Theistic Notebook

March 22, 2011

An Intro to the Philosophy of Religion, Ch. 4

Intro to the Philosophy of ReligionThe nature of faith
Murray and Rea offer their account of faith as follows:

“…to say that a person S has faith in proposition p is to say that S believes p despite the fact that (a) there are alternatives to p that are compatible with whatever evidence supports S’s belief that p, and b) there is genuine and somewhat weighty evidence in favor of one or more of those alternatives.”

Since they classify faith as a kind of belief, there can be degrees of faith just as there can be degrees of belief (credences).  In addition, their definition of faith implies that faith can be judged as rational or irrational depending on the evidential context.  But what counts as evidence?

Reliabilism and Evidentialism
The evidentialist maintains that the rationality of a religious belief (merely) depends on the degree to which the belief is supported by arguments–in other words, only propositional evidence counts.  On the other hand, the reliabilist maintains that a belief is rationally held when (a) produced by reliable, properly functioning cognitive faculties, and (b) unaccompanied by overriding reasons to deem the belief irrational.  This implies that experiential evidence (e.g., religious experience) can justify a belief under the right conditions.  Properly basic beliefs are ones which can be justified or held without relying on other beliefs; for instance, perceptual belief is held on the basis of perceptual experience.  Likewise, Rea and Murray think that religious experience might justify a religious belief so long as it satisfies the criterion mentioned above.  What kinds of evidence might defeat our confidence in religious experiences?

Religious disagreement
Just as scientific theories explain sensory experience, Rea and Murray construe religious theories as collective attempts to explain religious experience.  A problem comes to light here: while scientific theories enjoy a fair level agreement, most religious theories are quite the opposite.  In light of this disagreement, one might ask some questions:

1. Do religious theories track truth about reality?

2. Are the arguments for any religious positions successful?

3. If not, should religious belief and practice be abandoned?

The religious skeptic generally replies in the negative to the first two questions, but affirms the last one.  Religious pluralism holds that no religion has a weighter share of (religious) truth than the others.  Pluralists maintain that many religions can capture isolated truths about reality, but none of the religions are superior in this sense.  The third view is religious exclusivism.  The exclusivist affirms what the skeptic denies: that religious theories track truth about reality.  He also affirms what the pluralist denies: that there is one objectively true religious narrative.  This doesn’t entail that all religious truths are known with certainty, but merely that we can have substantial knowledge of the truth about spiritual reality, and we can use this knowledge to judge disparate religious views.

Religious diversity poses a problem for exclusivists, and Rea and Murray undertake to show that this problem doesn’t render exclusivism unreasonable.  Putting aside pragmatic reasons for embracing pluralism, they examine how widespread religious disagreement might constitute evidence against exclusivity.  They conclude (as reliabilists) that it depends on whether or not disagreement should cast doubt on the believer’s reliability to judge the facts at hand.[1]  The mere fact of disagreement is insufficient.  Disagreement plus backgrounds beliefs (beliefs about the supernatural, morality, your own memory) work together to determine how heavily the evidence weighs.  Unfortunately, we don’t have adequate background beliefs about “a typical person’s ability to judge religious matters.”  More importantly, Christian background beliefs predict religious diversity.  So, the evidential force of religious diversity might be weakened.  Rea and Murray acknowledge that this only scratches the surface of the debate over exclusivity.

Is atheism irrational?
Alvin Plantinga has fashioned an argument which, if successful, renders atheism irrational.  Imagine that you’ve acquired evidence that your cognitive faculties are completely unreliable.  What should you make of the following proposition?

(R) Your cognitive faculties are reliable.

Well, firstly, you couldn’t have evidence for (R) that hasn’t already assumed (R), since reliable cognitive faculties are a prerequisite for assessing propositions about reliable cognitive faculties.  More importantly, if you have reason to reject (R), on the basis of the evidence you’ve acquired, then now you have a reason to doubt all of your beliefs, including the belief that (R) is true!  Defeating (R) defeats everything … resulting in global skepticism.

Why should we think that atheism gives us evidence of unreliable faculties?  According to Plantinga, evolutionary theory is concerned with survival and reproduction, and doesn’t give a fig for true beliefs.  Thus, conjoining naturalism with evolutionary theory leads us to believe that our cognitive faculties are unreliable.  Why?  The ability to arrive at truth about the world might be (and Plantinga would say is) irrelevant to the function of enabling us to survive and reproduce.  For example, consider a man who wants to die and he believes that the best way to secure death is to run away from tigers and mate frequently with women.  He’ll do just as well as the man who doesn’t want to die, and believes the best way to secure life is the same.  Thus, Plantinga argues that the probability of our faculties being reliable–given evolution and naturalism–is low.  But if so, then the atheist who accepts evolutionary theory and naturalism has a defeater for his belief that naturalism is true … and a defeater for all his other beliefs too.  Rea and Murray suggest that a more modest version of this argument might work: arguing that natural selection might produce some true beliefs, but why should we think our philosophical and religious beliefs are among these? [2]

1 There are “undercutting” and “opposing” defeaters.  It sounds like Rea and Murray are arguing that an undercutting defeater is needed, since presumably there is no opposing defeater for basic beliefs such as my belief that I was at work yesterday morning.  See this article for more information on defeaters.
2 See Plantinga’s paper “Naturalism Defeated.” Stephen Law has been working up a response.  Also, see Fitelson and Sober’s response.



  1. ‘According to Plantinga, evolutionary theory is concerned with survival and reproduction, and doesn’t give a fig for true beliefs.’

    There is a lot of force in this.

    Evolution could have designed us to move our limbs away from dangerous situations without pain being involved. We could have evolved the belief that fire was nice and warming and move our hands out of a fire because of a belief that that was the best way to get them warm.

    There is no reason to think that evolution would give the true belief that pain is unpleasant, when we could have evolved to have all the benefits of pain-avoidance behaviour without experiencing pain. After all, a belief that pain is unpleasant is not something that is selected for.

    Comment by Steven Carr — April 14, 2011 @ 7:36 am | Reply

  2. Interesting example with pain Steven. My favorite example is here.

    Comment by David — April 14, 2011 @ 6:54 pm | Reply

  3. Steven, I think you are missing the point here. Evolution could have designed us to move our limbs away from dangerous situations without an causal relationship with beliefs whatsoever. A bird has no beliefs about fire being hot. It has a nervous system that moves its body through space in response to stimuli.

    Comment by David P — May 16, 2011 @ 12:44 pm | Reply

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