Rethinking the Rationality of Religious Belief
June 11, 2006 — 3:36

Author: David Slakter  Category: Religious Belief  Comments: 13

It seems, by now, uncontroversial to assume that it is possible for a person to rationally hold religious beliefs. One might then ask, however: What distinguishes rational religious beliefs from irrational ones?
As an example – probably not the best, and also not originally my own – consider the difference between Alvin Plantinga and one of the 9/11 hijackers. I am of the opinion that Plantinga is rational in at least a large number of his religious beliefs, whereas the hijacker is not. My interlocutor, whose example this is, wants to know: What is the salient difference between Plantinga and the hijacker that makes the former rational and the latter not?

A few quick possibilities:
1. The difference could be that Plantinga’s religious is rational because he has considered some of the most damning arguments against them and provided rational reasons for rejecting them. I do not think this can be the salient difference, however, for surely Plantinga wants it to come out such that his grandmother’s religious belief – which is not based on philosophical argumentation – is rational, and I am sympathetic to his position.
2. It could be that Plantinga’s faith is rational because – but not solely because – it is situated within a community and tradition. This could apply equally to the hijacker being considered. If one were to claim that there’s a difference here in that the Wahaabist movement is not as old a tradition as Plantinga’s brand of Calvinism, that would certainly true, but it seems this would also exclude other newer groups, such as Pentecostals. Now, I have no particular affinity for Pentecostalism myself, but I do know a couple of Pentecostals who would be more than a bit upset about this.
3. Plantinga’s religious beliefs are rational because they are true, whereas the hijacker’s religious beliefs are not. Although I understand how this might work, it commits one to proving the truth of the belief system in order to establish its rationality, and it seems the hijacker could make a similar claim. Thus we are at an impasse. In addition, this solution seems to vindicate my interlocutor’s position that all religious beliefs are inherently irrational, since he rejects the truth of Plantinga’s religious beliefs.
So, is there another salient feature that solves this dilemma which I am missing, or should I resign myself to the fact that, for non-believers, all religious beliefs should be considered irrational?

Technorati Tags: alvin plantinga, rational, religious beliefs, interlocutor, hijacker, salient, hijackers, irrational, possibilities, ask

Technorati Tags: alvin plantinga, rational, religious beliefs, interlocutor, hijacker, salient, hijackers, irrational, possibilities, ask

  • Mike K.

    It seems to me that something like (1) must be relevant. I’m certainly willing to grant that the idea that Grandma Plantinga’s (or my own grandmother’s, for that matter) beliefs are irrational leaves something of a bad taste in my mouth. But this seems like nothing more than an argument from outrage, which is not going to convince me that (1) is not the case.
    One thought-experiment that you might consider is to think about the status of each group’s beliefs prior to the 9/11 attacks. Presumably, the hijackers (and our grandmothers) did not radically change their religious beliefs or their reasons for holding those beliefs in the days leading up to 9/11, and I have a hard time seeing how if belief X leads one to perform an immoral action (crashing planes into buildings) and belief Y does not lead to such an action, then one is more rational in holding Y than X.

    June 11, 2006 — 12:00
  • Hi David,
    Consider Plantinga’s conditions for warrant:
    A belief b is warranted iff b is produced by cognitive faculties that are 1) properly functioning in 2) an environment sufficiently similar to the sort of environment for which they were designed, 3) the faculties are functioning according to a design plan aimed at producing true belief, and 4) the faculties have been successfully designed to meet this aim.
    Plantinga would probably say that the hijackers lack warrant in virtue of not meeting one of these conditions. For example, the hijackers may not be properly functioning. There’s some sort of cognitive malfunction in their faculties when they form the belief that it’s okay to kill innocent people. Perhaps this cognitive malfunction is connected to the environmental condition. Consider that cognizers were meant to develop in environments in which there are reliable conveyers of true belief and language speakers that can transfer warrant by expressing their true beliefs. However, something has gone wrong in the cognitive environment in which these hijackers were raised (just as something is wrong in the cognitive environment of a child growing up in the KKK). In these cognitive environments, the faculties will not develop properly and so will not be able to properly function at a later stage. (It’s hard to say exactly what it is that is wrong in these cognitive environments, though it’s clear that something is wrong.)
    So I think Plantinga’s answer would be something along the lines of that the hijackers are lacking in one of the above conditions. I only provided one possible sketch for how this could be. Perhaps there’s a better one. It’s also helpful to remember that on Plantinga’s view, all of us are cognitively malfunctioning to some degree because of sin and so we all need the Holy Spirit for cognitive renewal. So perhaps Plantinga thinks that the hijackers need the Holy Spirit in their hearts and that is why they are irrational but he is not.
    Here’s a helpful analogy (hopefully). Suppose I see the torturing of a child and form the belief that it’s wrong. Another person doesn’t form that belief. This guy doesn’t have any moral intuitions at all, actually. What explains the difference between myself and the other guy? I think it is the case that I am properly functioning and the other guy is not. Plantinga might say that this is the difference between himself and the hijackers.

    June 11, 2006 — 12:10
  • Another point with respect to (1). Plantinga’s account of defeaters is proper functionalist (see the relevant chapter in Warranted Christian belief), so the hijackers may not be properly functioning in the sense of (1). (They hear arguments against their belief, but they continue to hold on to their beliefs anyway, and so are not properly functioning.) But while this may be a sufficient condition for irrationality, it is certainly not a necessary condition, as the grandma consideration shows.
    To emphasize my point with regard to the environmental condition (and to connect it with your point), it seems that a wahaabist or KKK community might be a cognitive environment that is bad enough that it provides more detriment to the development of our cognitive faculties than a Pentocostal or Calvinist community. And of course, it is intuitive that some cognitive environments are more hostile than others for the development of our cognitive faculties is intuitive. (I am raised where my parents raise me in a room with no light or human interaction. My faculties don’t develop properly. This would not be a congenial environment.) Of course, even within a Christian community, the environment may be somewhat hostile – consider Christian communities that are very legalistic. Plantinga may think that this is also detrimental to the development of one’s sensus divinitatis. Of course, as mentioned above, this is a fallen world and so all cognitive environments will be detrimental to some degree.

    June 11, 2006 — 12:22
  • David Slakter

    I wasn’t saying that I was sympathetic to Plantinga’s views about his grandmother due to an argument from outrage. I just worry that dismisses her religious beliefs as rational has such stringent requirements for rationality that, in most cases, no one could meet them.
    I’m not too clear on the point of your thought experiment. When you say “I have a hard time seeing how if belief X leads one to perform an immoral action . . . and belief Y does not lead to such an action, then one is more rational in holding Y than X,” do you mean that this reinforces my point, or is it supposed to be a counter-example? If the latter, I wonder if you mean to say that “one is more rational in holding X than Y.”
    Although I was using Plantinga as an example, I wasn’t thinking of his account for the rationality of religious belief in particular. I think your explanation falls under #3 of the ones I listed, however. I understand that someone in Plantinga’s position could explain how he might be rational and the hijacker not if it were assumed that his religion were true and thus grounded his warrant.
    I am more interested in how the dilemma can be adjudicated without appealing to the truth of the beliefs of the people in question. If we make that an issue, I think the hijacker could appeal to a Wahaabist account similar to Plantinga’s of how his beliefs might be warranted. I think the matter of cognitive environments might effectively do this, although it could preclude people like Plantinga’s grandmother being rational. I’m not drawing a line in the sand on that issue, however.

    June 11, 2006 — 15:11
  • David,
    The question you raised in the opening post is “What distinguishes rational religious beliefs from irrational ones?” Plantinga has an account of this. The difference is whether the belief meets the proper function conditions (or something like them). Furthermore, what meets the proper function conditions is intimately related to the truth of the belief. It seems that you want to separate the rationality question from the truth condition. But Plantinga’s gone to great lengths to argue that the rationality question can’t be separated from the truth question. A huge chunk of Warranted Christian Belief is devoted to this very point, which I recommend. (Unfortunately, I don’t have page references available, but it’s pretty central.)
    I’m also confused about this: “If we make that [the truth of the belief] an issue, I think the hijacker could appeal to a Wahaabist account similar to Plantinga’s of how his beliefs might be warranted.”
    I’m unsure of how this is relevant. I’m thinking you might be making what Alston calls a level-confusion by switching the topic from talking about whether S’s belief is rational to whether S’s belief that his belief is rational is rational. Or maybe there is a confusion between a belief’s being rational and whether one is able to justify that his belief is rational to someone else. (I’m thinking it is the latter, since you talk about an “appeal”.)
    Consider again my morality example, I believe that the torturing is wrong and the amoralist believes that there is nothing wrong about it. What accounts for the rationality of my belief are the proper function conditions. This is the case whether I can appeal to the proper function conditions or not. The fact that the amoralist could also make such an appeal by saying “No, I’M the one properly functioning!” makes no difference. So what distinguishes rationality from irrationality, what distinguishes me from the amoralist, is that I’m properly functioning and he’s not. Whether we can both make the same appeal is not (at least immediately) relevant. (Consider another case in which my schizphrenic friend believes that there is a leprochaun sitting on my shoulder and I believe there is not. He could make an appeal to proper function, as could I, but only one of us is really rational.)
    I’m also confused about your point as to how the environmental conditions would make the grandma’s belief irrational. The grandma need not appeal to the environmental conditions for her belief to be rational – they just need to be met. I think you’re thinking that she would have to make such an appeal, but that’s a different question.
    I’ll be away for the next week, so I won’t be able to see your response to my comment, but hopefully this is helpful. I may have misunderstood you, but I think my points are relevant to your concern.

    June 11, 2006 — 16:47
  • One assumption of the question is that there is a single or an all-things-considered notion of rationality. Why think that? Why not think the notion of rationality–like most ordinary concepts–is vague or incomplete or confused or incoherent and in need of precisification (Carnap called it “explication”) or disambiguation into several clearer notions.
    Then the question becomes–as I think most interesting philosophical questions become–a question of *value*. Which kinds of rationality are the most valuable? There is a sense in which the hijacker’s beliefs are quite rational, like the beliefs of any madman: they make an apparently coherent system which seems to explain divers phenomena. Talk to someone who’s a true conspiracy theorist sometime–as the hijacker no doubt was–and you’ll know first-hand what I mean. Having a noetic system with these properties is a desirable thing. It’s what drives most of science. Plantinga and the hijacker are probably both equally rational here.
    Now, I did say “madman” which means that such individuals don’t have proper-function-rationality. They are clearly not functioning properly. Functioning properly is a desirable property for our noetic systems. But perhaps not so valuable since it’s not very luminous. Usually, if your broken this way, you don’t know it (though milder forms of improper rational functioning can be recognized and treated). Plantinga’s rational system seems to be functioning pretty well! For the hijacker, not so much…
    Foley-rationality (and close cousins) is a nice property to have and is more luminous than proper-function-rationality: you just have to reflect more to get closer to it. I think this separates the P-man and hijacker and is more desirable than proper-function-rationality (in most cases). However, it could well be that the hijackers improper functioning could *itself* be the cause of his being Foley-rational!
    Then there’s what I call Chisholm-rationality. You’re Chisholm-rational, roughly, iff you’re beliefs are such that they are formed in response to your experience in accordance with true epistemic principles (there are also subjective versions. Swinburne catalogues them nicely in his _Epistemic Justification_). It’s not too hard to see how the hijacker could be Chisholm-rational as well *given* his evidence which might be highly misleading. However, heading misleading evidence can lead one into rational false belief. That’s just the way it goes.
    My own inclination is to law most epistemic blame on peoples investigatory practices. It could be that the hijacker was exposed only to misleading evidence and was brainwashed etc. so that there’s no irresponsibility here, but I actually doubt that this is the case in the case where these people lived in the states. A responsible inquirer–a reasonable person in a pretty ordinary sense of “reasonable”–seeks to get the “other side” of the story, seeks out what counter-evidence there might be, tests their theories against possible refutations (again Swinburne’s _Epistemic Justification_ is awash with great insights here). I would not be in the least bit surprised if the hijacker was quite irrational (in the sense of unreasonable) in this regard. Plantinga, however, seems to be doing quite well in this regard.

    June 11, 2006 — 19:56
  • jon kvanvig

    I’m inclined to agree with Trent here, for basically Foley-esque considerations. There is a strong danger in epistemological circles to want to reduce all criticisms regarding intellectual failures to failures of rationality. That’s a mistake akin to the teenager’s (say, my kids, for example) habit of criticizing everything they don’t like using one term. To use what I’ll say is purely a hypothetical example, suppose everything you don’t like is “gay.”
    What’s more important is to figure out what epistemic criticisms are appropriate and which aren’t. Who has understanding? Who has knowledge? Whose beliefs are rational? Justified?
    One other gripe, since I’m in the mood. One shouldn’t multiply epistemic concepts without necessity, so the approach to epistemology that takes an epistemologist as the value for X and identifies some notion such as X-knowledge or X-understanding or X-justification or X-rationality is about as bankrupt philosophically as anything can be. The obvious sense to attach to such locutions is to talk about X’s theory of a particular concept or property. That’s not a complaint about Trent, by the way! 🙂 It’s a complaint about Plantinga who started this practice. (Of course, Plantinga could be defended by defending an ambiguity thesis about the relevant epistemic terms, and finding Foley-rationality as one of the disambiguations. To those so inclined to such a defense, I wish them well, much as I wish well those still thinking of finding their fortune in the Alaska gold fields…).
    So, why do we want to insist that there is some epistemic defect in the 9/11 assassins? Of course, not both they and we can be right, or have knowledge, or have understanding (since all of these are factive). But why some other flaw?

    June 11, 2006 — 21:03
  • David Slakter

    Thanks for your comments, and particularly the recommendation of Swinburne’s book. I think the vagueness of ‘rational’ is good point here. I also take you to be saying that, when it comes to specific beliefs, ‘rational’ is probably not so useful a category, and justification is the relevant issue.
    Even the ‘ordinary’ use of ‘reasonable’ seems to exclude a lot of people — both religious and not — from being rational. Maybe I should come to terms with that (or maybe that it does that is the problem).
    I appreciate your remarks, as well.
    In regards to your gripe, I only used Plantinga as an example because he was the person who came up in the discussion I had with someone else. My lack of creativity, among other things, made me rely on the examples used by someone else in a conversation.
    I also wasn’t certain that the hijacker was the best contrast, but if this dilemma is just the result of vagueness, maybe there are no better ones. I tried thinking of people involved in particular kinds of cults (again a vague term), and I knew enough about the cults in question to reconstruct their reasoning processes.
    If there’s no apparent epistemic defect, would this mean there’s only a moral defect? We might say that, for the hijacker’s form of Wahhabism, a certain kind of moral defect is required to embrace it, or something along these lines.
    To both of you: I don’t know anything about ‘Foley-rationality.’ Could you recommend some places to read up on it? Thanks.

    June 12, 2006 — 1:14
  • jon kvanvig

    David, on Foley’s work, there’s “The Theory of Epistemic Rationality” and “Working Without a Net.”
    On the hijacker question, here’s the fundamental problem with the example. Once one recognizes the defeasible and holistic character of justification, it’s very difficult to find any particular belief that *has to be* unjustified or irrational, no matter what context or noetic structure it is embedded in. Whether it counts as such depends on too many other factors. We need to know both the viewpoint and the reasons on which it is based, and what reasons those are based on, etc., before we are in a position to pronounce on the epistemic standing of their beliefs.

    June 12, 2006 — 7:15
  • David Slakter

    Thanks for the references.
    I think your critique is a fair one, and I appreciate the fact that it does not rely on tying rationality or justification too closely to truth.
    Everyone here has really helped to point me in the right direction for addressing this issue. Thanks.

    June 12, 2006 — 8:04
  • I’ve used the 9/11 hijackers as an example of a breakdown of rationality when trying to explain Aristotle’s distinction between phronesis (prudence) and dunamis (cleverness), (Nicomachean Ethics 1144a).
    Both these epistemic qualities are involved in figuring out the best means to achieve some goal. However (this is my explanation of the difference) prudence involves figuring out the kind of action that would best achieve some ideal for which one wishes (e.g. what actions could accomplish peace, or justice). Cleverness, which is morally ambiguous (can be exercised as part of good or bad actions)extends the range of actions that I perform.
    Suppose I see a bomb in a crowded room. I wish to be courageous, and prudence tells me that a courageous action saves the life of others, while risking my own. I could place myself on top of the bomb to absorb as much of the explosive power as possible, or carry the bomb out of the room.
    If I am clever, perhaps I know how to defuse the bomb. This knowledge of bombs is something that can be used for good or evil, but if I have prudence, and courage, then this cleverness becomes something praiseworthy, because it enables me to perform an action that I could not otherwise perform.
    The 9/11 hijackers provide an example of cleverness without prudence. Islam is a religion that places a great emphasis on achieving justice, and, (although some people would disagree with what I’m about to say), there is a strong case to be made that sometimes, to achieve justice one must be prepared to be aggressive. So, to wish for justice is something good – a sign of properly functioning faculties, and it is no surprise that the hijackers should have had this wish. However, while promoting justice might require aggressive actions at times, to target innocent people is to perform an action fundamentally opposed to the goal of justice, an action that is intrinsically evil. Without phronesis, qualities that might otherwise have led to virtue lead to evil.
    I think that a reformed epistemologist could make use of this Aristotelian analysis of moral failure. If our minds do function according to a design plan, why shouldn’t Aristotle, reflecting on the human mind, have figured out some aspects of the plan? And it is by understanding the plan in detail, by seeing how the mind is supposed to function, that we can come to understand what is happening when it malfunctions. Even if the reformed epistemologist does not make use of the Aristotelian account of moral deliberation, I think that some detailed account of moral deliberation, and how it fits into the divine plan, would have to take its place.
    I must make a few final comments, because I do not want to risk being misunderstood on such a sensitive topic. I think we should make a serious attempt to understand the minds of the hijackers not because I wish to promote feelings of sympathy towards them, but because I wish to prevent such things happening in future, just as in order to develop a vaccine against HIV, one must understand the disease. This kind of understanding would have to include an empirical study of the hijackers, and of terrorists in general: I am not claiming that the Aristotelian explanation advanced here is the correct one; that would require further empirical investigation.

    June 12, 2006 — 11:00
  • Rethinking the Rationality of Religious Belief

    religious beliefs are rationally justified while others are not. He offers that Alvin Plantinga might be best considered as holding rational religious beliefs while a suicide bomber does not. The problem arises when we try to figure out exactly what it…

    June 18, 2006 — 15:50
  • Zar

    WELL, AS a Psycology student, we did cover this.
    Rationality doesn’t rest on conclusion, but how the ocnclusion is arrived at. Therefore, how rational a religious beelif is is debendant upon how one arrived at the conclusion when rpesented with Given Data, and how ti si intepreted.
    To add to your example, a regular, modern, western Muslim in the US is not likely to beocme a SUicide Bomber if the same person is acclomaded tot he western cultre. (this can be undermined if they have ties to the middle east.)
    Said Muslim can read the standard arguments in favour of the existance of God, which even many Atheists have admited ar einternally lgical, and from outside observation and expeirnce think there is a God,a nd think the basic tenets of Islam best match the evidence about God.
    Thus, the Muslim woul have rationally entered Islam, and woudl be a rational Muslim if, in his thinkign in regarrds to Islam, he doen’t stray into a sort of frenzied extremism that the 9-11 Hijackers did.
    If his thguths ar einternally consistant, and match external norms expected in an average human society, then he is considered raitonal, and has rational reasons for beign a Muslim.
    In the same way, Plantinga can be raitonal and a Calvinist by simply looking at internally consistant arguments for Calvinism, and seeing he patterns of those arguments as applicable to the world he is observing. If he hten can communicate a coherant, logical worldview that is at leats mostly internally consistant he woudl be deemed raitonal.
    As would his beleifs.
    The 9-11 Hijackers, by the way, where not soley motivate dby Islam, or their religious beleifs. Politicial invovlement and cultural perspective has ot be considered when examining there actions.

    October 3, 2007 — 17:04