Can There Be Bad Reasons to Reject a False Belief? A Reply to John Loftus

According to John  Loftus, “There isn’t a bad reason to reject the Christian faith.” Now such a claim seems to me not only false, but obviously false. Anyone who has taken an introductory course in logic knows that you can have invalid deductive arguments and logically incorrect (or weak) inductive arguments for a true conclusion. So why does Loftus claim that there isn’t a bad reason to reject the Christian faith? I want to quote Loftus at length.

Keep in mind I’m also speaking of the reasons people personally have for rejecting Christianity rather than the arguments constructed to convince others. I don’t think people must be able produce an argument that will convince others of something before it can be said they have good reasons for what they think. A farmer may have good reasons to think aliens have abducted him even though he cannot convince anyone else. A lawyer may have good reasons to think someone is a con-artist even though she cannot produce an argument that will convince anyone else. People who have been victimized by someone may not be able to see that criminal in a good light. They are emotionally engaged. They have good reasons for what they think even if others don’t agree. Counter-intuitively, people may have bad reasons for conclusions that end up being true. This raises the thorny issue of Gettier Problems.

Is there a legitimate distinction then between someone’s having good personal reasons and having bad reasons for believing something? Again we’re not talking about arguments constructed to convince others, for the rules of logic dictate which arguments are good ones from bad ones. We’re talking instead about the personal reasons people have for accepting or not accepting something as true. How do we really know that what we think is justified? Do we really understand how many cognitive biases affect most all of us most of the time? Do we have a clue at how many arguments are constructed to defend what we have come to believe based on personal idiosyncratic irrational reasons? Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, the three master’s of suspicion, taught us to be suspicious of all arguments because the ones constructing them most likely have ulterior self-serving agendas.

This seems to be confusing the distinction between an epistemic situation and what can reasonably be believed by a person in an epistemic situation. For example, consider the following epistemic situation (ES1).

ES1: Suppose, like what happened to Jodie Foster’s character in the movie Contact, you were somehow transported through a wormhole; had a conversation with an extraterrestrial intelligence; were brought back to Earth; and had zero objective evidence that that experience actually happened.  (Note: in order to eliminate any potential ambiguities, we will assume that, unlike what happened in the movie, there is no videotape with 18 hours of recorded silence.)

If you were in ES1, it would (arguably) be rational for you to believe that experience happened while at the same time it would be rational for everyone else to reject your claims. This is because everyone else was not in ES1. They did not have that experience, so the belief that the experience happened would not be rational for them.

It doesn’t follow, however, that ES1 makes it rational to believe literally anything. For example, if you were in ES1, it would not be rational for you to believe that the moon is made out of green cheese, since ES1 provides no reasons to have such a belief.

By the same logic, there can be bad reasons to reject Christianity or any other false belief.

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About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • Ryan McCarthy

    Well let’s consider someone who believes faith healing works. Here is one bad reason to reject faith healing: Imagine that I have cancer and that I believe faith healing will cure me. Further imagine that someone tells me that what can actually cure me are crystals that I hold to align my spirit (Which by magic will cure me), and that crystals are contrary to faith healing.

    Clearly crystal healing does not work. Rejecting faith healing for an equally useless/dangerous method of medicine is not only irrational, but maybe even immoral.

    I didn’t really read the post yet, so my comment might be inappropriate, but I will check back later when I have more time.

  • John W. Loftus

    Once again Jeff, you have failed to show you can read. What’s up with you?

    • Dan Gillson

      i. You could have just written that, apropos rejecting the Christian God (or the conservative Evangelical God), the end justifies the means. As long as you reject the DS-infused God, you’re doing fine.

      ii. Is the problem that other people don’t know how to read, or is it that you don’t know how to write? Having been reading your blog for a while, I’d probably opt for the latter: it’s not just that you can’t coherently present an argument, it’s also that you’re a poor stylist.

      • John W. Loftus

        Dan, I did write that! Jeff did not charitably read what I wrote and I’ll prove this in a forthcoming post on the same topic.

        There is the possibility I cannot coherently present an argument, although if I have not done so then what have I been doing for seven years, venting? Where is the evidence for that? And I may not write very stylistically but how is that a criticism?

        • Jeffery Jay Lowder

          It was my intent to be charitable. If I’ve misunderstood your argument, I’m happy to issue a retraction or make a correction as needed.

          • Jake

            You are a good man Jeff. Personally, i think Loftus is not capable of civil discussions if you seriously opppose him.
            There is more going on with him than he is letting on.

          • John W. Loftus

            Jake, how seriously should we take you when you say you cannot take me seriously? Tell us this, do you deny Jesus is your Lord and Savior and do you reject God the father and renounce the Holy Spirit knowing that you’ll be condemned to hell on the judgment day if you’re wrong? Do you? Only if you do, will anyone take you seriously since I suspect you are a poser. I have lots of them. They say a sign of success is to have stalkers. I have ‘em. Woooo Hoooo! That’s because I am a threat to your faith. You know it. I know it. But you don’t think God can deal with me himself. You think he needs your help because you don’t have the faith to think he does anything.

          • John W. Loftus

            See Jeff, this stuff from Jake is what you’re inviting and this is why I am personally upset with you. You don’t get it. It’s not like I have more productive things to do that deal with you and the people like Jake you draw out from their caves.

          • Elle

            Mr. Loftus, if I may have a say, and I don’t mean to insult you or anything, I think you are overreacting a bit. As far as I understand the situation, Mr. Lowder simply pointed out how one of your specific arguments (the “bad reason” one) seemed to be incorrect to him, and he talked about it. Now, I believe mutual criticism is to be expected within every community, and it should ultimately seen as constructive, a source for improvement. I hope I’m not misunderstanding you, but I think you are afraid that by criticizing each other, atheists like you and Lowder can only ” draw out from their caves” people who disagree with your thesis, but this is no reason not to do it (and, if I recall correctly, you have criticized fellow atheists as well on various occasions).

            If I am indeed misunderstanding you, please let me know.

          • John W. Loftus

            Elle, there is a back-story but I won’t get into it here. Cheers everyone.

        • Jake

          There is something hilarious reading Loftus claim that he was not read “charitably”.
          I mean, this guy has a chip on his shoulder that sets him off for the smallest reason.
          I think he is a little unbalanced, and I don’t take him seriously anymore.

    • Jake

      Loftus, here is my personal reason…Jesus was a Jew and I don’t like Jews.
      Is that a good personal reason when it comes to not believing in the particualr god you are dealing with in your post?

  • James Lindsay

    Hi Jeff. I haven’t commented here before, but I’d urge you to re-read John’s premise, which included the Doctrinal Statement (DS) of a God that is simutaneously omniscient, omnipotent, and interested in bringing us to salvation. The argument follows from there. As I said on his post too: I thought he was patently incorrect as well until I realied what the DS implies and how he’s using it to create his argument.

    I would agree that it is incorrect to say that there are no bad reasons to reject Christianity. However, there are no bad reasons to reject DS-infused Christianity. This, then, seems to invalidate the DS, which puts John in the position of defending his argument from being a straw man. This is relatively easy, though, as the DS is hardly controversial from the Christian perspective until these sorts of incongruences are pointed out.

    I suppose, to be fair, it leaves him having to defend his headline, but in the publishing world, his slightly misleading title here falls pretty short of being egregious.

    • Matt DeStefano

      Hi James,

      I don’t think that the DS helps all situations. Consider a slightly different case then the one presented by Loftus here. Loftus says (a “money quote”):

      If God desires Pat to be saved, and if God knows Pat will be convinced by his dream because his God-given cognitive faculties are such that he would accept its message as true, then God should not have allowed Pat to have had such a dream in the first place. Allowing a vulnerable ignorant person like Pat to have had such a dream, knowing it would lead him to reject Christianity, makes that God just as culpable as if he himself caused Pat to reject Christianity.

      While this sort of thinking underwrites the sort of thinking involved in Divine Hiddenness, it doesn’t entail that one could have NO bad personal reasons to reject Christianity. Here’s one example, which Loftus doesn’t explore.

      “I know Christianity is true, but I reject it because I don’t want to live my life like that. I want to live selfishly, focus on the accumulation of material possessions without worrying about the implications this sort of life will have on others or on my relationship with God. Frankly, I just don’t WANT Christianity to be true, therefore I reject it.”

      This is a personal reason for rejecting Christianity, but it’s a bad one – even given the DS. Personal desires and wish fulfillment are not good reasons to determine the truth value of a claim.

      • James Lindsay

        Yes, I read your rather lengthy series of arguments for this construction on DC. I’m thinking about it. You’ll probably not enjoy talking to me much, though, as I’m almost never interested in ironclad philosophical arguments (weird for a mathematician, I know, but really, ironclad philosophical arguments really don’t get us much of anywhere and reality certainly doesn’t give a whit about them…).

        I could write rather a lot about this, I think, but why should I? Why is this a bad reason to reject Christianity on the premise of the DS? Why would such a God have allowed a person He knows to be tempted by desires like that be in a position where he could be tempted by such desires? That omni-cocktail the God of the DS is sporting is pretty potent. If there was even one thought, one idea, one piece of information, a single datum that would have prevented this rebel from rebelling, acceptance of the DS puts some culpability on God (who could have, say, made sure Rebel Pat was burned once sufficiently badly as a child to be “properly” afraid of hell).

        It might also be worth noting at this point that the DS doesn’t actually indicate what right behavior for Christians would be, so this argument you’re making assumes more than John did to make it. Certainly the Religious Right and Christian Left in the United States, to brush with broad strokes, make determining WWJD a pretty contentious topic (still true even within the Evangelical community alone). God could have Rebel Pat rejecting the wrong set of life requirements for Christianity, and is it all Pat’s fault that he knows the wrong set of requirements for getting into heaven?

        Perhaps John’s use of the absolute quantifier is a bit exaggerated, and perhaps some counterexamples can be boiled up, some hypothetical someone who has all of the relevant information who still chooses to reject Christianity–if that’s even possible in that state of perfect gnosticism–and then perhaps that results in his rebellion being a bad personal reason, but how slender of a thread does a heavy proposition like the DS have to hang upon before we are entirely justified in calling shenanigans?

    • Jeffery Jay Lowder

      Hi James — Your comments are well taken. I’m going to publish another post shortly to address this.

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