Rethinking the Rationality of Religious Belief

David Slakter raises an interesting puzzle in the above post. He offers that some religious beliefs are rationally justified while others are not. He offers that Alvin Plantinga might be best considered as holding rational religious beliefs while a suicide bomber does not. The problem arises when we try to figure out exactly what it is that separates the two examples. It can’t be that Plantinga has spent a sufficient amount of time reflecting on his religious beliefs ensuring their consistency and providing reasons that certain non-empirical religious claims can be justified. If this is what makes Plantinga’s religious beliefs rational, it would turn out that most people’s religious beliefs would be irrational. This is certainly not how we want things to turn out. Certainly the average person of faith has a good chance of being rational in all their religious beliefs. How are we to account for this possibility while still being able to criticize certain religious beliefs as irrational.

It looks to me like we can use some sort of reflective equilibrium to solve the problem. In a simple case of traditional reflective equilibrium in moral theorizing, we have the set of actions permissible under a given moral theory and the set of actions that coincide with our moral intuitions. We admit that neither the intuitions or the theory is always overriding but that the two need to be brought into equilbrium for a decision to be made. We let neither the theory nor the intuitions override our intuitions too often or two extremely. (Admittedly this is a quick and simple description of reflective eq, and some work needs to be done to tell us how to attain an appropriate equilibrium.

Assume that a given religious doctrine can admit of some independent standards (in this case lets assume moral, but it could be other standards including scientific). Say for example, that a given religion can admit of some naturalistic ethical claims such that murdering is wrong under such and such circumstances without references to the given religious doctrine. Given this independent standard we have a way to rule out certain religious beliefs as rational under a reflective equilibrium in cases where certain acts attempt to override this independent standard too extremely. This might give us the leverage to show that the suicide bomber is irrational while the average religious person can still be rational.

This account is a little short on detail, mostly because I just thought of it. But it looks to me like it could be filled out to provide an adequate solution to Slakter’s puzzle. Any comments?

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