When one states that belief in God is properly basic, I take it to mean:

Belief in God can be rationally held without needing justification

Question: Could you suggest some works which critically explore the idea that belief in God is properly basic?


  • A belief is properly basic when it is warranted without any need for argumentative support. Also, please see : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reformed_epistemology – Five σ Mar 15 '15 at 13:46
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    My naive interpretation of the two words "properly basic" in this context is "Appropriate to take as an axiom". But this is a sort of a point-mooting philosophy: if Theist A is asserting that belief in God is axiomatic, and Atheist B rejects taking it as an axiom, Theist A has no recourse to further argue or convince Atheist B, because he has taken the premise as a foundational, primitive, unjustified axiom. He's put up an insurmountable wall of non-communication between himself and B. – Dan Bron Mar 15 '15 at 15:52
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    Isn't a belief that can be "rationally held without needing justification" either an oxymoron or an axiom? – Alexander S King Mar 15 '15 at 17:05
  • I believe that they are treated as the latter, though I'm looking for philosophical works such as: commonsenseatheism.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/… – Five σ Mar 15 '15 at 17:27

The term "properly basic" in reference to belief in God is from Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff. They propose this as part of Reformed Epistemology. Plantinga's Warranted Christian Belief is a good explication. For a good explanation, see the SEP.

The main task is to show that we don't need evidential warrant for all of our beliefs but simultaneously that we are not fideists (a term which regrettably becomes less and less clear the more you look at it) in our epistemology.


Just by way of clarification, it is not quite true to say that Reformed Epistemologists believe that belief in God can be held without justification, otherwise the title to Plantinga's book Warranted Christian Belief mentioned above would be completely off base. Rather, they believe that belief in God is justified/warranted in a non-inferential way in the sense that one's justification for belief in God need not be on the basis of other propositions that one knows or believes (e.g. the premises of a cosmological or teleological argument). In other words, it does not depend upon evidence for its justification (construed as propositional evidence). Rather, it is taken to be justified in the context of experience (e.g. the experience of the conviction of the Holy Spirit, the beauty of creation, conviction for sin, etc) in the same way that belief in the external world is grounded in our experience of it, and not in some argument or inference leading to the conclusion of its reality. We don't come to the conclusion that the world around us is real by reasoning to it on the basis of propositions already taken to be known, but rather we naturally form our belief in it in the context of our experience of it. It is a properly basic belief.

A properly basic belief is a belief that one is justified in holding apart from any other beliefs one already holds conferring justification on it. It does not depend upon any evidence or other beliefs that one holds for its justification. Rather, it is a foundational belief, from which other non-basic beliefs may derive justification. It is a basic belief, and properly so. Plantinga and other Reformed Epistemologists give many examples of such beliefs, including the reality of the external world, the belief that the universe wasn't created five minutes ago with the appearance of age (and with all our false memories implanted in us), the reality of other minds, etc. These, they contend, are all examples of beliefs that we are justified in holding apart from any evidence for them. The important thing to remember is that these beliefs are not in any way taken as arbitrary, but rather are appropriately grounded in some way in experience. Reformed Epistemoligists like Plantinga and Wolterstorff take belief in God (and more fully in the basic truths of the Christian faith) to be one such properly basic belief.

Warranted Christian Belief was already mentioned above as a resource to look into, and there probably is no better one for this topic.


Relevant papers:

Belief in God is Not Properly Basic- Stewart Goetz

Divine Hiddeness and the demographics of theism- Stephen Maitzen

Abstract: According to the much-discussed argument from divine hiddenness, God’s existence is disconfirmed by the fact that not everyone believes in God. The argument has provoked an impressive range of theistic replies, but none has overcome – or, I suggest, could overcome – the challenge posed by the uneven distribution of theistic belief around the world, a phenomenon for which naturalistic explanations seem more promising.


Not an answer but a comment:

'Properly basic' seems to have a family resemblance with Descartes 'clear and distinct perception'; and with the mathematical notion of an 'axiom'.

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