God and the Brain:

The Rationality of Belief

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Kelly James Clark
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Eerdman's Publishing
    , July
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


At the heart of God and the Brain is the philosophical argument that religious beliefs are rational. In a book that largely adapts previous publications into a single book (only chapter 5, 7, and 8 are not adapted), Kelly James Clark responds to atheist, agnostic, and scientific (some cognitive in nature) claims that knowing naturalistic causes for God-beliefs makes them irrational, or as Justin L. Barrett puts it “upsets the reasons for belief (xi).” Clark attempts to incorporate healthy doses of cognitive science and psychology (both experimental as well as evolutionary) to show how religious belief manifests in the brain, though without going into neuroanatomical detail. He sticks to general processes like perception, attention, memory, and concept formation. In so doing, the focus of the book steers toward the philosophical rather than the biological in defining rationality in the brain. Readers looking for more neurological explanations will have to look elsewhere.

One grasps the philosophical nature of Clark’s argument by the time he arrives at the Theory of Mind (ToM) in chapters 2 and 3, again not in terms of neurological processes, but whether or not other minds exists and how one would know. Somewhat like Descartes, one cannot know for certain, but rather than doubt the veracity of one’s senses, Clark takes Thomas Reid’s approach: “A person is rationally justified in believing a proposition that is produced by her cognitive faculties in the appropriate circumstances unless or until she has adequate reason to cease from believing it (65).”

In other words, “belief begins with trust (55).” Clark repeatedly comes back to this argument because of an admittedly narrow definition of evidence. One simply cannot acquire all evidence for oneself, and so one must trust information from others, be it scientific data, the metaphysics of persons, or witness testimony. Thus, the initial reason for the rationality of believing in other minds is a matter of trust. It is a trust that our unreflective, non-argumentative cognitive facilities provide information that is truthful until proven otherwise, and in that respect God-beliefs are equally rational.

Yet, Clark’s contention is not one of blind trust, but one that includes the goal of rationality—that is, “being rational is to get more in touch with the truth (46).” When placed alongside religious beliefs, one can see where considerable room for interpretation lies. If the goal of rationality is aimed at finding the truth, then the reality of the contents of beliefs becomes important for what counts as “evidence.” As the author readily admits, if it can be shown that both truth-aimed propositions and the existence of God can be proven false, only then can one make the claim that beliefs in God are irrational (92).

In typical philosopher style, Clark employs a hypothetical Barack Obama vision-inducing pill to show that a person could believe Obama was present before her at a party, but because Obama was not the source of the vision nor at the party, the vision is irrational. And there is the rub. In principle, the Obama vision-inducing pill is similar to Michael Persinger’s experimental God Helmet, which electromagnetically stimulates the brain to induce experiences of “God.” While methodological holes limit Persinger’s interpretation, the fact remains that if something could stimulate an experience of God without it being causally connected to God in some manner, then God-beliefs, can indeed be explained away.

Clark, however, being the apologist for theistic belief, points out that at best, atheists or agnostics cannot prove that God does not exist. While they may have shown that beliefs occur through natural processes, they are not in themselves sufficient to show that such beliefs ultimately do not come from God. In other words, so long as the plausibility of the existence of God is intact, the rationality of God-beliefs is sound. Clark spends chapter 5 explaining how this is the case, sounding out the reasons for cognitively arriving at truth beliefs against the unguided processes found in evolutionary naturalism. It is through the likelihood of theism that one can expect cognitive beliefs to be reliable and true, rather than the hard-boiled evolutionary naturalist’s contention that truth beliefs (as well as purpose) are irrelevant (119). As such, the apology is mainly for believers who “fear” for their rationality in the face of unbelievers’ defeater arguments. An atheist would not be bothered since the existence of God is already out of the question.

For the remainder of the book, Clark examines unbelief in its various forms, whether conformation bias or the inability to attribute personability to other agents (ToM). These arguments, while interesting, deviate from the core message of the book: the rationality of God-beliefs. The reader is still rewarded with good information regarding atheists’ beliefs on the superiority of their intelligence or fascinatingly, how one’s position on the autism scale might contribute to unbelief. But in the end, Clark calls for “intellectual humility” (173), that no one can ever know everything, even Google.

Thus, the reader is left with good arguments but with only the generalities of God-belief. “God” becomes a rational construct relegated to the noumenal world rather than someone personable. To be fair, Clark admits that the scope of the book does not allow for a theological enterprise. Even so, his arguments for the rationality of God-beliefs depend on the existence of God, which in this book, at best, can only go so far as an Agent Detecting Device (the psychological anthropomorphisms of various phenomenon) will allow. This is somewhat expected since Clark is working within the generalities of cognitive science of religion, but presumably, his arguments would be increasingly harder to make the more specific the notions of God (i.e., the Trinity, Allah, or Krishna). Given God, however, the believer is at least able to trust their beliefs as rational, in whatever “evidence” is available to him or her. And would not one say that faith is trusting in that evidence, which at the end of the day becomes the heart of the (grey) matter?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kwang-Jin Oh is a doctoral candidate at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Theology and Ethics.

Date of Review: 
August 27, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kelly James Clark is senior research fellow at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute at Grand Valley State University; his many other books include Written to Be Heard, Return to Reason, and When Faith Is Not Enough.


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