A Philosophical Appraisal of the Grounds for, and Principles of Religious Beliefs


This work sets out to discuss the “principles” which qualify or characterize religious beliefs per se, as well as the “grounds” (i.e., reasons used as a justification), upon which religious beliefs and practices are based. In other words, what constitutes people’s fundamental aspiration or foundational motivation, in their religious beliefs or why people feel obligated to entertain certain religious beliefs and engage in certain kinds of religious practices or expressions. The rationale for the choice of this topic consists in the fact that many religious adherents/devotees are grossly ignorant of the theoretical foundations, and the explanatory matrix or conceptual grid upon which their religious expressions are based. In fact, in most cases, it is a sheer imitation of what is in vogue. The referential significance of this study is embedded in the awareness it creates, the clarification it offers, and the assessment it makes of the foundations upon which religious practices are anchored. In terms of the overall structure of the work, it is expository, analytic and critical in character. The key terms in the topic under discussion will be carefully explained, using some provisional definitional statements. Next, the principles of, and grounds for religious beliefs will be identified and discussed in detail, followed by a critical appraisal of the entire discussion.

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Ekong, J.T. (2022) A Philosophical Appraisal of the Grounds for, and Principles of Religious Beliefs. Open Access Library Journal, 9, 1-19. doi: 10.4236/oalib.1108768.


1. Introduction

All religions agree on the necessity to control the undisciplined mind that harbours selfishness and other roots of trouble, and each teaches a path leading to a spiritual state that is peaceful, disciplined, ethical and wise. It is in this sense that one might believe that all religions have essentially the same message. Differences in dogma may be ascribed to differences in time and circumstances, as well as cultural influences; indeed there is no end to scholastic argument, when we consider the purely metaphysical side of religion. However, it is much more important to try to implement in daily life the shared precepts of goodness taught by all religions, rather than to argue about minor differences in approach. All religions teach moral precepts for perfecting the functions of the body, mind and soul. ( [1], p. 13; [2], p. 367)

2. On the Use of the Words “Principles”, “Grounds”, “Religious Beliefs”: Conceptual Clarifications

A “principle” is an allegedly obvious truth from which to derive further truths; a basic general truth that serves as the foundation of something else; a conceptual primitive value or feature that gives a thing its peculiar outlook. Thus, the “principles” of religion, in this case, are the defining features or determining characteristics, which constitute the desiderata (i.e., the desired essentials) of any given form of religion. The “grounds” for religious beliefs, on the other hand, are the basic presumptions, assumptions or presuppositions upon which people’s religious claims and behaviors are premised. People’s grounds for accepting certain religious beliefs are many and varied. In some cases, such grounds are intellectually enriching. Etymologically, the word “religion” derives from three Latin words as its roots, namely, Ligare (meaning to bind), Relegere (meaning to unite, or to link), and Religio (meaning relationship). It refers to a power outside of man, obligating him to certain behaviours and sets of values ( [3], p. 20). This shows that religion is basically a relationship, which obtains between two persons, a human person as well as a divine person believed to exist. It is a bi-polar phenomenon, involving man and a transcendent being or reality ( [4], p. 3). But, despite the attendant difficulties in defining religion in a manner that is satisfactory, Clifford Geertz offers a definition of religion, which is quite enlightening and appealing. He defines religion as:

1) a system of symbols which acts to 2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by 3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and 4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that 5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic. ( [5], p. 90)

This is certainly not an exhaustive nor perfect definition of religion, but it seems to capture some salient elements involved in religious beliefs and practice. Admittedly, religion is both a personal as well as a social and universal phenomenon that involves some or all of the following elements: attention to the divine, mysterious, sacred, holy, supernatural or ultimate concerns; practices, rituals, rules, shared experiences, and other behavioural expectations; doctrines, beliefs, or traditions and a distinctive worldview, etc. Some religions consist of inherited ancestral traditions (“a way of life”) considered as implicit, while others are consciously organized, and they promote themselves in conscious contrast to alternatives within the wider society. Given the lack of unanimity in defining what religion is, various theories have arisen regarding the notion of religion. Some construe it from a theological or metaphysical standpoint (in which the human person is seen as having an innate religious dimension, and is thus “incurably religious”). We find this theological view expressed by St. Augustine, in his Confessions, chapter 1 ( [6], p. 57); by the Italian theologian Pietro Rossano ( [7], p. 28); and in the Catholic Church’s documents of the Second Vatican Council ( [8], p. 661).

For others, religion is a psychological experience by people about divinity or ultimate concerns, or the holy, etc. [for example Sigmund Freud ( [9], p. 147) and Rudolf Otto ( [10], p. 17), both focus on the psychological dimension of religion]. But, while Freud saw religion as a set of false beliefs, Otto saw it as a powerful feeling of the “Other” (mysterium tremendum et fascinans―i.e., a mystery both tremendous and fascinating or attractive); a numinous and awe-inspiring experience. Also, Mircea Eliade ( [11], pp. 10-11), sees religion as the experience of the Sacred man, who encounters a reality that is wholly different from the profane. The religious man is the subject of the encounter, while the object is the mysterious reality. Of course, there is also the Marxist view of religion, championed by people like Karl Marx ( [12], p. 166), and Feuerbach (1957) ( [13], p. 68), in which the origin and continuing existence of religion is attributed to the economic exploitation of the masses in the capitalist system, who then look up to the sky for a saviour from their capitalist exploiters). Also, some others consider it as a cultural and social force (e.g., a symbolism that binds a community together or separates it from other communities. This is the sociological view (represented by someone like Emile Durkheim ( [14], pp. 207-2011), who sees religion as the creation of the society and an instrument of control. For him, the idea of God in religion, is nothing other than the personified force of the society and the attributes of God. It is a means of controlling people’s minds in the society, through the stipulation of some moral demands. Of course, there is the anthropological perspective to religion, propagated by Ludwig Feuerbach ( [13], p. 30), who argues that religion is simply the worship of human nature, which man has projected outside of himself as God. He says: “Man―this is the mystery of religion―projects his being into objectivity”. Thus, the God that man worships is nothing else but the projected image of human nature. So, the various definitions of religion typically begin by assuming at least one of these different theoretical approaches. Every religion comprises a set of beliefs and practices which center on specific supernatural and moral claims about reality, the cosmos, human nature, etc. These are often codified as prayer, ritual, or religious law. Religious beliefs also involve ancestral and cultural traditions, writings, history, and mythology, as well as personal faith and religious experience. Thus, the appellation “religious beliefs” embraces both personal practices related to communal faith, and to group rituals and communication that arise from shared convictions. Sometimes “religion” is used interchangeably with “faith” or “belief system” and is often described as a communal system for the coherence of beliefs focusing on a system of thought, the existence, nature and worship of an unseen being, person, or object, that is considered to be supernatural, sacred, divine, or the highest truth. At other times, it may simply serve as a reference to a system of principles and values that guides people’s lives, without necessarily involving any Divine being. Having attempted a clarification of the key concepts in the topic under discussion, it would be appropriate to move unto a discussion of the various principles of, and grounds for religious beliefs and practices.

3. The Principles of, and Grounds for Religious Beliefs

The religious content of experience is not within the province of science to bestow. Indeed, many men of science are confronted with unexpected implications of their own thought and are beginning to accept, for instance, the trans-spatial nature of events within spatial matter. The following elements, though inexhaustive, have been adduced as some of the principles that surround or characterize religious affiliations of different sorts. ( [15], pp. 1-9)

3.1. The Notion of a Supreme Being or Element in Religion

The human quest for explanation inevitably and rightly seeks for the ultimate explanation of everything observable―the objects on which everything else depends for its existence and properties. But not everything will have an explanation. A may be explained by B, and B by C, but in the end there will be some particular object or many objects, with such and such properties on which all other objects depend. Thus, we will have to acknowledge something as ultimate. But the great metaphysical issue or question is what could that be? Materialist, humanist and theistic explanations have been offered regarding the supreme element in religion, and each has its strengths and weaknesses. However, our focus will be on the theistic perspective. Under this description, God is the supreme element that keeps in existence the material objects of our universe, from moment to moment, with their powers and liabilities to act. He acts on the world, as we act on our bodies; but unlike us, he is not dependent on anybody for his power to act. It is God who keeps the laws of nature operative; and in keeping in existence the material objects of our universe, he keeps operative the law of the conservation of matter. If the universe had a beginning, God created the first material object then. God also causes the existence of human persons and keeps them in existence from moment to moment; and he causes them to have, and sustains in them the powers and beliefs they do. So, in the different religions of the world, the notion of a supreme element is taken as a primitive concept or “a given.” This supreme element or being is considered as omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent, almighty, perfectly good, loving, etc. This is the God of theistic religions like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc. ( [16], p. 16). Regarding the notion of a Supreme being, or element in religion, A. Market & Shimon Markel have offered a list of thirteen foundational principles of all faiths (religions):

1) There is an Infinite Being, who brings all existence into being. 2) This Infinite Being is an absolutely singularity, and there is no singularity like His. He is alone, and there is none other. He has no limitations whatsoever; no beginning and no end, and His existence is intrinsic to Him. 3) He has absolutely no form or body whatsoever. 4) He is first, and He is last. 5) Any existence apart from this Being is imposed upon it by Him, therefore it is only fitting to pray to Him, and not to any other being. 6) There must be prophecy in order for us to have any knowledge of Him or His will. 7) There must be mass prophecy for us to be able to believe the words of any prophet. This mass prophecy is what validates all prior prophecies and all subsequent prophecies, and is, therefore, regarded to be the “father” of all prophecies. 8) The subject matter of this mass prophecy is the absolute unchanging Truth from the absolute unchanging Being. (Certainly, no human being may change a single word of this prophecy.) Therefore; 9) It is true for all generations, and will never be substituted for another. 10) This Infinite Being is conscious and all knowing. 110 There must be a set of laws given, which must be followed. Those who fulfill these laws will reap positive consequences, while those who transgress them will reap negative consequences. 12) The ultimate intention and purpose of the Creator in Creation will be fulfilled. 13) The fulfillment of the intention and purpose will ultimately result in the complete and eternal perfection of the world. ( [17], p. 18)

3.2. The Social (Communal), Ethical, and Critical Dimensions of Religion

In all religions, there is a concept of what it means to be a member of a given religious community, how that community is organized, functions, and relates to the outside world. Also, in all religions there is a sense of celebration, in which important events are marked with elaborate festivities. Admittedly morality is distinct from religion, but one observes that in all religions, there is a certain understanding of the moral life, since they are principally concerned with the problem of how human beings are to live together peacefully and reciprocally, in view of the belief in a future spiritual realm of existence. All religions also offer critiques of the contemporary society based on certain concepts of an ideal society; and they incorporate an understanding of the relationship between the sacred and secular powers, and the religious and political institutions embodying each.

3.3. The Ancestral and Spiritual Principles in Religion

Ancestors have special powers. Just like God the Creator, they are considered as having the ability to act on the living, either to grant some benefits to their descendants, or to punish them for not respecting customs or for committing transgressions regarding their daily life, traditional observances or taboos. Though there is a distinction between the world of the living and that of the dead, yet some communication still exists between the two worlds. Death is a special passage since it entails a change of both state and status. It is a passage from the corporeal to the spiritual realm of existence. This transformation is considered a form of rebirth. The belief in the continuing presence of the dead and their influence on the living has been, in different forms, a feature of Jewish belief from earliest times. This is also a significant feature in African Traditional Religions. This has led to venerating the ancestral dead, and even cults dedicated to them. For example, in some books of the Old Testament, reference is made to practices such as: ensuring that the dead are gathered together with the clan on ancestral land (Gen. 50: 24-25), caring for the dead spirits (Deut. 26: 14; Isaiah, 57: 6), and consulting them for occult knowledge (Deut. 18: 11; Isaiah, 8: 19-22; 19: 3; 1 Samuel, 28: 3-25). It is very clear that ancient Israel venerated its dead (Deut. 10:15). It is also the belief of many scholars that the Israelites inherited a cult of the ancestral dead, possibly even the “deified dead”, from their Semitic milieu and that it remained a popular belief among them, despite the opposition of the Prophets. Some scholars even argue that a cult of beneficent dead was introduced by the influence of the Assyrians, who were obsessed with necromancy, (i.e., the invocation of the spirit of the dead) between the 8th and 7th Centuries B.C. The clearest example of a Biblical figure who, contrary to the proscription of the Torah, consulted the ancestral dead for guidance is that of Saul summoning the dead spirit of the Prophet Samuel (1 Samuel, 28: 4-25). This account indicates that the author of the book of Samuel saw necromancy as real, although it brought great disappointment to Samuel, whose spirit was being disturbed. Furthermore, even the Sages of Talmudic times believed that the ancestors were aware of what transpired on earth and would plead before God on behalf of their descendants (Taanit 16a). Under the influence of Christian and Muslim saint veneration, the doctrine of zachut avot” (i.e., the merits of the ancestors), eventually evolved into a more veneration of the meritorious or beneficent dead, with practices such as praying to them for their intercession in personal matters of import. The tombs of certain reputed Biblical figures have become pilgrimage sites, and the custom of graveside veneration and the preservation of relics of allegedly virtuous persons, endures to this day, in some sects in Judaism, as well as Christianity. In African traditional religion, there is a high regard for the “living-dead” (ancestors), who being spirits, are ontologically nearer to God: in terms of communication with Him, and they act as intermediaries who convey human sacrifices or prayers to God, and may relay his reply to men ( [18], pp. 80-81). So, the ancestral principle traverses different religions, though understood under different descriptions.

3.4. The Meditational Principle in Religion

The expression “meditation” is a reference to a mental discipline through which one attempts to get beyond the conditioned, “thinking” mind into a deeper state of relaxation or awareness. It is regarded as an important component of almost all religions, and it involves turning attention to a single point of reference. Meditation is practiced both within and outside religious traditions. Different meditative disciplines encompass a wide range of spiritual and/or psychophysical practices which may emphasize different goals―from achievement of a higher state of consciousness, to greater focus, creativity or self-awareness, or simply a more relaxed and peaceful frame of mind. Meditation is a form of self-regulation of attention in the service of self-inquiry, in the here and now, although in religious circles it oftentimes slips into full contemplation of some sacred reality. [19]

Techniques of meditation are classified according to their focus. That which focuses on the field or background perception and experience, is called “mindfulness”; while that which focuses on a preselected specific object, is called “concentrative” meditation. In the former, the meditator sits silently and comfortably, centering attention by focusing awareness on an object or process (either by breath, a sound, visualization, or an exercise). But in the latter, the meditator holds attention to a particular object (e.g., repetitive prayer) while minimizing distractions; bringing the mind back to concentrate on the chosen object. Meditation helps to bring us back to ourselves, where we can really experience and taste our full being, beyond all habitual patterns. In the silence and stillness of meditation, we glimpse and return to that deep inner nature that we have so long ago lost sight of, amidst the business and distractions of our minds. As Sogyal Rinpoche asserts:

The gift of learning to meditate is the greatest gift you can give yourself in this life. For it is only through meditation that you can undertake the journey to discover your true nature, and so find the stability and confidence you will need to live, and die well. Meditation is the road to enlightenment. ( [20], p. 58)

In various religions, the relevance of meditation is emphasized. In Christianity, it forms the pivot of the monastic tradition of prayers. Also, practices such as the recitation of the rosary, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament (Eucharist); the transcendental meditation involving the hesychast tradition in Eastern Orthodoxy, are all varieties of meditation. Also, in Islam, meditation is the core of its creed and way of life. During the five times of daily Muslim prayers (before dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset and night), focusing and meditating on Allah, by reciting the Quran and dhikr, is the core of the activity aimed at establishing a connection between Creator and Creation, which in the end guides the soul to truth. This meditative quiescence is expected to have a transforming and therapeutic effect on the meditator, (3 Al Emran, verses 189-194; Al Anaam verses 160-163). It is alleged that it was during a period of prolonged meditation that Muhammad began to receive revelations of the Qur’an ( [21], p. 111). In Judaism, meditative practices have been going on for centuries, especially among the patriarchs and prophets, as indicated in the Tanach (i.e., the Hebrew Bible). In contemporary times, modes of meditation have been highly influenced by Eastern philosophy and Mysticism such as Yoga, Hinduism and Buddhism. Also, in Jainism, Taoism, Sikhism, as well as in African Traditional Religion, there are moments of meditation, recollection and communication with the Divine.

3.5. The Exploitational Principle in Religion

There is a sense in which humans exploit the benevolence of God, in religion, although He is immutable, (i.e., absolutely unchangeable), and his purposes cannot be altered. But, at any rate, God’s action depends on man’s fulfillment of the antecedent conditions in the divine ordering of events in the world. Viewed in this way, certain favours bestowed on people through their recitation of petitionary prayers, make sense. So, divine favours in some respects could depend on the strength and consistency of human prayers and not just on God’s loving and saving graciousness alone. But it still remains an open question whether or not God can be exploited by worshippers, who beg or ask for a multiplicity of favours or blessings, during their prayer sessions? In a way, the basic issue here is that of personal responsibility. The mere fact that God intervenes in human circumstances does not substitute for what humans can and ought to do for and by themselves. Oftentimes, the emphasis on God’s role gets too far that it eclipses our sense of personal responsibility. Many times believers misrepresent religion and make God into a manipulatable principle, for personal benefits. The goodness of God need not be abused; and laxity in any form at all, in order to receive favours, is tantamount to exploitation, or taking an undue advantage of God’s magnanimity.

3.6. The Principle of Worship in Religion

The expression “worship”, is a reference to specific acts of religious devotion, directed to one or more deities. It may be done individually, with informal groups, or as part of a formal meeting. It occurs in a variety of locations, considered as sacred spaces. Forms of religious worship are different according to respective religions, but they typically include one or more of the following elements: prayer, sacrifice, rituals, some forms of meditation, music or singing, dance, readings from sacred books, private acts of devotion, listening to a talk or homily, the creation of effigies of a given deity, the construction of temples or shrines, the observance of holidays and festivals, etc. The external acts of veneration resemble those of worship, but differ in their object and intent. Hence, in Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy, there is a distinction between adoration or latria, (which is due to God alone), and veneration or dulia, which may be lawfully offered to the Saints.

3.7. The Ritualistic Principle in Religion

The use of rituals of various kinds is a feature of almost all known human societies, past or present. They include the various worship rites and sacraments of organized religions and cults, as well as the rites of passage in certain societies, oaths of allegiance, coronations, marriages, funerals, naming ceremonies, etc. An essential feature of a ritual consists in the fact that the actions and their symbolism are not arbitrarily chosen by the performers, nor dictated by logic or necessity, but they are either prescribed and imposed upon the performers by some external source, or are inherited unconsciously from social traditions. A ritual is essentially a set of actions, often thought to have symbolic value, the performance of which is usually prescribed by a religion or by the traditions of a community, by religious or political laws, because of the perceived efficacy of those actions. Rituals are performed under different circumstances, according to specific needs like: compliance with religious obligations or ideals, satisfaction of spiritual or emotional needs of the practitioners, strengthening of social bonds, demonstration of respect or submission, stating one’s affiliation, obtaining social acceptance or approval of some event―or sometimes just for the pleasure of the ritual itself.

3.8. The Narrative and Doctrinal Principles in Religion

In different religions of the world, there are certain stories to be told. In some traditions the story is expressed in scripture, in others it is done orally. Sometimes the “story” is simply a myth, (i.e., a sacred story with some moral lessons). The story a religion narrates conveys the other elements of that religious tradition: its history, metaphysical teachings, practices, its concept of the nature of human society, its understanding of how the religious community should be organized and should function, its experiences and ethics. In addition to sacred narratives, all religions have stories offering moral and spiritual examples or dealing with controversial issues. Some religious narratives are fairly literal, while others rely heavily on symbolism and metaphor to convey their meaning. Many narratives are expressed in painting and sculpture as well. Religious narratives can be studied through textual analysis, hermeneutics, linguistics, semiotics, art criticism, etc. Also, different religions of the world convey beliefs; they have doctrines and explanations of why things are as they are; descriptions of the sacred and any ultimate state of being which the adherents can achieve; boundaries of membership and behaviour, and many other matters. Some of such teachings can be systematized and studied logically and philosophically.

3.9. The Anthropomorphic and Theriomorphic Principles in Religion

At the dawn of history, and in the religion of more recently attested, pre-literate peoples, there are gods, and we get used to the idea of such gods being portrayed in anthropomorphic (i.e., human), or theriomorphic (i.e., animal) forms, and embedded in mythological systems. God/gods can be associated with natural or fetish objects, animals, as well as human features. For example, the notions of love, compassion, affection, etc., which are human attributes or qualities, have been super-imposed on God, in different religions, since this is the easiest way the human person can visualize Him. Also, some deities are described in masculine terms, while others are presented in feminine terms. The feminist activists in different Christian denominations, have repeatedly resisted the notion of a male God, given their disenchantment with most patriarchal (i.e., male-dominated) systems in real life, especially with the issue of subjugation of women. In what follows, we shall focus on the multiplicity of reasons (which serve as grounds) for people’s adherence to religion.

3.9.1. The Inability to Explain the Existence or Origin of Certain Things in Nature

For many centuries, humans did not know the cause of a lot of things. Even today, there are still some questions to be answered: “how did the universe come to be” and “what is the origin of life?” In an attempt to respond to these questions some people have appealed to “God of the Gaps.”1 Just like the ancient people believed that Zeus or Thor created lightning, because of the influence of supernaturalism on their thought system, there are still some people today who are more comfortable with mythical than scientific explanations of certain phenomena. At any rate, when we look at the order in nature, things seem too interconnected to have appeared randomly. This keeps us thinking, and raises our minds to the possibility of some invisible supernatural agency, in charge of the universe, and deserving of worship.

3.9.2. Childhood Orientation and Education

Many religions see early childhood education in religion and spirituality as essential for instilling and internalizing moral discipline. Belief in God is seen by some to be necessary for moral behaviour. Also, in some religions that are authoritarian in nature, their adherents are given spiritual and moral role models, whom they believe can bring highly positive influences both to adherents and the society in general. And some people have been orientated to think that religion makes the most sense of the way the world is, and is thus the best working model to adopt. Although religion is not considered as proven, it is nonetheless seen as the best available reflection of things which are intractable to other analysis.

3.9.3. The Quest for Purpose and Meaning in Life

A fundamental fact about religious practices consists in the human quest for a sense of meaning in the world, whether through stories explaining the world’s origin and mysteries (such as suffering and death), or rituals and practices that bring order and comfort. Given the importance of a sense of meaning and coherence in human existence, man has been termed homo religiosus (i.e., the religious being). Also, given the power of religion to explain and legitimize, it has become central to the construction of societies, and has been used both to justify and subvert institutions.

3.9.4. The Experience of the Presence (Touch of God)

Every religion claims that it provides the means by which its adherents may come into closer contact with God, Truth, and Spiritual Power. They all promise to free their adherents from spiritual bondage, and bring them into spiritual freedom. Feelings or sensations, as we know, are subjective. So many people engage in religion because it provides that emotional satisfaction of having a divine caretaker, and the practice of religion leads them to pleasurable emotional heights through the singing of traditional hymns, and the entry into trance-like states.

3.9.5. The Experience of Practical Benefits

Oftentimes, religions may provide breadth and scale for visionary inspiration in compassion, practical charity, and moral restraint. Christianity for instance, is known for founding many major universities, hospitals, provision of food and medical supplies to the needy, creation of orphanages, etc. Many other religions and non-religious organizations have also performed equivalent or similar works. At any rate, many people may recourse to religion because of poor economic conditions of living. They may reason that even if the society cannot support them, they are at least sure that God will do so, through the different “faith-based” charity organizations that abound today. But this raises a crucial question as to whether or not people practice religion because of their convictions, or just for the sake of poverty alleviation. Our country Nigeria is replete with instances of hungry pastors who preach prosperity, and sometimes exploit their followers.

3.9.6. The Crisis of Faith

Faith that is in crisis demands reconciliation or re-evaluation before one can continue believing in whichever tenet is in doubt, or continue in whatever life path is in question. Religious doubts could create anxiety over the doubter’s supposed eternal future (e.g., going to Hell if that is believed to exist); it can also be about a given medical condition or social problem that one is facing at a given point in time. This may then engender the clinging unto religion, to overcome the fears and uncertainties of the temporal order, such as the fear of death.

3.9.7. Rational Analysis and Conviction Regarding the Tenability of Religion

Apart from the aforementioned reasons concerning people’s allegiance to one religious creed or another, which are largely predicated on psychological, social, economic, emotional and political benefits, it has also been argued that religion is in fact a reasonable exercise, based on rational convictions. Debates regarding the relevance of religion and the reality of God’s existence have attained a high level of intellectual rigour, led especially by Christian thinkers. However, much of people’s contemporary hesitation and reservation regarding religious matters are not unrelated with the highly researched but controversial works of certain recent scientists like Richard Dawkins ( [22], pp. 21-24) and Stephen Hawkins ( [23], pp. 77-79). These authors give the impression that there is no God who sustains the universe. But, such a position is arguable, and the very same criteria which scientists use in reaching their own theories, can lead us to move beyond those theories to a creator God who is the sustainer of all that exists.

4. Appraisal

The basic issues in the intellectual attack on religion can be divided into three groups. There is a first group containing conflicts about factual statements made both by science or philosophy and religion. Such a conflict was the one which was symbolic for our whole modern time between the astronomy of Copernicus and Galileo, and the statements of the traditional ideas and symbols of the Bible and the Church about the structure of the universe. Another was the fight about the biological development of man which came into being through the Darwinistic movement and which produced the legal trials when the church wanted to defend the non-biological origins even of man’s bodily existence. Finally the one which is most actual today, is the conflict concerning historical research of biblical literature (“biblical criticism”), which deals with the Bible and its records as it would deal with any other book, using the serious and honest historical criteria which every historian uses everywhere, if he interprets documents of the past. This conflict is still going on, and has not lost its sharpness after these many years of struggle. Given such a scenario, our discussion of the principles of, and grounds for religious beliefs might appear incomplete if one fails to give some attention to reasons why some people have vehemently refused to countenance or endorse any religious beliefs at all, despite the preponderance of religious movements in our society today. Adding such a perspective to the discussion will serve as a critique of the pro-religious arguments advanced in the preceding section. Some of the reasons proffered for the rejection of religion are:

4.1. The Concept of God Is a Threat to Human Independence

Modern psychology has revealed that a person does not truly become an adult psychologically until he is no longer dependent upon what his parents (or substitutes for his parents) think. Some persons may be in their thirties or forties, but they still have not “untied the apron strings”―they are always looking over their shoulder for someone older or bolder to tell them what to think or to do. Some people feel that God functions in their lives as an invisible father-image, a Person who has their lives so well planned for them that they are constantly insecure about doing the wrong thing. Thus, they unscrupulously fear his judgment and punishments, which they imagine are ready to leap out at them from behind every corner. But apart from these obviously distorted images of God, the very notion of God himself as the Lawgiver of the universe, seems to be an obstacle to people’s freedom in the eyes of many thoughtful atheists (e.g., Jean-Paul Satre) ( [24], pp. 57-62).

They notice that many people obey the moral law, not because things are in themselves right or wrong, but because they fear the punishment of God. The concept of a rewarding or punishing God seems (to atheists) to be an infantile need for direction from a Super-parent, and an escape from real adult responsibility. Some persons are atheists because they find that the concept of “God” raises theological problems to which they can see no solution. One such problem is that of divine causality and human freedom. How can a person be truly free if the source of his actions is really God? Another is that of providence versus the natural laws of the universe. Why should God make natural laws to run the universe if he is always going to be interrupting them in answers to prayers? Or if he already has the answer to someone’s prayer “programmed into” the laws of the universe from the beginning, then why pray for what is already going to happen?

4.2. The Recognition of Myths as Poetic Truth

Although ancient people may have taken their myths literally, in recent times, scholars have been able to “crack the code” of many ancient myths. Thus, we now recognize such myths as symbolic stories telling in picture form what ancient people were not able to express in abstract scientific language, which they had not yet developed. Thus in many ancient religions, the sacredness of responsibility for obeying the laws of the community is assured by their being represented as coming from God or from the gods in a miraculous manner. In the Judeo-Christian tradition for example, the Ten Commandments are pictured as being carved in stone by God on Mount Sinai amidst lightning and thunder. Today, we look for the meaning of these myths, without taking every detail of the myths literally. Thus, while we may not literally believe that the social code of Moses’ desert people was inscribed on stone tablets by lightning bolts, we recognize that the sacredness of law is enshrined in such a poetic story. Atheists carry this de-mythologizing2 process a step further, applying it not only to legends like those concerning how human laws got started, but to the very concept of God himself. They say that the notion of a Super-Person ruling the universe is really only a poetic way of saying that persons should rule things; things should not rule persons. In the primitive world, where nature seemed to rule over people, they needed an imaginary Super-Person or Super-Persons in control of nature; but in today’s world where people, through science, are learning to harness nature, people are able to rely on themselves and no longer need confidence in a mystical Super-Power. Therefore, they proclaim that such a concept of God, has outlived its usefulness and so “God is dead.” ( [25], pp. 66-69)

4.3. Historical Selectivity

Scriptural studies popularized within the last seventy years have shown that “God’s inspiration of the Bible” or any sacred text at all, can no longer be interpreted as some kind of one-on-one encounter, whereby God dictated exactly what was to be written. We know that the Bible contains historical facts, but they have been interpreted from the Jewish religious point of view, and sometimes exaggerated or embellished and legendized, or told in the form of epic poetry, in order to emphasize the sacred meaning of the events recorded. Many modern people have become very skeptical about historical objectivity, and it is not surprising that some of them are skeptical about any historical arguments offered to prove the existence of God or to prove that he intervened in history to reveal himself.

4.4. The Existence of Evil

If a good God exists, how come there is so much evil in the world? This serious question bothers a lot of sensitive people. Looking at life to see if they can discern the hand of a Person behind it all, they are stumped by what they see―family quarrels, international wars, daily murder and robbery, race riots, broken hearts and wounded bodies, due to both human causes and natural causes. “Where is the hand of God in all of these occurrences?” they ask. “Either there is no God or else God is powerless.” One way or the other, He is not worth taking into account.

4.5. The Failure of Religious People and Communities to Live up to Their Beliefs

Most believers in God have received their faith within a Church community, or some other faith community. Although they believe that the existence and nature of God can be proved from reason, they in their own lives have not reasoned this out but have accepted it because the Church they belong to, seems believable to them. Likewise, many atheists disbelieve in God, not because of philosophical arguments, but because the Churches they see do not convince them. A Church community which says God established it to spread love on earth is not believable to people who see it showing little or no love even within its own ranks. A community which says God loves the poor, is a blasphemy in the eyes of many humanitarian atheists who love their fellow human beings and who see “God” as the Super-Defender of the status quo, when, as far as they can tell, many Churches are extremely rich in temporal goods, and support political regimes which favour the wealthy over the starving poor.

4.6. The Closed-Mindedness of “True-Believers”

In the face of modern discoveries and the questions they raise, some atheists say, a person who wishes to retain his religious faith can do so in one of two ways: 1) Open his mind to new discoveries, and let questions strike his mind regarding what he has inherited, in a way that makes sense; or 2) close his mind to the discoveries, squelch questions before they bother him, and think that any kind of re-interpretation is a form of blasphemy. Many atheists believe that the first way is the right path to follow, though it cannot be kept for a long time, since a completely honest reinterpretation could only lead to atheism. They believe that the only way a person can retain religious faith is to adopt the second way, that of “closed-mindedness”, of refusing to consider the evidence, thus tending towards dogmatism.

4.7. Materialism

There are those who cannot believe in God because they cannot believe in anything that is not material. But, they also realize that there are many things about people which cannot be located or defined physically. For example, they believe in “truth” and “love.” But, such “spiritual” things are in reality expressions of matter. Let us illustrate this with another example concerning a “dance” or a “song”. A dance and a song are not physical things, but they are expressions of physical things. Also, they are not spiritual “things” existing in their own right. Following this line of reasoning, materialists say there is no spiritual substance called a soul or called God―there is only matter and its various expressions. Atheism, like religious faith, is a way of looking at the world, human experience, and the mysteries of life. For some people, it is the only way, and they are apparently as secure in their faith as many religious people are in theirs. ( [26], pp. 226-230)

4.8. Irrelevancies: The Promotion of a Sense of Guilt, Fear and Shame

For many people, the moral practices, beliefs and rituals of religion do not hold any meaning in the modem world, and are thus ineffectual and irrelevant. Also, those who align themselves with a contemporary lifestyle find it conflicting with traditional religious tenets and discipline, and they end up rejecting religion, in favour of their current lifestyle, and say that religious values are obsolete or anachronistic (i.e., outdated) and pointless. Also, most atheists (e.g., Bertrand Russell) [27] and agnostics consider religion as a promoter of fear and conformity, causing people to adhere to it in order to fight the fear and guilt of either being looked down upon by others, or attracting some divine punishment as outlined in the religious doctrines (e.g., Hell). In this case, religion then becomes a basis for guilt-feelings and even fanaticism, all in an effort to placate the society.

4.9. Irrational Creeds and Conservative Dress Codes

The foundational doctrines of many religions are considered by some people as illogical, contrary to experience, and unsupported by sufficient evidence. They tend to argue that such teachings deserve rejection, since their interpretations of ethics and the human purpose of being in the world, are unclear, and contrary to reason. Also, in many religions, there are certain approaches that have resulted in restrictions regarding modes of dressing, social demeanour (or conduct), and proscriptions on diet and activities on certain days of the week (e.g., the rule on women covering their hair in some Christian denominations, and wearing skirts rather than trousers to Church on Sundays). In the light of this, some people see religion as antithetical to progress in social life, fun, enjoyment and pleasure and human freedom in general.

4.10. Early Childhood Indoctrination

For many people, education in religion and spirituality is a form of brainwashing and social conditioning, which forces the child to accept certain ideas before he or she is old enough to fully understand them and make an informed decision on whether or not to agree. Also, some people argue that simplistic absolutism as taught by some religions, diminishes or impairs a child’s moral capacity to deal with a world of complex and varied temptations which, in reality, is far different from what they have been brought up to believe.

4.11. The Problem of Division, Hatred and War

Some religions consider those who do not belong to their fold as inferior, sinful and contemptible, deserving of persecution and even death. But even within the same religion, there are still pockets of discriminations to be found. For example in Islam, some Muslims consider women as inferior to men; and some Christian denominations also share this view. But, what is more? Many people have even used scriptural passages to justify human slavery. There are numerous instances of people of one religion or sect using religion as a reason to murder and maim people of other religious affiliations. For example, the slaughter of the Huguenots by French Catholics in the Sixteenth Century; Hindus and Muslims killing each other when Pakistan separated from India in 1947; the persecution and killing of Shiite Muslims by Sunni Muslims in Iraq; the murder of the Protestants by Catholics, and vice versa, in Ireland; and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that continues to this day. How about the bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York, and the Pentagon house, by Osama Bin Laden? These were all done in the name of religion. Given this kind of profile, many atheists see religion as incompatible with world peace, freedom, civil rights, equality and good government.

4.12. Some Immoral Doctrines and Unappealing Practices

Many religious groups are considered as giving unethical teachings to their followers, thereby creating the wrong value systems in the consciences of people. Cases such as abortion, euthanasia (mercy-killing), homosexual relationships and marriages have been endorsed by some religious groups, with a sense of impunity. Also, some people see religious practices and ceremonies as altogether boring and distasteful, antiquated or needlessly arcane. They prefer to spend their time on social events at recreational centers than join any religious group in their worship sessions.

5. Conclusion

Let us bring this discussion of the “principles of,” and “grounds for” religious beliefs to a close, by raising and responding to a couple of fundamental questions. First, is religious behaviour rational? Is it the mobilization of available means to achieve certain ends? The sociologists Stark and Fink [28] argue that religious behaviour is actually rational in an economic sense in spite of the fact that the believers work with unobservable actors and magical processes. The rationality is economic and can be seen in the social and material rewards that flow from participation in religious groups. When there is a marketplace of different faiths, individuals usually choose, consciously or unconsciously, the faith that brings them the highest rewards. The rationality in this case is apparent when one measures the rewards that flow from different religious activities. So, despite its apparent irrationality, religious activity can have latent economic rationality. However, such economic rationality is the surface manifestation of some underlying trophic tendencies built into the human psyche, to venture toward the transcendent ( [29], p. 2). Secondly, is religion exclusively human behaviour? Religion has some particularly human characteristics and some pre-human ones as well. It depends on the unique human ability to communicate with language. Religion, as we know it, needs language, but that does not mean that it has freed itself from pre-human behaviour found among primates, mammals, and even reptiles. Religion has rituals and non-human animals have rituals too. Birds have rituals, reptiles have rituals, and they communicate symbolically with other members of their species. They just do not use the same linguistic structures that humans use.

Thirdly, does human psychology explain religion? Of course, religion can be examined by psychological science, and its explanations might satisfy many social scientists (e.g., Hinde ( [30], p. 23) and Kirkpatrick ( [31], p. 66)). Undoubtedly, religion has obvious psychological functions. It takes care of the need for a comforting parent figure, the need to explain difficult things, the need to fight depression, the need to deny mortality, etc. However, psychology does not explain how humans got to be religious. Although psychological explanations tell us why people do religious things, they do not explain how humans got to be religious, how religion started and how it continues. Psychology cannot account for religion’s evolutionary past or future. Fourthly, why is there evil in the world? Until this day, the problem of evil remains the most formidable critique against the value or relevance of religion and the belief in God’s existence. The various explanations offered, have failed to satisfy, given the existential reality of evil that stares us in the face. However, it has been suggested that the problem of evil is “the product of an anthropomorphic conception of God which is no other than an imaginary father, a God made in the image and likeness of man. If such a God were to exist there would be no evil in the world. But this does not logically imply that there is no God, rather it shows that there is a problem in our portrait of God in religion, different from what he really is, and such a portrait needs to be corrected. ( [4], p. 157)

Finally, what exactly is the relation between reason and religious beliefs? Do we need arguments, or can faith without arguments be rational? What is faith? Is it opposed to reason? Some philosophers have argued that any belief not based on evidence is defective or even culpable, while others have suggested that evidence of any sort is unnecessary for religious beliefs. Is it always right (or rational, or prudent) to hold beliefs on the basis of evidence, and to withhold them in the absence of evidence? These positions remain controversial, and the debate continues ( [32], p. 3). But the issue is not whether it can be established as an item of indubitable public knowledge that God (or the Divine or the Transcendent) exists, or most probably exists, but whether it is rational for those who experience some life’s moments theistically, to believe that God exists and to proceed to conduct their lives on that basis ( [33], p. 71)) This is where philosophy of religion, as an infrastructural discipline, plays an important role in addressing various intricate issues regarding the existence of God, the nature of religious language, miracles, prayers, the problem of evil, faith and reason, as well as atheism, in the world.


1The “God of the Gaps” argument is a form of reasoning process in which God is used to fill in any outstanding vacuum resulting from one’s inability to explain a given phenomenon. It is a form of supernaturalism.

2This means translating an ultimate divine truth from mythical language into literal, scientific language.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflicts of interest.


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