Religion, Uncategorized

Christian Belief is Reasonable, So Respect It

I’m a big believer in reasonable pluralism, the notion that there are deep, pervasive disagreements about morality, politics and religion that are the unavoidable result of practical reasoning in a free society. That means I think there are non-culpable rational disagreements about all sorts of things that really matter.

But since I’m planning a series of religion posts in 2014, I thought it worthwhile to defend one of the applications of belief in reasonable pluralism that will be critical to those posts.

I believe that a reasonable, rational and well-informed person can believe in a revealed religion. That is, she not only affirms a scheme of transcendent values and a complex natural theology, but belief in a divinely inspired set of social practices and sacred texts. I am fairly confident that one can be a reasonable Confucian, Buddhist, Muslim or Jew. Due to my familiarity with Christianity, I am extremely confident that one can be a reasonable Christian.

This means that many atheists, in particular New Atheists and Objectivists, should treat the beliefs of people of faith with far more respect than they presently do.

In this post, I focus on Christianity. I take a Christian to be anyone who affirms the traditional interpretations of the Apostles’ Creed. Here is the Book of Common Prayer’s version (which I find especially elegant):

I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth:
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and buried:
He descended into hell;
The third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost;
The holy Catholick Church;
The Communion of Saints;
The Forgiveness of sins;
The Resurrection of the body,
And the Life everlasting.

The first foundational belief of the Christian is theism. It is simply obvious that theism is reasonable to anyone who is acquainted with contemporary philosophy of religion. Nearly all atheists in the literature acknowledge that theistic belief is at least sometimes epistemically justified.

Note that you needn’t think that theistic proofs are successful to think that at least one version of one of them can be rationally affirmed by an honest person. If so, then theistic belief is reasonable. Don’t dispute me here. I’m in good company with Leibniz and Aquinas.

The second foundational belief is that the Gospel reports of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are reliable. Many of you probably think the Gospels are not reliable sources of information about Jesus, given that they are full of miracles and were written long after Jesus’ death by unknown individuals. That’s fine. But is your view so ironclad that a reasonable, informed person couldn’t disagree? There are tons of books on the topic (here’s a good one), many dating Matthew, Mark and Luke within a generation of Jesus’ death. And if you think theism is reasonable, you can’t regard all miracle claims as rationally unserious, since God can bring them about.

The third foundational belief concerns the Trinity. I suspect most of you will think this belief is the least reasonable. Isn’t the doctrine of the Trinity a series of ridiculous contradictions? Well, no. There is a huge amount of philosophical and theological writing explaining why the doctrine was formulated. I’m inclined to think that the vast majority of you who think the doctrine of the Trinity is unreasonable haven’t read, well, any of it. So if you think only an uninformed or self-deluded person could believe in the Trinity, go read Augustine’s De Trinitate and get back to me.

If a reasonable person can be a theist, affirm the basic historical reliability of the Gospels and belief in the Trinity, then that person can be a reasonable Christian.

Note that I nowhere appealed to an atheist’s understanding of faith as belief contrary to evidence or in the absence of evidence. Instead, I’ve implicitly understood faith as a form of trust in God and God’s promises, which is far more natural to Christianity.

Since a scientifically informed, theologically literate, contemporary Christian can without culpable rational error affirm all three beliefs, I think Christian belief (and Christians) should be treated with far more respect than it often receives from many thoughtful intellectuals, academics and autodidacts (including many of you).

  • jtlevy

    If theism is reasonable, does that *entail* that *omnipotent* theism is reasonable?

    a) If so, how and why? You haven’t, so to speak, shown your work.

    b) If not, then one can’t simply move from the reasonableness of theism to the reasonableness of belief in any and all miracles. You say that “if you think theism is reasonable, you can’t regard all miracle claims as rationally unserious, since God can bring them about.” But more than that is required, if you’re to show that belief in *all* of the reported miracles (or even all of those identified in the Apostle’s Creed) is reasonable. If the god it is reasonable to affirm is not omnipotent, then it might be that the god it is reasonable to affirm as per (1) is *not* one who is capable of causing, say, virgin births, even if it is capable of causing resurrections (or vice-versa).

    • Aeon Skoble

      Also: why are only monotheistic religions reasonable? I have good reason to believe in Zeus and Apollo – after all, Socrates did. Hypothetically, why wouldn’t my belief in Zeus and Apollo be reasonable?

      • Jameson Graber

        “I have good reason to believe in Zeus and Apollo – after all, Socrates did. ”
        Did he, though? I’m actually not aware of any argument Socrates gave in favor of the existence of Zeus. If there is one, I’d love to hear it.

        • Aeon Skoble

          Well, a recurring theme of the Apology is that he sees his activity as a philosopher as divinely inspired. In any case, I think you’re missing my point.

          • bupalos

            It’s not Zeus though, it’s his own personal “daimon.” And it only inspires him NOT to do things. Though since his main activity as a philosopher was to un-discover what he “knew,” there may be a point there.

      • Kevin Vallier

        I think the idea is that there is a several thousand year old history of theistic arguments, and none for polytheism (well, unless you count Aristotle’s argument that there are multiple necessary beings, but their necessity is still derived from one necessary being). Here is a brief list of people who have offered such arguments, folks that are, well, ridiculously smart:

        Aristotle, Augustine, Plotinus, Abelard, Aquinas, Averroes, Avicenna, Descartes, Berkeley, Edwards, Locke, Descartes, Leibniz, Ockham, Paley, Pascal, Scotus, Boethius, Bonaventure, Suarez, Butler, Newton, Malebranche, Hutcheson, and Kierkegaard.

        A list of people who have arguments for supernatural beings, be they pantheistic, very powerful designers, or some being beyond the natural world that we know of:

        Bayle, Green, Bosanquet, Hegel, Spinoza, Hobbes, Kant, Mill, Whitehead, Cicero.

        And let’s not forget contemporary folks who affirm at least one theistic argument:

        Godel, Plantinga, Wolterstorff, Anscombe, Geach, Malcolm, Alston, Stump, Gilson, Van Frassen, Baker, Van Inwagen, Swinburne, Taylor, Audi, Bob Adams, Marilyn Adams, Maritain, Rea, Pruss.

        And my list is quite incomplete. The point: theistic argumentation has an enormous philosophically respectable lineage. I know of no systematic arguments for polytheism that do not themselves rely on a theistic argument.

        • Aeon Skoble

          That’s cheating a bit, though, no? E.g., counting Aquinas and Descartes twice.

        • M Lister

          “I think the idea is that there is a several thousand year old history of theistic arguments, and none for polytheism”

          You’ve heard of India, right?

          More generally, I think that you’re not taking the problem of religious pluralism seriously enough here. Even if we take your list of “ridiculously smart” people, many of them are arguing for _incompatible_ positions. (Both incompatible with each other, but also, of course, incompatible with Christian belief as you set it out- that’s rejected by a very large percentage of those above.) But, these are not even the full range of possible positions, even ones held by “ridiculously smart” people. Given that these people are all “ridiculously smart”, but very often arguing for incompatible positions, I don’t see how this tells in favor of your position. Why doesn’t it show that being “ridiculously smart” is not even a small bit of evidence for having a true view here?

          • Kevin Vallier

            Which Indian philosophers are you imagining giving philosophical arguments for polytheism specifically?

            I think your general objection proves too much. The fact that experts believe something has to be some small bit of evidence for having a true view, and MUCH more relevantly, it is evidence for having a *reasonable* view. It’s not decisive evidence. Very smart people often have unreasonable views. But it most certainly *is* evidence.

        • steven johnson

          Averroes and Avicenna did not argue for the existence of God. They were Muslims. Mediaeval Christians accepted that Allah and “God” were the same, dismissing Islam as heresy, not paganism. There is no public discourse in the US in which this is accepted.
          Newton was almost certainly a latter-day Aryan and is not acceptable by Christians, except when they are being disingenuous, as a famous name to cite as an authority.
          Leibniz was Dr. Pangloss. Read Candide to understand how respectable that is. Also, including Bayle, Spinoza, Hobbes and Hegel on this list is extraordinary. Frankly no one accepts these figures as theists in any reasonable sense of the word.
          Godel is not a contemporary, but he was a mathematiciain with mental health issues.
          Quite aside from the dubious support for the alleged thesis, the real question is what the demand to respect Christians more really means? We all know Muslims are not respected, and we all know that this is not a demand to respect more. We also know that respecting Judaism means being an ardent Zionist. It’s hard to know how much more respect this country can give Zionism without treating opponents of Zionism the way the libertarian South treated abolitionists, i.e., repress by censorship and violence.
          So, give us a hint: What respect is commanded for Christianity? (Others can wonder how this is libertarian.)

          • Fallon

            “libertarian South”? You lost me. I see libertarians citing John C. Calhoun’s thought selectively, and defending the secession, but come on.

          • steven johnson

            You see libertarians defending the secession yet you say “come on” to me? Libertarians are a part of the conservative movement, which blends small government advocated and states’ rights advocates with libertarian anti-tax advocates. The antebellum South is indeed upheld as a stronghold of liberty, in opposition to the big government, centralist anti-liberty deformations engineered by, well, pretty much everybody since. Your quarrel should be with them, not me.

            And everyone should have a quarrel with the OP, because it is no argument, much less evidence, that Christianity is disrespected.

          • Fallon

            Self describing Establishment conservatives have for generations attempted to shape public perception of libertarianism into exactly as you describe. In fact, the entire political establishment would love to have libertarianism neutered by taxonomic sleight of hand. Look how even Rand Paul is branded as libertarian when it is rather obvious that he is not– especially when compared to his father.

            But let’s get empirical. It appears that war might be the best test for libertarianism. You really think that e.g. Robert Higgs shares ideological affinity with Rush Limbaugh? Or that Murray Rothbard sees eye-to-eye with William F. Buckley Jr?

            This is not to deny that there is overlap on some particular issues or that the Koch brothers appear rather Machiavellian.

            I have listened to Clyde Wilson, Tom DiLorenzo, Tom Woods and Murray Rothbard defend Southern secession– yet never heard them describe the South or the Confederacy as some kind of libertarian republic. Defending the act of secession does not imply one condones everything about the seceding entity, does it?

          • fearsometycoon

            The fact that you called the South “libertarian” calls all of your history into question.

          • SimpleMachine88

            Voltaire actually massively misrepresents Leibniz, the polemicist and the polymath.

            Optimism isn’t actually a reason for non-action, but rather that the imperfections of the world are justified for giving us the capacity to overcome them.

        • Joe Grimm

          I don’t think Kierkegaard belongs on your list. My recollection is that he argues against the possibility of rational belief in God.

          • charlielives

            This discounts the reality that in Kierkegaard’s Denmark, one was nominally a Christian simply by being born in that country. I think, Kierkegaard wants to place a subjective requirement on religious participation, but certainly a good deal of his writing details why this move ought to be seen as rational, *especially* through an orthodox Christian lens.

        • BallsAndStrikes

          Why should your argument from authority carry any weight at all in this context?

          • Matthew Moran

            This, This, This. C’mon, pathetic argumentation on your end, Vallier.

        • SimpleMachine88

          “there is a several thousand year old history of theistic arguments, and none for polytheism”

          If God is perfect, there’d be more of hims. Done.

      • fearsometycoon

        Belief in Zeus and Apollo was reasonable in the 4th century, which is why Augustine wrote the City of God. I would argue that a minimum for reasonable belief in a transcendent reality is that any deities inhabiting it would see to it that their cults did not pass completely out of existence.

        However, given that the Greek gods’ cults no longer exist, it’s not very reasonable to believe that if the transcendent is real, there is someone there named Zeus who has simply lost interest in the human race for 15 centuries or so.

        At best, you could argue they were manifestations of something that is known better today via [insert favorite religion here], which is something even some Christians have been known to argue.

        • Damien S.

          Maybe the Greek gods got displaced by the Christian god, who isn’t a Creator, just a bigger bully and exploiter of humans. “Gods as spiritual parasites.”

    • Kevin Vallier

      Yes, it does entail omnipotence, because theism includes in its definition being all-powerful. And that’s not just stipulative: it’s the conclusion the many of main theistic arguments aim to establish and that they *do* establish as a matter of logical validity, if not truth. You know how the cosmological, ontological and teleological arguments go, so it should be no surprise. So long as a reasonable person can affirm, say, Plantinga’s ontological argument (which basically only requires affirming the proposition that maximal greatness is instantiated in at least one metaphysically possible world), then it is reasonable to affirm theism, which includes omnipotence. For those reading, you can find a brief account of Plantinga’s argument here: (starting in section 5).Or a shorter summary here:

      Further, if you think it reasonable to affirm a weaker version of the principle of sufficient reason, where all contingent facts have an explanation, then an omnipotent necessary being follows as well. And that’s surely a reasonable proposition to affirm.

      • charlielives

        And I will offer the same critique that I would offer to the ontological arguments of Descartes and Anslem – that while the argument does wonders to show what the nature of God would be if God exists, it does nothing to prove that God actually exists, as existence is not a property but a necessary precondition for the emergence of properties. All that Plantinga proves is fundamentally a conditional – if God exists, He must exist as such. Which is a valuable thing to know, but does not render skepticism unreasonable.

        • Hurlbut

          > All that Plantinga proves is fundamentally a conditional – if God exists, He must exist as such.

          That is not the argument. Plantinga’s argument (and Anselm’s) is that if God’s existence is logically possible, then he exists. Or, he is logically contradictory. There is no middle ground.

          • charlielives

            You are certainly correct about what Plantinga *wishes* he accomplished – but unfortunately he himself recognizes the limitations of this proof. While Plantinga’s version does require a bit more nuance to unpack, it is possible:


            I have much more respect for a theologian that can wrestle with theodicy than a clever sophist who presents a logical trick as proof of the divine.

      • fearsometycoon

        Theism doesn’t include omnipotence by definition. Most polytheistic religions do not believe their gods are omnipotent.

      • Damien S.

        So you consider process theism to be unreasonable?

  • charlielives

    Christian theology is reasonable, in the sense that it is internally consistent. Christian belief is also reasonable insofar as it is guided by Christian theology. Neither precludes the possibility of reasonable systems that might also be internally consistent but incompatible with Christianity.

    Yes, Christianity deserves respect on the first premise. But so long as what passes for Christianity is not guided by strong theological principles, and excludes debate about other rational methods, it deserves a strong critique. Christianity does not get to be excluded from this critique simply because it is the dominant form of faith in this country. Neither is any other religion or belief system exempt from the same critique.

    Kierkegaard is someone who is both within the Christian tradition and also very informative to this problem.

  • BenBachrach

    I question the validity of your statement:
    “there are non-culpable rational disagreements about all sorts of things that really matter.”

    If something really matters, there will not be disagreements about it. One way of thinking would provide superior results. That many people with alternative beliefs prosper at about the same level indicates that a person’s religion does not matter in a fundamental way.

    The rightful concern of everyone is about those who will use their religious beliefs to justify aggression.

    • Jameson Graber

      “That many people with alternative beliefs prosper at about the same level indicates that a person’s religion does not matter in a fundamental way.”

      Let’s try a different version:

      “That many countries with alternative economic policies prosper at about the same level indicates that a country’s economic policies do not matter in a fundamental way.”

      What do you think?

      • BenBachrach

        As long as each of the systems you purport to have the same outcomes only use moral means, then I would think the specific policies do not matter. If you cannot determine a difference in outcomes, and you cannot determine a difference in the means of carrying out the policy then how would you determine if one policy is better than another?

    • Kevin Vallier

      But aren’t you just wrong? Doesn’t the history of philosophy show otherwise? There is so much disagreement about just about everything.

      • BenBachrach

        We are discussing the definition of your phase “things that really matter”. If a belief really matters, then alternative beliefs must lead to different behaviors, and the alternative behaviors must have different consequences. Some people can believe the world is flat, and others can believe the world is round. But if people only stay within 100 kilometers of home, like they did for centuries, which belief they hold probably doesn’t matter. That is why so many people could be wrong for so long.

    • “If something really matters, there will not be disagreements about it. One way of thinking would provide superior results.”

      I think that this is idea is not only wrong, but profoundly dangerous. And if you disagree with me about that, you are either evil or incompetent.

      More seriously, thought, your line of reasoning only holds if a) people all agree with each other about what constitute “superior results,” and b) if we can clearly determine when a result was produced by a particular line of thinking, as opposed to some other cause. As far as I can tell, one or both of those conditions fail to obtain regarding a wide range of policy issues about which there is perennial dispute.

      • BenBachrach

        Matt, lets keep the discussion civil.

        Instead of trying to decide if I am evil or incompetent, how about giving an example of a really important matter that people have different beliefs about. An extension of my contention is that if something is really important then what constitutes “superior results” will be obvious. We are talking about personal beliefs that people act on voluntarily. For example whether or not one believes in God.

        Not all disputes are about important things.

        One roommate might believe that a wall would be better if painted yellow, another might believe that the wall would be better if painted beige. If after they try both, they cannot agree I would say that the disagreement between beige or yellow is not important. It might be as you say, they cannot agree as to what makes one color superior or another, but that is because the matter is not truly important.

        • Sorry, I wasn’t actually suggesting that you were either evil or incompetent. I do think your claim is wrong and dangerous though, and the reason I think the latter is that it encourages people to conclude that those who disagree with them are either evil or incompetent. After all, if disagreement about X is not reasonable, and you disagree with me about X, you must be unreasonable – either evil, or stupid! So I can safely dismiss your views.
          You want examples of really important thing that people have different beliefs about? Geez, I don’t know, how about whether abortion should be legal? Whether war with Iran would be a good idea? Whether the minimum wage is a good way to help poor workers? Whether goods produced in sweatshops should be banned? Whether the death penalty is justifiable? Whether cocaine ought to be illegal? Really, I feel like I could just go down the list of the topics we cover in the various classes I teach. In each case, it’s pretty easy to find smart people taking radically opposed positions. Do you really want to claim that people don’t actually disagree about these matters? Or that the issues aren’t important?

        • SimpleMachine88

          “how about giving an example of a really important matter that people have different beliefs about”

          The purpose of life- what is The Good. I think I win.

          That’s what Mr Zwolinski was getting at when he criticizes your “superior results”. Your taking your own personal values, and saying if other people’s values were better, the would be better according to your personal values.

          Essentially Hedonism, I think. Saying other religions don’t vary on a hedonic metric doesn’t say anything about the value of the hedonic metric compared to say, a Christian or Muslim ethic.

          We’re talking about teleology.

          • Thanks. I did not know we were talking about teleology. Since most people live their whole life without explicitly deciding “What is The Good” it is not clear to me how that belief can be really important.

  • Jameson Graber

    None of these things should have to be said, and your tone in this post reflects that. My guess is what will come out of the comments is a debate over the word “reasonableness,” since that’s kind of what this all comes down to. For instance, if not believing in (any) miracles is simply a prerequisite to being reasonable, then no revealed religion such as Christianity or Islam can be reasonable. And I think that’s a prerequisite which many people assert.

    • BallsAndStrikes

      Why can’t we agree that the definition of a “reasonable belief” is one which has rational reasons, i.e., is supported by competent evidence? (I mean, other than that this definition inevitably leads away from religious belief, of course.)

      • fearsometycoon

        “Competent evidence” quickly becomes “no true Scotsman,” i.e. “evidence that I, personally, find compelling.”

  • I would say that many libertarians do need to hear this message. Religion, and specifically Christian religion, need not be understood as an enemy of liberty.

    But resistance to this comes often not simply because of the purported irrationality of Christian belief, but because adherence to the tenets of a revealed religion might (and quite often in fact do) conflict with ideological adherence to libertarianism.

    That is, revealed religion provides an alternative source of instruction, authority, and so on, a source that for many adherents transcends that of a particular political philosophy. So those who are libertarians in terms of adhering to a political philosophy and are committed to the Christian religion will have an external check of a higher order, so to speak, on their political and economic convictions. And those who view libertarianism as a kind of all-encompassing world-and-life view will see revealed religion as a competitor, not as something that can be accommodated.

    These are tendencies, of course, and individuals have reconciled the two in any number of unique, coherent, and incoherent ways in actual fact.

    • charlielives

      Christianity purports that freedom is found through Christ (setting aside what that means for now).

      Libertarianism, I think, makes no broad assertions methodology for attaining freedom, but rather insists that freedom is man’s natural state.

      These two assertions are quite at odds with one another. I’ve reconciled them in my own way, but in a manner that borrows heavily on Eastern Orthodox theology and rejects some of the dogma of the last 500 years of Protestantism. Whether a Christian can also be a libertarian in a rationally consistent manner depends highly on your views of original sin and Christology, in my opinion.

      Nice logo, by the way. Last two games have been heartbreakers.

    • Vern Imrich

      As a Christian, I adhere to Libertarianism as a political (rather than purely philosophical) world view, because Liberarianism best allows people the freedom to choose to pursue Christianity to its fullest, and thus the freedoms, truth and happiness that brings.

  • Engaging Atheist

    I must say that I am a little gobsmacked at this post. I usually find subject matter here to be thought out and well argued, and even though as a left-leaner I don’t always agree with it, I derive value from perusing it.

    But this post makes an astonishing claim and backs with scarcely and evidence before reiterating the claim as if proved. I think the strongest ‘religious’ philosophy that can be defended would be some version of watered down deism, which makes no testable claims, and can be arrived at using a bayesian framework combined with metaphysical priors which would be different from mine, but still within the bounds of rational argument.

    However, that is not what is defended here. Any belief that makes incorrect scientifically testable claims cannot be termed as ‘reasonable’. Virgin Mary on toast would fall in this category. The scientific and historical arguments together would be sufficient to deal with any ‘resurrection’ claims. It is just absurd on so many levels. The less said about the trinity, the better.

    “So if you think only an uninformed or self-deluded person could believe in the Trinity, go read Augustine’s De Trinitate and get back to me.”

    I know next to nothing about Christianity or Islam. But that doesn’t mean I need to read all the philosophical literature written by apologists in these religions to find the relgions to be false. That would be an immense waste of my time.

    This post doesn’t even begin to address any of the arguments against the position stated, which are numerous in number, and when considered together, irrefutable.

    • Jameson Graber

      “I know next to nothing about Christianity or Islam. But that doesn’t mean I need to read all the philosophical literature written by apologists in these religions to find the relgions to be false. That would be an immense waste of my time.

      This post doesn’t even begin to address any of the arguments against the position stated, which are numerous in number, and when considered together, irrefutable.”

      So, after stating that it is not important to even read the arguments made in favor of Christianity or Islam, you complain that this post doesn’t address enough of the arguments made against them.

      • Engaging Atheist

        I should have been clearer, as you were in your first comment. You suggest there is an inconsistency between my lack of interest in what apologists have to say and claim that the post does not make a good case and ignores all arguments against it.

        This only holds if the arguing against monotheistic religions required one to engage the specific minutiae of each text, or interpretation of it. But they don’t. It becomes progressively difficult to make a case when the religious claims become less literal. But for something as basic as the claims made in this post, resurrection for example, their ‘reasonableness’ or lack of thereof does not require something as precise as a scalpel because the absurdity is obvious, and a hammer is sufficient.

    • Fallon

      Yet, why wouldn’t your critical assumption of realist naturalism (I am guessing) be considered a faith statement in itself? For if one begins to break down the ingredients– fallibility, probability and metaphysical priors, as you mention– one finds nothing is air tight, either by logic or procedure. So, is this a case of ‘My faith is better than your faith?’

      • Engaging Atheist

        Aha, but as I said, metaphysical naturalism is not really necessary to prove that literal religious claims are false. I don’t see how realism (I assume the context is meta ethical) is relevant either.

        You would need to grant me points of agreement, though, to get off the ground, but I trust you find them to be trivial and non controversial. They are that, namely, humans are fallible, rationalizing creatures, prone to biases and kluges that cloud their ability to record evidence. Also, Science, which tries to work around this fallibility, provides a minuscule prior probability to the likelihood of the happening of any miraculous event, because they have *never* been observed. Any ‘evidence’ thus provided must be evaluated against against a tiny background prior probability and needs to be extraordinary for a case to be made.

        1. I’ll start by defining ‘theory’ loosely as ideas about the universe can be true or false based on facts which can be evaluated probabilistically.
        2. The Christian doctrine is a *theory* of the beginning of life, its continued existence and its eventual demise, among other things.
        3. The statement of this ‘theory’ involves specific *factual* claims, such as the resurrection.
        4. The likelihood of these factual claims can be evaluated probabilistically, and can be easily shown to be extremely unlikely.
        5. The theory is an incorrect one.

        Now people try and get around this by somehow defining ‘God’ that obviates this line of argument, as a ‘first cause’ or ‘inherent order of the universe’ or whatever. But Vallier provides a basic literal definition which is easy to tear down, Aquinas’ writings notwithstanding.

        • Fallon

          I venture no qualms about evaluating empirical claims based on science. But faith claims? Is it even sensible to mix the two?

          However, I meant scientific realism combined with naturalism. It seems that if science as you interpret is the one true test of valid knowledge, and that it practically means falsifiability etc, that it faces problems. Can science justify science without it being mere circular or metaphysically non-differentiable from faith based claims anyway?

          And of course, falsifiability is an aprioristic claim in itself. How is falsifiability testable by experience? What about math? It is not derived from experience or open to testing either. Is math a science? Maybe not. At any rate, there appears to be useful and valid knowledge about the world not open to falsifiability. I wonder if rational ‘proofs’ of God must then be given a chance sans empiricist arguments– since, let’s agree, that even with the weaknesses in Popper– falsification is a good arrow in the quiver of science. It just isn’t the only arrow.

          • Engaging Atheist

            The chief disagreement seems to hinge on my usage of the word ‘Science’. I did not intend to stake out a scientistic position that you try to refute. Like you say, math is not science and my argument hinges on estimating likelihood of events probabilistically.

            And I don’t follow the detour to falsifiability that you take, via Popper et al. Yes, philosophy of science has progressed past Popper, but I don’t see how that is relevant. I never said religious claims had to be falsifiable to be taken seriously, just that some of the literal ones are easy to falsify.

            Maybe my above argument would be better served if I replaced the word ‘Science’ with ‘Scientia’, an umbrella term for all known human knowledge, which would include empirical science, math, logic, philosophy, etc.

          • Fallon

            Ah, your comments are solid– even if I bring disagreement. I am a permanent noob, anyway. Flailing about with my little ‘knowledge’…

            I tend to believe that science has an epistemic specialness that religion and faith cannot overcome. Progress seems to bring humility, however. Classic logical positivism proved self-defeating because it could not separate from the things it intuitively thought to be metaphysical nonsense–gods, Marx, Freud, horoscopes, historicism etc.– without shackling itself. Propositions need reference to unobservable and unprovable phenomena. Fast forwarding, it seems that opening up the way for falsification, probability, dynamic meaning/reference, and far reaching inferences–all powerful tools, has come at the price of abandoning the original logical positivist position.

            I think this gives faith claims traction: The inherent uncertainty in scientific tools, the shared use of metaphysical assumptions, plus the presumption of skepticism as a core scientific ideal, makes science unable to have consequence for faith: not because religious faith claims do well in the scientific realm. (Does this make any sense? haha)

            Scientia. I like it it.

    • Vern Imrich

      Christian claims about the resurrection, virgin birth, etc. are not scientific claims.That is, they do not claim to be repeatable, testable, or predictive of any future result. The assumption that Christians must believe these things as scientific truths only follows if you adopt a physicalist philosophy that all truth is only physical truth revealed by science. Christianity makes no attempt to hide this. In almost every “miracle” story in the Bible, there are people right there in the story who observed the same events and yet did not believe them to be evidence of the miraculous.

      For example, to a theist, the complete physical state of Jesus’ body could be scientifically documented and phenomenologically explained at every moment for all time, yet still not capture the miracle of the resurrection as a parallel (e.g. spiritual) truth. Indeed, take something far less unusual, like the existence of dirt or the Earth. There’s no physical mystery or gap needed to explain how it got here, yet Christians believe it to be as miraculous as the Resurrection.

      • BallsAndStrikes

        I agree they are not scientific claims, but that is just making a virtue out of necessity. The larger point is that religion has a track record of asserting claims (often contradictory claims) about the physical world and in every single case — every single case — they have been disproven. If appeals to authority are going to carry the day (and apparently they are), why does religion get a pass for everything it has gotten wrong before?

      • Engaging Atheist

        Again, see above reply to Fallon. I need to work on becoming more clear with what I write, as you take me to task for being a physicalist, which I would not deny, but which I am not defending here.

        Also, you seem to suggest that claims which are not ‘repeatable, testable, or predictive of any future result’ in addition to being extremely unlikely, should be still considered ‘reasonable’. Do you find every religious claim made to be reasonable? What about Mormons and Scientologists? Or any new religions that are in the process of being formed right now?

      • Kevin Vallier

        But what if you deny physicalism and the scientistic principles you endorse, as a great many people have? I’m afraid I’m not impressed by begging the question.

        • Engaging Atheist

          Appreciate the response. But I’m not claiming that you need to be a physicalist to find the prospect of a resurrection so unlikely to regard it an absurdity.

          Like I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m simply saying that beliefs ought to be probabilistic, that is, there is always room for uncertainty in every belief I hold. Say I think it is 60% certain that there is no intentional supernatural force. But for beliefs to be ‘reasonable’ there needs to be a lower bound on the estimate of their probability, say 5% (In the real world , these numbers would just correspond to how likely one would find a belief). My proposition is that certain elements of Christian Theology, if taken literally, are not ‘reasonable’. This conclusion is arrived at by looking at the evidence offered and fitting the data with the different hypotheses offered to explain them. Nothing to do with repeatability, or physicalism. Just finding which theory best fits the facts given the information available.

          It is overwhelmingly likely, give the different religions on offer with their contradictions, given that they were all (but for scientology) revealed in pre-scientific dark ages, where little was understood about the wolrd, given that what we know about the brain tells us humans are likely fallible in ways that make them see intentionality and design where there is none, that no literal religious claims are true.

          Regarding you argument by authority (or argument of ‘reasonableness’ by authority), I find that rather unconvincing as well. Isaac Newton believed that alchemy was possible. Evidently he was a smart man. I’m sure the majority of his time believed in nonsense too, because *so little* was known about the real world and the natural laws. None of this makes me think alchemy is likelier today. That is not a reasonable position to take.

  • Aeon Skoble

    Evidence of the reasonableness of your view is that Augustine and Aquinas also had your view? That seems circular.

    • Kevin Vallier

      Testimony from extremely smart experts in a field is a valid source of evidence for all kinds of things. Why should a subfield in philosophy or theology be any different?

      • Aeon Skoble

        You’re saying “I believe X, and it’s reasonable for me to believe X because other believers in X also believe X.” It’s circular because if one denies that you are reasonable to believe X, one would also be inclined to deny that the othersa are also. In this example, if (say) Dawkins is inclined to say “No Kevin, you’re being unreasonable,” it won’t help to say “But Aquinas thought so too!” because Dawkins will also say that Aquinas is being unreasonable.” Note please, I’m not saying I think you are being unreasonable, just that I don’t think this argument strategy works.

        • Jameson Graber

          OK, but let’s be honest, here. When Dawkins cries out, “Aquinas was an unreasonable person!” most people think Dawkins is just being an idiot.

          • Aeon Skoble

            Missing the point. I was just using Dawkins as a stand-in. Pick any atheist – call him Bob – if Bob thinks one Christian is being unreasonable, citing other Christians isn’t going to help, as Bob thinks they’re _all_ being unreasonable.

          • Jameson Graber

            “Pick any atheist – call him Bob – if Bob thinks one Christian is being unreasonable, citing other Christians isn’t going to help, as Bob thinks they’re _all_ being unreasonable.”
            Right, and that’s a shame. Bob needs to be more open-minded. Is Bob really justified in categorically dismissing any arguments, say, for the resurrection? The fact that Bob finds it silly does not change the fact there exist many serious arguments for it.

          • Aeon Skoble

            Serious arguments that Bob finds wrong! There are serious arguments for Marxism, too, but I think they’re wrong.

          • Jameson Graber

            OK, but then I think you’re missing the point of the post. The claim is not, “Christianity is true,” but, “Christianity is reasonable.” So Bob has every right to consider Christianity and find it wrong, but if he doesn’t even consider it, I think there’s something wrong with that.

          • Aeon Skoble

            Ok, I see what you’re saying.

          • BallsAndStrikes

            So, is the consensus on this board now that Marxism is “reasonable”?

          • Jameson Graber

            I, for one, think Marxism is “reasonable” enough that (a) it would be worthwhile to read Marxist thought and (b) it would be worthwhile to give it a thoughtful critique.

          • BallsANnStrikes

            And so it should be “respected”? The problem with religion is that most “thoughtful critiques” are regarded (by the religious) as inherently disrespectful.

          • Jameson Graber

            Equating all Marxists with Stalin is disrespectful. Equating Christianity with a belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster is disrespectful.

            It’s also slightly disrespectful to imply that religious people without exception are unwilling to hear critiques of their religion. That may be your personal experience, but I don’t think it would be fair to call it universal.

        • Kevin Vallier

          It’s not at all circular! The testimony of experts isn’t evidence because you agree with the experts. It’s evidence because it is a report of very sophisticated reasoning about a particular topic, which we typically assume is a good guide to what is epistemically justified, no?

  • Stalin

    I think christian beliefs are not at all reasonable.

    And that is the whole point: should we respect people whose beliefs we consider UNreasonable?
    The answer is: we should respect the people, not the beliefs.

    • Sharon Presley

      Thank you for saying this. I made the same point about respecting people not the beliefs before I read your post.

      • Kevin Vallier

        I understand you can respect people without respecting their beliefs, but if, as on my view, respecting persons also involves respecting them as *sources of reasons* then you need to pay attention to what they affirm in order to respect them.

        • Sharon Presley

          Sorry but a lot of people who share many of my views act like such obnoxious asses that I could never respect them. But say, someone like Dorothy Day (who was a Catholic anarchist) who devoted her life to helping the poor gets a lot more respect from me than some libertarian asshat who wouldn’t lift a finger to help anyone or mainly just attacks others on Facebook. If you don’t think behavior matters, I hope you never criticize anyone for being a hypocrite because that would make you one too.

    • My response to these kinds of topics is simple. you want me to respect your ideas, have good ideas. I am under no obligation to take ridiculous ideas and beliefs seriously.

  • I have no beef with theists and respect their right to not only believe what they believe, but also to live in a world free of my hounding them about it. 🙂

    Having said that, I found Vallier’s post to be filled with appeals to authority, and atheists like me feel that such fallacies typify religious discussion. It’s unlikely that this post will sway very many people, IMHO.

    • Jameson Graber

      Isn’t “appeal to authority” here just pointing to an example? As in, “Here is an exhibit of someone reasonably believing Christian doctrines.” The title of the post says that Christianity is reasonable, not that it is true.

      • Sure, but the fallacy is the claim that belief in Christianity is reasonable purely because some famous, reasonable philosopher also thought that Christianity is reasonable.

        Famous, reasonable philosophers can also be wrong. Believing them simply because they’re famous, reasonable philosophers is a fallacious appeal to authority.

        I’m not saying I disagree with Vallier, I’m just saying that the argument he’s making won’t likely sway anyone because it rests mostly on appeals to authority.

        • Jameson Graber

          Like I said in my first comment, it comes down to what “reasonable” means, doesn’t it?
          As I understand it, it is fallacious to argue that X is *true* based on the fact that famous person Y believed X. However, I consider it as pretty good evidence that X is *reasonable* if reasonable person Y believed X. My proposed definition of “reasonable” here would be “worth your consideration and not your immediate dismissal.”

          Also, note that the appeal to Augustine et al was not simply, “This person believed X, so X is reasonable.” It was also, “Go *read* this person’s argument for X, and then try to tell me X is not at least reasonable.”

          • Yeah you have a point. Maybe it just comes down to the way I read the post.

  • Pierre_Corneille


    Some of the comments you’re receiving suggest to me that you’re right and that there’s room for some people to be accepting of the bona fides of people who avow Christianity, or at least not to reject them out-of-hand.

    • Jameson Graber

      It was only a matter of time before someone brought out the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.


    I believe that there is a simple two step argument in favor of the “reasonableness” (in Kevin’s terms) of revealed religion:

    1. Belief in the existence of a being/force/whatever [i.e. a deity that created the universe out of nothing] about which there can in principle be no scientific evidence is not shown to be unreasonable by the absence of such evidence. See here: for a short and elegant statement of this view.

    2. A being that created the universe out of nothing, can pretty much do whatever else he freaking wants without breaking a sweat.

    • good_in_theory

      …and so now every belief imaginable is “reasonable” because one can just say, “oh, omnipotent deity, natch!” and reasonableness is now a completely empty concept.


        An empirical claim is shown to be unreasonable by empirical evidence; a claim based on deductive logic is shown to be unreasonable by identifying a false premise or a faulty inference; an claim based on inductive reasoning can be shown to be unreasonable by counter-example. How do you propose to show claims about God to be funreasonable? You might start by reading Kant on this subject.

        • good_in_theory

          Do you have point? You’ve just said claims which involve God cannot be shown to be unreasonable. Take invalid deductions, faulty premises, contra-indicated inductions, and add God. Now, it’s no longer unreasonable. Convenient bit of alchemy.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            It’s apparently just too hard to explain my point to you. Have a great day.

          • good_in_theory

            Does saying that God caused it to happen by miracle supersede, or not supersede, arguments which would otherwise be found to use false premises, faulty inferences, or be contra-indicated by a counter-example? Is God omnipotent or not? Does omnipotence actually mean omnipotence or not?

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I thought the point of my initial comment was pretty clear: the existence (or not) of a being/force/whatever you prefer that is the author of the laws of science cannot be demonstrated or excluded by scientific inquiry. Your first sentence is, as far as I can tell, confused. If there is a God as just described, and he caused events to occur miraculously, then this would be a fact–and I don’t get the sense in which miracles “supersede, or not supersede, arguments.” Miracles might “supersede” (I guess) the laws of nature, but I don’t see how they supersede arguments. And obviously a God that created the universe out of nothing is omnipotent, at least it seems to me, so your last two questions also mystify me.

  • Fwiw, Al Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief is probably the most significant philosophical work on this topic in the last generation or so:

    • Guest

      Edit: Accidental reply to JB instead of Kevin.

  • M Lister


    I’m interested in this claim, and what, more exactly, you take it as coming to:

    “The second foundational belief is that the Gospel reports of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are reliable”

    I assume that you don’t think that a literal reading of the _Old_ testament is reliable. Of course, not only the creation, flood, etc., but really large parts of the “historical” narrative are pretty clearly shown to be wrong by all the other evidence we have. The New Testament has fewer obvious problems, but I think it’s pretty clearly accepted that there are some- there’s no evidence of the census that supposedly compels Mary and Joseph to go to Bethlehem, as I understand it, and quite a bit of reason to think that the idea doesn’t actually fit with what we’d expect from Rome at that time and place. There’s no good evidence for, and some against, the “new star”, and that whole story, along with the visit by the three kings, is a clearly recycled one from Zoroastrian sources. My understanding is that there’s no evidence for, and a fair amount against, the idea that Herod ordered the death of children born at a certain time, as claimed, and so on.

    Given the known unreliability of the Old Testament, and these (and other) difficulties in what seem to be straight-forward historical discussions in the New Testament, does it still seem reasonable to accept the more miraculous parts as historically accurate? That seems like a difficult claim to make to me. I’m moved by the fact that people like Henry Sidgwick, who was a sincere Christian and then put huge amounts of time into studying this sort of stuff, came away believing that it wasn’t, in fact, reasonable to take the scriptures to be an accurate account. What that tells us about Christian belief more broadly construed is a harder question, and not one I think is likely to be easily addressed in blog format. But, it does seem that there is quite a bit of reason to doubt that it’s reasonable to take the Gospels to be an accurate account of historical events. If you disagree, or if I’m misunderstanding your claim, I’d be glad to hear why.

    • Kevin Vallier

      I don’t think there is reason to doubt that it’s reasonable to take the Gospels as reliable history if you’re aware of the state of the arguments today. The Society of Christian Philosophers is the largest subgroup in the APA, with over 1100 members, many of whom have written on these topics. Richard Swinburne has several books on the matter, and Eleanore Stump has written very helpfully on the matter, arguing that many of the historical claims you’re making rely on a historical methodology that presupposes some form of non-Christian doctrine or just flat out naturalism. Here’s a quick article of hers: And if you’re interested in Swinburne, I found this book rather compelling (before my conversion, and despite its attempt to assign concrete probabilities to Gospel claims):

      You can also look up William Lane Craig’s debates on the rationality of belief in the Resurrection on Youtube. It’s polemical, but will help you get into the literature.

      The fact is that many atheists, including atheist philosophers, have remained completely intellectually blind to the fact that the philosophy of religion and work in using the tools of analytic philosophy to assess core Christian theological claims has over the last thirty years risen to a level of sophistication not seen since the medieval period.

      • M Lister

        Hi Kevin,
        Perhaps we won’t get anywhere here, but I’m not talking about philosophical claims, but claims about straight-forward historical events. My understanding is that, for many of the historical claims I’ve noted, the best historical investigation suggests the claims are wrong. I don’t see how the philosophical work you mention can have an impact on that. (This doesn’t have to rely on any a priori belief against miracles, as it’s non-miraculous things I’m considering here.) This methodology is just standard historical methodology- looking for coherence among accounts, coherence with what else we know about, say, Roman tax practices, with archeological evidence, etc.

        I’ve not read the Swinburne book you mention, but the critiques I’ve seen of his probabilistic arguments seem pretty strong to me. But again, that’s not really what I’m interested in here. I just don’t see how any of this addresses the work done by historians that seem to show that some of the straight-forward historical claims in the Gospels- ones that don’t need a miraculous explanation- are at best quite doubtful. I’d need some serious history work to show me that, for example, the census took place as claimed, or the killing of children by Hared, etc., and that seems to be lacking.

        • Kevin Vallier

          I’m talking about the philosophical claims raised by the methodology used by historical Biblical critics, those who think they have shown that (to limit ourselves) one of the non-miraculous historical claims in the Gospels is false (like that there was no census, no star of Bethlehem, no slaughter of the holy innocents, etc.). That’s the point of the Stump article I linked: to submit those methodological claims to scrutiny. Your claim about “straight-forward historical events” is pretty sanguine that the epistemic process of determining whether an event happened is a matter independent of other philosophical commitments that you have. Obviously *some* historical facts are that way, but not many of the ones we’re talking about.

          Now, as to your specific cases, I don’t know anything about the claim that we have good reason to doubt that Herod slaughtered the Holy Innocents. I don’t see much reason to think that would make the history books outside of Christian scholars or that it was incompatible with Herod’s character. We know he was nuts in other ways, right?

          As for the census, I have heard that claim before. But I’m no expert either, so I have suspended judgment about that particular claim. I do know that many defenders of the reliability of the Gospels fully admit that there are some minor errors, and they have for a very long time (Luther even said that the Holy Spirit permitted Matthew to make a “slight” error in misquoting the Old Testament).

          For instance, John appears to report the order of Jesus’ travels differently from the other Gospels (which some have interpreted as John not being interested in historical order, but rather interpretative or narrative order), and Matthew seems to simply misquote Zechariah and attribute the quote, mistakenly, to Jeremiah.

          So the question is often whether the Gospels are *infallible* on ever detail, but whether they are *reliable*, that is, whether they are sufficient to provide epistemic justification for the core Christian creedal claims. Being wrong about the census here, misquoting Zechariah there, does not impugn the Gospels as evidence about the core life events and teachings of Jesus. That’s all I mean by the historical reliability of the Gospels, that they are sufficiently clear, accurate and coherent to justify our beliefs about Jesus’s core life events and teachings.

          • M Lister

            “That’s the point of the Stump article I linked: to submit those methodological claims to scrutiny.”

            It’s important to see that these are not _unusual_ “methodological claims”, but the ones that historians us _all the time_. So either the claim has to be that the _normal_ way that historians work is all wrong (that seems unlikely, and I’m pretty sure that Stump hasn’t shown it to be true) or else that we need _special_ methods for evaluating whether, say, Caesar Augusts called for there to be a census so that everyone could be taxed, or Hared had a lot of children put to death, or a new star appeared in the east. That, also, seems pretty unlikely, any my tendency would be to doubt the person making the claim, thinking they were pretty clearly engaged in special pleading.

          • Kevin Vallier

            I thought I responded to your point about the non-miraculous events and the related uncontroversial methodological concerns in history.

    • M Lister

      I should add that I’m certainly not an expert on the history here, but have read a fair amount, and believe that I’m representing the serious scholarly consensus. There are lots of disputed historical issues, but I _think_ these are fairly well accepted cases.

    • Damien S.

      New Testament history:

      “And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept
      arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into
      the holy city, and appeared unto many.”

      —Matthew 27:52-53

  • Les Kyle Nearhood

    I do not demand as you do that atheists respect Christian belief but it would be refreshing if some atheists respected that Christian moral philosophy is a big part of our western civilization and has contributed much. Some of the hostility I have witnessed is made worse because a lot of it is ill informed. Such as the simplistic idea the Enlightenment freed us from religion. The truth is that enlightenment philosophy flowed out of medieval Christian thought and nearly all of the first enlightenment thinkers were churchmen.
    Christianity was instrumental in anti slavery and various anti war movements through the years as well as contributing to the extremely high level of charitable giving which is found in western nations as opposed to Islam or the far East.
    Likewise I have seen modern conservative Christians looked upon as foes and given very harsh calumnies. However much I might disagree with some of their Ideas I do not think they act out of malice or bigotry. The primary motive on the part of Christian conservatives is an attempt (often wrongheaded) to preserve the traditional nuclear family as the depository of moral constancy within a nation. Observing that often many pathologies develop when this basic building block of society is lessened. And in this they have some evidence for that belief.

    • BallsAndStrikes

      The slaveholders had the better biblical argument.

      • Les Kyle Nearhood

        Only if you rely on the old testament and ignore the new.

        • New Testament Slave

          Except the parts of the new testament that condone slavery:

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            Those arguments fly apart when the entire teachings are considered holistically, which is precisely why the abolitionists had the better and more compelling Christian argument.

          • BallsAndStrikes

            If God wanted us to conclude that slavery was bad, he could have just said so in plain words: “thou shalt not hold others as property.” We don’t have that. Instead, we have, at best, a “holistic” interpretation of the text that hints at some approbation of slavery competing with explicit approval of slavery. This answer to what is perhaps one of the easiest moral question ever is not helping your point.

    • Sergio Méndez

      ” Christian moral philosophy is a big part of our western civilization”

      No question about that. But then, that is not something absolutly bad, nor absolutly good.

      “Christianity was instrumental in anti slavery and various anti war movements”

      An yet, the opposite is also true.

      “Likewise I have seen modern conservative Christians looked upon as foes and given very harsh calumnies. However much I might disagree with some of their Ideas I do not think they act out of malice or bigotry.”

      Maybe sometimes the attacks on these conservatives is to much focused on their motifs (and in many cases their motifs matter, and their religion works as ideology masqueriding them). But regardless of that, many beliefs of christian conservatives (say, regarding women, homosexuals, unbelievers etc…) deserved to be called out as the nonsense or bigotry they really are.

  • Vincent Harris

    Often overlooked in this type of debate on the reasonableness of the Christian faith is the centrality of the doctrine of the Clarity of Scriptures. A Christian does not believe on the authority of Augustine or Aquinas, but on the authority and study of the Scriptures him- or herself. It’s therefore indeed a misunderstanding to claim that faith stands ‘contrary to evidence or in the absence of evidence’. There is an astonishing amount of evidence (both structured and organic) contained in the bible that forms a rock solid foundation of the coherence of the Christian faith. It would help to move forward in such a debate if both sides would do justice to this peculiar crowdsourced nature of the evidence illustrated for example in presbyterianism.

  • Jay Baldwin

    Reasonable pluralism. Check.
    Religious belief ought to be accorded more respect than it often is, especially by non-believers. Check.
    Religious belief in miracles, resurrection, the Trinity, et al, is reasonable, i.e. rational. Um…no.
    Religious belief in these things is irrational…and that’s okay. Nowhere is it written that rationality is the highest value by which to measure a belief’s utility. You’d be better off, in my view, by making a positive argument for irrational belief.

    • Kevin Vallier

      I don’t understand your argument against the claim that belief in the resurrection, for instance, can be rational in some cases.

  • Brandon Byrd

    Even if we assume that Kevin is right and central aspects of
    Christian religion can be epistemically justified this doesn’t entail
    that the beliefs of most (or even many) Christians ARE actually
    justified. In point of fact, most Christians (and most religious people
    in general) do not form religious beliefs by the free operation of
    practical reason. It would be naive to think that religious beliefs are
    typically acquired by sober reflection since they are almost always
    acquired – at least initially – in childhood by a process of
    enculturation (or, less charitably, indoctrination). Justifications almost always come after the fact in an effort to buttress things already believed. (And as
    an atheist, I want to stress that this pattern of post-hoc
    justification is not by any means limited to religious belief…). So
    just because some religious belief types might be reasonable does not
    mean that the token beliefs of many or most Christians are justified.
    just because there are various sects of Christianity which appeal to
    rational principles to justify their beliefs (e.g. natural law
    theorists) this does not imply that many (or most) denominations
    actively seek to supply such justifications. And indeed there are many
    forms of Christian faith for which rational argumentation and
    justification are anathema, given their view that God’s nature and will
    are inherently mysterious or that human reason is incapable of grasping
    fundamental truths about the divine. Though some Christians and some
    varieties of Christianity might be reasonable, it is clear that many
    are the opposite; they are faithful in the pejorative sense.

    • Sergio Méndez


      I think Kevin point is that christianity can be reasonable, not tha their beliefs are justified. There is a difference between those two.

      • Brandon Byrd

        You’re right… It is one thing to claim that Christian belief can be reasonable and quite another to say that the beliefs of actual individual Christians are reasonable or justified. The trouble is that Kevin seems to conflate the two issues in his conclusion by claiming that “Christian belief (and Christians) should be treated with far
        more respect than it often receives from many thoughtful intellectuals, academics and autodidacts (including many of you).”

    • Kevin Vallier

      I have a kind of social epistemology where even if some member of a group shares the belief system of the group for bad reasons, that if the tradition offers good reasons for those beliefs, that we can attribute the good reasons as applying to the person who has the bad reasons, which can justify their beliefs without justifying the *causes* of their beliefs.

      Consider a case: an ordinary, but committed Catholic parishioner. He holds Catholic beliefs for bad reasons, but given the Catholic intellectual tradition, there are lots of good reasons to think Catholicism is true, and since the person herself is committed to regarding the tradition as a source of reasons, she is committed to allowing those beliefs to have epistemic force. So the ordinary Catholic layperson’s beliefs can be epistemically justified in virtue of being accessible to her by virtue of her membership in the group.

      • Brandon Byrd

        While I’m sympathetic to the motivation behind the sort of social
        epistemology you’ve described, but have serious doubts about it. I don’t think that justification by proxy (or rationality/reasonableness by proxy) works in the case you’ve described. Consider an analogous scenario: an ordinary but committed polytheist. For the sake of convenience, let us call his religion Schminduism. Our polytheist holds Schmindu beliefs for bad reasons and, unfortunately for Schminduism, there aren’t many good reasons for anyone to think that Schminduism is true (apart from the fact that everyone in his culture believes that it is true and he was taught Schmindu beliefs as a child). There is a long tradition of Schmindu religion stretching back thousands of years, and our ordinary worshipper is committed to regarding this tradition as a source of reasons (and thus to letting Schmindu beliefs have epistemic force).
        From a first-personal perspective, our devout polytheist is in the exact same epistemic position as the committed Catholic. Both believe for bad reasons and both give their religious tradition epistemic authority. The ordinary parishoner is epistemically lucky that his religious beliefs are supported by Catholic theology; the polytheist, by contrast, is unlucky that Schminduism lacks this foundation. Neither appreciates the character of the reasons which underlie their beliefs, and both believe on the basis of bad reasons. To say that one is reasonable while the other is not (or that one is justified and the other isn’t) seems false to me. Neither is justified and neither is reasonable.

  • Phokas

    As an Atheist, I absolutely respect your right to hold whatever religious view you deem necessary. I cannot, however, respect any system (religious or not) that holds in it’s primary creed a belief in a ghost. Shall I respect the views of the “ghost hunters” on television because they can form an argument validating the “reasonableness” of said belief in a historical context?

  • David Friedman

    I agree with your general thesis, mostly because there are people I have known and others I have encountered in their writing who were both theists and, on other evidence, obviously reasonable.

    But I think there is a problem with the argument that “very smart people have believed it in the past, therefor it is a defensible view.” The problem is that we know some things those people didn’t know.

    My example is a famous argument by Aquinas, the primum mobile argument–that for anything to move something must be moving it, so there must be an unmoved first mover.

    Aquinas explicitly says that the argument depends on the fact that the moved depends at that instant on the mover, which depends on its mover, which …, and that it is because of that that an infinite regress is not an option. But he was wrong–his argument assumes Aristotelian physics. We have massive evidence that Aristotelian physics is wrong and Newtonian physics, which includes inertia, is a close approximation to reality. So on Aquinas’ own statement, that particular argument fails.

    I don’t know how many of the other “proofs” that persuaded people in the past fall into the same category, but I think that example demonstrates a problem with the argument you are offering.

    • Jameson Graber

      I think you’re underestimating the amount of modern Christian thought, here. If Aquinas were the last major Christian philosopher, then your comment would be perfectly right. But that’s far from the case.

      • David Friedman

        My point is not that Christianity can or cannot be defended, but that there is a problem with a particular argument offered to defend it.

        • Jameson Graber

          I don’t think the point of this short blog post was to defend Christianity. I think the point was to point out how misguided and disrespectful it is to dismiss it as not worth anyone’s thoughtful consideration.

    • Vincent Harris

      Kind of disappoint to contribute to a thread with a reasonable response and nobody actually engaging with the point I am making. The clarity of Scripture is not some obscure doctrine, it’s at the heart of Calvinist teachings and adresses the points here made.

    • Sean II

      Aye. Strictly speaking, the alleged smartness of people who believed things is irrelevant to the truth, falsehood, or reasonability of those things.

      Heuristically speaking, one may use “very smart people believed X” as a rule of thumb to support X only when:

      1) We don’t have anything better to go by.

      2) We don’t have a credible theory to explain why smart people would believe X (or pretend to believe it) even though it is bat-shit-tastically unreasonable.

      In the case of christianity we have many better things to go by (science, logic, a graveyard of demolished pseudo-proofs, plus also lots of hilarious videos on youtube) and we have ample means to explain why smart people would either suppress their own doubts or hold their tongue (this is a long list, including things like “I don’t want to break my mom’s heart” to “the church controlled my education” to “these villagers look angry, so perhaps I’ll just take back that last remark”).

      • Kevin Vallier

        No, we don’t have better things to go by, because the alternatives you suggest are not competitors. Science doesn’t contradict the core Christian creeds, “logic” by itself makes almost not substantive claims at all, the fact that you call the proofs “demolished pseudo-proofs” is just evidence that you don’t know the state of the field in theistic argumentation. What’s more, just as theism can be badly motivated, so can atheism, with motives like, “I want to be the boss of my own life.”

        • Sean II

          What sort of bizarre angle are you working here? I mean, what leads someone at your level to say such obviously false things? Without breaking a sweat…

          1) Science clearly IS a competitor to religion. Both seek to explain the ways of the world by answering questions big and small, and the history of clashes between them is plain evidence of a contest.

          2) Science absolutely does contradict “core” Christian beliefs. Clearest examples: the origins of the universe, the origins of life, the finality of death, etc. Perhaps you intend to evade this problem by equivocating so that “core Christian creed” = “any Christian creed not yet contradicted by science”. That’s bullshit, so don’t bother. Claiming that dead people can come back to life (at least on one occasion) is about as “core Christian” as any belief gets.

          3) Logic does great violence to Christianity, simply by exposing its many internal contradictions. Three, for example, does not equal one. Jesus Christ, for example, cannot be entirely human and entirely not human.

          So what’s the game? What philosophic project leads a smart, educated, otherwise reasonable and seemingly honest guy like you to smile into the face of reality, and then hock a massive loogie?

          • Kevin Vallier

            I think the more likely explanation of our disagreement is that you simply don’t know any of my arguments and are entirely too confident that I couldn’t have any. So let me ask you a simple question: what about your mature, careful assessment of the state of contemporary philosophy of religion (which addresses all of your objections) leads you to your views?

          • Sean II

            You’re right about one thing. I am quite unfamiliar with the state of contemporary religious philosophy. I also don’t know what tarot experts in 2013 are saying about the Four of Staves, and I’m woefully out-of-date when it comes to the animistic practices of indigenous people in Brazil.

            Why should I bother with such things? There is an almost infinite set of evidence-free beliefs to consider, and I can only narrow that down by the dubious method of privileging the most popular ones and taking them more seriously than the rest. Can 20,000 Yanomami really be wrong? Yep. Can 2,000,000,000 Christians? Just as easily.

            But hey, don’t hold out on me: if there’s a working proof for the existence of (a specifically Christian) god tucked away in your stash of contemporary religious philosophy, now’s the time to break it out.

            Merely suggesting that such trumps exist somewhere outside of my reading list, won’t do. Nor will ignoring the points I made last comment, 1, 2, and 3.

          • Jameson Graber

            “Merely suggesting that such trumps exist somewhere outside of my reading list, won’t do.” The fact that people like Augustine, Aquinas, Barth, etc. are outside your reading list is not a failing of Christian thought. If you want to have everything handed to you in a blog post, you’re just being silly.

          • Sean II

            Whoa there, buddy. As a product of Jesuit education, you can be very sure I’ve read my Augustine and my Aquinas.

            But these are NOT the names or the ideas Vallier had in mind when he said I “don’t know the state of the field in theistic argumentation”.

            That comment very clearly implies the Kevin is relying on recent developments…like, as in, way more recent even than Barth.

          • Jameson Graber

            Pardon me if I’m simply mystified that after reading Aquinas and Augustine you can still say things like, “Logic does great violence to Christianity, simply by exposing its many internal contradictions. Three, for example, does not equal one.”

          • reasonable person

            “I am quite unfamiliar with the state of contemporary religious
            philosophy. I also don’t know what tarot experts in 2013 are saying
            about the Four of Staves, and I’m woefully out-of-date when it comes to
            the animistic practices of indigenous people in Brazil.”

            And your point here is what, exactly? Is it that Christian theism is epistemically on a par with these other things and so it’s not a big deal that you’re quite unfamiliar with the contemporary state of religious philosophy? It looks like you’re begging the question here.

          • Sean II

            “And your point here is what, exactly? Is it that Christian theism is epistemically on a par with [Tarot superstition and South American animism”

            Yes, that’s exactly my point: these things are very similar.

            No, it’s not question begging to compare one thing with some other things which essentially resemble that thing. That’s just called…comparing things.

          • very reasonable guy

            But the whole question is whether Christian theism *is* comparable to those things and hence whether your attitude towards it is warranted. Are you being deliberately obtuse or what?

          • Sean II

            Nope. I don’t do that.

            The amount of evidence that supports the existence of Jehovah is exactly the same as the amount of evidence that supports the existence of Omama.

            I am simply drawing attention to this important similarity.

          • way too reasonable

            “The amount of evidence that supports the existence of Jehovah is exactly
            the same as the amount of evidence that supports the existence of

            Well, for one thing, it depends on what you mean by “evidence.” If you just mean “sensory evidence,” that might be true, but it’s not clear to me that it is. Let’s frame this another way: Does the supposition that gremlins exist (I’m using gremlins as the example here because I don’t know what the hell Omama is) explain the relevant phenomena just as well as the supposition that God exists? This seems to me quite plainly false. And anyway, if your reply to somebody who told you that there is interesting, thoughtful argumentation that God is a good explanation for the relevant phenomena, so that you’re unwarranted in thinking that belief in God is unreasonable, is that you don’t need to read such literature because you also don’t read about, e.g., Gremlinism, then you are obviously, glaringly begging the question.

            On the other hand, if by “evidence” you just mean “reasons”–where a reason here is something that you ought to take as providing at least prima facie support for some belief–then it’s even less clear that your claim is true. And anyway, your reply would still be question-begging.

            Get it? Got it? Good.

          • Sean II

            Give me enough pages, and I can turn Gremlinism into a complex creed that answers the big questions.

            Then I can turn around and accuse you of not knowing enough about Gremlinism, because you haven’t read all of the relevant arguments (none of which, for some reason, can be summarized or even named in a blog post).

            See how that works?

          • Jameson Graber

            “Three, for example, does not equal one.”
            See, that’s exactly why Vallier was right to write a post like this. If *that* is how you argue against the doctrine of the Trinity, you simply haven’t read anything about it.

          • Sean II

            So you and Kevin are both using this amusing little tactic here, where you assert that the science of believing things without evidence has made these fantastic advances, but you won’t give an example, nor even throw down a link.

            Hmmm. That’s usually called bluffing where I come from, and the odd thing is, I don’t usually see that on this board.

            When someone shows up here arguing about, say, the labor theory of value, he gets answered. He gets answered with arguments, examples, thought experiments, sources.

            You and Kevin just sound like a couple of kids assuring me that Jesus could kick Rationality Man’s ass in a fight, which I would know if only I read the really cool comics, but since I’m not cool enough you can’t explain it to me, etc.

            So pick an example and let’s play. The trinity seems like a fine place to start. You tell me who avoids the usual objection to that, and how he does it, and I’ll respond.

          • Jameson Graber

            “the science of believing things without evidence”

            If that’s how you refer to other things you don’t agree with, fine, but I can’t help but notice religion gets exceptionally bad treatment among intellectuals in this regard. What really strikes me is that you just told me in another reply that you’ve read Augustine and Aquinas. So basically you’re pissing all over these giants of the Western intellectual tradition. If that’s how you mean to come off, I just consider that a sign of overwhelming hubris on the part of modern thinkers. Do you think these guys were just not good enough at math to get that 1 is not 3? Where does this attitude come from? I really don’t get it.

            I’m not an expert in the modern state of the art when it comes to analytic philosophy, so I’ll point you to a different source that people in the West know a lot less about. This book really impacted my thought a great deal.

          • Sean II

            I won’t lie and promise to read that book. In a world of scarcity, it’s just a case of TL;DR. Let me ask you something, though…

            Let’s say I told you vampires were real, and I offered as prima facie evidence the fact that there are lots of books about them.

            Let’s say you respond by pointing out some obvious problems: where are all the unsolved murders, how come they haven’t proliferated to the point of being recognized, more so especially since they don’t die, wouldn’t it be really difficult for them to hide even at night now that humans have artificial light that closely mimics the sun, and besides, why should you think any of this in the total absence of evidence?

            Let’s say I come back with a snort: “Ha! Only a rube would still think vampires = nocturnal. You clearly have not kept pace with the literature.”

            Let’s say you ask for a citation, and I reply by sending you a link to a $42.00, 600 page book (other than the Twilight series).

            Let’s say you do your best to maintain good faith, and so you go read some FAVORABLE coverage of the book, which turns out to be written like Hegel dropped acid and then copy edited a satiric paper by Alan Sokal.

            I’m talking about stuff like this: “He begins by challenging traditional axioms of logic such as the law of identity and non-contradiction, claiming that they betray the sinful state of alienated and isolated humanity rather than the fulness of Truth which is found in a mutual relationship and interpenetration of all ideas, objects and persons. Rationality unaided by faith cannot progress past doubt, leading to either agonising indecision (‘epoche’) or nihilistic despair.”

            Now, my question is: would you be impressed enough to believe there was ANYTHING in that book capable of persuading any man who did not already START with the idea that vampires are real?

          • Jameson Graber

            I figured I was taking a leap by giving you that reference. If you’re interested in the context, Pavel Florensky converted to Christianity, became a Russian Orthodox priest while continuing his research as a mathematician, engineer, chemist, art critic, and philosopher. Try not to jump to conclusions so quickly.

            It is hard in a tl;dr world to know what to read next, and a random suggestion on a blog is, in general, not going to change anyone’s mind. But this applies just as much to economic theories as it does to religious claims. I can’t help that.

            All I can say is that it is definitely worth reading Florensky, and that it has, in fact, convinced at least one person to convert to Christianity (Nikolai Luzin, a famous Russian mathematician). There’s a great book about this called Naming Infinity.

            As for the particular passage you cited, you really have to read Florensky’s entire argument to get what he’s doing. But the short version is, yes, these fundamental axioms of logic are essentially incomplete, and we need something more to get at Truth. The whole thing really is so worth reading, even if it is difficult, and it pains me to have to summarize.

            When you compare these deep questions about fundamental realities to the existence of vampires, it’s very frustrating. Honestly, even if vampires exist, it doesn’t matter all that much, compared with the question of God. So in addition to (or even in replacement of) respect for Christian thought, it would be nice if there were some sobriety concerning the nature of religious belief.

          • Richard

            Sean, I really enjoy your posts on BHL and you are the bestest commenter, being both witty and intelligent. But I think you’re wrong here.

            1) It is surely true that science is a competitor to some religions, or some religious beliefs. It is a competitor to 6,000 year old earth claims, which are at least motivated by religion (though, you might argue that they are not *religious beliefs*; “the world is 6000 years old” is not obviously a claim about religion). But it’s not so clearly true that science is a competitor to *all* religious beliefs.

            2) Take the three examples you gave. The origin of the universe, for one. The contemporary science points to a universe finite in the past, and to some sort of Big Bang. How does that contradict a Christian belief? It doesn’t show that the universe was not created by God. Even if the universe were infinite in the past, as (I think) Aquinas believed; it would contradict a literal Genesis, but it would not show that God didn’t create the universe. EVEN IF we took the Hawking view – that we “do not need God to light the blue touch paper”; suppose that is right. It clearly does not follow from “we do not need God to explain the occurrence of X” to “God was not involved in the occurrence of X”.

            Secondly, the origins of life. Evolution in is true. I don’t think that contradicts core Christian belief, and even many Christians who do not believe evolution is true would agree.

            Thirdly, the finality of death. I’m not sure if you’re referring to Jesus’ resurrection here or an afterlife. If the former; presumably the thought would be that we have evidence for a law of nature stating that people cannot come back from the dead. I’m not sure how you could justify the existence of such a law. Obviously we don’t have lots of well documented cases of people coming back from death. But it’s not clear how that could entail that, if God existed, He could not intervene to bring someone back from the dead.

            If the latter, I’m not sure how you could design an experiment to test for the afterlife.

            3) I am going to hand wave this one. It would clearly be an incredible error of Christians through the ages to not notice that 1=/=3. It is not surprising that there has been an incredible amount of ink split defining precisely what the Trinity is, and that it is logically possible. Check out the Stanford page for an example. Suffice to say, if the Trinity is incoherent, it is not as obviously incoherent as you make it out to be. Similar for the incarnation of Christ.

            All the best 🙂

    • Kevin Vallier

      From my reading, I don’t think most of Aquinas’s arguments depend on the empirical claims made by Aristotelian physics. The Third, Fourth and Fifth Ways do not. I have my worries about 4, but I quite like 3 and sort of like 5. But it’s significant that people have reformulated Aquinas’s cosmological arguments independently of Aristotelian physics, as anyone can see in the SEP entry on cosmological arguments:

      So I think that the advances of modern science do not overturn the main theistic lines of argument. So I think we can still rely on testimony from pre-modern philosophers about arguments in natural theology, as I’m not convinced that their theological views depend on their scientific views in any significant fashion.

    • Joseph R. Stromberg

      “The principle of inertia is incontestably true, insofar as it affirms that inanimate bodies are of themselves incapable of modifying their state of rest; in truth, only living organisms are able of themselves to act and set themselves in motion. But that the motion once imparted to a body continues indefinitely, is a convenient *fiction* for *representing* certain mathematical or mechanical relations of the astronomical order; from the philosophical point of view it is seriously to be contested”

      — Jacques Maritain, *La Philosophie Bergsonienne* (1914), 143.

    • Hurlbut

      The Thomistic argument does not depend on Aristotelian physics at all. It depends on Aristotelian metaphysical concepts such as actuality and potentiality. By “move”, the argument means “existence”. A non-existent thing cannot make itself exist, because then it would have to exist before it exists, which is logically impossible. That is what is meant by “whatever is moving is being moved by something else”.

  • Jonathon Martin

    Smart people can make a great stab at defending anything. Philosophy is full of very clever, intricate arguments that will pull the wool over most people’s eyes. The implication of this line of thinking is that any belief can be considered reasonable provided that at least one smart person applies themselves to defending it.

    Second, what makes atheists dismissive of theism is not the hypothetical irrationality of the “perfect theist” who has wrestled day and night and come to the conclusion – after much soul-searching and rational deliberation – that Christianity/Islam/Buddhism is the best account of things. Atheists tend to be dismissive of theists because their actual reasons for being theists often rest on less lofty factors such as “because they were brought up that way”. Everything else is merely a post hoc justification.

    A person’s beliefs are not reasonable because they might have been based on reason. They are reasonable because they are based on reason (even faulty reasoning as you point out).

    But I enjoyed the attempt here though I think the argument doesn’t quite work.

    • Jameson Graber

      “The implication of this line of thinking is that any belief can be considered reasonable provided that at least one smart person applies themselves to defending it.”

      That is not at all an implication of this line of thinking. Christianity does not have just one smart person defending it, but a two thousand year old line of philosophical tradition extending into the modern era, which has seen major developments during that time.

      • Jonathon Martin

        I was unclear. My point is that if the criterion for reasonableness is simply the existence of smart people willing to defend a position in an intelligent way, then pretty much any position can be considered reasonable. This suggests that what is relevant in claims of reasonableness is more the motivations of people defending positions than the content of the arguments. Can that really be right? Perhaps it can, but it is counter-intuitive.

        • Jameson Graber

          Why is it counter-intuitive? I think that’s the really fascinating part of this issue. What I argue is that “reasonableness” is simply the property of “being worth consideration.” So yes, if a bunch of smart people argue for an idea, then the idea is probably worth consideration (okay, not *necessarily,* but probably). Therefore I call it reasonable.

          “My point is that if the criterion for reasonableness is simply the existence of smart people willing to defend a position in an intelligent way, then pretty much any position can be considered reasonable.”
          *Any* idea? I’m skeptical.

          Here’s a good example, because it’s part of how many atheists choose to offend Christians: the flying spaghetti monster. There is *no* intelligent person who tries to seriously defend the existence of a flying spaghetti monster. For that and many other reasons, it is not worth your time to consider the idea; it is not reasonable. Christianity is not such an idea; there are many serious arguments made in its favor. That’s why the comparison that atheists make between the two is offensive.

          • Are there any reasonable people who argue that belief in Christianity is unreasonable? If so, how do we know whether or not Christianity is reasonable, since reasonable people defend both sides of the question of reasonableness itself?

            The more I think about it, the more it starts to feel as though “reasonable” is just a code word for “you can’t judge me without being thought a jerk.” That doesn’t seem like a very rigorous approach to truth.

            (I’m just thinking out loud here, no offense intended.)

          • Jameson Graber

            I don’t think “reasonableness” is something you really argue. It’s more of a snap judgment: is this worth my time or not? That’s the reason I think this post is so short. It’s really a matter of addressing a widespread attitude among a lot of people (e.g. New Atheists, Objectivists) that religious faith is prima facie irrational.

          • Rationality can be assessed through reason. Reasonableness in the way you’ve defined it can never be assessed. What you’re describing isn’t worth much more than knee-jerk reactions, good or bad.

          • Jameson Graber

            Maybe I should back-pedal a little bit. What Vallier does in this post is provide a good deal of examples of reasoned arguments made in favor of Christian beliefs. Moreover, he asserts (correctly) that these are part of a very long line of careful philosophical reflection. I think that’s good empirical evidence of reasonableness, in the sense of something backed by rational argument.

            What I’m seeing in a lot of the comments is a jump from “reasonable” to “right,” and I’m trying to push back. I think an argument can be reasonable without being right: some of its premises might be wrong, but they may come from understandable sources.

          • Totally agreed there.

          • Engaging Atheist

            This is very interesting. What about Scientology or Mormonism?

  • Chris Callaway

    Kevin, I’d like to hear your explain in more detail what kind of “respect” you think is warranted yet lacking. Is it recognition of Christians as epistemic peers? Recognizing them as moral equals? Giving honest consideration to the propositions of Christianity? Allowing them freedom to make self-regarding choices? Refraining from ridicule? These are different notions of respect, and it’s not clear what the reasonableness or unreasonableness of Christian theism has to do with some of them.

    • Kevin Vallier

      Specifically, I mean recognizing that they have (a) at least non-culpable accessible reasons to affirm core Christian claims and (b) that these commitments can generate reasons for action that count towards or against the justification of laws. I said that my aim was to lay down assumptions for my future posts on religion and political liberalism, and that really was my focus.

  • I think the simpler argument is that people are social and reasonableness is as much a social/moral as epistemic concept. If enough people believe something, and it’s not leading them to treat others especially poorly, it’s reasonable to believe it. If it actually helps people, and leads people to be good citizens, then it’s especially reasonable. I believe Christianity is false. But there are many many millions of really great Christians, which I take to be the possibility proof of the reasonableness of that form of Christianity. Why make it harder than that?

    This notion of reasonableness has the advantage of conforming with common sense. There are many possible religions that are less preposterous than Christianity, but it’s not reasonable to actually believe in them since too few people do. Idiosyncratic superstition sees less reasonable, even if it’s evidentially less of a stretch than established religious traditions.

    • BallsAndStrikes

      At most, this is an argument for believing that Christianity is useful. That may be a reasonable view. This argument says nothing about whether it is reasonable to believe in its truth, which is the point of this article.

      • ThreeAndOne

        It does if “reasonableness is as much a social/moral as epistemic concept,” as Will suggests to open his comment.

    • Kevin Vallier

      I’m not so far from you, especially with regard to the social epistemology line. My main concern is to show that religious beliefs can be held with enough epistemic credence to generate reasons for action that non-believers should take seriously as counting for or against the justification of laws.

  • Sharon Presley

    There is another issue here–how do we treat individuals whose beliefs are different from ours? Rather than saying “respect the belief,” why can’t we just say “respect the believer if s/he is a decent person”? Doesn’t that basically achieve the same end in a more reasonable and acceptable way? Why should we be expected to “respect” beliefs that we may think lead to destructive ends?! Yet we *can* respect individuals who embody the best of their religion rather than the worst.

    Here is an essay I wrote back in 1996 for my organization Resources for Independent Thinking ( I think it speaks to this issue:

    “Fundamentalist Christians think atheists are Satan
    Incarnate. Even mainstream Christians look askance at atheists. But
    atheists often look down their noses at people with religious beliefs,
    considering them stupid and irrational. Are any of these views
    reasonable or appropriate?

    Years ago, I saw a movie starring Dirk Bogarde as an innocent man on the lam in turn-of the-century Mexico. A Catholic priest helps him when no one else would. Bogarde’s protagonist wonders – what makes this man so good? Is it his religious beliefs (the Song) or is it something about this individual and his unique values (the Singer)? The protagonist concludes that it is the man, the Singer, not
    the Song.

    I’ve never forgotten this movie and its profound message. Judge individuals by their actions, not merely by their belief systems. Is this individual a good person – kind, compassionate, thoughtful? Is s/he honest and non-hypocritical? Does
    this person have moral integrity? Does this s/he refrain from hurting or
    coercing others? If these qualities obtain, what does it really matter
    what their religious beliefs (or lack thereof) are? Such an individual
    deserves respect for being a decent human being. Look at it this way.
    Wouldn’t you rather live next door to a decent, honest person whose
    religious views are different from your own than a nasty, dishonest one
    who happens to share your views on religion? I would.

    So my counsel is simple: whatever your own views about religion and God may be – Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Buddhist, pagan, atheist or whatever – don’t scorn people with different views simply because of their beliefs. Whatever you may think of these beliefs – and you are certainly entitled to your opinion – when it comesdown to individual human beings, judge the Singer, not the Song.”

    • Les Kyle Nearhood

      This is getting at what I was trying to say above. I think it a stretch to ask atheists to respect something they think is clearly false. But it is not to much to ask them to be civil to people who represent a double millennial long belief system which has done much to shape the modern world and it’s civilizations.

      • Sharon Presley

        I think we could do with a lot more civility of all kinds. Many libertarians and atheists are strikingly dogmatic and intolerant (Richard Dawkins come to mind). But then so are a lot of conservatives and liberals–you just have to hit the right area. It seems to be a hazard of having an ideology.

  • martinbrock

    “Reasonable” and “respect” are ambiguous terms, but people may believe, and organize their lives around, any faith system of their choice. I call these beliefs “a subjective preference”, and tolerating people’s subjective preferences is a foundation, if not the foundation, of my own systematic faith.

    That said, may a reasonable person believe that accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are reliable, while dismissing accounts of alien abduction as unreliable? I don’t use the word “reasonable” this way. That’s my subjective preference.

  • MingoV

    By definition, no religion is reasonable. Faith and reason are antonyms, not synonyms. Therefore, one cannot claim that the Christian faith is reasonable. All one can say is that many people follow it, and that it is about as unreasonable as any other religion.

    • Jameson Graber

      “Faith and reason are antonyms, not synonyms.” This kind of assertion floats around far too often without any justification. In Christian tradition, “faith” is trust or confidence placed in God. Reason is not excluded from this process.

  • gliberty

    “I believe that … I am extremely confident that … This means that [people] should treat the beliefs of people of faith with far more respect than they presently do. …It is simply obvious that theism is reasonable to anyone who is acquainted with contemporary philosophy of religion. ”

    Since when does BHL have posts that assert the reasonableness of mysticism based on circular logic and appeals to authority? ~ “Don’t dispute me here.” ~ excuse me, but I will dispute you here. This is by far the most abysmal post I have read here. It is not even in the same ball game. It is, sorry to say, an embarrassment for BHL, and it shows people of religion in a bad light…

    • Kevin Vallier

      I’m saddened by your remarks. I was clear that I’m laying down assumptions for future posts on religion and politics. So that’s why it is relevant. As for the status of the post, a lot of it relies on results in the contemporary philosophy of religion. In your assessment of the field, what makes it worthy of wholesale dismissal?

      • gliberty

        Well, it may be a difficult task you have set for yourself, but in my mind you have not achieved any part of it. You have made assertions which I do not think will sway any who do not already agree with you because they include no logic, explain nothing, and are not based on any concepts or theories capable of showing the reasonableness of religion as far as I can tell.

  • Reason 180

    The term “reasonable” gets difficult to pin down once we start nit picking. Examples: (1) “It’s reasonable to believe that there’s no global warming because it reduces guilt and stress.(2) “It’s reasonable for a paranoid schizophrenic to wear tin foil, given the he/she already believes in a conspiracy to control thoughts via microwave (3) “It’s reasonable to believe that complex organisms must have been deliberately created if one hasn’t been educated on plausible, alternative explanations.” So rather than ask “Is Christianity reasonable,” it might be more useful to ask “How much confidence should we have in the truth of Christianity?”

    • Jameson Graber

      It would be nice from my point of view if people had more confidence in the truth of Christianity, but I don’t think that was the point of the blog post. The point of the blog post was to demonstrate that Christian arguments have a legitimate place at the table of serious intellectual discussions.

      Straight up: do you think there is a real comparison between accepting Christian doctrines and wearing tin foil?

  • JdL

    I’ve criticized this site for posting nonsense columns before, but this takes the cake! Just a few points:

    . Buddhism is not a “revealed religion”.

    . By definition, revealed religions are the antithesis of reason and of science.

    . Many claims in the Bible are obvious nonsense. Mary was impregnated by God, not a human man’s sperm? Please.

    . You want to worship a revealed religion? Try the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. That’s about as “reasonable” as it gets.

    . God created the universe? Who created God? You have gained nothing by positing this fictitious entity.

    I do believe that the evidence suggests that Jesus existed, and I happen to believe that he had a good philosophy of life (Golden Rule, etc.). And yes, he was divine, in the same sense that everyone is divine to one extent or another, as Joseph Campbell discusses in The Power of Myth. But please spare me your superstitious nonsense about Jesus being the One And Only way to truth and spiritual health.

    What is it with religious nuts trying to convince rational people that they, too, are rational?

    • Milksteak Boiled Over Hard

      “By definition, revealed religions are the antithesis of reason and of science.”

      I would dispute this. If revealed religions made specific predictions about, say, what would occur Friday 10/18/13 and tomorrow the prediction came true, I would be impressed. If it made another prediction about what would happen another day, and again it came true, I would think we have something here. If revelation described complicated scientific processes that could not have been known at the time, and we later discovered them to be true, that would also count in its favor. Muslims actually say their book does this, but the passages they cite are vague as shit and are just interpreted to fit what we know now.

      Revealed religion could be confirmed as reliable through reason and science, it just never is. That’s the problem I have with the religious mindset – they want to have it both ways. They claim god is immaterial, spaceless, timeless, etc. and so their claims are not empirical, yet they maintain that god and supernatural things affect the world in some way, which would make them empirical. There is a spectrum of literalness upon which we can interpret religious claims. The more literal we take them to be, the more false they are. The less literal we take them to be, the more useless they are. That’s why I’ve always been more attracted to Eastern religious thought, like Taoism and Hinduism, because, for the most part, they admit to being mostly poetry.

      As for poetry, I find the Apostle’s Creed above to be anything but elegant. Words like “Almighty” and “Lord” just make it seem so medieval. But we have different aesthetic tastes I guess.

  • daniilgorbatenko

    What is the meaning of the word “reasonable” that you have in mind here?

    • daniilgorbatenko

      Oops, I see that Aeon Skoble has already raised the point.

  • daniilgorbatenko

    I think the main problem with the views like Christianity (and Marxism for that matter, too) is that they are based on metaphoric, poetical, mystical thinking. That many if not most philosophers fell victim to it doesn’t prove that this kind of thinking is reasonable, only that the temptation for confusing poetry and reality is too strong for human beings.

    How is Christianity metaphoric? From the very starting point that a disembodied mind is possible. We never encountered a disembodied mind, the only minds we are aware of are those contained in embodied beings. The fact that we ourselves don’t usually feel our thoughts physically and that we can imagine thoughts floating somewhere or whatever doesn’t justify the jump that is being made in all kinds of religions and other mystical doctrines.

    The same thing is true of the features ascribed to God like omnipotence, omniscience, perfection. These features are cases of mistaken abstraction. Perfection may be taken as an example. When we say e.g. that John is a perfect pianist we mean just that he is as good at playing piano as is possible to get from our view. The word “perfect” loses any determinate meaning when disassociated from particular things at which someone or something may be perfect. It is pure poetry.

    As a digression, Marxism is poetic in a similar sense. The confusion started with Aristotle who thought that if two goods are exchanged they must have something equal in them. This is again purely metaphoric thinking that is involved here.

    The upshot is that doctrines based on metaphor can’t be reasonable. They are precisely the things a reasonable person needs to avoid.

  • ssemans

    If language has meaning faith and reason are mutually exclusive – why even bother arguing Jesuitical definitions – so of course neither Christianity nor any other FAITH is reasonable. Faith satisfies a need which for others is satisfied differently. It is incumbent upon those who would disrespect it, as they might disrespect other coping mechanisms, to make a case for net harm.

    • BallsAndStrikes

      Whether religion has utility is a different point than whether it is true, or whether it is reasonable to believe it is true, or whether it is reasonable enough to deserve respect (whatever that means).

    • Jameson Graber

      “If language has meaning faith and reason are mutually exclusive”
      Sorry, it’s just hard to let that go.

      First, even if “faith” has one meaning in every day language and another meaning in Christian doctrine, Christians have every right to claim that. You don’t get to tell Christians how to use the word.

      Second, my first point doesn’t even apply here, because we use the word “faith” all the time to mean something that isn’t mutually exclusive with reason. When you tell someone, “I have faith in you,” you aren’t saying, “I think you exist despite an absence of evidence.” Everyone would understand you to mean, “I have confidence in you,” or, “I trust you.” That’s what faith means in Christian tradition.

      Most Christian philosophy (except extreme Kierkegaardianism) is opposed to the idea that faith and reason are mutually exclusive.

  • ThreeAndOne

    I seem to remember (years ago, I think) Will Wilkinson challenging Plantinga and William Lane Craig to a debate, and somewhere making the point that Plantinga, simply aren’t taken very seriously in analytical philosophy departments these days.

    • Kevin Vallier

      I don’t recall Will saying that. Please find the link. Many are biased against Christian analytics, but matters are different in the sub-field itself.

    • Uber Genie

      LOL! In the middle of a discussion about religious epistemology we get the logical fallacy of ad homonem (I.e. attacking the man rather than addressing his arguments). Further it is directed at, arguably the founder of reformed epistemology, Plantinga and one of he leaders of natural theology, Craig. Both published by top philosophical journals for the last 40+ years (plantigna since mid 1960s).

      For more on Plantinga’s epistemological views see below:

  • good_in_theory

    Reasonable and well-informed people go off believing all sorts of ridiculous shit because human personality is inconsistent and multiple and we’ll go off creating elaborate post-hoc justifications for just about anything we’re sufficiently uncomfortable with abandoning, or sufficiently oblivious to question too deeply.

    Religious beliefs are neither reasonable nor respectable, so disrespect them if you feel like it.

    Or, more seriously, Leiter’s recent book seems like it might be relevant. Stanley Fish in the NYT on quoting a passage representative of the conclusion.

    The conclusion is inevitable: “[T]here is no apparent moral reason why states should carve out special protections that encourage individuals to structure their lives around categorical demands that are insulated from the standards of evidence and reasoning we everywhere else expect to constitute constraints on judgment and action.”

    Seems like one could gloss that as, “religion is not reasonable.”

    • Kevin Vallier

      I reply to Leiter’s book in my book. And I have to say that your remark here is not as on point as insightful as your other remarks on the site. How can you think you’re justified in holding that religious beliefs are obviously neither reasonable or respectable? What about your mature assessment of the philosophy of religion has led you to think this?

  • Hi Kevin, I’ve posted a brief critical response on my blog:

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  • Hi, Kevin,

    Just a couple of questions, for clarification purposes.

    1. Do you think that unbelief – and, in particular, philosophically informed unbelief – can be reasonable as well?

    2. If so, do you think theists – or at least, philosophically informed theists – should respect unbelief, and refrain from, say, claiming and/or otherwise promoting the beliefs that there is no non-culpable unbelief and/or that unbelievers deserve infinite punishment for rejecting God, etc.?

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  • Uber Genie

    If one goes out and views the William Lane Craig (and Plantinga occasionally) debates with Dawkins, Grayling, Hitchens, Dennett, Harris, Krousse, and Wilkinson and then creates a chart highlighting propositions for an argument and against followed by a list of logical fallacies employed by the various debators several things becomes clear (this is a run-on sentence for one) Craig’s opponents (with the exception of Dennett and Grayling), don’t appear to be trained or at least retained any knowledge of philosophy, the atheist will have 100s of fallacies and the Christians will have none, that’s right, your chart won’t lie, all atheist employ fallacious approaches to handling Craig’s argument. Krousse is the worst, but Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens will be up there in terms of fallacies per minute speaking.

    Wilkinson’s comment “of course none of their arguments are any good,” (referring to both Craig and Plantinga) is an example of the foolishness that is constantly repeated in these debates. Wilkinson who does not have a PhD in Philosophy and has never published a single paper in Philosophy makes this offhanded remark about Craig and Plantinga who hold 3 PhDs (Plantinga was President of American Philosophers in early 1980s) together they have published over 300 articles and books in philosophy. How we all long for the days of professional philosophers like Anthony Flew, or W.V.O Quine at Harvard , J.L. Mackie, Graham Oppy, or even Quinten Smith, who were both philosophically trained, rigorous in their approach, and professional in their demeanor. We could at least make some progress on this intellectual questions. But with these so-called “New Atheist” we are just spinning our wheels in the mud.

    What can we conclude from the debates with the Atheist listed above? Well, due to their lack of expertise, lack of professionalism, lack of engaging the arguments in a rigorous manner, not much. Do these facts mean Christianity is a reasonable worldview. Not necessarily. It does mean that the Atheist have chosen some pretty inept individuals to represent their world view, thats all. And that their arguments, when they do appear, seemed to be aimed at mob appeal rather than a rigorous examination of the premises for the arguments Craig and Plantinga submit.

    “In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.” Autobiography of Mark Twain

    Change the above phrase “religion and politics” and replace it for “New Atheism” and you will get the picture. So now it would appear that the atheists are as ignorant as the theists have traditionally been.

  • Choscura

    A brief rebuttal to this seems to be in order.

    “Nearly all atheists in the literature acknowledge that theistic belief is at least sometimes epistemically justified.”

    This misconstrues deism as atheism, and misconstrues “a sense of wonder” as “a reason for God”. Even if it were the case that “Nearly all atheists argue for god”, this would constitute an appeal to authority, rather than a reason itself.

    “Note that you needn’t think that theistic proofs are successful to think that at least one version of one of them can be rationally affirmed by an honest person.”

    This is false, and you should know better. They may indeed be affirmed by an honest person: but not rationally, until at least one rational case can be demonstrated.

    “The second foundational belief is that the Gospel reports of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are reliable. Many of you probably think the Gospels are not reliable sources of information about Jesus, given that they are full of miracles and were written long after Jesus’ death by unknown individuals. That’s fine. But is your view so ironclad that a reasonable, informed person couldn’t disagree?”

    Yes. It is epistemically impossible that the Bible constitutes any basis for knowledge. This view is “Iron clad”. It is not possible to believe the Bible and have full knowledge of it. Either your belief is based on ignorance (or denial), or you literally know better.

    As if this weren’t enough to hamstring and castrate your argument, this view has been well known and well explored for at least the last 200 years; it’s earliest rendition was through Hume, who pointed out that since religious knowledge has no basis in understanding, it cannot be said to constitute knowledge- and since religious belief has no basis in common experience, it has nothing in common with the statements made that can be described as “beliefs”. Since all that is reasonable is built upon these two foundations, there is nothing about religion which can be described as reasonable.

    So instead, you are left with the charitable shelter also provided by Hume- of holding to any religion in spite of evidence (and, as we learn more, in spite of ever more evidence contradicting your position).

    So please, do us all the favor. Call it “faith”. Don’t call it reason, and don’t demand that I respect something unreasonable.

  • wargames83

    How is Aquinas good company? He advocated the death penalty for heretics. Does that sound respectable to you?