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God and the Philosophers

Faith & An Unreliable God

Patrick Wilson argues that it’s irrational to trust an untrustworthy God.

It is important for many theists to show that their belief is rational, and this often involves them rejecting obviously irrational beliefs. Holding that the Earth is six thousand years old is irrational because it directly conflicts with strong scientific evidence to the contrary. Saying that God could move any hypothetical object while at the same time being capable of creating a rock so vast that even He could not budge it is also irrational because the two claims are logically incompatible. Nevertheless, some religious claims are quite feasible. Someone who, for instance, thinks God guided the world’s evolutionary process or in some sense inspired human authors to write sacred texts can often reconcile their faith with an open and affirming attitude towards scientific discovery and analytical thinking. However, in this short essay I will argue that it is unreasonable to have faith in a God who appears highly untrustworthy. That is, even if an untrustworthy God existed, we could not justify faith as a reasonable response to such a deity.

While ‘faith’ is commonly defined by atheists as ‘belief without evidence’, in practice, someone having faith in someone or something implies more than mere intellectual assent, either with or without evidence. Few Christians, Muslims, or Jews would claim to ‘have faith in’ Satan, despite many believing that something called Satan exists. So ‘having faith (in)’ suggests an endorsement of and commitment to a person, idea, or institution. Similarly, the act of ‘trusting’ goes beyond simple affirmation of existence. The entrustor chooses to live as if the entrusted will not betray them. For the theist, ‘faith’ and ‘trust’ are virtual synonyms.

Now, having faith in an untrustworthy God is different from believing in an evil God. Believers in an evil God affirm the existence of an immoral deity. By contrast, those who have faith in an untrustworthy God align themselves with an understanding of the divine whose character they consider untrustworthy. Having faith in an untrustworthy person or thing is not so uncommon: people often choose to put their faith in romantic partners who repeatedly let them down. Nor is it unheard of for voters to have faith in politicians commonly acknowledged to be corrupt, even by them. However, in both cases, the morality and rationality of maintaining these faith positions are easily criticised. Religious faith, on the other hand, is often given a free pass. Critiquing the claims made by religions and objecting to portrayals of God are common; but questioning the rationality of having faith in an untrustworthy God even if that God turns out to be real is less common: “My God might look like a monster – a violent bully who once demanded racial cleansing and who allows great suffering in the world; but if he or she is real, you had better follow him or her” – or so the argument goes. However, absolute submission on the basis of retributive, fear-based threats is rarely seen as the best exercise of reason.

Some theists argue that the goodness and therefore trustworthiness of the divine should not be questioned because as mere mortals we have no right to question our creator, and moreover, God Himself set up morality. But their argument is fallacious as it derives an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’: God did something, and we ought to respond in a certain way. Moreover, the values of a creator do not necessarily determine the meaning or values of the creation. The inventors and developers of automobiles, tanks, and atomic bombs do not by virtue of their scientific ingenuity have a monopoly on how their creations should be used. Likewise, if a God fashioned our world and maintains the capacity to determine events which occur in it, this deity’s responsibility for outcomes which appear unjust might be criticised in the same way that subjects of a state might question their rulers. This weak form of moral argument need not and should not give any deity an ethical get-out clause, resulting merely from their creative ability.

Questions about God’s trustworthiness can also be overlooked when exploring various speculative outcomes: “My religious leader and/or sacred texts might present God in a terrifying way; but if I do not follow this deity and they turn out to really exist, I could face a horrific punishment.” Setting aside the fact that many competing groups claim their God punishes those who are not loyal to their specific religion, a person who decides to follow one particular frightening and morally incomprehensible deity still has little reason to trust that this God would not deceive them about, for instance, their salvation. Why would a God, whose values and ambitions are so different from one’s own, be beyond deception? More generally, an untrustworthy God provides no basis for assuming any level of divine protection. Just as some theists believe life’s hardships could be blessings in disguise, seemingly good events (even salvation experiences) may in fact be part of an evil God’s plan to inflict meaningless suffering, by giving false hope. And thus the betrayer adds emotional manipulation to an already bad situation.

Evaluating the behaviour and personality of others is essential for making reasonable decisions about whom to trust. So having faith in a violent, uncaring or dishonest deity while refusing to tolerate these characteristics in politicians, friends, or romantic partners, involves an unreasonable double standard. Of course, few people have faith in deities who they think lie to them or pointlessly punish them. Nevertheless, many trust in a God who could. When considering the reasonableness of particular faith commitments, we should not simply consider their scientific or logical feasibility: a strong correlation between one’s personal moral values and the divine’s is essential to having a rational theistic commitment.

© Patrick Wilson 2022

Patrick Wilson holds degrees in Theology, Philosophy, and History. He hails from Ireland and has worked as a teacher in a variety of countries.

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