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On the Justification of Belief in God

By Edited Aug 4, 2016 0 1

The debate as to whether humans have free will or are strictly fated has persisted within philosophical and theological circles for centuries. For it is a comforting notion to assume that one has, for example, the freedom to choose to choose to buy orange juice whilst in the supermarket or to not do so—dependent on if one desires to drink orange juice in the near future following the purchase. These types of decisions are faced multiple times on a daily basis, and each time we choose what is in our best interest—seeming to implicate that we have free will. However, since all of these decisions create a causal chain that requires the previous link to be what it necessarily was, a common rebuttal to a strictly indeterministic conception of free will is that each choice had to be made in order for the subsequent choice to be made. One had to buy the orange juice, for they are drinking it now—and hence they were never really free to do otherwise because there is no possible world in which said person is not currently drinking orange juice. Of course, such dichotomy leads to ‘soft deterministic’ outlooks in which humans maintain having free will in a deterministic world, but the main point is that the notion of the existence of ‘free choice’ is highly contested. And as for the concept of belief, a widely held position by philosophers such as Locke and Hume is that belief is involuntary.[1] As posited by Swinburne, “We believe our beliefs because we know that we do not choose them but because (if we think about it) we believe that they are forced upon us by the outside world”.[2] According to this interpretation, it would necessarily follow that belief is not a matter of free choice, and this would include belief in God. Those who have rationality and deem the existence of God to be more probable than 0.5 would constitute the population’s believers, and those with the belief of a less than 0.5 probabibilty would be nonbelievers. However, as will herein be argued, belief in God requires an atypical approach to human rationality and belief systems—in effect rendering traditional, empirical approaches to verifying belief obsolete. Rather, the theist’s private relationship with God actually allows for belief to be dually voluntary and rational in lead up to voluntary and rational faith. In accord, the decision to believe in God is a matter of free choice due to its voluntary nature in the causal process of solidifying belief and practicing faithfulness.

Prior to considering why belief in God is a matter of free choice, it must be established that the theist takes an atypical approach to belief in the supernatural. Writes Davis, “Given our created natures, they should be natural signs that produce in us certain concepts and beliefs”.[3] This very supposition unsurprisingly bothers atheists and agnostics, because it asks us to build belief systems that are not based upon empirical evidence. Sure, the cognitive capabilities of humans and the essential particularities of the chemical make-up of the ocean can be observed, but it does not prove existence. Thus, belief in God requires belief in something we cannot see or touch, and devout obedience to a higher power that does not coincide well with the liberal notion of individual freedom that is largely influential in modern Western political theory. In Davis’ words, “Pride works to prevent all [of the indicators of God’s existence]…” and he goes on to advocate that the predominant rationale for contemporary nonbelievers is the ‘Lifestyle Argument Against the Existence of God’ in which skeptics reason, “I am not living and don’t want to live the kind of life that God would want me to live if God existed. Therefore, God does not exist”.[4] Hedonism is clearly a tempting lifestyle, and such temptation is only amplified in the absence of a judge of morality beyond the self. But the even larger consequence of Davis’ assertion is that—in regards to belief in God—belief is actually manipulated in a manner that makes it voluntary. Either one swallows their pride and opens their eyes to God’s creation, or takes the easier route of living a life of self-indulgence. Many atheists and agnostics will retort that God has never revealed Himself to them, and hence they are just being rational actors in their nonbelief (and thus their disbelief is involuntary and constituted); this point will be addressed fully later, but even in this claim the atypical nature of belief in God is overlooked by the skeptics. Again, such nonbelievers are searching for God’s existence in the way that one digs for clams on the ocean floor—taking this approach to verify belief systems, although flawed if one understands Christian doctrine, is voluntary just as it is voluntary to constitute belief in God based upon ‘our created natures’.

In spite of the aforementioned insistence that belief, unlike in empirical instances, is voluntary, which in turn would lead to the prognosis that belief in God is a free choice, there are several refutations to this claim that must be considered. Beginning with the renowned theologian Thomas Aquinas, Aquinas rejected that free will is the cause of belief because there is “’some supernatural principle’ that inwardly moves us by grace…a properly disposed heart is necessary to weigh the evidence properly”.[5] The reasoning that Aquinas uses here is not unsound, but the conclusion he comes to is troubling. Even in a deterministic world, the notion that some people are preordained to be touched by the Holy Spirit while others are not entails a lack of free will that does not seem to follow. It is not coincidental that those who desire a relationship with God prior to ‘being un-blindfolded’ are the ones that later ‘see’, it is the free choice of desiring a relationship with God that leads to divine intervention that leads to belief. Denying freedom here, as Aquinas does, leads to the conceptualization that the Lord’s chosen are indeed chosen at random before even getting the chance to live for Him—and this alienates theists, atheists, and agnostics alike. Another prevalent refutation to dismissing that belief in God is a voluntary, free choice is that belief in God is simply irrational since it cannot be proven. Therefore, one is just involuntarily misinterpreting evidence. Davis anticipates this move, and says, “…if I accept the Christian message because of private evidence and the inward testimony, and if that message has not been refuted or rendered improbable, then my acceptance of the Christian message is fully rational”.[6] In effect, his postulation infers that rationality is relative to the individual, and this is in line with the postmodernist interpretation that beliefs [differing from facts] are subjectively constructed. Reverting back to Swinburne’s position that belief—a necessary condition of voluntary faith—is involuntary, the notion that rationality is relative also hinders his argument—for belief cannot be involuntary if the rationale preceding the belief is voluntarily constructed and individually (as opposed to universally) rational. And similarly, involuntary belief in God could not precede voluntary faith; this would assume that the agent is not free and rational—it denies the agent’s moral responsibility, and people cannot be held responsible for what they cannot do otherwise. In Swinburne’s view, nonbelievers would not be responsible for not believing in God because they never had the chance to. But of course they are responsible and of course they have the choice to believe; they voluntarily deny the legitimacy of Christ’s command to Thomas, “Do not be unbelieving but believing” (John 20:27).[7] 

As has been aforementioned in this piece and as is fundamental to the covenantal relationship between God and man, knowledge of the Spirit is a direct intuition of truth rather than a process of reasoning and weighting philosophical argumentation. As Paul proclaims, “Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2: 14).[8] The gifts of God’s spirit are foolishness to them: they close themselves off to belief—God is not welcome in their broken kingdom. To illustrate the free nature of belief, Hartman proposes a scenario in which there are two men, W1 and W2, and both of these men are unable to prove that God exists on their own. While W1 decides that his inability to warrant belief in God makes such belief irrational, W2 humbles himself out of a voluntary desire to have a relationship with God and the Holy Spirit anoints him with the trust that validates subsequent faith.[9] As Pascal sums, “There is enough light for those who desire only to see, and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition”.[10] In this view, God does have the obligation (so to speak—God should be happily obligated) and control over the decision to reveal Himself [again] in the form of the Spirit once the humble desire to have a relationship with Him is shown by man, but man nevertheless freely chooses to believe that God sent Christ to die for our sins so that we can be reborn in His name—and to therefore live for Him in this mortal life. In conclusion, belief in God is a matter of free choice because, according to religious doctrine, God revealed himself first in the flesh of Christ, and will reveal himself again through the Spirit in a private, non-universally empirical to anyone who desires a relationship with Him; one can freely choose to believe this pretense or to deny it—regardless of whether God already knows what the decision shall be.


Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. New York: Benzinger Brothers, Inc., 1947.

Davis, Stephen T. Christian Philosophical Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Hartman, Robert J. “Involuntary belief and the command to have faith.” Int J Philos Relig 69 (2010): 181-192.

Pascal, Blaise. Penées. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1996.

Swinburne, Richard. “Epistemic Justification.” Oxford Sholarship Online 1 (2003): 32-55.

[1] Richard Swinburne, “Epistemic Justification.” Oxford Scholarship Online 1 (2003): 39.

[2] Swinburne, 40.

[3] Stephen T. Davis, Christian Philosophical Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 11-2.

[4] Davis, 12.

[5] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (New York: Benzinger Brothers, Inc., 1947), II-II, 6, 1.

[6] Davis, 20.

[7] Robert J. Hartman, “Involuntary belief and the command to have faith.” Int J Philos Relig 69 (2010): 184

[8] Davis, 17.

[9] Hartman, 189-91.

[10] Blaise Pascal, Penées (New York: Penguin Putnam, 1996), 50.



Jul 3, 2013 4:26pm
Good article - 1 Cor 2:14 says it all, in my opinion.
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