Consider the following:

  • It can be argued that some ethical rules are good for humanity, even from a utilitarian or evolutionary point of view.

  • Some of these ethical rules are common to most religions.

  • The reasons for which people justify these beliefs such as revelation, theological, and mythological accounts are false.

  • Religious beliefs would not have been perpetuated had they not served some purpose in the environments in which they evolved.

From an epistemological point of view these beliefs are thus true but unjustified.

Has anyone of note presented a similar argument? Have any philosophers of religion defended religious beliefs and practices based on this argument?

  • You use "these beliefs" in bullet 3 and the sentence after the list of bullets without explicitly indicating to which beliefs you are referring.
    – Dave
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 15:37
  • Is what you are saying (with the notion of "[true from] epistemological point of view") that these beliefs were once pragmatically "true" because they were useful/worked -- in the way notions of heaven and hell were once [more] efficacious at preventing people from killing themselves/others, or having sex with your wife (cf, Pascal's wager), but HAVE BECOME "unjustified" because modernity has debunked the beliefs'justifying metanarratives (their 'premises'), thus preventing them from any longer being warranted assertions.
    – gonzo
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 17:48
  • @gonzo basically, yes. Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 19:12
  • @Dave by "beliefs" I mean the ethical rules mentioned above. Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 19:12
  • The last dot point is not correct. Religious beliefs perpetuate if and only if they are good at perpetuating themselves. Sometimes they are good at perpetuating themselves because they serve some purpose for human society, but more often they are good at perpetuating themselves for other reasons altogether, and many of them actually make life worse, both for people who believe them, and for people near people who believe them. Commented Dec 20, 2015 at 16:12

5 Answers 5


This sort of genetic basis / usefulness argument is not prevalent among contemporary philosophers of religion.

There's at least two reasons for that.

First off, it's an anthropology / sociology thesis rather than something arguing about the content of the ideas. Thus, we can find a version of this in Hegel's account of natural religion. We can also find many versions of this accepted by contemporary sociologists.

Second, philosophers of religion tend to be more religious themselves than philosophers in general (it's nearly a mirrored opposite). Thus, it's unlikely they would want to work from the tenet that the religions are false.

This does remind me briefly of James Rachels' argument against cultural relativism which draws on similar biological necessity to account for nearly universal ethical rules.

More generally, I'm not sure that this would qualify as "true but unjustified belief". First off, there does not seem to be anything true about it since the underlying claims and reasons would be false. Second, it would seem to just instead be a useful lie that gets people to behave but in itself has no truth.

A second though that crosses my mind is that there's an odd intersection of terms here with "reformed epistmeology" and the idea of "warranted Christian belief" proferred by Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff. But that thesis is roughly opposite in arguing that some beliefs, including belief in God, are properly basic and not in need of external justification for their truth. Instead, these basic beliefs are necessary to make good sense of the universe.


1) Because I do not completely understand the focus of your post, let me first deal with one claim which seems to be not covered by the title of the post:

ad issue 4: "Religious beliefs ..."

This statement seems to me either tautological or trivial. Nobody, neither religious nor a-religious denies this claim. But the perpetuation of a claim does not confirm its truth.

More general, religious belief perpetuates because it satisfies a psychic need of many people, e.g. see Kay, Aaron C. et al.: Religious Belief as Compensatory Control. Personality and Social Psychology Review 14(1). 2010, p. 37– 48

2) In order to focus the general term "religious belief" to the field of ethics, I consider the Jewish "Ten Commandments". Take Thou shalt not kill. One can easily argue for this rule without referring to any religious context. The rule serves to pacify and to stabilize society. That's the aim of each society.

The fact that there are so many exceptions related to killing external(!) enemies in war confirms, that the commandment aims at peace inside the society but does not proscribe killing in general.

Hence an atheist would argue: The commandment is not justified by a deity named Jahwe, but it is justified as a means to a generally accepted goal.

I agree with @virmaior that a theist would not accept that his religious believes on one hand are unjustified by his religion, but are justified on the other hand by their use for society. Instead he will emphasize that both is true: They are justified in a double way.

  • I believe his fourth point is an example of what Gould and others call a "Just So Story" or a "spandrel." Existence of a trait in itself is not proof of evolutionary functionality. Commented Dec 12, 2015 at 23:26

I don't think your Gettier-like argument for religion holds up, though it has often been attempted.

There are many utilitarian or functionalist arguments for the practical validity of certain religious beliefs, such Voltaire's argument that it would be necessary to invent God had he not existed. Which he did not mean in jest.

Generally, such arguments can only be made from an agnostic viewpoint, and they are sometimes referred to as "double truth" stances. In addition to Voltaire, many enlightenment figures did not themselves believe in religion, but thought it was better if most people continued to.

But you seem to be conflating a functionalist account of "truth" and a religious account of "beliefs." It is not the "beliefs" that are validated, but the moral "behaviors" in a social-historical context, which may or may not be correlated to some religious beliefs... and which may or may not have the universal efficacy you assign them.

Moreover, you are making a fallacious appeal to Darwinism. Nothing in that theory assumes that the existence of some phenomenon necessarily proves its value...or, worse, the "truth" of its necessity. That is a "Just So Story." Such beliefs could easily be epiphenomenal "spandrels". Indeed human evolution through so many different beliefs systems suggests as much. Gods appear to have a very high extinction rate.

We may certainly observe that myths and theological myths in particular may be an effective medium for storing and transmitting useful social rules. As are poems and legal codes. But that does not seem to warrant "true-unjustified belief" in any formal sense, which would require justifying causal properties of beliefs themselves and seems headed towards some sort of circularity.


With your comment, I now understand that what you mean is that these beliefs were once pragmatically "true" because they were useful/worked -- in the way notions of heaven and hell were once [more] efficacious at preventing people from killing themselves/others, or having sex with your wife, but they NOW lack justification because modernity has debunked the beliefs'justifying metanarratives (their 'premises'), thus preventing them from any longer being warrantedly assertable?

In which case, I would say that once debunked it is no easy task to reconstruct metanarratives/foundations. Once dead, god is not easily resurrected on pragmatic grounds, and any philosopher of religion who made a contrary argument would be accused, at the very least, of anachronism or antiquarianism. (But consider how Pascal's wager [the argument that it is in one's own best interest to behave as if God exists, since the possibility of eternal punishment in hell outweighs any advantage of believing otherwise] may qualify).

Incidentally: Also note how your question may imply that Dostoyevsky's fear/phobia about the death of god has, to a great extent, materialized. But also note how "God is dead"'s opening of floodgates to "everything" has also "permitted" lots of "good" to take place.


The closest argument I know of to the one you refer to above was not given by a philosopher of religion, but rather was given by F. A. Hayek in Chapter 9 of "The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism". I don't recommend this book, but the argument is there.

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