The Reasonableness of Religious Belief

I have always been a believer. Among other reasons, that’s because I think rationality demands it.

When I talk about “belief” here, I mean it in a very broad sense, which is not synonymous with “Catholic” or even “Christian”; Sikhs, Hindus and Zoroastrians might all qualify, and I myself was raised in the LDS church and not (according to Rome’s decree) validly baptized until the age of 25. When I speak here of “believers,” I am distinguishing those who are prepared to believe in more than what eye can see, ear can hear or elaborate scientific machine can detect.

I wouldn’t mind if someone also wanted to refer to this group of believers as “non-materialists.” That would point us towards the same divide between those who seek to explain everything that exists or occurs reductively, as a complex interaction of quarks and atoms and firing neurons, and those who are prepared to consider explanations that refer to what lies beyond the merely physical.

Of course, the differences between believers themselves are vast and highly consequential, and I do not at all mean to trivialize them. Some believers commit themselves to deeply malignant forces, while others are so frivolous and inconsistent as to give real justification to those skeptics who take religion to be just a collection of just-so stories designed to comfort the weak-minded. In the very broad sense that I have just delineated, a person could even be a believer without committing himself to any specific metaphysical worldview. I myself was an “uncommitted believer” at one time. In one sense, then, it doesn’t take much to be a believer, and there have probably been whole epochs of history in which almost everyone alive would qualify.

Still, in this day and age, it isn’t nothing. Despite enormous differences, believers are natural allies in the midst of a gravely serious conflict. Although Catholics are today embattled from many sides, I myself believe that the most epic spiritual battle of our time is not with Muslims or Protestants or political liberals, but rather with the deadening spirit of secular materialism, which cloaks itself in the guise of reason and enlightenment, and ultimately consumes all its children into a black pit of nothingness.

This may sound hyperbolic. In the end, I do not really believe that it is, although in some contexts I would moderate my language for the sake of respectful discussion. The disciples of secular materialism pride themselves on their capacity for critical examination and rational thought. In reality they are not so much extraordinary logical as extraordinary limited, but penetrating the logic of limitation requires prudence and discernment. Drunk on Occam’s Razor and malnourished by evidentialist epistemology, materialists have adopted the prejudice of thinking it vastly better to refuse to believe in something that exists, than to believe in something that does not. They make a project of shrinking their metaphysical commitments as much as they possibly can, taking enormous pride and comfort in the idea that they will never be “taken in” by folk tales and fabrications (the like of which they assume to be responsible for most of the human race’s ills).

Over the course of my philosophical education, I received extensive instruction in the logic of unbelief. In the world of academic philosophy today, believers are few and far between. So I learned about the philosophy of mind, which today is mostly an exploration of the question: how is it that machines of meat (that is, humans) can do such amazing things? I learned about contemporary meta-ethics, which involves endless puzzling over whether and how we can speak of “right” and “wrong” given the manifest silliness of believing in, say, divine laws, or an objective final good for man. I studied contemporary metaphysics, in which the main game was “material constitution,” which has been cleverly nicknamed “the philosophy of piles.” Here the goal is to determine how the mere act of sticking together a lot of small things (such as grains of sand) can give us a categorically different thing (a pile). Of course metaphysicians of all stripes must ask questions like these since it is their task to determine what it means to be. But, as I came to appreciate, it is especially difficult to make progress on such questions if you are committed to the idea that everything that exists really is no more than a collection of tiny things all stuck together.

Unbelievers can be intelligent, or even brilliant. Having dwelt for awhile in their temples (that is, the Academy) I can say this at least: their leading figures are fairly well aware of the limitations of metaphysical minimalism, far more than most believers seem to suppose. Analytic philosophers are distinctly different from swaggering braggarts like Richard Dawkins, who make a hash of basic theistic arguments even while repeatedly trumpeting their superior mental acumen. They do realize, to a great extent, that they are trying to prepare a fine French meal in a kitchen with limited equipment, and that their only available ingredient is a weak gruel. That might partly explain why, more than many disciplines, philosophers are willing to tolerate the occasional theist in their midst, like a rare, exotic beast that can remind them of a happier philosophical age.

Unbelievers are more likely to be “turned” by a life-changing experience (falling in love, becoming a parent, losing a beloved person) than by argument.

Obviously, this is intentionally provocative, but I absolutely believe it to be true. It is not reason that urges us to consign ourselves to the emptiest and most limited worldview we can stand.

In any case, I was never converted to unbelief. Anxious parents and pastors (hoping to protect the soul of some other young person ensconced within the Academy) occasionally ask me to explain how that happened, and from the distance of a few years (and realizing now how rare it is), I myself find it a bit puzzling. To me it never seemed like much of a struggle; despite many years of being surrounded by secular materialists, their world view never held much allure. No doubt I was blessed with many graces and positive human influences, but from a subjective point of view, I believe I would always have said that belief seemed more rational to me because it was so self-evident that the universe is full, not only of matter, but also of meaning.

I believe in beauty. It isn’t in the eye of the beholder; the world doesn’t just seem, but actually is, beautiful. I believe in love. I don’t accept for a moment that love comes down to brain chemistry, or an evolutionary mechanism that helps to perpetuate my species. I believe in virtue, or, to put the point another way, I believe that humans are capable of far more than the “critical thinking” that the disciples of secular humanism love to champion. Virtue requires a much higher standard of objective goodness than the meta-ethicists will ever be able to justify.

Belief is more rational because the world is manifestly better than the materialist is prepared to believe. If you want a fine French meal (and who doesn’t?), you should stock your kitchen with the proper ingredients, and this is what belief enables us to do. I realize that this truth is hard, but I would urge materialists nevertheless to grin and bear it. The universe is far, far better than they ever supposed.

Rachel Lu


Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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  • lifeknight

    Dr. Lu this is another wonderful article! Thank you!

  • tamsin

    …belief seemed more rational to me because it was so self-evident that the universe is full, not only of matter, but also of meaning. Beautiful!

    • Ford Oxaal

      “Nothing” cannot exist. That means there ain’t no nothin’ no way no how, never was, never will be. Infinity exists. There can be no border between something and nothing. Only the irrational believe in a finite universe. Interestingly, the two infinities we can conceive of, time and space, are both trinities: length, width, height, and past, present, future. Trinity is part of the nature of Existence. Monism is irrational.

      • AnnieOfArc

        Keep talking forever, Ford Oxaal!!

  • TheAbaum

    “Belief is more rational because the world is manifestly better than the materialist is prepared to believe.”

    I have always noticed that atheists, especially those who make it a public mission are slightly unhinged. It’s one thing to be an agnostic, demanding the sort of empirical proof Thomas did, it’s another to state against the logic that nullity is impossible to prove, “there is no God”.

    Those of us who realize we are tiny little specks, would rather be lost in wonder than fury.

    • redfish

      I’m actually more surprised to the degree that many atheists don’t even accept a form of weak deism, which would see religion as purely allegorical more than wholly false.

      I suppose it would be harder to “fight the dragon” of religion if you just declared yourself a deist. But many agnostics are in the same boat, too.

      From the same perspective, I’d challenge Ms. Lu, too, though. Its possible to be a non-believer and still not be a materialist. There are views between rejecting the supernatural and reducing life to atoms.

    • fredx2

      I have found there are two types of atheists. There is the Emotional Atheist and the Rational Atheist.
      The Emotional Atheist has a deep seated need to bash religion. Their atheism is primarily driven by their emotions. There is a great deal of barely masked hatred involved. Dawkins, Hitchens etc are this type. They can’t stand religion and see it as something they (in their superiority) need to destroy.
      The Rational Atheist, on the other hand, simply sees no evidence for God. He is not emotional about it, does not hurl wild claims around (Religion is the cause of all wars! The Inquisition! The Crusades! Galileo!). He is content to let believers have their religion. After giving the matter careful thought, he simply sees no reason to believe.
      You can respect the rational atheist. However the emotional atheist simply appropriates some scientific language and techniques (along with a very selective reading of the bible) to engage in a form of bigotry. You will note their heroes are basically Polemicists rather than scholars.

      • TheAbaum

        “You can respect the rational atheist. ”

        What you describe as rational atheists are still at war with logic. The absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. Of course there’s the question of what constitutes evidence.

  • hombre111

    Well done! A high five. Four stars.

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  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    The fullest treatment I know is Bl John Henry Newman’s sadly neglected Grammar of Assent.

    As examples of things of which we are absolutely certain, although we might find it hard to justify our certainty: “We are sure beyond all hazard of a mistake, that our own self is not the only being existing; that there is an external world; that it is a system with parts and a whole, a universe carried on by laws; and that the future is affected by the past. We accept and hold with an unqualified assent, that the earth, considered as a phenomenon, is a globe; that all its regions see the sun by turns; that there are vast tracts on it of land and water; that there are really existing cities on definite sites, which go by the names of London, Paris, Florence, and Madrid. We are sure that Paris or London, unless swallowed up by an earthquake or burned to the ground, is to-day just what it was yesterday, when we left it. We laugh to scorn the idea that we had no parents, though we have no memory of our birth; that we shall never depart this life, though we can have no experience of the future; that we are able to live without food, though we have never tried; that a world of men did not live before our time, or that that world has had no history…”

    The rest of the work is taken up with showing the rational basis of these convictions, without which life would be impossible.

  • Mike Nace

    “I myself believe that the most epic spiritual battle of our time is not with Muslims or Protestants or political liberals, but rather with the deadening spirit of secular materialism, which cloaks itself in the guise of reason and enlightenment, and ultimately consumes all its children into a black pit of nothingness.”

    I cannot agree with this more. In a strange sense, even those who are obsessed with the occult are closer to salvation than those who have given themselves over to secularism. For even those who align with the dark side acknowledge God and the spiritual world. They are in the fight — albeit on the wrong side — but are at least operating as a “non-materialist” to some degree (though the occult is rooted in the banal and the material world much more so than Christianity, to be sure.)

    However, those who rail against religion and God are much more damaging to the fabric of society, in that they are deconstructing centuries of the proven viability of intertwining our belief in God and its consequences on both individuals and as a society. After all, God didn’t only reveal Himself to Abraham, but to all of Abraham’s people as well: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” That is such a beautiful covenant — one that we Christians share in as adopted children of God — and one that is being systemically erased through secularism.

    • fredx2

      That is the strange problem with the New Atheists.They are just wasting our time. Ultimately, when they get knowledge of religion as a whole, (not the cartoon version they love to fight) they will either become believers or lapse into irrelevance. Theirs is not a fight to advance anything, theirs is a fight to destroy something. Note that they really do not propose anything in religion’s place. other than “science” which really does not address the same issues as religion (How shall we live?)

  • fredx2

    “The disciples of secular materialism pride themselves on their capacity for critical examination and rational thought. In reality they are not so much extraordinary logical as extraordinarily limited, ”

    I have found this to be the case with many atheists. They have locked themselves into a world of thought that prides itself on certain limitations. You get the impression that many have locked themselves into a sort of “on-off” , “ones or zeroes” world of duality. They have a tendency to throw things into either one category or another. This causes them to exclude a lot of evidence that does not fit neatly into one of their categories.

    It’s like you were listening to music, but instead of hearing the music as a whole and feeling the emotion of the composer, all you heard was the structure of the music, and only noticed that it was a series of carefully arranged tones.

    Also, some seem to have retreated into this world of “logicalism” because they found the world hard to absorb without some sort of structure to guide them. So they strain everything through this filter and then only rely on what passes through. But of course a filter removes a lot of stuff as well.

  • Ford Oxaal

    Can someone please show me where I am smoking my own crack or else join me in putting an end to the irrationality of modern philosophy: Proof of the external world: (1) I am — I cannot deny consciousness. (2) I experience change — change exists. (3) A cause must include its effect, else part of the effect came from nothing — something cannot come from nothing. Therefore, if conscious state A caused different conscious state B as an effect, then B would be included in A and would not be experienced as change, but rather, *together* with A. Therefore something other than consciousness causes the experience of change. That something other than consciousness is called the “external world”.

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  • It amused me that atheists at their Beyond Belief seminar, they had a section, ‘If not God, then what?” And they all could not agree.
    In her presentation, Carolyn Porco showed these amazing pictures and suggested, if I remember correctly, there be festivals/celebrations around these.
    Yes it is amusing, sad really, that these very smart people, who want to do away with God, want to revert back to Saturnalia?
    “If you do stand for something (The One Thing Necessary), you will fall for anything”

    • tamsin

      these very smart people, who want to do away with God, want to revert back to … Saturnalia? Personally, I’m not feeling the love.

      I have not watched that Ted talk, but it sounds like such efforts as Dreyfus’ All Things Shining.

      • The Gods Return interesting.
        Mahalo @spridget:disqus
        With God’s grace, let’s keep up the good fight. It is worth every effort, it is indeed worth while.

    • josh

      I watched the talk, which is very good, and there is no mention of festivals celebrating Saturn. She only mentions in passing that she thought the achievement of landing a spacecraft on Titan was worthy of celebration.

      • Aloha @josh and sorry if my comments were confusing. The Ted Talk was highlighting the beauty of creation.
        Search the internet/videos for “Beyond Belief seminar, had a section, ‘If not God, then what?”
        What she says there celebrating.he carries to the Ted Talk in puzzlement that people are not celebrating.

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