Friday, October 20, 2006

Belief in God is Irrational (Please Read Post Before Screaming)

The following is the text of a paper that I wrote for a philosophy of religion class here at Asbury. It was written with a tight deadline and conforming to page and source limits, so it's a bit rough, but mostly represents my views on the subject.

I would like to emphasize that I do believe in the existence of God, and specifically, the God of the Christian Bible. He is a real, present, and true God as revealed in His infallible Word. It's just that I think that such belief is irrational. "Rational" and "true" are not synonymous and interchangeable terms. An idea can be irrational and yet true. Belief in the God of the Christian Bible is irrational, but is nonetheless true.

My understanding of the relationship between reason and faith is that of Soren Kierkegaard -- that one cannot reason a way into belief in God, but must take a leap of faith. Once we have acquired faith, reason is tremendously helpful and should be used. But we will not arrive at belief in God through rational means alone.

We should use our ability to reason, but not exclude non-rational sources of knowledge, such as faith in revelation.

Now before you start reading, please note that I do believe in the existence of God. I am a Christian theist, not a deist or whatever Spong is. I'm just completely comfortable being irrational for my Lord and my God. I kneel before the Throne of God, not the Throne of Reason. It is neither feasible nor helpful to take the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God and attempt to shove him into the confines of finite human reasoning. I believe in God. Catch that? Good. Now start reading.
It is not rational to believe in the existence of God. I base this assertion on a definition of rationality as a system of thought which regards consistency, logic, testability, and simplicity as core objectives of intellectual exploration. I will test this definition against two definitions of the term “God” in order to provide a wider understanding of theistic irrationality. The first definition of God is that of a supremely powerful and knowledgeable supernatural being possessing personhood. The second definition is this being as specifically identified by Christianity, not other religions, and so is a subset of the first definition.

I will begin with an examination of classical, rational arguments for the existence of God under these definitions and how they fail to be persuasive. The ontological argument, made famous by Anselm, asserts that people can imagine the greatest possible being. Anything which exists is greater than that which does not exist. So the greatest possible being which exists is greater than the greatest possible being which is imaginary. Therefore if one can conceive of said imaginary being, then there must be an existential one which is greater. And so the greatest possible being exists.

This argument is logically incoherent because it assumes that any skeptic of Anselm’s argument has necessarily misunderstood it; that any doubter of the existence of this being is necessarily referring to some other potential being. Despite Anselm’s protests, he cannot simply declare the existence of his being by fiat and insist that critics are attacking a strawman when they doubt the existence of a supreme being on the basis of properties that Anselm himself spells out. Therefore the ontological argument does not provide a rational basis for believing in God using either of my definitions.

Another common argument for the existence of God is a group of perspectives called the cosmological argument. They argue that everything in the universe has a cause. As Aquinas argued:

Everything that is moved is moved by another. That some things are in motion – for example, the sun – is evident from sense. Therefore, it is moved by something else that moves it. This mover is itself either moved or not moved. If it is not, we have reached our conclusion – namely, that we must posit some unmoved mover. This we call God.[1]

The cosmological argument is persuasive in proving that there was a First Causer or First Mover. But it does not provide evidence that this First Causer/Mover is supremely powerful, knowledgeable, or possessing personhood. And since it does not establish these qualities in the first definition, it therefore does not establish these qualities in the second definition. Belief in the existence of God is then unsupported by the cosmological argument.

The teleological argument, resurgent with the Intelligent Design movement, asserts that the universe is sufficiently complex that the likelihood that it could be formed by natural, impersonal forces (such as natural selection) is profoundly unlikely if not impossible. The physics of the universe and the subtle structures of living cells, for example, are too delicate and intricate to be explained scientifically. This argument is flawed in that it assumes that that which science cannot explain in detail now, it will never be able to explain. A basic grounding in scientific history dashes this view. The tides of Earth’s oceans, the cause of the bubonic plague, and the source of Earth’s seasons were all, once, ascribed to divine actions, as they defied human explanation. As Arthur C. Clarke said in this Third Law of Prediction “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”[2] When Native Americans first encountered European sailing vessels and firearms, they attributed to them magical powers. But a failure to understand a phenomenon is not proof of supernatural causes behind that phenomenon. At best, the teleological argument is evidence for a supremely powerful being, but neither omniscient or personal, let alone the Christian God. And with every passing year and further advances in human scientific understanding, the evidence which forms the basis for the teleological argument rolls back further.

Another argument for the existence of God is known as the moral argument. As espoused by C.S. Lewis, it argues that a sense of moral direction exists within every person, as an objective moral law. What is the source of this law?

It cannot be grounded on the factual reality observed by science, for the laws of nature tell us only what things actually do, while moral law deals with what ought to occur…The moral law must be grounded in mind, for only mind can give instructions regarding doing the right. This mind cannot be a human mind, for the moral law continues to hold despite the births and deaths of individual human persons. Hence, there must be a power or mind behind the universe, “urging me to do the right and making me feel responsible and uncomfortable when I do wrong….”[3]

Like all of these arguments in favor of the existence of God, the moral argument points to some logical consistency in the universe and labels it as “God”. But God is not evidenced here. At best, the moral argument suggests that there is an intrinsic sense of moral reasoning in humanity, but nothing more. It is not necessarily an external mind, but may be biological caused, or any of a number of potential sources for the existence of the concept of morality, but Lewis’ argument that it must be a mind because it survives human birth and death presupposes – without evidence – that moral reasoning is an external factor placed upon humanity, and not intrinsic.

Even if we were to concede that it was a mind behind this sense of morality in humanity, although this would attribute personhood to that mind, it does not establish omnipotence or omniscience – especially since what constitutes right and wrong is widely disputed. If this mind contained all three traits of Godhood in my initial definition, then even if such a being granted moral free will to humans, then humans would still possess an undisputed sense of right and wrong, even if these guidelines were disobeyed.

Thus the moral argument fails to provide evidence for the existence of God provided in my first definition. Although it is, then, unnecessary for me to prove its failure to meet the second definition, I would like to point out how the moral argument is particularly preposterous with it.

If (1) humans have a moral sense given to them by the Christian God who is (2) the morally perfect being and (3) the Bible is an accurate representation of the Christian God, then it would be mentally impossible for humans to doubt the morality of the Christian God.

Yet given the reams of paper devoted to morality of the actions of the Christian God, this conclusion is not supported experientially. The Christian God’s order of genocide against the people of Canaan during the Israelite settlement has disturbed Christians for generations. If the three suppositions listed above are true – all of which are suppositions of the moral argument – then it would not be possible to doubt the morality of God’s order to commit genocide.
However, many theistic believers have argued that evidence is not even necessary or desirable; that in an evidentially neutral universe (no proof of God’s existence, no proof of his non-existence), one should believe in God:

Why should the belief that God exists not be part of the foundation? Why should this not be one of our properly basic beliefs? The theist, after all, certainly thinks that this belief is one that she is rationally justified in holding. And if she finds (as Plantinga thinks most believers in God will find) that it is not a belief that she holds because it is justified inferentially from other beliefs, then the procedure just described will lead her to consider it a basic and indeed, a properly basic, belief. And why not? What is wrong with this possibility? Is there any reason why “God exists” cannot be a properly basic belief? And if it is properly basic, then there is no need for the theist to produce proofs or arguments for God’s existence in order to be justified in believing in God.[4]

To be logically consistent, such believers must also believe in other unproven beings, such as elves, fairies, leprechauns, and imaginary friends. To follow this argument, one’s belief should not stop with God (let alone the Christian God), but extend to every flight of fancy or speculation that the human mind can imagine. A universe which allows for the rational acceptance of an unproven God must necessarily allow for the rational acceptance for every other unproven being unless it can provide a reason for speculation on the reality of non-evidentiary beings to end with the supposition of the existence of God. Soon, one’s cosmology is filled with countless non-evidentiary beings and one is logically obligated under this system to accept the reality of every potential being. If the definition of rationality is a system of thought which regards consistency, logic, testability, and simplicity as core objectives of intellectual exploration, then this universe is no longer compatible with rationality. The burden of proof is on the theist, not the non-theist.

Proof, for the theist, is based on revelation: evidence provided directly by the divine being in the form of holy documents or mystical experiences. The latter may be persuasive in individual cases, but mystical experiences are always confined to individuals or groups and are not universal occurrences. One can accept reports of mystical experiences of others as proof, but this depends upon those reports being accurate. As few people have had such experiences, and many are self-serving or contradict other mystical experiences, belief based upon them is only as rational as the source of that information is reliable.

Likewise, holy documents are only rational as sources for belief if they are reliable. In a world filled with many such documents, most of them contradicting each other in fundamental ways, acceptance of the beliefs contained within them is, at best, a crap shoot. Successful choosing is based more on luck than reason.

Thus, having failed to provide rational proof of an omnipotent, omniscient, and personal God – or the Christian God, specifically – there is no rational basis for believing in God.

[1] Thomas Aquinas, “The Classic Cosmological Argument.” Philosophy of Religion, Michael Peterson, et al., eds. (New York: Oxford, 2001) 185.
[2] “Brilliant Careers: Arthur C. Clark” Salon ( accessed 13 October 2006).
[3] C.S. Lewis, as quoted in Michael Peterson et al., Reason and Religious Belief: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (New York: Oxford, 1998) 107.
[4] Peterson, 152.

UPDATE: Serious formatting error fixed.


Mike said...

Very cool -- Barth would take a similar approach that God is "unknowable" and faith is always GIFT and never an acheivement. I believe because God causes my belief, I could not choose belief. Modernity made faith and morality a personal acheivement. The question is how does this work in postmodernity? I think a doorway is open to faith as gift, but at the same time it is even harder to offer that invitation in the land of options (life, liberty and the pursuit of whatever happiness I choose).

Elizabeth said...

So, John, what you're saying is you don't believe in God?

Tom Jackson said...

"The moral law must be grounded in mind, for only mind can give instructions regarding doing the right. This mind cannot be a human mind, for the moral law continues to hold despite the births and deaths of individual human persons. Hence, there must be a power or mind behind the universe, “urging me to do the right and making me feel responsible and uncomfortable when I do wrong….”[3]"

Or there could be several millenia of human experience, from which we learn that some actions help to produce stable, peaceful, prosperous societies, and other actions do not.

Brett said...

The issue is not intellectual but moral: Man suppresses the truth about God and seeks to live in unbounded freedom. Romans 1:18-26

Feel free to write a scathing response, I know that you were once an atheist, so you would know better than I. But I think it is what is taught in the passage.

If it seems illogical, or irrational, it is because we have taken the truth of God that is clearly demonstrated through nature (natural revelation) and exchanged it for a lie. In our fallen state, we cannot see these truths clearly (if at all).

I am shocked that you don't believe in God.

Jonathan said...

Whose reason? Which rationality?

John said...

Whose reason? Which rationality?

Of the human variety.

Lorna said...

didn't read all this (too long, too tired) but just to say that Heb 11 is not the only statement for faith. The apostles believed because they saw withtheir own eyes ... so there's is a need for rational in our faith...

PS sorry I misrepresented you about the teenager thing over at my place.

BruceA said...

This is a great post!

I fully agree that belief in God is irrational, and I think one of the great errors of the modern era is the belief that everything true should be rational.

Richard said...

Indeed. My faith was challenged about a year and a half ago. After never doubting God, I suddenly just lost faith.

I spent the next year trying to recapture my faith from a logical standpoint. I was trying to disect the Gospels, but I soon began finding their inconsistencies textually, which blinded me to the true, more important, message of Christ and Christianity.

This year, I finally feel that I have reconnected. I have re-attached my roots to the Rock. The way I did it was removing myself from the materialistic viewpoint of God, the physical, historical Jesus. While I still find that part of my faith very very interesting, it is no longer the root or mainstay of my faith. Instead, again, the message is what matters.

When I look at my faith irrationally it finally becomes clear.

Anonymous said...

I think a most helpful distinction is found in Rudolf Otto's Idea of the Holy where he distinguishes among the rational, the irrational, and the non-rational. The non-rational, which is the realm of religious experience, is not irrational, Otto says. The non-rational, does not *contradict* reason, but goes beyond it.

It's a theme found in the other philosophers you cite. Anselm himself saw the limits of using reason in faith: in the second part of the Proslogion--which I think is the much more important part in comparison with his "proof" for God's existence--he arrives at the conclusion that God is beyond reason, such that faith is not an act of reason but act of the will, an act of love.

Aquinas, likewise, never finished writing the Summa Theologica (where the Five Ways are found). After experiencing a particular profound mystical experience while in prayer, he instructed his scribes to burn everything he had written because what God had allowed him to see in those mystical experiences surpassed everything he had written.

That having been said, even the Aquinas of the Summa Theologica had a very nuanced understanding of the relationship of faith and reason, and he himself understood those "proofs" not on their own, but in the light of revelation (thus he prefaces his Five Ways by citing a passage from Exodus). Faith, Aquinas believed, will always surpass reason in terms of arriving at knowledge about God, but reason is not contradictory to faith, and reason can help a person arrive at faith.

- rowie

Andy B. said...

You know why they make pastors take psychological evaluations before ordination, don't you? It's to prove that we are crazy enough to be clergy.

John said...

That's an interesting perspective, Rowie. So how should we distinguish between the irrational and the suprarational?

Anonymous said...

John, if I'm not mistaken, that is in fact how Rudolf Otto talks about it. By "nonrational" he does mean "suprarational," rather than irrational.

Going back to Anselm and the Proslogion--Anselm begins by calling God "that than which nothing greater can be thought of" (i.e., the greatest thing I can think of). Afterwards, though, he calls God "that which is greater than can be thought" (i.e., God is beyond our thought and understanding). However, he arrives at that second realization not by throwing rationality out the window, but by pursuing rationality as far as it goes, and then by realizing that God lies beyond reason still. Even the path of rationality was a path--albeit incomplete--in the journey towards God.

- rowie

Anonymous said...

John -- Sorry, I realized I misread your question. (I thought you were asking "should," not "how.")

Non-rational: For Otto, the "non-rational" does not run counter to the rational. Religious experience for him has both elements: the rational and the non-rational; the two do not contradict, and together they form the "warp and woof" of the fabric of faith. (I'm thinking now that to call it "suprarational" might in fact be somewhat incorrect, because "suprarational" implies that it begins where reason ends, and that isn't what Otto meant to say.)

Irrational: In the foreword to the first English translation of Idea of the Holy, Otto says that the word "irrational" is, on the other hand, used by many who are "too lazy to think or too ready to evade the arduous duty of clarifying their ideas and grounding their convictions on a basis of coherent thought." In contrast, Otto implies that we can talk about the non-rational, not through direct language, but through symbols, and thus we can make sense even of the non-rational aspect of our faith, even as we recognize that it always transcends the limits of our language.

We see similar themes in Aquinas' discussion of the "analogy" (e.g., I can talk about God as good, even though I recognize that human goodness is only analogous to God's goodness), and in Paul Tillich's discussion of "symbols" (we cannot talk about God directly, but only symbolically, using finite concepts that point to the Infinite). None of these philosophers recommend that we stop talking about or thinking about God altogether; they simply caution us to recognize that even as we do talk about God using human reason, God will never be captured completely by human reason. As the theologian Karl Rahner prays, ultimately, "only in love can I find You," yet that affirmation does not stop him from doing theology, a theology animated by love. (Anselm: "Let me find you in loving you and love you in finding you.")

One final helpful discussion is Martin Buber's description of God as both wholly Same and wholly Other in I and Thou. Because He is wholly the Same as me (I am, after all, made in His image and likeness), He is accessible; but because He is wholly Other, He is paradoxically inaccessible. The Christian might add to Buber's Jewish reflection that God has bridged the gap of inaccessibility through grace, Revelation, and the Incarnation of Christ.

Yes, faith is a gift, and it is the greater gift, but reason is a gift as well.

- rowie

the reverend mommy said...

I suggest "Philosophy and Theology" by Caputo. It's quite good and it's a quick read (the first time through).

And also Barth. (Because every one needs a good sleep aid.)

And I agree with rowie, but for mathematical reasons -- i.e. Gödel's first incompleteness theorem. Basically, "for any consistent formal theory that proves basic [arithmetical truths], it is possible to construct an arithmetical statement that is true but not provable in the theory."

That is, any statement on "truth," especially when you get to the axiomatic level, cannot be both consistant and complete.

Mathematics agrees with you.

the reverend mommy said...

Whoops, therefore your argument that "Belief is God is irrational" is factually true as well as ontologically true. (if one can say such a thing.)

My theorum would be that the larger the concept (and God would be the largest) the more irrational it would be -- to speak of the existance is in fact to deny it. (That would be Tillich).

crevo said...

My view on it is that belief that God exists is actually a requirement of rationality. But believing God (as opposed to believing _in_ Him) is where faith comes in.

If you want to look at two very novel proofs of God that were only possible to do in the last 100 years, I encourage you to check out the following (both secularly peer-reviewed works):

"Biological Function and the Genetic Code are Interdependent"
This paper argues for God on the basis of the genetic code and Godel's incompleteness theorem. Basically, the existence of a self-referential code necessitates a designer, and cannot, because of Godel's incompleteness theorems, be the product of first-order logical rules (i.e. material cause and effect)

The other one, I've only heard about, but not read myself. It's a book titled The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. From what I've heard it argues for the existence of God on the sole basis of the Schrodinger equation in physics, but as I said I haven't read it.

Anyway, with or without these, I view that the notion of God is fundamental even to thought. But in Christianity we are to go beyond the _notion_ of God to a _faith_ in God and _believe_ His words to be true.