Atheists' Epistemic Obligations

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For you non-philosophers out there, an epistemic obligation is just an obligation related to what you should believe. Evangelical Oupost has been blogging about Pascal's Wager. I posted some comments there, but I wanted to expand on them here. I think Pascal's argument that we should seek to believe in God is a good one.

The objections that I think are most serious are that you can't just choose what to believe and that it would be wrong to believe for purely selfish reasons. Pascal deals with the first objection by saying he's not trying to argue people into belief, since that has to come on its own. (Try to believe that there's a blue elephant sitting right next to you right now, or that the car approaching you really fast isn't there, if you really think belief is voluntary. It isn't.) Still, we can do things that bring us to be able to accept something more or less easily. Pascal is just giving practical reasons to pursue the kinds of practices that will allow belief in God to come on its own. What I'm trying to do in this post is to suggest more of what's behind Pascal's suggestion and to respond to some objections. [Some of this is adapted from a class handout on religious knowledge and arguments against believing in God based on the lack of evidence.]

What if God does exist and won�t reveal this to anyone with any certainty unless they�re genuinely seeking God through religious practices, and only then when they try hard enough and seek in the right ways (whatever those ways might be)? If this is true, then could a nonbeliever be innocent in not seeking God? One might argue that a nonbeliever needs to have pursued God through the worship, prayer, reading of scriptures, genuine efforts to see and evaluate oneself in the way a perfect God would want us to, entering into a community of faith to see life through the eyes of faith, and so on. Simply learning about religion isn�t enough, because that�s not what God is looking for in us. Only if we enter into religious practices, genuinely seeking God, would God give us this assurance. If this is possible, then it may be that the atheist or agnostic doesn�t have all the evidence that a theist has. This is an interesting possibility that should at the very least give pause to those who think the lack of convincing arguments for believing in God is a good enough reason for not believing in God.

One problem for what I'm saying is that some people do seem to try out religious practices and abandon them, thinking that there is nothing to them. But maybe they didn�t seek hard enough, or maybe they weren�t really seeking the true God. These are at least possibilities that shouldn�t be ruled out.

Probably a more serious objection is that this opens one to brainwashing. Trying out a particular religious community�s practices and viewpoint would tend to increase one�s likelihood of believing, even if that group�s views are dead wrong. That�s a worthwhile concern, and any attempt at seeking God in this sort of way needs to involve some skepticism from the outset just to guard against that. A theist arguing this way might suggest only the mere attempt to engage in religious practices as a goal of seeking out whatever higher power there might be. Does that automatically open someone up to brainwashing? Or is it simply opening oneself up to see things from a different perspective? For instance, can someone truly criticize Christianity if they don�t understand it? Can they understand it without having read the Bible to understand what�s going on in it, seeking someone who knows more about it in harder to understand parts? Could I consider myself to have done my homework in evaluating a particular viewpoint if I haven�t tried to become a part of how that viewpoint sees the world? It may well be that with the case of religious beliefs, there�s evidence you can�t get unless you do that. So someone outside that whole mindset and way of life (of at least seeming to interact with God) doesn�t have the information the person who takes part in such practices may well have.

It's easy to find different perspectives that compete to explain our experience. The question becomes how to look at those different perspectives and judge between them about what we should believe. It may be that you can�t understand the theistic framework without having tried to live, think, and feel from that orientation. The claim would then be that someone who hasn�t done this hasn�t given oneself the opportunity to look at the evidence in a balanced way.

I'm fairly comfortable with how naturalistic, atheistic people look at the world. I live in it as part of being a philosopher in the context I'm in. I've been forced to think through how philosophers will reason even from premises and assumptions I don't share, at least on an intellectual level. I understand the value system of the world around me fairly well, and at times I find myself valuing things according to it as well, though I try to move in the other direction. I've certainly had short-term periods of living life as if some sort of secular worldview is correct. No one can live in light of Christian values and the Christian worldview consistently and continuously indefinitely. Some of this has taken effort, and some of it is just a natural mindset that I can slip into if I'm not careful. Either way, I've experienced a good deal of the major alternative of our era in the American university context. I can't say that most of my fellow Ph.D. students in my department have considered Christianity in the same way.

Does this answer the objection? Does it mean Pascal's argument should be convincing to everyone? Does it mean any non-Christian has a moral obligation to pursue living out Christian practices among Christians and seeking God? I'm not sure what I've said has guaranteed any particular answer to these questions, but I tentatively claim that it gives more plausibility to the claim that people have some obligation to consider Christianity in a way deeper than mere intellectual investigation of what propositions Christianity endorses.

16 Comments

Jeremy,

What kind of support can you offer to your hypothetical arguer's claim:

"that a nonbeliever needs to have pursued God through the worship, prayer, reading of scriptures, genuine efforts to see and evaluate oneself in the way a perfect God would want us to, entering into a community of faith to see life through the eyes of faith, and so on."

My impression has always been that most conversions (between and belief systems) come from a time spiritual crisis and doubt. Beliefs change not when we want them to, as you point out, but when they are unfit and we are anguished or destitute. It's in seeking a respite from anguish and destitution that one finds solace, and there are a great many examples, inside and outside of scripture, of God revealing Himself to non-practitioners.

Admittedly, if a nonbeliever is following Christian practices before facing this sort of crisis and revaltion, respite may be readily available to them. But vainly following Christian practices without believing also enables them develop cynicism toward that faith. Without faith, the "unfashionable" sacrifices (the costs in Pascal's Wager) are a discouragement that may embitter the nonbeliever.

I believe that this very sort of situation is what was behind the modern exodus from Christianity. Anecdotally, I know it's true of my parents, who were forced to practice Catholicism under the enforcement of a nun/teacher rather than through their own faith. Instead of finding Christian belief, they associated Christianity with seemingly arbitrary rules and fled from it, that much more unlikely to return.

Almost all the people I know who have become Christians in some social vicinity to me have sought to investigate God for various reasons, some perhaps in a crisis like what you describe, most not. For almost all of them, with a couple notable exceptions, it was through what they would describe as participating in the Christian community, seeking out God through prayer, worship, and scripture reading, that they came to say that they really were interacting with God. It wasn't through seeking a way out of their situation, since biblical Christianity would never allow such a misstatement of the Christian message. It was through allowing the Christian gospel to suffuse every aspect of their life, from sorrows to joys, from the affections to the life of the mind.

It's easy to be suspicious of all religious conversion and then read all of life in light of it. What that ignores is that some or even many of the cases have alternative, perhaps even better, explanations than the suspicious ones. Someone may be open to Christianity for a number of reasons, some affective, some intellectual, some merely because of a wonder about Christians they know. Then an investigation that attempts to experience real interaction with God, if such a being exists, could lead to real interaction with God. That could be a self-validating experience. So I think it's unfair (and out of phase with the many different sorts of conversion that I've seen firsthand) to say that most conversions are just emotional responses to crises in the absence of rational acceptance.

Your description of your parents' situation doesn't sound anything like what I was describing. It sounds as if they were forced to conform to a set of rules without being presented with the Christian gospel that makes those rules (if they were truly Christian rules) a good idea. I was suggesting that people might consider Christianity, which isn't to be identified with a set of rules, surely not a set of rules to be enforced among those who haven't accepted the Christian gospel, as they seem not to have.

You sounded as if I was suggesting that people vainly follow Christian practices while believing there was nothing to them. I was suggesting that people consider if there is something to them by following them. It wouldn't be the same way of following them, though. The agnostic's prayer won't be like the Christian's prayer in some important ways. If it involves earnest seeking of God, even without confidence that God is there, then it's not vainly following them, which seems a more appropriate expression for someone who believes firmly that there is no God but follows the rules anyway.

One of the things that I am struggling with is going from arguments for the existence of God to practical consequences for day to day life. For instance, even if I do believe that the cosmological argument is sound and valid, will I be able to choose between Islam and Christianity, or even Monotheism and Polytheism? Arguing that the complexity and beauty of nature is evidence of God is nice, but would it convince a pantheist to repent of her sins and become a Christian? That is to say, I think that if only these types of arguments are presented, a person might rightly wonder why God would reveal himself in such an oblique and sublime manner that so many people could come to contradictory positions about the how's and what's of religious life. I think traditional theistic arguments have this problem, and I have ongoing internal debate about presuppostional apologetics, but I think this has problems too. My conclusion is that historical arguments for the resurrection might be the only thing that a Christian has to argue from, since if it is a historical fact it would imply a particular response in the context of a specific religious belief system. Most of the other arguments are too vague, and can be applied across multiple religions. (Although they might be useful in a supporting role, with historical arguments of the resurrection as the "main thrust")

In thinking along these lines, one of first responses is does this (your post) have a similar problem. That is, do I have an epistemic obligation to not only try out the Christian faith, but also different faiths? If I have similar experiences, what does that say about belief in God? Or would I even be in a position to make judgements about my experiences? Perhaps external factors, such as whether the people I meet happen to be extroverted or not may unfairly color my response. So maybe I have to try out multiple churches, synagogues, mosques, buddhist meditation groups, etc. before making my decision. Is this even practical? Or am I way off base?

I don't think the cosmological argument is supposed to help with religious converstion to a particular religion. It's just supposed to be an argument against atheism. One of the points of my post was that you might not need arguments to be fully reasonable and rational in becoming a Christian.

I wasn't talking about subjective experiences, which can be similar from religion to religion. If you're basing it fully on how you feel after a certain religious experience, all the concerns you raise will come up. I was talking about objective experiences, i.e. genuine interaction with God. If the God of Christianity is real, then you're not genuinely interacting with God through Buddhist practices. So those experiences wouldn't lead to justified beliefs. There's a question about how someone is to tell which experiences are objective, but that's not my point. All I'm doing is showing that if it's a real experience of a real God, then you don't need an argument to have a rational, reasonable belief. The fact that your belief is caused by God (or interaction with God) is enough. How you evaluate your belief from within is a separate matter from whether it's really grounded.

I think those external factors will provide a context for why someone would seek God, but those don't affect whether a resulting belief in God is grounded. Only real interaction with God gives that, and the presence of psychological factors doesn't add or subtract from that.

If by rational, reasonable belief you mean the proposition that God exists, then I would agree. If by rational, reasonable belief you mean a system of faith that contains a set of propositions about the nature and character of God than I would disagree.

Jeremy,
The argument is interesting, but let me ask a question because I'm not sure I get it. Suppose that having considered the matter at a purely intellectual level, I come to a well-established conclusion that at best, the proposition that there is a god is unknowable. Armed with that, wouldn't it be irrational for me then to engage in something I know in advance might get me to believe it?

Clayton, even if I haven't done anything else here, I think I've shown that it's possible for there to be a divine being known to some and unknown to others. Therefore, I'm not sure how someone can come to a well-established conclusion to the contrary (i.e. that the proposition that there is a god is unknowable). So you're asking me to grant something I believe to be impossible and then asking me what would follow.

Reader, I'm not sure your basis for the distinction. The ground of knowledge in the cases I'm discussing has nothing to do with the minimalist conclusions of arguments like the cosmological argument. It has to do with real experience interacting with the creator of the universe through particular expression of religious practice, one that takes God to be a certain way. It's in the particular practice of Christianity in a localized context that the person has been led to grounded understanding of who God is through genuine contact with God, including the character of God in responding to prayer, in being worthy of worship, in transforming the person according to the fruit of the Spirit, etc.

Jeremy,

There are a number of issues but I think that taking cues from personal experiences interacting with God to believing a set of propositions about the nature and character of God that hold as truths is not a given. Each proposition would have to be evaluated individually to see if such an induction is valid in that particular case. It may be that some beliefs about God are not rationally held even though an individual has had an interaction with God. They may have misinterpreted those experiences or been unduly influenced by other factors external to the experience itself or God may chose to interact with them differently than God would interact with others or they may assign properties to God or God's nature that do not follow from the experiences they have had.

For instance some Christians believe that homosexuals are sinning and unfit for priesthood while others do not. Clearly God's nature cannot accept and not accept homosexuality at the same time. So if Christians only claim experience as the justification for their faith about the nature of God, the experiences of some of them have been illegitimate or misconstrued. Therefore, I think a distinction about what types of things one might rationally believe about God given an experience is warrented.

Many people, operating within contradictory contexts, genuinely believe that they have had interactions with God and then draw vastly different conclusions about the nature of God from those experiences. It seems that the point of your post is that athiests have an additional epistemic obligation because of the possibility that Christians are justified rationally holding their faith from their experiences alone. So am I, as a Christian, to grant that possibility to a Muslim believer or a buddhist or a hindi or anyone else who seems to legitimately believe they have had an experience with God? If not, then why does the Atheist have to grant the possibility to the Christian? If so, is experience of Christianity really the only justification needed for rational faith?

Actually, I think only one proposition is necessary for this, and lots and lots will follow -- the proposition that the Bible is a reliable guide to coming to know about God and God's actions throughout history. If the Bible is a significant part of the method of coming to Christianity, then that's enough to get you going with this. Just to head off a possible objection, I've already argued that this isn't circular.

Jeremy,
Sorry, I should have been clearer. If someone were really to push the idea that independent of evidential or epistemic considerations practical considerations can rationalize the belief, then surely they could grant that someone who exhaustively ran through the proofs for and against came to the conclusion that the proposition that God exists could be unknowable. I didn't say that their conclusion was true, only well established. I'd be very suspicious of someone who said that practical considerations could rationalize the attitude independently of evidential or epistemic considerations who didn't grant that this was possible. But then focusing just on such a subject, it does seem irrational for them to do something they know could convince them of something they then rationally believe (if falsely) to be unknowable. I think that this second bit is essentially Kant's attitude in Lectures on Ethics when he discusses the obligation not to debase oneself by allowing onself to believe that there are duties to spirits.

Hi Jeremy. Out of the two objections you mentioned as most troubling, you left out the one I find most troubling. The problem is this. If Pascal's wager defends practicing Christianity, then it defends practicing and trying to believe ANY system X where both:
1) The threats of not believing in and practicing X (if X is true) outweigh the costs of believing in and practicing X.
2) It is claimed that X cannot be known/understood or rejected without practicing it.

So, Pascal's wager would seem to warrant practicing Buddhism, Islam, or worshiping Toby, the God of Mars, who wants shrines erected to him, and will come down here in 2020 and kill you and your family unless you do so. (suppose further there is SOME non-convincing weak evidence of Toby from independent sources).
This is not to say that the Wager can't be supplemented, but it is to say that it must be supplemented, if it is to be an argument for Christianity and not some other religion.
Also, Pascal's wager, as it is, does not obey it's own dictates (that is, to suppose it's employer knows nothing about the nature of God), since it supposes that God will damn to hell anyone who does not believe in him.
So, I think these are some more crucial problems with the wager. I think what you laid out is something different, call it 'Jeremy's Epistemic Gambit', which is a slightly weaker view that supports the idea that one cannot object to practicing in and believing in Christianity w/o coming to understand it or engage in it's practice.
But, then, there is a similar problem with this. I saw a Bill Moyers' special on 'Chi' energy and Quigong healing practices in China, and people would shake and get thrown against the wall by the healing touch of some Chi shaman. When Bill was touched, nothing happened to him. Whenever nothing happened to anybody, it was because the patient did not believe, or 'open himself' to the healing Chi.
Similarly, Christians often blame non-Christians when their entreaties to God aren't answered that it is just because they didn't believe enough, weren't sincere enough, and so on.
So, we're in a bind, or a Catch-22. The Christian says that unless you attempt to reach God, and practice religion, God will not answer, and you will not know him. But Atheists say that they will not attempt to reach God unless they can get evidence outside religion's practice that there is God.
I don't see a good way out of this (if Christianity is true), from the point of view of a rational atheist, unless God exists and gives grace.

Clayton, I'm still not following you. If it's possible for someone to know of God without evidence or argument simply through direct contact, then it's in principle not true that someone can prove to themselves that the proposition that God exists is unknowable. People do convince themselves of this, but I can't see how you could arrive at such a conclusion by argument, simply because I've already given a counterexample to it.

Mark, I'm not sure I really disagree with the substance of what you're saying. My argument isn't Pascal's Wager on its own, as you say, though I don't think Pascal's was either. I'm not sure what I'm saying is much different from what Pascal said.

As for the lack of faith response, that is an explanation of what's possibily going on, but Christians aren't very imaginative if they think that's the only reason the person hasn't come to believe yet. God may just be working over a longer period of time than the person would like.

Your last statement sounds downright Calvinistic! We must be rubbing off on you.

Jeremy,
You said

If it's possible for someone to know of God without evidence or argument simply through direct contact, then it's in principle not true that someone can prove to themselves that the proposition that God exists is unknowable.

I wasn't saying that one could know ''God exists' is unknowable'.

The idea was this. Imagine someone with a sincere desire to know whether God exists and who further wants it to be the case that God does. However, having read all the books, evaluated all the arguments, he comes to the conclusion that if God exists, he'd never know. I didn't say that this constituted knowledge or was a proof (both of which is factive and so question begging), just a well established (but false in light of our assumptions) pessimistic agnosticism on which 'God exists' is unknowable.

Now present this person with your argument and now we ask whether such a person has a reason (practical, theoretical, whatever) to take up religious practices so that he could acquire evidence not available to someone who didn't take up that practice. My intuition is that since from that person's tragic epistemic perspective, the invitation to engage in a practice whose benefit seems to be forming a belief in what he currently (wrongly we stipulate) firmly believes to be unknowable or to acquire some other good he currently (wrongly we stipulate) believe to be unattainable is one he'd be irrational to accept. I think sometimes the demands of rationality, given one's present commitments, can tragically lead some astray, such as our well-intentioned agnostic.

My suspicion, for what it is worth, that there can be cases where a belief you've held for a while is in good standing while an otherwise rational person could be irrational in coming to believe what you believe rationally. Perhaps this is due to agnostics and atheists working themselves into corners they can't escape from but through grace. (Of course, being a non-believer I don't think this is how the world works, but that's what you'd expect of me, no?)

So the proposition in question is:

I'm unlikely ever to know whether God exists

Now I get it. I think I agree with you that the person isn't going to consider the full-blown investigation rational without further motivation or evidence. I can think of a number of cases why someone would pursue such a life without any evidence, though, and I don't think it's irrational at all.

They might come to the conclusion that naturalism is existentially hard to deal with and consider other worldviews for pragmatic purposes, though not Pascalian ones. I don't think that's an irrationl reason to pursue such an investigation, though it might be irrational to come to belief solely for that reason. Maybe they know people whose whole worldview is different because of Christian beliefs and want to explore what's going on there, which seems perfectly reasonable to me. Some may just like the influence of religious people in the lives of their kids, which seems to be a reason to bring them to some sort of church, though it doesn't get you all the way to practicing it yourself. It might get you in a position to have one of these other motivations eventually, though. Finally, they may simply go along with someone else whose belief they support, which would be bad if they're Bertrand Russell and think religion is dangerous but fine if they think it is or could be very good and may even be on to something. I've known people in all of these categories, and I don't consider any of them irrational.

Jeremy, I think we're starting to see eye to eye--weird?

When I say that someone's belief is irrational, I'm not trying to suggest that the belief is irrational but rather that given that person's commitments, their coming to believe could be irrational. I think such judgments largely depend on their other commitments and that such irrationality is really often a low grade epistemic shortcoming. Anyway, if we fill out their attitudes in different ways, there may be ways of specifying other stances of theirs so that such an agnostic would not count as irrational to pursue the avenues you mention--I'm not sure.

Yes, I wasn't reading you as saying that the belief is in principle irrational but as saying that the person in that instance has it irrationally.

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