body turns into a wafer and his blood turns into wine during the Mass? How good are your reasons for believing in that specific claim? What’s the rational warrant here? Is it really a greater than 50% likelihood? On rational grounds? And if it’s more tentative than that do you believe it only tentatively?

I think it is pretty clear that in the case of one rationally unwarranted supernaturalistic belief after another Christians of all stripes not only believe more than thoroughgoing and scrupulous rational analyses would indicate they should, but also they believe with greater commitment of their lives than even a 51% confidence in the truth of Christianity would merit. And because of all sorts of religious conditioning to fear and loathe the prospect of leaving Christianity, you are at least implicitly and often explicitly hostile to the prospect of dialing down your degrees of belief or personal commitment to the levels actually warranted by reasoning and abandoning your religious beliefs altogether.

Just thinking that you have at least a 50/50 argument for a ground of all being or a rational designer does not mean that in many other Christian beliefs you have anything like over 50% warrant to believe or anything like a degree of warrant to believe that would merit a 100% commitment. So, in the end you are faith believers in the sense that I laid out in my previous post and briefly atop this one. You are people who willfully commit to believing, trusting, hoping, and being loyal to your religious beliefs, traditions, and communities to a far greater degree and with far greater personal investment than even the rational warrant you perceive to be there would allow.

For a follow up post in reply to a comment from a theist below, see Is God Just Too Great For Our Finite Minds To Understand?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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