The Rationality of Religious Belief

Dr. Absar Ahmad
One very important and time-honoured approach to the philosophy of religion has been through the "Proofs of God´s Existence" as the idea of God has almost invariably constituted the core of religion and religious affirmation throughout the history of human thought. However, it is generally asserted by contemporary analytic philosophers that "Proofs of God" are under a cloud today. Wether the cloud can be dissipated or not, I am not going to dissipate it in this paper. But as I shall modestly try to show in the sequel, the weather for religion even under this cloud is not all that bleak and dismal as some may think.

Contemporary thinkers and professional philosophers have created a mental climate very unfavourable to metaphysics in general, but they have, to my mind, certainly not succeeded in disproving on principle the possibility of valid and fruitful metaphysical arguments even in the old transcendent sense of ‘metaphysics´. That is also partly the reason why lively discussions are still being carried out on the arguments for the existence or non-existence of God and rationality of religious belief in the form of books, monographs and a spat of journal articles. However, I must admit that in my opinion the best that can be said of arguments or proofs for the existence of God is that they give some intellectual support to the belief, not that they are really decisive. Also, there is some point in the claim that if God´s existence could be proved i.e., in a logically rigorous fashion, then we would, necessarily, get a finite God__one which can be an essential logical component in a speculative philosophical system but which cannot, in principle, be the God of living theistic religions. It is asserted, quite legitimately I think, that just as effective scientific inquiry presupposes an operative conviction that the world is ordered, so genuine religious practice demands a lively faith in the reality of God and in that reality at work in us.

But then, let me allow to say, the very classic notion of ‘proof´ as it functions in the justification of religious belief is itself problematic. I believe that the classical proofs are not intended as logical demonstrations, nor do they function as the foundations of a belief in God; rather they play a role in ‘predisposing´ one, as it were, to religious belief and offer a kind of retrospective justification from within the belief context. One can best appreciate the arguments and theological discussions of Anselm, Aquinas, Augustine, and Kant by situating them all in the "faith seeking understanding" tradition. Indeed the poverty and inapplicability of propositional logic and strict demonstrative proof is quit manifest in religion. By common consent, religion is seen to be more than just a set of beliefs, and even belief itself is seen to involve more than mere assent to abstract propositions. More concretely, religion is encountered as a complex set of practices bearing on the relation of man to what is holy, practices which are intricately interrelated with all those other practices the sum of which define human existence and destiny. It involves a total human response, a response to the totality of being as we experience it. Nor are the criteria of rationality eternally fixed and simply given to us for unquestioned use as measuring rods. Positivist and empiricist philosophers in general assumed that the issue of the ‘rationality´ is fixed and un-problematic and suitable as it stands as a measuring rod vis-a-vis religious belief. But recently this simplistic strategy has been seriously called into question.

Quite a number of forceful and cogently argued studies which have appeared over the last decade in Anglo-American analytical philosophy, make the point that our specific questions about the rationality of religious beliefs should be seen as much about rationality as about specific items of religion. They also convincingly exhibit the fact that this question should address religion concretely as a human practice rather than abstractly as a system of propositions. That is why philosophy of religion has been increasingly shifting from simply rational investigation of faith claims to probing the meaning and validity of the religious viewpoint generally drawing on all the great religions as resources.

One welcome effect of the present-day logico-linguistic development in philosophy has been to lay great emphasis on the fact that language can perform many other functions besides that of making statements. There is no doubt that, even if theological sentences do make factual statements about reality, this is not all they do. They also express and communicate emotion, incite and commit to action. It is in this context that Professor Alvin Plantinga makes a prima facie useful distinction between believing that God exists and believing in God. To believe that God exists is just to accept a certain proposition, the proposition that there really is such a person as God as true. To believe in God, on the other hand, is to trust Him, to commit one´s life to Him, to make His purposes one´s own, to worship and adore Him. But it seems crucial to me that all these things relevant to believing in God become meaningful and philosophically respectable on the basis of factual claims, especially about God. While it is important to dwell on the latter functions of religious language, we need not exclude the former. In my view, no good reason has been produced for saying that it is senseless or irrational to make such factual theological claims. Whether they are true is another matter. For one thing, why should ‘facts´ be necessarily limited to the those potentially present to sense-perception? If the belief that God exists is rational, then this is assuredly by far the most important fact about the universe.

But having said all this, we have only stated the problem. Our question now is whether belief in God is rational. An apparently straightforward way to approach this question would be to take a definition of rationality and see if belief in God conforms to it. The chief difficulty with this apparently appealing course, however, is that no such definition of rationality seems to be available. If there were such a definition, it presumably would set out some conditions for a belief´s being rationally acceptable conditions that are severally necessary and jointly sufficient. But to the best of my knowledge it is monumentally difficulty to find a list of such non-trivial necessary conditions at all. Surely, for example, insisting that S´s belief that P is rational only if it is true will not help. For do not scientists quite often rationally believe a proposition which, as it turns out, is false? Many instances of this can be cited from the history of scientific thought. So this move clearly is not going to serve our purpose.

Another candidate generally considered important and decisive in determining the plausibility or rationality of theistic belief is that of evidence or sufficient evidence. It is maintained that belief in God is rational only if there is, on balance, a prepondrance of evidence for it or less radically, only if there is not, on balance, a prepondrance of evidence against it. Now, there are obviously some problems even with this approach. For example, philosophers do not agree among themselves on the question as to how much evidence is sufficient for the belief to be rational. More important, the notion of evidence is just about as difficult and tricky as that of rationality: What is evidence? How do you know when you have some? How do you know when you have sufficient or enough? Suppose, furthermore, that a person thinks he has sufficient evidence for a proposition p when in fact he does not__would he then be irrational in believing p ? Some philosophers ostensibly try to solve these problems by asserting that what is essential to the evidence-thesis is the claim that we must evaluate the rationality of belief in God by examining its relation to other propositions. That is, we are directed to estimate its rationality by determining whether we have evidence for it whether we know, or at any rate rationally believe, some other propositions which stand in the appropriate relation to the proposition in question. And belief in God is rational, or reasonable, or rationally acceptable on this view only if there are other propositions with respect to which it is thus evident.

Let us see how far this proposal can actually be helpful and in what way. Suppose there is a set of propositions E such that a man´s belief in God is rational if and only if it is evident with respect to E if and only if E constitutes, on balance for it. But the most important question here is: what propositions are to he found in E ? I personally hold the view that all these propositions will directly or obliquely link up with what I shall call a person´s NOETIC STRUCTURE i.e., the assemblage of beliefs about the sources and possibilities of knowledge, definition and of criteria of meaning and value a person holds, together with the various logical and epistemic relations that hold among them. Here I have deliberately mentioned knowledge and meaning separately because it is of utmost significane to differentiate them and discuss them independetly of each other. But, of course, what I have in mind regarding meaning has nothing to do with modern semantic analysis of statements. For example, Professor A.N.Prior took it only in this minimal linguistic sense when he remarked: ‘The real intellectual difficulty of the believer or would be believer is not the problem of proof but the problem of meaning´. As far as I am concerned, I must confess that God has a great deal of meaning for me and for billions of others. And if this is problematic to Professor Prior or to any other I recommend he searches his own conscience.

Indeed, philosophers like Prior and others have turned philosophy into a narrow and specialised subject of little relevance or interest to anyone outside the small circle of professional philosophers. Present-day academic philosophy is ‘done´ and transmitted in an atmosphere of so-called scholarly detachment. It appears to be entirely remote from the struggles, needs and aspirations of the people. Academic philosophers, both in their thought and in their lives, it would appear, have almost entirely withdrawn from any relationship with the concrete social reality around them. They frequently boast of their ‘coolness´, their ‘detachment´, their ‘ethical neutrality´ etc. In short they seem to have abdicated from any socially valuable role, and their work consequently turns out to be entirely trivial and irrelevant. It is characteristic of this type of philosophers that they come to think they can dismiss a complex theoretical system such as a case for theistic belief in a few deft ‘moves´ or with a few clever points, and to distrust whatever is not put in the professional patois of ‘claims´, unpacking, entailment, and which does not have the sleek professionalism and glibness that unfortunately now passes for rigour and brilliance. The result of all this has been that serious philosophical work beyond the conventional sphere is visibly minimal, and it has led to a sort of academicism which in turn trivializes philosophy and manifests itself in an uncritical attitude to social ideologies and metaphysical worldviews. An average thoughtful person on the other hand, wants to establish his life in some satisfying and meaningful relation to the universe in which he finds himself, and to get some wisdom in the conduct of human affairs. There has been a general agreement on the type of problems with which ‘wisdom´ and hence philosophy is centrally concerned. They are those which raise the questions of the meaning of human life, and the ultimate significance of the world in which human life has its setting, in so far as that character has a bearing on human destiny. And what is that destiny ? Why and whence is there anything at all ? I venture to think that linguistic and analytical philosophers of the West do not address themselves to any of these questions. Philosophy which they have produced, though replete with technical jargon, is empty, formal and sterile. It is extremely instructive to note here that Ludwig Wittgenstein, the venerated philosopher of the later half of this century, has aptly remarked:

"Even if every possible scientific question were answered, the problems of our living would still not have been touched at all,"

What are the problems of our living to which Wittgenstein is referring ? I am sure he himself and his acolytes know it very well that these pertain to the meaning of human existence, his ultimate destiny and salvation. And a probe into these quite naturally leads one to religion itself: religious belief, faith or insight is always an interpreting word or an expression of the significance, purpose, and intent of human life.

I would urge that the lesson we learnt form Kierkegaard should not be frogotten in discussing rationality and religious (theistic) belief. Modern scholars have rather unduly concentrated on religion as a system of concepts: rational, incredible, credible, legitimate, illegitimate, warranted, unwarranted, as an intellectual ‘possibility´ for one´s knowledge. They have generally not considered the deeper existential questions of the conditions for its reduplication into a thought-form qualifying his life nor how that relation in turn qualifies its credibility for him. It seems to me that these difficult questions bracketed so far cannot be totally set aside in any serious and candid philosophical study of religion and religious belief. When theism is considered valid and rational a participating sense of the working of the divine in one´s existence is surely an element in that sense of validity. Religion is also, to be sure, a series of ideas set into symbolic terms, and it can be considered, criticized, defended and reshaped in that light. But the relevance, meaning and validity/rationality of these symbols appear only if these symbols permeate the whole being and praxis of a person. For this reason the term ‘rationality´ takes on deeper dimensions than merely rational coherence and logical adequacy or possibility.

To come back to the role of evidence in determining the rationality of religious belief, the conception of evidence or indubitability in what purports to be an ordinary scientific framework is just not applicable in religion. Even an alleged indubitability or evidence would be irrelevant because, to quote Wittgenstein again, "the indubitability would not be enough to make me change my whole life" (Lectures, p. 57). That is to say, religious belief cannot be refuted on the grounds of insufficient evidence because ordinary conception of ‘evidence´ in this case is inappropriate and therefore not applicable. Theologians have traditionally worked through the medium of a reason which had an ontological foundation and was thus congenial to various forms of rational theology based on the coordination of the concepts of Being and God. Thus rationality in religion was a function of this ontological reason, and large differences of opinion within that framework were allowed. By contrast, the modern conception of rationality is either non-ontological or anti-ontological in orientation. It is rooted in a Scientia and considerations drawn from religious experience and insight have played no part in the determination of what this rationality means. In the traditional situation, the possibility of showing that the content of religious belief could be made intelligible was a real possibility, even if it could not always be realized to the satisfaction of all concerned; whereas in the modern situation, for many empiricists and positivists at least, no such possibility is envisaged at all, because the standard of rationality and intelligibility has been defined for the specific purpose of excluding it.

Historically speaking, the modern problems of rationality in religion have been set largely by the decline, beginning in the eighteenth century, of the classical philosophical traditions, coupled with the rise of a new conception of rationality which have been determined by three factors; first, the norms and methodology operative in experimental science; secondly, a logic which purports to be entirely formal and thus independent of philosophical commitments; and finally, a technical and instrumental as distinct from a reflective and speculative, reason. That is why contemporary Anglo-American academic philosophy is built around the assumption that its true centre is epistemology. This assumption is apparent particularly in the structure and content of university courses. However, the approach to the various areas of philosophy via the problem of knowledge is one possible way of organizing one´s conception of philosophy. But the outcome has been the abstraction of ‘man as knower´ from the rest of human life, in particular from human practice. This has been a distinguishing feature of the empiricist tradition and epistemology is still dominated by that tradition; the so-called ‘problems of knowledge´ are the problems of the isolated individual knower confined to the world of his own sense-perceptions.

According to the NOETIC STRUCTURE to which I referred earlier on, on the contrary, it is essential to see the activity of ‘knowing´ as arising out of, and part of, man´s general attempt to organize and cope with his world, in order to vindicate the status of human knowledge as a meaningful totality rather than a series of discrete sense-impressions. It is to be noted very seriously that in the long development of empiricist conception of knowledge and rationality including, for example, the claim of Russell that "what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know" and the empiricist criterion of meaning philosophy itself ceases to be a form of knowledge and adopts a much lower role of a neutral liaison between various branches of inquiry which have cognitive status. For many, however, this will not be acceptable. They take philosophy and speculation (including its highest reaches in the form of intuition and religious experience) to be a cool and ravishingly beautiful method of understanding the self/universe and therefore the Universal. It is a clear statement of how existence works. Nothing less and nothing more.

I shall conclude my paper by countering, very schematically and succinctly, a few criticisms made against the belief in God a Being which religious consciousness asserts to be Infinite. Contemporary philosophical empiricism maintains that we finite beings cannot know God, the Infinite. According to its advocates, logical purity demands that it is impossible to specify the nature of the referrent in the term ‘the Infinite´. They hold that any attempt to ‘fill out´ the character of the ‘object´ in question will, ipso facto, render it finite. They pair finite with intelligible and infinite with unintelligible. But surely this approach is radically misguided and the pairing breaks down easily. For example, some mathematical infinites are perfectly clear, definite and intelligible, while some finite objects at the present time are to us not intelligible at all. For instance a quasar, which scientists believe to be something finite, is quite unintelligible to human mind. Whereas the existence of infinite objects as in the series 1,2,3,4,4,5,....... is completely plausible even if we assume the universe is finite.

Again, empiricist philosophers claim that religious intuition and experience on which religionists base their belief, is not an ordinary commonsense experience. But the most important question here is: What is an ordinary experience? As a matter of fact, some people do have spiritual experience. If they are not ‘ordinary´ today, they might conceivably become ordinary tomorrow as mathematics once was an extraordinary experience. To a person wholly ignorant of mathematics, the calculus may be completely unintelligible. Mathematics is only one example. In extreme shame cultures, guilt too may be an ‘extraordinary experience´. For someone totally devoid of mystical insight, the nature of his own spirit (ruh) which is in some sense also ‘infinite´ remains unintelligible. So quite obviously from the nature of the case sincere and well-meaning a man who makes the claim of God experience for himself cannot prove to others that he is right, but can any good argument be given to support the view that he is wrong? If not, the possibility remains that those who dispute with him are in a similar position to that of a tone-deaf man disagreeing with Beethoven about the value of music.

Moreover, why does an empiricist insist that any genuine relation to God must be established on the bases of other spheres of experience in order to be meaningful. Would he say that colour is not meaningful unless we could hear as well as see it? That formal logic is not meaningful unless we could eat it for breakfast? that beauty is not meaningful unless we can measure it with a yardstick? As a matter of fact, religious people hold that if one prays to God passionately and soulfully, He answers him. This is a partial but perfectly good disclosure of God´s nature, and one which has some degree of verifibility, as the Quran says:

"When my servant asks thee concerning Me, I am indeed close (to them): I listen to the prayer of every supplicant when he calleth on Me". (Al-Baqara: 186)

Indeed the Islamic tradition provides the possibility of achieving the highest form of spiritual realization and beautitude. According to a divine saying (Hadith Qudsi) "the heaven and the earth cannot contain Me, but the heart of my believing servant does contain me". Another Prophetic saying explains the divine proximity thus: "My servant continually seeks to win my favour by works of supererogatory prayers and worship until I love him, and when I love him, I am to him an ear and an eye and a hand. Through Me he hears and through Me he sees and through Me he walks". (Al-Bukhari). To be sure, the Quran lays more emphasis on acquiring personal and genuine relationship with God rather than having abstract cognition of Him. Indeed it is not possible for we mortals to comprehend the essence of God in its entirety. Allah is ‘Ahad´, and ‘Ahadiyat´ is a state of the colourless, the state of the Essence. Consequently the desire to acquire complete and full gnosis of the Dhat or Essence of God is of no avail.

The upshot of the above abservations leaves us with devotion/prayer as the sole appropriate epistemic attitude for relating to divinity. True and genuine apprehension of the attributes (sifat) of God is attained through devotional worship, supplication and humility towards God. In this process the Creator discloses Himself to the worshipper in a manner which (I admit) is beyond communication or philosophical categorization. It must be emphasized, however, that all this makes sense in the living context of theistic religious beliefs and practices. Just the fact that religious experiences of God are not common (as common as perhaps Empiricists would want them to be) does not make them false. They should not forget the truth that THUTH IS NOT A POPULARITY CONTEST.


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