Just why can’t we atheists see that religious belief is reasonable? Some religious answers

November 29, 2015

Why do we atheists reject religious belief, and consider it irrational? Here is a survey of some of the explanations that have been offered by the religious. They're not good. This is part of a forthcoming book chapter - it's article length.

How reasonable is it for the religious to believe the central tenets of their respective religions? According to many atheists: not very. Many atheists suppose it is in each case unreasonable for Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Bahá'ís, Quakers, Mormons, Scientologists, and so on to believe what they do.

The religious person usually takes a different view of at least their own religious belief. They suppose science and reason do not significantly undermine, and may indeed support, the core tenets of their own faith. The same is true of non-religious theists. They consider their brand of theism is reasonably, or at least not unreasonably, held even if no particular religion is. Indeed, many theists consider atheism unreasonable.

Even when participants in discussions between atheists on the one hand and defenders of some variety of religious or theistic belief on the other include intelligent, philosophically sophisticated and well-informed people striving to think carefully and objectively, they still often arrive at strikingly different conclusions regarding the reasonableness of their respective positions.

Consider this hypothetical discussion between Peter and Ada, which I take to represent fairly standard views on either side.

Peter is an intelligent, educated, contemporary Christian. Central to Peter’s faith is his belief that the Judeo-Christian God exists and that Jesus was resurrected. Ada is an intelligent, educated contemporary atheist. Ada believes there is no God, and that there was no resurrection. Peter and Ada engage in lengthy and detailed discussion of my central question: how reasonable is it for Peter to hold the Christian beliefs he does? Together they carefully consider Peter’s Christian beliefs, the various arguments he offers in their support and Ada’s also arguments against them. In addition, they carefully examine their respective cases for and against supposing that Peter’s belief in God and/or Christianity might be reasonable, or not unreasonable, not necessarily because it is well supported by evidence and/or argument, but rather by virtue of its being, as the reformed epistemologists put it, properly basic, or because that belief constitutes a good Pascal-type wager. Peter and Ada do their level best to come to a fair and impartial assessment of the reasonableness of Peter’s Christian belief. Nevertheless, they arrive at very different conclusions. Peter concludes, on the basis of the considerations he explores with Ada, that his Christian belief is reasonable, or at least not unreasonable. Indeed, let’s suppose that Peter, like many Christians [ii][ii], believes both that (i) a cumulative case based on publicly available data can be made for Christianity that is strong enough to render Christian belief reasonable, or at least not unreasonable, and also that (ii) Peter can in any case rightly consider his Christian belief reasonable, or at least not unreasonable, given only that he enjoys certain religious experiences. Ada, on the basis of the same considerations they have jointly discussed, concludes that Peter believes unreasonably notwithstanding both the arguments at Peter’s command and also his claimed religious experiences. Ada’s assessment is shared by many atheists, including myself.

Let’s also suppose what is quite likely to be true: that Peter and Ada disagree about how reasonable it is for Ada to believe atheism is true. Ada maintains it is reasonable for her to embrace atheism. Peter concludes that Ada’s atheism is unreasonable.

Of course, we should acknowledge that someone who, like Peter, considers his Christianity to be reasonably (or not unreasonably) held need not consider Ada’s atheism unreasonable. They might believe, for example, that the reasonableness of their own Christian belief derives from its being grounded in religious experiences that Ada lacks. That person might suppose that, given Ada’s relatively impoverished epistemic situation, her rejection of theism and religious faith is reasonable, even while it remains reasonable for those who enjoy such revelatory experiences to believe.

However, even if Peter’s view were that Ada’s atheism is not unreasonable, a significant disagreement would remain. For, like many atheists, Ada believes Peter believes unreasonably. Peter obviously disagrees with Ada about that. Indeed, he would likely consider that assessment of hers to unreasonable, even if not her atheism.

I begin by focusing on some of the explanations Peter might offer for (as Peter sees it) Ada’s error in judging that it's unreasonable for Peter to believe. Why does Ada believe Peter believes unreasonably if, in reality, he doesn't? Were it recognizably the case that Peter does indeed believe unreasonably, that would neatly account for Ada’s judgement to that effect. But if, as Peter supposes, Ada has been presented with a clear and cogent case for supposing his Christian belief is not unreasonably held, why does Ada fail to recognise that fact?

Though I focus here specifically on Christian belief, the points made below in many cases carry over to many other varieties of religious belief

I'll now sketch four answers to the question: If atheists like Ada is mistaken in supposing Christians like Peter believe unreasonably, what explains their error?

(1) Wishful thinking. Atheists like Ada reject Christianity and condemn it as unreasonable not because it is unreasonable, but because they don’t want it, or theism more generally, to be true.

Those who attempt to explain mistaken assessments of the reasonableness of Christianity as a product of wishful thinking sometimes quote atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel, who in his book The Last Word, says:

It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and naturally, hope there is no God. I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.

This may be the view of some atheists, but is it the view of many? Surely the Christian message is one of hope? It provides numerous attractive reassurances, especially about death and justice. In particular, it promises we can be reunited with our loved ones beyond the grave, that people will ultimately get their just deserts, and so on. These are appealing beliefs for most of us.

Indeed, that Christianity is not, as a rule, the sort of thing people want to be true is fairly obviously contradicted by the manner in which Christians tend to promote it. They often place at least as much emphasis on how wonderful it would be if Christianity were true as on any intellectual case that might be made in its support.

But perhaps we've overlooked some of the less attractive aspects of Christian belief, aspects that might yet motivate someone like Ada to condemn it is unreasonable when in reality it is not? Consider the following variant of the wishful-thinking explanation.

(1.1) Atheists don’t want to believe in eternal damnation

In his book The Last Superstition, the philosopher Edward Feser quotes Nagel in support of the view that many secular intellectuals reject religion because they don’t want it to be true. Feser then adds:

Atheism, like religion, can often rest more on a will to believe than on dispassionate rational arguments. Indeed, as the philosopher C.F.J. Martin has pointed out, the element of divine punishment – traditionally understood in the monotheistic religions as a sentence of eternal damnation in Hell – shows that atheism is hardly less plausibly motivated by wishful thinking than theism is. For while it is hard to understand why someone would want to believe that he is in danger of everlasting hellfire, it is not at all hard to see why one would desperately want not to believe this. [ii]

On Feser’s view, the presence of this unappealing thought in Christianity - that divine punishment awaits unbelievers - shows that people are just as likely to disbelieve Christianity as a result of wishful thinking as they are to believe.

Feser is fairly obviously mistaken, I think. It may be true, as a general rule, that the unappealing character of a thought makes it less likely to be believed. However, there's an obvious exception. An exception is when the unappealing thought takes the form of a threat: believe or else.

I once received an email chain message claiming that if I forwarded the message to two friends I would receive good fortune, but if I failed to forward the message I would be cursed with bad luck. The appealing thought that I would receive good luck if I did as I was instructed was obviously intended to incentivize me to pass the message on. But then so too was the unappealing threat of bad luck if I didn’t. The email waved both a carrot and a stick at me, the stick providing me with at least as much incentive to act as the carrot.

A recipient of Feser’s traditional Christian message is presented with a vastly more impressive carrot and stick combination. The carrot includes the promise of everlasting life for those who truly believe; the stick includes the threat of eternal damnation for those who don’t.

Feser is correct that an atheist like Nagel won’t want it to be true that hell awaits those who fail to believe. But then neither do I want it to be true that, as a result of my failing to forward that email message, I will receive bad luck. It does not follow, in either case, that the unpleasant character of the threat functions, on balance, as a disincentive – making it less likely that recipients of the message will do as they are instructed. On the contrary, the inclusion of such a threat typically makes it more likely the recipient will do as instructed, not less. I discarded that email message not because of the unappealing threat it contained, but despite the threat.

There is a second weakness to this particular diagnosis of why it is that atheists fail to recognize the reasonableness of theism or Christianity. Many Christians, including theologically sophisticated Christians, reject the doctrine of eternal damnation. So, even if the thought of eternal damnation did have the off-putting effect Feser supposes, it would only put people off those varieties of theistic belief thought to involve the doctrine. It needn't put them off theism and Christianity per se.

Here’s another variant of the wishful-thinking explanation.

(I.2) Atheists don’t want to submit themselves to God’s moral authority.

Some Christians suggest that those who reject Christian belief as unreasonable do so because they do not want to submit themselves to any external, objective moral authority. They want to be able to pursue their own selfish agendas unfettered by the thought that what they are doing is against God’s will.

This explanation is also implausible, I suggest. Most atheists believe that they have objective moral duties. They believe it is an objective fact that they ought not to steal, lie, and so on[iii]. So it is false that atheists, as a rule, have a problem with acknowledging the existence of objective moral constraints on their behavior. That can’t be the explanation for their assessment that Christian belief is unreasonable.

Indeed atheists do not, as a rule, have any particular difficulty holding beliefs requiring them to act in ways that are not in their own self-interest. They usually strive to behave in accordance with what they take to be their moral duties, even when such behavior is disadvantageous to them personally. This fact significantly reduces the plausibility of the suggestion that atheists are moved to reject Christianity/theism because Christian belief prohibits them acting in their own self-interest.

No doubt there are aspects of mainstream Christian teaching that are particularly off-putting to some. Take traditional Christian sexual teaching for example. It's not implausible that gay people will be more likely than others to reject the widespread Christian belief that gay sexual relationships are sinful. However, most atheists aren’t gay, so a desire to engage in such relations can’t explain their failure to believe. Further, most actively gay atheists are aware that they are welcomed by – and can even be married within – at least some religions (including even some Christian denominations). This still further reduces the plausibility of the suggestion that even their atheism is largely motivated by wishful thinking.

Wishful-thinking-based explanations for the failure of individuals to appreciate the reasonableness of Christian belief also run into obvious trouble with those tortured individuals who struggle valiantly to keep their faith but lose it nonetheless. Their rejection of Christianity does not appear to be motivated by wishful thinking. Quite the opposite.

To summarize: wishful thinking may play some role in producing atheists like Ada, but what evidence we possess regarding the beliefs and desires of atheists provides little reason to suppose it plays any significant role. Indeed, we might plausibly suppose that Ada would, on balance, actually much prefer it if Christianity was true, not false. As a matter of fact, so would I.

(2) Atheists fail to recognize the reasonableness of Christian belief because they are ignorant of the Christian message and/or the strength of the intellectual case in its favour

Is this true? One recent U.S. study found that those self-identifying as atheists and agnostics scored better on average on a general religious knowledge quiz than did the religious. They also had a better knowledge of Christianity, on average, than did those self-identifying as Christian. [iv] It does not appear to be ignorance of the Christian message that accounts for widespread lack of belief, at least not in the U.S.

Might non-belief or disbelief be better explained by a failure to appreciate of the power of the arguments both for the existence of God and the truth of Christianity? Most professional philosophers and philosophy graduate students possess at least a passing knowledge of those arguments. They also have considerable training and expertise in assessing the cogency of arguments. Yet a recent PhilPapers survey indicated that, globally, only 14.6% of professional philosophers and philosophy graduate students favour or lean even towards theism, let alone Christianity. [v]

The above statistic might prompt some Christians to claim that the proportion of theists is at least higher among those specializing in the philosophy of religion (perhaps about 70%, most of whom are Christian [vi]), and that this in turn supports the view that a greater familiarity with the arguments for theism, and indeed Christianity, does indeed lead to an increased likelihood of belief. However, even if it were true that a higher percentage of philosophers of religion are theists and Christians, that would not, as it stands, support the conclusion that this is a result of them having acquired a better appreciation of the strength of the case for theism and Christianity. Philosophy of religion is more likely to attract committed theists and Christians in the first place. Indeed, a recent survey of philosophers of religion revealed that while philosophical training and engagement did indeed lead to belief revision among the 151 respondents, “the direction of this revision was most frequently in the direction of theism to atheism.” [vii] This suggests greater familiarity with the arguments for theism and Christianity doesn't increase belief, but, if anything, tends to decrease it.

Setting aside these more general worries with the above explanation of atheist belief, there remains the obvious problem that the explanation does not apply in Ada’s case. We stipulated that Ada is philosophically sophisticated individual who informed about Peter’s Christian beliefs and familiar with the various arguments at his disposal.

(3) A faulty God-sense/IIHS?

A third explanation for the failure of atheists like Ada to recognise the reasonableness of Christian belief begins with the thought that some people can know directly that God exists by virtue of their possessing a reliable sensus divinitatis or God-sense. Such individuals need not infer that God exists. God just directly makes himself known to them via this additional, reliable, God-given faculty. According to Alvin Plantinga, it may be ‘perfectly sensible’ for such an individual to believe in God. Plantinga says:

[suppose] I have a rich interior spiritual life… it seems to me that I am in communion with God, and that I see something of his marvelous glory and beauty, that I feel his love and his presence with me. Then (unless I’ve got some powerful defeater, and we need not hypothesize that I do) a response that involves believing that there is such a person is clearly perfectly sensible. [viii]

So why do atheists like Ada fail to have direct awareness of God’s existence and consequent reasonable belief? According to Plantinga, because their sensus divinitatis is malfunctioning as a result of sin.

Were it not for sin and its effects, God’s presence and glory would be as obvious and uncontroversial to us all as the presence of other minds, physical objects and the past. Like any cognitive process, however, the sensus divinitatis can malfunction; as a result of sin, it has been damaged.7

According to Plantinga, the failure of atheists reasonably to believe in God is, at least in part, a result of their possessing a faulty, sin-corrupted God-sense.

Plantinga might offer a similar explanation for the failure of atheists reasonably to believe the great truths of the Christian Gospels. On Plantinga’s extended A/C model of how such beliefs might be warranted, knowledge of and reasonable belief in such truths, including the truth of the resurrection, might be had through the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit (IIHS). On reading the Gospels, the Holy Spirit illuminates what is read and causes the Christian to recognise that it is true. But why, then, on reading the same Biblical passages, does the atheist not benefit from a similar revelation? Presumably, because sin somehow smothers or blocks their epistemic access. [ix]

How plausible is the sin-blocked-sensus/IIHS explanation for the failure of atheists to recognize reasonableness of Christian belief? Most religious people concede that many atheists are virtuous, moral people – sometimes at least as moral as many of their Christian counterparts who nevertheless appear to enjoy such revelatory experiences. So why, assuming these atheistic individuals are not significantly more sin-ravaged than their Christian counterparts, do they not similarly enjoy the benefits of a reliably functioning sensus divinitatis and the revelatory activity of the Holy Spirit when reading the Gospels, and thus come sensibly to believe in both God and the great claims of the Gospels? [x]

Suppose Peter claims to enjoy just the sort of revelatory experiences that Plantinga supposes a reliably functioning sensus divinitatis and the IIHS might deliver. Ada lacks these experiences. Yet, like many atheists, Ada doesn’t appear particularly sinful. We might plausibly suppose she appears at least as virtuous as Peter. Perhaps more so. But then the sin-based explanation for the failure of Ada reasonably to believe what Peter reasonably believes seems to fail in this case.

What if the sin-blocked nature of the mechanisms that might otherwise provide an atheist with reasonable belief in both God and the great truths of the Gospels is accounted for not by that atheist’s own personal sin, but by the sin of others? Perhaps, as a result of the general damp environment in which it’s currently located, Ada’s car won’t start. Similarly, because of the sin-filled environment in which she is currently located, Ada’s sensus divinitatis won’t work. It’s not her own personal sin that’s caused the malfunction, but her sin-filled environment.

We've rescued the sin-based explanation for Ada’s failure reasonably to believe in God and Christianity, but only by introducing more puzzles. Given that Ada and Peter occupy much the same environment, why does its sin-filled character cause Ada’s sensus divinitatis to malfunction, but not Peter’s?

We might similarly wonder why it is that the virtuous members of other religions who have heard the Gospel message also fail to recognise its truth. Presumably it’s not their own personal sin that is blocking the IIHS. But if it’s our more general sin-filled environment that’s responsible for the blockage, why is it that Peter receives full epistemic access via the IIHS while neither Ada nor, say, Peter’s virtuous Muslim colleague, perhaps sitting next to Peter in the same library and reading the very same Gospel passages, does not?

Of course, if the only sin that really matters – the only sin that blocks an individual’s epistemic access – is that of not believing in the existence of God and the truth of Christianity, then of course atheists like Ada as well as those of other religious faiths are indeed all sinners in the requisite sense. Peter, by contrast, though he might in other respects be less virtuous than Ada, would be, in this vital respect, sin-free. That, we might suppose, is why Peter enjoys these revelatory experiences while both Ada and Peter’s otherwise-equally-virtuous Muslim colleague do not.

But notice that if that is how we understand Ada’s sensus divinitatis and IIHS blocking sin, we can’t now explain Ada’s failure to believe as a consequence of her sin. For our explanation would then be circular. Our explanation for Ada’s failure to believe would be that she fails to believe.

In summary, what evidence there is concerning the way in which immorality, belief, and such revelatory experiences are distributed tends not to support such sin-based explanations for the failure of atheists to recognise the reasonableness of theistic and Christian belief but, if anything, to undermine them.

Notice two further shortcoming of the sin-blocked sensus/IIHS explanation for the Ada’s supposed error in judging that Peter believes unreasonably. First, it doesn’t explain that assessment. It explains, at best, only why Ada herself fails reasonably to believe (i.e. her sensus/IIHS access is sin-blocked and she lacks other adequate grounds for belief). It doesn’t explain why Ada mistakenly judges that Peter believes unreasonably. Given (i) Peter claims sincerely to have just the kind of experiences Plantinga describes, (ii) Plantinga clearly and successfully explains why Peter’s belief is, under the circumstances, ‘perfectly sensible’, and (iii) Ada fully understands that Plantingian explanation, why is it that Ada fails to recognise that, though she may lack such experiences herself, it is ‘perfectly sensible’ for Peter to believe what he does given his experiences? Ada’s error here – and indeed my own, as I am of the same opinion – might yet be explained, but, as it stands, the Plantingian account of why Ada and others do not enjoy such experiences fails to deliver the required explanation.

A second weakness of the sin-blocked sensus/IIHS explanation for Ada’s error is that it explains at best only why Ada fails reasonably, or not unreasonably, to believe on the basis of religious experience. It doesn’t explain why she fails to recognise that Peter’s Christian belief is not unreasonable given the evidential case with which she has been presented. For according to Peter, that evidential case establishes his belief is not unreasonable.

I'll digress here briefly to examine a variant of the sin-blocking explanation offered by philosopher William Lane Craig. According to Craig, the Holy Spirit works in all men to reveal the truth of Christianity. However, the atheist deliberately blocks this activity:

The Bible says all men are without excuse. Even those who are given no good reason to believe and many persuasive reasons to disbelieve have no excuse, because the ultimate reason they do not believe is that they have deliberately rejected God's Holy Spirit. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, (Revised edition, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), p. 37.

… when a person refuses to come to Christ it is never just because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties: at root, he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God's Spirit on his heart. No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God.[1] [1] Ibid, pp. 35-36.

Notice Craig’s diagnosis of how sin blocks or smothers the internal activity of the Holy Spirit brings us back to the first of our four popular explanations: wishful thinking. On Craig’s view, the atheist in whom the Holy Spirit has been at work does, at some level, know that God exists and that Christianity is true. However the atheistdeliberately suppresses or rationalizes away this knowledge because they do not want to have to face it overtly. Craig suggests this explanation for atheist rejection of Christian and indeed theistic belief accounts for the fact that atheists are deserving of hell. Rejecting God in this way is the one unforgiveable sin.

Craig’s variant of the wishful-thinking explanation runs into much the same difficulties that plague other wishful-thinking-based accounts. Most obviously, it's clear many atheists and agnostics really do desperately want Christianity to be true, and struggle valiantly, if ultimately without success, to retain their faith.

(4) Atheists are led astray by the devil/demons

The devil is sometimes credited with blinding people to the existence of God and truth of Christianity. The Bible says, for example:

Those by the way side are they that hear; then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. Luke8:12

C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters presents a fictional narrative to illustrate how he supposes demons (in whom he really believed [xi]) engage in skillful psychological manipulation: they whisper into our ears and leading us away from the truth. So perhaps part of the explanation for the failure of Ada and others to recognize the reasonableness of Christian belief is that they have allowed themselves to be seduced by such diabolical trickery.

Explanations and ‘just so’ stories

The explanations outlined above aren't supposed to be exhaustive, but they are intended to illustrate something of the range of explanations available to Peter. Peter might suppose Ada’s failure to recognise the reasonableness of Peter’s Christian belief is due to (i) some intellectual weakness of hers (e.g. Ada is ignorant of, or lacks the intellectual ability to appreciate the strength of, the case for considering Peter’s Christian belief not unreasonable), (ii) her own emotional or spiritual resistance to that case, or (iii) something else blocking or interfering with mechanisms that might otherwise deliver that recognition (e.g. devils lead Ada’s thought processes astray). The explanations might be employed individually or in combination.

However, the explanations examined have various drawbacks. The first drawback is that the first two explanations don't appear to apply to someone like Ada whom, we are supposing, is neither ignorant of the claims or the case for Christianity nor intellectually weak, and who does not find Christianity unattractive.

Of course, Peter might suggest Ada and others who profess not to find unattractive are deluding themselves. They say they don’t find it unattractive. But in reality, deep down, they do find it unattractive. That's a possibility of course. However, this suggestion faces an obvious drawback: it's a ‘just so’ story. There is little in the way of independent evidence to suggest that it is true.

This same drawback afflicts Peter’s remaining two explanations in terms of a sin-blocked sensus/IIHS and/or the activities of devils. True, if there are devils that can lead us astray in the way C.S. Lewis supposed, then that might explain why atheists like Ada fail to recognise the reasonableness of Christian belief. But, even setting aside worries about whether a coherent story can be told regarding why a loving God would allow demons so disastrously to dupe us in this way, there remains the obvious objection that while this explanation might make internal sense from the point of view of Christianity, there is little in the way of independent evidence to suggest the explanation is true.

The sin-blocked sensus divinitatis/IIHS explanation suffers the same flaw. Perhaps we can know that, if God exists and Christianity is true, it is likely God would both furnish us with a sensus divinitatis and also make the truth of Christianity known by some similar mechanism. However, even if we can know that, if God exists and Christianity is true, then such mechanisms probably do exist, what independent evidence is there not only that such mechanisms exist, but that the failure of atheists like Ada to recognise that belief in God and Christianity is not unreasonable is due, even in part, to their sin-blocked nature? Little, if indeed any.

Notice that the kind of explanations offered by Peter tend to be offered not just to account for the failure of sceptics to recognise the reasonableness of other religions, but also to account for the failure of sceptics to recognise the reasonableness of belief in other new Age and fringe belief systems. Suppose Alice believes, on the basis of testimony of others and her own subjective sense that such things exist and communicate with her, in the existence of disembodied spirit guides. She finds that many are sceptical, and think she believes unreasonably. To explain this, she might very well appeal to a combination of wishful thinking (people don’t want to be distracted by other-worldly considerations from their narrow, self-interested pursuit of material wealth and power; also, they often find unattractive the thought that they inhabit a world in which invisible beings monitor their every move, stripping them of all privacy), ignorance (people are unaware of the good evidence that exists for such beings), a blocked spirit sense (it has spiritually corrupted by worldly concerns, or perhaps the spirits can see some individuals are not yet ready to receive their spiritual wisdom), or the activities of other, less benevolent disembodied beings who have an interest in blocking our spiritual development and who consequently work to blind people to the reality of spirit guides. Notice Alice's explanations suffer similar drawbacks to Peter's. Wishful thinking? But many sceptics would like to believe in spirit guides. Ignorance? But many sceptics are by no means ignorant of the evidence Alice finds compelling. And of course, Alice's last two explanations are also 'just so' stories: theymight be true, but there's little if any independent reason to suppose they are true.

(Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (New York: Oxford `University Press 1997). p130).

[ii] The Last Superstition (South Bend, Indiana: St Augustine’s Press, 2008) p. 10.

[iii] Indeed, the observation that “[m]ost of us think that in moral experience we do apprehend objective values and obligations” (and Craig here includes atheists) is used by William Lane Craig to support a premise of his moral argument for the existence of God. See William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd Edition (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway books, 2008) p. 180.

[iv] Results of a 2010 survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life – results summarized at: https://www.pewforum.org/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey.aspx

[v] Results of the Philpapers survey are at: https://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl

[vi] In the English-speaking world just over 70 percent of those who specialize in philosophy of religion are theists according to two studies Most of them are

Christian. See Bourget, David and David Chalmers 2009. "Correlations with: AOS:Philosophy of Religion," in The PhilPapers Surveys. https://philpapers.org/surves/linear_most_with.pl?A=profile%3AAOS%3APhilosophy%20of%20

Religion and De Cruz, Helen 2012. "Confirmation Bias or Expertise? The Prevalence of Theism in Philosophy of Religion," https://prosblogion.ektopos.com/archives/2012/02/one-of-thestri.


[vii] Preliminary report of results from the 2013 British Academy funded survey are available online from Helen de Cruz here: https://prosblogion.ektopos.com/2013/12/31/results-of-my-qualitative-study-of-attitudes-and-religious-motivations-of-philosophers-of-religion/

[viii] Alvin Plantinga, “Reformed Epistemology” in Philip L. Quinn and Charles Taliaferro (eds.) A Companion to The Philosophy of Religion (Oxford: Blackwell 1997), p. 387

[ix] Plantnga’s account of how firm and certain knowledge of the great truths of the Gospels can be had by means of a process of belief formation instigated by the Holy Spirit (a process that brings about belief in those truths in response to the of reading scripture, etc.) is presented in his Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). See chapter 8.

[x] That this is true of many atheists is of course widely acknowledged even by many theists. See for example Daniel Howard-Snyder, who writes.

Even though some nonbelievers lack true benevolence, the empirical evidence strongly suggests that others possess it since they really do earnestly seek the truth about God, love the Good, assess evidence judiciously, and, if anything, display a prejudice for God, not against Him.( Howard-Snyder, Daniel (2006)."Hiddenness of God". In Donald M. Borchert. Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2nd ed.)

Encyclopedia of philosophy [Ressource électronique] / Editeur en chef Donald M. Borchert
Detroit : Macmillan Reference USA, 2006

[xi] As Lewis explained in an interview in Time magazine, 'There is no uncreated being except God. God has no opposite. . . . The proper question is whether I believe in devils. I do. That is to say, I believe in angels, and I believe that some of these, by the abuse of their free will, have become enemies to God.'


#1 Paul S. Jenkins (Guest) on Sunday November 29, 2015 at 4:55am

The sin-blocked sensus divinitatis explanation is similar to how “skeptical vibes” can somehow prevent psychic phenomena manifesting under controlled testing.

#2 Piers Benn on Sunday November 29, 2015 at 4:24pm

An excellent piece. But I have just one comment about reason 1 (and 1.1) for not wanting to believe in Christianity.

It strikes me that, as Feser says, it could well be that some non-believers do not want to believe, because of the burdens that Christianity would place upon them, if it were true. The example of the chain letter does not seem entirely apt. To forward a chain letter because of the ‘danger’ of not forwarding it would be pretty effortless. But to convert to Christianity would not involve just the ‘moment’ of conversion; to avoid damnation (on many traditional Christian views) one must do one’s best, once a believer, to avoid what is considered sin and to live a Christian life. Christians do not generally say this is easy. So the thought of being obliged to live this life, in both ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ respects, could well be a disincentive to conversion.

But then why not still accept that as being a lot better than the risk of hell? Consider this analogy. Your doctor has done some tests, and thinks it signficantly likely (though not certain) that you have cancer, and that your only hope of survival is to undergo painful and debilitating treatment, which will greatly change your life. You believe the doctor when she says that *if* you have the cancer, your only hope is the treatment. Nevertheless, might there not be a great temptation to disbelieve the diagnosis, in order not to face up to the treatment? This sort of thing is certainly common in patients!

Obviously, the analogy with religious conversion is not perfect - for example, Christians will tell you that the Christian life is joyful once embraced, whereas no one says the medical treatment is enjoyable (its *only* purpose is to eradicate the cancer). Still, the nasty aspects of the treatment could still be a disincentive to believe it is necessary.

That’s only a minor point, by the way. I like the way you methodically take apart some other arguments produced by the likes of Craig!

#3 David Frampton (Guest) on Sunday November 29, 2015 at 10:09pm

I much appreciated your exploration of these arguments, Stephen, and particularly the idea that there are atheists who might well want Christianity to be true if they did not have overriding reasons to reject it.  Recollecting from a distance is of course hazardous, but my youthful experiments with religion must have included the idea that in some vague and unexplained way some version of me would spend eternity with the people I loved.  However, even in the earlier stages of my progressive abandonment of religious beliefs, the creeping absurdity of this prospect weighed heavily. At what stages of life would eternal relationships with friends and the people I loved occur, and what on earth would we be doing in each others’ company for ever?
It occurred to me on reading your article that far from this scepticism arising from a poorly functioning sensus divinitatis, it was much more plausibly attributable to a simple failure of imagination which, while I suppose it might count as a cognitive deficiency of some kind, could hardly amount to a ‘sin’ if it was an unchosen psychological predisposition.  I simply could not imagine unmitigated permanent spiritual joy.

In the intervening years, I have grown use to the idea that there will come a point beyond which there will be no me to have any kind of relationship with all those I will hate to be leaving behind.  If nagging theologians want to disbelieve that deeply human recognition of inevitability that no amount of wishful thinking can overcome, that is their problem.

#4 Stephen Law (Guest) on Monday November 30, 2015 at 1:30am

Many thanks Paul, Piers, and David. Piers - you have a point. I might include it. Paul - the sin blocked sensus explanation is indeed similar to the sceptic damping effect explanation for the failure of psychic phenomena to turn up in the lab, as both explanations are ‘just so’ stories for which there’s no independent evidence. The former is even more like the ‘God won’t be tested’ explanation for why prayer experiments fail to show God answers prayers.

#5 Adrian Bailey (Guest) on Monday November 30, 2015 at 9:21am

I think the chain-letter analogy is quite good, since for many people becoming a believer would not be an onerous step. Many believers do very little to “live differently” and I’d fit in easily among them.

I think the cancer-treatment analogy is also quite good - becoming a believer would be quite painful since I would have to reject so much that I know about the universe as I tried to fit it all into a religion-shaped box. But the threat of cancer far outweighs the threat of hell; whatever might be reasonably held to be true about Christianity, hell is obviously a fairytale.

#6 Piers Benn on Monday November 30, 2015 at 9:51am

Well, orthodox traditional Christianity - Catholic and Protestant (I’m not sure about the Eastern Orthodox) - does have a doctrine of hell. Some Christians are universalists, who believe that in the end everyone will be saved. Some Christians believe in hell (in a sense) but try to ‘soften’ it in various ways, e.g. by denying that it is forever, or by minimising the suffering, or by saying that hardly anyone is bad enough to end up there. Hell may be a fairytale, but it isn’t a fairytale if traditional Christianity is true. So the fear of hell, and the desire to believe it doesn’t exist, can be disincentives to believe in Christianity. I suspect, in fact, that is *is* a disincentive for me, and I have to keep reminding myself that this is not wholly rational.

#7 Philip Rand (Guest) on Monday November 30, 2015 at 11:32pm

De Law

You relate:

“I once received an email chain message claiming that if I forwarded the message to two friends I would receive good fortune, but if I failed to forward the message I would be cursed with bad luck. The appealing thought that I would receive good luck if I did as I was instructed was obviously intended to incentivize me to pass the message on. But then so too was the unappealing threat of bad luck if I didn’t. The email waved both a carrot and a stick at me, the stick providing me with at least as much incentive to act as the carrot.

I discarded that email message not because of the unappealing threat it contained, but despite the threat.”

Your decision not to send the email was irrational.

The ONLY reason you should not send the email is that it would not be a kind thing to do to your two friends.

However, what is interesting is that you did not see this.

#8 Stephen Law (Guest) on Tuesday December 01, 2015 at 5:11am

‘Your decision not to send the email was irrational.’

The article doesn’t say why I didn’t send the email. For all you know, the reason I didn’t send it is the reason you gave for not sending it.

This is one reason why it’s frustrating interacting with you Philip, and why I suspect you are really just a troll. You endlessly misrepresent.

#9 Ben Watkins (Guest) on Tuesday December 01, 2015 at 6:20am

A great read!  When is the forthcoming book expected to be released?

#10 Tony Lloyd (Guest) on Wednesday December 02, 2015 at 7:32am

Quite apart from arguments about its plausibility, even if we grant the existence of a sensus divinatatis I don’t think it helps either Plantinga (“it makes theism rational”) or Craig (“it makes atheism irrational”).

If we can establish theism is rational and atheism irrational by mundane arguments and evidence then the sensus divinatatis doesn’t help, because it’s not needed. We only need concern ourselves with the situation where on the arguments and evidence theism is irrational and atheism rational.

Does the sensus divinatatis overturn that? 
Let’s look at a parallel situation. At the beginning of every football season somehow, on some subconscious level, I am convinced that Everton will win the league this season. All the evidence and arguments, of course, point away from this. Absent any sensus-toffeenus for most seasons no rational person thinks Everton will win the league. So would I be rational to throw out the clear arguments against Everton winning the league and go with my gut? Would it be irrational not to throw out the clear arguments against it being Everton’s year and go with my gut?

I don’t think either is the case. I have lots of internal convictions, some right, most wrong. I have direct refutations of many of my internal convictions (England didn’t win the 1990 World Cup). It would be foolish to rely on internal convictions that are wrong.

It could be argued that I should rely on those internal convictions which are to some extent reliable. But I don’t know which those are and cannot just rely on those that are reliable and dismiss those that aren’t. I must choose between:
1.  relying on none,
2.  relying on all,
3.  bringing in some arbitrary basis for choosing which to rely on or
4.  rely on those that I have a reason to rely on

Both “2” and “3” involve relying on convictions that are wrong. “1” involves rejecting the sensus divinatatis. “4” involves at least some support from arguments or evidence external to the sensus divinatatis: the rationality of belief/irrationality of disbelief must be established (to some extent) independent of the sensus divinatatis to make relying on the sensus divinatatis rational.

So sensus divinatatis cannot turn the irrational to rational or vice versa.

#11 Stephen Law (Guest) on Wednesday December 02, 2015 at 2:01pm

Interesting suggestion, Tony. Not occurred to me before….

#12 Stephen Law (Guest) on Wednesday December 02, 2015 at 2:02pm

Ben - the book is out sometime next year. It is not by me. I’ll plug it though….

#13 Ted Williams (Guest) on Wednesday December 02, 2015 at 9:11pm

In a general case scenario, isn’t any explanation Peter comes up with for why Ada holds a particular belief - merely an attempt at mind reading and a ‘just so’ story? In what way could Peter possibly gather independent evidence about Ada’s reasoning?

Even if Ada were to lay out her entire reasoning process for Peter to examine, that would be a self-reported account dependent on Ada: her not lying, not misreporting, etc.

Alternatively, if I may use a less positive example (in contrast to the article) - let’s suppose Peter has established that Ada is poorly educated and morally inferior as objective, independent facts. Is it now reasonable for Peter to conclude that therefore one or both of these factors are responsible for Ada’s error?

I would say: only if Peter has a reasonable basis for his theory that these are the only factors that could lead one to Ada’s conclusion. Does he? That seems like an open question, and trying to offer answers dependent on the theological arguments that Peter already accepts seems circular to me.

#14 rl (Guest) on Thursday December 03, 2015 at 8:57am

For myself (and many I know) evidence and special pleading are big problem.
Consider core Christian “beliefs”:
1) the god of the Bible exists and is the one true god
2) Jesus existed
3) vicarious punishment/redemption via human sacrifice predated by animal sacrifice was necessary to appease this god for an “original sin”

All of these ideas and premises are problematic.
1) why is the god of the Bible the one true god? We (non-Christians) have no good reason to believe this god is any different than any of the thousands of others created by the minds of men.
2) It is more likely than not that Jesus didn’t even exist (refer to Carrier and others) - even if he did, everything written about him is hearsay and pre existing mythology,
3) the core ideas of Christianity are irrational and unacceptable even to Christians outside the context of Christianity.

Imo, Christianity is irrational and philosophically indefensible. Similar arguments can be made for other religious ideologies.

Finally, for excellent arguments for atheism, I recommend Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Martin). I think that book more than adequately addresses the most important issues with respect to atheism v theism.

#15 Philip Rand (Guest) on Sunday December 06, 2015 at 3:46am

Plantinga’s sensus divinitatis idea is interesting…

Trivially, one could liken it to children and young adults that can hear certain high-pitched noises…while most adults cannot (adults lose this ability, i.e. it gets “corrupted”)... however, a minority of adults do not lose this ability.

Some shops use high-pitched alarms in an attempt to discourage young adults entering their premises.

Now, let’s say both Peter and Ada are adults… Ada has lost the ability to hear high-pitched noises while Peter has not…

They both enter a shop that has an high-pitched alarm activated…

On entering… Peter wants to leave immediately because the high-pitched alarm sound is hurting his ears… Ada, on the other hand hears nothing…

Peter tells Ada he wants to leave the shop because the noise in the shop is hurting his ears… Ada, looks at him dumbfounded…“What noise?” she says…“I can’t hear anything”...

Peter insists he can hear a very high-pitched noise…but, no matter how much he tries to reason with Ada about the noise… she refuses to believe him…“You are being completely irrational Peter…there is no noise!”

In the end, Peter leaves the shop without Ada…as he leaves Ada tells him:

“This is one reason why it’s frustrating going shopping with you Peter, and why I suspect you are really just a shopping troll. You endlessly try to get out of shopping with me.”

As Peter leaves the shop…he responds to Ada’s quip with… “Yeah, whatever Ada…though that is a good example of wishful thinking on your part Ada!”

#16 Philip Rand (Guest) on Sunday December 06, 2015 at 3:50am

And yes… in the high-pitched noise case… one could empirically test for it… but that is only because one knows a priori what to measure…

In Plantinga’s sensus divinitatis “sense-organ” we have absolutely no idea what to measure…

#17 r l (Guest) on Sunday December 06, 2015 at 5:43am

It may be interesting, but it’s not persuasive, imo.

#18 rl (Guest) on Sunday December 06, 2015 at 5:48am

Refer to wiki.ironchariots Argument from divine sense for sufficient criticism

#19 Dimitrios Trimijopulos on Tuesday December 08, 2015 at 12:54am

_Why do we atheists reject religious belief, and consider it irrational?_

To start with, most people identifying themselves as atheist are actually agnostics, who do not consider religious beliefs irrational since their ignorance regarding God’s existence they base on the arguments of the believer.

True atheists, who are educated in religious matters, reject religious beliefs because they know that all of them were the product of chance and accident rather than inspiration or meditation.
The soul concept, on which immortality and otherworld concepts are based, is not even a concept as it is the product of the coexistence of various factors in the environment of the ancient Egyptian theology.

The heavenly “g” gods were the product of a joke…

And, finally, the “G” God was created out of the fusion of the attributes of two “g” gods:

Were academy to allow the teaching of the history of religion in the universities, no believer would have ever reached graduation.

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