Emuna: Rationality and Religious Beliefs

A research project at the University of Innsbruck, generously funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF)

Should religious beliefs always be rational? Many believers think that religious belief has little to do with epistemic rationality. The project “Emuna: Rationality and Religious Belief” will argue that religious faith itself – over and above epistemology – is better, all else equal, to the extent that religious beliefs are rational.

To this aim the project will answer the following two questions. The epistemic question asks: What does the epistemic rationality of religious beliefs amount to? The all-things-considered question asks: Should religious beliefs always be rational?

The epistemic question has to do with epistemological norms, whereas the all-things-considered question looks at norms associated with religious faith itself – for example, the norm that prescribes trust in God. The idea is to explore whether these norms are incompatible. One might think for example that trust requires a less than fully rational leap of faith.

The project answers the epistemic question by examining several well known approaches to epistemic rationality in general and for religious beliefs in particular, and arguing for one in particular. I call my approach “Emuna” because it draws in the ancient Hebrew word ’emuna, which translates roughly as faith. The emuna approach says, perhaps surprisingly, that a religious belief is only epistemically rational if it is proportioned to the evidence of the person who holds it, where “evidence” is understood as a person’s representational experiences and other evidence-proportioned beliefs.

It is another question whether religious beliefs always have to obey this evidentialist norm. Perhaps religious faith itself is accompanied by norms which are incompatible with this epistemic one. If this is so, then it is understandable that religious believers might take the religious norms to supercede the epistemic ones. If this is so, then there will be situations in which religious beliefs are not answerable to epistemic norms.

This is the topic of the all-things-considered question. I will argue on the contrary that ideal religious faith is always accompanied by evidence-proportioned religious beliefs. This means more than that the norms of faith are compatible with norms of epistemology. It means that evidence-proportioned religious belief is part of the normative ideal of religious faith. Evidence-proportioned religious belief is an important good-making feature – among others – of religious faith.

I defend this claim with two philosophical arguments and one religious argument. The philosophical argument starts from the premise that religious faith (all else equal) involves the cultivation of a relationship with God. And relationship is better to the extent that love and trust are present. Love and trust for their part, I argue, are better (all else equal) to the extent that a person’s beliefs about the one she loves and trusts are evidence-proportioned. The religious argument establishes that the notion ’Emuna itself is laudable when it rests on solid evidence. For example, in Judeo-Christian scriptures, prophets and God himself continually exhort other characters to have faith [’emuna] on the grounds that those characters have excellent reasons.

My answers to the epistemic and all-things-considered questions will contribute to epistemology, moral psychology, the philosophy of religion, and analytic theology. The emuna approach provides a unified, philosophically and religiously informed theory of what the rationality of religious beliefs looks like and why – from the viewpoint of faith itself – religious beliefs should be rational in this sense.