Thursday, February 16, 2017

Are there rational justifications for belief in a specific religion?

I’ve had this idea percolating in my head for some time, and a Twitter interaction with Randal Rauser has forced me to finally put words down in support of it.

My thoughts are fairly ambitious as far as Counter Apologetics goes, though I’m not yet certain the argument will work.  So consider this a request for rebuttals. 

The idea is that jumping from mere theism to belief in a specific religion is not rationally justifiable. This concept isn’t necessarily new.  

Even if someone is a classical theist, I’m not sure that they can rationally make the jump from a mere theism to belief in a specific religion, like say Christianity. This would entail belief in a whole subset of contingent facts about god and how that god reveals themselves to humanity: 
  • God is a Trinity
  • Jesus is the “Son” in that Trinity, being fully man and fully god.
  • While in human form, Jesus performed miracles and was resurrected from the dead.
  • The Christian Bible’s claims about god’s divine commands to humanity are accurate.
The question I have is “What rational basis does a Christian have for moving from theism to belief in these specific doctrines?”

Typically, the argument to go from theism to belief in a specific religion revolves around an argument to believe in certain historical miracle claims. For Christianity this is the argument for the resurrection of Jesus – the central belief of Christianity. 

I’m thinking that this kind of argument is not only unsuccessful, but is utterly unsupportable as a general argument given the facts that we have about the world. 

This is because the argument for the resurrection is an argument for belief in a historical miracle, which is belief in a miracle where the only evidence we have is that of testimony.  But why believe in the resurrection of Jesus when we have other eye witness testimonies of other miracles.  Sathya Sai Baba is a contemporary example of a mystical figure who died this past decade where we can still find living people who claim to have witnessed his miracles.  This is to say nothing of other miracle or supernatural claims of a host of other world religions, the truth of which would contradict the exclusivist claims of most other world religions.

This kind of historical method objection to establishing rational belief in a specific miracle isn’t really new, but it’s not an a-priori objection to belief in miracles in principle.  After all, given the historical method, belief in historical miracles could well be justified if we had a wealth of contemporary evidence for verifiable (to the extent that anything is verifiable) miracles.  

Before I continue I should lay out what exactly would be the difference between “verifiable miracles” as opposed to “unverifiable miracles”. 

Unverifiable miracles are a cheap kind of miracle. Something along the lines of being in a tough but mundane situation, and then having something improbable happen to get you out of that situation after you’ve prayed for deliverance.  The problem with this kind of miracle is that it’s indistinguishable from such a mundane event happening anyway, and it also happens to be commonly reported among believers of mutually exclusive religions like Christianity, Mormonism, Islam, and Hinduism.  After all, if the same kinds of unverifiable miracle stories could be used to justify belief in a host of world religions, it can’t suffice to establish belief in one specific religion over the others. 

These kinds of miracles are also quite a far cry from the kinds of miracles we read about in holy books, particularly the bible.  We have reports of god sending fire from the sky to incinerate drenched offerings and altars.  We get plagues, resurrection of the dead, walking on water, immediate healing of permanent disabilities (lame walking, the blind seeing), etc.   

Another facet of biblical miracles was that they continued to happen.  Jesus and his disciples weren’t a “one and done” type deal when it came to working miracles. These things continued to happen and were witnessed by contemporaries, often multiple times by the same people.

Consider for a moment if the contested end of Mark 16 was actually true, and the way others could know Jesus was risen was that true believers could drink poison without being harmed, or be bit by poisonous snakes and be fine.  Or let’s go with something a bit less dramatic: What if Catholic priests, and only Catholic priests in good standing with their god (ie. no rapists/pedophiles) could actually transubstantiate a bread and wine into the literal flesh and blood of Jesus Christ?  I’m not talking about after eating, I’m talking about having the bread and wine on an altar, praying/ritualizing, and then having it transform into actual flesh and blood.  Let’s assume this material is not actually consumed to keep our thought experiment more palatable. 

Imagine if that had been happening since 33 AD? And over the years as science and technology advanced we would have seen that transubstantiated flesh and blood across the world ended up all having the exact same DNA and genetic markers. It wouldn’t matter if rye and merlot were transubstantiated or wonder bread and a box wine were used.  So long as the priest truly believed and was sanctified as they believe they are now, BAM we get some flesh and blood on Sundays. 

Imagine no other religions could perform a similar kind of feat. Repeated tests in laboratories in controlled conditions always show the sanctified priests can do the job, but the same motions/words by non-believers doesn’t do anything. 

In this case, we would have the kind of inductive evidence required by the historical method to believe in the Christian-specific miracle claims of Jesus’s resurrection.

But of course we don’t have that, nor anything remotely close to it in the actual world. 

The point is that there isn’t anything specific about the historical method or rationality that excludes belief in miracles a-priori, the point is that they could support belief if facts about the contemporary world were different. It just so happens that the world doesn’t support this. 

Note that this is different from an argument from Divine Hiddenness against the existence of a god. After all, perhaps a god exists and it doesn’t want there to be a rational basis for believing in any given religion over another.   

All I’m arguing for is that theists lack a rational basis for believing in a specific religion over others.  

I also don’t think that Plantinga style arguments related to properly basic beliefs are going to save specific religious belief. After all those kinds of arguments are typically advanced in defense of theistic belief, but I don’t think they can easily extend to cover Christian-theistic belief over say Islamic-theistic belief.  After all, once believers are aware of the fact that such an epistemology just as equally covers belief in Islam or Hinduism, how can they trust their intuitions about such complex contingent matters like those involved in specific religious belief to be a reliable guide to the truth?   

This would be compounded by problems posed by the geographic distribution of religious belief. It seems odd to say that the intuitions I formed in a specific culture just so happen to point me to the dominant religion in my area, therefore I’m justified in believing that religion when the same justification is used to justify belief in a contradictory religion on the other side of the world in a different culture.

I think some additional arguments against individual religious beliefs could be leveraged here as well, like the idea that they lack unique practical utility to justify one over the others. This could be fleshed out some more, but it’d only be relevant if the theist was forced to rely on non-rational justifications for specific theistic belief. 

Or I could well be wrong about all this, or perhaps such a demand for rational justification would force me to abandon atheism or naturalism in favor of a metaphysical agnosticism.  Those are bullets I may well have to bite.

I’d just like to hear from those who think I've gone wrong here. 


  1. Hi! Someone drew my attention to this post, so I wrote a response. Hope you find this helpful!

    1. I got this far:

      Here are some other facts for which the "only evidence I have" is testimony:

      * Human beings have sent space-craft to Mars.
      * Iraq exists.
      * German soldiers invaded the Soviet Union in 1940.
      * I possess a liver.
      * I was born in Seattle in 1961.
      * The man and woman with whom I lived for my first decades, are my parents.
      * I presently live in Washington State, but have also lived in China.

      You can't be serious. You'd have to so broadly define 'testimony' to exclude multiple lines of physical evidence such that there is no evidence that is not 'testimony'. That is a ridiculous idiosyncratic definition that no one is obliged to accept.

    2. Well that's a lot to chew on, but I think I can deal with quite a bit of what you're bringing up as either irrelevant or incorrect.

      I will certainly craft a response and let you know when I'm there.

  2. Although there seem to be several different concerns here, I think the central question of whether it's legitimate to jump from theism in general to Christianity in particular is a good one. Three thoughts:

    1) Although arguments from naturally theology may not single out one particular religion, they can plausibly exclude certain religions (e.g. the Kalam and any religion which posits an eternal universe).

    2) Even if it's not used as a justification for atheism, the absence of dramatic, repeatable modern day miracles seem vulnerable to the same responses which could be given to Divine Hiddenness arguments

    3) In terms of getting to Christianity in particular, what's the problem with the Trilemma or the Resurrection or the unique nature of Christian soteriology?

    Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking post!

    1. 1. Part of my inspiration for this kind of argument is based on the downright inconclusiveness that arguments about theism provide. I'm of the firm opinion that metaphysical arguments are generally underdetermined. Pretty much any argument you can throw at me, I can give plausible reasons to reject it.

      2.) I don't think that this can be done. Hiddenness arguments like most arguments against the existence of a god hinge on what god "would do" given his supposed attributes. This argument grants a mere theism and wants believers in a specific religion to justify why we should accept their specific miracle claims - because it is implicit that the fact that those miracles, if they actually happened, prove the truth of the theological message of its practitioner.

      3.) The Trilemma and Resurrection arguments are subject to the main objection I have alluded to here: They do not pass the historical method for justification. I don't think the trilemma is exhaustive: myth/legend/false reports of Jesus's words/actions (this is not taking the mythicist position). I also don't see why the unique nature of Christian soteriology is evidence of its truth. Many religions have unique soteriology, and Christian soteriology overlaps with others. Also how in the world do you justify one soteriology over the others as more plausible, given the nature of the topic itself as unverifiable/un-testable.

    2. 1) Ah, I thought you were granting that even if natural theology works, you don't get to a particular religion.

      2) Perhaps I misunderstood your point. What you seem to be saying is "Here are some examples of evidence we could have had for Christianity. But we don't have this kind of evidence." I agree. But I don't see what follows.

      I could run a parallel argument with any claim X: "Here's evidence I could have had for X. But I don't have this kind of evidence for X." What does it accomplish to note that I could imagine even more evidence for X than I currently have? I still have to examine the evidence I do have for X and explain why it's insufficient.

      3) I think I'd differ with you on both the Trilemma and the Resurrection. In both cases, I think you can make a strong enough case to justify the premises in the argument (and eliminate the 'legend' alternative).

      Regarding soteriology, I'm inclined to disagree. For example, in 'God is Not One' Stephen Prothero argues that Christianity is unique among religions in offering salvation from sin; according to him, 'salvation from sin' is simply not what other religions offer. To put it more precisely, I'd say that Christianity is unique in claiming:
      1) human beings are radically sinful
      2) human beings need (external) rescue from sin
      Now, I agree that uniqueness doesn't entail truth, since most religions are unique in some way! However, here, I'd argue that we can have immediate knowledge of both 1) and 2) through self-reflection. If that's the case, then I'd argue this self-knowledge justifies our belief in Christianity, since it seems implausible to suggest that Christianity somehow accidentally hit upon two fundamental truths of the human experience.

    3. 1.) I should be more clear: The argument does grant theism, though just for the sake of argument. I still think that at best arguments from natural theology are inconclusive, I certainly don't think any of them work. For instance the Kalam doesn't do anything of the sort to show our universe isn't eternal.

      2.) That's not quite the point I'm making. It's not "here's evidence we could have, but we don't, so the argument is false". It's more along the lines of: Given that the historical method requires us to use contemporary events to judge historical events, we would need consistent repeatable Christian miracles today to justify belief in specifically Christian historical miracles.

      Sans that, we just aren't going to be able to use history as a method to justify belief in the resurrection. The way you will get there is justifying belief because "god makes you feel as if it is true" in a Plantinga style properly basic way.

      3.) My previous response I think covers why I don't accept the Trilemma and Resurrection, but lets quickly touch on soteriology:

      I don't think we have good reason to believe in life persisting after death in the first place. And I also disagree on the two points Christianity claims.

      I don't even agree with the concept of sin, though this is a quibble, you could just redefine (1) to be "human beings can act immorally" but I do not accept (2) even slightly. Rescue "how?" or "from what?". You're going to need a host of ancillary beliefs for that to start to make sense, and then you start running up against arguments about the immorality of creation if it entails a hell, let alone problems about not creating us all in a heaven in the first place.

      While I understand there are responses to those arguments, it isn't going to be a clear case where the criteria you're specifying are going to be clear cut justification for belief in Christianity.

    4. 1) fair enough.
      2) "the historical method requires us to use contemporary events to judge historical events"

      First, this criteria needs to be made more specific. Certainly, the Resurrection is unique event; that's a fairly important point in Christian theology. But in some sense, every event in history is unrepeatable and therefore unique. Moreover, unique events kinds of events occur in both human and natural history (the first moon landing, the first human in North America, Big Bang, abiogenesis) and we wouldn't' want to claim that we can't know whether these events occurred. So unless you're lodging a Humean dismissal of the Resurrection, it's hard to see how we can rule it as inadmissible on a priori grounds.

      Second, if you are lodging a Humean argument against miracles, you'd have to show that they don't happen today. I happen to think they do (in part on the testimony of my MD/PhD wife who witnessed one). See also Craig Keener's book Miracles

      3) I'm not sure I understand your objections to (2). "How?" seems irrelevant. If I take the car to several mechanics and only one identifies the two major problems that I know the car has, I have grounds to trust that mechanic regardless of how he proposes to fix the problems.

      "From what?" As I said, from sin. Traditionally, from the control, presence, and penalty of sin. But you can focus on the first two, if you'd like. Christianity says that sin controls us and is bound up in our natures. And only Christianity says that God needs to rescue us from the control and presence of sin.

      "it isn't going to be a clear case where the criteria you're specifying are going to be clear cut justification for belief in Christianity. "


    5. Also, strictly speaking, the Trilemma doesn't rely on Jesus' miracles only on his claims to divinity. We could also throw in his ministry as a healer and exorcist, since NT scholars seem willing to grant on historical grounds that he had such a ministry, whether or not we think it was miraculous.

  3. Going on to 2.)

    The moon landing is unique, but we have the technology to go to other planets now, and we have other in principle methods to verify parts of the moon landing. It is well within our background knowledge that space travel is possible, and we have a host of non-testimonial evidence (video of the event, video of other space travels, etc).

    So this isn't exactly a Humean objection. The objection is based on the idea that if you want me to believe in specifically Christian miracles of the past, I should have easy access to verifiable evidence of Christian miracles today. I outlined EXACTLY what that evidence would look like, and we don't have it.

    I think I can sum it up like this: Belief in a historical miracle is not justified if those miracles were at one point common, but now their occurrence is very rare or non-existent. It becomes a question of if Jesus and his disciples could do all these miracles back then, why can't disciples do miracles now? Why reject other miracle claims that fit this dynamic and accept the ones for your religion?

    As you say you have testimony of your wife for witness to a miracle, and likewise I have access to independent eye witness accounts to the miracles of Sathya Sai Babba. We get right into the main challenge I've laid out here.

    3.) The "how" question is related to the "from what". In orthodox Christian belief, I need to be saved from hell, because that's how god punishes the non-believing sinners. But I don't agree that I *need* to be transformed from a being that sometimes does immoral actions into some quasi morally perfect being. If being sinful is bound up in our nature, well why did god create us with such a nature or even a capacity to acquire this type of nature. After all he could have created beings with morally perfect natures, like himself - but he didn't. I find theodicy answers to that question to be highly unsatisfying or unbelievable.

    As to the Trilemma, I don't see why I must accept "liar, lunatic, or lord", when a combination of "zealous religious preacher" and "mythology about his works" is perfectly available.

  4. Well, I probably approach the problem rather idiosyncratically, but here's the way I'd go about it. Starting with a detailed examination of the human person from a philosophical perspective, I think two key facts can be established: 1. The consciousness, rationality, and moral significance of the human person doesn't make sense in a universe where there is, at rock bottom, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. 2. The human person is a substantial unity, highly reliant on material processes to carry out its essential operations.

    Naturalism is inconsistent with 1, the dharmic religions are inconsistent with 2. That basically leaves prophetic religions (Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism), Taoism, and Confusianism (plus a morass of mythology that never claimed to have rational credentials in the first place). Taoism and Confucianism can be dealt with in much the same way as Platonism and Aristotelianism were dealt with - ie, by integration. They aren't that far from the truth anyways. See David Marshall's earlier books for the lowdown.

    So, when dealing with the prophetic religions, we can test them in two ways: by examining the circumstances of their origins, and by looking at their fruits in history. I will only give a sketch of the first way, David Marshall would likely be better able to explain the second one.

    Regarding the first test, The Book of Mormon has virtually no redeeming qualities when it comes to historiographical consideration. Moreover, it was basically a narcissistic version of Christianity where anyone could become a god and have as many wives as they wanted - so it really didn't have to do much work to get converts. So we can scratch Mormonism off the list right away. Muhammad's success as a prophet seems to be adequately explained by his success as a warlord. But the early Christian church was essentially trying to recruit folks into a rebellion that had already been put down hard by the temple authorities and the Romans. That is why Christ Crucified was a scandal to the Jews and nonsense to the Greeks. As for Judaism and Zoroastrianism, their origins have effectively been lost in the mists of time - though most evidence for, say, the specialness of the Jewish people or for the Exodus would arguably be equally evidence for Christianity. In brief, Christianity is the only faith that clearly seems to have moved against the cultural current, rather than coasting along with it.

    So that's a rough sketch of how one would go about picking one religion out as more plausible than the rest. I haven't so much provided my arguments as I have summarized the gist of them. Obviously, one cannot take enough material for multiple books and condense it down into a comment on a blog! I would encourage you to try and reconstruct the way I would flesh them out by means of your own research. Perhaps attempting to construct an argument for the other side would, if not bring you over, at least allow you to better understand how such a project could work. Either way, you have nothing to lose but ignorance. If you find the argument convincing, then you learned something new - and if you don't, not only have you learned what people of faith actually believe, you've also learned how better to address them on their own terms.