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V. Christian Belief Justified

The classical package taken neat, so to speak, can’t be right: there simply doesn’t seem to be a duty to form belief in accordance with (CP). Of course there may be other sorts of intellectual duties. There is a duty to the truth of some kind. It may be hard to state this duty exactly;108108   See WCD, p. 33. perhaps it is in the neighborhood of a requirement to do 100your best to believe as many important truths as possible and avoid as many important falsehoods as possible. Whatever precisely our duties to the truth, I want to argue next that Christian belief can certainly be justified and can certainly be justified when taken in the basic way. We are construing justification in a broadly deontological way, so that it includes being within one’s epistemic rights and also includes being epistemically responsible with respect to belief formation. (Perhaps you will think the second follows from the first.) This is a perfectly reasonable requirement; if Christian belief cannot be held in such a way as to satisfy it, then there is something wrong with Christian belief. But it isn’t at all difficult for a Christian—even a sophisticated and knowledgeable contemporary believer aware of all the criticisms and contrary currents of opinion—to be justified, in this sense, in her belief; and this whether or not she believes in God or in more specific Christian doctrines on the basis of propositional evidence. Consider such a believer: as far as we can see, her cognitive faculties are functioning properly; she displays no noticeable dysfunction. She is aware of the objections people have made to Christian belief; she has read and reflected on Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche (not to mention Flew, Mackie, and Nielsen) and the other critics of Christian or theistic belief; she knows that the world contains many who do not believe as she does. She doesn’t believe on the basis of propositional evidence; she therefore believes in the basic way. Can she be justified (in this broadly deontological sense) in believing in God in this way?

The answer seems to be pretty easy. She reads Nietzsche, but remains unmoved by his complaint that Christianity fosters a weak, whining, whimpering, and generally disgusting kind of person: most of the Christians she knows or knows of—Mother Teresa, for instance—don’t fit that mold. She finds Freud’s contemptuous attitude toward Christianity and theistic belief backed by little more than implausible fantasies about the origin of belief in God109109   See below, chapter 5, pp. 137ff. (patricide in the primal horde? Can he be serious?); and she finds little more of substance in Marx. She thinks as carefully as she can about these objections and others, but finds them wholly uncompelling.

On the other side, although she is aware of theistic arguments and thinks some of them not without value, she doesn’t believe on the basis of them. Rather, she has a rich inner spiritual life, the sort described in the early pages of Jonathan Edwards’s Religious Affections;110110   Ed. John Smith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959, first published 1746), p. 271. it seems to her that she is sometimes made aware, catches a 101glimpse, of something of the overwhelming beauty and loveliness of the Lord; she is often aware, as it strongly seems to her, of the work of the Holy Spirit in her heart, comforting, encouraging, teaching, leading her to accept the “great things of the gospel” (as Edwards calls them), helping her see that the magnificent scheme of salvation devised by the Lord himself is not only for others but for her as well. After long, hard, conscientious reflection, this all seems to her enormously more convincing than the complaints of the critics. Is she then going contrary to duty in believing as she does? Is she being irresponsible? Clearly not. There could be something defective about her, some malfunction not apparent on the surface. She could be mistaken, a victim of illusion or wishful thinking, despite her best efforts. She could be wrong, desperately wrong, pitiably wrong, in thinking these things; nevertheless, she isn’t flouting any discernible duty. She is fulfilling her epistemic responsibilities; she is doing her level best; she is justified.

And this is not only true, but obviously true. We may feel in some subterranean way that without evidence she isn’t justified; if so, this must be because we are importing some other conception of justification. But if it is justification in the deontological sense, the sense involving responsibility, being within one’s intellectual rights, she is surely justified. How could she possibly be blameworthy or irresponsible, if she thinks about the matter as hard as she can, in the most responsible way she can, and she still comes to these conclusions? Indeed, no matter what conclusions she arrived at, wouldn’t she be justified if she arrived at them in this way? Even if they are wholly unreasonable, in some clear sense? An inmate of Pine Rest Christian Psychiatric Hospital once complained that he wasn’t getting the credit he deserved for inventing a new form of human reproduction, “rotational reproduction,” as he called it. This kind of reproduction doesn’t involve sex. Instead, you suspend a woman from the ceiling with a rope and get her rotating at a high rate of speed; the result is a large number of children, enough to populate a city the size of Chicago. As a matter of fact, he claimed, this is precisely how Chicago was populated. He realized, he said, that there is something churlish about insisting on getting all the credit due him, but he did think he really hadn’t gotten enough recognition for this important discovery. After all, where would Chicago be without it?

Now there is no reason to think this unfortunate man was flouting epistemic duty, or derelict with respect to cognitive requirement, or careless about his epistemic obligations, or cognitively irresponsible. Perhaps he was doing his level best to satisfy these obligations. Indeed, we can imagine that his main goal in life is satisfying his intellectual obligations and carrying out his cognitive duties. Perhaps he was dutiful in excelsis. If so, he was justified in these mad beliefs, 102even if they are mad, and even though they result from cognitive dysfunction.111111   Again, what I’ve really argued is that this believer is subjectively justified. Can the classical foundationalist concede this but claim that he is not objectively justified, that there really is a duty, whether he knows it or not, to believe only on the basis of evidence? But is there even the slightest reason to think there is any such duty? Here at the least the classicist owes us an argument.

Our main quarry, of course, is the de jure objection or question. One prominent candidate is the question whether the Christian believer can be justified in believing as she does. Take that term in its original and basic deontological sense. Then the question is: can the Christian believer be within her epistemic rights and epistemically responsible in forming belief as she does? Can she be justified even if she doesn’t believe on the basis of propositional evidence and even if there is no good propositional evidence? The answer to this question is obvious—too obvious, in fact, for it to be the de jure question, at least if that question is to be worthy of serious disagreement and discussion. Of course she can be justified, and my guess would be that many or most contemporary Christians are justified in holding their characteristically Christian beliefs. We must therefore look elsewhere for the de jure question.

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