Rationality and Religious Theism

  • Joshua Golding
  • Mar 1, 2006
  • Series: Volume 9 - 2006

Joshua Golding, Rationality and Religious Theism. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2003. 131 pages. Paperback, $34.95. ISBN: 0-7546-1568-5

Joshua Golding has two primary concerns in his book entitled Rationality and Religious Theism. First, Golding attempts to move away from the current debate that involves the rationality of theism, which he claims is essentially a cognitive affair, towards a more existential question which deals with the rationality of religious theism. The primary difference might be understood in that the former is concerned with the rationality of propositional statements such as “There is a God.” The latter seeks to explain how the proposition affects one’s whole way of life. Golding’s second concern is to demonstrate that not only is it rational to be a religious theist, but that it is especially rational to be a religious Jew. Being a pluralist of sorts, it is important to note that Golding does not rule out the possibility that other religions might be equally rational to other individuals (more on this later). Yet, as far as he is concerned, the aim of this book is not to demonstrate the rationality of other religions but to merely lay out a systematic approach that one might use while determining the coherence of any particular religion. With that in mind, we can begin to unravel some important points that shape Golding’s thesis.

First, and perhaps most importantly, Golding makes a sharp distinction between that which is “rationally defensible” and “rationally compelling.” A position is rationally compelling only if it has an “oughtness” underlying its central claim. Humans, then, would be compelled to accept that particular position given its obligatory nature. Golding notes that his primary concern is to avoid such an absolutist position and focus on the rationality of religious theism as defensible. A position such as religious theism can be rationally defensible if, and only if, arguments can be given in support and the objections raised are refuted. Moreover, the arguments must be expressed in a manner that is internally consistent. However, once an opposing position has been shown to reach the epistemic status of compelling, the rationally defensible position ought to be rejected and the rationally compelling position accepted. Golding reminds the reader that presupposing certainty before the position is rationally compelling should be avoided since two contrasting positions “could be rationally defensible for different people” (2). This is why Golding makes the claim that the religious theist might not have a confidently held belief; rather, the religious theist might “only have a minimal belief” in regards to his or her faith. In particular, then, the religious theist would have a belief system that a) recognizes that there is a “live possibility that there is a God” and b) believe that it is “more likely that one will attain a good relationship with God by living a religious way of life rather than by not doing so” (2). Let’s look at this claim in a more detailed manner by considering the following assumptions.

A person is a religious theist if and only if:

1. He has a conception of God.
2. He has a conception of the good relationship with God.
3. He has a conception of the religious way, that is, the way to attain or maintain that relationship
4. He believes that there is a live possibility that there is God.
5. He believes that following that religious way promotes the probability that he will attain or maintain a good relationship with God.
6. He follows that religious way. (28)

Golding goes on to defend this by showing that these beliefs are necessary and can be rationally defensible through their internal coherency. For example, the belief that God is supreme can be demonstrated as coherent. No opposing position can prove its incoherence, thus one can hold the position (that God is supreme) as rationally defensible. Golding then applies this to the religious Jew and demonstrates that one can be rationally coherent in this religious system. Therefore, once all the conditions are met (i.e. positions 1-6 can be held in a rationally defensible manner in that they are internally coherent), all that remains is a decision of the following:

Option A: Follow the religious way.
Option B: Do not follow the religious way. (79)

For this decision, Golding claims that on pragmatic grounds one can decide to follow the religious way. He calls his approach “neo-Pascalian” and states that Pascal’s Wager can be articulated through the Expected Value Principle which shows that even a minimal opportunity to attain infinite bliss is better than a definite opportunity of attaining finite bliss (7). Golding’s approach articulates the Expected Value Principle as well and claims that he has surpassed Pascal in that his conclusion produces the claim that “it makes sense for someone to pursue what he conceives to be an uncertain but very great value, even at the risk of losing a certain but lesser value” (81). Now whether Golding has interpreted Pascal correctly is a matter of debate. But because Golding seems to advocate this pragmatic position regardless of Pascal, it serves us well to critique his position rather than his interpretation.

To begin, one must bear in mind that Golding advocates an evidential theism where minimal evidence is required. This minimal evidence then leads to a “live possibility” for God’s existence. One could imagine that this approach might raise several doubts about the epistemic status of this belief. Is it a strong belief? Further, “What of the minimal evidence that God does not exist?” Surely there is some minimal evidence that God does not exist. What Golding seems to be missing is that for one to make a decision about God’s existence one must present a position that demonstrate that God’s existence is more plausible than not. Coming into theism with minimal evidence and the “live possibility” approach only ignites the agnostic fires and shows that there is a possibility for more doubt than belief.

Further, Golding’s dependence on coherence brings with it the arduous epistemological battle over whether coherence is a necessary and sufficient condition for justification. Undeniably, internal consistency is a necessary condition for justification, but it remains a matter of question whether it is sufficient since there seems to be no real way of choosing between equally coherent systems of belief. Golding offers some guidance by advising the reader to follow whichever religion seems most rational and most coherent to the reader. Although enticing, this approach brings the reader no closer to determining the truth of these truth claims.

In summation, Golding has proved that religious theism is minimally rational and therefore worth engaging. Yet, as was noted by Golding, other religious views can be equally rational and coherent (to someone). So, while proving his point at a minimal level, Golding’s pragmatic approach, coupled with his minimal evidence view of God, falls short of any real significance in that he has failed to address the most significant philosophical quest—that of truth.

Anthony Bolos
Denver Seminary