Paradise Lost: The Problem with God Belief as Properly Basic

Christian philosopher William Lane Craig has written that one’s experience of God can be properly basic for the believer in the same way that, say, the hearing of a piece of music is properly basic for the hearer. It’s an experience that, if you’ve ever had it, needn’t be doubted:

[B]elief in God is, for those who know him, a properly basic belief grounded in our experience of God. . . . For those who listen, God becomes an immediate reality in their lives.

To put this another way, Craig is claiming that people have what John Calvin called a sensus divinitatis—a sixth sense, a divine sense—that gives them the ability to apprehend the existence of God directly, without any intervening formal arguments. People who have had experiences of God might not be able to provide proof of them to others, but they needn’t doubt the nature of the experiences themselves (anymore than they would doubt their recollections of having heard certain pieces of music). If you recall having heard the Beatles’ Revolver album, you needn’t doubt your recollection. It’s a properly basic part of your knowledge. The same goes for an encounter with God.

But, in my view, this argument for not doubting the nature of one’s most intimate religious experiences doesn’t really work.


Because it’s an argument from innocence, and no contemporary adult theist gets to remain innocent (at least, not for long).

Here’s an analogy. Let’s say I smell steak coming from an outdoor barbecue. I don’t arrive at my belief that I’m really having this experience by argument, and you aren’t likely to give me a plausible argument that would talk me out of my experience. I know what I know. I smell steak. It’s a properly basic part of my knowledge that I’m warranted in not questioning.

But wait. Let’s also say that I curl up on a chair in the cool of the porch and fall asleep to the smell of the cooking steak. When I wake up, I find that I am not, in fact, on a porch at all, but in a university hospital with a doctor evaluating my vital signs.

“Where am I?” I ask her.

She says, “You’re just coming out of a drug induced hallucination. You volunteered for a psychological experiment, remember?”

“Yes,” I say, “I remember!”

“Could you please tell me what you were dreaming?”

“I dreamed I was on a porch smelling steak cooking.”

I now have a new properly basic belief (I’m in a hospital participating in an experiment, and I was having a vivid dream about steak cooking).

In other words, I’m completely justified in treating my experience as a properly basic part of my knowledge UNTIL I’m given plausible alternative explanations for my experiences. Once I’ve been exposed to plausible alternative explanations for my experience, I cannot ignore them. My innocence collapses. I have to admit that my initial perceptions, not formally reasoned out, may be mistaken.

This, I submit, is exactly where every theist is with regard to God. No theist, especially after Freud, can ever play dumb about not knowing what the academic discipline of psychology is. They know that their religious experiences have plausible psychological explanations, and so they can never just say of their own religious experiences, “God speaks to my heart. I know what I know.” At least not honestly.

Also, a properly basic belief is often confused with truth (the actual fact of a matter). They may not be the same things. Two people can arrive at properly basic beliefs concerning a matter that brings them to OPPOSITE conclusions. Only one can be right, but both basic beliefs may be, from each individual’s vantage, completely warranted.

Here’s an example. Imagine a man on a mountain in Yosemite National Park who, looking out on the beauty of the scene, exclaims in the depths of his heart, “I know God exists! Just look at the world He created!” God’s existence is a direct apprehension to him, not formally reasoned out. It would be hard to talk him out of it.

But wait. Now imagine, at the exact same moment, a man six thousand miles away from California, visiting Auschwitz and walking the grounds there. As he looks around he exclaims in the depths of his heart, “I know that God cannot possibly exist! Look at this place!” God’s absence is a direct apprehension to him, not formally reasoned out. It would be hard to talk him out of it.

But, here’s the kicker: both men meet each other in New York for lunch after their travels. One tells the other his experiences at Auschwitz and says, “I’ve converted to atheism!” The other tells of his epiphany in Yosemite and says, “I’ve become a theist!” They tell each other what books they’ve been reading since their conversions. One says, “I’m reading Freud’s book on religion, The Future of an Illusion.” The other says, “I’m reading Alvin Plantinga’s book on the problem of suffering in relation to God.” They trade books. They read each others’ books. They each discover that there are alternative and plausible hypotheses for their conversion experiences; therefore, neither of them can enjoy any longer their beliefs as properly basic. They have been driven out of their Edenic paradises of unreasoned certitude into the Realm of Second Thoughts. 

One more example. A six-year-old wished on a star. It made no difference who she was. The little thing her heart desired came to her (just like Jiminy Cricket promised). She had no reason whatsoever to doubt the relation of the star-wishing to her reward. Her knowledge about the whole matter was properly basic to her.

What did she wish for?

She wished for her mommy and daddy to take her to an amusement park. The very next day they surprised her with a trip to an amusement park. When a kindergarten friend asked her why her mommy and daddy did this, she said the following:

Because I wished upon a star.

This answer was completely warranted because the little girl knew nothing about statistical probability or correlation-causation fallacies. She had a simple semantic understanding of what a star is (a magical twinkly thing in the night sky). She had no ontological understanding of what a star is.

Once, however, she had been exposed to statistical probability and correlation-causation fallacies, and had studied stars in an astronomy class in college, she was no longer able to treat her childhood memory, however vivid and magical, as properly basic evidence for the efficacy of wishing on stars. She had moved from innocence to adult experience.

This is what every alert contemporary adult who believes in God has done. You might still have faith in God, but in your heart of hearts you realize that you can’t (honestly) regard your religious experiences as properly basic. They’ve been tainted with a plausible alternative gnosis: psychology, not theology. There’s no unspilling that milk. You can be cognitively dissonant about it and simply ignore it or downplay it, but psychology will always shadow any strongly certain claims about the supernatural nature of your religious experiences. Like the first couple expelled from the Garden of Eden, there’s no return to innocence.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Paradise Lost: The Problem with God Belief as Properly Basic

  1. ozenwoo says:


    A comment then two questions:

    Basically Craig and his followers hijacked the definition of properly basic belief, expanded that definition to include all kinds of phenomena, and then reinserted it back into reformed epistemology’s original context. The result is the absolute mess you’ve illustrated. It’s like what happens to a Volkswagen engine when instead of using the 87 octane gasoline which it was designed to use, you fill it up with gasoline diluted with water (lots of it), sugar, beer, shampoo and other strange liquids. The engine is going to spit, sputter, possibly explode and, most importantly, not take you anywhere.

    Now for the questions:
    1) To what extent should the concepts of “sense”, “awe”, “intuition”, “instinct” etc. serve as the BASIS of a claim of knowledge or a claim of belief?
    2) To what extent should the concepts of “sense”, “awe”, “intuition”, “instinct” etc. serve in the FORMULATION OF the BASIS of a claim of knowledge or a claim of belief?


    • santitafarella says:


      Well, you ask some good questions. As I see it, there are two ways we arrive at conclusions about the world, and act on them. We can think critically (which entails some attempt at objectivity, logic, investigation, appeals to evidence, etc) or we can think associatively (which entails paying subjective attention to metaphor, revelatory images of epiphany or horror, narrative, rhetoric, being attentive to the links between our senses—a kitchen smell can trigger a visual memory of a beloved grandma, etc).

      Our associative thinking is what Craig seems to think that we can sometimes treat as properly basic. They entail pre-rational, intuitive, non-argumentative ways that we just come to “know” things. Here’s an example. Read these lines from the poet James Merrill: “Light entered the olive / and was oil.”

      In these lines is a whole wave of associations that are pleasing and revelatory and seemingly true about the ontological mystery of existence. We don’t arrive at an experience of them by formal argument, they just bring us to flashes of insight. Our subconscious is doing a lot of the work for us. It’s thinking of Tuscany, the first chapter of Genesis (let there be light), intercourse, holy oil, nurturance, how the soul takes on a body, etc all at once and very fast. It is then presenting these to our consciousness as a gestalt (holistic) revelatory pleasure of poetic words. We say in response, “How beautiful and true!”

      In other words, we sound a bit like Keats who said, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.”

      Should we trust such experiences as truth when we have them? I would say, depending on how much time pressure we’re under, yes, but not unironically. We can never leave our associative and subjective experiences as truth and knowledge for long. Ultimately, we have to pause and ask objective critical thinking questions about them: “Does this fit my background knowledge?” (What I treat as true and take as knowledge already.) “Do I have a better theory for my experience than the initial one I used to explain the initial revelation?”

      Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a good example. He sees a ghost in the first part of the play, treats it as knowledge, but then wrestles with what he saw and what it means for the rest of the play. He’s a skeptic. There’s no escaping adult irony for him. To be or not to be, to do or not to do, to think or not to think, to act or not to act are the questions of the overthinker, and Hamlet (like any post-Gutenburg literate adult) is compelled to ask them (unless his name is George W. Bush, who just listens to his gut and made his foreign and tax policies with it).

      The contrast with Hamlet is Noah in the Bible. God says build an ark, he builds an ark. No questions asked. He’s not ironic; he lacks humor; he doesn’t doubt; he takes his revelatory experience at face value. In short, he treats his experience of God as “properly basic.” A better biblical model for contemporary religionists is Abraham (who is more Hamlet-like). God says he’s going to destroy Sodom and Abraham at least argues and negotiates with God about the matter; God says sacrifice his son, and Abraham shows at least some anguish and irony in response. He’s not much better than Noah, I concede.


  2. Pingback: Should We Trust Our Born Again Experiences (And Other Spiritual Epiphanies)? | Prometheus Unbound

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