Pragmatic justification of religious beliefs

Can Religious Beliefs be Justified Pragmatically?


C. Behan McCullagh


This question arises for two important reasons.  The first is that it is impossible to justify religious beliefs epistemically, as they are not clearly the best explanation of the evidence that supports them.  The world might have been created by a good God, but it might also be a result of chance events, or have been created by several gods, good and evil.  So if religious beliefs cannot be justified epistemically, is there any other way of justifying them that deserves serious consideration?  Pragmatic justification seems a possibility, especially as religious beliefs are closely related to good practices and experiences which often flow from them.

The second reason for asking the question is that pragmatic justification of beliefs is of interest in its own right.  We often believe facts about the world of which we have scant evidence because it is useful to do so.  But to accept pragmatic justification seems like accepting wishful thinking, believing something to be true because you want it to be so.  Most people would condemn this as the height of irrationality.  So it is interesting to ask whether pragmatic justifications of belief are ever rational, and if so, under what conditions.

Let me explain these points a little more fully, though they are commonly agreed and fairly well known.  Scientists often postulate invisible fields of force to account for observable facts.  Thus the regularity with which ripe apples fall to earth can be explained by the force of gravity.  And the regularity with which a compass points in one direction is explained by the force of magnetism.  If one assumes these fields of force exist, then the regularities they explain can be predicted. If an explanation of some observations, such as this, is clearly superior to any other that people can think of, according a number of well-known criteria (refs), then it is generally accepted as probably true. Indeed, when such predictions are not confirmed by observation, the assumptions on which they are based are regarded as incorrect in some way.  Often they have to qualified;  sometimes they are abandoned.

The regularities of nature themselves can be explained as the work of a wise, kind creator, who designed them for humans to understand so that they could master nature.  The trouble with this religious hypothesis is that it seems inconsistent with the existence of much pain and suffering, which the hypothesis cannot explain.  Consequently it seems not much better than the hypothesis that the world came into existence by chance, though this does not explain the remarkable regularity and intelligibility of laws of nature;  or that it was created by two or more gods, some good and some evil, though this hypothesis is less simple that the first.  When the evidence supports different hypotheses more or less equally, it is better to regard them as interpretations of the evidence, rather than as good explanations of it.

Paul Davies, for example, has noted the remarkable “fine tuning” of the fundamental constants of the forces in the cosmos that are necessary for the existence of our world, so perfectly fitted to human life.  He postulated an “anthropic principle” at work in nature, unwilling to accept that the conjunction of so many critical values, that could easily have been otherwise, was a matter of chance.[i]  The “strong” anthropic principle is “The universe must be such as to admit conscious beings at some stage.”[ii]   “Alternatively,” he wrote, “the numerical coincidences could be regarded as evidence of design.  The delicate fine-tuning in the values of the constants … might be attributed to God.”[iii] Davies’ “anthropic principle” is a scientific explanation that admits of testing.  But to ascribe the fine-tuning to God is not a scientific explanation.  Instead, it is an interpretation of the data, which could be understood as the work of a single intelligent creator.  An interpretation of facts about the world is a way of making sense of them, and of significant patterns in them, by postulating causes for which the evidence is ambivalent.  All metaphysical beliefs, such as beliefs in the reality of the physical world and in the reality of other minds, are interpretations of the world as we know it.  The existence of a physical world helps to explain our perceptions of material objects;  and the existence of other minds helps to explain people statements about what they think, feel, dream and imagine.  But it is quite possible for all we know, and as some have argued, that our perceptions of the world are just ideas we have;  and that other minds are simply physical brains.

Given that evidence for the existence of God is not entirely convincing, one wonders whether people are rationally justified in holding religious beliefs as firmly as they do.  Prima facie, it seems that they are not, as they lack convincing epistemic justification of the kind that clearly warrants belief.  Can the valuable consequences of such beliefs justify people in holding them?

It would seem that they cannot, for to hold a belief because you like the consequences of doing so is a case of wishful thinking, something that is widely condemned. I shall return to the question of wishful thinking shortly.  Before doing so, let me mention another reason for denying that religious beliefs can be justified pragmatically.

To believe a proposition is to be convinced that it is true.  When Richard Swinburne considered the rationality of religious beliefs, he insisted that the only reasons that could justify belief are reasons that imply its truth, epistemological reasons.[iv]  The fact that a belief has good consequences implies nothing about its truth.  It is comforting to believe that God made us and loves us, but the fact that this belief is comforting is no evidence of its truth.  An illusion of this kind would be just as comforting.  Consequently, Swinburne concluded, one cannot provide rational support for a belief by referring to its valuable consequences.

One way of responding to Swinburne is to ask what is the point of rationally justifying a proposition?  If by ‘rational justification’ one means epistemic justification, then by establishing the truth of a proposition one generally provides conditions sufficient for believing it.  So if the point of a rational justification is to create a belief in a proposition by demonstrating its truth, then an epistemic justification will usually do the job, and a pragmatic justification will not.  People do not usually believe a proposition simply because someone points out the good consequences of doing so.  Pascal recognized this when he advised those who want to acquire a religious belief to follow religious practices in the hope of acquiring it along the way.

In that case, what is the point of a pragmatic justification?  If it is not to create religious beliefs in others, it could be to encourage those who already have religious beliefs to continue holding them and not abandon them in the face of evidence apparently inconsistent with them. Often people acquire religious beliefs in their youth, from their family or church group, and wonder whether they should continue to hold them when they become autonomous, rational adults.  If their beliefs have very good personal and social consequences, as they do in many devout religious people, it would seem dreadful to urge them to abandon them.  So let us contrast the rationality of acquiring beliefs, which is what Swinburne was considering, and the rationality of continuing to hold them, which is where a pragmatic justification might be appropriate.

It is important to note, however, that when someone finds the evidence against a belief they hold to be so great as to convince them that it is false, then they will probably abandon it, no matter how comforting it may be.  Thus although it may be comforting to believe that those lost at sea are still alive, after a while people abandon it when the evidence against that proposition is overwhelming.  One is pragmatically justified in abandoning a belief that is clearly false because, were one to act on it, one’s action would probably be unsuccessful.

These points help us to reply to those who claim that religious beliefs are cases of wishful thinking, and that wishful thinking, being irrational, should be avoided. W.K. Clifford, for example, objected that wishful thinking often leads to false beliefs that can have disastrous consequences for others, no matter how comforting they are to those who hold them.  His example is brilliant, of a shipowner who ignores evidence of the fragility of a ship carrying people abroad, and convinces himself that it is good for one more voyage, and that God would never allow it to founder.  When it sinks in a storm, with the loss of all souls, he cheerfully collects the insurance![v] If Clifford is right, it seems that a belief cannot be justified because of the comfort and other benefits it brings.  In which case, it would appear that religious beliefs cannot be justified pragmatically.

It is important to contrast, however, irrational beliefs that people hold because they want the consequences of believing them to be true, and non-rational beliefs that they hold as a result of the same desire.  The shipowner’s belief was irrational if the evidence that the ship was not sea-worthy was overwhelming.  In that case the belief was probably false, and there are both epistemic and pragmatic reasons for abandoning it.  Indeed pragmatic justifications take into account, not just the probable truth of a proposition, but the value of the consequences of holding it true.  If the consequences of holding a belief true which turned out to be false could be disastrous, then it is wrong to hold it true without very strong evidence indeed.  For this reason, it would have been wrong of the shipowner to believe his ship was seaworthy even if the evidence for and against that proposition was fairly balanced.  However, if the consequences of holding a non-rational belief, such as a religious belief, are good, and would not be very bad if it turned out to be false, then there is a good pragmatic reason to hold it, even though it is held because its consequences are desired.

When religious people are asked to justify their faith, they often say that it is important because without it they will not get to heaven.  Blaise Pascal famously argued in his Pensees that since it is possible that people who have a Christian faith will go to heaven and enjoy eternal bliss, that is a good reason for holding or seeking such faith.  If there is no heaven after all, nothing much would have been lost by leading a religious life.[vi]

A pragmatic defence of religious faith that appeals to theological facts, such as a reward in heaven, will seem reasonable to those who already believe in such facts, but not to those who do not.  In this paper, reference to a rational justification of religious belief is meant to signify a justification that all rational people could accept on the basis of their experiences of the world.  To refer to a reward in heaven is to assume a theological fact, a matter of religious belief, whose justification is in question.  In effect, it is to beg the question being addressed by this paper.  So it is not an argument that can be accepted here.

It is important to note that Pascal does not assume the truth of a theological proposition.  He does not affirm a reward for the faithful in heaven, but simply entertains it as a possibility.  His argument is objectionable on other grounds.  For a pragmatic justification to be convincing, it must refer to consequences which there is good reason for believing really will follow.  Or, to put it more accurately, as the probability of the consequences decreases, so does the strength of the justification.  Is it rational to buy a lottery ticket?  The rationality of doing so diminishes as the chances of winning diminish, though the value of the guaranteed prize for the winner is relevant.  If it is strongly desired and little is lost in buying a ticket, then there could be a pragmatic reason for buying one.  But when there is absolutely no evidence of the reward existing, but it is a mere possibility, as in Pascal’s case, then the justification for believing is vanishingly small, no matter how great the possible reward might be.

William James’ pragmatic defence of religious beliefs

The most famous defence of a pragmatic justification for religious beliefs is to be found in William James’s essay “The Will to Believe”.[vii] James said that if one entertains a proposition that is “live”, ”momentous” and “forced,” then one has a right to believe it if one wants to.  A proposition is “live” if one is inclined to accept it; it is “momentous” if accepting or denying it have important implications; and it is “forced” if a decision between its being true or false is not avoidable, as there is no middle ground.  James pointed out that we often believe propositions whose truth has not been established by evidence, when it is important to do so.  We cannot prove many facts about the world are true, but we believe them to be so when we must act on them.  James remarked that one cannot prove the truth of moral beliefs, but if we want a moral community, we believe them and act upon them.  Similarly we cannot prove that strangers are trustworthy, but we believe they are in order to act in a friendly manner towards them.[viii]

In many cases such as these, the evidence that is available points to the truth of the propositions we believe, even though it falls short of providing an absolute proof.  James was, in fact, writing about propositions, including religious ones, for which there was some evidence, but which could just as easily be false as true.  He emphasised this condition in the following passage:

The thesis I defend is, briefly stated, this:  Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds;  for to say, under such circumstances, ‘Do not decide, but leave the question open,’ is itself a passional decision, — just like deciding yes or no,–and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth.[ix]

He concluded that if we want it to be the case that God exists, then we have the right to believe that he does.

John Hick objects that “this virtually amounts to a license for wishful thinking.”[x] How, then, can James defend his thesis?  James said that sometimes, by acting on the assumption that a proposition is true, we acquire evidence which implies that it is.  For instance, if we believe a stranger is trustworthy, and lend him our car, we might discover that he is indeed trustworthy when he returns it in good order. James’s basic argument is that if we always wait for empirical proof, we might miss out on many true facts, belief in which would be to our advantage.  Rationalists would confine beliefs to those propositions which the relevant evidence makes much more likely to be true than false.  James says that such scepticism is itself an emotional response in cases of uncertainty, and no more rational than his proposal that we believe those propositions that we want to, when the evidence for them is equivocal.  Even if, by believing a proposition we are unable to prove it true, it could still be true for all we know, and the benefits of believing it could be great.

Is this response by James of any help in providing a rational justification for religious belief?  In fact James rejected many religious beliefs as false or insignificant.  “The Will to Believe” was published in 1897.  In The Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1902, he declares one basic religious belief obviously false:  namely the idea that God exists and is just and loving, which “the moral complexion of the world” shows to be mistaken, as Job was so well aware.[xi]  Other Christian beliefs he objects are “destitute of all intelligible significance”, meaning that whether they are true or false makes no difference to our lives.  His list is a long one, and includes the following:  “God’s aseity [underived self-existence], for example … his necessariness;  his immateriality;  his “simplicity” … his indivisibility … his actualised infinity” and so on.[xii]   James also adopted a much more rational approach to religious belief in his book Pragmatism, published in 1907,where he said that both religious and scientific beliefs should be tested against experience. [xiii]

It is wrong to believe propositions which there is good reason to think false, because to do so might involve trusting in something that does not exist, or does not have the properties attributed to it.  The results could be disastrous.  If someone believed that God loved them and would look after them and their family through thick and thin, then they might fail to provide for themselves and the others leaving them destitute.  Indeed James remarked that those who rely on God’s goodness in this way tend not to worry about the evils in this world:  they “take a moral holiday”.[xiv]

A worry about James’s response in “The Will to Believe” is his insistence that the only options available are belief or scepticism.  Why not allow that people are capable of degrees of belief in a proposition, corresponding to the strength of the evidence, or the balance of evidence, in its favour?  This seems to be the rational response in cases of evidential uncertainty.  He has not offered any reason for the more passionate response, besides saying that it might result in good consequences.

I shall argue shortly that a passionate or strong conviction can indeed be justified in some cases by its good consequences.  But here let us note that it might also result in bad consequences, if the passion driving it was bad.  This is an objection raised recently by John Bishop.  It would be morally wrong to believe in “a white-supremacist God”, for example, simply because one desired a God like that.[xv]  It would be wrong because faith in such a God could vindicate white-supremacist behaviour:  severe discrimination against people of other colours, which is unjust.  So the mere fact that the results of holding a belief are desired does not justify holding that belief.  James should have insisted that the results be not only desired but good.  I suspect he assumed that if they were desired they were desirable, an old fallacy in ethics.

The requirement that the consequences of religious beliefs must be moral if holding them is to be justified, raises a difficult problem for those defending the rationality of religious belief.  There is no problem if moral values are universal, but given the variety of moral standards both within and between cultures, it is the case that there is no universal yardstick for judging the moral goodness or badness of the consequences of human behaviour.  It follows that judgements about the value of religious beliefs will not be universal.  Does that mean they are not rational?  No, it means that what one group of people judge to be a good reason for holding a belief might not be accepted as a good reason by another group.  Pragmatic reasons for belief, then, are not universal, but vary from tradition to tradition, and from group to group.  (I elaborate on this point at the end of the paper.)

Incidentally, I suppose that a belief for which there is no evidence, but which has harmless consequences, should not be condemned.  Suppose people believe that God inhabits all living things, then that might result in their reverence for all living things, which would generally be a good thing.  The worry is that the number of beliefs with good consequences is without limit.  Rationalists like T.H.Huxley and W.K.Clifford, to whom James refers,[xvi] would limit beliefs to those propositions whose truth is necessary or very probable on available evidence.  But there are many propositions we believe without being able to prove them true.  Some of these appear indispensable.  John Bishop has described a number of  “framework principles,” as he calls them, that are generally believed without proof, such as the proposition that there is an external reality and the proposition that the methods of induction are reliable .[xvii]  In fact Bishop explains that people need not believe such principles are true in order to live by them.  They can get by simply by assuming their truth for practical purposes, for instance when acting on their perceptions, or drawing inferences about the world from what they know.[xviii]   A sceptic could act as if these principles were true, while consciously and deliberately refusing to endorse their truth or to believe in it.  If these basic principles can be accepted without being believed, it makes one wonder whether any beliefs are really necessary for practical purposes.  We will address this question soon.  For the time being, to limit the number of acceptable beliefs without requiring absolute proof of their truth, let us assume that it may be rational to believe a proposition if there be some evidence of its truth, and it is not exceeded by (epistemic) reasons for believing it false.

This discussion of William James’s defence of a pragmatic justification of religious belief has yielded the following conclusions.  For religious beliefs to be rationally justified, there must be some evidence of their truth, which is not outweighed by evidence that they are false, and believing them must have generally good moral consequences, not bad ones.

The first of these conditions in effect excludes those cases of wishful thinking that are condemned as irrational.  The mere fact that the truth of a proposition is desired does not mean it must be false or rejected as irrational.  That depends on the evidence available.  The ship owner’s conviction that his ship was sea-worthy was irrational, not because it was desired, but because the evidence on balance showed that it was not true.  The requirement that for beliefs to be rational there must be evidence of their truth, which is not outweighed by evidence that they are false, puts a severe constraint upon religious beliefs, given the problems of evil.  For many the evidence of evil outweighs that of God’s love, so they reject the proposition that God loves the people he has made.

Can any religious beliefs be justified?

Rather than discuss the problems of evil, let us consider some religious beliefs that do not imply that God loves everyone and is wise and powerful enough to ensure their perpetual happiness.  Here are three central propositions from the Christian tradition that are worth considering: (1) that a powerful, intelligent being has created and sustained the universe so that humankind could evolve and live within it;  (2) that this God revealed his will for humankind to and through Moses and the prophets, and above all in Jesus, each revelation being appropriate to the people to whom it was given;  and (3) that God provides a spirit of truth and love, the spirit that characterised Jesus, to those who are willing to submit to it.  Many Jews and Muslims would accept these assertions, as well as Christians, though they would doubt the special significance of Jesus.  There is no implication in these three propositions that God would or even could intervene in physical nature in a miraculous way to help those in need, as some traditional concepts of God imply.  These three propositions are consistent with the existence of both natural and moral evil, and so cannot be immediately dismissed as incompatible with known facts about the world.

Furthermore, there is some evidence in support of these assertions.  (1) The fine tuning that so impressed Paul Davies is quite remarkable, and suggests the existence of a creator intent on providing a universe in which humans could evolve and live. That such a universe involves pain and suffering, decay and death, as well as pleasure and joy, growth and regeneration, is consistent with a wish to create human beings and world in which they could exist, at least for a while.  (2)  Some of the laws of Moses are repulsive to modern westerners, but the ten commandments, requiring respect both for the will of God as expressed in these commandments, and for one’s parents and neighbours, provide a foundation for a just society and would be almost universally approved.  Subsequent Jewish and Muslim prophets developed the same theme, particularly the need to have mercy on the destitute.  This theme was taken further by Jesus, who taught that people should not merely respect others, but love them to the point of self-sacrifice.  Most people would applaud such love within the family, and many would approve it towards others outside the family as well.  The near universal respect shown for the commands to respect and love others can be interpreted as evidence of their divine origin.  (3) Those who commit themselves to obeying God’s commands have often found spiritual support from what is referred to as the Holy Spirit, which reveals the truth to them, especially about God’s will, inspires them to act in a just and loving way, and gives them the resolve to do so.  There are numerous accounts of people’s characters being transformed once they make a religious commitment, and this can be interpreted as a spiritual transformation.  Diogenes Allen has remarked on people’s natural desire to be good, and sees Christian beliefs as helping to strengthen that desire and meet that need.[xix]

While the facts I have mentioned are capable of a religious interpretation, as supporting the three propositions stated above, they do not prove the truth of those propositions.  Indeed, they are capable of other interpretations as well.  For instance, the extraordinary appropriateness of the fundamental constants of the cosmos might be a matter of chance;  the Mosaic law and the commands of Jesus might be said to be good because Moses , the prophets and Jesus were wise and good men, not because they were divinely inspired;  and the changes in character found among believers could come simply from their determination to imitate Jesus, not from any mysterious spirit at all.

If the evidence that supports the theological propositions can be explained without any theological assumptions, then is it not rational to adopt the simpler interpretation?  It is widely accepted that Ockham’s razor should be applied to excise unnecessary assumptions.  Why not in this case?  The only answer that suggests itself is that the beliefs are of such value that it would be dreadful to abandon them.

The value of these three beliefs is well known. (1) If  the cosmos and the world were made for people to live in, that gives their lives an extraordinary value.  All this was made for them.  People, then, are of objective and absolute value.  Their lives should be treated as of ultimate value, to which all other values, such as the prosperity or good order of the country they inhabit, should be subordinate. (2)  If the commands given by Moses, Jesus and other prophets were the word of God, then they deserve unqualified respect.  A consequence of obeying them would be the creation of just and loving communities, something that almost all people value.  (3)  Finally, if  God’s Holy Spirit of wisdom and love is available to those intent on obeying God’s commands, it would enable people to overcome their wayward and wicked natures, and live as they ought and as they desire.

It is possible to believe that the three propositions are true, yet ignore them in deciding how to live.  Passionate faith, or complete conviction, however, is marked by a commitment to let them become a basis of one’s decisions and find expression in one’s life.  Those who are convinced of the truth of these propositions will treat all people, including themselves, as of ultimate value;  they will act as justly and lovingly as they can;  and they will seek the support of God’s Holy Spirit to enable them to lead a holy life.  The consequences for both the believers and their societies is so good, it could be argued, as to justify their faith.

Be that as it may, there are two objections to this conclusion that deserve careful consideration.  The first is as follows.  We have seen that the observable facts that support the three religious propositions could be interpreted without employing theological assumptions.  It is now claimed that the good consequences of believing those propositions justify faith in them.  But that argument fails if the good consequences of faith in them could be achieved without that belief.  Then the argument for ontological simplicity kicks in once again.  If theological beliefs are not necessary for these good outcomes, this last reason for retaining them seems to collapse.

It is certainly possible to argue that religious beliefs are not necessary to achieve the goods that have been described as following from them. There are people who value the lives of others as well as their own, though many love members of their family most, and treat others with less concern.  Doubtless many of those who work for social justice, believing all people are of value and should cooperate to live as happily as possible, act without religious beliefs.  Finally, Aristotle taught us how to curb excessive passion and live rationally and well, without religious beliefs.  It seems there is no need to hold religious beliefs to enjoy these good consequences of them.

I have just suggested that if the benefits of religious beliefs can be achieved without them, then in the interests of ontological simplicity one should, if one is rational, abandon such beliefs.  But if religious beliefs do a lot to motivate people to live well and achieve the goods outlined above, is that not a good reason for maintaining them?  More to the point, does not that benefit outweigh the value of maintaining ontological simplicity?  If those without religious convictions generally acted according to the values outlined above, then there would be little lost in abandoning them.  But these days alternative values, of personal wealth, reputation and power, seem increasingly attractive to those able to achieve them.  Indeed they always have, as the prophets have declared.  Without the motivation provided by religious belief, fewer and fewer seem willing to work for a society of justice and love beyond their own families.  Consequently I conclude that although belief in those propositions might not be absolutely necessary to produce the goods associated with them, nevertheless strong belief in them provides a very important motive for pursuing them, one which the world can scarcely do without.

The second objection to the pragmatic justification of these religious beliefs is one that was first argued by Richard Swinburne, and has been repeated since.  Swinburne described religious faith as involving both belief that certain propositions, usually about God, are true, and trust in those propositions when deciding how to live.  A religious life, Swinburne says, involves “acting on assumptions” that God will support and reward those who try to please him.  He goes on to remark that to many people religious faith seems more about trusting in God than holding beliefs about him.[xx]

The difference between belief and acceptance has been the subject of detailed philosophical discussion recently.[xxi] Jonathan Cohen, in An Essay on Belief and Acceptance, says that whereas belief involves a feeling that a proposition is true, acceptance requires no more than an assumption that it is true, for practical purposes.  He writes:  “To accept that p is to have or to adopt a policy of deeming, or postulating that p—i.e. of including that proposition or rule among one’s premises for deciding what to do or think in a particular context, whether or not one feels it true that p”.[xxii] He allows that one can accept a proposition for practical purposes, even though one’s belief in it is slight.  For example a lawyer might assume that a person she is defending in court is innocent when preparing and presenting her case, while privately believing he might well be guilty. As Engel puts it:  “acceptance is more the outcome of a practical, pragmatic decision than the outcome of a cognitive, epistemic reason.”[xxiii]

If one accepts this distinction, it is then possible to argue that while the good consequences of living a religious life are indeed of value, all they require and so justify is an assumption that certain religious beliefs are true, and not a strong conviction that they are.  Andrei A. Buckareff, for example, has argued that a life of religious faith “is a sub-doxastic venture that involves pragmatic assuming.  One assumes that p as a means to achieving a religious goal.  The assumption is an action-guiding assumption.” [xxiv]By “sub-doxastic” he means that it does not involve strong belief.  He quotes Joshua L.Golding with approval, when he writes that it is enough to believe “there is some chance God exists.”[xxv]  He does not give an example, but it is easy to imagine one.  One could assume that God made the cosmos so that humans could evolve and live, and that He values human life very highly, without being quite sure that this is the case, and then value human life highly as a consequence of accepting this proposition, no matter how hesitantly.

If, as these authors suggest, religious faith is nothing more than making an assumption about God for practical purposes, the rationality of faith becomes simply a matter of the rationality of the assumptions involved.  There are ways of calculating the value of such assumptions.  One way is suggested by decision theory.  According to this theory, in deciding which of several possible courses of action to adopt, one should calculate the value of each possible course of action by calculating what is called its “expectation.”  This is said to equal the product of the value of the consequences of the action, the “pay-off,” and the probability of their occurrence, with a deduction made for the costs involved.[xxvi] Clearly any estimate of the value and probability of the consequences of acting on a religious assumption will usually be vague and subjective.  But they might be clear enough to enable a person to compare the expectation of acting on a religious assumption and the expectation of acting otherwise.

Incidentally, there is some evidence that James thought religious belief could be the product of a rational decision. When James discusses the will to believe, he offers examples of belief in morality and belief in someone’s trustworthiness. He writes:  “The question of having moral beliefs at all or not having them is decided by our will. … If your heart does not want a world of moral reality, your head will assuredly never make you believe in one.”[xxvii] Many of our beliefs, such as beliefs about the material world around us, are acquired without decision.  The evidence for them is so compelling that we simply acquire them without further consideration.  But some beliefs, such as moral and religious beliefs, are not so easily arrived at.  However, once a person begins acting as if a proposition were true, the disposition to believe it  can be acquired quite quickly.  At the end of his paper, James writes of people for whom religious faith is “a living option,” and he urges them to act upon the assumption that it is true.[xxviii] That is how they should exercise their will to believe.

Both Buckareff and Bishop agree that to enjoy the benefits of religious faith, people need do no more that assume certain theological propositions are true.  Unfortunately neither of them considered objections to this theory.  For although some of the goods of religious belief can be enjoyed by merely assuming the truth of certain religious propositions, there are others goods that require strong religious convictions.  Here, for example, are two common religious beliefs whose good consequences are widely attested, and the consequences can only be enjoyed if the beliefs are held with strong conviction.  (1)  The belief that God in his love forgives our sins, our actions contrary to His will, yields relief from a sense of absolute guilt and condemnation. (2)  The belief that there is life hereafter with God when we die gives peace of mind to those facing death or those whose loved ones have just died.  In both cases the benefits are very significant, and they would not be enjoyed by someone who assumed them to be true, but without conviction.

Why did Bishop, who was inclined to defend strong religious faith, overlook these religious beliefs, which are central to Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths?  There is a hint in one of his publications in which he declares that faith in an “omniGod”, that is “a unique omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, supernatural person who is creator and sustainer of all else that exists,” is not rational, given the arguments from evil.[xxix]  He adds, later on, that faith in life after death requires faith in an omniGod, or at least in a God so powerful that He could eliminate evil.[xxx] Bishop says, in a footnote, that he prefers “a genuinely naturalist concept of God” as existing in human loving relationships.[xxxi]  Such a God is not a lawgiving person capable of forgiving people their sins; nor is He capable of providing another heavenly world for those who die.  Indeed whether such a God even provides “hope in the midst of suffering,” which Bishop says is the most important function of religious belief,[xxxii] is very doubtful.

These remarks raise the question of whether there are any epistemic grounds for holding these two beliefs, even if there is reason to believe, as was argued before, that a supernatural God does exist.  Take the first, that God forgives people their sins.  Forgiveness is an aspect of altruistic love, so if God were characterized by such love, then it would be natural for him to be forgiving.  But, given the facts about natural and moral evil in the world, the evidence of His love is ambiguous at best.  Christians, believing that Jesus was divine, get around this problem by holding that he was both loving and forgiving, from which it follows that those are God’s attributes as well.  His love involves suffering the effects of evil rather than abolishing evil, and by  rising from the dead to show that it is not of ultimate significance. His prayer of forgiveness for those who crucified him is the most striking evidence of his love.  But why hold that Jesus was divine?  Largely because he was raised from the dead, and proclaimed himself the Messiah, sent by God.  Faith in his resurrection is also the reason Christians believe in life after death.

One could discuss the evidence for these Çhristian beliefs at great length, but it is already evident that the epistemic support it provides for the two propositions we are considering, is slight.  However, to abandon those beliefs for this reason would be to deprive Christians of the immense comforts they bring.  Although those comforts are not reasons implying the truth of the beliefs, they are very strong practical reasons for continuing to hold the beliefs, once the beliefs have been established.  But those comforts would not be enjoyed by someone who doubted God’s forgiveness, and His promise of heaven for the faithful.  Such doubts would result in doubt whether one’s sins really had been forgiven, and doubt whether one’s family and oneself really would enjoy life hereafter.  Only a firm conviction will produce the peace of mind that comes from such faith.


The conclusion we have reached, then, is that although religious beliefs cannot be proved true, the goods that follow from religious faith can justify the faith that produces them.  While many of those goods can be produced without religious faith, the probability of them occurring is considerably increased by the presence of such faith.  The faith required for some of them might be little more than an assumption of the truth of certain religious propositions, but the faith required for others is a strong religious conviction.

To show how some religious beliefs could be justified pragmatically, in the last section I suggested some of the personal and social benefits that followed from holding them.  There are some negative consequences of religious belief, however, which should also be considered.  Sometimes religious beliefs have driven people to cruel and immoral acts towards others.  Medieval Christians, for instance, are famous for setting up inquisitions to torture and execute heretics, and for organizing crusades against the Muslims who occupied the Holy Land.  Clearly this was not Christ-like behaviour, but seemed to be driven by anxiety over the authority of the church, the purity of the faith, and the veneration of a holy place.  It was wrong of Christians to believe that they should persecute and kill those who challenged their faith. These days some Muslims are convinced that God wants them to kill unbelievers, with the result that suicide-bombers not only kill themselves but also kill or maim a number innocent bystanders.  Because of their thoroughly immoral consequences, the religious beliefs that inspire such behaviour are clearly not justified.

This discussion highlights the importance of not considering religious beliefs indiscriminately.  Some religious beliefs can be justified and some cannot.

Even when religious beliefs produce good consequences, for example a life committed to justice and love, there remains a need to consider the negative aspects of such a life in deciding whether the beliefs are justified.  For some, particularly very religious saints, the costs of a religious life can be considerable.  St Paul’s missionary endeavours involved him being scourged, imprisoned, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, and finally executed.  (See II Corinthians, xi, 22-27.)  St Paul said: “Our troubles are slight and short-lived;  and their outcome is an eternal glory which outweighs them far” (II Corinthians iv, 17).  For those who doubt eternal glory, however, the hardships of a Christian life are simply the price one pays for living a life of love towards the needy.

This brings us to the final, vital point.  A pragmatic justification of religious beliefs is only valid for people who highly value the characteristic consequences of those beliefs.  From a this-worldly perspective, Christian beliefs are justified for those who value love and justice much more highly than physical pleasures and even life itself.  But there are many who do not rate those virtues as highly as Christians do.  Western humanists, for example, put human happiness first, and approve of love in as much as it contributes to that.  Other religious traditions have other emphases.  Jews and Muslims are devoted to their religious and moral laws.  Buddhists value peace of mind.  People commonly adopt the religion of the society into which they were born, and acquire the values of that religion as they acquire its beliefs.  They approve the beliefs because they promote those values that their tradition has enshrined.

[i]  Paul Davies, God and the New Physics (Harmondsworth, Middlesex:  Penguin, 1984) ch. 13.

[ii]  Davies, p.171.

[iii]  Davies, p. 189.

[iv]  Richard Swinburne, Faith and Reason (Oxford;  Clarendon Press, 1981), p.45.

[v]  Cited by David A. Hollinger, “James, Clifford, and the scientific conscience”, in The Cambridge Companion to William James, ed. Ruth Anna Putnam, (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1997), p.76.

[vi]  Blaise Pascal, The Pensees, trans. J.M.Cohen (Harmondsworth, Middlesex:  Penguin, 1961), section 451, pp. 155-9.

[vii]  Reprinted in The Writings of William James, ed. John J. McDermott (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 1977), pp. 717-35.

[viii]  James, pp.730-1.

[ix]  James, p.723.

[x]  John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion.  Human Responses to the Transcendent (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1989), p.227.

[xi]  William James,  The Varieties of Religious Experience (London:  Fontana Books, Collins, 1960), p.427.

[xii]  James, Varieties, p.427.

[xiii]  Hollinger, pp.79-81.

[xiv]  James, “What Pragmatism Means”, The Writings, pp.387-9.

[xv]  John Bishop, “Faith as doxastic venture”, Religious Studies 38 (2002), pp.476-7.

[xvi]  James, “The Will to Believe”, pp.720-1.  The same position is defended in Jonathan E. Adler’s Belief’s Own Ethics”(Cambridge, Mass.: Bradford, 2002).

[xvii]  Bishop, p.481.

[xviii]  Bishop, p. 483.

[xix]  Diogenes Allen,  The Reasonableness of Faith (Washington:  Corpus Books, 1968), p.55.

[xx]   Richard Swinburne, Faith and Reason (Oxford:  Clarendon, 1981), pp. 121-2.

[xxi]   (See Believing and Accepting, ed. Pascal Engel, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht/Boston/London, 2000).

[xxii] Jonathan Cohen, An Essay on Belief and Acceptance (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1992) p.4;  quoted in Engel, p.8.

[xxiii]  Engel, p.9.

[xxiv]  Andrei A. Buckareff, “Can faith be a doxastic venture?” Religious Studies 41 (2005), p440.

[xxv]  Buckareff, p.441.      In reply, John Bishop agreed with Buckareff: John Bishop, “On the possibility of doxastic venture: a reply to Buckareff,” Religious Studies, 41 (2005), pp.447-51.

[xxvi]  See, for example, Morris, Thomas V., ‘Wagering and the Evidence,’ in Jeff Jordan (ed.) Gambling on God.  Essays on Pascal’s Wager (Lanham, Maryland:  Rowman and Littlefield, 1994), p.49.

[xxvii] James, “Will to Believe”, p.730.

[xxviii]  James, “Will to Believe”, pp.734-5.

[xxix]  John Bishop, “Can There Be Alternative Concepts of God?”, Nous, 32. (1998) p. 174.

[xxx]  Bishop, “Can  There Be”, p. 182.

[xxxi]  Bishop, “Can There Be”,  Note 7, pp.187-8.

[xxxii]  Bishop, “Can There Be”, p. 184.

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