In a short essay titled Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?, philosopher Edmund Gettier raised some concerns about, as you may have guessed, justified true belief and knowledge. For this post, I’d like to explore how Gettier’s essay relates to belief in God. If God happened to exist, can Christians rightly claim the ‘high ground’ and say that their belief in God was justified while atheists’ lack of belief was unjustified?
Reflecting on Gettier’s essay, we realize that it’s quite possible to have sufficient evidence to believe a proposition and be correct even though the evidence did not lead to the truth value of the proposition. Suppose, for example, that I show you a good deal of evidence for you to be justified in believing that I own a Jeep. You believe that you are justified in believing that I own a Jeep and base your belief on the given evidence…but it turns out that your belief was correct despite the evidence you were shown. The reality of the situation – unknown to both me and you – was that I bought the Jeep from a dealer who had forged documents and had stolen the Jeep and someone named Kevin really owned the Jeep, but unbeknownst to me and you, I won a raffle on the same day you believed I owned a Jeep. In short, your belief that I owned a Jeep was correct, but for ‘all the wrong reasons.’ You simply were ‘lucky’ and arrived at a justified true belief because of chance.
Likewise, it’s totally possible to be very justified in lacking belief in a given proposition and happen to be wrong for some unknown and perhaps unlikely reason. Consider Peter Popoff. Popoff is a televangelist who was exposed as a fraud during the days of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson by skeptic James Randi. Popoff claimed to be able to cure diseases persons had and also claimed to have a direct link with God that allowed him to know details of persons such as their home addresses and what ailments they had. Randi discovered that Popoff had advance information about audience members and received said information from his wife via an earpiece.
We’re quite justified in believing that Popoff was a charlatan and didn’t have a direct link with God because we have a naturalistic and very plausible alternative explanation. Suppose, though, that Popoff really did have a link with God and the earpiece was simply a backup just in case God decided not to relay information to Popoff. Despite our justification in lacking belief that Popoff spoke with God, we actually were wrong. Was our lack of belief in Popoff’s claims of speaking with God unjustified? Can ‘Popoff believers’ be considered intellectually praiseworthy?
Many Christians believe that their belief in God is justified even though they appeal to different reasons, many of the arguments given are deeply problematic, faith doesn’t constitute knowledge, and much more. Some rely on Pascal’s Wager – the idea, roughly, that we ‘should elect to believe’ in the Christian god because there is no way to ‘know’ whether God exists or not, so we ought to believe rather than disbelieve and face punishment – to somehow substantiate their belief in God. Whatever the reason, Christians believe that God exists. All of the standard reasons, it seems, are not sufficient to establish belief in God; many of the given arguments and reasons to believe in the Christian god, it seems, have been thoroughly ‘debunked.’
Suppose, though, that the Christian god actually did exist and not one person’s reason to warrant belief was justified. Suppose the Christian god actually did have sufficient reasons to create a universe with laws that guarantee random killing of persons through diseases, natural disasters, and much more; the problem of evil turned out to no longer be a problem. Suppose that the Christian god had a sufficient reason to remain hidden despite some obvious reasons that he should have to reveal himself.
Suppose that one day, the Christian god decided to utterly reveal himself so that almost everyone believed. Suppose he materialized in human form, submitted himself to all of our tests, and made non-belief an unreasonable position on par with belief that aliens created Olyphant, PA [or insert your favorite wacky claim here]. Perhaps, if he did not manifest in human form and provide very good reasons for humans to believe he existed, he simply happened to exist in an afterlife of sorts. At this point, should the persons who believe in the Christian god be intellectually praiseworthy for their belief? Can Christians rightly poke fun at non-Christians and call them fools as the Bible does?
If the Christian god exists, Christians have no justification whatsoever to claim that they are intellectually praiseworthy because their previous ideas that they believed led to justification for belief in the Christian god were not sufficient to warrant belief. These Christians were simply lucky and the non-Christians were justified in not believing that the Christian god existed.
Enter the concept of Hell, perhaps one of the most immoral and absurd parts of the Christian belief system – at least as understood by most laypersons. Hell, for the purposes of this post, is where non-Christians go to be tortured for eternity after they die for not believing that the Christian god exists [and other ‘sins’]. Can God be morally justified in sending someone to Hell because he/she did not believe the Christian god exists when the person was engaging the arguments and reasons given by theists and, to add ‘icing on the cake,’ permit believers to enter Heaven simply because they believed (and didn’t even believe for the right reasons)?
Sketching what they call an “intellectually virtuous person” and the “epistemically virtuous person,” Philosophers Robert C. Roberts and W. Jay Wood note, in their book Intellectual Virtues, “The epistemically virtuous person values, cherishes, seeks, and appreciates intellectual goods. She wants to know important truths and understand how things work … she wants to “see for herself” in some kind of striking, relatively unmediated way; she is not satisfied with operating on mere hearsay … She needs approaches to questions that will yield answers; she needs epistemic habits and skilled faculties that will accomplish the work of justified believing, seeing, and understanding. … She needs education and training and formation to these ends. And she needs practices that are well-designed for harvesting the epistemic goods.”
Roberts and Wood also note that people suffer from prejudice if they hold beliefs for inadequate reasons such as simply liking a belief, not wanting to experience negative consequences because of fear or anxiety, appeal to tradition, and lack of willingness to investigate whether or not the belief is justified.
Some persons, including myself, spend quite some time investigating questions relating to whether there is any justification for believing in anything supernatural. I would, as you might expect, say that my lack of belief in any gods is very justified (and, of course, I’ve argued this in various posts including a recent written debate) while belief in any gods is very unjustified. Shall I be punished by a god who never produced adequate evidence for his existence while, at the same time, my investigation into the ‘god question’ produced no good reason to believe in such a god? This would be ridiculous.
Likewise, it would be ridiculous for theists to be rewarded for belief in God although their reasons for belief were inadequate to establish belief, their belief was not the process of an intellectually virtuous process, and much more.
If God happened to exist, the state of the evidence before he either revealed himself or a particular person (or all/most persons) rightly led the atheist to maintain that there was no justification for belief in God. The theist was merely lucky for maintaining belief in God and they would not rightly be labeled as intellectually praiseworthy if God happened to exist because their reasons for believing so were unjustified.
I recognize that some theists honestly believe that belief in God is justified and, like me, some have spent considerable time in investigating these issues by writing, asking questions, reading, listening to debates, etc. I don’t doubt the sincerity of persons, for instance, like Alvin Plantinga or William Lane Craig even though I think their arguments are very bad ones. If Craig and Plantinga happened to be right about the Christian god and their arguments did not warrant the conclusion that the Christian god existed, they are not justified in asserting that their belief was justified or maintaining that the atheist was unjustified.
Whether any gods exist or not, I maintain that my lack of belief in the Christian god is justified given the current state of the evidence. If theists happen to be right, and not for the current reasons they propose, their belief was not justified, but rather they happened to be lucky. If I happen to be wrong, my lack of belief in God, prior to the ‘revelation’ was justified.
As Bertrand Russell once said, responding to a question of, “What if God existed? What would you tell him?” I would say, likewise, to God, “Not enough evidence.” Theists can’t rightly claim the high ground if God does happen to exist, for their belief was unjustified.