In May, 2020, I participated in a debate on this question: Are there sufficient reasons to believe in God? My debate partner Sam and I divvied up the labor as follows: I argued that there are sufficient ‘reasons’ (i.e. properly basic grounds) to believe in God. Meanwhile, Sam argued that there are sufficient non-basic reasons (i.e. arguments/evidences) to believe in God.
I have included my opening statement below.
On behalf of Sam and myself, I’d like to thank Tom and Matt for agreeing to this debate and to Modern Day Debate for hosting it. The subject of debate is this question: “Are there sufficient reasons to believe in God?”
For the purposes of this debate, Sam and I will work with the following general definition of God:
belief in the existence of a transcendent, perfectly good being who is the cause of nature. Further, human flourishing is based at least in part by right relationship with that transcendent being. Thus, when we discuss the rationality of belief in God, it is to that definition that we refer. One can define rational belief both in negative and positive terms. Negatively, a rational belief is a belief the holding of which violates no epistemic duties.
For Matt and Tom to establish their thesis qua this standard, they would need to establish that belief in God, as defined above, always violates a specific epistemic duty. That, in turn, would require them to explain which duty it violates and why.
Positively, a rational belief is any belief that is either properly non-basic or properly basic.
- A properly non-basic belief is a belief that is rational and justified as the valid conclusion to a reasoning process. Think, by analogy, of a mathematical theorem.
- A properly basic belief is a belief that is rational and justified if formed in the right circumstances independent of a reasoning process. Think, by analogy, of a mathematical axiom, a starting point for reasoning.
It is clear that not all beliefs can be non-basic, because if every belief could only be justified as the conclusion of supporting premises, then those premises would themselves require supporting premises ad infinitum in which case any truth claim would require an infinite regress of argumentation. Consequently, there must be properly basic beliefs.
Properly basic beliefs include:
- There are no married bachelors. [This is an analytic belief.]
- 7+5=12 [a priori belief.]
- It is raining outside. [sense perceptual belief.]
- I had cereal for breakfast. [memorial belief.]
- It is wrong to torture a person. [moral intuitive belief.]
- The restaurant is six blocks west.
Number (6) is an example of a belief that could be formed by way of testimony: under the right circumstances, when another human being testifies to the truth of a proposition, if you have no reason to distrust that human being, if they seem to be a credible witness, you are justified in accepting their testimony.
Keep in mind that all sources of belief – basic or non-basic – are fallible. But the mere possibility that rational intuition or sense perception or testimony can fail you does not undercut our general warrant for accepting these sources of belief barring any specific reason to question them in a particular case.
Now let’s apply testimony to our question. Imagine two parents, Amber the atheist and Chris the Christian. Amber teaches her child that God does not exist while Chris teaches his child that God does exist. If there are no defeaters to the testimony of which either child is aware, then each child is justified in forming a belief in the proposition in question based simply on that parent’s testimony: Amber’s child is rational to believe that God does not exist and Chris’s child is rational to believe that God does exist.
The Christian who wants to argue that atheism can never be rationally held based on testimony has an explanatory burden to bear. Likewise, the atheist who wants to argue, as Matt and Tom do, that theism can never be held rationally based on testimony, has an equally onerous burden to bear.
Keep in mind that belief in God by our definition of God, is held by the vast majority of people on earth: uneducated farmers and highly educated scientists, housewives and Oxbridge philosophers, small children and Nobel laureates, refugees and heads of state.
Many of these people come to believe in God in this way, because a trusted authority – a parent or a philosopher, a teacher or a scientist – attests to the belief in God and they form that belief based upon that testimony in a basic fashion rather than through a process of discursive reasoning. It seems quite clear that such belief can in principle be properly basic and thus the possible vector of knowledge if God does, in fact, exist. It is the burden of Matt and Tom to argue that this is not possible, that all these people are all irrational. Suffice it to say, the burden is theirs for we have seen no basis to think theism necessarily violates any epistemic duties and excellent grounds to accept that belief in God can be properly basic and thus rational at least on the basis of testimony.
But theism can also be properly non-basic, that is, held by way of reasons. I will now invite my debate partner Sam to share some reasons by which one could have properly non-basic belief in God by way of arguments.