Philosophy of Religion What is Reformed Epistemology

Is It Rational to Have Religious Beliefs?

by Georg Gasser (Innsbruck)


For a long time the prevailing opinion was that religions would disappear through enlightenment and science. However, this opinion has not been confirmed. Major religions may lose influence, but religious and spiritual attitudes continue to shape the lives of many people. In addition, the well-known Pew Research Center, which specializes in religious research, predicts that atheist or a-religious attitudes will even be on the decline worldwide in the medium term for demographic reasons. "People with no religion face a birth dearth" was the subtitle of a large-scale study from 2017 on the development of world religions up to 2060 (see: https://www.pewforum.org/2017/04/05/the-changing- global-religious-landscape /).

The phenomenon of religion can therefore also be expected in the future. So it makes sense to also deal with it philosophically. This is what the philosophy of religion does. But what is their genuine access to religious phenomena? Finally, religious studies and theology also deal with religion! As a sketch it can be said that religious studies are primarily interested in the historical development and phenomenological description of religious phenomena and practices. Theology, on the other hand, assumes a certain religious creed or religious assumptions and in the light of this it interprets reality and develops normative guidelines for action. At the center of religious-philosophical endeavors is the question of the rationality or unreasonableness of religious beliefs and practices. So the question is whether convictions like “God created the world” or “I experienced God's loving closeness” can be represented with good reason or not. Philosophy of religion can thus contribute to the argumentative justification of religious convictions as well as to their criticism.

What argumentative strategies are there for or against religious beliefs? I outline three formative approaches from current religious philosophy. Such sketches always have something wood-carved and arbitrary about them, but they nonetheless offer a valuable first orientation aid in the thicket of a discussion.

The first approach says that religious beliefs primarily want to express practical-existential attitudes and not so much theoretical assumptions about reality. A religious belief such as “God is near to man” therefore does not express anything about reality itself; H. that God is actually present in the world. Rather, it says something about the moral or existential attitudes of the person who has this belief. E.g. that we should take care of other people, that other people are important to us or that this life is worth living. This strategy has the advantage that religious beliefs cannot come into conflict with theoretical assumptions about reality, since these are limited to the practical-moral-existential area. The disadvantage, however, is that religious beliefs are reinterpreted and reinterpreted in a way that contradicts the self-image of many believers. If a believer is convinced that God met them in prayer, that person usually means that this was indeed the case and that their experience presupposes a number of theoretical assumptions about reality, such as: B. that God exists, that people can gain access to God in prayer, that God has shown himself to her in prayer, etc. There are thus some arguments against the thesis that theoretical assumptions about reality - and thus also the question of their rational justification - do not play an essential role in religious beliefs.

The second and third approaches locate the question of the rationality of religious beliefs in the area of ​​theoretical reason. Since the Enlightenment, theoretical assumptions about reality have largely been developed from a religiously neutral starting point. The basic assumption is that every reasonable and intellectually honest person, thanks to their cognitive powers, can in principle discover a number of fundamental truths about the nature of reality. These truths represent the "foundation" of our knowledge about reality and all further assumptions must be secured and justified by them. This also applies to religious beliefs. Consequently, the burden of proof rests on religious people to show which "foundation" of fundamental truths support their religious beliefs.

The second approach is usually referred to in the discussion as "Reformed epistemology" - "Reformed" because most of the representatives are professing Reformed Christians. You turn against the just outlined strategy of justification through a "neutral" reason. They argue that there are different types of fundamental beliefs that cannot be justified by reason, and that religious beliefs can also be one of them. So it is rational to have convictions of the following kind without further justification, as long as there are no strong objections to them: “I see a red dot there in front of me.” “The outside world exists and we do not only live in a matrix world.” “Mine People like me are endowed with spirit and subjectivity and not just zombies. ”Applied to religious beliefs, this approach says that someone is justified in believing in the existence of God without having to have sound arguments of reason for this. The argumentative obligation of a religious person shifts from the search for arguments of reason to back up their religious convictions to the examination of possible objections to convictions such as "I experienced the closeness of God in prayer" or "The greatness of God is shown in the beauty of nature" . In a nutshell, the strategy can be outlined as follows: I am justified in interpreting an experience relative to my religious convictions as an experience of the presence of God. I am waiting for appropriate objections to this interpretation and then look for arguments to reject these objections or at least to weaken them. As long as I can do that, I can hold on to my conviction that I have experienced God. Main proponents of this approach include Alvin Plantinga (1932), Nicholas Wolterstorff (1932) and William Alston (1921).

The third approach, on the other hand, is based on a general basis for understanding, which is expressed in common rationality standards for the assessment of scientific hypotheses and arguments. It is in particular the philosopher Richard Swinburne (1934) who developed this approach. In the light of rationality standards such as consistency, coherence, the ability to integrate new discoveries into a model, etc., a religious interpretation of reality represents an explanatory hypothesis of reality that ideally exceeds non-religious explanatory approaches in explanatory power. According to Swinburne, it can be argued that in the face of evidence such as the complexity and order of the universe, the beauty and diversity of nature, the existence of (self) conscious living beings, miracle experiences or religious experiences, the assumption of the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and good Creator God is more likely than the assumption that our world is only the accidental result of blind forces of nature. Such a result is attractive: on the one hand, a religious person is offered a rational-theistic alternative to naturalistic-atheistic explanations of the world; on the other hand, belief is not abolished, since the existence of God is suggested but cannot be proven rationalistically.

The approach of the reformed epistemology and the approach of Swinburne, despite different approaches, share the assumption that a rational justification of religious convictions is not only possible, but indispensable if a religious world interpretation is to be taken seriously as a possibility of a rational world view. Both approaches stand in their own way in the tradition of the “fides quaerens intellectum”, the belief that searches for reasons.

It should have become clear that the philosophy of religion in these approaches is pursued from an explicitly religious perspective. For some religious philosophers, however, this poses a problem. The criticism is that a positive-apologetic attitude towards established religions, especially Christianity, is in the foreground. This attitude goes hand in hand with the risk of succumbing to cognitive biases such as methodological bias, confirmation errors, or an overestimation of the persuasiveness of the theories presented. In addition, this attitude does not exhaust the full potential of questions relating to the philosophy of religion, since the perspective is predetermined or narrowed from the outset in terms of method and content. The aim of religious-philosophical research, on the other hand, must be to establish a reflection on God or the divine, free of religious assumptions.

Such an opening up of questions relating to the philosophy of religion is definitely to be welcomed. It probably holds further, currently largely unused possibilities of thinking with regard to the area of ​​transcendence. To think about these possible spaces is an expression of the rational nature of our human existence, which is expressed in a fundamentally open question horizon.


Dr. Georg Gasser is currently university assistant at the Institute for Christian Philosophy, University of Innsbruck, and mainly deals with questions of metaphysics, philosophical anthropology and the philosophy of religion. He is currently leading the project “Theistic Belief, Atheistic Belief and Standards of Rationality”. He is editor of theEuropean Journal for Philosophy of Religion and EditorJournal of Catholic Theology (ZKTh).