Our books

Become a Fan

« Are you worried about the minutiae? | Main | Loneliness, lemons, and lemonade »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Anthony Carreras

Elisa - may I ask why you include Kant as someone who thought that God could be known by reason alone? I have always thought Kant denied that pure reason could know something like that.

Schliesser, Eric

Your list is not exhaustive: we can also infer the existence of God from empirical evidence something Clarke also argued.

Elisa Freschi

Thanks, Eric, you are right. Still, I would (after a reformulation) include empirical evidences such as the one used by the Aquinas within the first kind of proofs, since they are available for all human beings and presuppose the use of reason and the data of the world, which are available to all of us.

Angra Mainyu


While I don't think one may know God by any means (and I hold that under common definitions of the word "God", God does not exist), I don't agree with the charge of a "totalitaristic move", or the Soviet parallel - at least, as you state them -, because of the difference between holding that a person A is being epistemically irrational by holding (or failing to hold) some belief F, and holding that it's morally acceptable for some other person B to use force on A in order to get A to no longer (or to hold) belief F (i.e., to "reeducate" them).

For example, I hold that we may establish conclusively (beyond a reasonable doubt if you like) that - say - humans and fruit flies have a common ancestor, that the Earth is older than - say - 10 million years, and that some humans landed on the Moon in 1969.

While this does not entail that every human being is in a position to know those facts - they may not have access to the relevant information -, I would also be willing to say that there are people who do have access to the relevant information but fail to reach the conclusions they ought to reach (that's an "ought" of epistemic rationality) - so, there is a failure of rationality on their part.

I would even be more specific and say that - for example - Ken Ham is being epistemically irrational in his failure to realize that the Earth is over 10 million years old, or that humans and fruit flies have a common ancestor - he has access to the relevant information.

However, by saying the above I'm in no way committed to the view that it would be acceptable for (say) the government (or someone else, if you prefer) to forcibly "reeducate" Ken Ham. In fact, I hold it would be morally unacceptable to do that.

Elisa Freschi

Dear Angra Manyu,

you would never do that, nor would I, nor most other people. However, if you think that X has all the elements to know Y and does not, are not you compelled to think that she is either stupid or lacking the will (which she should have) to ascertain that Y? In other words, are not you compelled to think that she is your epistemological inferior? This led and leads in some situations to discrimination against atheists and in different situations to discriminations against theists.
By contrast, I cannot blame anyone for not having had a mystical experience, can I?

Angra Mainyu

Dear Elisa Freschi

Personally, I would not be compelled to think because of that alone that she's my epistemically inferior in general, though of course I would say that she is making a epistemic mistake in that particular case. Nor would I think she's stupid - she may well be very smart, but for some reason, she's failing to make that particular assessment properly (what actually causes that kind of epistemic error even in very intelligent people is a matter for research in psychology, but it seems to me there are probably several different causes).

For example, we may consider the cases of philosophers who disagree with you and both believe and assert that the existence of God can be established conclusively by means of reason.
We may also consider the case of a philosopher who believes and asserts that - for example - there is no non-culpable non-belief (even if he believes the arguments based on reason are not available to everyone), so that all people who are not theists are being epistemically irrational for being non-theists, and who goes further and believes and asserts that people deserve infinite punishment for rejection of God.

My take on that is that they should change those particular beliefs - that's an epistemic "should", so I believe that they are at fault, epistemically.
On the other hand, I recognize that some of those philosophers are very intelligent people - and with regard to most matters, epistemically well above average. But still, they're making an epistemic error with regard to those particular beliefs.

What's your take on that?
More precisely, do you think there is or there is no epistemic error on their part?

With regard to your point about not being able to blame me for not having mystical experiences, I grant that you can't blame me for that, but on the other hand, someone may well blame people for not believing that God exists (or for asserting that they don't believe that God exists; there are people who hold that everyone knows and believes that God exists, but some deny it out of stubbornness or something along those lines) regardless of whether they hold that it can be established by means of reason or reason alone that God exists.

For instance, there are people who believe that the - alleged - inner witness of the Holy Spirit is sufficient to know that God exists, and that all of us have that.
One example is Craig, who blames non-theists both for allegedly failing to reach the conclusion that God exists on the basis of reason, and also for allegedly rejecting the inner witness (e.g., http://www.reasonablefaith.org/is-unbelief-culpable, http://www.reasonablefaith.org/faith-and-doubt ).

Craig is one example - there are more people who blame non-theists in that way -, but while Craig in particular blames non-theists on both grounds, someone who doesn't hold that God's existence can be established by means for reason might still blame non-theists on the grounds of an alleged rejection of the inner witness in question.

Side note: As before, I think Craig should not believe any of that - so, I hold he's epistemically guilty -, even though I also think Craig is very intelligent and epistemically well above average.

Angra Mainyu

Sorry, the first link in the post I just sent has an error. The proper link is: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/is-unbelief-culpable

Elisa Freschi

Thank you for this intriguing discussion, Angra Manyu. I will now answer on the general topic and then address Craig's posts. Apart from my own beliefs, let me repeat that claiming that the belief in God can be assessed rationally (or with other human means) entails the fact that people who diverge about it are not our epistemical peers. You are right, and one might well think that X is perfectly rational but for this particular belief, but still this judgement is a way to look down on X since it entails that as for this belief you are better that X and that ---should X not change her mind--- she will never achieve a sufficient epistemic level (it makes me think of a religious person I know who once said that one should not condemn people of a different faith because there are people following faith X, Y or Z who are "better than us" as for their behaviour). By contrast, claiming that the belief in God cannot be humanly assessed means that one can only leave out this specific topic while assessing X's rationality. Please note that this does not mean that all religion-related beliefs of X should not be rationally assessed (e.g., I am ready to say that should I encounter a naïve creationist, I would not consider her my epistemic peers, just like I do not consider my epistemic peers people with low logical or hermeneutical tools).

Elisa Freschi

As for Craig, his point seems clear:

"First, God has provided a revelation of Himself in nature that is sufficiently clear for all cognitively normal persons to know that God exists".

Thus, Craig belongs to my first group. One is guilty of not believing, because the belief in God can be accessed on the basis of the human reason + empirical evidences. No mystical insight required. Not even Sacred Texts.

The additional argument about the presence of the Holy Spirit within us seems to me unneeded from the point of view of Craig's claim that atheists are guilty of their non-belief. Epistemically speaking, I am afraid I cannot avoid disagreeing, since his is a claim that just displaces the problem from the existence of God to that of the Holy Spirit. Craig claims that he feels the Holy Spirit in himself and that this Spirit is in anyone. Fine, but this is metaphysics. I may or may not *believe* that he is right, but then we can start discussing about the existence of the Holy Spirit within us instead of about the existence of God.

Angra Mainyu

Thank you for your replies and the interesting discussion as well, Elisa Freschi.

Regarding your assessment that saying "claiming that the belief in God can be assessed rationally (or with other human means) entails the fact that people who diverge about it are not our epistemical peers", I'm not sure how you construe "epistemical peers" in this context.
For example, if Alice believes that Bob is not being rational about belief X, but nevertheless Alice does not have the belief that Bob is overall less epistemically rational than she is (though Alice holds that Bob is being less rational than she is being with respect to belief X, and perhaps with respect to some other beliefs linked to X in some ways), do Alice's beliefs entail that Bob is not Alice's epistemic peer?

In any case, the original point I disagree with is the claim that one view "presupposes a totalitaristic move".
For example, if I understand your point correctly, you believe - and I agree with you - that the naïve creationist in your example is not being rational. But I'm pretty sure that your assessment does not presuppose a totalitarian move on your part. Perhaps, you might argue that the case involving the rationality of belief in God is relevantly different from the belief in, say, Young Earth Creationism, and that that one does presuppose a totalitarian move on the part of the person claiming that God's existence can be established by means of reason alone. But I don't see why that would be so - even though I would agree that many people who believe that God's existence can be established by means of reason alone also support some sort of totalitarianism about it.

Angra Mainyu

In re: Craig's example, I agree that Craig's argument argument about the presence of the Holy Spirit is unneeded from the point of view of Craig's claim that atheists are guilty of their non-belief, since the argument based on empirical evidence suffices.
However, I would add that Craig's argument based on reason (or reason + empirical evidence) is also unneeded from the point of view of Craig's claim that atheists are guilty of their non-belief, because the argument about the present of the Holy Spirit - or more precisely, the claim about the presence of the Holy Spirit - also suffices.
In other words, from the perspective of Craig's views, it seems to me that the claim that atheists (and agnostics, and even present-day non-Christians in most cases) are guilty of their non-belief is overdetermined, since he believes there are at least two different ways to get to that conclusion (namely, philosophical arguments on one hand, and the witness of the Holy Spirit on the other), neither of which depends on the other.
On that note, I do agree that Craig is making a metaphysical claim when he says that the Holy Spirit is within us, but he also holds that reason is not required to know that God exists. In fact, his claim is that everyone knows that God exists, due to the Holy Spirit, and regardless of whether they do any metaphysics, understand arguments for the existence of God (or even for the existence of the Holy Spirit), etc.

That said, I brought up Craig's example as an illustration of a point I was trying to make. But now I suspect that given the way you're using "epistemic peer" right, then my claim that Craig should not believe that there is no non-culpable unbelief - let alone than any non-believer "plausibly" deserves infinite punishment for rejecting God - entails that I hold that he's not my epistemic peer.
Still, I have no problem asserting that he (morally and epistemically) should not hold those two beliefs.

Elisa Freschi

Angra Manyu, people like Craig think that:

a) God can be known by anyone
b) thus, God should be known by anyone and whoever does not know Him, is morally guilty (at least, of ingratitude and lack of obeyence)

This *can* entail:

c) these moreally guilty people will be condemned by God (e.g., by burning in hell)

And c), again, can entail:

d) We need to help these people, since the risk is enormous: Let us re-educate them and show them that they are wrong, so that they can avoid the punishment. Moreover, let us punish whoever leaves the right way, so that people are warned.

Now, you might object that d) is not a necessary consequence and in fact it is not. But if you believe in c), then the move to d) seems to me easy, since it is justified on the basis of humanitarian reasons.

Angra Mainyu

Elisa Freschi,

I think that whether the move is easy depends on some other beliefs they have.
For example, a person well have beliefs a) and b), but they may well also have some belief - based on their religion, perhaps - like:

e) We should leave the choice of whether or not to believe to each individual.

In which case, the move to d) will not be easy.

That said, I do think all other things equal, a person A who believes another person B is epistemically or morally guilty (and even more so if they believe they're both epistemically and morally guilty) for having (or not having) belief X is more likely to support the use of force as a means of changing B's beliefs than A would be if she didn't believe that B is guilty.
Also, I think the likelihood increases considerably (as before, all other things equal) if A believes that the consequences of B's having belief X are very bad for innocent third parties.
I'm not sure how much more probable the use of force would be if the very bad consequences are not for innocent third parties but for the allegedly guilty party or for other guilty parties (compared to no belief in negative consequences for anyone), since the belief that someone is guilty may well promote contempt and diminished empathy towards that person (and even punitive sentiments), rather than ill-founded attempts at humanitarian actions. But I agree that might happen too.

On the other hand, ascription of epistemic or moral guilt in holding or failing to hold belief X (even if X is a belief about God's existence) does not amount to a totalitarian move on its own.

So, in brief, I would say that the belief that people who don't believe in God are epistemically and/or morally guilty because of their lack of belief does not presuppose a totalitarian move, but on the other hand, I would agree that belief in such guilt is (all other things equal) more likely to result in some authoritarian behavior or another - in extreme cases, totalitarian behavior - than the belief that there is (generally, at least) no such guilt.

Elisa Freschi

Angra Manyu, I see we are almost in agreement now.
As for your point re. third parties, let me add that this is the reason whence, I believe, on the one hand theist regimes may think that we need to punish non-believers (since their bad example might lead further innocent people to disbelief and, thus, to hell) and on the other hand atheist regimes may deem it right to punish theists because their beliefs make them relativise the doctrinal edifice upon which the regime is built ---and thus make it more difficult for the regime to build a peaceful future for the whole population.

Angra Mainyu

Elisa Freschi

Regarding the promotion of disbelief, I agree that preventing more people from becoming non-believers is a potential motivation for the use of force against non-believers, though in that case, the third parties suffering the alleged consequences (i.e., those who might become non-believers) would become guilty as well (even if they're not so yet), so perhaps, the use of force against non-believers could be based on the goal preventing the promotion of [alleged] immorality, or just on based on a specific belief that they have a duty to promote their religion, instead of the goal of protecting the innocent. Then again, maybe they want to protect the innocent from allegedly becoming guilty by their own choices - a rather condescending attitude, but that wouldn't be unusual.

By the way, in this case, the use of force might not be only against non-theists, but also against theists who adhere to religions other than the official religion, at least as long as the official religion considers that belief in one of those religions is also a fault (epistemic or moral) and/or that there is a threat that those religions would gain more support.

As for atheist regimes, I'm not sure what you mean by that. Could you clarify, please? Do you mean regimes that have as part of their Constitution or similar, a statement that God does not exist?
Marxist (or Marxism-inspired) regimes may be prone to do that, just as they would be prone to use force to suppress other ideologies (not necessarily commonly classified as religions) that are in conflict with theirs. But that seems to be more based on Marxist ideology (though some regimes partly inspired on Marxism appeal to religion as well)

Elisa Freschi

1) Angra Mainyu, you are right, there is an ambiguity, in so far as these régimes tend to regard disbelievers as guilty and mischievous, but at the same time they regard their own population as in need of being preserved from such bad influences. In other words, current disbelievers are guilty and did it out of a free choice, whereas "potential disbelivers" may do it only because of a bad model and not out of a free choice! Hence also the importance, which you pointed out, of preserving a morally homogeneous society.

2) For many believers, "atheist" just means "whoever does not believe in exactly my religion", since believing in a "false God" is tantamount to non believing in God (think at the persecution of the Yaziki people who are allegedly guilty of "adoring Satan"). A commentator could perhaps add that this was the case (more or less) also within the Catholic Church until the Second Vatican Council.

3) Yes, I was thinking at Marxist-inspired régimes since their treatment of, say, Christian minorities could resemble that reserved by, say, Christian majorities to disbelievers (about which see 2). Atheism often works as a functional equivalent of a given religion.

Angra Mainyu

Elisa Freschi,

Thanks for the clarification.
I tend to agree for the most part, though more specifically I think Marxism or their interpretation of Marxism (rather than just atheism) often works as the functional equivalent of a religion.
In those regimes, atheism is usually part of their interpretation of Marxism, so there tends to be persecution against non-atheists, but that seems to be part of the more general persecution against non-Marxists (e.g., a Randian atheist would be as likely to be targeted as a Catholic. Both fail to be Marxist - in the official understanding of Marxism -, even if in different fashions).

Elisa Freschi

agreed! (Although I still thinks that atheism ---e.g., in its positivistic variant--- could also work as a functional equivalent of a given religion.)

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

Current Job-Market Discussion Thread

Job ads crowdsourcing thread

Philosophers in Industry Directory

Open thread on hiring timelines