Can religious arguments persuade?

  • Jennifer Faust


In his famous essay “The Ethics of Belief,” William K. Clifford claimed “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” (Clifford’s essay was originally published in Contemporary Review in 1877; it is presently in print in Madigan (1999)). One might claim that a corollary to Clifford’s Law is that it is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to withhold belief when faced with sufficient evidence. Seeming to operate on this principle, many religious philosophers—from St. Anselm to Alvin Plantinga—have claimed that non-believers are psychologically or cognitively deficient if they refuse to believe in the existence of God, when presented with evidence for His existence in the form of relevant experience or religious arguments that are prima facie unassailable. Similarly, many atheists fail to see how believers can confront the problem of evil and still assert their belief in a benevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient Creator. In this paper, I propose to explain why religious arguments so often fail to persuade (I take the term ‘religious argument’ to include arguments whose conclusions are either assertions or denials of religious claims). In doing so, I first offer an account of persuasion and then apply it to religious arguments. I go on to argue that at least some religious arguments commit a form of question-begging, which I call “begging the doxastic question.”~An argument begs the doxastic question, on my account, when a subject would find the argument persuasive only if she antecedently believes the argument’s conclusion. This form of question begging is not, strictly speaking, a case of circularity and thus, is not a fallacy; rather, it would explain why one coming to the argument would fail to be persuaded by it unless he already accepted its conclusion. This has the effect, when applied to religious argumentation, that religious arguments are rarely persuasive, which raises the further question: what good are religious arguments? I end by suggesting some non-persuasive functions of religious argument. Finally, I suggest that a full understanding of religious argumentation should give evidentialists pause, for religious beliefs look less like belief states that are sensitive to evidentiary states and more like framework principles or fundamental commitments.


Ethics of belief Religious argument Persuasion Question-begging Evidentialism 


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy DepartmentCalifornia State University, Los AngelesLos AngelesUSA

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