Why belief in god is irrational

In yesterday’s post I argued that there are conditions under which it is not irrational to believe in things for which there is no evidence at all. The example was given of extra-terrestrial life or space aliens. Since the universe is very large and very old and we know contains a vast number of galaxies, there exists a plausible argument that life, even intelligent life, could exist elsewhere in the universe that we are unaware of.

But believing in other things, such as that space aliens are buzzing around us mysteriously all the time or that dragons and unicorns and the like are roaming in some secret regions of the Earth, is irrational because to retain such beliefs requires one to create very complicated and implausible scenarios to explain the absence of any evidence in favor of them.

Similarly, the idea that that there exists an afterlife is also irrational because having that belief requires one to construct a whole superstructure of auxiliary beliefs in order to sustain that belief, and these auxiliary beliefs are themselves implausible and not supported by evidence and also depend on some kind of willful attempt at concealment of evidence, so one ends up building a whole house of cards of implausible theories just in order to sustain that one belief.

What about belief in god? Is that rational or irrational? Some have argued that it is no harder to believe in a god than that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, since both have no convincing evidence in support of the belief.

But with god, the kinds of explanations for the absence of evidence that can rescue intelligent extra-terrestrial life and place it in the realm of rationality no longer apply. The problem is caused by the very qualities that religious people ascribe to god. With intelligent extra-terrestrial life, we assume that they, like us, are limited by space and time and the laws of nature. In particular, they cannot travel faster than the speed of light, which puts a real crimp on being able to get around this vast universe. After all, even if their technology was so advanced that they could travel at speeds approaching the speed of light, it would still generally take years for them to reach even the nearest neighboring star, so exploring beyond their our own galaxy becomes an enormously time consuming activity. So believing that there exists intelligent life in some remote part of the universe that is so far inaccessible to us is not an outlandish belief because the auxiliary beliefs that are necessary to sustain it (such as a very large universe and limits to travel) are supported by evidence. So the Raelians actually have a more plausible belief structure than mainstream religions.

If (hypothetically) the universe was quite small and could be traversed in a brief time, and people started invoking ideas like that extraterrestrial life existed but they were deliberately and cleverly hiding from us, then that belief starts becoming irrational.

But in the case of god, he/she is not supposed to be not limited by space and time. He/she can be everywhere all the time and has infinite powers to boot. So there is no reason at all why god should not be able to provide us with the kind of convincing evidence that I outlined earlier that would remove all doubts once and for all.

In order to overcome this problem, religious believers have to construct auxiliary hypotheses, similar to the ones that become necessary to sustain a belief in the afterlife. It is postulated that god does not want to be seen by us and has the ability to stay hidden, choosing to be seen in highly selective situations, although those situations seem to be becoming increasingly trivialized and bizarre, such as appearing in grilled cheese sandwiches, damp spots in highway overpasses, and the like.

In such situations, the absence of convincing evidence casts serious doubts on god’s existence and lifts the belief in god into the realm of irrationality. However, the faithful continue to remain devout. It does not seem that they wonder why god goes to all that trouble to provide just tantalizing glimpses. Those who do wonder about this have to, at this point and as a last resort, invoke the inscrutability argument: We cannot presume to understand why god does these things, we just have to believe that there is a good reason that is being hidden for us.

I think that this could be used as a test as to whether a belief that is sustained in the absence of evidence is rational or irrational:

• For a belief to be irrational, in order to sustain it one must argue for the existence of something that is in principle unknowable and also requires a deliberate scheme to conceal evidence of existence.
• For a belief to be rational it needs to be something that is unknown only in practice due to limitations of time or technology, but may become known in the future, and the absence of evidence is not due to willful deception by the very entity whose existence we seek.

This is not how most people seem to view rationality. People tend to view a belief is rational simply because a large number of people believe in it and if it has been around for a long time. But those two arguments really have no merit since it is quite possible for large numbers of people to believe false things for a long time.

But numbers and time seem to be the only thing that belief in god has going for it.

POST SCRIPT: Famous atheists

The online magazine MachinesLikeUs has compiled a long list of famous atheists that makes for interesting reading. There were some names on the list that were a surprise to me.

It contains scientists (Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin), writers (Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy), popular culture celebrities (Angelina Jolie, Woody Allen), political figures (Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony), and even people who are not famous (me).


  1. bob says

    It is interesting that you give reference of some website that has a list of atheists. Yet, I could find no place on that website as to how they arrived at their conclusions. I offer up this in rebuttal of Einstein as an atheist.

    “I want to know how God created this world. I’m not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts; the rest are details.”

    E. Salaman, “A Talk With Einstein,” The Listener 54 (1955), pp. 370-371, quoted in Jammer, p. 123.

  2. says


    While there is some discussion as to exactly what Einstein believed and whether he could be labeled an atheist or at most a deist, there is no doubt that he definitely did not believe in a personal god and that his use of god was as a metaphor.

    You can see here for the context of his statements, including the one you quote.

  3. says

    Why is it that atheists (like so many of the believers they disagree with, or even like Scientologists) are so insecure that they desperately feel the need to “claim” famous people as theirs? And why would data and logic need to be propped up by the personal beliefs of some actors and a couple of physicists? Einstein might have best exemplified this point when he said he did “not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation…”

    Looking further at the list….

    Franklin --

    “The Infinite Father expects or requires no worship or praise from us.”
    “I conceive, then, that the Infinite has created many beings or gods vastly superior to man.”
    “It may be these created gods are immortals; or it may be that after many ages, they are changed, and others supply their places.
    “Howbeit, I conceive that each of these is exceeding good and very powerful; and that each has made for himself one glorious sun, attended with a beautiful and admirable system of planets.
    “It is that particular wise and good God, who is the author and owner of our system, that I propose for the object of my praise and

    (Franklin’s Works, Vol. ii., p. 2).


    Buffet -- Agnostic

    Jefferson -- None of our business

    Doubts, rejection of Christianity/organized religion, and a desire for privacy do not a true atheist make.

    Hopefully nobody will make too many inferences on what I do and do not believe based on this post.

  4. says


    I don’t think this list proves anything. It is just an interesting list about people whose names we are familiar with, that’s all. Whether Einstein or Franklin or Jolie are atheists or not has no bearing on the substance of the argument. It is just an amusing sidelight.

  5. Mary says

    More and more I am believing less in the idea of an objective reality that serves as a static, constant backdrop for us all. So the debate over whether or not there is a god is becoming less pertinent for me. From what I can decipher, there seems to be three main camps -- those who do not believe in a god -- those who do believe in a god -- and then there are those that acknowledge that they don’t know, but are just open (either to that which is within their current human sensory plane or beyond it).

    Maybe no one is right or wrong, but everybody in the three camps is correct, for one’s reality may be totally subjective, simply a reflection of their mind’s content. So for someone who believes in a god, then god does exist -- for one who doesn’t believe in a god, then god does not exist -- for those who are open, well then -- who knows, anything may be possible

    … I think the einsteins and da vincis of the world probably sprout from the third camp. : )

  6. a vall says

    A photon moves at the speed of light. From the photon’s perspective, time does not exist and it is everywhere and everywhen at once. For an immaterial God, that sounds like a good description.

  7. Anthus says

    Is belief in a god irrational in every situation? No matter what?

    That is, if you believe in a god, are you behaving irrationally, even if you are a deist (like Franklin)?

  8. says


    A deist believes that some entity created the universe and its laws right at the beginning and subsequently does not interfere in any way at all.

    Since this belief does not require one to construct a whole network of implausible beliefs to protect that belief from refutation, it can be considered rational.

    It also seems kind of pointless to me, but that is a matter of taste. It might have had greater appeal to people like Franklin who were looking for how things might have started, but lived before the sciences of cosmology and biology. But I am not sure what the appeal of deism is in this day and age.

  9. says


    Very interesting commentary. I enjoyed reading your views and I will bookmark this page and check back often-I enjoy such philosophical arguments even if I am a David to your Goliath and don’t know that if I present any real challenge to you at all.

    In fairness I am a Christian-and an evangelical one to boot just so we get that out in the open. Also, I understand your commentary was not limited to the God of Christianity-it is equal opportunity in that respect. Finally, I am not offended by anything you wrote although I question it critically.

    I think your commentary is right on the mark in some important respects. Belief in the God of Christianity is indeed irrational. It defies human logic. Grace and mercy are not natural human instincts and we are always suspecting when we actually see them played out in real life. How often have we heard the phrase “there is no such thing as a free lunch”? Nobody gives things of value away with no expectation of payment of any kind and when we see such offers we immediately wonder about alterior motives or squeeze our pocket books just a little bit tighter. Yet this is the what we as Christians would have you believe. God created human beings out of grace (and not to have fellowship with him as some may argue-God does not need company-it was done out of grace pure and simple)knowing full well that they would choose to abuse the free will He DESIGNED them to have. He then rolls out his plan to redeem man and this is where it gets absolutely irrational and foolish. He knows that man is a goner. God knows man will rebel-he can’t help himself. So he decides to reincarnate Himself to come to live on Earth, to teach, to walk the countryside, to interact and to eventually die a painful and unjust death (to say the least) and then resurrect Himself (talk about irrational and foolish) so that man can be redeemed-can have a second chance. Totally irrational-if He really did create all there is, does he really need to carry out this over elaborate plan. Does he really concern himself with puny little man? Why would he care? Why not wipe the whole thing out and start over again? Why bother in the first place? And by the way, why would he DESIGN the universe in such a flawed way?

    Here is where one would normally insert your inscrutability argument: We cannot presume to understand why god does these things, we just have to believe that there is a good reason that is being hidden for us.

    Now here is where you and I start to disagree. There is no inscrutability argument on this although I certainly think we use this all of the time to try and explain lots of natural phenomenon and everyday observations. Why does my wife dislike pizza? I don’t know-that seems totally irrational to me. In fact she cannot really tell you why-she just knows she doesn’t like it.

    No, I will not invoke the inscrutability arguement on this. God did it out of grace, he did it out of perfect love and out of mercy. Now you may argue that this doesn’t explain the “why?”. And that is why we are so suspicious about grace and mercy in human endeavors. There is no scientific reason for grace or mercy. What do you think about grace and mercy? Surely you concede that they exist? Why, scientifically, do they exist? They are extentions of love and we see them now and again imperfect as they are, manifested in human relations. And whenever we see them we think, “Wow! That is amazing. Why did that guy do that? Why didn’t he do this instead”. The why explanation is difficult in such instances and is probably highly personal to the one showing grace. They may not be able to explain it themselves, they may offer up “I just felt a need at that moment to show grace”. What? That may not be irrational but it is hardly rational.

    Lastly I am sure a man as intellectually brilliant as you (and I mean that and not as a jab) had to see this coming-you may have even designed it this way? Your post was almost put out as bait to catch someone like me to attempt to intellectually wrestle with you (a task I am doomed to lose). You had to know that I would argue with the premise to your assertion. You start your post by saying, “In yesterday’s post I argued that there are conditions under which it is not irrational to believe in things for which there is no evidence at all.” Is there no evidence? You are saying that I believe based on no evidence? Remember, no offense taken at all. Second, why do I believe? You obviously invested thought in this and decided it was because of time and numbers. You may even think that the real question is the one I ought to be asking myself, “why do I believe what I believe?”. I already know that the evidence I am about to offer will be rejected by you probably on excellent intellectual grounds but I do not know what the grounds are so I offer up the following:

    1. The universe itself is evidence. Where did it all come from. What (or Who) caused it? Is the universe infinite? Is it part of a multiverse that cannot be obverved due to “a practical limitation due to lack of technology” (??) but can be mathematically proven given a number of assumptions that no one can verify? Old argument I know. I am sure you have heard it before (cause and effect) given my understanding of your background from this site but I do not know your response.

    2. Numbers and time (you offered it and I’ll take it). Lets discuss those numbers some. You would assert that man invented god out of some evolutionary impulse to understand our place in the universe or else as a defense mechanism of some sort to be able to avoid the paralysis and survive and not be mentally eaten alive from within over the big question about what happens when we die. But what if your theory is wrong? What if the reason man, in almost all different cultures at all times has some concept of a god because god imprinted this on his brain (or DNA?). That is, what if god programmed man to seek after him? What if that little voice inside your head that gives you doubts about the existence of god (and I know you have to have experienced this at least once) is god’s way of revealing himself to you and calling to you to seek him? What if it is that?

    3. Personal experience? Can one answer the call of that little voice described above and experience god on a personal level. I mean if there is a god, and his power is without limit, why can’t he choose to personalize his relationship with you?

    Now, why would god choose to reveal himself in such a way? Why not hold a huge press conference and tell the entire world at the same time? Why not give additional empiracle evidence by creating a mountain right in front of me in the next 1 minute. Answer: I don’t know (your inscritibility argument now applies but then again, why is my favorite color blue?).

    Is this evidence? Is this evidence testable? Yes it is testable on a personal level but not in terms of the rigors of science that is true enough. What if the billions of folks who do see this personal experience as evidence for god are right and your theory (whatever it is) is wrong?

    4. Specific to Christianity we have the Bible itself. Why is the Bible not evidence? I guess from your post the Bible would be a construct used by Christians to support the irrational belief that God exists? Is your view that the Bible is a fabricated document? Is nothing in it true? Is part of it true but not other parts?

    I disagree that people believe in God without any proof. Blind faith is rare and can be irrational I agree but I think people believe in God based on the evidence. The difference between you and I are the biases we bring to the thought excercise.

    Finally, I ask you what evidence would you accept for the existance of God? What would God have to do to convince you that He exists?

    What is evidence?


  10. says

    Hi, Jim,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. In response to your questions 1, 2, and 3, it is possible for believers to respond the way you have. In fact, they almost have to, because there is little alternative, and you have stated the position very clearly.

    My response is that the very same arguments could be put forward for the existence of magic invisible unicorns in my office. But I don’t believe in them for the same reason I don’t believe in god. To do so involves constructing a whole elaborate structure of supporting beliefs for which there is lack of evidence.

    As for the Bible as evidence in your point 4, I actually wrote a seven-part (!) series on this titled The Bible as history where I outline my views.

    The final issue you raise of what it would take to convince me that there is a god, I wrote about that too here.

  11. says


    Thanks for your response. I almost cannot believe how you are able to respond to these so quickly! Amazing. You really do an excellent job of posting topics that are funny or controversial or interesting in a gentlemanly manner. I very much appreciat it. I look forward to reading your comments on the Bible but for now I want to comment on a few other things.

    You didn’t answer my question about the causmological problem? Is the answer the multiverse? Just wondering so I know where you stand.

    You write: ‘My response is that the very same arguments could be put forward for the existence of magic invisible unicorns in my office.’ But you don’t see magic invisible unicorns….do you:) If not, it is not the same thing.

    On proof, you wrote, “As far as I can see, convincing proof for the existence of god would have to be something along the lines of the convincing proof I outlined earlier concerning the afterlife: god would have to appear in public to a random group of people, provide tangible proof of existence, and re-appear at a designated time and place that would allow for skeptics to be present. In short, it would have to be similar to the encounter that King Arthur and his knights have with god in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), right after the song in Camelot in the following clip.”

    I loved the movie you site-very funny (I especially like the scene where they argue about the coconut being carried by the swallows..)but I am a bit miffed. To be more specific, you would require God to appear to you because from my perspective He did this already and it is documented. The Gospel accounts say God appeared in the flesh to a random (can God do anything randomly??) group of people, He showed difinitive proof of His deity and was questioned by skeptics in many instances at many times and at many places and from multiple cultures. Obviously, I will have to dig into your blogs on the Bible.

    I read on another of your posts about how you wondered why it mattered to Christians and others when someone says something offensive about their God or important figues(by the way your comparison of the Christmas wars with the Muhammed cartoons was a poor one-you had lots to choose from but there is no comparison in this case). I don’t speak for everyone but I offer the following line of thought I go through. When I engage in these discussions I am not under the impression that I will wow you with some persausive argument that will win you over for the cause-that is not my job and that has to be an act of your free will. Perhaps you feel the same about me. From my perspective as a Christian though there is much at stake. You may believe the world would be a better place without religion? I think that if religion were manufactured by man and there was no god then humans would manufacture other things to divide over and fight about-it wouldn’t get you anywhere and I think I have a pretty compelling argument in this case so to me you have little at stake in this if anything. But if I am right there is much at stake. You! and that matters very much. I will spare you the love and all that but from my perspective if I am intellecutally honest with myself and I believe what I claim to for real this issue matters. I am compelled to tell you the truth as I understant it. What you choose to do with it is not my business. Now this is the reason I am exchanging dialogue with you. Yes I enjoy the philosophy but I think there is life in the balance. You may honestly say you have never had doubts about god and you can say you never heard that little voice within you and wondered what it is but I am skeptical just as you are skeptical of me. I will lose no sleep but I honestly admit that on some level it does matter to me even though I have never really met you. People saying offensive thing about Jesus (e.g. bong hits for Jesus) or God don’t bother me as a Christian because they offend me. They bother me because it means the offender has a misunderstanding that is critical and has long term consequences that matter in eternity.

    Have a nice evening,


  12. says


    There are some questions in science that we simply do not have enough evidence as yet to suggest a solution that we have much confidence in, although various ideas have been put forward. The multiverse is one such idea. The origin of the universe is a tough problem.

    If people want to believe that god created the universe and then retired, that is (at present at least) a proposition that cannot be refuted. I just don’t see any value in it, except to give some role to god.

  13. Zar says

    I do wonder, as n aside, why god is spelle din lower case by many modern-day Atheists. I say Modern-day atheists because atheists in the past, even the ealry 20th century, never spelled god in the lower case. Well, unless it was about a generic god.

    I have heard the ususal arguments, such as “SInce I fdon’t beleiv ein god, I don’t pay him the repsect given him by THists”, but is htis an excuse for bad grammer? As a dyslexic, my spelling is terrible, and oftne on the itnernet I am told my “Spellign and grammer” is bad, although my grammer is fine.

    However, the truth is that spellign god int he lower case is bad grammer, as withthe sampel form the post above.

    “What about belief in god? Is that rational or irrational? Some have argued that it is no harder to believe in a god than that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, since both have no convincing evidence in support of the belief.”

    In the firts sentence, the word god is used as a Proper noun.It Identifies not a generic sort of beign, such as a god, but a spacific individual.Its used as a name.

    Therefore, it shoudl read “What about belief in God? Is that rational or irrational? Some have argued that it is no harder to believe in a god than that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, since both have no convincing evidence in support of the belief.”

    Notice I left oen fo the two uses of the word “god” in lower case. Thats because a qualifier exists. It says a god. Not god. A god. Thus, its like dog or human, a geneic descriptuive.

    But hwen oen says ” the existance of god” its a spacific, individual being.

    Therefore, it isn’t really proper to p;lace it in lower case, no matter how much you disbeleive int he existance of said God, its still a proper name for a spacific individual. Even arguing that God is a ficiton, one must realise that the word is used as a Proper noun int he same vien as Darth Vader or Sherlock Holmes.

    The tendancy to place it int he lower case actulaly stemmed from the late 20th century militant Athists, who desided it was cleaver to place it in lower case in order to diliberatley insult those who where not Atheists. They firts decided nto to use the word as a name at all, and just used temrs like “the god of CHristainity” and such like, which, although demeaning, wa sstill proper grammer. Later they began to put the word god in lower case when speakign of God direclty because thy elected to show disdane toward God. (This somehow showed hwo raitonal they where. The need ot show hatred and contemot for God is, however, not rational.)

    Now, tis become such a habitual thing, many now place god in lwoer case without realising it, and I make no accusaitons of the blogers here, btu I do want ot ask that in the interes tboth of proper grammer, and out of respect, givne the hisotry of the use of the word god in lwoer case, to please spell the word God in Upper case when used as a proer name.

    DOn’t use sentences like ” then, on Mount Sinia, god supposeldy told Moses about the law.” Say “God told Moses” instead.

    A simple measure of respect woudl be rather appriciated.

    Incedentlaly, beleif in God is not irraitonal, nor does it require that much a leap. I’ll explain shortly.

  14. says


    When I use the lower case ‘god’ it is to refer to a generic god. If it is a specific name of a god, like Yahweh or Allah or Shiva, then it is uppercase.

  15. Zar says

    I’ve heard htis excuse as well, bu again, I remind you, the grammer doesn’t support that statement.Its nto a generic god, simply because its used as a qualified individual.

    Most instances when the temr is used int he above post, its used as a Proper noun. Such as th below.

    “But in the case of god, he/she is not supposed to be not limited by space and time. He/she can be everywhere all the time and has infinite powers to boot. So there is no reason at all why god should not be able to provide us with the kind of convincing evidence that I outlined earlier that would remove all doubts once and for all. ”

    This sint “int he case of a god”, which woudl be generic, but “int he case of god”, a spacific individual being. There is no way to read the above sentence and think it refers to a generic lable for a class of beings.Its obviously used as a Proper noun.

    And again, the use of the lwoer case was forlmulated to diliberatley show disdain, so I kindly ask you to revise this practice.

    That said, I will also like to address the poitns made, which show some fault sin the thinking as oen approaches the topic.

  16. Zar says

    I’m sorry if this comes off as somewhat bliihinly, but, the whole argument of “It’s Irrational to beleive in God” is just warmd over Militant Anti-theism. It generates a false view of Theists as somehow willfully decieving, and willfully decieved, not to mention presentign Atheism as somehow more raitonal, logical, intellegent, ect…

    Its liek the essay on why the Pope is a Prime candidate for Atheism.It starts with an A Priori Assumption. In the Pope essay, the assumption is that the non-existance of God is obvious, and lal intellegent people woudl see this. That of ocurse just presumes that the Non-existance of God is, indeed, self evident and all intellegent people woudl see it. Like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennet, you seem incapable of allowign for the possibility that folks genuinely disagree wiht you, that are both well informed, and intellegent.

    Indeed, your whole argumentaiton style indicates a severe lack of understanding about religious claims. Ahgain, as with Dawkisn and Dennet, you seem nto to have even studied rleigiosu texts, yey uoyu somehow know that anyoen who does woudl see them as false.

    I may be wrong, btu it does seem likee your argumetns ignroe a good deal fo theological awareness.

    The argument you make here is essentially no argument at all, but a link to anm earlier arguemnt you make that God shoudl somehow be expected to show up in public, and do public showings, simply because this is what you’d want God to do, ads evidence for Gods eixstance.

    This not only ignroes numeorus theological positiosn abtu what God is, but also presumes that if God doesn’t show up o a regulalry schedualed meeting somehow this proves God doesn’t exist at all.

    Thats harldy convencing arugmentaiton, and is not scientific.

    In fact, it is absurd givne the numerous peopel who have claiemd God communicates to them, and who are not Schitzophrinic and have passed all Psycological testign to swo them to be mentlaly stable. (Harvard and Cambridge bothdid Psycological testign on individuals who claism to regulalry communicate with God, and foudn the majority ar ento cliniclaly diagnosable as beign dilusional. I’ll try to find the reports.)

    If God is communicatign with these individuals, on a regular basis, then your enture arugment falls apart.

    Of coruse, since it snot a glamourus showy example of Gods eixstance, you’d still not be required to ebelive it.Perhaps somethign other can be advanced as an explanaiton, but yiu can’t just advance an alternate explanaiton and expect it to prove the rmer explanaiton wrong. ( The God Dilusion does htis a lot, it offers an alternative to a theistic view, then postulates that the hteistic one is wrogn by simple virue fo the existance of a Nontheistic modle, as if the Nonthestic modle is proven by its mere existace.)

    Yoru basic premise, though, rest son “God is hidden form us” which few actual theists beleive. Most say God is rather self-evident. Just ebcause you haven’t persoanly been comtacted by God doesn’t ean the theost is arguing form silence, or that any given theost has to come up with explanatiosn for why God is hidden. Most don’t think God is hidden at all.

    Yoru enture premise collapses when you examien your staments abotu theism with actual beleifs about God held by those who are theistic.

    As with your misspelling of God as a proper noun in the lower case, it just seems like a self-serving argument designed to bolster your own rejection of theism, and not a truly raitonal argument.

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